Tag: travel (Page 2 of 14)

Salt, mountains, light

1.

Sizzle and scent. Warm, chewy layers of dough and oil. The salty notes of scallions.

I have dreamed of this. Literally and figuratively, I have dreamed of walking down the side street by my jiu jiu’s house and buying fresh cong you bing from a street vendor. Now we’re finally here, standing in the small crowd around the stall, waiting for our order to be filled.

I watch the woman spread a pancake over the flat round griddle. Little drifts of steam rise from the belly of her cart, and the dough hisses as it burns. She slides a spatula under the pancake and flips it. More hissing, more steam.

People press in close, talking loudly. I let the unfamiliar words sail over me. They melt into the voices of shoppers walking up and down the street, perusing the other stalls, and mingle with the low hum of traffic from the main avenue nearby.

When our pancakes are ready, the woman hands them to us, folded like crepes and wrapped in waxy paper. We take them back to my family’s dining table, and we bite into the moment of truth. As our tongues dive into flavor and texture, we can’t help smiling. 

It’s even better than I remember. Even better than I dreamed of.

2.

When we spot the “restaurant” and decide to give it a try, he is skeptical. The place is little more than a shack on the side of the mountain. A cinder block structure with no front wall, just wide cement patios and a roof of corrugated metal. The open-air kitchen is all stone and soot.

But he is too hungry and uncomfortable to protest, so we go in.

My yi zhang orders who-knows-what for everyone to share. While our food is being cooked, we find plastic chairs and wooden stools stacked in a corner, and we arrange them around a table for ourselves. Another group settles in — college students, maybe — and a pair of cyclists after that. Suddenly the place seems lively and warm, rather than shabby and strange.

We chat in a halting mix of Mandarin and English. We enjoy the breeze that blows in damp and green.

Dishes are brought to our table as soon as they are ready. Pork fried rice and three different kinds of vegetables, all homegrown nearby. The food is simple, unassuming, and delicious.

We eat ravenously. We devour the mountains.

3.

The night market begins with a bright red archway, which is doing its best impression of a Buddhist temple gate. But neon lights betray the imitation. Everything is flashy and loud, blaring against the ink-blue sky and the sleeping city.

Like a school of fish, we slowly shuffle along with the throng. Our eyes scan each booth, searching for a snack or a trinket that we might enjoy. Shoes, toys, cell phone cases. Stinky tofu, crab legs, oyster omelet. Eventually he settles on strawberry juice — fresh, but watery — and grilled corn on the cob with spicy sauce. I indulge in an egg tart, the custard creamy and rich on my tongue.

We came here to satisfy our appetites. Not just for food, but for life. For an experience we can taste, and take home in our hearts. So much has been out of our control — but this? This chaos is ours.

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Our Taipei trip in photos (part 2)

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Our Taipei trip in photos (part 1)

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Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Plaza. One of my favorite places on this earth. #landmarked

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Taiwan: An overview of our trip

Friday: Woke up early (ugh) for our 3 flights to Taiwan. Cincinnati > Minneapolis > Tokyo > Taipei. My mom met up with us in Minneapolis. We all watched a lot of movies and TV shows, some of which I already posted about here and at We Heart YA.

Saturday: Mostly still flying. We finally landed in Taipei around 11 p.m. My uncle and cousin picked us up from the airport and drove us to my other uncle’s house, where my mom was staying. Andy and I walked to our AirBnB, which was just a couple blocks away. Our room had a view of Taipei 101.

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Sunday: My cousin, his wife, and their toddler showed us around for the day. Stops included the Taipei 101 observatory, the beautiful columbarium in the mountains where my grandparents’ ashes are kept, the town of Shifen on the northern coast of Taiwan, and finally the Shilin night market. In between all these places, we napped in the car. The jet lag, it burns.

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Monday: Andy and I visited the National Palace Museum in the morning, had lunch at Din Tai Fung, then joined up with my family again in the afternoon. My aunt took us on a walking tour of Ximending, the Presidential Palace, and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Plaza, which is one of my all-time favorite places on Earth. Dinner was a special family banquet that Andy and I hosted in honor of our recent(ish) marriage, as well as Chinese New Year.

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Tuesday: My uncle and another cousin drove us to Yangmingshan National Park, where we toured one of Chiang Kai-Shek’s former residences, as well as did some light hiking around the hot springs. The sulfur there gives off a sharp, distinct odor that is a strangely treasured memory from my childhood. In the afternoon, Andy and I went back to Taipei 101 to check out the shopping levels, then trekked over to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Plaza and through the Dunhua neighborhood to meet my friend Linda and her boyfriend Wesley for dinner.

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Wednesday: Chinese New Year eve. Also, the first of our two day tours. We were escorted to an organic tea plantation to learn about the tea-making process; to Shinfeng Old Street for lunch; and to “Thousand Island Lake” (aka the Taipei City reservoir) for the lovely views. In the evening, we prayed to our ancestors and enjoyed a home-cooked feast at my uncle’s house in honor of Chinese New Year. My aunt even remembered one of my favorite dishes, stir-fried Japanese cucumber.

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Thursday: Chinese New Year day, and the second of our two tours, in the Pingxi district. We began with a light hike — although there was one terrifying section that went straight up a rock face. Most of us opted to skip that part. We re-fueled with a traditional miner’s lunch, explored an abandoned mine, and rode the old train line. Amidst a bustling holiday crowd, we painted a sky lantern with the names of our loved ones and good thoughts for the new year. The lanterns floated up to the heavens on fire and smoke. Our last stop was the Shifen waterfall (aka Little Niagara), then it was back to Taipei for dinner at my big uncle’s house. Despite our exhaustion, Andy and I ended the night with a quick stroll through the Rao He night market.

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Friday: In the morning, Andy and I visited Longshan Temple. For lunch we got dim sum from Tim Ho Wan, whose specialty pork buns were the best I’ve ever had. We spent the afternoon shopping, got foot massages, then met up with a couple college friends who we had randomly learned were also in Taipei for the holiday. Our final meal of the trip was an informal banquet in Taoyuan, courtesy of my mom’s cousin and his wife, both painters, who gifted us with some of their art as a special souvenir.

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Saturday: Flying back. All day. An extra-long day, since we were crossing the dateline. 36 hours of travel in (seemingly) less than 24. It was like magic, but without the fun. Cincinnati greeted us with nearly a foot of snow. You guys really pissed of winter while we were gone.

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Venice, Bologna, and oh yeah, MY AGENT

Venice was a dream come true. The canals, like veins, coursing through the living breathing city. The motorboats and gondolas and vaporettos, gliding through the water, criss-crossing each other’s wakes. The sun rising over the islands of Burano and Murano, where ladies stitch lace and artisans meld glass. The sun setting over St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace, where once an empire was run.

At long last, I was standing in the city that I had always wanted to see most in the world. It was as beautiful as I had imagined, and then some. Mossy docks, windowed waterfront façades, doors that opened right onto the sea. A hundred tiny bridges connected one neighborhood to the next. Each narrow alley was a secret whispered between the larger fondamentas.

(Also, the complete lack of cars gave the city an almost out-of-time feeling. If you ignored all the smartphones and modern fashions, anyway.)

Our stay in Venice was brief but unforgettable. And as I leaned against the cool stone railing of the Rialto Bridge, looking down over the glistening Grand Canal, there may even have been tears in my eyes.

Shortly after The Call, the first agent sent me a follow-up email that was, in a word, epic. Her passion and understanding for my story came through in every sentence. As the days passed and the details of our phone conversation began to fade, I had only to re-read that email for all the emotions to come flooding back.

This was real. My book had found a champion.

Our last stop in Italy was Bologna, the food capital. Andy found an excellent tour, which took us to a certified parmigiano-reggiano factory, as well as a private manor where dozens of batteria sat for years, brewing traditional balsamic. We watched burly-armed men wrangle cheese curds out of 200-gallon vats, then explored the “library of cheese,” a compendium of yellowing wheels just waiting for their perfect age. We peered into dark barrels and sniffed the sharp, sweet aroma of grape must.

The tour ended with an unexpectedly lavish meal at a family-owned trattoria. First course (mmm): salad with nuts, chicken, and homemade balsamic. Second course (fave!): corkscrew pasta with bacon and artichokes. Third course (oh boy…): prosciutto and spinach rolls in creamy white sauce. Fourth course (seriously?): fettucini bolognese with edible flower petals. FIFTH COURSE YOU’RE KIDDING RIGHT I CAN’T EAT ANYMORE OMG: roasted chicken with sweet onions, broccoli, and potatoes. Dessert (just kill me now): bite-sized biscotti, chocolate torte, and sour blackberry crumble.

It was all so beautiful and delicious, but no more food ever again, please.

Despite of a series of almost-catastrophes getting to and through Milan, we made it home late on a Sunday night. On Monday afternoon, I had a call with the second agent. She was supremely lovely, had many kind things to say about me and my book, and came from an incredible agency. Once again, I felt delighted, amazed, honored.

The ten-day deadline passed, and in the end my choice came down to these two. Both agents had strong sales records and were well-liked in the writing community. Both had confidence in me and seemed like great people. Both would no doubt help me to succeed.

The good news was: I couldn’t make a wrong decision. The bad news was: I still had to make a decision.

What I kept coming back to was that follow-up email. Not even so much the email itself, but what the email said without saying — and what it made me feel without trying. Every time I read over her words, I was reminded of how well the first agent and I had clicked, both personally and professionally. How perfectly tuned-in to my characters and themes she was. How supportive she sounded about where I wanted to take my career.

When I called to accept her offer, she sounded even giddier than I did. Don’t get me wrong: I was giddy. My voice might have been steady, but my hands were shaking, and after we hung up, I jumped around the house like a loon.

And to be honest, I kind of feel like doing that again now. Because it’s time (FINALLY) for the big reveal.

The agent who wrote that follow-up email — the agent who is now representing me and my book (!!!) — is none other than…

Tina Wexler of ICM
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(Photo shamelessly stolen from her Twitter account.)

I can’t even begin to tell you what it means to me to have Tina on my team. I know that this is just one milestone, one hurdle, of many more to come — but everything feels more possible, more manageable, more hopeful, with her helping me through it.

Just like getting to this point felt more possible, more manageable, and more hopeful with all of my family and friends — that means YOU — helping me through it.

Thanks, guys. Y’ll are the best.

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