How the world has changed in six months

Last November, the day after my birthday, there were two major shifts in the tectonic plates of my life. I recognized quickly that these would have significant ramifications and while they are still playing out, I can see more clearly what the results of the first shift have been. This afternoon’s lunch is evidence enough:

That would be Tawn and me having lunch (at KFC) with my father- and mother-in-law. Such an event would have been unthinkable for the first nearly 19 years of our relationship, but has quickly become a regular event. So much so, that we have progressed from rather formal meals to casual, ad hoc ones.

I am really happy at this turn of events and, as I said to Tawn, it is a good reminder that none of us can predict the future. Things can change, rapidly and drastically. No matter how untenable you find a situation to be, it is possible for it to change.

Of course, I am also happy because I now have the opportunity to better get to know the people who most shaped who my husband is. Spending time with Khun Sudha and Khun Nui, I see behaviors, gestures, and nuances that strike a familiar chord, played in only a slightly different key by Khun Tawn. This allows me to appreciate him more fully, because I have the context of how he became who he is.

The shifting tectonic plates, part one

Two days after my birthday, the tectonic plates of my life started shifting. While I am not a believer in fortune-telling, one has to wonder if the stars and planets were aligned just so, to produce so much upheaval in such a short time! This chapter covers the first of the changes, involving my father-in-law.

For the more than 18 years that Tawn and I have been together, my father-in-law has wanted no interaction with me. Not atypical for a Thai-Chinese father, he wanted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Tawn’s relationship with me. In fact, the only time we spent together was some 15 years ago when Tawn’s parents came to visit him in San Francisco. That was limited to a visit to Mission Dolores and then dinner at a French restaurant.

In the 13 years since I moved to Bangkok, we have had only one very brief interaction until two months ago. Two months ago, while Tawn was taking his parents to the hospital for a check-up, he mentioned that I was going to be there, too, for an appointment. His father waited to see me, but that interaction lasted less than two minutes.

Then, two days after my birthday, Tawn had a severe allergic reaction to some medicine and I had to rush him to the emergency room. (He is fine now.) He called his parents and they joined, resulting in us spending the day together and having to confer on decisions about the best course of treatment.

At the end of the day as the staff was preparing Tawn for release, Tawn’s father suggested that if I had to work the following day, I should drop Tawn off at their house and they would look after him.

The following morning, after taking some conference calls from home, I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house – about a ten-minute drive from ours. Tawn’s father came out and greeted me and suggested that after work, I come back to fetch Tawn and he would open a bottle of wine for us.

That evening, I stopped by after dark, not sure what to expect. What do you discuss with a father-in law with whom you have had no real interaction? Tawn’s father greeted me, invited me in and for the next two hours, served wine, engaged in a conversation about many things (including wanting to understand more about what I do for work) and we had dinner.

The evening ended with a “will see you again soon” that seemed to indicate that a new era has opened. In speaking with Tawn, we suspect that this medical emergency was sort of a catalyst. Perhaps Tawn’s father had already softened some time ago, but had not had an opportunity to break down the walls. The medical emergency provided the opportunity.

That was about five weeks ago and I haven’t seen Tawn’s father since, so we’re easing into this brave new world. But we have a holiday meal planned for the next week and I suspect that it will change the landscape of our world considerably.

For my own reflection, I realize that while I had accepted from the start that Tawn’s father’s openness and acceptance was not something I should expect or hope for, deep inside I think there was a lot of insecurity festering.

We don’t have the legal protections in Thailand that a married couple in the United States or some other countries have. Knowing that, if something happened to Tawn, my rights to his portion of our property could be challenged by his father, created underlying tension. As the relationship with his father has improved, it lets me relax my guard a bit and worry a little less about the future.

 

Back from holiday in Europe

Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.

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London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.

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Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.

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Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.

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Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.

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Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.

This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.

More coming soon.

 

My week in a Taipei love motel

I travel frequently for work. Sometimes, this leads to some exciting adventures and unexpected, delightful discoveries. Hidden treasures, if you will. This last trip to Taipei included an altogether un-delightful discovery: I had booked myself into a love motel.

For those of you not in the know, a love motel is a place where couples, married and otherwise, can book some private quality time. It seems such places are more common in Asia where multiple generations live together and you might not be able to find as much privacy.

This place, the Mulan Motel in Taipei, is located very close to my office. After some disappointing experiences at other nearby hotels, I searched on booking.com and found the Mulan. “Ah yes,” I thought, “I’ve passed by that several times. It looks quite decent.”

Sure enough, the photos and reviews on booking.com were quite positive and the price was reasonable – only about US$130 a night. So I booked it.

Being a price-sensitive traveller, always trying to save my company money, I took the train in from the airport and walked the 800 meters from the station to my hotel. My first clue that this was not your average hotel was the lack of a lobby. Instead, you descended a driveway into a subterranean car park. The only office was a larger-than-normal guard box.

I also noticed that all of the parking spaces had a curtain that could be pulled around the car. “Perhaps to keep the dust off?” I optimistically thought.

Taking the lift to my room, I noticed the interior was quite dark and gaudy. Clearly a different decorating scheme than a conventional hotel. Then I found my room and opened the door:

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The room was quite large, with high ceilings and ostentatious decorations. A large bed sat in the middle of the room, with a large television and speaker system across from it. The light did not get any brighter and mood music played automatically. The far wall was solid glass with a heavy black curtain blocking the view to the bathroom.

My first clue that this might not be a long-stay hotel was the lack of a closet in which to hang my clothes. The second clue were the condoms in a bowl by the side of the bed. “Well,” I thought, “maybe the expectations are a bit different in the Taiwanese culture?”

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The bathroom was almost as large as the bedroom with a deep bathtub and a glass shower. There were towels and the usual amenities but it all felt a little off. Everything was clean, though.

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Oddly, there were no windows. Or, rather, the windows were covered with a black plastic film that, I discovered the next morning, had exotic butterfly shapes cut out in them so the morning sun would stream through them in a not-quite-claustrophobic way.

The staff seemed to sense my confusion. They struggled to create a proper invoice for me – unlikely that any of their guests have asked for proof of payment! They were friendly, though, and directed me to the restaurant where a sorry set breakfast was available included in the price of my room.

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The only upside to this hotel was the location. It was a two-minute walk from Starbucks, a three-minute walk from the office, and a five-minute run from a beautiful park along the river, where I ran two mornings with a colleague.

Thankfully, my week at the love motel was only three nights. I ended up unharmed and unmolested and upon my return wrote a strongly worded review on booking.com that this hotel should not be listed there as it is appropriate for neither business travelers nor families.

 

Welcome to the year of the dog

The Chinese and other lunar calendars in East Asia are based on a twelve-year cycle, with each year being represented by an animal. This year, which began Feb 16, is the year of the dog. It also represents the completion of my fourth cycle, for I will turn 48 later this year.

A friend who has known me several years was surprised by that information. “You will be 48 this year? Really?” I am not sure if he expected me to be younger or older.

A couple of younger colleagues were commenting that they, too, are born in the year of the dog. I quickly realized they are completing only their second cycle.

Based on my grandparents’ longevity, there is a reasonable chance that I should make it to my eighth cycle, so I am about halfway along this journey.

The being older doesn’t bother me – this is the natural course of things. I do notice that I am increasingly aware of my age: I am conscious that I am working and interacting with people whose reference points are significantly different than mine.

The thing I am most aware of is the realization that the further you travel through life, the more you realize how little you really know. Youth comes with unearned certainty. Age brings experience and a measure of wisdom in the form of humility: What could I know about life? I am still living it.

In any case, I will celebrate this year as a milestone and endeavor to learn as much from it as possible. Happy year of the dog. May it bring you prosperity, good health and great happiness.

Sous vide chicken fried steak

While I do not get to play around in the kitchen as much as I would like, I was fortunate that my friend Nat invited me to help cook dinner on Saturday for a group of our friends. He is always up for experimenting so this gave us the chance to try an idea I have had in mind for a few weeks: sous vide chicken fried steak.

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Chicken fried steak, in its classic rendition, is a usually inexpensive cut of steak pounded to tenderize it, coated and fried like a piece of chicken and served with gravy. During season thirteen of Top Chef, chef Jeremy Ford tried the technique of cooking a nice cut of steak in the sous vide, “gluing” chicken skin to the steak using transglutaminase and then frying the end result so the chicken skin was crispy. I was interested in trying this technique.

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We followed a similar preparation, cooking a very nice grass-fed filet mignon in the sous vide until rare and then slicing it into medallions. The benefit of sous vide is that by cooking the food in a vacuum-sealed bag immersed in a water bath, the entire piece of food reaches exactly the desired temperature and then cooks no further. Instead of the outside of the steak being cooked and the inside being raw, as might happen when you fry or roast a steak, the entire cut was a consistent 131 degrees Fahrenheit and still a pretty pink.

As the meat cooked, about two-and-a-half hours, we skinned whole chickens, basically turning them inside out. This was an interesting experience, something I have never done before. The end result are these sheets of chicken skin (seen layered in plastic wrap, above) with little “fingers” of skin like a glove where the legs were.

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After the meat was finished and sliced, we sprinkled it liberally with the transglutaminase.  (From the molecularrecipes.com website, “Transglutaminase is an enzyme that stimulates a bonding process at the cellular level with the amino acids lysine and glutamine in proteins. It’s not technically glue, though that’s what it’s often referred to as. It’s a protein that’s present naturally in both plant and animal systems. The product used in kitchens is created from natural enzymes using a fermentation process.”)

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I then wrapped the chicken skin around the steak. Trying to get the chicken skin cut to the right size was a bit tricky, and some extra transglutaminase was needed where there was overlap of the skin.

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Normally, it takes about two hours of refrigeration for the “glue” to firm up. But a quick trip back in the sous vide for about ten minutes sped up the process, resulting in this tightly-wrapped packages that looked a bit like duck breasts.

When it was nearing time to serve, we dredged the pieces in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper and chili powder and fried them in about two centimeters of rice bran oil. The end result was a crispy skin and a steak that was a perfect medium rare. We served this with an onion gravy and salad.

All in all, the result was positive. We could experiment with more consistent portion control – sizes of steaks varied a bit – and maybe a liquid batter instead of a flour batter. But, overall, I would rate this a culinary success.

 

92,000 miles and 99 nights later

This evening we bid adieu to 2016 and ring in 2017. As I reflect on the year and the lessons learned, one of the most striking is how much I was on the road: 92,234 miles flown and 99 nights spent in hotels. That’s the most I’ve traveled since 2005, when I moved to Thailand.

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Some interesting statistics from my travel: I flew 59 flights covering 208 hours, resulting in an average flight of 1,563 miles with a flight time of 3:34. Not as much as many people but still a significant amount of time in the year.

The goal for next year is to manage my schedule more effectively. I may not reduce my travel quite as much but do hope to reduce the number of overall nights on the road a bit and balance the time more effectively between on the road and at home.