Vermont Academy

I spent most of last week in the heart of Vermont, speaking at a small highly-targeted bio conference, tangentially related to some long-forgotten PhD research of mine. The conference took place on the campus of some remote boarding school, empty of students during the Summer break.

Overall, the manageable number of attendees, circumscribed topic and complete absence of alternative for entertainment within a 30 mile radius, made for a convivial atmosphere and stimulating discussions.

Nevertheless, I spent a good deal of my time there feeling like the unfortunate hero of some weird time-travel story, living in secret fear that I might not be allowed to go home at the end of the week.

The overall Overlook Hotel meet The Prisoner vibe of the place may have helped. Jetlag may also have played a role. But mainly, it had to do with serious flashback to my own boarding school days, down to some spooky architectural similarities (not so surprising considering those were typically the type of Old World schools that a posh US “academy” would try to emulate). I had opted for the on-campus lodging option and was assigned a very typical dormitory room, complete with communal sinks and showers at the end of the hallway. Having to share the floor (though not my room) with other grown men long past their boarding school days and finding the bed made every afternoon when I’d get back to the room, only added a weird twist to the whole déjà vu experience.

I only started freaking out for real toward the second day: when, waking up from a sleep-dephased nap at 8 in the evening, I realised that, not only was the cafeteria hall the only option for food in a walkable radius, but the campus may have been the last square mile of US territory without a single vending machine on it. Missing the 6pm-to-7pm dinner service in that place meant going hungry until breakfast. If you’ve never known that feeling, you’ve probably never been to boarding school.

I carefully observed dinner times thereafter and, truth be told, had some lovely evenings sipping beers with colleagues in the school’s rec room (temporarily refurbished for use by legal-drinking adults)… But was still pretty relieved when they let me leave the grounds at the end of the week without special parental permission.

What did we do for two weeks, on our recent trip to California? Eat. Non-stop.
Somehow all my San Francisco friends now work with, around or in restaurants (and those that don’t, have a home kitchen to ridicule most professional restaurants). Two weeks of uninterrupted home-cuisine, haute-cuisine, haute-concept, cheap Indian, puntastic Thai (seriously: “Thai-tanic salad”? really?), Kubrickian American (way up there in the mountains) and near-daily morning brunches featuring lovely crispy bacon and heaps of Californian cheese.

Guess who was overcome with joy at the thought of a simple, light, miso soup upon getting back home…

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There were many positively awesome things about Scott & Cassie’s wedding ceremony, but their choice of reading, as powerful yet appropriate reminder of the state of marriage law these days, was a particularly cool one.

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Heard at the Japanese souvenir shop of the Japanese Tea Garden:

Very Large White Woman: I am looking for these Japanese dolls…

Japanese shop employee: ah… Kokeshi, yes, we have them here.

Very Large White Woman: No, no… Not this kind. The ones that fit inside one another.

Japanese shop employee: You mean… Russian nesting dolls?

Very Large White Woman: Yes! Got any of those?

Japanese shop employee:

After all these years traveling, I finally completed my first ever round-the-world trip (eastward). Did not encounter any edge-of-the-world cliff anywhere. Oh well, there goes my membership to the Flat Earth Believers Association.

For one month, I lived in a house whose mere living room covered about four times the entirety of some of my previous places (ten times, if you count some of the smaller Japanese guesthouse rooms I’ve occupied in a long distant backpacker past).

Rekindled with the joys of the quasi-permanent guestlisting and realised that a VIP booth and free-flowing booze make even the least appealing parties considerably more fun.

Had one of my classiest moments, ever, documented on camera: wearing punk red wig and Bowie-inspired make-up, downing Kettle One straight from the bottle. Retrospectively explained a lot about next day’s crushing hangover.

Realised why California (/the US) was so awesome: nearly everything being illegal therefore provides endless occasions for cheap thrills to the sheltered bourgeois crowd. Walking into a banal SOMA-warehouse-turned-illegal-afterhour-club turns as exciting as entering a prohibition-era speakeasy with Al Capone.

Stuffed myself on the cheapest, bestest Indian food available outside of India on a near-daily basis. And then Suraj’s über-delicious homemade dosas.

Ate at a very hippy restaurant but couldn’t bring myself to actually ask aloud for the “I am Beautiful” dish, nor the “I am Elated”, “I am Joyful” or any of the other mushy, chakra-enhancing, tree-sodomising, touchy-feely-named items on the menu.

Partied on a luxury cruise boat with Sarah Palin and two olympic beach volleyball athletes.

Smoked hookahs on a rooftop overlooking the Embarcadero waterfront.

Spent a night of unrestrained exhilarating fun celebrating Obama’s victory. Those many bar-special “freedom shots” (aka Jameson) with Lauren and Desi: a more discutable choice. That hangover the following morning definitely didn’t taste like freedom.

Did the beer and patio thing with friends at Zeitgeist.

Sat in Dolores Park for a warm, sun-filled, November afternoon. Smoking bowls and eating baked goods from Tartine nearby.

Tried attending the premiere screening of Milk at the Castro theater, only to get turned down at the door once it appeared that way too many entrance passes had been handed out. Found solace in that people who got in before us had probably been queuing for the entire day.

Attended a house party wearing suit & French cuffs, went to a fancy James Bond-themed club event wearing flip-flops.

Visited a Moroccan whorehouse, faithfully reconstructed in our basement.

Balanced all the deliciously greasy egg-n-bacon brunches with healthy and equally delicious foods of all horizons. Had pretty damn good ceviche at La Mar, but even better one at Desi’s Poleng Lounge. Poleng became my favourite eatery in the city (get yourself there right this minute and order their lightly grilled, sea-salt edamame: you’ll never look at edamame the same way ever again).

Missed a flight (fucking iCal and its retarded handling of time zones) and decided to change my travel plans altogether.

Saw the icy blue Water Cube and the fiery red Bird Nest glowing in the chilly night.

Ate spicy bullfrog on the lakefront near Hou Hai, which incidentally tasted just like spicy chicken, only much, much harder to eat with chopsticks (small bones every-freakin-where).

Stood under the lukewarm Winter sun, watching Tien An Men square unfold to near-infinity in every direction under the watchful eye of Mao.

Wondered if China had awakened yet, as giant snappy red flags atop the mausoleum floated in a spotless blue sky.

Played some strange card game with the locals in Tian Tan park. Also that dice game I learned a couple years back in Chengdu.

Totally kawaii-ed out on a bunch of furry Chinese stray cats lounging on the outskirts of the park.

Barely contained my excitement upon speaking my first real sentences in Mandarin since I took that one class last year. Peed my pants upon realising I coud understand and answer up to three generic questions about my country of origin and occupation, to locals who ostensibly did not even know the English word for “China”. Somewhat regained composure when it appeared I could only further extend the conversation with a polite “Sorry, I don’t understand”.

Stumbled upon that plane you rode in when you went to visit your aunt in Africa, 30 years ago… the one with 4 seats on each row and a single-channel radio that you could listen to through headphones that looked like stethoscopes: China Air bought it and uses it daily for their Beijin-Tokyo flight.

Smuggled two pandas (names: ペキン and シャンハイ) to Japan, at the risk of triggering an unprecedented international crisis.

Finally realised some of my (limited) infatuation with japan subconsciously took root in a secret nerdy obsession of mine: intricacies of urban planning and transit optimisation. Just watch how most train connections in japan consist of: walking out one train, across a platform, onto a waiting and immediately departing train… and you will be wondering, as I am, if Japanese public transit planners have somehow figured the secret of NP-completeness problem-solving (Western ones certainly haven’t).

Attended a Japanese burlesque show. Really liked the cool Asian-styled choreography on some of the acts (Japanese schoolgirls doing the dragon walk, for the win). Nearly more so than all the pasty twirling and gravity-defying patriotic C-string (complete with shiny Hinomaru).

Strolled down Todai campus’ alleys: filled with little grandmas way past studying age, busy capturing the essence of bichromic autumn trees (ginkos, I believe) on watercolor. The campus cafeteria also serves a pretty mean agedashi tofu and a whole selection of hallal dishes.

Rode the Tokaido shinkansen on a two-day return trip to Kyoto for the third time in six months and started wondering about frequent riders discounts.

Saw few ducks on the banks of Ducky River, but lots of pigeons.

Wondered how the guy who could barely get his way out of valence calculations ten years ago, ended up standing in front of Kyoto University’s Graduate Scool of Biochemistry and Pharmaceuticals‘ finest, in a bid to join their rank…

Wore suits (for work or for fun) more often in 2 months than in all of the past 2 years.

Did the clubbing and morning ramen thing with friends in Shibuya.

Had one quick drink at Albatross in Omoide Yokochou and a few more in Golden Gai.

Saw photography exhibits and strolled along the river in Meguro.

Spent a day rummaging stores from Kichijoji to Harajuku and from Shibuya to Shinjuku, hunting for christmas gifts.

Came to the conclusion that Russian TV comedy is essentially centered around fat hairy men in cheap drag singing Russian covers of disco classics with funny lyrics.

Bought two bottles of Русский Стандарт and also some of that vodka that makes you go blind if you drink more than one glass at a time: gotta plan for new year’s ahead of time.

Landed in Paris and realised it was the coldest-motherfuckin-freezing place I had been to, so far this year.

I am currently lodged firmly under a goose-feather conforter with freshly imported Swiss chocolate at arm’s reach and not planning to move until the end of Winter.