Her Name Is…

When I told my Dad I would be returning to Viet Nam (after being there only a couple months before), he gave me a rather amused look.

“Anybody I know,” he asked?

Certainly, the question was meant to be light-hearted.  But, it got me to wonder.

I didn’t know the answer then, and I still don’t now.  Not clearly, anyway.


She does not really have a name of her own.  She can be any name you call her.  She can be anyone you want her to be.  She can look however you want her to look.  She is equally alluring in a short, revealing dress–with little in the ways of undergarments–as she is in a soft, regal áo dài.

She is often not easy to get along with.  Most of the time, she is edgy, angry. She constantly swirls around you, in her manic dance, her orchestrated chaos, until your head spins so hard.  Then, she does it some more.

But one can also find her in a gentler mood, warm, inviting.  Difficult, but if one is patient enough, that side of her will come out.  She has a certain soft smile, but will let it show only if you bother to smile at her first.  When she does let it show though, it’s an open, brilliant smile, verging on laughter.  It’s a kind of smile that will put you immediately at ease, even as you are aware you may need to continue keeping your guard up.

She is deeply suspicious.  It’s unspoken, but her first reaction–and, you feel this–upon meeting you is to question whether you have any ulterior motive.  She has been through quite a lot; most of it has not been kind to her.  She still bears scars from vicious masters, some so long ago.

But, once she has accepted you, she will let you wander into her little cafe, mix your own coffee, smoke her cigarettes.  You will have to make your own coffee; she is often not there.  Once you are done with the coffee and the cigarettes, she will trust that you will pay your due for it.  You will know where her cash drawer is; just throw what you owe in it.  As said, she is not there.  She trusts you to do it.

She is from nowhere, but she is from everywhere.  She has every accent, but her voice betrays no origin.  It may resemble the crackling, easy-going sound of the Mekong Delta one moment; then the harsh, hard-scraped Central Region the next; then the melodic, cultured Hanoi the one after.  But, once you are used to this constant shifting, you will find–underneath it all–that it is a voice that seeks to nurture, to comfort.

Your only task is to get her to accept you.  It’s not difficult.  Be yourself.  However you are. In as much honesty as you can muster.  She values honesty above all.  Once you have shown your honest self to her, she will take you in.

Her name is Sài Gòn.

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Budapest, Rhapsodically… (2)


“A rhapsody in music is a one-movement work that is episodic yet integrated, free-flowing in structure, featuring a range of highly contrasted moods, colour and tonality. An air of spontaneous inspiration and a sense of improvisation make it freer in form than a set of variations.”  –“Rhapsody“, wikipedia

Two of Hungary’s favorite sons, Franz Liszt and Béla Bartók, came up with the perfect metaphor for Hungary and its people, that of a rhapsody:  Beneath a slightly reserved and soft-spoken exterior, there is a spontaneous, youthful exuberance, a combustible, free-flowing liveliness, to all Budapestians I met, especially the younger generations.

(Disclaimer: I spent pretty much all my times on the Pest side of the city, which–as I found–tends to appeal to a younger demographic.)

As I was crossing the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd) into Pest, I happened on the two young ladies above, clambering up the bridge’s railing.  Curious, I stopped and watched.  Realizing that they were setting up for selfies (quite awkward, considering there were no convenient spots on the railing to prop up their cell phone), I offered to take their photos.  After the initial hesitation, they agreed and proceeded into a number of poses, some included jumping.  Since there was moving motorist traffic just on the other side of the railing, I gestured for them to settle down.

And captured the perfect, unreserved Colgate smile.  (So the wind did not cooperate on her friend.)



At first glance, Budapestians (and, I assume, Hungarians in general) appear reserved, closed, aloof, even rude.  This is especially true of the older generations.  I am told this is the result of a life under Communist oppression, which only ended less than 30 years ago.  And, as a whole, history has not been kind to the Hungarians: generations of domination, under Mongols, Turks, Germans, Russians no doubt left them suspicious, overly cautious.

Do not lose hope: I also found that, once I find a way past that initial reservation, there is almost always a kind and welcoming spirit.  It’s especially worth it to remember that food, to Hungarians, is something akin to religion.  If one can somehow get food into the conversation, one will have made great progress.  My approach?  “What would you recommend for lunch today?”  It never failed that I always got a detailed run-down of a full, three-course meal (sometimes with recipes included), plus deserts; and a suggestion of a restaurant.

After that point, all topics are fair games.

(And, if you are ever offered pálinka, do take it.  It is a terrible insult if you don’t.  It’s the Hungarian medicine of life.  Keep in mind that it’s similar to American moonshine, an acquired taste.  And very potent.

Observe how the host drinks it; it’s almost a ritual.  Then imitate.  You will have made a friend after which point.)

Another way I found to get beyond said reservation is to show interests in things Budapestian.  And, for a city that is centuries-old, there are no lack of interesting things.  I am the curious type anyway, so of course, I asked about every little thing: graffiti, little customs, or just about Budapest’s history in general.  Sure, I would get an amused look in return most of the time.  But, that amusement is the ice breaker.  My words.  It worked for me.

(Of note: be just a bit careful asking about the difference between Buda and Pest.  To some Budapestians, it’s not an easy topic.  To over-simplify the issue, it’s the difference between the “have’s” and the “have-not’s”.)

Worth noting here that Budapestians tend to be very soft-spoken; and that my normal American mannerism–vocal and otherwise–was probably too brash and loud for them.  During my first couple of days in the city, as I approached people, I noticed that they seemed to shrink back.  If they replied, it was closer to a whisper (and this included a six-foot-something, burly, pistol-strapping security guard).

Forge though all that, gently but persistently.  Remember, gently.  Once one gets past all that, one will find one of the most inviting, most boisterous vistas of humanity.




Speaking of “boisterous”, meet the Ruin Pub of Budapest.

One has not been to Budapest if one does not spend an afternoon at the Ruin Pup.

It is literally what its name says: a series of bars, built into an old ruin in Budapest inner city.  At all hours during the day, workdays or otherwise, there were always constant activities, be it a healthy discussion on whatever topic du jour is, or just friends laughing and catching up over a beer.

And it’s just about as quirky as “quirky” gets.

And I could sit there and write all day.  ALL day.

Staying true to its designation, its designer(s) found refuse items and tacked them on its wall or spread them on its floor.  This included an old Trabant.  (If you don’t know what a Trabant is, think “Yugo”.  I know, some of us are old enough to remember the Yugo.  And the Trabant.)

I will let its photos speak for it.


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Norcia — An Island In The Cloud


Norcia is a small Italian mountain town (pop. 4,500), surrounded by the ancient wall of a medieval hamlet/fortress.  It is seated deep in the Sibillini mountain range, approximately three hours northeast of Rome.

To some, Norcia is also known as the birthplace of St. Benedict, Italy’s most famous son, and the patron saint of Europe; and his twin sister, St. Scholastica.



It’s said that, if you want to know a people, go to their countryside. That’s how I came to know Norcia. It is also the home of the Monastery of St. Benedict, staffed by American Benedictines. This is the main reason I came to Norcia: to seek–and to have found–solitude.

I arrived in Norcia in late Autumn.  And was instantly enamored with it.  Picture the scenery from “The Sound of Music”, enshrouded with foliage peaking in golden red hues.  As the bus rounded the last switchback turn, the town rose out of the morning fog, red-tiled roofs abutting each other, smoke lazily rising from chimneys.  I still remember the click-clack noise my wheeled luggage made on the cobblestone-lined plaza, and the scent of wood smoke and fresh bread from the bakeries lining the main street.

I came to know the monks well. They have become like brothers to me. I also know some of the townfolks from Norcia. They are not the glamorous people of Rome, Venice, Milan, etc.; rather, just plain ordinary farm folks.

All they have is Norcia. And their faith.

Can one fall in love with a place? I did, with Norcia.



On August 30th, 2016, Norcia was at the epicenter of an 6.6-magnitude earthquake, the strongest in Italy since 1980.

This is the second series of quakes that hit Norcia. After the first quakes in August this year, the seismic engineers kept the town habitable, by literally wrapping it in steel cables. This time, the town is under “forced evacuation” order: it is no longer safe. All the churches–some as old as the 12th century, including the Basilica of St. Benedict–are on the ground, in rubble.

The government has relocated some of the townfolks to the coast. The others have petitioned for shipping containers so they could stay, primarily to look after their livestock. The monks have moved to a nearby location that they are renovating; as of last week, they finally got heat and running water.

The monks have decided to stay and rebuild. As for the townsfolks that choose to remain, I am not sure what their long-term solution will be: in a month or so, it will start to freeze; and whatever shelter for the livestock are also on the ground, demolished.

In the mean time, the quakes and aftershocks continue.



The monks are hesitant to ask for donation. This would be the second time within two months that they would have to ask. They fear “compassion fatigue.” But if you can stand to be asked, you can donate at the link below. The funds go directly to the monks, and is tax-deductible.  A percentage of the donations will go to the Norcia community.

Donation link: http://en.nursia.org/donations/

What they prefer is that you buy their beer. That will give them the income they need. And you get something that “gladdens the heart.” I have a monthly beer subscription; take my words, it is good beer. Worth every penny. Some of this income will be funneled back into the community as well.

Beer purchase link: https://birranursia.com/

Either way, I know they and Norcia very much appreciate your generosity.

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Budapest, Rhapsodically…


I was hanging out along the Danube (on the Pest side) when I stumbled on to this memorial.

It consists of 60 pairs of cast-iron shoes, to commemorate the Budapest Jews being executed into the Danube River during the regime of Hungarian Fascists in World War II.  Prior to being shot, the victims were forced to take off their shoes (as they were commodities during said World War), left them on the bank, before facing their executioners (Atlas Obscura).

There was a time when humanity lost its head; its heart took a wrong turn; and exposed its dark soul.

I knew of the shoes; was not looking for them in particular.  And maybe that was why it hit me a bit hard when I happened upon them.  I sat behind them for a time, looking at them juxtaposed against the jagged rock lining the lower bank, and the dark blackish water beyond; and couldn’t help thinking how similar atrocities did–and no doubt will–repeat themselves.

Oh when will they ever learn!

(Footnote: I know this post is a bit dark, but I needed to get it out of my system.  This is only the first of many Budapest posts to come.  The next ones will be considerably brighter, I promise.)


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Paris, Anecdotally (Part Deux)



La vie en rose, et bleu, et rouge, et cetera.

(“Part Un” is here.)

Done with all your touristy stuff?

Good, now…

…Go to where Parisians live.

Paris stank.

I arrived in the city in the middle of a sanitary worker strike.  Especially along the river, where there is a concentration of eateries and other commercial concerns, trash piles were everywhere.  On top of that was the flood’s after-effects, which combined to give the city a rather pungent smell.

Then, there was the inconvenience of a transit worker strike, which did not help the city’s gridlock, nor–I imagine–people’s mood.

Oh, and there was also the ISIS threat, specifically targeting the Euro2016 tournament, which was hosted by France this year.

And what is the Parisians’ attitude?

“So what?”

There are still brilliant days to bask in, there are still tourists’ cameras to mug for, there is still coffee to sip leisurely, there are still afternoons to while away with a good glass of wine.  There is still life to live, in short.

I was hanging out along the Seine with my camera one afternoon when I happened upon the three young ladies above.  I gestured to them, from across the river, that I would like to take their photo.  They readily agreed, and proceeded to strike a number of poses, some rather grandiose.  After I gestured to them to relax, they settled into the pose above, with just their brilliant smiles. It was the best of the lot.


On any given afternoon…



One photo, three nationalities (not counting the photographer's)

One photo, three nationalities (not counting the photographer’s), all pleasantly inebriated, after a Euro2016 game

Somehow, I had come to Paris thinking that Parisians were surly and rude.

As it turned out, it’s nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.

Sure, there is what I come to think of as the “Parisian frown”: slightly furrowed brows, more of a preoccupied frown than a downright scowl; eyes hidden behind dark Ray-Bans; ear phones in, nose inches from a personal communication device.

But, behind that facade is almost always a brilliant smile.

Don’t trust me?

Yield your seat on the tram during rush hour; or your place in a grocery line; open the door for someone; or even just a simple “bonjour”; I guarantee those will bring out that friendly Parisian smile.

Try it.

Le vie Parisienne

Le vie Parisienne



"If you smiled, I would have your charm; if you cried, I'd have your tears; if they hit you, I would take up arms..."

“If you smiled, I would have your charm; if you cried, I would have your tears; if they hit you, I would take up arms…”

Speaking of “bonjour”:

I consider it a courtesy that I speak French when communicating with the locals.  After all, I am a guest at their home, and can’t assume that they could accommodate me in my own language.  (Now, THAT would be rude.)

French is very similar to English, especially in terms of spelling.  One can browse through store signs, or a menu, and have a pretty definite understanding of what one is reading. French pronunciation does take a bit of practice, but one is no worse for trying.  That’s the point of traveling, isn’t it, to try new things?

Sure, every so often I would get a bemused look in return, for slipping into the English pronunciation of certain words, or having my statement construct slightly out of order.  And here’s where Parisians are accommodating: they would ask questions, to make sure they understand my intention.

(Learning French, or any language for that matter, is so convenient nowadays with the Internet.  One can find any number of Youtube accounts teaching everything French, from every day words and phrases to detailed discourses on Jean Paul Sartres.  The one facility I used for learning both French and Italian is duolingo.com.  It is at one’s own pace, and can be as leisurely or as rigorous as one makes it. It has been rated as good if not better than Rosetta Stone.  The best part?  It’s free.)

And then there is this abomination

And then there is this abomination



Les belles jeunes dames sur leur bicyclette

Les belles jeunes Parisiennes sur leur bicyclette

I wandered into a local bar, Le Valmy, one afternoon, and asked for a beer.

The bartender put the beer on the counter, and asked–in English–where I am from.

I told him, “America”; then wondered aloud if my French is that bad.

“No,” he said, “your French is very good.  Very good.  Because of your accents, I know you are not from here.

“You have no accents,” (meaning that my French is not Parisian French) he continued, all in perfect English.

We then proceeded with our conversation, about nothing really, I to him in the best French I could muster, and he back to me in his great English.

(Le Valmy, a local dive, is across the street from Canal St. Martin.  The crowd here tends to be bohemien-trendy, congregating in shabby-chic bars, bright-colored bistros, and of course picnics along the canal, often with a guitar or two.  I was wandering the neighborhood looking for vintage CD’s when I stumbled into it.)

It’s my experience that–the further I strayed from the touristy spots–the more friendly the people are.   Wait staffs seem more relaxed, more welcoming, less rushed, more ready with a smile (while those on the tourist routes tend to be a bit more curt and hurried.)  It must be that us tourists can wear thin on people.





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Irish fans riding their luck

The Friday after I arrived, Euro 2016 started.

And Paris erupted into international colors.  Depending on which countries were scheduled to play at Stade de France on any given day, the city was awash with those countries’ colors.

Of the fan groups I did run across, the Irish contingent was perhaps the most boisterous.

Along the Blvd de Clichy (in Montmartre) are a couple of Irish bars, the Harp and O’Sullivans.  Starting well before the game, the celebrations there involved singing, chanting, dancing, and just general jumping up and down; of course, with a lot of Guinness and Jameson whiskey (Paris laws allow open alcohol containers in public).  At some point, musical instruments–mainly drums of different sizes, and a couple of bagpipes–were added to the mix.  As more fans arrived, the party spilled out onto the street, essentially blocking motorist traffic.  No one seemed to mind however, maybe because, well, Paris.

For this tournament, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland qualified, in effect doubling the fun.  “It does not matter, Republic or Northern, we cheer for both,” an Irish fan solemnly told me.  Then, he proceeded to down in one gulp whatever frothy beverage he happened to have in his hand.

The Irish contingent welcoming the Swedish fan delegation

The Irish contingent welcoming the Swedish fan delegation



There are many open-air markets in Paris.

The one I would recommend is on the center median of Blvd de la Chapelle (which is an extension of Blvd de Clichy, in the Montmartre neighborhood).

As I turned onto Blvd de la Chapelle, there was a sudden transformation, from western-style clothing to flowing, colorful African/Middle-Eastern robes.

And, of course, the lilting mix of languages.

Such a bustling, vibrant scene, a Middle-Eastern open-air market, selling everything from fresh produce to brilliantly-colored fabrics.  Right in the middle of Paris.

I was browsing a pastry stand in the market, when its owner offered me a taste of one of the pastries.  “Grazie,” I said, out of habit, and the gentleman’s eyes brightened.  He then proceeded to describe to me, in a French-Italian hybrid, what he had to offer (most of which went right over my head; I think I heard “dolce” several times along the way).  It didn’t matter: everything seemed to be dripping with honey and more honey.

After the pastry, I was also given a small cup of a blackish drink, which the owner said was coffee.  He then gestured to me to drink it in one gulp.  I was a bit timid, but drank it down quickly anyway.

The sharp bitterness of the coffee, in combination with the honey in the pastry, did leave a rather pleasant after-taste.



“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” – Lin Yutang

In Closing…

I read somewhere the phrase, “Travel feeds my soul.”

A co-worker, prior to my first trip ever out of the country (to Italy), asked if I had ever been there, and whether I was going with a group.  No, I told him; I was backpacking solo, and that I had never been outside the US (save for a couple trips back to Viet Nam some twenty-plus years ago, which in my thinking is not really foreign travel: I am Vietnamese-American).

There is so much already written about the virtues of traveling (and this Forbes article is one of my favorites; it manages to capture succinctly my traveling experiences).

For me, traveling is all about seeing things, being in places and/or situations, never encountered before; and basking in the newness of it all; wherein I would have to use mental resources heretofore unused/dormant in me.  There is something satisfying about being to communicate with another person in his/her native tongue, and be understood; about being able to navigate situations totally foreign to me, be it a city, a public transportation system, or something as simple as a dinner menu.  There is something–both frightening and exciting–about finding another whole vast world out there; and what I already know does not constitute even a microscopic part of it.

I still remember–when arriving in Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport for that first ever trip–thinking to myself, “Oh shit!”  I had to get to Norcia, an obscure little mountain town three-and-a-half hours northeast of Rome.  Sure, I did my research prior to the trip, enough to know there is limited public transportation to said destination, especially late in the day.  And everywhere I turned, everything was in Italian (my Italian knowledge at the time consisted of maybe twenty words).  I had no idea where anything was.  It was overwhelming.

But I somehow did string together the transportation needed to get there.  So I missed a train here and a bus there, but I got there.  I remember thinking “Oh shit!” again–this time in relief and a bit of self-congratulation–as the train pulled into Spoleto just in time, and with just enough ticket money in my pocket, for the last bus to Norcia that night.

My co-worker, upon hearing that I was traveling solo to a new country, gave me a rather peculiar look.  I asked what it was about, and was told, “You are brave.  Much braver than me!”

I did not think of it as “brave.” But, coming from a former combat pilot, I will gladly take it.  And my humble soul is hungry for more: it is infected with an addiction called “wanderlust”, and it needs to be fed.

As a footnote, I now know the answer to that question frequently asked by recruiters, i.e., “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”


The comfort of my own bed, or to wake up in a new city each morning?  That is the question.

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Paris, Anecdotally


“We don’t take life all that seriously.” –Parisians

A few words…

Arrondissement: Properly, “arrondissement principal”, or administrative district. Paris has 20 of them, surrounded by a sort of a beltway, the Boulevard Périphérique.  Each has its own unique flavor and characters.  A few of notes: 1st Arrondissementnt, the touristy part of Paris; 3rd and 4th Arrondissements (Le Marais); 5th Arrondissement (Le Quartier Latin); 18th Arrondissement (Montmartre and Le Moulin Rouge).  More on these down below.

Quartier: “Neighborhood”.  It’s these “quartiers” that make each arrondissement unique.

Rue: Street.

Brasserie: It’s a restaurant/bar/brewery/cafe all rolled into one relaxed setting.  It serves food practically all day (while restaurants and/or bistros do not); and one can simply nurse a beer or a glass of wine at a sidewalk table.  My favorite hangout during any given day.

S’il vous plait, Je vous en prie, Merci: Respectively, “please”, “you are welcome”, and “thank you”.  If you must know the absolute minimum French, know these.  They, with a smile, will get you far.  My words.



The Fish Bowl On Wheels

Touristy Paris

If you have only a day for Paris, the bus tours are good choices.  They are essentially guided tours on (double-decked) wheels.  And they seem to be everywhere; wherever I was at any particular moment, there was one either in front or behind me.

(I don’t have a recommendation, since I did not use them.)

This is a good chance to get all your touristy photos in.  Make sure your camera’s geo-tagging is turned on; that’s so you can identify later where each photo is taken on a map (and also to show off to your CONUS-bound friends where you have been).

If you have more than one day?  Explore the city on foot.



Arc de Triomphe

Paris on foot

The city is wonderfully walk-able.  And walking was how I discovered Paris.

My recommendation is to make the Arc de Triomphe your pivot point for all your adventures on foot.  The majority of Paris public transit routes (which I relied on to get around) either ends there, or passes through there.  On the transit map, it is known as the “Place Charles De Gaulle”.

At that point, you are within walking distance to and from some of Paris’ most famous landmarks: Montmartre, Le Marais, Le Quartier Latin/The Sorbonne, The Seine, Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, just to name a few.


(If you do choose to use the transit system:

  • Great choice.  The Paris transit system is very well established.  Considering the system consists of train, bus, and metro, it is also very well coordinated: you are within two to five minutes of catching the next ride, be it train, bus or metro.
  • Know your “home” station/stop, i.e., where you depart from and return to.  Mine was a bus stop outside of Clichy-Levallois station.  Mention the name to the bus operators, and he/she should be able to point you to the right bus/metro connection.
  • Consider getting a MOBILIS ticket.  It cost me seven euros, it lasted all day, and it covered all transit media: you can transfer between train, metro, and/or bus without having to pay additional money.)

So now, where to start?

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A perfect chill after an afternoon promenade on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Sure, walking this famed avenue (and its continuation, the Avenue de la Grande Armée, on the opposite side of the Arc De Triomphe) is probably the most cliched thing to do in Paris.  For a first-timer such as myself though, it was still definitely worth the stroll; then afterwards, sat in one of its many outdoors cafe’s, with a beer.

It just felt obligatory.

There are certainly plenty of things to do and see along the way: you will find quite a few high-end shops (read “expensive”) worth poking your head into; grab a macaron in any one of the cafe’s; have a wine or coffee while checking out the latest Renault models at L’Atelier Renault (both a cafe and a car showroom; we Vietnamese have a thing for Renaults); and, of course, there’s always the McDonald’s if you miss the taste of home.  (I in fact found something reminiscent of home on the Avenue de la Grande Armée: a bicycle shop, Vélo & Oxygen, where I scored a cycling cap with the French tricolor on it.  Well, and a pharmacy on the avenue itself, to help with my lactose intolerance.  One cannot suffer from such condition being in food-city.)


Street-side existentialism




“Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”

Quartier Montmartre

Montmartre–once the heart of Bohemien Paris–is often compared to the Village of New York City, usually in the past tense.  It was associated with all that is arts and Paris: artists, writers gathering in flamboyant, often debauched cafes and bars; the inspiration to the likes of Picasso, Zola and Renoir, who lived and worked there; where American Jazz first found a French audience; where Hemingway honed his craft.


Captivated by the moon

That was then.  Now, what’s most prominent are a series of sex shops lining its main street, the Boulevard de Clichy.

After spotting me taking photos of these shops, a greeter (hostess?) stopped me and asked if I had wanted to come into her shop.  “For five Euros,” she said, in English, “you can watch for free.  Pretty girls.”  (By “for free,” she probably meant “all I wanted”.  After all, it costs five euros to get in.  And, pretty girls can’t be free!)  When I declined, she added that I could get a “sex massage” for an additional five Euros.  Then, as if to demonstrate said massage, she proceeded to lightly run her hand over my stomach.

I could not suck it in fast enough.


“We still have some to give.” –Parisians



In the shadow of the temple, the money changers thrive.

In the shadow of the temple, the money changers thrive.

Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre

I could not believe how commercialized the area around Sacre-Coeur is. You cannot walk two steps without running into a portrait sketcher or people hawking water, beer, etc.

Somehow, I had imagined a much more tranquil–maybe even a bit reverent–area, being around with such a famous place of worship.  Instead, I was tailed by a portrait sketcher for a time; he even attempted to start a conversation with me by asking whether I am from Japan.  (“No, I am from Missouri,” I told him.  The “Missouri” part is true, by the way!)

Same as on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, French knowledge is not required here: the merchants automatically greet you in English.

Wonder why that is.

American Jazz making a resurgence, on the front steps to Sacré Cœur

I did end up getting a beer (lukewarm, at best), found some shade near the basilica front steps, to sit and listen to a (pretty decent) rendition of “At Last”.

All that said, I do recommend a visit to the basilica.  It is situated at the highest point of the city, and–from there–one can get quite a panoramic view of it. Quite a sight.

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The famed Montmartre steps (or, as my sister puts it, “la descente à l’enfer”)



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The Seine and Notre Dame De Paris Cathedral

The Seine, that languorous, sometimes-sullen, source of inspiration to many a Vietnamese composer and writer (more on this later).

The week before I came, the river overflowed its banks.  These photos were taken a couple days after my arrival.  Except for small debris here and there, I could not tell the city was flooded.  (In fact, the weather was practically perfect during my eight days there.)

As I strolled her banks, I did wish I had brought larger baggage.  Lined alongside the upper bank are little open-air stands, selling everything from kitschy knick-knacks, to old books, records, CDs.  If one has the time (and patience) to sort through some of the things offered, one might find a few little treasures: old books by Ernest Hemingway (in French), CDs of American jazz produced in France, etc.

Vietnamese readers of this post (from a certain generation) might remember the “Lucky Luke”, “Tintin”, “Astérix le Gaulois” cartoons?  I found a number of them, pristine, plastic-wrapped.

I had to remind myself several times that books are heavy, and my baggage was already heavy enough.


“Yo Quasi, Esmi here. Where you at? Stop messing with those bells and call me.”




Scholarly hip. Poor, but hip.

Quartier Latin/La Sorbonne

If Montmartre is hip debauchery (or simply debauched), then the Quartier Latin is hip intellectualism, as anchored by the famed learning institute “L’Université de Paris”, more commonly known as the Sorbonne.

(Why “Latin”?  Because it was the language once spoken in and around the University; and was considered the scholarly language.)


Essentially a college town, it is overrun by students.  There are quite a few cafes, bars, bistros, in the area; and, at all hours, they were packed with kids, either taking a coffee break, doing homework with a coffee, or enjoying a lively discussion (not sure if it was entirely scholarly) with a coffee.  (Yes, coffee rules here, as in all other college towns).

This was where I found a “food-bar”: literally, that is how it is advertised on the menu, and it is the equivalent of the American all-you-can-eat buffet.  It offers quite a diverse selection, from Middle-eastern dishes, to basic french baguette and cheese.  It is also where one can order a “café américain”: it is a café diluted with hot water, in a proper 6-oz cup.

This was also where I found a “fin de serie” and a “€” (pronounced “Euro”) stores: respectively, they are the equivalent of the “Tuesday Morning” stores (selling things either out of production, or about to be), and the ubiquitous All-American “Dollar” stores.

I suppose it’s all to accommodate the scholarly (read “tight”) budget of the students.




(To Be Continued)


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Backpacking Italy: Odds and Ends

Various impressions from my recent Italy trip, in no particular order:

Ah, the “auto-bus.”

Times, as noted on schedules, are–at best–declarations of intents, vs. timed events.

That said, the margin of error is never more than 10 minutes.

I took the 7.35 bus from Norcia to Roma.  As the bus route winds itself out of the Sibillini mountain, dotting the hillside are ancient hamlet-fortresses; shrouded in sunlit mountain fog; red tiled roofs abutting each other; smoke rising from chimneys; surrounded by high defensive walls, complete with battlements and gun ports…

Absolutely magical.


I consider it only a courtesy that I speak some Italian while communicating with locals.

As it turned out, the Italian folks that I ran into were most eager to practice their English with me.

Between my 14%-fluency Italian, their better-than-average English, and–as a last resort–sign language, I got to where I needed to be; and, did not starve.

When all else fails, remember: “Per favore,” “Grazie,” and a smile, will go a long way.


Just like home.

There is a surprising number (surprising to me, anyway) of Irish pubs in Rome.  This was at a pub named “Trinity College”.

Imagine: being in Rome, Italy; drinking Guinness, at an Irish pub; and eating Tennessee barbecue’d ribs.

(By the way, the ribs were good; a perfect antidote for any homesickness one may have.)


“Hail Mary, Full of Grace…”

At practically every street corner, one would most likely find some image of the Virgin Mary, be it a statue, a painting, a relief carving, etc.

As it was explained to me, Her presence is for crime-prevention purpose:  Italians are afraid of their mothers; and, with the Mother of all mothers looking down on them, they would–in theory–think twice about trespassing.

For what it’s worth, I felt perfectly safe roaming around at night.


Chiesa di Santa Maria della Scala

(i.e., the Church of Saint Mary of the Stairs)

Maybe because of her crime-preventive ability (or maybe because of the “fear your mother” thing), Italy in general (and Rome in particular) have an endearing devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Practically everything that can be dedicated is dedicated to Her.  Every other step, and one would run into a place named “Santa Maria di” something or other.

And just when you think they would run out of things dedicatable?

Why, there are always stairs.


All creatures great and small

At Sunday Mass.

God blesses them all, no exception.

Especially small.


Norcia Sta Con Parigi

The day after the Paris massacre.

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Backpacking Italy

I promised myself that I would backpack Italy.

I am told if you want to know a people, go into the countryside. This I did. I spent a week in Norcia, a small hamlet (?) in the Umbria region, in the foothills of the Sibillini Mountain National Park. What a wonderful place. Fresh mountain air; some of the friendliest, most gentle people.

While in Norcia, I stayed at the Guest House of the Monastery of St. Benedict, and I definitely recommend it.  The accommodations are simple, spartan, but very comfortable. Best yet, the monks are American, and will go out of their way to help you find your way around. The stay is free (though they would appreciate donations in return); and the monks provide the meals (again, free, and simple but fulfilling). The best part? They also brew some of the best beer in the region. And, neither here nor there, but they just produced an album recently topping the Billboard chart.

And of course, there is the food.

Norcia is known for its boar meat products: one can do no worse than ordering a plate of “salcissia” or “salumi”, with a glass (better yet, a bottle) of “vino rosso”; savor the food and wine, and watch the world go by.  (Neither here not there, but “Norcia” serves as the root word of another Italian word, “Norcineria”, i.e., a pork’s butcher shop.)

(I could not leave Italy with any of the goodness above.  It’s considered farm products not vetted by USDA, and could not enter the US legally.  Sad, considering any number of other, much less savourable things entering the country on a daily basis.  Our loss, really.)
After Norcia, I spent a week in Rome. For being such an ancient city, the youthful energy there is incredible. I am staying at an area known as Trastevere, sort of the equivalent of Greenwich Village in New York City: quirky, off-beat, but so full of energy. There are a music school, a number of jazz clubs; and one often finds a joint or two blaring good old dirty downhome American blues.

The food, of course the food, is really quite diverse. Sure, you will find the good old Italian staple; but you will also find–surprisingly–quite a few Irish pubs (and I had my fill of Guinness); as well as Chinese and Indian eateries. I stayed at the Casa Santa Sofia. In front of the Casa is Piazza Di Santa Maria ai Monti. It is often packed throughout the day, and late into the night; with young mid-20’s to mid-30’s. Roman law permits open alcohol containers in public; and there’s plenty of that here, which makes for a boisterous setting. Nearby is said music school; its students would also gather here after class with their instruments, for impromptu jams.

(Casa Santa Sofia is a sort of B&B/Hostel: certainly no Hilton, but clean, inexpensive, and very comfortable. It is located at the intersection of Via Cavour and Via Dei Serpenti, essentially the heart of Rome.  From the Casa, one could almost walk in any direction and find things to do or see.  It is run by the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Ann.  Thanks to the Sisters, I saved close to 30 Euros traveling from the Casa to Leonardo Da Vince Airport: instead of taking a taxi, which would have cost me 50+ Euros, they recommended public transit, which cost less than 20 Euros.)

It’s said, the first impression is often the lasting impression.  I am glad that my first impression of Italy is Norcia, and Trastevere, Rome.

An Indiana Jones-style photo diary of the trip.

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Dov’è il bagno?

Norcia e Roma, in nero e bianco

Rolleiflex 2,8f; Ilford DELTA 100 and 400 (both way past their expiration date)

Norcia, traditionally known in English by its Latin name of Nursia, is a town and commune in the province of Perugia (Italy) in southeastern Umbria. Unlike many ancient towns, it is located in a wide plain abutting the Monti Sibillini, a subrange of the Apennines with some of its highest peaks, near the Sordo River, a small stream that eventually flows into the Nera. The town is popularly associated with the Valnerina (the valley of that river).

The area is known for its air and scenery, and is a base for mountaineering and hiking. It is also widely known for hunting, especially of the wild boar, and for sausages and ham made from wild boar and pork. Such products have been named after Norcia; in Italian, they are called norcineria.” (Wikipedia)

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Bonnie does not like the blues


Hi, this is Bonnie.

Dad said I could use this space, even if it has nothing to do with bicycles.

He said he owns it, so we can do anything with it we want. “Hell, why not,” he said.

He’s like that!


Hi, everyone,

My Dad, I tell you…

See, I don’t know what happens to him, but he sings a lot lately.  Which is fine.  I mean, I got used to it on our trip to Cape Charles.

But now, every time he sings, he also puts this thing on his lap (he calls it a gheeder, or something like that), and it makes such a horrendous, twangy noise.  I mean, it makes my hair STAND UP (and that takes lot; it’s almost as bad as those lil yappers.)

So I would ask him, nicely, in my indoor voice, to please skip the twangy thing.

And so he shushed me!  And kept on twang’in’.

You see, we collies are just really sensitive to these high-pitchy sounds, especially those Dog-forsaken TWANGY sounds, so I would ask him again, this time in my outdoor voice, to please SHUT IT!

“Whatsa matta witch’u?” he said.  “You don’t like the blues?”

No, Dad, I don’t like the blues!  I mean, who could ever like such racket…

Editor’s note: Bonnie’s Dad was practicing the slide “gheeder”


Otherwise, we have been back at the “normal” for a few days now and things are sort of normal again.

Dad kept telling me that all I ever do is poop, pee, bark, and wag.  Except that–because I was not eating well–the first function on the list was not working too well.  But, I tell you, my Dad, he’s just some kind of genius: so he is mixing into my food things like banana, apple, even pumpkin; and so I am eating like a champ again; and everything is back, working just like clockwork.

(Maybe just for fun, I will hold for a couple days, to see what he could come up with…)

And so we are back to our daily walks, seeing/sniffing all the familiar things, saying Hello to everyone on our way.  There are these two ladies–Dad calls them the Yakka Sista’s.  I mean, we see them once in while on our walks, and boy, they both just yak yak yak away as they walk.  I mean, they can really YAK, both at the same time, arms and hands going in all directions.  See, I am a talkative girl, but even I don’t have all that many things to talk about.  But boy, they were just really going at it, morning and evening (and sometime even when I am out on my midday walk).  So today on our way back, we saw them coming.  Dad asked me (nicely, thank you, Dad) to sit, and I sat (nicely, thank you, Bonnie) and let them pass.  As they passed me, I could not resist saying Hello, in my best outdoor voice possible.  And–this is funny–they both hopped, stopped, said “Whoops!”, and looked at me at the same time.  And then went right back to their arm-swinging yakking way.

(Call me simple, but that made my day.)


During our walk today, Dad said “I think I hear the mountains calling our names.”  I don’t know what he meant, but I think he probably heard the sound of the bus passing us (which I did NOT chase; see how good I am?)

Well, whatever, Dad.  You know I am there with you.


That’s it for now.  I hope everything is well for everyone.  I will write again very soon.

Love always,

Bonnie Lassie

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