End of Season Clearance

This year’s wedding season is over and I’ve walked away with a lot of memories, apricot jam,  Indian cookies and a wooden item that I’m pretty sure is either a letter opener or a shoehorn (I’ve been using it as both).

The weddings we have attended have been near and far and incredibly diverse. There was an Indian wedding complete with a horse on the guest list, a Montreal extravaganza with original songwriting and interpretive dance numbers, a chic black tie affair and an old-fashioned clam bake. And the best part was, we only had to show up. Here are the highlights from each event:

 

Men In Black

One of Sebastien’s work colleagues invited us to a black tie wedding at the New York Palace Hotel. Super chic. I’m pretty sure the dress code for regular hotel guests is black tie, too. Fortunately we followed protocol and had no trouble at the door. Sebastien rented a tux and I just wore my wedding dress again. (Getting a blue wedding dress was the best idea ever.) When we arrived however, it seemed that other guests believed the black tie to be optional. One girl was wearing a plaid dress from H&M and several guys were in the basic suit and tie. I hoped that they would get formally reprimanded by the hosts.

Here we are, appropriately dressed

Here we are, appropriately dressed

The majority of the guests were either Harvard or MIT grads and they were mostly interested in asking me what I did and then looking unimpressed. I was mostly interested in practicing my extremely limited Japanese on the sushi chefs at the cocktail hour, though.

A guy named Pete asked if he could join Sebastien and I at our table. He was another MIT grad, but he was pretty cool. (I don’t think he would even register on the autism spectrum.) Pete lived between Boston and New York and owned his own company. Something financial. I zoned out when he and Sebastien talked shop. Pete lived in Berlin for a while and traveled around a lot, so we all found a common interest. I told him about the time I took my dad to China. “Be prepared when you’re traveling to Asia with a senior citizen,” I said. “Two hours after we landed in the country, my dad managed to lose all of his insulin. And he kept leaving his cane all over the place.”

At dinner, Sebastien was seated beside a woman with incredibly bad breath so we spent as much time as possible on the dance floor. It was at this wedding that I learned I could no longer wear heels.

 

Buddha Belly

As traditional as I’ve heard Indian weddings can be, this one was probably the most relaxed and unstructured wedding that I have ever attended.

It started outside, where we followed the groom who rode in on a horse. Most people danced around. I stood on the sidelines fanning myself because you could do that if you wanted. (If I had known ahead of time, I might have even stayed in the air conditioned lobby with the croissants and coffee because you could do that, too.)

Then we all went to the country club balcony to find our seats for the ceremony. I’m not really sure what went down during the ceremony because there was so much going on. The bride and groom and priest were talking under a canopy-like structure called a mandap while kids played in the garden and guests chatted with one another. A lot of people were on their phones or looking down at newspapers and servers kept stopping by with mango lassis and water I couldn’t keep up with what section of the ceremony we were on, but every now and then we were encouraged to get up and throw rice at the bride and groom.

Then in the middle of the ceremony, a voice came on the loudspeaker and announced that the buffet was open. Right in the middle of the couple dancing around some rice or placing jewels on one another’s forehead or something. Sebastien and I looked around at the other guests to make sure this wasn’t a trick. Sure enough, everyone — family members, friends, acquaintances — shuffled into the reception hall to eat while the bride and groom finished up. It was so refreshing that for once we didn’t have to feign interest in a religious ritual. (I mean it’s cool if that’s your thing, but let’s be honest, that’s the most boring part of a wedding.)

The food was amazing and we hung around and chatted with some friends. After lunch, there was a four hour break until the evening when the wedding picked up again. But we only had a rental car for the day and couldn’t stay. On the way back I got to practice driving a bit, which was awesome. And I parallel parked.

 

Do you take this lobster

The second we entered Cape Cod I harassed Sebastien until he stopped at a roadside diner so I could get a lobster roll. I thought it was going to be my only chance. Boy was I wrong.

I ordered a monster of a sandwich, which, by the way cost $18. Is it just me or does that seem a little ridiculous? I was in Cape Cod so I figured that the lobsters there just walked ashore and accidentally fell into boiling pots of water. Then we got changed at a motel that reminded me of the place John Cusack’s character stayed at in “Identity.” I hoped that our evening would turn out better.

And it did.

Going in I knew this wedding was filled with more Harvard grads so I had already planned on passing myself off as a cat whisperer if anyone asked what I did for a living. (It wasn’t a total lie. We foster kitten and I do have a way with them.) But it never came up. The ceremony was short and I spent most of the cocktail hour talking to a really pregnant woman. She was telling me about ridiculous hospital procedures in NYC. For instance, she was told that she had to show up at the hospital with a car seat to take the newborn home in or they wouldn’t discharge her. “We don’t even have a car because we live in the city, but I need to buy a car seat so I can take my child home.”

When we all sat down for dinner, servers handed out bibs, wet wipes, crackers and tiny forks. A pot bigger than me was wheeled into the dining hall and we all got our very own lobster. I took a romantic photo with my lobster, which I named Manfred, before devouring him.

The lobster and I

The lobster and I

I also used the opportunity to tell everyone at our table about the history of lobsters and how they used to be a poor man’s food. “Lobsters are the cockroaches of the ocean,” I said, sucking flesh out of the claw.

 

It’s a Small World

The last wedding of the season was Sebastien’s cousin’s in Montreal. Berenice is Polish and Haitian and her husband to be is German and Indian. So there were guests from all of those countries. Then there were a number of Brazilians in attendance because Sanjay, the husband, spent some time living in Brazil. My brain was pretty fried by the end of the night bouncing from language to language. And so many of the bride and groom’s friends were artists who all put on great shows. We had a belly dancer, a Brazilian band, a few singer-songwriters and a poet who read to us in multiple languages.

Since it was assumed that we were all  artists, someone announced that we should draw pictures in the guestbook. I drew a picture of a bunny rabbit with arms that looked like boobs. I didn’t know how to fix it so I just signed Sebastien’s name underneath. (At least it was better than how Sebastien and I defiled another friend’s wedding guestbook with random, bizarre phrases and sentences. I filled a page writing Redrum. On another page I wrote, help I’m trapped in this book and I cant get out.)

I didn’t see a cameraman once during the reception and was worried that there wouldn’t be any documentation of Sebastien and I enjoying ourselves, so we asked Sebastien’s sister to capture us having a good time.

 

Showing our table mates that we're ready for candid photos of people having fun.

Showing our table mates that we’re ready for candid photos of people having fun.

 

All and all it was an awesome summer of weddings. Please invite us to more.

 


The pain and regret of tattooing Jiminy Cricket on my breast

Give a little whistle.

It was the morning of my sister’s wedding, and we were all primping and prepping at the reception site. Bridesmaids scampered in and out of the bathroom to fix their makeup or hair. Florists and decorators arranged purple and white centerpieces around the oak-paneled reception hall. And I stood in front of the lounge room mirror, painting gobs of red lipstick onto my chest to hide a tattoo of the chipper Disney character Jiminy Cricket.

The lipstick was just the first step in a three-part procedure to temporarily hide the tattoo and allow me to walk around with confidence. And this day, special as it was, wasn’t exactly an outlier. The 3-inch-by-2-inch smiling cricket above my right breast had been a source of shame and embarrassment for more than 10 years. I constantly worry what other people think of it. I long felt that it ruined every attempt at sexual appeal. So I go out of my way to cover it up.

I never buy low-cut shirts or tank tops, and I rarely join friends at the beach. While considering a purchase of a sleeveless or loose fitting blouse, I run the clothes through a series of endurance tests in the dressing room: running in place, jumping jacks and forward and sideways bends. If there is any doubt that I will accidentally expose the tattoo, the shirt goes back on the rack. But I could not hide the tattoo for my sister’s wedding.

Once the red lipstick dried onto my skin,I slapped nude colored foundation on top of it. It smeared in with the red and changed the color of the cricket’s face from forest green to mint. The outline of the tattoo was still noticeable after I applied a second layer of foundation, so I scooped out the makeup in fistfuls, lumping it onto my skin like wet sand on a sand castle.

The cover-up wasn’t working so well. My chest was beginning to look deformed, like another appendage was trying to push its way out of my body.

I stared into the mirror with a sour look on my face and began to question if this was the normal response to getting a tattoo. How many other people live in constant worry and shame about a permanent addition to their body? How many other people wake up in the morning and look down at their chest with regret?

The tattoo seemed like a good idea when I was 18. Ever since childhood, I knew I wanted a tattoo. I believed people with tattoos looked intimidating and rugged. And I wanted people to fear and respect me for permanently marking an ephemeral mood.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Jiminy Cricket…fear and respect? Well, I’ve wanted a tattoo of a Disney character ever since my all-time favorite teacher, Ms. Pallero, showed us fifth graders her own ink of Mickey Mouse. She was an amazing teacher and so cool. But when, years later, I decided to actually get my Jiminy tattoo, I was just 30 days clean from a crack cocaine addiction. I was a troubled youth, and after elementary school, I turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with my problems. It got bad pretty quickly, and I’m lucky that I stopped. But when I did stop, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind to make good decisions on permanently marking my body.

But back to my sister’s nuptials. The wedding coordinator called us to take our places for the ceremony. In a rush to finish, I dumped powder over the goiter of makeup that hung off of my chest. Another bridesmaid stopped before me and grabbed a blush brush. “You have to mix it in,” she said and went to work, delicately smoothing out the makeup on my chest so that it looked more normal.

All the bridesmaids lined up to walk the procession down the aisle. When it was my turn, I carried myself with a sense of dignity that I hadn’t felt in years. Here I was showing off my body, and I didn’t have to worry about what other people thought if they saw the tattoo.

The Sunday-morning Florida sun shone down as I appeared to the left of the guests. Most people wore sunglasses to shield the glare, but I welcomed it: the bright light helped to blend in the tan and ivory colors painted on my body.

Throughout the ceremony, I glanced down at my cleavage and smiled at how beautiful my chest was now that the damaging image was gone.

But as the priest droned on about commitment and for better or worse, I worried that the sun was melting the masterpiece painted over my dreaded commitment. As soon as the bride and groom kissed, I rushed to the bathroom to touch up. I felt like Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her, constantly spray-painting her gray, dead skin.

By the time I reached the bathroom, I realized that some of the makeup had gotten on the lining of my purple dress. I tried to wipe it away with a wet towel as best I could without disrupting the dry foundation.

I soon rejoined the reception and greeted various family members and friends. As I approached my aunt and cousin, their eyes zoomed down to my chest and their expressions turned from delight to horror. My chest looked like a third-degree burn. The layers of foundation were flaking off and the black outline of the tattoo was already starting to reappear. My relatives looked at me with a mixture of pity and confusion. I tried to ignore it and went to give them hugs. As I circled my arms around my Aunt Jean’s waist, she pulled back as if worried that I would infect her. My cousin Jill looked down at her wine glass and decided that she needed to go and get a refill as quickly as possible. I didn’t see her again until the end of the wedding. I wondered how they would have reacted if I had left the tattoo alone. I wondered if it made a difference that the tattoo was there at all.

It made a difference to me, though. That’s why I’ve spent the past decade looking for a way to get rid of it. I considered covering the tattoo up with another tattoo, but I can’t think of anything that would look appropriate in that area. Spray paint might cover it up, but the fumes would probably get me high or predispose me to various forms of cancer. Laser removal crossed my mind too, but it costs nearly ten times as much as the tattoo and there is no guarantee that it won’t leave a gnarly scar.

I’ve certainly put a lot more thought into the removal of the tattoo than actually getting it. I guess now I understand what it means to commit to something, for better or worse, till death. Actually, no, the tattoo will still be there after I die. There’s no getting rid of it.

I made the rounds of hellos with family members, and then I rushed back to the bathroom to touch up before giving my toast. For the next few hours, I ran back and forth between the reception hall and the bathroom to check on my chest before the first dance, after the entrees were served, and between the cake cutting and the dancing — my parents probably thought I was using drugs again. I was so tired by the end of it all that I didn’t even have time to track down the photographer to request proofs of all of the photos that I was in to ensure that he could airbrush away anything that wasn’t to my liking.

After the wedding, I spent the next hour or so in another bathroom trying to wash off the cover-up. The powder and foundation came off easily enough. The five layers of smudge-proof lipstick wouldn’t budge, though. I scrubbed at it so hard that I couldn’t even tell when it was actually off because my skin was the same shade of red as the lipstick. I fell into bed that night knowing that I needed to find another solution.

Since then, I have gone back to my old ways of covering up the tattoo. It’s just so much easier to avoid showing that part of my body altogether with carefully crafted and ultraconservative outfits.

I was at a nightclub not too long ago where most of the women wore sexy spaghetti strap dresses. I was wearing a long-sleeved black and white dress. I thought I looked pretty good. And then one guy told me I looked like a pilgrim.

But you know what? Maybe that’s not so bad. Better than gobbing a volcano of makeup on my chest, at least.

 


Really Lost in Translation (like seriously, way, way out there lost)

One night we were walking down the street in Tokyo when a group of Japanese teenagers passed by. They looked like proper enough young lads, dressed in jeans and button down shirts. They were carrying backpacks and school books and I suspected that they were on their way home from a long night of group study. Then Steve and Sebastien started laughing uncontrollably. At first I couldn’t understand why. But then I noticed the hat that one of the lads was wearing, which read EAT SHIT! across the front. The poor kid didn’t even have a clue.

download

That’s the thing with Japan. The country is rife with horrible, horrible English translations. A young girl we passed in a train station was wearing a hat that read I <3 Haters, another woman carried a bag that said Tits & Co. in the style of Tiffany & Co. If there’s a vulgar English word, you better believe it has been stitched onto a t-shirt or backpack or baseball cap in Japan. There are probably factories throughout the country mass-producing Valentine’s Day gifts with the words Cunt or Jackass printed across the top just so a young Japanese man can show his special someone that he really cares, in English. Or maybe the Japanese just don’t understand the significance of having a word or phrase plastered across your chest. Americans sure do and they wear their words with pride.

When we were boarding the subway in Osaka I made eye contact with a big black man. When you’re in a foreign country, its comforting to see someone who looks familiar, and most people get really excited. On several occasions Sebastien and I were greeted with a nod from a white or black person, desperate to speak and share in the common bond of not having taken a normal shit in a week.

This man was no different. Once I acknowledged his presence he began shaking his head uncontrollably. Words spewed out of his mouth like a volcano erupting. “Hi, how are you, how do you like it here?” He continued to ask questions without giving us a moment to answer. “Where are you guys from?” he said. Before I could respond he answered for us. “Texas?”

“No,” I said. The only reason he could have thought that was because of my sweater, which said Texas. I bought it because I was cold while waiting for a plane in Lubbock a few years ago. It’s the only sweater I own and I don’t understand why people automatically assume I come from there just because I wear it. Who wears a sweater from the place they are from anyway, except for Canadian backpackers? Most people don’t even like the place where they were born. When I was a kid growing up in Florida I lied and told people I was born in California because I didn’t want to be from there. And no offense Texas, but the sweater doesn’t really attract the right caliber of people.

As we made our way through the country and I kept getting the nod from fellow foreigners, I thought about turning the sweater inside out. I have nothing wrong with the place, I just didn’t want to be mislabeled like the boy who had pussy written on his t-shirt.

 

One night when we were back in New York, we were having dinner with our neighbors, Mike and Tammy. Mike was wearing his Tennessee t-shirt. He told us how he ran into a man at Whole Foods Market who saw his shirt and stopped him because he also went to Tennessee State University. The two chatted for a while and knowing Mike and his kindness, they probably made plans to barbecue together.

“I run into people who went to Tennessee State all the time in this city,” he said with pride.

“I have a Texas sweater and bums are the only people that stop me on the street,” I said.


Hat Tip

I had planned on returning from Japan with an authentic kimono, a life-size Maneki neko (happy cat) and platters of Japanese food plastic replicas to trick my friends when they came over for dinner. But those items weren’t going to fit in my Jansport backpack. So I decided on getting a summer hat. I figured I could fold it up and toss it in a pouch without a problem. The last summer hat I had was made from a fake fur collar that I took off my corduroy jacket to wrap around my head. It wasn’t really a summer hat, although one could argue that the hole in the middle provided a cooling effect to the top of my head. I only wore it to get into the Longchamp Racecourse in Paris for free on Ladies’ Day. At the ticket counter the vendor asked to see my chapeau. I pointed to the bird’s nest atop my head and restrained myself from feverishly scratching at my scalp. “I’m wearing it,” I said. The man shook his head, but I insisted that it was a hat. “Almost,” he said, and finally agreed to let me in.

This time was going to be different, though. There were no tricks up my sleeve. I just wanted a hat. When I mentioned it to Sebastien he suggested that I buy a rice picker hat so I could start a new fashion trend in New York City. I suspected that Sebastien had a limited knowledge of fashion trends and laughed it off, certain that those hats remained in another century.

I was wrong. One morning we were walking down the street in Kyoto when we passed in front of a store with a rack of rice picker hats that called to Sebastien. “Look, here it is,” he said, taking one and placing it on my head. His eyes sparkled. A husband couldn’t have been prouder and I couldn’t understand why. I wasn’t actually serious about wearing the hat. By the looks of it, the thing wasn’t fashionable or even comfortable.

We stood in the doorway for too long because a woman inside of the store began walking towards us. Sebastien pulled out his wallet and the next thing I knew I was the proud owner of the most ridiculous hat (aside from the aforementioned fake hat, of course). ricepickerhat I wore that hat around all day because I had no other choice. It was so big and inflexible that I couldn’t just crumple it up and toss it in my backpack. If I hung it off my back the chin strap choked me and if I held it in my hand I couldn’t reach my camera to snap photos. I quickly started to regret the purchase. I had to lug this flying saucer all over the country from shinkensan to subway, from ryokan to rokka [locker]. It was like a pimple that just wouldn’t go away. I would have thrown it out, but the Japanese don’t believe in garbage cans on street corners. (Surprisingly it was incredibly clean though.)

On the last few days of our trip however, I started to get compliments. A young woman who looked to be in her early twenties approached me in a train station.  “Where did you get that?” she said, pointing to my hat. Her voice shook with desperation. “From a store on the street,” I said and considered just handing it to her. She turned to her friends, a group of backpackers from North America. “She got it on the street,” she yelled, running back to them.

Then, at a hotel in Tokyo, a clerk admired the fine craftsmanship of the hat while placing our belongings behind their concierge desk. “Wow you do not see this hat anywhere,” she said. Very nice.” I beamed with pride at my burden.

I was beginning to think that the hat was a good investment and imagined wearing it around town when I returned home. Maybe I would show it off at a Broadway show or treat it to a stroll through Central Park. But I was reminded of its bulk as I tried to shove it in the overhead compartment on our return flight. I knew if I wore the thing on the subway during rush hour that only one of us was actually going to squeeze on. The hat was just too big for any city.

When we got home I couldn’t even find a proper place to hang it in our tiny apartment. I placed on top of the living room lamp until I cleaned out some clothes in the closet. That’s when it hit me that the hat made a perfect lampshade.


Jesus on the Temple Trail

Kyoto_shrine

When we awoke in Kyoto, Steve, our fearless leader (a.k.a. the only person who took the time to figure out what there was to do in the city) took us on a trail of temples and shrines. First stop was the Tainai-meguri, the womb of a goddess. No, really. At first I thought it was just a bad English translation. But after giving two coins to a Japanese man, he pointed to a stairwell that descended into complete darkness.

“What is this, what’s going on?” I called out hoping someone would respond in English. Sebastien was ahead of me and told me to just hold onto the railway as I walked.

“Are we in the womb?” I said.

“Yes.”

“At least there’s no blood in here,” I said. All things considered it wasn’t as grotesque as I thought it would be. And I’ve seen some disgusting stuff including my own birth. It was an accident. I was playing hookey from school one day and rummaged through my parents’ VHS tapes for something to watch. One of the tapes had my name on it so I thought it’d be fun to check out. It was not. My dad must’ve been positioned right behind the doctor and he made full use of the zoom feature on the camera.

We finally reached a glowing rock and Sebastien told me to make a wish. Technically to make the wish come true I had to spin in either direction. I didn’t want to so I just made the wish and walked out. My wish came true anyway because seconds later we were back outside. “I could get used to these gods,” I said. “They actually listen.”

From there we skipped through the cherry blossoms from shrine to shrine making wishes. I gave my suffering to a piece of paper that I threw into a bowl of water and I gave my knee pain to an ox (although I accidentally rubbed his balls instead of his knees like I was supposed to).

We stopped at Jishu Shrine, the home of the god of love and matchmaking and watched as tourists attempted to secure success in love by walking from one stone to another with their eyes closed.

It was a full morning. But by 11am, my knee was hurting and all I really wanted was an ice cream. But there was no god or goddess for that.

We walked down the steps along Chawan-zaka or Teapot Lane, looking in the various souvenir and tea shops along the way on the hunt for a late morning snack. I saw tourists with ice cream, which momentarily rekindled my faith. But I got distracted and photobombed some Chinese tourists dressed as geishas.

photobombing

I figured if the people didn’t like it, they could make a wish to the photoshop god.


The Humility and Humiliation of Slippers

On our second day in Japan I learned why old people walk so slowly: because of their damn slippers. The flimsy plastic shoes offer little or no protection or support and some don’t even stay in place — like every pair of slippers that exists in Japan.

When we arrived in Kyoto we checked into a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with public baths, no beds and nothing to eat besides fish. The moment we stepped inside a Japanese man came charging towards us. I thought he was going to tell us that the building was on fire. Instead he just wanted us to take off our shoes before entering the hotel.

The Japanese are obsessed with taking their shoes off as much as American women are obsessed with thong underwear. In Japan there are cubbyholes everywhere for people to leave their shoes before changing into slippers. Sometimes you have to take the slippers off again to sit down for dinner or go into the public bath. You’re even expected to change into a different pair of slippers just to sit on the toilet.

japaneseslippers_inbathroom

 

We all took off our shoes at the entrance and put on the troll-sized slippers that forced us to walk at a slower, more humble pace.


japaneseslippers2

And I hated it just as much as I hated being forced to wear slippers when I was a kid.

Growing up, my stepfather Stuart always insisted that we wear slippers in the house. He claimed that the sweat from our feet dirtied the carpets. I thought we could solve the problem by turning on the air conditioner because, after all, we lived in South Florida. But Stuart said it cost to much and instead splurged on $3 slippers from Payless for all of us.

Whenever we heard Stuart coming down the hallway at home, his slippers slapping against feet, we would run and hide in the nearest bathroom or closet so we didn’t have to endure his wrath. He is an older man, very set in his ways and never cared much for children or friendly greetings. If Stuart is ever made into a pull string talking doll, his phrases will include: Go to your room, Clean the dishes, and Where are your slippers? Whenever my sisters and I had sleepovers, he would impose his tyrannical rules on our friends, too. I remember one sleepover when my friends and I were running around the living room hopped up on sugar. Stuart came storming into the room and just stared at us with disgust. He stood there, sucking on his teeth before noticing that we were all barefoot. We’d just finished giving one another pedicures, but he didn’t care. His nostrils flared and he started yelling at all of us to put slippers or socks over our disgusting feet. We spent the rest of the night sweating in our red-stained socks, terrified that he would yell at us again. Most friends never returned.

 

That night in the ryokan, after relaxing in the onsen in the public bath, I fought off the urge to walk barefoot back to my room. The slippers were so tiny and uncomfortable and I kept slipping and stumbling as I made my way through the quiet halls. It didn’t take long before I started walking with a slight hunch just like Stuart. I placed my hand on my lower back because I was afraid to fall and break my hips or something. And even though I tripped a few times on my way back to my room where I was to sleep on the floor, I fortunately never hit anything because the Japanese are even too humble for furniture.

 


Are You Confident?

Sebastien and I just returned from a vacation in Japan.

kimonos

When we arrived in Tokyo we met our friends Steve and Amy at our hotel and went out for some ramen. Amy said that the noodle shop we were going to was one of the best in the city. At that point I was so jet-lagged that I didn’t care if the food we were going to eat came out of a garbage can. I just wanted to fill my belly and crawl into bed.

There was no hostess to seat us when we entered the shop nor a waiter to take our order. Instead we fed money to a machine then pushed in buttons to indicate what we wanted on our noodles. It was as simple as buying a bag of chips in a vending machine except everything was in Japanese and the tiny, faded pictures beside each button didn’t offer much help. I chose by way of eenymeenyminey, moe and the machine spit out a ticket. Then we headed to a booth in the back of the shop to sit and wait.  We could hear other voices around us through the paper thin walls, but we couldn’t see anyone.

A panel to the right of our table opened and a man started shouting at us in Japanese. Sebastien and I looked at one another terrified and handed him our tickets as a peace offering. We hoped that  he would know what to do from there. If nothing else, perhaps he would use the paper to make origami birds, I thought.

Steve, a Brit who met Sebastien as a child in Canada, started laughing once the cook disappeared behind the door. “Are you guys having fun yet?” he said. “You’re smiling and nodding and you don’t have a damn clue what they’re saying.”

He was right.

On the plane ride from New York I thought it would be good to learn a few common Japanese words, but I got distracted by all of the in-flight movies. Around hour 12 on the plane I decided to review my Japanese language app. There were the usual words like hello and thank you, but I became obsessed with one phrase in particular: Are you confident? I imagined saying that to the pilot after he announced that we would be making our final descent or saying it to a tour guide after they confirmed the way up the mountain.

But who was I kidding? As I sat in that noddle shop with Sebastien, Steve and other Amy, that phrase became a rhetorical question that would haunt me throughout our trip. Because I was unsure about everything.

For two weeks we toured the country like miming bobbleheads, exaggerating our gestures to ask for the nearest bathroom or Starbucks and nodding profusely once we thought we understood what people were saying. We couldn’t read street signs when trying to locate areas of interest and we gave up on adjusting the thermostat in hotels, resigning ourselves to the fact that our room for the night was either a water-less onsen or an igloo.

By the second week, our language skills improved enough to say thank you: arigatou gozaimasu, and yes: hi. Most of the hotels had staff that could understand us fairly well, so long as we didn’t ask for anything more complex than our room key.

At one hotel in Tokyo, Sebastien asked the clerk where the gym was. The man scrunched his face to indicate confusion so we pantomimed pumping iron and I showed off my meager muscles. We were relieved once we saw the glimmer of recognition on his face. He started typing on the computer and then retrieved a binder underneath the desk.

When he returned to the computer and started printing things out, I became suspicious. “I don’t think he’s giving us information about the hotel gym,” I said. I was very confident about this.

A few minutes later the clerk walked back towards us with a stack of papers in his hand. It turned out that there wasn’t a gym in the building, so he gave us information on the nearest fitness center. Again, this information was in Japanese.

“Arigatou gozaimas,” Sebastien and I said in unison, making use of our only learned phrase. As we were leaving I grabbed the stack of papers and turned to Sebastien, “If nothing else we could burn the paper for heat if it gets too cold in the room tonight.”

 

 


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