Monday, May 19, 2008

Encore j'aime Paris! (Written 19 May 2008)

Changing planes in Moscow was interesting. Smoke everywhere. Nowhere to plug in electronic appliances. So I was sitting on the ground, literally, next to people smoking, plugging in my laptop. Strange.

Got to Charles de Gaulle, and no real overwhelming sense of anything. RER to meet Cyprien...and as soon as I walked up those stairs, with him sitting on the railing, dreadlocks as eyecatching as ever, and the illuminated Gare de Lyon looming ahead - I was back in Paris.

The tree-lined Boulevard Diderot, and eerily quiet at 23hs, the boulangeries, pharmacies, and every other small shop resting before the bustle of the next day.

Friday I walked walked walked. In the morning I learned of Velib - the new bicycle system introduced in Paris, where for just 1 euro a day you are allowed to use bicycles that have pick up and drop off stations all over Paris - this price is if you only ride them for 30 minutes at a time maximum. What a great system - so 2 blocks from his house there's a Velib station, and we rode to his office on Ile St Louis, and then I wandered around...

Followed my nose and the crowds and came across the Festival du Pain - now, how many countries in the world would you be able to find a bread festival, with about 10 different ovens inside, lots of cute middle-aged men covered in flour with chef hats vigorously using their rolling pins and articulating the virtues of different breads?

I wandered about tasting all the different varieties, some from Normandy, or Bordeaux, or Lyon, or Nice...and when I had had my fill, went find the Produit I repeated the process with cheeses. I am afraid my blog the next few months is going to once again be transformed into a food blog. Ahh well.

I was happily mapless so wandered around alleyways, with each corner revealing a different vista, different cafes with different ambiences, different views over the Seine...marvelous.

Walked all the way winding through St Germain-des Pres to arrive at the Louvre, cycled around the Tuileries, and up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. I was pretty shattered at the end of this.

Impressions? People are so not in a rush here. So much green space (compared to Tokyo) - with people lounging on park benches, chairs, and grass, leisurely eating sandwiches, drinking coffees, reading books and sense of urgency or having to do anything...I LOVE IT.

That evening, Cyprien and I used his Passeporte Gourmand which gives him great discounts at fancy restaurants around Paris - we went to BOO in Saint Germain des Pres, and I was almost delirious with how good this food was. A scallop salad with perhaps the best bacon I've ever had in my life, mesclun greens where every leaf had its own distinct taste; Veal cutlet with camembert sauce and some sort of potato-like root vegetable...and a tarte tatin (an apple dessert) that you have to order 45 minutes before...with creme fraiche...oh my oh my.

We went to a student party that had free drinks so it made it ok...and at 4am had our bread and cheese snack...we had visited the supermarket earlier which was also euphoric, with all the different cheeses...we had Munster, Chevre (Goat), Roblochon, Roquefort, and Mimolette at home now...

Saturday slept in, went to the Louvre where a friend of his is working on the Jan Fabre exhibit so she took us through the whole exhibit and explained, what a building, the Louvre. Detail and ornateness and luxury...

We went back to Ile St Louis for some top class Berthillon ice cream, and then for our sieste, before his friend Julien came over for dinner. Salmon in a very tasty creamy sauce, roast potatoes, rosemary rice, and I prepared my favorite salad, even tastier in France, with spinach, beets, goat cheese, and mandarin oranges...Julien brought over Camembert and Cantal - my first time with Cantal and very much a new favorite.

Then to Sabotage, this really crazy cool rock DJ party where lots of different rock music and some electronic, punk, funk, everything - totally different crowd that just was out to have fun, cool venue - it was great.

Sunday...lazy start to the day and went to meet Julien (who I met in Japan in 2006) and Mathilde...we went to the Festival dans la Rue, and saw a few different dance troupes and theater groups perform...all for free scattered around the east of Paris, absolutely gorgeous artistic expression...

Followed by good conversation in a cute cafe, homemade crepes of all different varieties...all which has made me fall in love with Paris all over again.

Japan, April-May 2008... (Written 15 May 2008)

So where to begin…Japan is a roller coaster for me, but I guess that makes sense since most tourists and locals are fully aware of the apparent contradictions and ridiculous juxtapositions that exist in this island nation.

I had such longing and Japan-sick-ness the last few months while I was in Latin America, but of course as soon as I landed in Narita I started crying from not wanting to be there…will I ever learn? Apparently, I have learned a bit more this time around.

Going back to work was interesting because it was a job I vowed never to return to, and it was the first time I’d “worked” since last June. 10 months off – nothing to complain about.

The first week in Tokyo was rather hellish and I struggled to deal with the quantity of people, the homogeneity of the race, the lack of fresh tropical fruits (ha, wish I was joking), and the…order. The lack of spontaneity…all the same stuff I’m always complaining about.

Once the first trip started though, things just slipped right back into place and it just clicked. We got cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Hakone, Hiroshima, and the last of the last in Kyoto…bike rides, onsen, izakaya, it was just great. Second trip had some challenges but ultimately it all worked out.

After work finished, I spent the next two weeks mostly out of Tokyo…went up to Oga for a few days which is by far my favorite relaxation spot for me in Japan…I really really love it up there. Thank you always : )

A brief stop in Tokyo to do more “tetsuzuki” – tramites – errands – involving the Brasilian consulate (more on this soon) – before going to Shikoku with Shaina and Yazan – and maybe that’s where it truly clicked.

All my complaints about Tokyo, which I quite often mistakenly generalize as Japan, disappear in Shikoku. People don’t live off of Conbini Bentos. People aren’t rushed. Cities are green. Onsen really is important every day. Food is cheap. Farmers come sell their ugly misshapen organic vegetables, not perfectly uniform polished impossibly colored plastic-wrapped gorgeous veggies like in Tokyo. It’s quiet – you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere in Takamatsu (mind you this is the capital of Kagawa Prefecture and has 400,000 citizens) where you could have two sources of noise, different loudspeakers or stereos, competing for your attention. Bike rental 100 yen. Bowl of udon with tempura at a very typical shop (Takamatsu’s specialty is udon) – 240 yen. So I realized…if I was to be in Shikoku, or really anywhere a bit more rural than Tokyo, maybe I’d like it.

Then I went back to Tokyo to meet my sister who came through just for 4 days but essentially to say goodbye to my grandfather. We stayed in the suburbs of Tokyo and that also hugely contributed to me feeling like Tokyo isn’t the overstimulating megalopolis that is so daunting. Then I met some really spectacular people: Varun from India, Flo from France, Mattis who’s half-French half-Norwegian, Leonardo, a true Brasilian Japanese, Akira who is 100% Japanese but so damn cool I love it, Nori, a freelance architect who has chosen flexibility and quality of life over material goods (though I must say he doesn’t seem to be lacking either to be honest) – definitely the first time I’ve stayed up until 2am just talking, in Japanese, to a Japanese guy – also the first time I’ve had a conversation with Japanese people (his flatmates are super cool too) long enough and complex enough for words I don’t know in Japanese to come up and for me to thus learn Japanese – let’s not think about the fact that I’ve already forgotten most of my new vocab. Usually my conversations with Japanese people consist of them telling me wow you speak a lot of languages, wow you’re international…repeat. Maybe 15 times. And last but not least, I met Lisa, full Japanese who grew up in New York, is this crazily similar-to-me girl (in some ways, completely different in others) who I just clicked with.

On top of all this, I have also realized that the things I felt I lacked socially in Japan were very much true. I regularly hung out with a few ex-students, now aged 4 and 6, whose mother I get along terrifically with…and another teacher/student connection, I’ve now known the family for 10 years…yes, it’s true, they’re not who my social circle would consist of in D.C. or L.A., but these are real, genuine, kind, special people that understand me and accept me better than I may have ever realized, and wow, you can’t really undervalue that can you.

So…things were pretty great in Tokyo. I waited until Sunday before my flight (I’m flying on Thursday) to book my ticket – and actually debated staying longer. I don’t know if I’ve ever even thought of that in Japan. I am always trying to make the time in Japan the absolute minimum…so it’s really a new experience for me.

The professional situation…I was hoping to get some sort of Spring and Autumn contract from my old company, and so admittedly worked really hard in April. It totally paid off – I’ve been offered a position coming back to start on August 30th, working until mid-late November, coming back at the end of February to work from March, and will probably be able to negotiate a littler chunk of time off next summer. I’ll finish up the contract at the end of Autumn 2009 (mid-November) – it’s probably pretty unprofessional to write what the contract consists of on a public site, but it helps take care of my love of Europe and Latin America, makes sure I’m not here in freezing winter, and if I manage to meet the conditions until next Spring, I’ll be a “Senior Leader” – whatever that means.

Anyway, this ties in perfectly with my other project, which most people already know is Brasil. I did a lot of research and running around while in Tokyo this Spring – spent quite a few hours in lines at the Consulate and Embassy…and so far, what I’ve decided is to go ahead and apply for a CPF, which is a Tax ID number, similar to a Social Security Number in the USA. I’m still very much interested in the 5-Year Investor’s Visa, which I’ve now learned much more about: I’m required to go to Brasil, find an accountant to start my own business (a LTDA, which in the USA is a LLC), inject my funds into it, and once the Ministerio do Trabalho (Labor Ministry) approves this as a legitimate business, I must return to Japan (home country) and apply for the visa. Which actually means that I have to keep coming and going from Japan/Brasil. Which also means that my work schedule is pretty much perfect. I should have the CPF ready to go by the time I go to Brasil next in November or December, which gives me a good 6-8 weeks to set up the LTDA, then I’ll be back in Japan to apply for the visa. Now, this is of course assuming things go as planned and the Brasilian bureaucracy is notoriously famous for delays and obstacles, but I’m trying to be optimistic.

So that’s the plan – back for Autumn in Japan, winter in Brasil/Argentina with stopover in the US (it’ll be summer in Brasil/Argentina! I’m good at running away from winter : )…then Spring to Autumn in Japan with a mini Asia break I hope, then hopefully all will be set for Brasil to ficar – stay – there.

Lots of busy stuff but I’m totally thrilled about all of it.