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Dear Vancouver

It was love at first sight, really it was. I have scoured this continent for the better part of the last 15 years and have not yet found a city that romances me as much as you do. Sure, you showed up to our first date in your finest clothes, all that glorious sunshine and clear blue skies. I know there is a cloudier, wetter side of you. But really. Really, you are just so fine, I imagine I can handle your off days.
I like that you are so worldly and well-traveled. It’s a turn-on, yes. At every street corner I hear a symphony of Italian, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, French and German, feeding me authentic food from all over the world.
Is it true that I can have city and mountains and beach all together in one love affair? Is it true that you will take excellent care of me in sickness and in health?
Vancouver, you sound like a keeper.

So, let’s discuss this rain thing.


1. Every male on Vancouver Island, and quite possibly all of Canada itself, is named either Dave or Joel. Mostly Dave. This can be confusing in large groups, but makes meeting new people much easier.

2. In summer, British Columbia is perhaps one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Figure A:British ColumbiaThe people who live here? Even better.

3. There is such a thing as magicians and they are German. If, say, you are broken, the Germans will fix you. I believe they call this German engineering.

4. Being a foreigner living in Korea has its perks even when you are not actually in Korea, as evidenced by all the free, specially-prepared sushi presented to me by Nanaimo’s best Korean sushi chef, Sam at Tomo Sushi.
Sam's SushiKamsa hamnida, Sam. Mashisoyo!

5. Seeing unpredictably good live music in downtown Vancouver will reawaken every lost rock star fantasy in one’s head and remind one of how good it feels to make music with others.

6. I suck at Asshole.

7. The best F & C you will ever eat by the effin’ sea are served on Nanaimo’s waterfront from a small houseboat. It’s true, see?

8. There are reasons people go surfing and it’s not so they can overuse the word “dude”.
It all comes down to a few simple, focused hours with the waves. Just you and the cerulean water, in perfect harmony, just like every single day of your childhood summers.

If you ride the Victoria Clipper from Seattle to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, this is what you will find waiting on the other side of Puget Sound:
ferry diptych.jpg

Snow-capped mountains that reflect into the deepest blue water you’ve ever seen.

The tallest of pines that stand vertically at attention along every strip of landscape.

Picking fresh raspberries and eating them right there in the middle of the forest, while patiently begging the blackberries to please, please! ripen before you leave.

Running beneath the lush Pacific canopy along a steep wooded trail to the ocean, where you will skip rocks (poorly) and watch the ferries (pensively) and collect shells (successfully).

Canoeing on a quiet lake with six friends and two dogs to find a small knoll on which you will eat smokies, nap in the sun, swim all afternoon, laugh until your side splits open and later, capsize and swim the boat to shore. You will be thankful your camera stayed in the car.

Grilling steaks and fresh vegetables on a farm while the sun creeps down below the tree line and the green green grass makes all your freshly freckled faces glow.

Strumming guitars and weaving through the melodies of old songs and new songs, wondering how you’ve possibly managed a year and a half without this. Your fingers will hurt and you will like it.

Watching French movies and Irish movies and Korean movies; listening to Canadian music and American music and English music; eating Vietnamese sandwiches and Japanese sushi and Korean noodles and not one Canadian sweet to speak of!

A sun that doesn’t set until 10pm and wakes you eagerly each morning, giving you so many more hours to read books and eat mangoes and watch sea planes and hunt for purple starfish and play guitars and write in your diary and pick flowers in the garden and swim in the river and stare at the mountains and bake raspberry crisp and talk with Korean accents and drink chocolate porters with stilton and grapes. That many more hours to feel the sun shining. Which it finally, thankfully is.

At least that’s what I’ve found on the other side of Puget Sound.


The middle two weeks of June were spent in the Very Middle of America, hidden away in a cul-de-sac at the end of a tree-lined street in suburban St Louis. It is here that I claim one pregnant sister, one brother-in-law and one 2-year-old niece, who share a two bedroom ranch home with a two-car garage, two dogs, one in-ground pool, one aircraft carrier-sized gas grill and too many television sets. I suppose if one is going to throw oneself back into the saddle of American living and culture shock oneself to death, this would be the way to do it. I am now intimately familiar with exactly what it takes to become a Top Chef, not to mention what Bobby Flay can and cannot Throw Down. Whether by choice or by osmosis, I now know these things.

The culture shock began, in fact, just over a month ago at Tokyo’s Narita Airport when boarding my flight to Dallas. Quite abruptly, everything was much louder, much bigger and much messier than I have become accustomed to. And by everything, I mean everyone. My flight from Seoul to Tokyo on Japan Airlines was a quiet, relaxing affair rivaling any luxury spa experience. Well-fed, well looked after, and quite comfortable. In contrast, my flight to Texas on American Airlines was undernourished, underpleasant and not particularly warm. Both literally and figuratively

Of my near anxiety attacks since returning to the United States of America, all have taken place in shopping malls or large, brightly-lit retail environments. Barton Creek Mall, why do you give me seizures? Lowe’s, why are you SO BIG? Even Austin’s Whole Foods, a place that had danced like sugar plums in my head from Seoul, overwhelmed me to the point of exhaustion. There are so many options, how can anyone possibly make a decision? And everywhere you go, the people, the American people, they talk incessantly. In English. So. Loud. I mean, Korea is not a nation of mutes; there is talking. But it doesn’t hurt my brain to listen to it. As a result, I have become well-acquainted with America’s finest public restrooms, in which I’ve taken leave on more than one occasion to hide in a stall and take my pulse. Am I already dead or having a coronary? Jury is still out.

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As for customs and interactions with strangers, I am a walking disaster. And I mean that quite literally. In Korea, as in Japan, we walk on the left when it comes to foot traffic. As soon as this became second nature and I stopped walking into Korean people, I knew this would present a problem upon my return. Worst is that I am so utterly perplexed as to which side is correct at any given moment, I keep glaring at the twenty people in my path as if they are confused mental patients. So to everyone in Texas, Mexico, Missouri and Kansas into whom I’ve walked: I am sorry.

By far the biggest shock to my system is the food, portion sizes in particular. No wonder ‘Mericans are fatter by the day. The wedge salad I ordered my first night home was an entire head of romaine lettuce. I barely ate half. My stomach and even my palette has unknowingly adjusted in the last 16 months to the degree that most western meals now taste too heavy and too rich, leaving me in desperate need of a nap. Case in point:


And what is with wearing shoes indoors? This was one of the slowest things for me to adapt to in Korea and yet has taken over every physical impulse upon return. Shoes on carpet? Are you kidding me?

Yet, much like our ears popping on an airplane or the body’s ability to cool itself in hot climates, I’ve re-acclimated rather quickly. Somehow, unnoticeably, interstate highways stopped looking so vast and huge, white people stopped looking so foreign and I no longer acquired hives when driving past a Steak‘n Shake. It has helped that I’ve magically landed in the parts of town populated by Korean immigrants, my St. Louis enclave holding no less than two Korean markets, two Korean restaurants and two Korean Presbyterian churches. Even in Mexico City, we found ourselves in the Asian section of the city, hearing Korean mixed into the Spanish while walking the streets of our neighborhood.

And St. Louis is not all strip malls and chain restaurants either. Something I learned many years ago is that it is in fact a surprisingly charming and interesting little middle American city, with stunning turn-of-the-century architecture and other leftovers from the 1904 World’s Fair. City museums and the zoo are free to the public, and it is home to beautiful parks, notable art and antiques dealers, a formidable baseball team, an outstanding microbrewery that far outshines the local behemoth that is Anheuser-Busch, and most importantly, the infamous Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard. So this is what we did: we sat in parks, walked through beautiful neighborhoods in old St. Louis, drank Schlafly ales and hefeweizens, went to a Cardinals game and ate a lot of ice cream. All in the welcome company of a sister with whom I have nothing and everything in common and her outstanding and hilarious young offspring.

st louis clock-1.jpg

I wrapped up my visit with a trip across Missouri aboard an Amtrak train to see my friend Hannah and her brood. Before I arrived, Hannah asked if there was anything I really wanted to see in Kansas City, to which I drew a blank. “I want to see your favorite places,” was all I could come up with. Because here’s the thing with traveling to new places. You can visit all the historical sites and famous restaurants and legendary landmarks and Duck Tours and Eiffle Towers and St. Louis Arches in the world, but you will never learn as much about a place as you will from a well-loved coffeeshop or a favorite breakfast place or a perfect front porch.

So this is what Hannah showed me of Kansas City: a perfect summer weekend. Cooking together in a red kitchen, long dinners around a big table, rocking chairs on a front porch while fireflies danced around the yard, freshly bathed pajama-clad children bursting with hugs and kisses and goodnights at the tops of their little lungs, talking into the night over wine and cheese, laying in the grass at the Nelson, drooling over stationery at Hammerpress and shoes at Habitat, wandering through the Farmer’s Market after Sunday brunch at Succotash and a crazy-amazing family who showered me with love and sugar and laughter and their huge, giant hearts.

collette & arlo-3.jpg

Now that the initial shocks of returning begin to subside and fade, summer officially begins. As much as this journey will bring me to new places, it was never intended to be that kind of trip. This summer was meant for re-connecting the dots between my family, my friends and my heart. After some unexpected twisting and turning, the dots are finally, slowly re-connecting. And I have the Very Middle of America to thank for that.

The second stop on the 2008 North American Tour: Wheels on Fire found me heading south for my first real trip to Mexico to attend the wedding of my good friend, Marshall. I learned something interesting about traveling to Mexico. When you say “I’m going to Mexico for a week”, everyone–and I really mean everyone–thinks you are going to the beach. Jimmy Buffett, white sandy shoreline, straw hats, Margaritaville, warm water and ass-bronzing, drinking cocktails out of pineapples and wet t-shirt contests.

I am happy to report that my Mexico included absolutely no Jimmy Buffett, everyone’s chests remained dry and all drinks were served in glasses. My Mexico was rich with vibrant color, misty mountains, creeping bougainvillea, tremendous mariachi, homemade tequila, outstanding colonial haciendas, and so many good friends and familiar faces.

The trip began in Mexico City, where Janelle had booked us a courtyard room at the (mostly) quiet and cozy Casa Gonzalez guest house, in the beautiful Zona Rosa section of the city. I was instantly hurtled face first into a language labyrinth, replying to virtually everyone in Korean. This met more than a zillion blank faces. French being my second language, Spanish being my third (y solomente un poquito) and Korean being my everyday, my mind quickly defaulted into a tossed salad of oui’s, siempre’s and annyong’s. English? Who speaks that? Thankfully, it only took a day of marinating to retrieve my Spanish and stop telling people “I’m sorry” in Korean.

Truth be told, I was mildly terrified of Mexico City. I mean, people get kidnapped there, right? Hey, I’ve seen movies. I’ve seen Three Amigos. In my defense, I live in the plastic bubble of Asia, where, as I recently heard David Sedaris describe it, the level of danger is at a negative. Where one could leave a bundle of money on a subway seat and someone else will turn it in. This may not be entirely true (no, really it is), but let’s be honest, people. My adopted country does not have a State Department Travel Warning issued against it.

Needless to say, my reservations were unwarranted (I blame Lonely Planet), and with only a few pesos missing from my change and one uncomfortable encounter with leering taxi drivers, I was greeted with wide smiles and generous Buenos Tardes and Mucho Gusto’s. In fact, after two weeks suffocating from culture shock in Texas, it was a welcome relief to return to the land of the strange, language barriers, street vendors, gracious customer service and a place steeping in culture and history. That is a place in my heart that makes all the sense in the world to me. We ate mole verde and chile rellenos with Pacificos, walked tree-lined streets through colonial neighborhoods, found fresh calabaza y queso tamales for breakfast, visited the lavish El Zócalo district and even rode the city bus. Twice. You don’t scare me, Mexico.

Barely having absorbed the flurry of busy streets, it was time to head north to San Miguel de Allende, located 274km north of Mexico City in the mountainous central state of Guanajuato. The 4-hour bus ride on ETN was one to rival all the Excellent Buses in Korea. Winding through the mountains with Murakami in my lap and late-day sun blasting through a pack of billowing clouds, I finally saw the colors that Marshall has painted these last few years, almost like stepping into someone else’s eyes. Fertile farmland rolling out from the edge of the sky beneath the tower of desert mountains.
sunday afternoon meeting
San Miguel is a beautiful colonial city nestled into the side of the Bajio mountains, spilling over with ex-pats, artists, open air markets and delicious food. But for me, San Miguel was about the company of amazing friends and the celebration that brought me there. Yeah, I know. That hurt my teeth to write, but it’s the truth. It was a week of simple meals and long conversations, family gatherings at Casa Beneficencia and poolside afternoons with cerveza, rooftop nights drinking wine and late loud cantina nights playing music, reuniting and re-connecting the dots of the last five years of living too far away from each other. Who needs sights to see when you’ve got that?
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And the wedding? I’ll say this much: we don’t know shit about weddings. This was by far the most festive one I’ve ever been to, from the honking of the horns at Yadira’s arrival to the all-night dancing and drinking. At midnight, after a long, languid dinner and hours of dancing, when any other wedding would be coming to an end, a mariachi appeared from the darkness of the ranch road followed by two giant mojigangas to begin round two of the celebration. For over an hour they blasted their horns, while family and friends danced and sang along to traditional Mexican folk tunes, older couples beckoning one other with “mi corazón” and “mi amor”. The mariachi was followed by more dancing, more coffee and the 1:30am taco stand. We, the 30-something set, dissolved into an exhausted audience at our tables, watching the 50-plus set dance into the early morning.

By Monday morning, I was ready to say Annyonghi-kaseyo to Korea forever and find myself a little casita to call home. Instead, I returned to the bus station, where my abandoned Murakami had been rescued and kept for me, and made my way back to Mexico City to catch my plane to Dallas. Watching the landscape roll past me, it occurred to me more than once to keep rolling. To go deeper south of the border, further west of the sun.


The first week of my Summer Vacances Officielles found me in my former riverside house in Austin, Texas. It is my first time back in just over two years and it is safe to say that the old adage is dead-on: the more things change, the more they stay 100% absolutely the same.

Except me. I am most certainly 100% absolutely not the same person that left here in 2006. And I guess not entirely true of Austin either, as there are approximately — and this is just a rough estimate — 100,000 new or almost-finished skyscrapers downtown that did not populate the skyline when I left.

But most things are exactly the same. It’s still hot as balls and the warm night air still feels dreamy. There are dogs and tattoos and endless amounts of beer and motorcycles and “all y’alls” everywhere. Friends who hated their jobs two years ago are still there, still hating their jobs. And the hot guy who works at Jo’s coffeeshop and calls me darlin’, the guy on whom I harbored a crush for nearly three years? Yeah, he still works there. Not so hot now, eh?

Since I am not exactly the same as when I was left, it has been a decidedly different experience in Austin this week. After months of yabbering away about all the places I couldn’t wait to visit again and all the food I couldn’t wait to eat, I was surprised by my complete lack of desire to do or eat any of them. Sure, I still feel the gravitational pull of Jo’s every morning and damn do i love me some shady Town Lake trail running. But I still haven’t eaten barbeque, was unimpressed with the chips and queso at Magnolia, and the pizza at Home Slice was merely so-so. Everything I was looking forward to about returning to Texas fell flat.

So instead of a tour of familiar haunts and long-awaited tastes, I opted for doing the things I never did when I lived here. I spent long afternoons reading under the oak trees at Barton Springs and soaking in the cool lithium water, something I did maybe five times in the three years I lived here. I walked for miles and miles through areas I’d never even driven through, exploring new neighborhoods through a new camera lens. And holding firm to the pedestrian lifestyle I keep in Korea, this week I explored Austin by foot and by bus.

Hey Toto, we’re not in Korea anymore.

While Seoul’s transit system is fast, efficient, clean and the primary source of transportation for the majority of the city’s 12 million residents, riding the bus in Austin is a date with the city’s junkies, alkies, downtrodden and the occasional carbon-conscious hippie. I have seen more dried blood on clothing this week than I care to count. I will take soju-soaked ajashis any day over the stench of urine-soaked vagrants. Capitol Metro also apparently runs in its very own time zone, as I waited no less than 20 minutes at every bus stop I used. But it’s not all bad. The fare is $1.00 for a 24-hour period and though it may (will) take you all day to go as far as a 10 minute drive, you can get to virtually anywhere in the city.

The best thing by far this time around has been the kindnesses of strangers and old friends. I have been graced with the warmest of welcomes anyone could hope for, many from people I’ve hardly spoken to in two years, some who I’ve only just met. I’ve been taken in with open arms and given all the sushi, tear-wiping, car-lending, and travel assistance I needed and more. The unflinching generosity and space-clearing I’ve received has been humbling indeed. After all those ways that Austin never quite delivered what I’d hoped for when I moved here, it has become a part of me and will always give me just what I need exactly when I need it.

Now. Get me the eff to Mexico. Inmediatamente!