Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Flashback VI.

November 10, 2009.

All about a Belgian sandwich. [Fire drills.]

When I came to work yesterday and turned on the laptop, it logged itself onto Skype, as usual. Here, most junior researchers (PhDs, postdocs and the likes) and even some senior academics use Skype as an unofficial internal communication system. Lunch at 12:30, who's in? Coffee in five minutes? Meet near the lift to go to Latin aerobics in 20? That sort of things. Yesterday morning, it was, "Don't come into uni this morning - there's a fire drill."

My immediate decision, probably motivated by laziness, was to hide in my office. When the fire alarm started to screech, I grabbed my coat. Painful as it was to evacuate by stairs from the eighth floor, I wasn't going to listen to that ear-blasting noise for ten minutes straight. Geluck cheered me up a little by telling me that we could go to down the fire escape instead. Of course, I should have realized that a fire escape was just like a flight of stairs, but outdoor. He was surprised by the fact that my Australian math department didn't have a fire escape. It took me some good ten seconds before the answer occurred to me: we only had one floor. [...]

The moment the very last person walked out of the building, we were told to get back inside again. The fire drill was over. Except for the lifts, which were still turned off, as either a residual effect of the fire drill, or just a bad joke. If I didn't look forward to climbing down from the eight floor, climbing up to the eighth floor was not one of my favourite things, either. [Ed: How things have changed. These days I take the stairs to work! Actually, come to think about it, that still does not make climbing stairs one of my favourite things. It just means that I take stairs to work.] These stairs were designed as if we were running out of space, which was a kinda ironic thought as our building was situated inside some sort of mini-forest with plenty of towering trees and mini hills. If you put two skinniest persons (like, J. and J.) side by side in the stairs, with their arms pressed down against their bodies, they would just fit and there would no wiggling room whatsoever. So, we all got back to our respective offices about five hours after the fire drill.

As I was sitting down at my desk, S. walked past my office. It appeared that he just got into uni then, completely bypassing the fire drill. S. is a postdoc, whose office is literally next to mine. Despite going in and out of office at least four times a day (at least three times to the coffee machine and once for lunch) I had never met S. in my first four weeks being at my new workplace, until last week, when we went out twice in one weekend. One was going to a hilarious stand-up show with a few other people*, and another was a home-dinner together with three postgraduates. 

*[Ed: Again, how things have changed. Back then, in my sixth week in Brussels, those people were "a few other people"; now one of them is a very good friend of mine, after almost two years of Maastrichting, Parising, BBQ-ing, Berlining, etc. Also, it says something about Brussels, or, more accurately, about our clique being so small and incestuous, that over less than one and a half years, in four of those "a few other people" there have been three couples, almost the maximum number of pairings considering that all said participants, as far as I know, are straight.]

Having socialized outside, we are now at the saying-hi-to-each-other stage at uni. So, S. stopped at my office, and said hi.

"You missed the fire drill!!" I cheerfully pointed out.
"Uhm, okay...When was it?"
"About five minutes ago." I estimated. "It was very exciting!"
"Did you all... go downstairs?" S. asked, in a hesitating way that should have given me a signal, but I didn't see it.
"Yeah. And, then we all went upstairs," I added. "Like I said, it was very exciting." I concluded convincingly.
"Oh, er, uhm, okay. Maybe next year?" Then he left.

For four weeks, my office-neighbor didn't know I existed. For the next 23 months, he's going to think I'm the girl who likes fire drills.

Today, out of the corner of my eye, I could see S. walk past, on the way to his office. After the split second when I was imagining what he was thinking ("Don't make eye contact. Don't say hi to the fire drill lover."), S. doubled back and said hi. ("Fire drill loving or not, she's seen me.") I was all determined and consumed in my will to erase any bad impression yesterday and to act like a normal person, that his next sentence didn't immediately register in my head. "It's a lot hotter here than outside!"

A normal person, at this point, would have realized that my room was set at around 26 degrees and the outdoor weather was hovering at seven degrees, complete with fog everywhere, so yes, it was a lot hotter in my office than it was outside. I, on the other hand, was thinking Me no like fire drills me no like fire drills and by the time I snapped out of it and understood what he said, S. has decided to continue the conversation himself. "No? Okay, then." Then he left.

I was wrong yesterday. For the next 23 months, my office-neighbor is going to think I'm the girl who likes fire drills and can't feel the weather.

Good thing it is a public holiday tomorrow. The fact that I am not coming into uni tomorrow means my image cannot possibly get worse. Five bucks say he's not stopping to say hi the day after, though.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Amsterdam I.

605. Stepping off the Thalys and into the rain. Feeling like I have yet to leave Brussels.

Almost three years ago, Amsterdam was a mini winter vacation taken between a graph theory Brazil conference and a research visit to Twente, filled with first times. First time seeing the infamous Red Square and belatedly wondering what his parents, devoted Christians, must have felt when I -- mistaking it for yet another normal G-rated touristy place -- confessed that I was very looking forward to it. First time smelling marijuana and thinking to myself that this city had a strange aroma that I couldn't put my finger on. First time sitting on the narrow flight of stairs in a dingy, cheap hotel downtown, trying to get free wireless so that I could send off yet another job application even if it was another half a year before my PhD was officially ended, almost ruining the mini winter vacation. First time wandering up and down the historic Anne Frank house, the spacious Van Gogh Museum, the long canals with white swans leisurely swimming while tourists entering colorful sex shops alongside the canals. First time watching a live sex show, discovering all sorts of interesting details in the grand total of two minutes: how white the ceiling was, how tiny the doorknob looked, etc. First time wondering to myself how I had missed out all this Amsterdam culture, and what else I had yet to know. 

606. Realizing how eerily quiet a hotel room is, when you are not sharing with other people. Apart from the solo trips to Wroclaw, Warwick, and Paris, this year it has been: London 1, New York 1, Stockholm 1, Italy 2, Berlin 2. Now, Amsterdam 0. 
Also, realizing that you prefer it when you are sharing with other people.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dentist II.

595. Pre-op. 
"Isn't it ironic, that we are eating cupcakes at the dental waiting room?"

596. Pendant op.
Dentist: OK, you should feel some numbness in your mouth now...You shouldn't be able to say sausage.
Me, instinctively: Saaasaaage. 
Me, toes curled firmly inside my grown-up boots out of fear, forefinger pointing at eyelids, which close and open quickly: Eyes...
Dentist: You want to close your eyes? 
Me, nodding head.
Dentist: OK, you can close your eyes. I'm going to do the same thing. 
Dentist: Can I explain you how I take out your tooth?
Me, still cringing out of anticipation for excruciating pain, thinking to myself, can I hit you on the head, nodding.
Dentist: There are three steps, the first is (something something something blah blah something medical blah).
Me, continuing nodding. 
Dentist: Are you ready? 
Me, nodding once, tentatively. 
Dentist: One, two, three! *showing the already taken out, bloodied tooth, hitherto hidden behind his back* 
Me, giving him an anesthetically frozen, bloodied smile. 

597. Post-op.
Still unable to speak (the second gauze firmly in place to reduce bleeding), "what are you going to do?????????" I type, then hand over the Mac to him before visiting the sink again.
When I come back, there is a second line on the TextEdit file: "Taking care of you :)"

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Flashback V.

All about a Belgian sandwich. [B-B-B Benny and the Jets!]

As most of you already know, my awesome friends got me, among other cool presents, a ticket to go to the Red Piano concert by Elton John, in Antwerp -- just an hour train away from Brussels. I've been meaning to write up this entry for a while, but put it off because of, well, insert any excuse here :) Anyway, here it is.

Thank you, guys! Miss each and everyone of you a lot.

7:15 pm, Tuesday October 13, 2009.

I'm so excited! The concert is starting in just over an hour. With help from CS, I've arrived in Antwerp (or Antwerpen -- I can never tell) safe and sound. When I left the house this morning, I've gone through the list:

1. Ticket? Check.
2. Hotel booking? Check.
3. Leave the studio/apartment unlocked so that the cleaner can come in and clean it? Check check.

Okay, #3 was just so I could tell you that I had a cleaner who came weekly on Wednesday, but I did have to make sure that the door was unlocked. To tell the truth, I was slightly disappointed when I found out that I would still need to take the rubbish downstairs myself, because it is not in her job's description, but still!


10:17 am, Wednesday October 14, 2009.

Last night was awesome!! Where should I even begin?

I arrived at my four-star hotel with plenty of time before the concert. You know a hotel room is fancy when it has a shoe shining kit

and a trouser press!

When I entered the lift to go out of the hotel, I ran into a middle-aged couple and we started talking. Upon realizing that I was heading to Elton John the Red Piano concert, the guy told me that he's gone to the Red Piano concert in Dublin, and "The man is pure genius!" I took this to be a good sign! So, on the train heading towards the Sports Palace, the concert venue, when a couple asked me if I was going to the concert, I gave a very enthusiastic yes. Then, without saying any word, the lady burst out laughing. It was hard to imagine that she was that excited about me seeing Elton John, and they didn't bother explaining to me what was so hilarious, so here were my guesses: (a) she thought that going to see an old, gay English performer in Antwerp was a stupid thing to do, or (b) she was just drunk. Judging by the way she maniacally laughed at everything else that her, seemingly also drunk, boyfriend said later on, I am going with (b).


The venue looked about the same as the Entertainment Center in Adelaide -- lots of people and lots of food and drinks stalls (although these ones had chocolate, waffles and hot dogs instead!). I was so happy that I just kept walking around and around, stepping on people's feet several times while I was at it. Really, there were just a lot of people. Then I realized that the music was playing inside so I thought, why am I outside?

Some singer was doing his warm-up act while I was blindly finding my seat, inside the by this time half-packed stadium. My seat was number J8, and the usherette led me to the J row, and told me to count from outside in to find the 8th one. I was seated next to a British lady who came with her husband. The guy was singing in Flemish, I think, as Antwerp is a Flemish-speaking area, so I started to try to find something else to do besides listening to mumble jumble. I decided that checking if I had the correct seat was a good thing, because, as I explained to the British lady, the last thing I wanted was some person coming in and telling me that I got his or her seat. The British lady told me that her seat was 7, and her husband, sitting on the other side, was 6, so I was good. 

We started telling each other about our life stories, and the warm-up act started to sing an English song. By the time I realized that it was in English, he already moved on to another song, which was a toss-up between either French or Flemish. I asked the British lady. "No, sweetie," she replied. "It's English. He's sung English songs the whole time." When I raised my eyebrows, in order to (hopefully) conceal my embarrassment, she said, "He's a Londoner," by way of explanation for his accent, with a tone that made me realize, wherever in Britain she's from, it's definitely not London.

The concert was to start around 8:30 pm, but for some reason, EJ was late and the warm-up act took longer to finish. Around 8:40 pm, the usherette who helped me out before came in to tell my British neighbor that she was very sorry but the British was sitting in the wrong seat. So, I said goodbye to the couple and smugly contemplated the irony of the situation: me worrying that I was sitting in the wrong seat while it was them that got the wrong seats all along. I wasn't being smug for long. Ten seconds later, the usherette also told me that I got the wrong seat. Of course I did. If the lady wasn't in what she thought was seat number 7, sitting next to her, I most definitely wasn't sitting in number 8, either. I got very embarrassed and quickly got out of the row to find my real seat. The concert was getting darker by now, signalling that the warm-up act was about to finish and I got slightly panic, because I wasn't sure where to begin finding my real seat. About a minute later, the British lady waved her hand and told me to sit down next to her new seat. Things are always obvious when you are told the solution: of course my real seat would be next to her real seat. It wasn't my feeling-smart day, I tell you.

I sat down as the Londoner was saying his last words, before singing the last song. He graciously thanked the audience for the time, and EJ for the chance to perform. He was doing so well, until he said, "And, remember. Eat something. Drink something. Buy something. That's my motto." Well, I still remember it alright, but I don't think it has the same effect that he intended.

EJ took the stage with Benny and the Jets, and the stage had all massive letters lit up, making out his first name. The acoustics was amazing, and I was sooo close to EJ!! Okay, not close enough that he could hear what I would say, but I could hear everything he said.


As you can see, EJ was playing on a red piano, which probably explains the concert name, and he was sitting on top of a star-shape, well-lit red platform, wearing a glittered, embroiled black coat and a red top underneath, completed with red sunglasses. Towards the end of the show, he changed the red top into a blue top, paired up with blue sunglasses, just for a change. After the first song, which was definitely better than the cover version by a drunken Katherine Hegel in 27 Dresses that K., K., J. and I went to see, EJ greeted the audience and told us to "enjoy the show, because there's plenty of thing to look at tonight."

The instruction for giving an academic talk is often as follows: Divide your talk into three parts. The first part is for the general audience: short, sweet and simple. The second part is for the general mathematicians: a little more complicated, assume that they know logs and exponentials, but nothing else. The last part is for the experts in the field: show off your muscles, go for it. This, was what came to my mind as I was listening to EJ's concert, because I felt that it was the way he constructed the concert. Three parts: for the kids, for the teenagers, and then for the grown-ups. Let me explain. (Oh, and did I tell you, the central theme of the concert was Love, which explains all the red?)

The first part: for the kids.

As EJ was going through the famous songs, like Nikita, That's why they call it the blue, etc, the decoration of the stage was continuously changing. There were gigantic blown-up flowers, with a bright L-shaped light, all in red:

From the photo, you can see how tiny EJ was, compared to all the flowers. On the right side of the photo, you can see a part of the widescreen, where he later showed lots and lots of footage and pictures. What were they? Cue the second part.

The second part: for the teenagers.

The show had somber moments, when EJ was dedicating the song Daniel to Daniel Pearl, an American journalist who was murdered in Pakistan in 2002 while on his job, and when EJ sang the song Don't let the sun go down on me, as a remembrance to Stephen Gately, a friend of EJ and a Boyzone member, who passed away in the previous week. During these songs, on the widescreen there were images of a boy lying on some sort of bed, and the boy kept getting older until mid-30s and then the boy disappeared, with lots of commotion as a backdrop for the poignantly empty bed.

 I know it was a kinda inappropriate thought -- the kid was supposed to illustrate the loss of Daniel Pearl -- but I couldn't help thinking how good his body was!

Then, it was party time.

 I could try to explain the footage, but frankly I don't have an explanation and I don't think EJ did, either. I could upload more photos demonstrate what was also on the widescreen during the second part of the concert, but I think you have a fair idea. Except, perhaps, maybe you didn't expect that EJ also put in footage of his earlier days, which I wouldn't have recognized, had it not been for my British neighbour.

The third part: for the adults.

EJ started with the song Someone saved me tonight. It was the first time I heard the song, so I wasn't very familiar with the lyrics, and watching the widescreen didn't help me understand the song, either. I was not entirely sure why the clip was chosen for the song, seeing as there was no saving in it. The guy laid down two pillows, one on the floor to rest his knees on, one in the oven to rest his head on, then turned on the gas knob and committed suicide. We know he died because his soul, half-naked in skin-tight silver pants, was seen leaving his body, adorned with white angelic wings. So maybe the idea was that he died and someone would save him in heaven?

The room (on the widescreen) turned red, so did the walls, the chair, etc. We saw a bride walk in. We could tell that she was a bride because she was wearing a see-through floor-length veil, and it was about the only thing she wore, in addition to a white belt that covered nothing across her waist.

 I know it's hard to tell from this photo, but that is a belt, not a G-string. Just trust me. Well, okay, I know this because at one point she was sitting down to watch the soul dancing around, and it was like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct all over again, but at least Sharon Stone was wearing clothes, if not the most important garment. By the way, whatever this bride did, it did not look like saving to me, but then again, I'm not a guy. Maybe guys feel saved when they dance around with wings while naked chicks pretend to be brides and watch under sheer veils.

Then, we saw him in heaven. All the dancing must have worked. Maybe he was auditioning for a heaven ticket, and she was the heaven gatekeeper. (They must have strange uniforms for guards up there.) However, if she was indeed a gatekeeper, she wasn't seen on heaven, which was illustrated by the blue clouds. There was a cottage, and he was inside, begging a talking teddy bear to let him have some honey. He was probably exhausted from the dancing.

Down on earth in the red room, we saw her getting a little too bored and too energetic - which is never a good combination. She danced around, then she sat down (that Sharon Stone-style again), and then she stood up to dance some more. The male soul couldn't care less. He's now seen roller blading. On clouds. With the teddy bear.

You can certainly understand why guys would choose a talking bear over an angel, however naked she was.

This has all become too much for the bride. She threw a red-piano miniature onto the floor, and that was the end of the red-piano.

Clearly, it has become too much for the widescreen too, because it went off for the next three songs. As fascinated as I was about the video clip, I really enjoyed the three songs that EJ sang without any visual effects on stage. The band also disappeared, leaving only EJ with his piano, doing what he does best - singing and playing piano. When the widescreen was back, there was a couple dancing around, with the girl practically, you guessed it, naked. It's a bit like, with the song Someone saved me tonight, the widescreen has passed the point of no return.

There is no way I can to do the rest of the concert justice, so I'm just going to mostly upload the photos, and let you see them for yourselves.

When singing Candle in the wind, EJ showed the footage of the epitome of sexiness:

And, I can't remember what he was singing at this stage, but it was not important, because here's the other epitome of sexiness:

Judging by the size of the drummer, whom you can see at the bottom middle of the photo, you can imagine how big the pair of legs were. By the way, the pole dancer was Pamela Anderson, in case you can't recognize her boobs. While I don't remember what the song was, I distinctively remember it going for some good five minutes.

In those five minutes, the stage has transformed a little, into this:

At one point, EJ stood up and patted on the cherries below the banana, near his star-shaped platform. He also encouraged people to come up the stage and gather around his piano while he was singing... something. It's a little hard to pay attention to what exactly he was singing, because at this point the breasts where shooting out... confetti? or strings of papers? and red balloons were floating down from the ceiling, around the whole stadium. In addition to the pair of female legs, the banana and cherries and the upright, peeled banana, there were also a lipstick, a cigarette, an upside-down ice-cream cone and a hotdog. Don't ask.

In a few minutes later, all the highly artistic decorations were gone, and the over-enthusiastic concert goers were off the stage and back to their seats, EJ was back.

He hoped that we enjoyed ourselves throughout the concert, and that he wanted to sing one last song for the night, Your song, dedicated to everyone. It was a perfect ending for the night.

Before the last song started, EJ said, "Wish you a lot of of Love. Health. Happiness. And Sex." The Londoner could learn a thing or two from EJ about choosing the last words.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


#. Waking up to the delicious smell of freshly baked bread (and the hopeful thought of being able to eat it soon!) It makes the Brussels-ly relentless rain beating down the skylight window a hundred times more bearable. 

For future flatmate's ad: Criteria #1. Being able to bake bread *and* willing to do it at one am Saturday.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Flashback I.

(In order) to consolidate two inactive Brussels blogs together...

All about a Belgian sandwich. [Never say never.]

5.58 am, Wednesday October 7, 2009.

"There would be letters, emails and phone calls, but there would never be a blog."

During my last week in Australia, things were extremely chaotic and it seemed like I was uncertain of everything. One of the things that I was certain of, was that I would never write a blog when I got to Belgium. There were many reasons, one arose recently that some of you could guess and another reason came from my personal experience: I never really cared enough to read anyone’s blog for long. Once, I went through a phase where I stayed up late looking up anything related to food. Naturally, among other things I found a lot of blogs about making, tasting, photographing, buying and critiquing food, and I chose to follow a girl’s blog about her cooking adventures for a while. About a month later, I sadly realized that reading about food at midnight invariably led to me rummaging through my fridge and consuming whatever that was remotely edible. So I stopped and that was the end of that blog (to me).

When I arrived in Brussels, there was no (accessible) internet at the place that I was, and still am, staying. It was irrelevant anyway because my laptop’s battery was absolutely flat. The multi-continental adapter that I had used in Europe, US, Brazil and Australia was, of course, broken, and this in turn means I couldn’t charge my international-roaming Australian phone either. There were a lot of things that I wanted to tell people about (none of which was particularly interesting or intriguing) but all I had as means of communication was paper and pens. I wrote down pages and pages (never, ever mistake me for a quiet girl, something CS realized ages ago and still made a judgment error of choosing me ^_-) with the intention of typing them up again in emails to people.

And that’s where I went wrong. 

Number 1: Do I really want to read pages and pages of my own thoughts again? (The answer is actually yes, but there needs to be months lapsed between the writing and the reading.)

Number 2: Do I really want to type those pages up? 

Number 3: The people bit. 

There are quite a few people that I would like to write to, and let them know how the place I had booked for my first few nights in Brussels never materialized, and that I was walking up and down the street of the supposed B&B with luggage in hand, facing two straight rows of intimidating houses with no sign or banner, and that this morning for breakfast I had a "Belgian sandwich" with a slice of cake on top of butter on top of bread, under the suggestion of my Belgian hosts. The last bit, I have to admit, was a much better welcome than the Vegemite bread that Australians offer (Sorry K. and whoever else that is a Vegemite eater). In any case, I wasn’t sure whether I could tell the same stories again and again. By the time I wrote to the fifth person, the "Belgian sandwich" would probably become a combination of jelly, custard, black forest cake, chocolate, butter, sugar and bread.

So now I have a blog. Just so that the Belgian sandwich story can reach its audience without morphing into the Frankenstein of cooking. When next week comes and there’s no more Belgian sandwich, I probably will run out of stories to tell. Until then…

Sunday, October 4. After 25+ hours of flying (not including transit time), I arrived in one piece and Geluck kindly picked me up and took me to a bakery [Ed: Le Pain Quotidien]. I had always known that he would make an excellent supervisor. Afterwards, we went to check out a place whose owner had been in correspondence with me briefly before I left. When we got to the place, the guy was standing in front of the apartment, staring at us. This was never a good sign.

His odd behavior was in sync with the house. Geluck and I went up three flights of narrow, carpeted, stairs along the dark red walls that eventually led us to a floor that would be potential new home. In the small kitchen that would make the OC-building kitchen look positively gigantic, the tap was dripping and dishes by my two future housemates were piled up in the sink. In the bedroom, to my delight the window overlooked a beautiful green garden (possibly belonged to someone else’s) but that was the about only positive thing I could say about the place. I turned on the lights. Out of eight, four were broken. A passing rate, I suppose. There were supposedly three white drawers on top of each other, but one drawer was missing. It reminded me of when A., my nephew, was missing a tooth. At this point, Geluck and I were looking at each other wordlessly. What really sealed the deal was when the owner showed me toilet. Or rather, when he explained it. 

Have you ever been to a prospective rental place where the owner felt the need to explain the toilet? 

He said, in a beautiful mixture of French and English, that "whatever comes from you can go into the toilet, but if it doesn’t come from you, it can’t go to the toilet." Guy thanked the owner and we left.

Of course, I had a B&B booking for three nights, in case my potential rental place turned out exactly the way it did. Foresight and all, even though the booking was done at two am on Saturday morning, making it late Friday Belgian time. I had written down the address, and noticed, at the time, that there was no street number. However, my reasoning was that it’s probably a short street, there’d be a big, big sign saying WE ARE WELCOMING YOU AUSSIE PEOPLE (or B&B), and I would be happily staying at an overpriced but comfortable place, sleeping my way through jetlag and homesick.

The street was short but, as Geluck pointed out even before we got there, had probably 40+ houses along the side. We jokingly agreed that he would take the odd numbers, and I would take the even. And, surely every motel/hotel would have a sign? Of course it would, but my B&B wasn’t a motel/hotel. It was a B&B, which didn’t stand for the usual Bed And Breakfast. I should have realized that B&B was short for Beds In Brussels, and the people who rented out these rooms were actually normal families who happened to have spare rooms. Guy explained all of this to me on the deserted street with two of us being the only walkers and 15+ kg of luggage on my shoulders. The joke about odd and even numbers wasn’t so funny anymore (not that, I suppose, it was very funny to start with).

Luckily, there was a couple leaving their house right opposite where we were standing, and Guy approached them to ask. No, they weren’t the B&B and no, they didn’t know where it was, either. The wife crossed the road and asked her neighbors. Chantal the neighbor, I later learnt her name, wasn’t running a B&B place either, although she did have two students staying with her at the moment. Then another couple walked by, Chantal called out, and we quickly became a big group of happy, French-speaking, people on the street. For all I knew, they were probably saying that there was this Vietnamese idiot who came from Australia with an imaginary B&B reservation. But if it was the case, no one was translating it back in English to me.

(I should get ready to go to school, it’s 6:55 am now and class starts at 8:00. I’m auditing Geluck’s class today, learning both French and his m.a. methods at the same time!)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Logic III.

#. Sex and simplicity.
Boy: Gazpacho, men are animals. I mean human being... Ass is more or less where the machinery of reproduction is located. Men look at ass. That's all.
Boy: Men like breasts because in the remote past, small breasts = no food for baby = baby dead.
*a pause*
Boy: But I don't know really why I like feet. Maybe because in the remote past there was no cars.

#. A silent office. 
Cassandra: ItalianItalianItalian. 
Me: Uhm, what was that? 
Cassandra, laughing. 
Me, staring.
Cassandra, continuing to laugh. 
Me, continuing to stare.
Cassandra: I'm sorry...
Me: ...
Cassandra, between laughs: In English, it means what little balls!
Me: And little balls are... bad? 
Cassandra, unable to stop laughing. 
Me: ...
Cassandra: Sorry I don't see you so it feels like I'm alone sometimes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


493. The Super Sized Group Lunch.

  ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------    ------------------
 | [Browser] [Postdoc] [Baby #1] [Princess Peach] [Rainbow] [Mario] ||  [Ambrosio]  |
 |                                                                                                   ||                    |
 | [Damien]    [Daisy]  [Baby #2]      [Rosalina]          [Me]      [Anna] ||      [FL]        | 
  ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------    ------------------

"Do you think we can get a group discount?" 
"Which class do we come from?" 
"Are those two guys eating with us, or they are just following? I mean, do we know them?" -- referring to Baby #1 and Baby #2, one new and one potentially new PhD students. 
"That's his punishment, for being an ass."
"I'm still not finished with the book yet, so don't tell me anything." 
"Where are you up to?" 
"Just after the part about the girl." 
"Which girl?"
*a pause* 

494. Late afternoon. As I am returning to my office, one door down the corridor Giraffe is unlocking his. Hearing foot steps, Giraffe looks up. 
"Are you dunamberassingmargin?"  he wants to know.
"Mmm?" I am equally articulate. 
Having gotten his PhD in the States, Giraffe speaks English fluently. Nevertheless, I do not have a clue what he has just said. Am I done what?
"Are you done embarrassing margin?"
As the repeated words untangle themselves, an image flashes back: Rainbow, Zoe and myself, gathering in FL's office, making fun of him for acting all precious about being invited to a girls-only drinks.
"Never," comes a loud answer from Rainbow's office.
Giraffe smiles.

Maybe we should invite him to our next girls-only drinks. 

495. "Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, "I know you, Al. You are not the kind of man who."" -- Richard Russo, Straight Man

Chào, early evening. Having successfully corrupted Zoe by convincing her to skip swimming, I am now studying the restaurant menu, trying to make up my mind between the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup and the spicy Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It might look like I just wrote the same thing twice except that one is with and one is without chili, but the two dishes are really not the same. Had I written them in Vietnamese, pho and bun bo, you would have immediately seen that they are totally different. Yet, they are equally delicious, which makes my decision process extremely difficult. 

As I am going back and forth in my mind (I'll go for pho! No, bun bo! Wait, pho! No, I'll choose bun bo!), Zoe scans through her copy of the restaurant menu. "So what are you going to eat, now that you can't eat meat?" 

Monday, September 12, 2011


491. Or lack of.
6ish pm. 
Me: The weather is beautiful. I am going to run!

6:50 pm.
Dark clouds are gathering outside the living room window. 
Me: Do you think it's going to rain? 
Gaston: Maybe...
Me: I'm running anyway! 

7.10 pm.
Gaston: What happened? 
Gaston: Did you even make it to the park?
Me: It started to rain...
Gaston: So? 
Me: So I'm a princess and I don't want to get wet...
Gaston: You are going to be wet anyway. At least the rain is cleaner than your perspiration...
Me: I can't. Plus, look, I've already sent a text message to say that it rains and I'm not going to run, so Audi can come over an hour earlier. 
Gaston: Now you are just making up excuses. 
Me, starting to eat cereals straight out of the box: It's true! 
Gaston: So you are going to eat instead, you lazy you.
Me: It's late. And I'm hungry. Oh look, the sun is out...
Gaston: GO RUN! 
Me, getting sophisticated and using a spoon to scoop out cereals instead: Even if he's coming at the original time, there is not enough time. I need an hour to run four laps...
Gaston, looking at the clock, looking at me, looking at the clock, then looking at me: You have an hour... 
Me, finishing the cereals box: Nooo...

7.20 pm.
Gaston, grinning: Have fun running! 
Me, giving him the death stare, before tying the keys onto my shoe laces.

7.50 pm. 
The early evening sun is still shining.
Me, praying that he's left for theatre. 
Gaston, right on cue, opening the building door just as I arrive home.
*stunned silence from both sides* 
Gaston: What happened??

492. Without exaggeration, the seventh zucchini meal within one week, which manages to be different from the previous six and delicious all the same.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


487. Living room. We have just finished the main meal; now, endlessly, I stride back and forth, putting the pair of scissors away, filling up the half-empty pink Brita, rinsing water glasses, adjusting whatever else in the living room that is seemingly out of harmony. 

"I feel old," I whine, "cleaning up like this." "It's a good thing... cleaning up... no?" Pierre hesitates, as if he wants to be on my side, to agree with whatever I am whining about at the moment, but at the same time he has difficulty with seeing evil in something as innocent as cleaning up. "Yes, I know, and I used to worry that I wouldn't be able to voluntarily do this, and then I figured that I would eventually be able to. But I thought that would be when I'm old, not like now." Pierre seems to ponder on this confession, silently. It is very likely that he is trying to figure out what is more psychotic, me cleaning up obsessively like an old lady, or me worrying about feeling like an old lady when cleaning up obsessively like an old lady. 

What his final conclusion is we will never know, because I do not ask. Instead, I ask if he wants some ice-cream. "We have three flavors," I am excited. "Vanilla, chocolate, and banana." Either greedy or simply indecisive, Pierre says that he will have all three, which I find to be an excellent idea, so I too have all three flavors. "Oh oh, we should put M&Ms in as well!" I exclaim, contributing my own and equally excellent idea. As Pierre reaches for the M&M bag (Gisele's remaining cinema snack from over two weeks ago), another thought comes to my mind. "And, we can also have our ice-cream with chocolate-covered coffee beans," I am practically singing out of delight, "and these!" Looking at the jar of Vermicelles arc-en-ciel in my hand, Pierre mutters, "Yeah, you are old..."

488. "I have been reflecting a little," is one of Gaston's top five favorite sentences. Half of the times, I would make fun of him for saying it. It just sounds so French. In Sora one evening, Zoe, Mario and I even had a semi-lengthy discussion with Gaston about which hypothetical situations he would use the verb think, and which the verb reflect. "About vacations for next year?" Zoe asked. "No, that would be thinking," Gaston replied, reserving his reflection for more serious things. At the time, I wanted to remind him that he once "reflected a little about why our dish washer did not work properly," but Mario beat me to it and gave yet another example that did not warrant Gaston's reflection.

Today, however, I find a moment that warrants my reflection. On what has happened in the last ten years, to me, since the day New Yorkers tragically saw their world in flames. I have read and listened to numerous personal recounts on their September 11, and how it has affected them. Even for non-New Yorkers, the catastrophic event has led many to a completely different and hitherto unimaginable direction. While I was and am feeling sorry for the immeasurable losses, it is hard to say how September 11 has directly affected the course of my life. (Unless you consider the fact that September 11 has abruptly changed someone's life, who then briefly met me and abruptly changed mine, the butterfly effect, but that is stretching it a little. Mine probably would have been changed by some other event or person, anyway. I digress.) 

Sitting in front of the tiny laptop that night, I was doing what a geeky fifteen-year-old chess player would: playing chess on an online server, which happened to be located in America. All of the sudden, everyone seemed to be screaming, line after line after line of orange texts streaming down on the black terminal screen. It was hard to believe what I was reading. As I turned on the TV in the living room of my Australian family, an airplane was crashing, live, onto the second tower. I remember feeling shell-shocked, automatically reaching for the remote control to mute the sound, because otherwise the confused and panicked voices of broadcasters -- who were clearly speaking without a script -- would wake my homestay parents up. It was a household rule: no loud TV after their bedtime. It did not occur to me at the time that my homestay parents might have wanted to know, that as they were sleeping safe and sound, people on the other side of the world have just lost all sense of security. For the next twenty minutes, I sat in the dark living room and watched the silent horror unfolding again and again in front of my eyes, and then went to bed, unable to connect what has just happened in New York and what was going on with my own life. There is very little I remember about the next day (my homestay parents telling me about the news, me telling them that I already knew), or the weeks after, only that there were talks about the possibility of a Third World War, my parents wondering about available flights for me to return to Vietnam, me wondering what it would be like, being in a Third World War away from home, or being in a Third World War at all. 

Thankfully, for my parents, for myself, and for everyone else, a Third World War did not eventuate. I was quickly preoccupied with my little world again, worrying about whatever that a teenager would worry about. My physics assignment! What would I write about? (Princess Diana, and how she would have stayed alive had she worn a seat belt.) My sixteenth birthday, the first birthday away from home. Who would I celebrate it with? Who would even know? (If I could travel back in time, I would tell my anxious fifteen-year-old that on the birthday itself, I would instead worry about how to fit in all the celebrations, because the cute boy with slender fingers and shoulder-length dark hair would invite me to have cake and coffee in a chic Italian café in the city centre, my friends would have lunch with me, and my homestay parents would surprise me by taking me to my first Vietnamese restaurant, which would become my favorite for all of the Adelaidean years, and then a homemade birthday cake. But the fifteen-year-old me would probably just laugh at me.) The Sydney boy that I have been talking to, does he like me? Like like, not just like as a friend? (Yes, it was obvious, and he would be your first boyfriend, but not your first serious boyfriend. That would be the cute boy with slender fingers and shoulder-length dark hair, the vegetarian who showed you how to make the best instant noodles ever, who in a state library gave you a book on sex education and who taught you to distinguish between personal attacks and constructive criticism.)

None of these lessons I have properly mastered, but at least I am much better at them than I would have been otherwise, had I not met that cute boy, whose fingers are still slender but whose dark hair is no longer shoulder-length. So many other things have changed since, and if I had told my fifteen-year-old self, that ten years later I would be living in Europe, almost finishing my second year of postdoc in mathematics, during which period I played in the Chess Olympiad for the second time and my personal life changed upside down, my fifteen-year-old self would probably freak out, in equal parts of happiness and disappointment. (You are in Europe? You are a what? A mathematician? What on earth?) But then, I would tell my wide-eyed fifteen-year-old that it is what it is, and then I would wait. To see whether the thirty-five-year-old me would be time-traveling back to give me a sneak peek to what would happen in the next decade.
But that is probably just wishful thinking, not reflection.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


484. Finally posting Zoe's account of her 30th birthday: How to Celebrate The Crossing To The Dark Side.

Friday, September 9, 2011


483. You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving. -- Anatole France

How to spend a Friday evening. Part 2. 

Stop making excuses like (a) you are feeling really grumpy at the moment, thanks to an unsolicited reminder from Facebook of what happened this day in 2009, (b) you do not have rice paper, the single most important ingredient, (c) your friends most likely have never tasted nuoc cham, the traditional accompanying sauce for Vietnamese cold rolls -- it will be too strong for them, (d) your cooking is, well, there was the "unconventional" first version of your cornbread, (e) etc. Just shop for whatever it takes and make the cold rolls. You can learn to make cold rolls only by making cold rolls. In any case, you have made them before, in your early teenage years, still living at home, protected by familial love and home-cooking. Your cold rolls will turn out OK. Even if they don't, your friends will be polite enough to smile and eat the rolls anyway. Make spring rolls too, because some of your friends prefer deep-fried entrées over cold ones. Even if you can't test the final (non-pescetarian) products, your friends will; hopefully, their politeness is boundless. 

Most likely, it will be, because they know what it is like to make the efforts to cook for someone else. Rosalina and Professor E. Gadd will shop for the French counterparts of the Italian ingredients for their delicious red wine and red chicory risotto, walk an hour to your apartment, painstakingly prepare the main meal on a proper pot borrowed from Catherine and delivered by Princess Peach, and then create both Parmersan and Camembert versions to suit everyone. Princess Peach will mix, from home, a second batch of yummy zucchini dough within twenty four hours, then bake it in your oven; the bread itself an equal success, the overall taste enhanced by creamy vanilla ice-cream, the proverbial cherry on the cake.

Somehow, between leisurely enjoying your friends' food (and, surprisingly, even your own), learning how to write the seven deadly sins in five different languages and listening to self-confessions for most and least applicable sins (the former being Sloth for all of your friends, the very same ones who have just spent all this time cooking), your grumpiness will slowly seep away, unnoticed. You will, however, feel slightly embarrassed when your flatmate, who -- after being conveniently busy when found out that you were cooking -- comes home just in time for dessert, and then promptly says out loud, without the slightest hesitation, what (he thinks) your most applicable sin is, which is not your proposed Gluttony and obviously not Sloth. Realizing the implication of your flatmate's assessment, everyone will laugh, Catherine commenting on how you should talk less to your male flatmate and more to your female friends. 

Then, you will feel really embarrassed, because when it is your turn to point out the most applicable sin of your flatmate, you say Sloth, and then, without thinking, adding that you choose it not because Yoshi is lazy, but because nothing else fits. Everyone will go, awwww, at the expense of your red face, but thankfully, they will quickly move on to other topics. Like, whether or not it is a good thing to have your child born on your own birthday (yes, from the guests, and no, from the hosts), Princess Peach teasing the hosts for having not yet developed parental feelings, Yoshi self-defending by pointing out that he is not thirty, not knowing that every single guest turns thirty at one point this year. Like, how to Mohawk and dye hair for hamsters, Professor E. Gadd, a thirty-year-old-to-be, humanly whacking an imaginary hamster onto the edge of the dining table. 

By the time the late-night monopoly game is over and the hamster killer, having almost bankrupted the bank, is crowned billionaire, you will have completely forgotten about your Facebook status on this day in 2009, just like you have long forgotten about all the subsequent online congratulations, back in the days when you knew how to love someone unconditionally. Tell your visibly exhausted flatmate, who is pushing the dining table back against the fake fireplace, that he can go to sleep if he wants to. Being a boy, Yoshi will immediately take your offer and say goodnight. As the clock strikes two, you start the dish washer and wash up pots and plates that did not fit in. Of course they can wait until tomorrow, but it would be nicer if your flatmate does not wake up to a messy kitchen. Silently thank God (or, more realistically, your parents) that you still remember how to make cold rolls. Maybe you will also remember how to love someone unconditionally, when the time comes.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


478. More pick-up lines. Mid-afternoon.
Boy: r u there?
Me: I am now. 
Me: What's up? 
Boy: good... but I forgot why I buzzed ... how r u? 
Me: I'm ok
Boy: just ok? 
Me: yeah
Boy: Why r u so boring? 
Boy: Is it me or is it you or us?
Me, wondering to myself when it has become an us: Why are you not working??
Boy: I am working on u.
Me: :) 
Boy: It's hard research, u know.
Me: Only when it's not done correctly.
Boy: bad data = misleading results 
Me, quietly walking away from laptop.

479. Bringing back the Coke-n-Coffee break, thanks to our new regular participant, Mario, all the way from the third floor. This afternoon, Team Coffee include Mario and myself, Team Coke (Light) have their lifetime member and Rosalina. In an spectacular show of solidarity, Princess Peach gets the Coke for Rosalina, who prepares the coffee for Mario, who makes mine, and this is where the line of Pay It Forward ends because while all these actions are happening, I happily sit on my ass and do nothing. Once they return with the drinks, to further solidarity we decide to plan weeks ahead for Fortis Film Days by looking up movie trailers on YouTube. When the super duber uber hot Ryan Gosling appears on the Drive clip, I ask if Princess Peach could close my office door because it is hard to listen to Ryan Gosling's sexy voice when people discuss work in neighbouring offices we might disturb our hard-working colleagues. As Princess Peach sits back down in her chair, I enthusiastically and repeatedly tap F12 on my Macbook Pro. "Don't exaggerate, eh," Mario interrupts Ryan Gosling's progressively booming voice. "Our ears still work..." Leaning over, Princess Peach stage-whispers, "Hers don't..." 

480. 8ish pm. Skype. How to get me exercise at a moment's notice.
Zoe: gogogo

The emailed sneak peek did no justice for the warm, cinnamony, and Totally Uphill-Biking Worthy zucchini bread. Accompanied homemade hearty pumpkin soup not photographed.