Saigon

restaurant Secret GardenFinally, for the time being, we stop moving from one place to another, our suitcases are temporarily undone, the clothes hang in the cupboard and folded on the shelves. We found first favorite places to eat and to have a sunset cocktail and the place which bakes good French baguettes.

Now I can sit down, collect my notes and try to describe my first impressions of Saigon. So, here I go.

In Saigon, the contrast is very present. You see opposite things everywhere. Expensive restaurants and street vendors, squatted next to their stalls, communist billboards and Buddhist temples, neat gardens and narrowest dirty alleys, old and new, traditional and modern, Еast and West. Elegant young people, dressed for business and seasoned elderly Vietnamese in traditional conical hats, pushing their carts along the streets. On one bank of the Saigon River meandering through the entire city – constructions of super luxe apartment blocks, on the opposite side – overgrown ramshackle huts with rusty corrugated iron roofs. The river – wide, muddy, ochre-colored, navigable, with watercourses and canals sometimes as narrow and sleepy as countryside creek. All day the river is busy with slowly moving Mekong barges and floating islands of water plants.

On the streets, there is a thick mass of motorbikes and scooters mixed with taxis, bicycles, dusty buses and cars with tinted windows. Everything moves and honks, but rather gentle, without the hatred. It’s a constant dance, a crazy one, but it looks like it follows its own unwritten rules. Motorbikes come so close to cars, that when I am inside of one, I can see imperfections on the riders’ faces and my reflection in riders’ pupils.

Vietnamese are very resourceful. They carry all sorts of things on the back of their bicycles and motorbikes: piled up live pigs, cages with birds, boxes, metal rails, attached or held by hands, passengers hugging mirrors and ladders, baskets with flowers and huge pots with entire trees. From last observations: 1) A family of four – the father is driving, the mother is breastfeeding, one child in front, one child behind, and the smallest baby is dangling in a bucket. 2) A full-size fridge on a passenger seat attached by stripes to the driver’s forehead. 3) A door kept upright only by hands of the passenger.

The daytime heat is strong, but life is bubbling. It only slows down after lunch for a Vietnamese siesta. Locals have this amazing quality to fall asleep almost exactly where they stand, often stretching out on the bare asphalt or bare floor. Full relaxation. Everywhere, where is possible to fasten them, – stretched hammocks bearing locals resting with their soles up in the air.

Vietnamese people are friendly and serious at the same time. They look at you intensely and when you smile at them and they smile back (most of the time), their faces lit up and change dramatically.

The inability to speak the language is the real handicap here. I feel helpless because I cannot explain myself or ask the simplest question. And I won’t even mention, how the prices of fruits and vegetables at the markets double for us, non-speakers. I cannot read signs and street names. All the letters are familiar, but it is not possible to understand anything. All words look alike but sound different. I am trying hard to remember them, but they just don’t stick. And even when they do stick and I produce them in front of Vietnamese, they just softly chuckle. The tonal differences are so subtle, that my ear refuse to conceive and remember them.

I love this dynamic life of a big tropical city, but for now, to make the transition smoother, we installed ourselves in District 2, in Thảo Điền, sort of a nice suburb, a paradise for expatriates. It has everything that expat may need in his or her daily life: restaurants with Western and fusion cuisine, spas, good supermarkets selling imported foods, outdoor lounges with murmuring water features, buddhas and rattan furniture with big soft pillows. The streets here are narrower, the air is cleaner and the prices are higher.

But I can already see that most of the excitement is happening in District 1 and 3, in the heart of Saigon, noisy, crowded, full of little cafes and local places with delicious and inexpensive local food. The Opera House and the Conservatory, the rooftop bars with astonishing sunsets, and hundreds, if not thousands of coffee houses – it’s all there.

Vietnamese love their coffee. It is a national and most popular drink here. Any time of the day. They take it black, with sweet condensed milk, hot or iced, with egg yolks, with frozen yogurt, with coconut milk… even from a nasty concentrate in bottles with the label that clearly state “Not for human consumption” (you have to stay away from those).

French colonization left behind beautiful architecture, coffee, French words, and some food like croissants, flan, and bread, which became the famous Bánh mì, the sort of French baguette, but softer and slightly sweeter in taste.

I also came across a few Russian touches – soviet motorbikes, an old Russian Algebra textbook in one of the local cafes, a samovar in another, hammers and sickles on billboards and holiday decorations, and occasionally middle-aged Vietnamese, speaking Russian.

Saigon is an authentic, beautiful, dynamic city, and so far there are only two things I don’t like about it: the taste of Cameleon leaf, the herb served with some dishes, and the fact, that it is too hot to wear my favorite thing: scarves.

In Paris, like in any big city, there are plenty of interesting people to watch and admire (or sometimes to judge). Looking at well-dressed, stylish citizens is a pleasure and gives me inspiration. Yesterday, for instance, on a boulevard, I met a tall, handsome Frenchman, elegantly dressed. He was coming towards me and had a baby on his front. The man was blind, or almost blind, but he was striding confidently, moving his cane with a bright little ball on it’s tip from side to side in front of him. Both he and his baby had a stylish sunglasses on. This couple impressed me so much, I almost stopped to stare after. I was used to seeing blind people during my Moscow past, poorly dressed, probing the road with diffidence or leaning on somebody’s arm. They often looked helpless, which doesn’t come as a surprise in Russia, not the most comfortable country for the people with disabilities. But not here. This couple impressed me the same way a delicate french woman, also blind, impressed me once in one of the Parisian dépôt-ventes – consignment stores selling designer labels. She was standing next to me beside the shelf full of shoes and methodically feeling her way through every pair. Then she chose one and asked the saleswomen what color it was. Later, she was feeling the clothes on the racks the same way, stroking the fabrics with her delicate dainty hand, touching the buttons and clasps. I could not take my eyes from her. And why was I so surprised? Why a blind woman cannot go shopping and be stylish?

***

A carriage of Parisian metro, 9th line. Enters one of the numerous Parisian beggars, who are never french and who carry accordions or other instruments, play terribly and without much effort, a few passages full of false notes and then, brazen-faced, go begging for money. With the first notes of a violin I prepared to roll my eyes, but the musician – a small man with a big nose – start playing skillfully, passionately and emotionally, sprinkling his playing with phrases: “How is your day, madam? Monsieur, Bon appetite!” It looked like he is here often and recognizes faces of some passengers. Surprised, I found myself reaching for change.
He finished playing and walked around the carriage, addressing passengers and joking with them.

-Merci monsieur, Vous êtes un grand patron, Vous êtes très riche!

-Non, je ne suis pas riche! ( Monsieur becomes very red)

-Dans votre cœur, monsieur, dans votre cœur!

***

I am in Cafe “Cannibal” on Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, sipping rosè, waiting for friends. A few doors away from Cannibal – a bar called “Assasin”. An interesting street.

***

One of my favorite places for lunch in Paris is Higuma – a Japanese restaurant famous for its very good ramen. And my preferred position there – at the bar, from where I like to watch four Chinese cooks working in the open kitchen.

Their movements are quick and precise. With fingers, pink and scrubbed, they take cut-up vegetables, prawns and pork from plastic containers and fling it into the woks with sizzling oil. They shake them, twirl them, toss them in the air, sending momentary flames up the ceiling. One of the cooks is in charge of gyoza – Japanese dumplings. He takes seven at a time and with fast and precise movement places them in the metal steamer and later moves them into the grilling machine. Another cook, next to a gigantic pot, doles the ramen’s ingredients into bowls on the counter and skillfully pours the broth on top, four bowls at a time, not a drop spilled. Fascinating!

***

Another day I entered a vintage store – dark treasure cave on one of the narrow streets of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Inside, in the depth, among plush vintage dresses, gloves, hats, boas and artificial pearls – the propriétaire, an old madam with a face full of deep wrinkles and bright red lipstick. In a hoarse voice of a chain smoker, she was talking on the phone, gesticulating in the air with the lighted cigarette and all of this – inside the premises!
She had so much style. And she didn’t give a damn what others thought of her. I want to be her when I grow up.

***

Coming down one of the streets leading off Montmartre, we heard “O sole mio”, strong and clear in the evening air sang by a beautiful operatic tenor. After a quick look around we found the source – a laundromat. A man put on a wash and, walking among revolving drums, indulges himself in a little bit if a singing. As you do. I love you, Paris!

New sketches

My new sketches. First two – Montmartre (one is done on the natural paper which allows the use of white ink),  then Place Vendôme, the last one- Chateau Chenonceau.

Ink, pen, and watercolor pencils.

 

 

 

 

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Big sketches in the Little Theater of Happiness

It’s quiet late Sunday morning. I am leisurely walking through the empty streets of Montmartre towards a rendezvous with a naked woman. Well, to my first drawing session in Paris with a professional art model. In my bag – a wooden board,  big sheets of paper, and a box of charcoal. It’s cold today and there are very few people on the streets. Although streets are always empty on Sunday mornings. I love this magical time.

Walking in Paris, I am often torn between the desire to Continue reading

I miss Asia. It spoiled me. I have got used to eating a wonderful and а very diverse, real Asian food. After that, there is no way back. Now it is difficult to accept the compromises called  “American-Chinese” or “British-Chinese” cuisine. If you live in a big city, good authentic restaurants do exist, but you have to search for them. And I usually do.

So, I really cannot understand, why I haven’t been trying to find them here. Or, rather, I do understand – I moved Continue reading

Flowers of the Château de Chenonceau

Замок ШенонсоA last weekend we traveled towards Orléans to take canoes down river Loire and to see the Château de Chenonceau. And what a Château it was. Built across the river, as if floating on the water, it is surrounded by a lovely park on one side and a golden autumn forest on another. Inside were the usual attributes of royal dwellings of that era: old tapestries, small, almost children’s Continue reading

Parisian doors

I have decided to put together a little compilation of Parisian doors. They always attract me like a magnet, in many different ways. Some by their beauty, some by their massiveness, others by unusual colors or intricate doorknockers. I especially like an old, heavy, seasoned doors. And, I always have the same desire – to see what lays beyond. If I am lucky, and somebody opens a heavy portal at that moment, I can catch a glimpse of a private garden, a beautiful cobble-stoned courtyard or dark mysterious passage.