My appreciation of Leonard Cohen began when I heard Jennifer Warnes sing ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. That was more than 25 years ago and a time when I was taking a lot of photography courses. I chose Warnes’ version of the song for an assignment that required me to create a slide show to illustrate a favourite piece of music. At the time I owned a long soft purple coat that with the magic of light could disguise itself as a famous blue one. I even convinced myself that the block where I lived in downtown Halifax, with it’s 19th century row houses, could pass for New York city’s Clinton Street. It never occurred to me that I had no idea what the real Clinton Street looked like. And I must have listened to that song 200 times, obsessing over every word and phrase, trying to untangle what it all meant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language during the last few months watching Clinton and Trump duke it out for President. Not much of what they said had meaning or consequence. I’m always amazed by what I think should be called “The Big Game” rather than “Democratic Elections”. Clinton’s and Trumps’ words were just filler for the ravenous appetite of the media. And clearly, the art of oratory has been shelved; hell Trump was barely coherent let alone articulate. I don’t want to wallow in this for too long, except to say, I, like millions of others, became anxious and depressed. And then Leonard Cohen died.
And in what seems like an inappropriate twist of emotion, his death grounded me. Immersing myself in his tributes, I returned to a place that despite its complexities and darkness felt real and most of all humane. Leonard Cohen reaffirms my belief in the power language. Words when used well help us understand each other and bring us together. It’s the world I want to live in.
My command of language is wobbly right now, but I do feel compelled to offer something of beauty, something that inspires hope.
About three hours into our journey to Mai Chau (pronounced cho) last week-end, a stranger handed Tim his cell phone and said ‘it’s for you’. We were on a public bus just over 120 km southwest of Hanoi, moving somewhat aggressively and quickly on roads that ascended and descended through mountains. The only people Tim knew on the bus were Somara and me. In fact the only people who knew that Tim was on the bus were Somara and me. The first thing I heard Tim say was ‘Sorry I don’t understand’. Because it’s genetically ingrained in my being, I imagined every bad scenario possible. But after a moment’s pause Tim laughed and said he was sorry but we already had our accommodation booked. Through the rearview mirror I could see the eyes of the driver light up as he looked back to see that the connection had been made and a promise fulfilled. He didn’t care whether it panned out or not.
Connections are what Mai Chau is made of. Rivers and canals bring water to rice fields and multiple other crops like corn and morning glory (known as muong); which is delicious smothered in garlic and chilies. Zipping around are a multitude of birds, butterflies and other insects feasting on the flowers, while buffalo, cattle and goats graze for their sustenance closer to the mountains. The most amazing part is that you can cycle the paths and rocky roads that link the series of small village settled in the valley between these mountains. Mai Chai is an area that, in addition to showcasing ethnic minorities to foreigners, has become a haven for the Vietnamese to relax away from the city and connect with nature.
After eating dinner at Sol Bungalows (the place we had booked) the first night, and eating lunch at the largest of the villages in the area earlier in the day, we took a short cab ride to another small village in search of food on Saturday night. It was clear that something big was going on because of all the activity in the large field on the edge of this small village. My guess was an outdoor concert. As we walked from restaurant to restaurant chock a block full of young people we quickly realized we weren’t going to find dinner there and unless we found the field more interesting and wanted to hang out we needed to move on.
So we started the 1 km trek to the village where we had earlier eaten lunch. Along the way we passed a lot of Vietnamese teenagers, heading to the field where loud music was now thumping away. I can’t remember now if it was K-Pop (Korean), V-pop (Vietnamese) or Western pop music but I do know Somara told me to start dancing.
Regrettably we never figured out what was going on. But fortunately we found a restaurant at the next village willing to serve us at this late hour. The only other customers were two tables of Vietnamese who looked more like family and friends than patrons. We were ushered to our own table and within moments a gaggle of kids starting running back and forth to where we sat. They would run up, tap our shoulders, say ‘hello’ and then run away screaming and laughing uproariously. Before our delicious meal was all done Tim had migrated to the men’s table to shoot rice wine.
Somara had wandered off by then, so in search of her I migrated to the sounds of music next door. Up the stairs on the main floor of the stilt house was a group of people eating dinner and being entertained by local dancers. Before I could sheepishly back away from what was clearly a private party, I was invited in and told to make myself at home. I could see that Somara had already done so and was chatting with another girl who looked closer to her age. Eventually Tim appeared. For the next hour plus we talked, we danced and Tim drank more rice. They were a friendly, generous and fun loving group of people. It was an awesome night. I left with a couple of new facebook connections, great memories and an attachment to this lovely little valley in Northern Vietnam. We’ll be back.