28 December 2006

Laptop Life

I spent 5 hours (FIVE HOURS!) on the telephone with a very nice DELL representative to install a new hard drive for my laptop. After 5 hours and a flashing screen that left the technician--and I quote--"dumbfounded," everything seems to be up and running. However, due to an intense desire to keep my life simple, I will not be taking the computer back to France. I'll continue to use the school computers like I did before.

In some ways it's harder to live in France than in Japan, and for the next 6 months I want my life to be as hassle-free as possible so that I may focus on...perfume.

26 December 2006

Blast from the Past, Part 2

So in honor of being in France, I decided to post some funny stories from my study abroad experience in Paris 3 years ago. When I lived with a host family, I wrote down things that made me laugh, and I just re-discovered the file on my parents' computer. They still crack me up today...so I hope you enjoy.

* * *

-I love looking at the little dogs in this city:

Katie to me: Lauren, I thought you were staring at a hot guy, but when I turned to look, I realized you were checking out a poodle.

-on a tour of a tiny village near the chateau Chantilly:

me to Lauren Merkeley: Lauren, have you noticed that there’s a weird man following us on the tour?

Lauren Merkeley: No way, really?

Me: Yeah, he’s been with us ever since we got off the bus!

Lauren Merkeley: You mean the bus driver?

(I crack up at my own stupidity.)

Zain to me: What are you girls laughing at? What’s so funny?

Lauren Merkely: Oh not much, just introducing a little logic.

-at dinner with my host family and their friends, who are all at least 65 years old:

friend to host mom: My friend’s daughter was on her honeymoon, and when she got to the island she called her mother to say she’d forgotten her luggage. But instead of sending it, her mom replied, “Dear, it’s your honeymoon; do you really need your suitcase??”

-at “home”:

host mom to me: What day should we eat together?

Me: I don’t know.

(host dad suggests a night to eat)

host mom to me: Ah, he’s right. Good idea.

host dad to me, joking: Of course I’m right—I’m a man! Men are always right!

host mom to me: Don’t listen to him, the old fool! (and she whacks him in the stomach with her spatula)

-at someone else’s house for dinner:

older man to me: I went to the US once, and in general I liked it, but you know what really got on my nerves? The clothes! Everyone there wears the brightest colors!

-my host family in Lyon, to everyone they introduced me to: And this is the little American that’s staying with us for the weekend!

-in a restaurant, the first time I met Steve (hot guy from Cornell who speaks French very well)

me: So how long have you been taking French?

Steve: Well, only for about a year. But I’ve been French-kissing for quite some time now.

-making fun of EDUCO people:

-Katie: I love Bahij, he cracks me up. But he’s a very simple guy.

Merkley: Simple? I think Bahij is complicated. Self-tanner, hello, that’s not simple!

-in my animation class, where the prof. always likes to discuss the philosophy of theater and animation

prof: (talking about something obscure) Yes, it is invisible, but it’s invisible for a very good reason: it doesn’t exist.

-the whole French-speaking population, to me at least every other day (literally): Excuse me, can you tell me where the nearest metro station is? Or where this street is? Or if this direction will get me to the train station? Or what time it is? Or where exactly this metro is going?

-my host father works in advertising, so he likes to discuss the giant ads in the metro stations

host dad to his wife and me: Have you seen the latest lingerie ad? Where the woman is wearing a bra that’s the exact same color as her skin? FREAKY!

-on the difficulty of relating to French guys:

Emily to me: Yeah, I’ll meet someone who’s hot, but then he’ll just go and do something French, and I won’t be attracted to him anymore.

-French woman to a friend of mine who’s Mormon (doesn’t drink), and who happens to dislike cheese: You’re in the wrong country, my friend.

-and the one that prob. tops them all:

Last night I was having dinner with my host family at their friend's house. They poured me a glass of wine that was made from vineyards at their "country house." Then the host-man started telling a story.

host: A few years ago someone thought our wine had a potato flavor.

host's wife: No, let me tell it. You do a horrible job of telling stories. So, a few years ago someone thought our wine had a potato flavor. And we said, "really?" Well how interesting. I"ve heard of fruit notes, wood notes, even burnt toast notes, but no potato notes. So we decided to examine the barrel of wine that this bottle had come from...and floating inside the wine was a drowned mouse! Haha! So mice must taste like potatoes!

host to me: So, what do you think of the wine?


Winter Break Update

Now that I'm in North Carolina for a lovely 3-week vacation, I have some time AND an internet connection. I hope everyone had a great Christmas - mine was fantastic, even more enjoyable since I was in Japan last year! It feels really good to be home.

The first 'semester' of school ended quickly. Things in France were hectic and we had a big exam on the last day, which was interrupted by an emergency trip to the Prefecture for a temporary visa (so that I can return to France in January. The timing was awful but at least I GOT it!).

For the exam we were given about 15 raw materials that we had to identify and describe "from scratch," with no background or context clues. We had to list what types of perfumes they are appropriate for and why, their different rates of evaporation (volatility), and other properties related to perfumery. Basically, we had to know everything we've studied the past two months. Then we had to identify a few perfumes and discuss why they were 'landmarks.' It was very similar to an art history test, where you view slides, date and describe the work of art, then discuss the relevant art movement and its significance. (I knew perfumery was artistic, but I never realized the extent to which perfumers really are artists, until now!) I nailed all the perfumes, in part thanks to my grandmother. When I was younger Manana used to give me little bottles of L'Air du Temps. I'm sure you've seen the round bottles of yellow liquid with two flying doves on the top? This floral fragrance was launched after World War II and has a strong carnation note. I recognize it instantly because the second it hits my nose, an image of Manana pops into my head. I guess that was the confidence booster I needed because the rest came to me easily.

* * *

I've been called uptight before, but I thought there was one rule when it comes to cheating: you don't do it. For me it's not so much about being 'uptight' as being PROUD. I'm too proud to cheat. In some people's eyes, this just makes me conservative or 'prudish.' Here's a conversation I had with someone in my class:

John Doe: Well, we're getting a grade, but this exam is mostly an assesment for our own information. So we don't have to worry about cheating.

Me: What? Do you mean that if this test were more important, then you'd want to cheat?

John Doe: (no response)

...then, during the test...

John Doe: Do you think the answer is X?

Me: Don't ask me.

John Doe: Do you think the answer is X?

Me: Don't ask me.

What's WITH people? I don't care if I'm earning a GPA or not. I don't cheat. I don't see how anybody does so in good conscience. In any case, I'd always trust my own nose before somebody else's. Perfumery is in large part instinct, and I don't like to second-guess my guts. Why would somebody else?

* * *
Here's wishing everyone continued holiday spirit and a very happy New Year. Got any resolutions?

19 December 2006

Class Photos

...compliments of Christian! The sophisticated lady without a labcoat is our instructor.

11 December 2006


The cheapest raw material in the world is benzyl acetate, at about 3.50 euros per kilo. It's in quite a few floral notes, including jasmine, and smells like fake bananas. I recognize it as the product most likely to give me an instant headache. (Anything that ends in -ate can cause no small amout of pain if you inhale with too much enthusiasm).

The most expensive material is iris root absolute, at about 100,000.00 euros per kilo. Getting this fragrance takes up to six years while you wait for the roots to mature underground. It smells kind of floral, kind of plant-like, green, and mild, not what you'd imagine the 'Kohinor' of perfume materials to smell like!

Today we had a guest speaker who used to work for Chanel. He showed us some extremely old perfumes that are no longer on the market, such as one created 2,000 years ago called "Perfume Royale." Main ingredients? Honey, cinnamon, and cloves. Yum.

16 November 2006

The Lab

Here are our mixing tables and a sample of the raw materials in the fridge. Most of the chemicals are liquids, but the powders, crystals and gums must be microwaved to make dilutions. Alcohol boils very easily, so we're talking 10 seconds max! The room with the fridges is SO smelly. It's not unpleasant but it's a real fruit-salad-soup, despite the fact that some materials are nestled Russian-doll-style inside three different containers.

14 November 2006


Thanks to all the faithful readers out there. :) My intention was to update my blog more frequently, but that is complicated by a number of factors - progress on my computer is slow to nonexistent, and I just plain don't have much time to hang around the school computer lab. But there are healthy consequences to this as well. The time I spend in front of a computer screen each day has decreased about 500%. And the time I spend with my nose in a bottle has increased about 900%. (Don't worry, I checked our chemicals against the FDA's toxicology list and all my brain cells should be intact). Perfumery is quite challenging and I'm tired at the end of every day. But the key is that I always want to wake up and come to school. Today we tried to construct a Thierry Mugler ANGEL-like accord. All the vanilla and chocolatey notes in this perfume made me hungry. But the chocolate effect comes from patchouli, not cocoa.

Versailles has been a great transition for me after Fuji...it's slightly bigger and my location is more central, with a beautiful lake 5 minutes away. The open-air markets are the icing on the cake. So while I still miss Japanese food and my daily dose of Mt. Fuji (not to mention my FRIENDS there!), as a small city Versailles feels like a step in the right direction.

Want to ask me questions? Feel free to post them in the comments!

A few photos of the lab (and maybe one of my roommate) are coming soon...

30 October 2006

Perfume School 101

If you weren't lucky enough to receive a huge email from me (I say lucky with sarcasm, since it was too long for anyone to actually read), here's a more recent update...

First, I apologize for the lack of photos, but laptop problems persist and the school computers have no USB ports. Rest assured that when I have good pictures and am able to post them, I will.

Second, I love school. I spend about 7 hours a day in a small lab (with 7 other people from around the world) as we familiarize ourselves with raw materials (natural and synthetic), and learn about perfume families. This is more confusing than you might think. As scents become more modernized (read: more synthetic), the whole library of smells is growing, even while many synthetic products are replacing natural ones. More sources = more variation = more categories to organize. But to smell a chemical that is found nowhere in nature, that simultaneously evokes caramelized sugar, chocolate, cranberries, and raspberries...it is quite a heady experience.

Lately we've been working on creating floral accords from synthetics. Our teacher (a wonderful, kind, sophisticated, beautiful woman with wild coats) doles out numerous synthetic raw materials. We smell and describe each one, pencils flying as we try to make note of everything to study later. Then the teacher says, "Ok, now compose a rose." And we spend the rest of the afternoon diluting and mixing and re-mixing to find the right proportions of each material that will together produce a satisfying rose. Mine was a bit fruity, with a sweet note that lingered for days (a potential plus), and overall I was happy with it. What fascinates me is that anyone could identify it as a rose, though there was nothing natural about it.

(As a side note, "synthetic" does not mean it is never found in nature. Many synthetics are single molecules that occur naturally but are copied and built in a laboratory. For example, a molecule found in cloves can be isolated and then produced by people in a lab, without the rest of the cloves notes.)

The past few days were more challenging because we studied lilly of the valley. I don't have an image of lilly of the valley in my mind, which makes it difficult for me to whip one up out of synthetics. The other thing is that as new chemicals are created in labs, the market idea of what lilly of the valley smells like changes over time. So you can create different styles of this flower -- some greener (like cut grass) and fruitier; some softer and more floral, like baby powder or fabric softeners. Also, there is no natural version of lilly of the valley perfume. Despite all the available methods, it's impossible to obtain this flower's natural scent, so everything has to be synthesized.

Tomorrow we'll begin jasmine, which is my favorite floral note. It's a very complex, multi-faceted scent, but I already have an imagine in my mind of what the final product should smell like. I'm looking forward to breaking it down and learning about how each component works together. Jasmine is a white flower but it always makes me think of something three dimensional, sensual, and dark purple. And something that rotates on an axis. I have no idea why those images come to my mind, but anything that helps you remember a smell is a good thing. :)

Happy breathing...especially with the onset of fall!

03 October 2006

Downtown Versailles

the flower market

My School

The Fragrance Academy

The Apartment

Thanks to Mom I now have some great photos...but for the moment this is all the school computer can handle. There's one of me being silly in my apartment, one of The Fragrance Academy, and one of the flower market in downtown Versailles.

La Cuisine

I guess it's no surprise that moving from Japan to France can give quite a culture shock!

You know the state of mind just minutes before falling asleep, where you think you are dreaming and don't realize that you are actually awake? A few nights ago in that stage of pre-sleep, I realized that I was "dreaming" about Japanese food: cold soba, instant sticky rice and salmon and seaweed, big hot oily restaurant portions of miso ramen with bamboo shoots and hard-boiled eggs, chewy rice cakes and sweet red bean paste...I am still going through Japanese food withdrawal. I want it every day.

Which is ironic, since I am in The Land of Good Food. Maybe I should qualify that with "In the West." My cheese and red wine intake have both increased by about 200%. I am certainly not complaining. I've had fun preparing various dishes I couldn't make in Japan: whole wheat garlic pasta, grilled cheese with brie, goat cheese and fresh strawberries, portobello mushrooms with (what else) big slabs of camembert. And did I mention the coffee ice cream? (Noel heaven, Bill!) Yum.

Antonio, on the other hand, prefers Spanish sausage with his bread, instead of cheese. Last night he made me eat a piece insisting it was the "secret of Spain." (Whatever that can mean for a tubular hunk of pig.) The sausage was bloody and looked raw, but considering my diet last year, I can't use "raw" as an excuse to say no. I ate it, and it tasted good. Kind of spicy.

I never guessed that moving to France would teach me more about Spain...but it just goes to remind me that no matter how much globe-trotting I do, I will always know less than there actually is to know out there. It may be a small world, but it's cram-packed full of stuff.

30 September 2006


Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of recent posts but I've had some trouble with communication. There is no phone line for the internet in my apartment, but in any case, my computer crashed recently. (Great timing; I guess all the traveling wore it out!) For now I'm relying on internet cafes and the computer lab at ISIPCA.

Getting established again has been quite a whirlwind, to say the least! This time there's no school full of teachers and office ladies willing to help me with the details, but at least I can speak the language. It feels really good to be surrounded by French again. Not to mention gardens and goat cheese and colorful open-air markets!

So far I like Versailles much more than I expected (I envisioned a small town full of people jaded by Chateau tourists). But people have been nicer than I remembered. And with its history and established neighborhoods, Versailles feels like a mini-Paris. Luckily I live near the Chateau gardens and a small lake that was donated by Switzerland about 400 years ago. I'm happy to be so close to nature in the middle of a town.

My courses have not yet begun but I've visited the school a few times. It's in the middle of a very charming residential neighborhood, and the old brick ivy-covered buildings look like they were former mansions. The halls smell like roses and violets, and everyone wears lots of black under crisp white labcoats. I can't wait for classes to start.

My living situation has changed a few times but for now this is the deal: the landlord rented the other room to a young Spanish man who is working in France for his Masters (something related to plastics and engineering). Initially I wasn't too thrilled about living with a guy I don't know, but since I'm renting I don't have much say in the matter. Antonio just moved in today, so I don't know him yet, but he seems very nice. And clean. And respectful. And he bought a TV. So far so good!

In the meantime, I've been to Paris a few times, and gone out with a French guy I met randomly while Mom was here. I think next week I'll go to school and try to be productive; I want to help teach the beginning French class for the other international students. It would be a good review for me too.

Mom had a lot of trouble with her luggage (that's an understatement!) but she was a huge help getting me settled and a lot of fun to explore Versailles with! I plan to return to the gardens for another bike-ride soon.

One of my favorite teachers in Japan, a kind man I often played tennis with, recently had surgery for lung cancer. So far he is doing well. I miss all my friends!

France is really wrapped in red tape so it takes a while to get settled. But I am REALLY excited to be here, I feel really good about my situation and my school, and I can't wait to get into perfume. Mom took a lot of photos, so maybe when she emails them to me I can post them on the blog. More updates to come and I hope you all are doing well.

12 September 2006

Last Night in Japan

Meegan took these photos on my last night in Japan. We had dinner at a crepe shop (of all places, but it was one of our favorite spots--yay France!!) and then did a couple hours of karaoke (yay Japan!!) I was so into the music that I didn't know she took karaoke shots...but some of them turned out pretty well. Look how serious I am, hah! Chocolate crepes and karaoke are no laughing matters.

I would also like to point out that it was the first time the entire year that I left my apartment in a tank-top (straps are a huge no-no in Japan). But it was my last night, and I was ready to let loose and enjoy Fuji while preparing to re-enter the West. What a rebel.

11 September 2006


I can't believe that the day after tomorrow, I'm moving to France.

Tonight I am exhausted from a day of hauling and folding and rolling. You'd think international packing would be old hat by now (hah!)...and to a certain extent it is. I've gotten lazier and sloppier because I can remember what I unpacked from Japan a month ago. But it seems that my belongings have expanded.

When I moved to Japan I had 2 suitcases, but a few months later my parents sent me a box of winter clothes. This time I am packing all my winter clothes, plus toiletries that are no longer allowed onto the plane...so this time I just have more stuff. Mom is coming to France as well (yay!!) and she generously offered to take a suitcase of my things with her. In total, I've got my 2 bags plus 1 that Mom is taking. At least we're not paying postage.

The funny thing is, when you look at everything, it's not even that much. It's basically everything I need to last me the entire year, including one 3-pound jar of crunchy peanut butter--which I insisted on packing because it's a delightful, filling, protein-packed spread the French do not import in large enough quantities to find in Paris without great huffing and puffing and wasted metro money. (Ever seen a French peanut butter cup? There's a reason why not. So into the suitcase goes the JIF.)

The initial arrangement was to share my apartment with a young French student. It's very unusual for French students to move out of their parents' houses, and evidently this case was no exception: she changed her mind and decided not to move in to "our" apartment. So currently I have no flat-mate, but this could change as soon as Friday.

As I talk with others or think to myself, I mentally translate my words into French. A few times I've had to crack the dictionary, to look up such random words as: bald, pillow, to dress / get dressed, empty. In Japan, there were often French movies on John's satellite TV. With only Japanese subtitles to assist, I got to practice my listening skills, and for the most part I could understand. I don't want to jinx myself, but I think French will come back to me pretty quickly. I also think that, compared to learning Japanese, it might even seem easy. Au naturel. :)

In the past couple days I've been self-absorbed trying to get everything ready. But don't think that you haven't crossed my mind. I am sad, yes, to leave the time zone again...there are many people to miss. But maybe I'll have lots of visitors this year!

I plan to have the internet at my apartment, but I'm not sure how long that will take to set up. This may be the last post from me until I get things situated...but just know that I am thinking about you all! Much love to everyone and I hope the upcoming "year" is good for us all.

I am so excited, and I can't believe this is really happening.

And I want to say congratulations to a couple of my best friends in the entire world:

Mayumi will become Atsushi-san on March 24, 2007

and then

Hilary will become Mrs. Lee on September 22, 2007.

I can't believe my friends are becoming "Mrs."s!!

One down...and tomorrow and I'm outta' here!
--Ben Folds

07 September 2006

Other Kinds of Prayer

The only sure path is to live consciously, moment to moment, as you let go of the outcome.

Obsessive thinking signals that we are not telling the truth, either to ourselves or another person.

--Charlotte Kasl

Don't grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.

Lo, I am with you always means when you look for God, God is in the look of your eyes, in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self, or the things that have happened to you. There's no need to go outside. Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself. A white flower grows in the quietness. Let your tongue become that flower.

I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I've been knocking from inside!


Between living and dreaming, there is a third thing.

Guess it.

--Antonio Machado

05 September 2006

Certain Kind of Prayer

I don't travel to run away. I don't travel to forget. I travel to learn. But I like the way Paul Theroux said it:

"You have to find out for yourself. Take the leap."

"Nothing induces concentration or stimulates memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place. More likely, you will experience intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life."

Every time you give something up and move on to something else, you remember how full your life is, how lucky you are. If you're open to starting over, instead of leaving things behind, you end up staring everything straight in the face.

When I began to feel settled in Japan, I wrote a post about contentment. I was really happy and started to wonder, "So, is this it? Is this all it takes? Can I stop here? Is this good enough? What happens tomorrow when I am content today?" I started to feel this itch, like "home" was closing in on me much sooner than I expected. I was ready to feel settled much earlier than I had predicted. That was scary. But when I was really quiet with that idea, when I really let it sink in, I realized...nope! I'm not quite there yet! I have to keep going! So I leave for France knowing it is the best path for me to be on. What's a year, right? Look how quickly Japan flew by, and look how much I learned. I still want that. But unlike Japan, I approach France with something different in my chest. It's not in my heart or my stomach, but somewhere deeper. It's like somebody snuck inside of me and turned on a night-light: I want to settle down sooner than I thought. It's there and glowing--not blazing yet because now just isn't the right time--but it's going to spark into a flame pretty soon. I can feel it.

And I am so, so excited.

Today I'm getting lost in Paris and perfume. Tomorrow I'll be singing this:

If there’s a plane or a bus leaving Dallas
I hope you’re on it
If there’s a train moving fast down the tracks
I hope you caught it
'Cause I swear out there
ain’t where you ought to be
So catch a ride, catch a cab
Don’t you know I miss you bad
But don’t you walk to me
Baby run, cut a path across the blue skies
Straight in a straight line
You can’t get here fast enough
Find a truck and fire it up
Lean on the gas and off the clutch
Leave Dallas in the dust
I need you in a rush
So baby, run

--George Strait

One thing at a time. :)

29 August 2006


If I hold you with my emotions,
you'll become a wished-for companion.

If I hold you with my eyes,
you'll grow old and die.

So I hold you where
we both mix
with the infinite.


28 August 2006



According to the website, 25,000 young people are in Versailles every day, studying architecture, landscaping, perfume, and chemistry.

I'm getting very excited.

16 August 2006

Not Their Mothers' Daughters

Not Their Mothers’ Daughters
Japanese Women in Modern Society


In Japan, the weather makes the man. Everyone knows that Shizuoka’s mild climate means the people are even-tempered. Farther south, where the winds are strong, the men have short fuses and unpredictable mood swings. “Don’t go south to choose a husband,” my married coworkers advised. I wondered without asking if the same weather precautions applied to women.

From July 2005 to July 2006, I lived by myself in an old paper apartment on the northern side of Fuji City, Shizuoka. Shizuoka is a mountainous region, my neighborhood Fujimidai so named for the view of Mt. Fuji startlingly visible from everywhere on a clear day. I went to Japan as many young people do, an inexperienced English teacher with no Japanese language skills, having graduated from college only two months prior. What I knew of Japanese culture came from coffee table books on Zen Buddhism.

In college I studied French and international culture with a focus on the western world. I lived in Paris for six months and when I returned to America the following semester, I enrolled in a cross-cultural women’s studies course offered to students who had been abroad. I wrote about France while I edited my classmates’ papers about places I had never been before: Spain, Chile, Brazil, Cuba, Japan. One student’s paper stated that, despite Asian stereotypes, Japanese women experienced a full range of emotions, but were not “allowed” to express them in front of men. When I heard that my classmate and professor could locate very little research material on the modern woman in Japanese society, I was intrigued. I thought back to the popular novel Memoirs of a Geisha, and wondered what Japan was really like, not for a geisha but for a “normal” young woman like me. It was then I realized, I had dedicated my college career to learning about the world outside the United States, answering questions about other countries’ values and ideals—but I had never seriously explored the world beyond the West. If you stood from a place outside The West, French and American perspectives could look similar. So how could their differences be that significant? I needed to learn more.

I wanted to explore a culture that had no basis in or relation to my own; a place that would challenge my views on the most fundamental topics. A professor told me about the JET Program, and the rest is now history. I moved to Japan and promised myself that, in order to make the most of this learning opportunity, I would stay in Japan for the duration of my JET contract. No trotting off to Thailand, enticing as a beach vacation would sound. I knew that the best way to learn about Japan was to know the people, and that’s harder to accomplish if you’re always skipping out of the country. I left the US with the plan to squeeze the most out of my 365 days.

What struck me more than anything was the Japanese idea of love. It was, at times, totally incomprehensible to me, making it incredibly difficult to understand the interactions between men and women. This paper is in part an attempt to make sense of the questions I could not answer during my year in this eastern world.

But there are reasons beyond the personal to write such a paper. During my women’s studies course, my classmate noted a significant lack of English material about Japanese women. It was as if Japan, for whatever reason, had been left out of the feminist discussion completely. While plenty of literature appeals to the exoticism of geishas, bar hostesses, and Japanese women pre-World War II, where was the accessible information about women in today’s society? This is my attempt to fill that gap, and give a far-reaching voice to the women I have come to love and admire—not those doing big business in Tokyo or the office ladies pouring tea, but the middle class women in suburban and small-town Japan.

This is hard for me to write. It wasn’t hard for me to write about French women because I wasn’t close to them. (I made friends there but they were all American. I was close to a small number of French adults, but had no friends my age. I was pursued by French men, but not taken seriously by the women). In short, I didn’t know them well, and I was often lonely for a culture in which I wanted to play a role. What unfolded in Japan was completely different. Because of the strict social hierarchy, my role as The Young Friendly American English Teacher was well-defined, and I fell into it easily. I became a mentor to the students, and a friend to my co-workers. Interviews I conducted were not merely question-and-answer sessions, but unprecedented pokes into their private lives. And, generously, they let me in. The people I met opened their hearts, doors, and homes to me, and I will forever be in their debt for such kindness. The Japanese have an (appropriate) reputation for being overly-stoic or formal in public situations, but my relationships with them were anything but. I loved them, and felt loved in return.

When you respect a nation’s people because you love a nation’s individuals, cultural differences becomes hard to judge. Instead of immediate criticism, I first questioned my own views. It was hard to judge right from wrong and to discern black from white. What I learned fascinated and confused me as my own world, now expanded, turned to gray.

For my research I chose to focus on one geographic region (Shizuoka prefecture). But I do believe, from the self-professed homogeneity of Japanese culture, that these ideas may be extrapolated to all of Japan, and that Fuji serves as a microcosm for most of the country. However, please do not confuse my own observations with fact or with the views of Japanese people.

While I would love to organize such a discussion under the neat headings of “Femininity,” “Marriage,” “Sex,” “Motherhood,” etc., it is impossible to write in truly distinct categories. The best way to understand one is in the context of the others. This is my attempt at revealing a whole picture; the real lives of women who balance each category every day —perhaps just as you would do, had you been born a woman on an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, sixty years ago, or yesterday.

This is a rough (!) introduction to the paper I am writing. I have no idea how long it will be, or when I will finish. But if you would like to read more, please let me know. I won't post the rest on my blog but I can send you a copy.

11 August 2006


Remember about a month ago, I posted a photo of "the strangest flower" I had ever seen? The plant is called a passion vine but I nicknamed it "the jungle gym." If I remember correctly, I also told you that it was odorless. Evidently I didn't put my nose close enough for fear of inhaling all the ants. But an interesting coincidence taught me that the passion flower does, in fact, have a scent. A marketable one.

About the same time I posted the photo, my friend Em told me about Lancome's new perfume, Hypnose. Japan's perfume market is somewhat behind (because so few Japanese actually wear them), so I couldn't locate Hypnose in Shizuoka. I want to check it out because in my current unprofessional opinion (hah), Lancome consistently sells some of the most gorgeous perfumes out there. The first perfume I ever bought was Lancome's Poeme, which is really too mature for a 6th-grader, but I liked it anyway.

At home in the States, I still haven't found Hypnose in a department store, but I have done the next best thing: I researched its principle notes (or scents) on the net. As soon as I clicked a link, what else popped up on the screen but a huge photo of a passion flower -- my jungle gym -- along with more classic hints of (typical) vanilla, vetiver, and jasmine.


I hope the above link works!

If you smell this perfume before I do, please leave a comment and tell me what you think.

05 August 2006

Miss American Pie 2

More quotes:

May 16
Why is it we work so hard to be interesting to one another? --p.221



August 22
"Everything comes and goes, just like lovers and styles of clothes. Things you held high and told yourself were true, start changing when it all comes down to you." -- Joni Mitchell

August 23
Jesus wept--because Jesus knew.

August 24
I've failed, but there's a sense of freedom, too. The two emotions overlap. --p.249

--"Miss American Pie"

Miss American Pie

I'm reading a book my mother lent me called "Miss American Pie." It was written by a woman who works in Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, but even better, the author grew up in my parents' hometown. The book is basically a collection of her diary entries from middle and high school (in the early '70s). Even more interesting is the fact that my dad briefly dated the author's older sister (in early high school).

The author doesn't seem very close to her older sister, at least not during her years of teenage angst, so there's no way my dad is mentioned in the book. But I think the diary entries are so real and absolutely hilarious. Last night in the middle of reading, I jumped up from my bed and pulled out my own diary from 7th grade. (At one point I had considered burning all my journals, but I'm very glad I decided against it -- not because my journal entries are unusual, just because they are mine). Despite my entries being much longer than the ones in "Miss American Pie," it was frightening how identical some of them were. Especially ones like this:

June 20
Sometimes I [really want a relationship], but then sometimes I feel so peaceful being free.

June 21
Maybe I should become a nun.

June 22
Read up on nuns and I think I'd make a better veterinarian. --p. 92

or this:

March 21
I feel funny right now. Or it's more like I don't know how I feel. --p. 50

or an entry I can't locate that says basically:

Went to youth group at church to see X because I'm in love with him, but then he wasn't even there.*

So 20 years later and 14 hours north, a totally unrelated middle school student wrote the exact same things in her diary. Should this surprise me? No. But does it surprise me anyway? Yes. When Native Americans said that time is not a vertical or horizontal line, but a spiral, I think they were on to something.

*Entries taken from "Miss American Pie" by Margaret Sartor.

SAME Blog Address

Sorry guys, the France blog address was unavailable, so I'll just stick with the original http://laureninjapan.blogspot.com Keeps it simple for everyone.

02 August 2006

Flip It and Reverse It

This post will include a lot of obvious things that weren't so obvious to me until now.

The saddest part of the "real world" adjustment has nothing to do with waking up early. (Put me on a regular schedule and I feel totally whipped into shape, ready to get up and enjoy coffee with the sunrise in the peace and quiet before it gets too hot!) No, the alarm clock does not make me sad. What is difficult, however, is having to make a constant effort to even talk with the people you care about; to carve out time days in advance for a phone conversation with someone you effortlessly saw every day of your life all four years you were in college. And this is the age of mobile phones for crying out loud.

Even though I have spent 21 years of my life in the US and only one of them in Japan, the sudden and complete change in diet is an adjustment I would classify as reverse culture-shock--one of those things you don't expect to feel awkward, which is exactly what makes it difficult. (We may be creatures of habit but I'm not an old dog yet.) When you love American food, Southern food, and your mother's food, you just don't expect returning to it all to be an "adjustment." Not all adjustments are negative, but every change requires that you deal with it. And one week later that is precisely what I am still doing.

Related to food is body image. Not a day passed in Japan that someone didn't tell me I was beautiful. This is quite common for MANY foreigners in Japan, beautiful or not, and it is actually not an accurate reflection of my "stunning good looks." To prove this, people who know me know that I'm basically white as a sheet--or porcelain, or milk, or ghosts, or blinding light, or however you want to describe it. In Japan I would walk by girls shrieking in Japanese about how beautiful my skin was. It was very embarrassing, mainly because I felt like it was undeserved. It's all about conditioning and perspective, after all. In America you're taught to be ashamed of pale skin. One day I turned to some girls and said, "You know, in America, they don't sell bleaching creams like they do here. They sell tanning products so people like me can have darker skin. In America this kind of skin is not beautiful. In fact, people tell me I should look more like you." Naively I thought this would halt the chatter and make me feel less self-conscious. But I just got blank stares in return, as if they hadn't understood a word. They understood alright, but it just didn't matter. It would be like me telling you all, "It's okay that I'm so pasty because in Japan they think it's beautiful." So what? Nobody cares about another country's standard of beauty; it's just as irrelevant to high school girls in Japan as it is to women in America.

My point is, the standards vary greatly from country to country. So to culture-hop successfully, you must have a very solid grip on what makes you happy about your own body. Otherwise I'd be candy-striped white and orange from all that American self-tanner I should be buying.

The other big issue is everyday social interaction. I re-learned how to communicate in Japan and it's totally different from in America. I am still struggling with how to interrupt people (nobody interrupts in Japan, it's more like monologue turn-taking), and maintain a low blood-pressure when everybody talks at once and suddenly you can understand the language everywhere around you instead of it being nothing more than Japanese white noise while trying to remember the fact that people at the next table can understand you no matter what you say or how quickly you blur your words together.

Also, because such value is placed on your presence in Japan, there is less of a need to "perform" socially and project an image of yourself by talking. In America it almost seems like a competition; if you go out but don't talk "enough," people will think you are a weirdo or a loner or that you have "no personality." Coming back to the States, I realize that Americans are constantly working to verbally project an image of themselves, so everybody is just talking constantly. In Japan it's not like that at all. People assume you have personality and don't require you to constantly prove it to be worth their time. What did Mayumi tell me? She said, "We [Japanese] value the moon behind the clouds." You don't have to see the sun to know it can provide sunlight worth waiting for.

So, I am adjusting to home, and appreciating all the luxuries that are a part of my new--yet very old!--equation.

26 July 2006


Unpacking is strange. You put away things from the last year, recent memories that are suddenly a part of your past, tidily blending them into your present, while trying not to forget.

The problem is, I don't want them to blend yet. I want Japan to be real for a long time.

23 July 2006


I complain about the mold, how the towels are never completely dry, how my hair frizzes, how the buses are late from stopping at every stop, how the sheets are perpetually damp...but I never thought the rainy season could be so romantic.

There is something so soothing about keeping the windows open; about going to sleep with the rain and waking up to the rain and going to sleep again the next night with the eternal splashing and splishing only two feet from your ears; rain with the patience of mountains, whispering and singing you to sleep every night like the one before.

I mentioned this already, but it feels like whatever was brittle before is now being continuously dipped and coated in warm oil. Warm oil that makes you feel clean and refreshed, despite the damp sheets and the towels that never dry.

22 July 2006

Inheriting the Kimono

I have often tried to express, however uneloquently, that I have received so much in the past year it is hard to give it all back. Not just from people in Japan but from so many of the people I love at home. I want to return everything people have given me, but about whether I accomplish that or not, I can't really be the judge. As I like to say, I am trying to do my best and "play the hand I've got." When the cards are all shuffled and redistributed I hope that the hands are even, that they can at least express my gratitude, but ultimately I am not the one who decides if I've succeeded at this.

However, in some cases, I KNOW there is just no adequate thank you I can give for the way I've been touched. And one of those cases involves a school librarian named Hattori Sensei. Not only did she invite me to her home for cooking lessons, take me to one of her harp lessons, and teach me some Japanese by correcting my journal with lots of encouragement, but also she planned a trip to Kyoto to give me the chance to see a maiko dance performance. (Maiko are like mini-geishas, or geishas-in-training, and this opportunity is extremely rare). The dance was beautiful and enchanting, of course, but what really meant a lot to me that weekend was her time. We had a long bus ride and we talked about everything --cultural differences, education, feminism, immigration, relaxation, even romance, which is a pretty unusual discussion to have in Japan with someone 40 years your senior.

At school Hattori Sensei is busy and somewhat formal; I think she strikes people as pretty rigid, with a somewhat "my way or the highway" attitude, which can make you an oddball in Japan. Maybe she saw little bits of herself in me the way I saw little pieces of myself in her. In any case, this exterior is just that -- an exterior. Japan has taught me the value of really being patient with people and trusting that there is so much more inside of them. Not only about their personalities, but also about their feelings for you. And it's earned with time and care and patience and responsiveness, before reaping the joys of really getting to know someone. In America I've had hard lessons of "things are not always what they seem." But in Japan, instead of being a harsh reality, this maxim has been more like a slow-happy-peaceful truth. Quite Buddhist I guess.

In any case, I have valued the time spent with Hattori Sensei because she has taught me so much outside of work. I know that I understand her better than some of other teachers because they don't have a chance to get to know her. And this goes for many teachers at my school -- I've learned that being patient and open and asking little from people can lead to learning so much about them. And the more you know about someone the more likely you are to discover things you have in common, or discover ways you connect, beyond analyzing potential romances or guys or whatever allows women to most easily bond with one another.

For me this really hits a nerve. I used to think the way to understand people was to analyze them. And let me tell you I am good at analyzing. I considered being a psychologist, at many people's urging, for a LONG time. But somewhere along the line, I realized that the way to understand someone is just to wait. Observe and wait, that's it, and that's different from analyzing. Be patient and good things will come to you. And when you respond to the things that ARE given to you, the good will just keep on coming. People will trust you and open up more and your friendships will deepen and when you see the librarian racing through the teachers' room with her jaw set and her lips tight because she's on some undisclosed mission, you'll just smile to yourself because despite the way she may seem uptight, you know her and you love her for a lot more than what everbody else can see in that moment.

This lesson, this personified truth, is the intangible thing Hattori Sensei passed on to me. But the other thing, the tangible inheritance that is actually quite silky, is a kimono.

Last weekend Hattori Sensei gave me a kimono she wore before she got married, including the necessary under-kimono and fittings and attachments and obi and even 2 silk kimono-style jackets. I know that the best way I can thank her is to wear them. To say it was a generous gift is an understatement. The kimono is off-white with a very Japanese-style print pattern of flowers and birds, really quite beautiful. (For some reason I had a mental image of something plain and maroon, so I was delighted when I actually saw the real thing she was giving me.) I stood on Hattori Sensei's tatami mats, her yanking on the silk while yelling at her husband to stay out Lauren's not dressed yet, and when she finished the obligatory pulling and wrapping and tying, she stood back to look at me and I watched her eyes widen.

Lauren, she said, it's like it was made for you. It fits perfectly. Look.

I went over to the mirror and discovered that it did, indeed, fit perfectly.

After 4 hours of dressing and undressing and redressing, in an attempt to teach me the simplest way to wear a kimono so that I can wear it on my own, we moved on to photographs, and ice cream, and finally the lesson on kimono storage. There is a rather complicated way to fold the kimono when you're not wearing it, and giving verbal directions in detail becomes rather ridiculous. Exasperated and laughing, Hattori Sensei said finally,

Just follow the wrinkles. That will show you where to fold.

As we were packing everything for me to take home, I tried to thank her and tell her how honored I was to receive such a gift and that I was excited about wearing it. But her response made me stop. Still folding and not even looking up at me, she said,

Yes. All these years, I was keeping it for you.

Yet another lesson in patience and trusting that good things will come. Hattori Sensei had something beautiful to give away, something that meant a lot to her but that was now better shared with someone else. And the tone in her voice was like "all those years," she never doubted or worried that she would find the right person to give it to. It made me think of falling in love. All the people who worry and scheme and think they have to finagle their way into a worthwhile relationship. Trying to plan and plan, worried that what they have to give might go unnoticed or unused or unwitnessed or wasted. But the combination of her words and tone of voice was so powerful to me it made me feel like I never had to worry about anything. It was, perhaps, how a non-Christian would describe fate; Hattori Sensei is a practicing Buddhist so she wouldn't say, "God has a plan and things work out the way they should," but her message was clearly along the same lines. And it was a message that hit me pretty hard.

You can't see the future, but what's going to happen is what's going to happen. You do your best, and remain patient, and things will fall into place. When Hattori Sensei made that comment, there was no hint of impatience or worry or strain or doubt at all, and no hint that those feelings had EVER been there in the first place. She didn't say, "I was WAITING for you to come along and FINALLY you are here and now I can give it to you!" She said only, "I was keeping it for you," and that was that. I think the difference in those two statements is very powerful. Her obvious faith in fate, or whatever you want to call it, really impressed a lot upon me. Sure, it's just a kimono. But when Hattori Sensei gave it to me, she gave me a lot more than some feminine yards of silk fabric. I'm humbled that she chose to give it to me. But what excited me most of all was her belief that things just work the way they're supposed to work.

JET Journal

Good news!

A teacher gave me a small book of tanka written by Japanese college students. Tanka are similar to haiku but a little longer, with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable format. They should describe a specific moment in time, an action or something concrete, instead of just an abstract emotion. After reading the book I decided to try writing some myself and put them down in my journal. Later, I saw a call for submissions to the JET Journal, the JET Program annual publication that's distributed to all current and incoming JETs. So I submitted my tanka and some of them were published! Click the link and it should open to page 74.


21 July 2006

The Spider

Today I got dressed up for the school's closing ceremony, where I made a teary goodbye speech in Japanese and surprised a lot of people, including myself. My last day at school was extremely emotional, memorable, touching, and humbling. I hope to write more about it later, but for now I'm still trying to process it all.

What I have been thinking about all day is what I saw when I stepped off the bus, my curly hair frizzing and my mascara running in the rain. I stood there in the street, frozen in shock like a deer in headlights, unable to move or open my umbrella because of sheer terror. There, so big that it was actually CROSSING THE STREET, and headed right for ME, was the biggest and most terrifying spider I have ever seen in my life.

It was so big, I swear on the curly locks of my first-born child, its body was half the size of my fist. It was covered in short-haired, soft-looking zig zag stripes of grey and brown. Including the legs the spider was the size of my entire hand. I stood there between a spider and a bus, my mouth open horror, actually debating which option would save me from death: run towards the spider? Or back into the street towards the bus? It was making a BEELINE for me, this spider SO HUGE it was not an arachnid, but more like a small animal. A small, terrifying animal I could not actually believed existed. Much bigger than a tarantula. I could not believe my eyes, and that is probably why I continued to stare without moving -- I could not believe this creature was actually a spider, below rats and other small animals on the species chain. Have I mentioned that this thing was big? It was colossal.

A student got off the bus behind me and relief melted my frozen joints. He could save me! Then I started to talk.


I screamed in informal Japanese, much like I had yelled at the gardener when I saw the huge hornet.

LOOK! I repeated. IT'S HUGE!!! I made no attempts to hide anything I was feeling.

The student's eyes widened as he realized the spider was now charging him. But then I saw him shoot a sideways glance in my direction. A mischevious glance. Instead of moving out of the way, the student held his ground, and allowed the spider to crawl up onto his shoe. More disbelief, more screaming in Japanese, more terrified Lauren.


The student started laughing until he began kicking his foot and realized the spider had better grip than he'd anticipated. As the spider continued up his pants leg, I just continued screaming. The student's smile turned into an expression of panic and he began kicking and shaking his leg much harder. Eventually, the spider flew off, in my direction, so I shot off down the street towards the school. When I felt I was at a safe distance, assuming the spider was off battling cars and transfer trucks instead of helpless humans, I felt bold enough to turn around.


I yelled at the student one more time, and then we smiled at each other.

Good morning, he said.

Good morning.

And we calmly walked into school. I couldn't stop grinning and shaking my head until I walked through the door. My love of Japan involves so many peaceful things, like gardens and kimonos and tea ceremonies. But it also involves a lot of screaming.

20 July 2006

The Key to Happiness

...my friends, is adaptability.

read & learn:

[Setting: 2 weeks ago, Lauren's bedroom]

LAUREN: (upon seeing cockroach on her ceiling) AHHH! EEEHHH! **)!$?%&!! What are you doing here???? GET OUT!! GET OUUUTTT!!!!

[Setting: 1 week ago, Lauren's kitchen]

LAUREN: (jumping back from her stove as a roach runs out from under her teapot) AHH! %##!?&!! Ferdinand, go away!!

[Setting: this evening, Lauren's bathroom]

LAUREN: (with boredom, watching a roach crawl across her floor) Oh hey, it's you. Listen, I'm leaving in 3 days, but a new ALT is coming. Her name is Emily. But don't worry, she probably won't eat much.

[Setting: 10 minutes later, Lauren's kitchen]

LAUREN: (upon counting no less than 3 roaches, flicks off the lights with continued boredom) Hey guys, beer's in the fridge. Leave me the sake.


19 July 2006

OC II Class

This class of seniors had to be my favorite. (Yes, most of them are bigger than I). No matter what, they always made me feel excited and uplifted. Every day they'd look up at me from their desks, and you could tell from their eager expressions that they expected me to be happy and full of the energy, to give them a good class every time. When good students expect the best from you, you want to give it to them. Yesterday I received thank you notes saying, "I loved this class because you were always happy and smiling. English was always fun." But don't they realize why?

Tea Ceremony Club

What I WILL most definitely miss is my school, Fuji Higashi High School. The students, the clubs, the teachers -- including SadouBu, or tea ceremony club.

The girls in SadouBu were always so sweet and inclusive and eager to teach me the steps. Every single move during this traditional tea ceremony is choreographed, so much so that it's like a slow dance on your knees. Your steps, posture, angle of your wrists, number of times you sip, method of passing the bowl to the next person, which hand you use to do what -- literally every move must follow a set pattern. The result is that, far from being annoying, the whole process is quite meditative and soothing. I always left tea ceremony club feeling very peaceful.

In the photos:

The man is the tea ceremony "master," and the girl serving tea will become one of the new leaders. She's one of my favorites. All these girls have been my students at one point. Doing something with them outside of class thrills them no end, and makes me very happy. The Japanese sweets are made of white bean paste wrapped in a sticky, firm, jelly-like substance made from seaweed.

16 July 2006

What I WON'T Miss

In an effort to add some sugar to a bittersweet goodbye, here's a list of things that I will not miss about living in Japan.

  • mold growing on everything from floors to backpacks to shoes to wooden coasters to the sprouts indepedently growing from my sponge. It is THAT disgustingly humid.
  • huge cockroaches I can do nothing about
  • NO CENTRAL HEATING or AC anywhere
  • "celebrity status," ie total lack of privacy
  • having to be overly-conservative about everything because of the teacher reputation I am expected to uphold
  • spending too much time in front of the computer
  • waiting for late buses and then getting whiplash from crazy drivers
  • not having a car or otherwise any access to good transportation
  • the high cost of produce
  • pollution and ugly smokestacks in my town
  • rough washers and dryers = worn-out clothes
  • lack of a "real" bed
  • complete lack of the "and on day 7 He rested" concept
  • always being the object of a stare
  • the ramen truck that blares until 11:30 on Thursday nights
  • lack of daylight savings in winter
  • lack of regular religious services
  • instant coffee

Silence is Golden 2

Along those same lines, love is not so much about communication as it is about presence. Because only one of those can replace the other.

Silence is Golden

When you spend a year living in a country where you can only understand 10% of the dialogue, you realize how unnecessary words are. Even for a woman who likes to write.

People talk too much. I talk too much. Since I'm about to make such a big change in lifestyle, I'd like to think of this as a new resolution. I want my life to involve way less talk and much more action.

They say you should marry someone you can talk to, but really, you should marry someone you can be quiet with. Silence is closely linked to happiness. And since actions speak louder than words anyway, what do you really need to say?

09 July 2006

Mr. Ferdinand, Please Go Home

...to the home you had before you took up residence in mine.

I am sad to leave Japan, but I am not sad to leave (the mold and) the 3-inch cockroaches who, instead of scattering when you turn on the lights, like to hang out confused on the ceiling above your bed, waving their attenaes as if you smell funny to them. As if you are in their spaces; as if you are disturbing their peace.

The biggest one, the one who likes to hang out while I stomp and flail my arms and flick the lights and do everything possible to shoo him back into the walls** so that I may sleep in peace, I have named Mr. Ferdinand. I'm always happy to make a friend, but Mr. Ferdinand is not what I had in mind.

** I've set up no less than 7 roach traps in my 3-room apartment, but they only catch the little guys, not the 3-inch ones. I do love living alone, but after this, I might prefer another person if it would mean a nicer apartment sans roaches.

The Strangest Flower

If I don't have a book at the bus stop, I often get bored when public transportation arrives anywhere from 2 - 20 minutes later than scheduled. But at one bus stop in front of someone's house, I am always fascinated by this flower. I stare and stare and can't get enough and before I know it the bus arrives.

The ants also can't get enough. They go crazy and, although you can't see them in this picture, constantly run over its surface doing who knows what (I can't see them eating anything or gathering any nectar, just running over this flower like it's a jungle gym). It doesn't even produce a noticeable odor.

If you know the name of this one please let me know, because it is the strangest flower I've ever seen in my life.

07 July 2006

Give Me an "H" !

The coolest thing about teaching is that the kids make me laugh a lot, for a whole slew of reasons. Even when I am doing something as routine and endless and boring as grading 400 tests, there is always something worthy of stomach-grabbing laughter.

Like today, in the middle of these 400 tests. I am responsible for the "oral communication" classes at my school, so each semester I make a listening exam. For about 30 minutes I talk into a tape recorder, and on test day play the tape for students to answer questions about pronunciation, imaginary diary entries, and sentence dictations. Without question, dictation is the most difficult section. And today it's what made me crack up.

One of my past lessons was about music and emotions, so I thought it would be a "fun" topic for the exam. I was also responsible for weaving in a random set of vocabulary words, totally unrelated words like "drawer" and "headache." So in the dictation about listening to new CDs, students were supposed to write,

"I'm sorry, but right now I have a headache" as one of the answers. Here is a list of the words / phrases I got in place of "I have a headache."

  • headwig
  • head deck
  • I have aholic
  • an egg
  • ahead one egg
  • headcake
  • head dick

and my two personal favorites:

  • headquake
  • head-leak

"Head-leak" is the one that really had me rolling. When you're plugging along grading papers and your eye is trained to recognize the correct answer quickly, the deviations can be quite surprising -- especially when they are real words.

Not quite as funny, but in place of the song title "Tears in Heaven," there was

  • Devil Haven
  • Tires in Heaven

Now, as a teacher my job is certainly not to make fun of the students or display their innocent "incompetence" all over the web. (That is definitely not my point.) Overall the students did a great job! But I had to share part of what being a language teacher is all about.

03 July 2006


Today I was attacked by a small bird who stabbed me with its needle beak.

Then I realized it was a mosquito.

The other mysterious objects flying around Fuji's air are much smaller -- scents. What you can smell varies with the season as well as the time of day. But as an experiment, I'll try to paint you a rambling picture of Fuji odors. Pretend you can't see anything, and in one summer day, this is what you'd smell (apologies if this is too realistic or graphic for some people, but such is life -- it's not all about flowers):

-slightly fishy fish (a neighbor's breakfast, comes at intervals through the window)
-a thick but low-lying smell of damp hay and grass (tatami mats in summer)
-light saltiness of sweat
-mildew (bathroom towels and shower tiles never dry completely)
-cold ceramic, copper, and other metal, the way something at the dentist tastes (similar to blood, but it comes from the bathroom tile and pipes)

Here I could go on about minty toothpaste, but I'll stick with what is unique to Japan. At this point your nose will start to get stuffy from all the molds and pollens and polutants floating around, which will dull your senses a bit. But still there is:

-sour yet throat-scratching fuel exhaust
-honeysuckle and other weed-like but sweet little flowers
-bagged garbage (awaiting collection in the sun)
-a light layer of dried leaves over a headier layer of leaves and stalks and soil that is always damp, always in the shade, always rotting and growing at the same time; a cooling scent that is released and smells better just before a rain, and just after a rain when the dried-out leaves on top are quenched and all the vegetation relaxes together and there's no more rotting until the sun comes out again

-strangers' sweat, old ladies' dried-out, powdery skin and clothes, more fuels and metals (the bus ride to work)
-faint smell of old rubber and worn shoes at the school entrance where everyone changes into indoor slippers
-a comforting, sweet, pungent, grandfatherly smell of dried tobacco leaves (some of the men leave old coke cans by the door to collect ashes from the cigars and cigarettes they smoke outside during breaks)
-a sexy, full-bodied, charcoal and rosemary and cinammon and cool water masculine cologne, worn by the young office guy (the only cologne I have ever smelled in Japan)
-old building dust that is re-baking in the sun (a smell that is only present in summer)
-the yellow, closeted, musty smell of old library books, in contrast to the freshly-toxic chemical smell of newly-printed books shrink-wrapped in thin, tight plastic (a tinge of something similar to nail-polish remover, warning you not to inhale too much of its newness)
-hot flavored instant coffees
-burned, overly-bitter drip coffees
-green tea
-women's soap, shampoo, and waxy lipstick residues
-bars of fatty lemon-flavored soap
-sweat of teenagers in uniform sweaters despite the heat
-salty miso soup, bitter and sour Japanese pickles (described as smelling like dirty feet or other unpleasant body odors, but eaten by everyone around my desk)
-Japanese curry
-caramel-flavored iced coffee
-baking bread and thick, warm cream from the "French" bakery across the street
-sweat from teachers of various body weights and stress-levels
-mysterious flower that drifts into the teachers' room as the day begins to end
-even stronger scent of invisible flowers as night falls
-sewage, old soapy dirty dishwater, chlorine from the city's drains
-damp piles of wood from trucks driving up the mountain carrying supplies
-pan-warmed soy sauce and mirin (sweetened sake)
-popcorn-like smell of fluffy white rice (no butter)

-damp tatami, cooling down and smelling even more like hay than in the morning (after a day's worth of wet, warm air)
-red wine
-breeze bringing a mix of food from other kitchens, a fresh coolness as the sun sets,, and thick, stinky, sulfurous smells from the paper factory at the coastline
-the smell of the earth before it rains...sometimes it materializes into the fresh metallic smell of rain, but sometimes the air just remains in that heavy state of expectation until it gives up and dies away
-powdery laundry detergents
-freshening anti-mold and mildew sprays like light pine and flowers and water and mint
-familiar sheets (bedtime...rest and repeat)

Of course, the hardest thing about describing scent is that it's nearly impossible to do without referring to something else. Think of this as a work in progress, or at least, no where near complete.