And when I go to get copies on the first floor, I see this:
Remnants of Halloween linger. It's hard to switch to "The Nile is the longest river in the world." Everything feels off. I'm not really prepared today. I didn't feel like doing anything after those spring rolls last night.
To make things worse, after school is my Vietnamese lesson with Phouc, and I dread these. I like her, but I am a terrible language student. After school I just want to go home, the work day here is so long. But she has been meeting me at school on Mondays and Wednesdays from 4:00 to 5:00 and I watch the clock the entire time while I try to mimic the hardest language in the world...tones, accents, it's really really difficult.
So I think about how to cheer myself up. I ask Phouc how to ask Nam to take me to his Number One Soup Place. She is fascinated that my driver is involved in my food life. "He takes you places to eat? Really?"
"Yes. And this morning he gave me an apple and a persimmon."
She writes down my request, and I try to say it to Nam outside but he can't understand my pronunciation at all, so I show him the note. Another belly laugh - the deepest one yet.
"You want my Number One Soup?" I think he says. I nod. Another belly laugh.
He drives with more purpose (we actually have a few close calls because, I think, he is so distracted) and all the way home, he makes me repeat the name of the soup, which, he says, is not "soup."
"Hu Tieu My. Hu Tieu My. Hu Tieu My." Only one out of ten times do I even come close to getting it right. He waves his hand like "so so."
"I will go to your house first and then drive you there so you will know how to walk there on your own," I think he says.
When we get to his spot in his village, the place is full, and everyone knows Nam, of course. His nephew is there, but he is trying to avoid Nam (do you blame him)? There is a girl with him, and Nam nudges me and tells me it's his girlfriend. Wouldn't you know, your embarrassing uncle shows up with his strange motorbike client, the one you are always having to translate things for, mostly about food, during your (not) soup date after school.
Nam, again, negotiates my food for me. He places the order and says he is getting me two different kinds of noodles, and I should go and have a seat at one of the plastic tables, he will bring it to me. I sit down on a little red chair and two of Nam's Hu Tieu My Buddies begin to ask me questions -- one woman speaks pretty clear English, but the man sitting at the shelfish station...I can't understand a word he says. The woman's daughter lives in Illinois. Here, look, this is her (a picture that has been ripped in half, signifying divorce??) and these are her children. "I can sing many American songs," she says, and she begins to sing Aaron Neville's "My Love."
The man is telling me to tie my hair back, I think. He hands me a rubber band.
Nam finally comes with the not-soup that looks exactly like soup - two kinds of noodles, thick and thin, topped with thinly sliced pork and ground pork in the middle, surrounded by green onions. Nam goes to work putting in sauces, lime and chili peppers. He folds up tissue into squares for me to wipe my mouth and my forehead because I will sweat when I eat it.
The two men are giving me instructions: chopsticks, with the spoon underneath while the woman sings "...oh my love, my darling, I've hungered for your touch, a long, lonely time..." and I am trying to acknowledge her while collecting the long noodles. Wait, you're not doing it right, I'm told. Here, do it this way...and Nam shows me how. I feel the same way when I can't get a tone right. The man asks another question I can't understand, and the woman..."I need your love, I need your love..." I smile at her.
I finally take a bite. The strips of pork are so tender and so tasty. The noodles are al dente, just as they should be-- they are dropped in for each individual order. And the broth, well, it is superior to my guy's broth, and his is excellent. It's been cooking all day. Again, Nam is right. I have hit the Hu Tieu My Jack Pot in the village next to mine.
The woman is still singing "...God speed your love to me..." and the man is still asking questions. They are all laughing at my manouevers. I bite into a whole red chili, and it burns the heck out of my tongue. I wave in front of my face. Nam, I need something to drink. He waves at a woman for a drink, but I'm not sure if she sees him. His friend asks another question. The woman is done with song #1 and is ready to move on to a song I don't know, and by they way, she plays guitar but not so much anymore since she is now 60..."I'm so lonely, no one to hold me..."
It's been two minutes and no drink. I wave to Nam again. Yes, it's coming. The man asks me another question, it has something to do with my head. Nam tells me to bring my two friends this weekend. We can walk because he took me by the house first so I would know how to get here. The woman wants me to recognize the song. My tongue is on fire.
Finally, a lemon ice tea arrives and it is salve to my burn, except, you know, only for a second. Then we hear the thunder clap. Nam says it's time to go. My Hu Tieu is only 2/3 gone, but Nam doesn't want to get stuck in the rain. I don't want to let go of my drink on ice, but I must do what I'm told. I quickly pay (this "soup" IS cheaper, it's only 12,000, and my guy is 15,000) I say goodbye to The Singer and The Inquisitor, and off we go.
When we get to the castle, I tell Nam that his Hu Tieu My is Number One. He is so happy. "Bring your two friends this weekend, because I showed you how to get there since I came to your house before going there..."