When I return to the neighborhood tonight, I hear Thuy call my name. It suprises me because I have never seen her outside of her alley. She is carrying a bowl of pho and is walking toward her house (I find out later that it is her own bowl that she has filled at the stand), but she asks if I have eaten yet (have you eaten rice? they say) and of course I am interested in which pho stand she chooses, so she hooks her arm around mine and we head back up the street together.
She leads me to the woman who puts the dinosaur bones on the ground by her stand- the one Rita wrote the poem about; ironically, I ate there for the first time last night. But tonight I allow Thuy to order for me and she puts it all in there: the lean meat, the half and half, the ball of fat and the meatball. I'm hoping that she won't notice that the ball of fat goes untouched, and she at least acts like she doesn't see it. (With Nam I would not have been so lucky.)
The broth is full of flavor. Over dinner, she tells me more about our Sunday plans. We - Katherine, Tarn and I - are to meet her at her house at 2:00, when the market closes. We will then get on a "ship" and travel to a place with a pagoda and then eat at a restaurant that Thuy is very, very excited about. She, Katherine and I will eat goat, and Tarn, well, he will be OK. There is lots of vegetarian food there, she says.
"Maggie," she adds, "Do you like Banh Xeo?"
Ban Xeo is the crepe filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. The filling is also used for the turmeric rice cakes.
"I love ban xeo!" I say. I am so enthusiastic about it that she laughs.
"Next Sunday, I make ban xeo for you. I make a list, you buy the food, and I come to your house."
I feel like telling her I love her.
And then she says, "After that, the next Sunday, we make the rice cakes."
I'm thinking of the song in The Sound of Music when Maria and the Captain are falling in love and they sing that song "I Must Have Done Something Good." In this life, I must have done something good to deserve my own Vietnamese Alley Angel who is teaching me how to make all of my favorite Tamarind Tree favorites every Sunday. I don't even have to make a request.
And this next Sunday is all about what Thuy considers the best goat in Vietnam, along with a very cool pagoda. I swear that last weekend Katherine called this upcoming Sunday "Pa-goat-a Day" but when I tell her last night how funny I found that phrase she just says, "I never said that." I guess I made it up myself.
After pho, Thuy takes me on a walking tour of the best food in the neighborhood...and you know what? I have already located all of the best food in the neighborhood. We go to the fried rice stand that we castle dwellers patronize at least three nights per week now (crab, shrimp, and flank steak fried rice plus an excellent salad- for about $1.50), the Hu Tieu My wonton soup place that Nam has forbidden me to eat over his village's Hu Tieu My, the fried chicken in the alley, and the bbq pork chop place that has the pork-stuffed tofu.
When the tour is finished, Thuy goes back to the stand to pick up her soup bowl and says, "I go home now. Bye Bye, Maggie!"
This neighborhood...I'm telling you. It's magic. It's my Magic Neighborhood. When I return from the airport on Sunday, the first thing I do after dropping off my bag is walk around the corner to my shellfish lady. I sit on the low plastic red chair and order the clams - it's all she has left because it is after 3 and she is getting ready to close. She prepares them to perfection on her little stove - she boils them with just a little bit of sugar and lemongrass, and mixes the salt, pepper and lime for dipping. Then I go to my new friend Cung who works at a fruit stand and she makes me my shake-of-the-month - fresh strawberry.
Now I feel home.
The next morning I am curious as to whether Nam will be waiting for me on the street at 7. I get there right on time, just in case the tall blonde Dutch man tries to steal him again after a week-long hiatus, and there he is, in his spot, reading the paper. When he sees me he jumps up a bit and hides a smile. He folds the paper and gets the helmet out of the plastic bag before he looks right at me and asks how I am feeling. The other day Alice asked me how I know what he says, and it's just one of those strange communication things...I just do. I tell him I am much better. He nods.
"How was Nha Trang?"
Of course I didn't tell him I was going to Nha Trang. The neighborhood network did.
"It was good. It was rainy."
He drives me to school and calls one of the kids over just to confirm.
"How are you?" he gets Selena to ask me.
"I'm much better."
"How was Nha Trang?"
"It was good. It was rainy."
"What time (to pick you up?)"
"Half past four."
"OK. Goodbye. Have a good day."
After school, Nam meets me with a treat. It's a fruit cocktail kind of a drink...it has all kinds of chewy things in it, plus custard and the ice is on the side. He is a little embarrassed to give it to me, but he explains that I must put the ice in it when I get home.
"Thank you, Nam," I say. He hides the smile again and nods. I think we are both happy to be back on schedule.
And then...then, Brian, he takes me to the post office to pick up my flashlight. Yes, finally, I have the flashlight. Nam wants to know what I got, of course. I show him, and he thinks it's pretty cool. When I get home, Tarn thinks it's really, really cool. He wants one, too. So Brian, could you just do one more commercial for the flashlight because now everyone wants one. And, Brian, is it OK to tell other things on this blog? Let me know. I am happy that my band is almost all back together again~
Only five days until Pagoata Day!