When she was brought home as a foster kitten from the shelter, she was one in a litter of six and definitely the most outspoken of the group. Trying to get her out of the carrier provoked hissing and growling. Once the group got settled in, she was a bit more friendly. She morphed into the first kitten at the door and the one most eager for food and also affection. She spent many evenings curled up on my legs as I sat with my iPad or laptop on the couch.
Aria is the one on the left. The Tabby with the Jaguar-like markings. Her nickname became “Jag”
That was Aria’s favorite spot to hang out.
Working from home, I would close my door during the day so that I could have privacy and not be distracted by kittens. But she would find her way to my door and cry. She wanted to be with me. And so I fashioned a sling out of an old scarf, a spot that became her favorite, the one where she spent most of her day cuddled against me.
When she and another runt-sized kitten were found to have eye goop, the shelter’s kitty coordinator, Kim, told me that they both might be too congested to give back. I looked at little Jag – her original name – and her tabby swirl markings, her adorable little face, and said to Kim, “I don’t care what happens to the black one, but Jag has got to be OK.” That was the moment I knew that this little kitty had worked her way into my life in the most unexpected way.
Her constant need to be near me and with me, the way she’d look up at me and stare at me, it was as if she was saying, “You’re my buddy. I choose you.”
That’s Aria’s “Hi, Mom!” look.
My first task was to find a name that suited the little songstress and finally decided on Aria (Phoebe will be reserved for a future dog). Her name has grown (literally) to represent her character and so her full name is now Aria, Jagalicious, Smarty McTarty, Rolly Polly, Spastastic Bright. The Smarty McTarty was originally Farty McTarty, as it took months to find the right food for her and her sensitive stomach. I never understood how a small creature could make such big smells. I can’t tell you enough how glad I am that the Farty McTarty phase is behind us!
Aria is pretty unaware that she is a cat, I believe. She spends her day only a few feet away from me. She’s so attached, she even sleeps at my feet. She absolutely loves hair ties and has learned to fetch them. Aria initiates these games throughout the day by picking one of the colorful hair ties out of her toy box and dropping it at my feet with a hearty, “MEOW,” and the touch of her paw on my shin. Sometimes I find hair ties dropped on my pillow on weekend mornings when I just want to sleep a bit longer.
Here’s Aria, with one of her hair ties, ready to play.
She’s got a bit of huntress qualities, as she amazingly spots the smallest of moving objects. Any spider or insect who comes in the house doesn’t stand a chance. When she is on the hunt, she chirps. When she wakes up and wants breakfast, she also chirps. She chirps to get my attention and chirps when she’s fetching hair ties. Chirps usually turn into meows if you don’t take notice. Her chirps are a quick trill and very melodic. They can sound inquisitive, uncertain, disturbed or satisfied. If you speak to her, she usually answers back.
When I’m brewing my second cup of coffee in the morning, I take her outside and just sit for a few moments. She relaxes in my arms and watches birds fly over, chirps at ants on the ground, tries to keep up with the zoom of a humming bird and gazes at the bumble bees. She doesn’t lunge or wiggle or get set to pounce. We just sit there together and enjoy the moment. It’s a favorite of the day.
Aria’s black scarf/sling is now her small throw at the foot of my bed. After she fills her belly, she likes to jump on the bed and uses the scarf to kneed. She takes one little piece into her mouth and by the look on her face, goes into the zone of complete comfort and pleasure. She purrs and kneeds and eventually lays on the scarf with her nose deep in the material, relaxed and sleepy. She often exposes her belly when she sleeps. What a great belly of spots! She greets me by rolling on her back and from side to side, paws up, belly exposed. Complete trust.
There’s Aria with her frog and her scarf. Such a cuddle bug.
Of all of the things that I envisioned for my return to the US, a pet, and certainly a cat, was never in my mind. But I’m glad the outspoken little furball insisted on being a part of my life. It’s been several years since the family dog passed and I forgot how much joy and love a pet can bring into your life. I’m reminded every day how full of love these creatures are. She’s my constant little companion, my dog-cat, my Aria. I adore her and love her so very much.
According to the Vet’s calculations, today is her birthday. Happy first birthday, Aria. Thank you for choosing me.
A random post on Facebook tonight reminded me that I’m due to celebrate a very special 10 year anniversary. July 28, 2002.
Only a week before, I had sold nearly all of my possessions and prepared two and a half suitcases for a move to a country I had never stepped foot in. The yard sale was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. And it set the tone for a more simplistic life. One where the layers of complexity were peeled away with each new cultural experience and every moment I settled into a completely new way of life.
My first year was a whirlwind of memories. There were a seas of new faces in not only my students and co-workers, but in all the other foreign teachers who came to the tiny country seeking new adventures, work experience, fun, perhaps even a delay of reality. I easily adapted to my new surroundings and loved my little apartment with the fabulous view of a very handsome mountain. Teaching high school students was often more challenging than any job I had ever held. But warm friendships were formed and I remain in touch with a good handful of the, then seniors who are now 28… some married, some with children.
I was apprehensive to transfer to my new job, but it turned out to be the best decision. It required some effort to get settled in all over again, but the pay off was a new office full of supportive co-workers and the chance to teach the tiniest and cutest kids imaginable. For four years, I danced, sang and gestured to get the English meaning across. I played dodgeball almost every day at lunch. Lunchtime with teachers helped me better understand their language. I made so many new friends, big and small, old and young. I traveled. I listened. I absorbed. I laughed, cried, ate, drank and embraced that amazing culture. Along the way, I shared all the highlights with you.
When the time came for me to leave, I wasn’t ready for the journey to end. But it was clear that this was a chapter in my life and that turning the page would begin a different, yet also exciting adventure. A new story was ready for me. The goodbyes were bitter sweet, the sentiments genuine and special. The friendships were real and celebrated.
There are countless moments that are so easily recalled with great fondness and affection. A word might pop into my head, a photo will catch my eye as the cover of a digital album, or a craving for any number of specialty foods creeps into my belly. In those moments, I pause to honor the memory, remember a face, hear a voice or a laugh. I miss it. I miss that life, that work, those people, that version of me.
Ten years ago on July 28, 2002, I packed my bags and boarded a one-way flight to Japan. And it changed me forever. Surely, that’s something worth celebrating.
Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season and merry celebrations. As I was going through some of my boxes a few weekends ago (I still have not unpacked them all!), I came across some old cookbooks and Food & Wine Magazines I’ve saved for their stellar recipes. As many of you know, I love to bake during the holidays and serve as the family head chef for the big dinners. One of my absolute favorite recipes is from a December 1992 F&W Magazine article on holiday parties. So here’s my small gift to you this year, the ultimate, the delicious, the amazing:
Makes 80 bite-sized brownies
2 pounds milk chocolate chips or chopped milk chocolate
1/4 cup instant coffee granules
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
1. Preheat over to 375°. Lightly grease four 8-inch square foil cake pans.
2. Place the chocolate and coffee in a double boiler over simmering water. Stir occasionally until the chocolate melts.
3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar, scraping down the sides as necessary. Beat in the eggs, two at a time, beating until the mixture is pale yellow, about 3 minutes. Stir in the vanilla, cinnamon and salt, then carefully beat in the the melted chocolate and coffee mixture until combined. Beat in the flour; you may have to finish this by hand.
4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes, until puffed, cracked and slightly resistant to the touch. Let cool on a rack, then cover and refrigerate overnight. To serve, cut each cold brownie square in 20 pieces.
Seriously – these are the BEST brownies I have ever had! I hope you enjoy making them and more so, eating them! They go great with coffee! ;p And if you really want to kick it up a notch, you can top each brownie with a dollop of chocolate frosting and a chocolate-covered espresso bean. Divine! Happy Holidays everyone!
The group of friends in this picture is the group I used to teach on Wednesday nights. I only taught them for one year, but we became so close and traveled often. It was with this group that I took a lot of road trips in Japan. They even teased me on this visit how I don’t fall asleep in the car, but have wide eyes and look out the window (little do they know I’ve been that way all my life – ask my parents!).
With them, I saw the amazing thatched roof houses in Shirokawa, a much more rural part of Kyoto, went tonbodama hunting in Osaka and visited the old postal towns of Tsumago and Magome. We also had a cooking exchange; they loved the Mexican food I made for them!
With a jam-packed schedule for this visit, we had just one evening together. We organized a home party at Katsumi and Setsuko’s, the place where we used to gather for our class. I made guacamole, or as the Japanese love to call it, “avocado food.” Everyone made tasty dishes and Katsumi made sure there was plenty of beer!
I was, again, pretty surprised how much Japanese I remembered. They had lots of questions about my work and life in Vietnam. And for whatever I couldn’t say in Japanese (I can’t get too technical about what I do in Sales & Marketing….my Japanese definitely doesn’t cover that!), I used the white board. You would be amazed how pictures, even poorly drawn ones, help in getting your point across.
The next day, they drove me to the train station, and I’ll tell ya, all these terrific visits made it so hard to say ‘mata ne’ again. This is a special group of friends and I have missed them very much. It was wonderful to see them again!
Kanpai! – Katsumi, Michi, Setsuko, Machi, Emiko and Yuko. I love them!
My group of friends in Fukuroi are super special to me. I taught at their school only for two terms, but created such a close bond with them. They are such a fun group, and it was because of them that I became such a devoted soccer fan (we went to many games together). It was also because if them that I met my crush, the goalie Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Little Rieko is the teacher who was my partner in the classroom, and she is, by far, one of the most energetic people I know. She’s so small, but has the personality as big as 10 people! WIth her help, I was able to meet my Fukuroi friends, as well as my former and fabulous boss, Suzuki Sensei. Ozawa Sensei, one of my favorite and funny friends, also came along. Both Suzuki and Ozawa live and work now near Fukuroi. So glad we were able to coordinate it all!
Koyama Sensei is the former school principal of the elementary school I taught at. He is the one who pushed for me to meet the soccer star and also the organizer of our Fukuroi Fireworks party. He’s now retired. He’s also a light drinker. He has one beer, gets a little sleepy and then drinks cola for the rest of the night. We all have no shame and tease him endlessly for not being a strong drinker. He is such a good sport!
You can see some of my friends in Fukuroi, starting with this picture HERE. What a great night it was, and like all my other groups of friends, so fun to see them!
A few of my Fukuroi friends. – I only worked with these teachers for a school year, but remained good friends and went to many soccer games together.
Masayo was THE first Japanese person I met, outside of work, who really spoke English. My Scottish friend Eilidh knew her and planned an enkai at the beginning of December of 2002 with a great group of Japanese people who were learning English from Masayo. Masayo is completely fluent, having lived in Canada for a few years.
I remember that party very well, because it was the within the first four months of living in Japan. At that point, I was eager to make Japanese friends outside of school, and expand my horizons a bit beyond the world of JET. I instantly liked Masayo when we met. She’s one of the few Japanese people I know who understand a sarcastic sense of humor.
Masayo was there for me on so many occasions. She helped me get settled in Fuji city and in Japan and introduced me to some really great people. It was tough to leave Fuji City after one year, mostly because of her and my group of friends there.
But our friendship was much stronger than convenience and I often traveled to Fuji so we could all get together. When I was leaving Japan, I told her “You are my heart.” This is a phrase she later told me she loved so much and had learned from me. And that phrase for me is so spot on when it comes to her. Masayo became a sister to me, my family, part of me, and her friendship is one I will cherish my whole life.
Aside from the group party, we did get some time for just the two of us. It was good to get caught up! Like so many of my other friends, she wondered if I would ever consider coming back to Japan. That led to our conversation about the husband material in Japan and she actually, as she always has, taught me some interesting tidbits on how to find a good man! She recently started dating someone and strongly believes that I would easily catch a good guy.
I’ve often said that the sign of a good friend is how you feel when you see them after a long absence. If you feel awkward or find it difficult to talk, you probably weren’t such good friends. If it seems like you just saw them yesterday (even though it’s been three years, then they are definitely a good and true friend. I hated leaving Masayo at the train station, but I know that we’ll see each other again soon!
Of course it was wonderful to see everyone and get caught up, but I was particularly delighted to meet Haruka. She is the four-month-old daughter of my friends Tamaki and Aze-kun. And they are two of the first friends I met in Japan. They are also the friends I enjoyed Hatsuhinode with, and other awesome hiking trips. They are also 100% responsible for my love of the Japanese band called Rip Slyme. I’ve missed them so much and was sooooo excited to see them.
Haruka is a tiny little thing, so cute and cuddly, and a very content baby. Of course she tested her vocal powers a few times, which was essentially an ear-piercing scream. But how fun to hold her and squeeze her and meet my friends’ daughter.
I wish I could have spent more time with them all. It was a least fun to hang out for a bit and get caught up. I took a lot of photos when we all visited. My favorite is HERE. Too cute!
I miss you Tamaki and Aze-kun! Give that little angel some kisses and a few squeezes from Auntie Shanna!