Fast and Furious in Bangkok: Learning to Drive in a Cloud of Complexity

7-bangkok-traffic by  Davy-040

I’ve been told I’d be crazy to drive in Bangkok. Then, when people realise I’ve never even had a driver’s license, they think I’ve totally lost my mind. I’d like to propose that my lack of license or previous driving experience makes me a lot more like the local Thais already on the road, but we will get back to that.

There is such a long story as to why I don’t drive, I can bore myself just thinking about it so I am going to sum it up in a series of words and short phrases: New York City, London and no money, boats, significant others with licenses, and of course, the state that rules my life: procrastination.

How long have I been procrastinating? Well getting my license has been a new year’s resolution of mine since about ’96.  At the stroke of midnight I’ve jumped off a chair  (Danish), eaten 12 grapes (Spain) and banged the walls with bread (Ireland), or down a flute of champers (Various), all to no avail. I’ve owned the rules of the road code books for NYC, Singapore and now Thailand. In London and France, getting a license is so cost-prohibitive, I could never even consider it. When my SO at the time finally gave me birthday card promising lessons I reacted by running off to Turkey leaving him high and dry. The question remains whether I actually left ‘him’ or the idea of finally learning how to drive. Seriously though, I am someone who managed to quit smoking and yet I can’t find the willpower to follow through on this one.

About four years ago, I came really close. I had an eight-month-old baby and my husband and I were traveling to Mexico to introduce our little bundle to his family. The journey consisted of two flights to get there and four 4-hour road trips in a period of two weeks. Those of you with kids will know that entertaining a kid of that age, for that long, in the back of the car, would be the greatest incentive ever. By the end of the trip I vowed I’d get my license within the year. I went so far as to drag myself to the DMV, a feat in and of itself, pass the theory test, get the worst photo ever and receive my learner’s permit! But morning sickness, a miscarriage, and morning sickness again, culminating with a round the world move while 34 weeks pregnant put an end to that attempt.

So why now? Well this summer is a milestone birthday and I’d really like to get it before then. I am also going to be in France for two months with my two under 5s, relying on the generosity of others to put me up. Also, everyone I know lives in the sticks. It’s one thing to be in your late teens and call up your friends’ brothers and cousins to persuade them to drive you around the countryside to various parties. But I am pretty sure that 20 years on, me and two kids would be an exceedingly hard sell. Train travel with children that age, platform changes, steep steps to board, suitcases and just me is definitely one of the circles of Dante’s inferno. If I can drive, the trip could transform from torture to pleasure in one turn of the ignition key.

Tune in next week for part 2: guns, the art of zen, and never parking in Park.

Playboy Bunnies, Bells, and Plastic Eggs: Welcome to Easter in Bangkok

EggHunt2013 CreativeCommons by me

I am finally getting into the swing of things when it comes to celebrating holidays with the kids. We have so many of them when you consider our French, American and Mexican heritages. And now, on top of a social calendar rivaling page 6 socialistas, we  are immersed in all the Asian holidays as well.  At times it feels like a never-ending party to plan.

This weekend, a mere fortnight before the big Songkran or Thai New Year, expats everywhere were on the hunt for Easter booty. Decent quality chocolate eggs and bunnies are not abundant and poor quality treats of the Cadbury cream egg/ Marshmallow Peeps gendre even less so; a fascinating post on the history of peeps here.

Worried that a jam-packed schedule would limit my pre-Easter egg shopping, I decided to sign up my two little banshees for an organized egg hunt in a lovely green garden at the back of a posh hotel. The sign-up fee was to go to a worthy charity; it all sounded like a lovely idea.

With a ten a.m. start time delayed and hords of kids crowding two tiny start lines under the tropical sun, it dawned on me that prancing about a lush green garden collecting eggs was not a such a brilliant plan after all.

Little red riding hood finally made it –Yes, I too have no idea what she has to do with Easter, the basket maybe?– to lead the under fives to their egg area. I was extra grateful since it interrupted the conversation had just started taking place. The organizers were explaining how the bells [Les Cloches] had come through the garden to leave the eggs. I had completely forgotten that the French don’t have a lapin de Pâques. Instead, they tell children that while they are in Church on Easter Sunday, the bells, which have been silent since the thursday night to ensure they don’t ring during the mourning of Christ, return from Rome delivering chocolate eggs as they pass through town.

Le voyage des cloches à Rome gravure de Granville

I hoped P&C didn’t register this new story. We were firmly established as a bunny family and I dreaded the tales I’d have to weave to reconcile the various versions while suffering from heat exhaustion. My kids, stressed from  fidgeting in the sun, with sweat pouring down their faces, soon forgot the morning chaos and ran off ready to fill their makeshift egg baskets.

C's bag CC by me.
P bag by me via instagram

The eggs they were collecting were plastic. There were also large numbers of plastic fish strewn about. I never worked out if this was due to a lack of sufficient plastic eggs or some sort of French Christian thing. P definitely demonstrated the spirit of the day by running around finding kids with less eggs and filling their baskets with her own. Like me no doubt, she will always have an empty bank account.

P&friendegghunt2013 CC by me

P sharing eggs.

In the end, P’s generosity was neither penalized nor rewarded as every kid handed in their plastic booty to be swapped for a small bag of chocolate eggs straight out of a cooler. The rest of the morning was spent paying obscene amounts for drinks at the hotel bar while avoiding a sea of kids running around with melted chocolate all over their faces and hands -now I understood the reasoning behind the plastic egg. I feel that Songkran, a holiday where people douse each other in water, should be merged with Easter so we can hose down all the kids next year thereby cooling everyone off and washing away all the excess chocolate. Now that’s a little Euro-Asian fusion I can get behind.

A few hours later, P and I hopped into a cab.  As we settled on the nice cool vinyl seats, P asked me what the bunny stickers on all the windows said. I am never entirely sure what to make of cabs plastered in these. I don’t usually like to fib and always try to give honest and realistic answers -apart from the classics like Santa Clause, Bunny, and the tooth fairy. Today,  however, I had an easy answer:


“It’s the Easter Bunny and he is saying Happy Easter”. How grateful am I that my kid isn’t an early reader…

At a Loss for Words: My Foreign Language Meltdown

I am probably spoiled, being brought up bilingual and exposed to many languages and cultures. Perhaps I just haven’t been adventurous enough in my travels, but I don’t ever recall finding myself in a situation where I could neither derive any inkling of meaning from the exchange nor express in any terms or gesticulations what I needed to say—that is until now.

A few days after arriving at our new home in Bangkok, I set off for the hospital with a hefty fever, bronchitis and my two kids in tow since one of them was also sick. We had an easy and quick taxi ride there, despite the dreaded traffic, and shelled out just over 50 Baht (US $1.65).

An hour or so later, wowed by the incredible efficiency of our visit and the modernity of the hospital, and carrying two stylish bags of meds for my eldest and myself, we took a taxi back home. I check if the driver knows the main artery we live right beside, since I am utterly incapable of giving detailed directions. Geez I can’t even introduce myself yet.  The driver vigorously shakes her head, yes, she knows, and off we go. I am not too worried as I have the address written both in roman and Thai characters as a backup.

Fast forward twenty minutes with no recognizable landmarks, and she makes the first call for directions…

This post was written for In Culture Parent. To continue reading please click here!

Deciphering Glyphs and my Journey Locating Conditioner.

I should probably start by acknowledging that Thai characters are not glyphs. Thai has forty-four consonants (Thai: พยัญชนะ, phayanchaná), fifteen vowel symbols (Thai: สระ, sàrà) that combine into at least twenty-eight vowel forms, and four tone marks. (Pilfered from Wikipedia)

It turns out it isn’t exactly an alphabet but an abugida or a system in which ‘a consonant-vowel sequence are written as a unit.’ And I am not entirely sure what that means.

Now back to the point of this post.

Desperate not to use too much of my kids’ extortionate fragrance-free shampoo, and in desperate need of conditioner, I thought picking up a couple of bottles at our local Tesco Lotus would be relatively easy. Silly me.

I get to the hair care aisle only to face hundreds of bottles of different products, all in Thai. Had there only been two options, I could have just grabbed a bottle of each and figured it out through trial and error; sadly a variety of different hair treatments were added into the mix.

Twenty minutes later, after carefully studying a large section of bottles -and wandering through a few alternative aisles in the hopes of finding an expat-friendly section with things in English- I found pieces of my Rosetta Stone and I was able to figure out that the bottle on the left with the shorter text and letter resembling a ‘W’ at the end is the shampoo while the one on the right is the conditioner.

This is the hardest I’ve ever had to work for clean hair and apart from an immense sense of satisfaction at locating what I needed, it dawned on me that there are different types of reading. Of course, if you take it out of context such as letters printed on a white piece of paper, I probably could not pick out ‘shampoo’ or ‘conditioner’. Well maybe after the time spent tweaking the pictures I could make an educated guess but that is neither here nor there. However, if I had to run into a shop and quickly grab a bottle of one or the other, I’d have no trouble now that I have a block image of what each word looks like.

How ever tenuous the strand (pun intended), I am going to believe that I’m one step closer to reading Thai.

P.S. I am going to ignore the fact that if I plug both shampoo and conditioner into google translate, it gives me an entirely different set of characters… Boo.