Thursday, August 30, 2012

Scuttle, scuttle, little roach

You know we moved apartments again.  We have the distinct misfortune among our acquaintances here in Saigon to be the only ones evicted by the landlord twice in row.  In each case, the landlord has offered us a smaller, less lovely apartment – and this time we took the offer*. 

There was a decent amount of hand-wringing over it. It was very pleasant having a larger apartment to stretch ourselves out in, and most especially to bring our friends in to without everybody having to sit on everybody else’s laps.

One of the consequences of our sellout has been not entirely unexpected**, but unpleasant none the less. A couple of weeks ago as I was chopping stuff up for tea I noticed a quickly thickening trail of ants on the wall between the sink and the cabinets above. “I’ll put an end to that,” I thought and gave them a quick spritzing with the Raid. About two minutes later I nearly chopped my finger off as a small (2cm) cockroach came charging at me from the crack between the bench and the wall. 

I made that awful noise you make when an awful thing charges at you and took a giant step backwards.
Mr Martin, ever valiant, came racing to the rescue. He squished the offending creature with a kind of disgusting crack under his bare finger, then rinsed the whole corpse down the kitchen sink. He said: “I’ll always come and squash cockroaches for you, my love.” 

Do you feel sick yet?

Well, save it if you do – because there was more.  He rinsed, I chopped a little bit, a disgusting thing charged at me, Mr Martin to the rescue. He rinsed, repeat. Ad, seemingly infinitum, but actually only about 10 times. Which is 10 times too many.

I’ve told this story a few times now, and everybody says – were the roaches coming to eat the ant corpses?  No, I don’t know if roaches are interested in dead ants so much, but they are susceptible to Raid.  Only, while Raid kills ants instantly, it takes about 10 minutes to properly terminate a roach. Which means that if they detect it early enough, they can get an opportunity to run away. Or towards you – which is infinitely worse.  Let’s not think about how many roaches probably ran deeper into the cracks in the wall, on the basis that at least 10 ran out onto my kitchen bench. 

Suffice it say, that night and the next day I spent a decent amount of time and energy on further roach annihilation strategies – spraying, wiping, stuffing cracks with steel wool etc. And then for the rest of the week, I was coming across half dead Gregor Sansas in places like The Middle of The Living Room. 

Sweep sweep.

My favourite part of the poem below? The whisk its/biscuits rhyming couplet in the 4th stanza.
SCUTTLE, scuttle, little roach—
How you run when I approach:
Up above the pantry shelf,
Hastening to secrete yourself.

Most adventurous of vermin,
How I wish I could determine
How you spend your hours of ease,
Perhaps reclining on the cheese.

Cook has gone, and all is dark—
Then the kitchen is your park:
In the garbage heap that she leaves
Do you browse among the tea leaves?

How delightful to suspect
All the places you have trekked:
Does your long antenna whisk its
Gentle tip across the biscuits?

Do you linger, little soul,
Drowsing in our sugar bowl?
Or, abandonment most utter,
Shake a shimmy on the butter?

Do you chant your simple tunes
Swimming in the baby's prunes?
Then, when dawn comes, do you slink
Homeward to the kitchen sink?

Timid roach, why be so shy?
We are brothers, thou and I.
In the midnight, like yourself,
I explore the pantry shelf!
By Christopher Morley (1890-1957)

* She offered us money, you see.
** Vietnam is gross.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The benign houseguest

Since we came to Vietnam we have met (and gotten better acquainted with) some interesting young people. What happens is this: a friend will email and say, "hey, my young cousin/brother/friend is backpacking around Southeast Asia. Can I give them your email address?"

And then we inevitably inviting the young thing to come and stay for a day or two. Running an impromptu guest house is not something we actively signed up for on arrival, but we always end up enjoying having visitors.

Currently we have Oscar. I went to meet him from the bus, and since he is one of the ones that we neither of us have ever met before I was little worried about how we would recognise each other.

"I'll be wearing a cream dress with coloured polka dots for easy recognition!" I emailed him.

But identification was so easy - he sort of tumbled breathlessly up the stairs to our cafe meeting point, clutching a motley collection of raggedy bags and beaten up guitar.

Within a few minutes he had ascertained that we had not only guitars but also a piano and then this gangly bag of nineteen year old limbs seemed utterly content.

"I was hoping you had a piano." Was what he said.


Oscar is delightful. He sleeps quietly most of the day, and then when he gets up he does the dishes.

I'm sure his mother is missing him terribly!


Thursday, August 23, 2012


This story was told to me over lunch the other day. 

I think I’ve mentioned the segregation among Vietnamese staff and foreigners at my place of work. There are lots of factors driving it, and obviously the biggest factor is the language barrier. Next biggest is a practical issue – Vietnamese people get up out of bed at the arse crack of dawn. They run around and work HARD in the morning, and by 11 am are starving and ready for lunch. 

Whereas, expats get up later, barely work all that much in the mornings by comparison (not many of us will have been to the market and cooked all the meals for the family for the day before we even get to work), and are ready for lunch at about 1pm. So, the Vietnamese staff take first shift in the lunch room, and the expats come in a bit later.  After their lunch, the Vietnamese staff can often be seen snoozing at their desks – but that’s a whole other post. 

So, lunchtime is segregated.  But I always like it when we get a Vietnamese person at the lunch table with us, because they often have quite a different point of view, and even better – they have stories!

The other day, one of our senior Vietnamese researchers was telling us this story about an incident in a medical school back in the 1980s in Vietnam. Back then, medical students would be divided into groups of about 10. The group would spend the whole year doing everything together – all their lab work, all their study groups and socialising, and of course, all their cadaver work. A bit like Grey’s Anatomy, I guess. One day, one of the students decided to play a practical joke on all the others in the group. Before the practical session with the cadavers, he sneaked into the lab and hid himself under a sheet on a table – waiting for the others to come in and be ready to begin their work- pretending to be the body.  When the others arrived and were gathered around the table he – predictably enough – sat up. 

What he hadn’t predicted though, was the reaction of one of his classmates. One guy was so frightened, that he just started screaming – in a long, continuous scream – and running around in circles. Like something you would see on a cartoon, he was running around in a state of panic, with all of his classmates, cadaver included, in pursuit. 

The poor guy. 

It ended up being VERY serious.  At first, they couldn’t catch him.  And when they did finally catch him – they couldn’t calm him. The guy ended up spending two weeks in a mental institution and the group of students were severely reprimanded.  They were told that if the guy didn’t recover, then they would all be expelled. So there was a lot of contrite apologising and grovelling and visiting the guy in the hospital. When he was recovered, they asked him about his reaction – why did he just run around like that?  Why couldn’t he stop? He said that it was because not only was he shocked, but he was being chased. And not just by the group of students, but also by the guy who was supposed to be dead.  How did they expect him to react when being chased by a recently reanimated dead guy?