Monthly Archives: August, 2014

The art and science of culling and letting go

I love the word culling. It can mean the art of letting go. Sorting. Tidying. Deciding which things you keep and which ones you let go. 

I used to have a lot of clothes. I’ve learned to give away or donate most of the ones that I outgrew in style or size or that were just not in fashion anymore. As for things, I’m pretty simple when it comes to jewelry. I have the Moroccan silver ring that I selected and that my mother bought for me when I was 14. I have the amber necklace that I wear every day that a family friend bought me for Christmas and I have a pearl ring from Macedonia and a funky handmade ring I bought in Odessa, Ukraine. And I have my mother’s pearl necklace she wore on her wedding day.

The most prized possession I have of my mother is a framed photo of us together on Children’s Tidepool in La Jolla Shores right around the time the sea lions came and reclaimed their territory and this children’s’ pool became a birthing and resting spot for San Diego’s sea lions.

In the photo I wear black and white striped leggings and a toothy grin. This is years before she became sick and back when she had her trademark low-lighted auburn curly-wavy hair at shoulder length. We are both crouching next to each other and this is back when you could get as close as an arm length’s distance from the seals. If we wanted to, we could very easily had touched these majestic creatures. Now a days, these marine mammals are roped off and if you get so much as thirty feet away, an environmental activist with a loudspeaker will yell at you.

My mother and I would visit La Jolla and San Diego every year and stay with my grandfather or when my mother found a good deal, we would stay one night at either the Pink Lady or the Del. I loved San Diego so much. The air was cleaner, the beaches prettier and everyone seemed more relaxed and laid-back. In fact, I liked it so much that I went to undergrad here as well at UCSD.

During my first semester at university, when my mother was dying of lung cancer, the kind that killed the late Dana Reeve. And no she did not smoke. It seemed wholly unfair. My mother did air force exercises reinterpreted for ladies and went on two long strenuous walks in the hills twice a day. She did crunches, push-ups (the man kind), and lifted 10 lb. weights. She was buff, always had a tan, and knew how to enjoy life. She liked to go to movies, TV-related press conferences, played ping pong with me at posh parties, and did a whole day at the beach prepared. We would picnic with lawn chairs, big umbrellas and avocado or peanut butter sandwiches, melon, and lots of fruit available. For dessert, we would end the day by sharing a ginormous slice of either strawberry shortcake or key lime pie at Gladstone’s in Malibu.

  These are memories I hold on to. What I have left of her physically are the cremated ashes of our family dog Linda, the black and white terrier she surprised me with one summer day in 1996. The geraniums she watered every day on our back porch. Her many boxes and boxes of writing from yellowed newspaper articles she published in the 1970’s until blog posts/articles she wrote within days of her death in March 2007. I have scrapbooks and photo albums. Her purse(s). Her black winter coat she bought for a trip to London in 2003. Her collection of coins that I keep with me wherever I am. Funky dress-up jewelry she collected as a fashion writer in the 1980’s. Delicate scarves I always pack with me but never use. Purple suede lace up go-go boots from her college days. The rocking chair that I remember her reading to me on. Quirky artistic reproductions that she inherited from her gay fashion designer friend who passed away less than two years later she did.

The last conversation I had with him was about a cat I had been fostering at the time. He seemed mildly interested in adopting it but was still getting over his other cat named Brrrr. 

His death was unexpected. 

The last 7 years have been difficult. One of my mother’s friends was right in that her upcoming death would mess me up. At the time, I refused to believe and just wanted to get to the hospital in time to say goodbye. I was preparing for my exams week towards the end of fall semester and got a phone call while in the library from her friend. I knew in my gut that something had happened. She was in the hospital and not altogether conscious. I had to go home right away. The details are a blur but I remember throwing together stuff in a suitcase, a friend giving me a lift to the train station and me waiting in an annoyingly long line to buy a one way ticket home to LA. I was familiar with this station, Solana Beach. I was a regular and Cathy, the ticket agent was familiar with why I was going home every single weekend. She could tell this time that things had taken a turn for the worse and immediately bumped me up to first class, a gesture I remember and appreciate to this day. 

     My mother’s friends picked me up at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and whisked me across rush-hour traffic (mind you this was a Sunday, March 18) to get to Cedar’s on time. Well, my mother could sense I was rushing and she ultimately passed away three days later on Wednesday, March 21, ironically the first day of spring and the first real sunny day that week. It was eerie and and symbolic at the same time.

My mother was the one who taught me the art of letting go. She could not speak due to her condition but in her last moment of consciousness, she hugged me one last time. I cannot write more about this for personal reasons.

Her clothes were matronly and in different sizes. She had lost and gained weight dramatically over the nearly five years she struggled with this disease. When she was in remission and in better health, she had a hearty warmth about her and wore overalls. When things were bad, she was thin and fit into my size 4 clothes.

   Giving away and donating her clothes and calling for things to be donated to her favorite charities in lieu of flowers were what she would have wanted.

Not accumulating stuff and constant culling of my wardrobe and material goods were habits I especially adopted after her death. Maybe it’s a fear of “What if I die tomorrow?” What is the significance of my things? I do most of my writing and work cyberly like most people nowadays and the most delicate items I have collected and hold on to are for what I imagine to be my future home.

But that then begs the question on what  is home. I hate the cliche “home is where the heart is.” But what if your heart belongs to too many people and places? To make my home more homey, the few aesthetic items I try to bring with me are

1) Candle holders that my mother painted with me at a family event over 15 years ago

2) the Menorah that my mother used to celebrate the holidays with me 

3) framed photograph of my mother and I

4) the slightly frayed poster of Pulp Fiction that once hung in my father’s office on Wilshire Blvd. It brings back memories of me visiting him in his two room office and him generously giving me a few Walkers biscuits out of his several tins.

5) my Bosnian coffeepot and Armenian coffee set and other tiny souvenirs from my travels. 

6) my favorite antique books 

When it comes to material objects, my clothes are the first and easiest thing to get rid of. Of course I always hold on to and keep the green African tribal handmade dress my friend Mercy gave me. Or the yellow strapless dress I wore to my friend Jenny’s wedding. 

After losing someone, it is too easy to gain perspective. At the end of the day, can you take your dresses with you to the great beyond? 



Safe in Kyiv

The United States Department of State has increased the security alert for Odessa and it is now on the same level as Kharkiv. A local British expat blogger who has lived in Odessa for a decade predicted there might be a demonstration between 6 August and 15 August and it would happen within the same week as events in the east and thus would be coordinated  as to show the Ukrainian government and the West that they cannot a) cannot be everywhere at once, and b) can demonstrate just “because they can.”

   Despite the looming threat of an upcoming military draft, both Odessa and Kyiv seemed relatively calm considering. People ate out, strolled down the streets and carried on as usual. But what can you do? These cities have running water and electricity unlike Lugiansk right now. The UN has called the humanitarian situation in Ukraine’s east as worsening dramatically.

Meanwhile, drunks and drug addicts are conscripted in the east as a form of “punishment brigades.” The Guardian has an article suggesting that there are “increased mutterings for a new Maidan.” I wonder who Mr. Walker talked to but in the people I’ve chatted with on the train, street and around town, yes there is a weariness but I doubt there will be another Maidan. Several locals are even getting tired of Poroshenko. The local Odessa expat blogger said that while he is one who says what he means, and is passionate, the question of whether he can deliver what he promises is another. For example, there is hope that the war will be over by 24 August, Ukrainian Independence Day and Donetsk will be liberated. But realistically, whether that may seen to be true is whole other ballgame.

Another question that may be raised in the future is what will happen to the Maidan where EuroMaidan took place? Right now, it serves as a tourist attraction/open-air museum/homage to Euromaidan/memorial site and open market for related souvenirs. It is a museum in this respect but when the conflict calms down, will the local city government establish a museum devoted to Euromaidan and use parts of what is currently on display? The sponsors  of some of the photo exhibits are the Fulbright Foundation and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund.

Now the Maidan looks like this:





I found this one eerie in an ironic way:


Note the Mothercare shop (part of a three-story mall) surrounded by the wreckage of Euromaidan and the wall of tires on the left. One could interpret this as a motif that motherhood is a battlefield, as is life.

And some people refuse to let the conflict get in their way of pursuing love. I met a couple at the hostel where I stayed last night. The man appears to be in his late 20’s/early 30’s and is an American from Chicago-area. He had long dark hair, was quite slim and seemed like a free-spirited soul one would meet at a yoga retreat. His bride-to-be was a Ukrainian lady in her mid to late 30’s from Lugiansk region and they were planning on going back to the east to wait until they could get married. When I asked if they had plans to stay in Ukraine or America, the guy, named Ryan answered that for now they’re staying in Ukraine because he doesn’t want his wife to be a foreigner just yet. They had been dating for 11 years and the premises of how they met was “a long story.” His wife spoke very little English but understood a little bit. His Russian was maybe half a level better. And yet, despite that, the two did not seem to have any problems communicate.  Body language and speaking a kindergarten level of each other’s language was more than enough for them. Love was the answer. When the lady, Natalia learned that I was American, her eyes lit up and she responded that her “muzhh” or “man” was also American and insisted that I meet him. The way her eyes sparkled and her pride of her enduring decade-long partnership was impressive. They didn’t seem to like Kyiv all too much and are returning to Lugiansk any day now. 

Odessa, a new discovered world

I’ve been in Odessa since Friday, August 1. As my friend Michael put it, I woke up in Tbilisi, flew into Kiev where I had lunch at the well known Ukrainian chain Puzata Hata, and took the 3pm train to Odessa where I arrived at 11pm. Michael was supposed to meet me at the train station at around 11pm but because he missed the bus coming from Moldova (Chisinau)  he couldn’t make it until 11.40pm. My smartphone had died (the outlets on the train did not work) so I decided to wait there until he showed up. Curious to see how much the taxis would charge for 3 kilometers to the hotel, I tried to ask in my awkward Russian. Tired, I thought they were quoting me 700 HRN or 55 dollars. I saw a local militia and asked him if that was right. He said it was a fair price and that if I didn’t like it I should just walk the rest of the way. I later found out when Michael and I went to a shop and the kind shop owner called a taxi, that it was really 70 UHN not 700 and that I was making the same mistake again, mistaking my tens for hundreds linguistically and that I came across as a cheapskate to Ukrainian standards…thinking 4 dollars was too much to pay a driver to lug my suitcase, backgammon board, and backpack 3 kilometers. I was not surprised in retrospect when these militiamen first asked to see my passport. They probably wanted to know not what country I was from, but what planet I thought I lived on.


  We arrived at our accommodation and after some much needed beer and rest, started the day Saturday with a walking tour. Last summer our guide Yuriy gave 120 tours. This summer, we were only his third tour and the summer is more than half gone. He was not the first one nor the last one to be surprised and baffled as to what brought us to Odessa during the conflicts and possible war. It was a long story, but basically I was supposed to go to Konotop, Ukraine to visit a friend but that friend and I had a falling out and I was left with a one-way ticket from Tbilisi to Kiev. Instead of crying over spilt milk, I decided to keep my ticket and meet my friend Michael in Odessa instead of Kiev because Odessa has always been in my top five cities to visit one day. And he found hostel prices at a 5 star hotel so the rest is history. There are a few things to note about Michael. One, he’s Australian and thus was born with an innate love to travel. Two, he’s extremely frugal in an ingenious way which means he travels more than a spy or secret agent. This month, Ukraine, next month Poland and the Carpathians, October Italy and November Lebanon. And he’s already met me in Poland on his way to Israel, took a fourth trip to Georgia (the country) and we did have a week long tour of Belarus during the hockey championships. So you get the picture. We both have a love and fascination with former Soviet and Eastern European countries so that’s how we both met up in Ukraine. As for myself, my maternal great-great grandmother a Gitl Tsipperbrun (Brown Bird in Yiddish) was originally from here. According to her husband’s family story, he took the train from Dnepropetrovsk (formerly Yekaterinoslav) to meet her. She loved her Odessa and was proud of this cosmopolitan city and told her children and grandchildren on summers swimming in the Black Sea, going to the opera, and how wonderfully multicultural this town was (and still is).


  I soon saw for myself the beauty my ancestor saw in this place. The balmy summer evenings one can see many locals and Ukrainians walking in pristine breathtakingly marvelous parks surrounding the supposedly  most beautiful opera house in the world. The tree-lined streets are occupied by cafes. Sushi bars are in vogue as are night clubs and elegantly dressed ladies. The beach Lanzheron was packed and had sandy shores a nice contrast to the stony shores of Batumi where I was a week earlier with another friend.


I love bazaars and markets because it’s how you really get a feel of the place. It’s heaven for people watching. I went there to buy certain Georgian and Central Asian spices for friends back in Poland and we encountered quite a few Georgians who weren’t just Georgian but a minority from within Georgia: Mingrelians.


This lady was selling Churchkhela a Georgian fruit snack that is basically nuts soaked in fruit juices. Michael bought the ones soaked in kiwi but after I recited a Mingrelian tongue twister that my friend Tina’s parents had taught me that probably sounded like this; the lady refused to charge us. It turned out that she and her two friends were Mingrelians and they weren’t the last ones we ran into in Odessa that day. My friend Tina is Mingrelian and after meeting some of her family and other Mingrelians around Tbilisi, she taught me how to tell if one is Mingrelian or not. Maybe it’s body language or features that this group shares but this group, closely related to the Laz minority in Western Georgia/Eastern Turkey is immensely proud of their heritage as they should be. My friend speaks probably as much Mingrelian or understands as much of it as I would understand Yiddish or Hebrew expressions. It’s her parents and my great-grandparents’ generation that can/could have spoken these respective languages fluently. 


We went the above stand at the famous market called Privoznaya. The market was the perfect site for people-watching and spice shopping. I not only met Georgians there but we chat with Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Persians there too.


The spices were endless. They ranged from Georgian ones such as khmeli-suneli, adjika, Svanetian salt, to more Central Asian ones such as barberry, coriander, and custom-made mixes for manti and plov.



Going to open air markets in foreign countries never ceases to fascinate and excite me. When I was in Tbilisi, the people were just as friendly and lovely.



It was too easy to spend all day in the Privoz market where we sat and drank some Bessarabian wine and sampled the local nectarines. We stopped at a cafe along the way where the owner was too happy to practice his English and refused to speak any Russian with me. A foreigner coming into his bookstore/cafe on a Sunday afternoon was probably a big surprise. His cafe was not even in the touristy parts.

He was born in Sloviansk which I found out while admiring the Turkish copper and clay coffee pots. He pointed out that these were all made from Sloviansk which was famous for their clay craftsmanship and nearby rivers and nature, which no one would know normally because now his hometown is known for being part of the conflict zone. This young man’s name was Eugene or Evgeniy and he moved to Odessa when he was just a month old and thus considered himself more of an Odessan than anything else but still took pride in his birthplace.

Odessa is known for its opera house, the Potemkin steps made globally famous by the baby carriage scene from Sergei Eistenstein’s Battleship Potemkin



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