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Published: December 19th 2021
In 2014 I was still teaching at Renaissance International School in HCMC. Here is my Xmas letter to friends:
225 Ben Chuong Duong
Dear Overseas Friend(s)
My daily routine in Saigon has been unchanged for years: up at 6, motorbike to school at 7, back at 4-15; eating Thuy’s lovely meals (pumpkin soup, chicken curry, stir-fried beef and veg, pork and fish gruel and many more); the weekly body massage; drinking black beer in the microbreweries; buying cheap DVD’s; listening to jazz and blues; reading the odd book; writing the odd essay; drinking fine malt whisky (Ardbeg 10-year-old is my current favourite); Indian food at Baba’s Kitchen; playing chess on chess.com…
As well as the above, 2014 has been a year of unusual highs and lows. It hasn’t been boring!
Let’s begin with the great discovery, the newspaper article that changed my life (what’s left of it). If only I had read it 50 years ago, everything would be so different today.
Since childhood, drinking tea has been a quintessential part of my day. But I’ve been doing it wrong! Actually, I blame my mother, who also did it wrong and passed on her malpractice to me. According to the article, it has now been scientifically proven that putting milk in the cup first, and then pouring the tea over the milk, gives you a more flavourful cuppa than adding the milk last. Try it yourself and taste the difference. Better to discover this late (I’m 63 on December 22nd) rather than never, I suppose.
A low-point of my year was the botched foot operation I underwent in January. I’d had the identical op done to my other foot, the right one, a few years back – the surgical removal of some deep-lying hard skin on my sole, which made walking painful. I assumed the latest op would be as successful as the previous one. However, the doctor who’d been appointed to slash my foot was a doddering buffoon with poor eyesight and a trembling hand. He did not inspire confidence, and I foolishly allowed him to hack away. I was crippled for the next few weeks, the wound became infected, another surgeon had to perform a second op, and then very very slowly I got better.
This year I sent a letter to a friend in England, Neil, who had not replied to my emails for some years. His next door neighbour wrote back, explaining that he had committed suicide after the death of his beloved partner (she had pancreatic cancer). He had been a teacher at my school in Stourbridge, and we had many things in common.
Another low-point (don’t worry – there will be some highlights later) was the death of my friend, Calvin, aged 47. He keeled over in a Saigon bar and died on the way to hospital. Heart attack. We’d gone out boozing the week before, and he’d been in great form.
Since July this year an ongoing disappointment has been the vandalization (aka modernization) of Saigon city centre. Time was when one could stroll freely along Le Loi from the Opera House to the Rex Hotel and down Nguyen Hue Street. Not any more. The whole of Nguyen Hue, and the area on Le Loi from the Opera House up to Pasteur Street, has been given over to the construction of the new metropolitan underground railway. It will allegedly be finished in 2018, but I fear it may take several years longer than that. What was once a charming and easily navigable city centre has become an eyesore and an impasse; one of my favourite shops – the Tax Centre, opposite the Rex Hotel and at the epicentre of redevelopment – has closed forever; and the lovely old trees that used to flank Le Loi have been chopped down. A pox on modernization! Où sont les neiges d’antan?
Just one more low-point to record before the happy stuff begins: the new Headmaster of my school is incompetent and downright nasty – a grim martinet, a Captain Bligh, a philistine, a control freak obsessed with paperwork and rules. We loathe each other.
At our Teachers’ Day assembly on November 20th I was voted the ‘Most Old-Fashioned Teacher’. I think some of our students do not know the difference between ‘oldest’ (I am indeed the oldest) and ‘most old-fashioned’. Anyway, I take it as a compliment, because I believe in such time-honoured practices as wearing the dunce’s cap, bending over to be slippered and writing “I must do my homework” 500 times in impeccable longhand with a quill pen.
Apart from my tea-drinking epiphany, the greatest event of 2014 was marrying Thuy. We’ve been together for 11 years, and I felt it was high time to do the decent thing. Our Vietnamese wedding on August 4th (Louis Armstrong’s birthday) in her restaurant was a blast. I wish I could say the same about the paperwork; this took forever but, after greasing various palms, we eventually received our marriage certificate. (You can read all about it at: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/mulqueen/71/1407484648/tpod.html).
People ask me what it feels like to be married after 62 years of bachelordom. “Well,” I reply, “I’ve been living with Thuy for 11 years, so it feels exactly the same.” This is not strictly true, because marrying me has made a difference to her (she’s finally sure of her man, and her family and friends look up to her now more than before), and I can feel the good vibrations! Also, being married to a Vietnamese means that I am automatically entitled to a lifelong Vietnam residence permit. A marriage of convenience, if you will.
Shortly after our own wedding, Thuy’s son (a handsome 19-year-old, who calls me ‘Papa’) decided he wanted to marry his sweetheart from down the road, so yet another wedding took place (which you can read about at: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/mulqueen/73/1409649475/tpod.html).
I usually go somewhere exotic during the summer, but this year there was simply no time – because our wedding, and the incredibly long-drawn-out Vietnamese marriage process, consumed most of the holiday.
One great highlight of the summer, however, was the visit to Vietnam of my old teaching pal, Paul Crute. We hadn’t seen each other since Cairo in 1991, and these days he’s the Head of a prestigious UK school, but he was just the same – genial, talkative, wise and modest. We had a great week together in Saigon and Tan Chau (Thuy’s hometown) – eating, drinking, reminiscing, sight-seeing and riding around on xe oms (motorbike taxis). Paul fell in love with the stylish old Vespa scooters that abound here.
I’m not much of a reader these days, but I did enjoy Charlotte’s Web, The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester (about Joseph Needham, who devoted his life to chronicling the technological discoveries of ancient China), Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Diamonds – a short story by the new Irish sensation Colin Barrett, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (which I was inspired to reread by a student, who pointed out the similarities between it and the play we were studying, An Inspector Calls), the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy (reigning Poet Laureate) and Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I read for about the fifth time. After finishing it, I was struck by the thought that I may never read this great book again. Ars longa vita brevis.
Movie highlight of the year was watching two old John Wayne westerns back to back one weekend – Rio Bravo and Red River (both directed by Howard Hawks). I love John Wayne; he is a gigantic screen presence.
I have written a few essays this year and put them on my travelpod site. As well as the marriage pieces, there is something called ‘Favourite Words’ (http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/mulqueen/70/1405916614/tpod.html).
And, finally, the sporting event of the year (if chess be a sport): the world chess championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand, which held me in thrall for 3 weeks.
Thuy and I will be spending Xmas on the island of Con Dao (former penal colony south of Saigon) and New Year in Tan Chau.
I wish all of my friends a very happy Xmas and 2015 (Chinese Year of the Sheep)…
CHUC MUNG GIANG SINH (Merry Xmas)!
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