Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on my European trip - Happy New Years!

It's been about a week since I've been back from Europe, and probably more than other trips, I was struggling to make sense of what I was supposed to learn from this one. It was only until yesterday, maybe, I was meant to experience the Christian concept of grace.

At first, I thought maybe I was meant to encourage the people I met. I certainly gave a part of me to everyone I saw, and I tried to share something with them - whether that was a gift, conversation, or meal.

But as I was thinking about it last night, maybe the point was to experience the kindness and hospitality of what these people did for me. I have to call this grace.

The Christian concept of grace is defined as the "free and unmerited favor of God." In other words, the more I thought about how well my friends treated me, it clicked: I didn't deserve to be treated that well. There was nothing I really did to merit such a great holiday from all the people I saw. And that in turn, really helped me feel grateful for everything. So, maybe it's not what I gave them, but how much these people gave me.

I remember starting the winter holiday a bit more down because of shouldering a number of problems. To have a wonderful vacation open up in the middle of it, really brought me rest, peace, and joy and the will to go and fight on.

Perhaps the most important conversation I had was with Eleonora from Italy. (Did you know that in Latin, conversation comes from the word convert? Hence, great conversations are meant to convert or change a person.) Eleonora said often that she believed that we, as a human civilization, wasn't doing enough to preserve and create more beauty.

She was echoing a belief I was already having. In this year, I asked myself often, too, Are we entering the New Dark Ages? The Dark Ages was the only time in Western Civilization that we actually moved backwards, or stagnated, in our progress of knowledge. I asked myself often, we've created better technology, but at what costs? Teenagers can't seem to have a conversation without checking their smartphones every second. Also, it appears that the more fundamental principle of justice appears to be corroding in our world.

So, Eleonora's idea of having a duty to create more beauty for this world has seeded itself in me. She's right.

Here's a summary of the lessons I learned by country or city.

In Spain, I found a new spirit of fighting and endurance.

In Italy,  I found love and beauty.

In London, I found connection.

In Denmark, I found the cold.

In Germany, I found the strengthening of friendships.

So, I learned a lot. I hope you as my reader did too. I still have to cover, later, what the most important lessons were for the year of 2016, which is ending soon. Out with the old and in with the new.

Happy New Years to everyone! 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Coming Home From Dusseldorf and Merry Christmas from Los Angeles

Los Angeles in Winter
Copyright Ghetty Image
I was riding with two complete strangers from Munich to Dusseldorf; the drive was seven and a half hours, and I arrived at my hostel in Dusseldorf at 02:45AM. I put the sheets on my bed. I covered my pillow with its case. I put the comforter in the duvet. After brushing my teeth and changing into my sleeping clothes, I fell asleep right away.

In the morning, the employee wakes me up and tells me to pay. I grumble, "In an hour, ja? I'm still sleeping."

I had to come all the way from Dusseldorf from Munich because I changed my flight last minute. A direct flight opened up from Dusseldorf to Los Angeles. I'd rather take that then leaving from Frankfurt, going to Madrid, changing in New York, and then to Los Angeles.

Dusseldorf, as a city, didn't impress me. My heart was still in Munich. I spent my last day in Germany shopping for German Christmas Cake (Stollen), which has dried fruit and almond paste; chocolates; and Christmas cookies. In old town Dusseldorf, I saw everyone eating a fish soup with a glass of white wine.

I order it. I eat it outside in the winter air. It tastes good and warm and very hearty. I can see why everyone orders it. The wine pairs well with the soup. It's good.

Later, a friend of a friend, who is now my friend, named Henrik, picks me up from the hostel. He drives me to a super-mega-hype-fancy-modern supermarket in Germany. It's huge and clean and has really fresh and good and fancy foods. There are cafes and restaurants and bars inside. We eat in there and buy more Christmas food for gifts back for my friends in Los Angeles.

I buy my cat Jeh Pan some German treats too. I wonder if he'll like them.

One day, on my holiday, my mother calls, worried about Jeh Pan. He didn't come home one night. I tell her there's nothing I could do from Europe. I tell my younger brother to sort it out. But there's nothing he could do too.

But the next day, Jeh Pan comes home tired and exhausted. Jeh Pan didn't even want to eat.

A neighbor tells my mother that he was trying to catch a mouse for a very, very long time. He finally gave up and came home.

I'll have to tell him, when I come home, not to do that again. Perhaps, he thinks he's Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, and that he needs to prove he's a great hunter. I'll have to tell him, though, he could hunt all he wants, as long as he doesn't worry my mother with his absence. He'll look at me, pretending not to understand. But I know he will.

Back to Henrik. Henrik and I catch up. He takes me to his place. I sleep there. Henrik takes me to the airport on Christmas Eve. He tells me to come back. It was good catching up with him.

I almost miss my flight to Los Angeles. American Airlines forgot to attach a ticket number to my reservation code. In other words, American Airlines made a technical mistake. I call them. I'm a bit panicky. If the lady on the line doesn't fix it in 15 minutes, I'm going to miss my flight.

I stay calm. I don't raise my voice. I just tell her I'm a bit upset because I won't be home for Christmas if it doesn't get fixed within the next 15 minutes. She takes 11 minutes to fix it.

I'm able to check in. I board. I get there right on time.

On the plane, I write to the CEO of American Airline, telling him I almost miss my flight. I request that he refund the last minute surcharges. I hope he does.

My flight is twelve hours. The food is good. It was nice and simple flight.

When I arrive to the airport, it takes me 30 minutes to get my baggage and clear customs. It takes me about two hours to get to El Monte Station. From there, my mother is waiting in my car.

She comes out and hugs me. She likes me in my winter clothes and my new German haircut, which I can't say I like too much.

She says, "You look good."

I say, "Look, I got a German haircut."

She looks at it and says, "It's German?"


I drive to Baldwin Park. I go to the garage. Jeh Pan is sleeping. I say to him, "Jeh Pan, I'm home."

He wakes up. Comes to me. I pick him up. I squeeze him. He meows. I drop him back on the floor. He walks to the kitchen.

I call my friend. They tell me to come to the Christmas Church service with them. I feel tired from not sleeping. I say, "Ok," nonetheless.

I drive there. We go to church. We eat dinner after.

I go home. I think about what I was supposed to learn from this trip. What was the point? But before I could think about it much more, I fall asleep. When I wake up, it'll be Christmas Day.

And that was how this winter's journey ended.

Merry Christmas everyone! 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Seeing Nils and Tobi in Munich

Barber shaving man in Munich
Shot taken by Paul Cook
Nils takes me to a traditional, Bavarian restaurant, where I order a warm soup, served in a fancy Bavarian soup bowl, Nils orders Kaiserschmarrn, Bavarian fried dough with apple sauce. Nils and I catch up. It's been two and a half years, since I've seen Nils. Like Volker, I see where his life was, where it is, and perhaps, where it is going.

Nils now has a girlfriend, who he loves very much. He tells me they're thinking of moving in together. I like how cheery he is to tell me about this new girlfriend.

When the waitress comes, I pay for meal. She's big and stroppy. She has attitude, but I like it.

I ask her in German, "Do you accept credit card?"

She says, "I accept anything where you can take money from it."

Nils and I laugh. The girls at the table beside us laugh.

I give her my credit card. The waitress says the price and adds in English, "No tip. No included." I think it's the only English she knows and understands, the word: Tip.

"No problem," I say.

I ask Nils for his change. I give her my change too. I say, "Here, it's cash. Are you happy now that we gave you cash?"

She says, "Of course. Money is always good."

"Of course it is," I respond back in German.

We start laughing again. The girls laugh too.

Although for some, all roads lead to Rome, for me, all roads lead to Munich, the classy and rich and beautiful Bavarian capital. I've been to Munich more times than any other European city. It seems like every time I go to Europe, I cross through Munich.

Munich seemed to be busier than last time I was there. I also noticed that more people are speaking English, because of the influx of immigrants. I wonder if English will become the universal language one day.

So, I didn't do the touristy things this time around. I went to one museum, where I saw the modern artists and Picassos. Most of my days were spent sleeping in and planning the rest of my holidays. Nils and I caught up often and ate out and drank spiced wine together at the Christmas Markets. And in Munich, there are so many of them.

Nils is a thoughtful and caring person. And I think if he had the right trainer, he could've been an olympic runner. I remember, four years ago, Nils and Nicole and I, ran in the forest on a winter's day, when it was snowing. The snow landed on our hot heads and steam rose. We ran through the mud and sleet all the way up to Goettingen's castle, up on the hill. And Nils was so strong and fast and his friends said, he's like a beast. He did it so easily, and I never forgot it.

Nils let me stay in his room, which is close to central Munich. He stayed the nights at his girlfriend's. It was nice, sleeping in his king size bed. It was nice sleeping in. And when I opened the 'fridge, there was a Bavarian beer in there with a post note sticking on it that said, "For Paul". That made me smile. Never seen that before. Very thoughtful. I have to remember that one.

(One time, my mother on her walk, found a stash of beer, the good kind too. When I came home, she said, "Paul, I have something special for you." Then she opened the bag and showed me all this high quality beer she found. We could never figure out who would dump such good stuff. I thought that was cute when my mother found beer for me. I thought it was thoughtful Nils did that for me too.)

Nils got me drink. I got him food. Interestingly enough, I ate one of the best pizzas in Munich. I would never think pizza would be so good in Germany. But they baked it in a wood fire oven, and they shaved large pieces of black truffle onto it. It smelled so good. It tasted so good. Nils and I loved the pizza.

One night, Nils, his girlfriend, and I, also ate out at a Croatian restaurant. It was full, full of American too. They served whopping portions of meat and food. We ordered two dishes for the three of us. We still had leftovers. It was slabs of pork and beef and rice cooked in tomatoes and salt. It was a hearty meal for a winter's night.

Speaking about winter, it was in Munich, that I could feel a part of me dying. The nights were long. The days were short. It was cold and gloomy and dark. Although in my mind, I knew that the spring was coming, when you're in winter, you wonder if the spring will ever come.

Coming from Los Angeles, I don't feel the affects of the changing in the season as much. I could certainly feel it in Europe now.

* * * *

I felt sad when Tobi said that he was too busy to see me in the deep south of Bavaria. But I told Tobi, I was coming to Munich, even if he couldn't see me.

It so happened that while I was in Munich, Tobi was there too. He picked me up from Nils' flat.

We only had a few hours. Tobi was so busy.

He took me to a bakery. We both had pretzels with butter and coffee. (Pretzels, if you didn't know, originate in Bavaria.)

We talk and catch up. Because our time is so short, I could feel it running out on us. I haven't seen Tobi in awhile, and I've known him for close to 9 years now.

I could hear the words of T. S. Eliot running through my head:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

And Eliot is right, there is a time, a time for Tobi and I to meet face to face and a time to ask questions that drop on our plate and a time for him and me. And he is right, that time will be squeezed into a few hours, before the eating of our pretzels and drinking of our coffee. I feel like it's not fair, though, that the time between us is so short.

But I must not ask what is it. We have made our visit.

And in our conversation, though not with these exact words I tell Tobi:

"I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be . . . At times, indeed, almost ridiculous / - Almost, at times, the Fool.

And Tobi tells me, in not-so-many-words "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do think they'll sing to me."

I tell him, remember, one day, "human voices wake us, and we drown."

He says in his own words, "We'll have to wait and see."

"Let's see," I says too.

He drops me back off at the flat. I give him a hug.

I tell him to tell his parents and sister that I said Hi to them.

I'm happy to see Tobi. I just can't believe that that was all the time we had. Maybe, there will be another time, another time to see each other and share the shards and fragments of our lives with each other. But for now, that was all the time that was given to me.

I could feel my trip was coming to an end. I thought of home and family and the problems I must confront when I get back. I could feel myself pulling away. I could feel I was distancing myself from the Old World and the unreal and fantasy world I was in and soon had to leave. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Seeing Volker in Goettingen, Germany

The Gänseliesel (The Goose Maiden)
Von Goenttingen, Germany
Volker, Tom, and I drink spiced wine from the Goettingen, Christmas Markets. We take a seat at a stall. The Christmas Markets is a collection of all these craft and food and drink shops that open in German city centers. Around Christmas time, friends and family come to the markets together to eat and drink. I haven't seen Volker in four years.

I tell Tom, Volker's friend, "Do you remember when you told me to call Volker a big and stinky vagina?"

Volker says, "Tom would say something like that."

Tom starts laughing. "I remember. When we were hiking the Harz Forest."

"Ja," I say.

Seven years ago, Volker and his friends and I all did a hike in The Harz Forest. In total, the hike was 66 miles (100 kms), and we did it in three days. Two people, including Volker, went home early, because of the amount of walking we had to do each day. Another guy named Marcus, an East German, also didn't finish the trek. In the end, only three of us finished it: Tom, Nico, and me.

All in all, I was just there to spend time with Volker. I met Volker in my days when I lived and worked in New Zealand. I've known him now for over 8 years. When I think about that, I realize how fast time flies.

Volker was born and raised in Goettingen, a small university city. Volker brags to me, every time I see him, that Goettingen has produced the most number of Nobel Laureates in Germany.

It's a charming and small city. At the center of the city is a sculptor of a girl, holding two geese. She's called the Gänseliesel, the goose maiden. The tradition is that when a doctorate candidate receives his or her doctorate, he or she kisses the goose maiden and gives her a flower.

Well, after receiving my juris doctorate at UCLA, I came back to Goettingen and kissed the goose maiden and gave her her flower. So, I followed the tradition. She's supposed to be the most kissed girl on earth.

In Goettingen, Volker took me to the sauna, the Hannover Christmas Market, the Goettingen Christmas Market, and to his parents' home - where we all chatted. We also ran in the forest for about forty minutes in the sleet. It was cold. And it made me feel like I was training for some boxing match.

I was much slower than Volker in the run, because I was just about finished recovering from a cold. I coughed up a lot of mucus. I thought the run was good for me, though, because it seemed to clear out my lungs and my nose.

Ludo gave the cold to me in London. And Ludo got it from his sister Eleonara. And Eleonara got it from her flatmate Benedicta. And I think I may have given it to Volker's partner, Julia. (I wonder if this is how the Black Plague spread in Europe.)

So, I wasn't too happy when Volker told everyone he beat me on the run. I just said, "I had a cold," which I did have.

It was interesting catching up with Volker. I saw snapshots of his life then, now, and perhaps what will be. I wonder if he noticed the same about me.

PS: Thanks to all those who asked about if I was safe in Berlin; I left a few days before the attack on the Christmas Market there. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Lessons from Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
The former checkpoint between East and West Berlin
I missed my flight from London to Berlin, because of poor planning on my part. (There were other reasons, like the subway being really late.)

In London, I choose to spend extra time (instead of hauling myself to the airport) in looking at all the suits and coats in London's famous Saville Row, where the tailors stitch a custom suit for you by measuring you from head to toe. The suits were so expensive, but they looked so nice. I couldn't afford one, but when I looked at the coats, it made me think that Detective Sherlock Holmes would wear a suit and coat from Saville Row.

I went in a shop in Saville Row, something I dare not do when I was 19 in London, because they would've known I was too poor to afford a suit. The associate greets me. He's very friendly. But because of spending too much time in Saville Row and spending too much time studying the designs of the posh suits, I missed my flight to Berlin by about 30 minutes.

So, when I get to the customer service line, the guy at the counter tells me I have to pay $80 USD (about 80 Euros) now, because it's a mileage ticket and that's the standard fee. He then says that he's leaving work, and he'll inform his next colleague that I have to the $ 80 USD. The next person takes over.

She waits for the guy to leave.

Then she says, "I've changed your ticket to be on the next flight. I'm not charging you. Just don't tell anyone."

I open my suitcase and find a box of American Almond Roca. I give it to her. And say, "Thank you so much. You made my day. Merry Christmas."

She says, "You made my day too."

Well, my friend Volker and another friend named Karen, both say I'm the luckiest person they've ever met. In fact, my mother says the same. So, maybe I am super lucky.

Then I almost miss my next flight, even though I'm checked in. I started studying World War I and forgot about the time. Also, London Heathrow Airport is huge. You need a lot more time to walk to a terminal than any other airport I've been to. This time, however, I catch my flight to Berlin.

When I arrive into Berlin, the first thing I realize is that I forgot all my German. It's been two and a half years since I've been to Germany. I want to say something in German, and I know I should know the phrase, but in my mind, I draw a blank. Nothing comes out.

It's the first time I think I know what it feels like to have a speech handicap.

I say in German, "I'm sorry. Just a moment please."

Then I say in English, "I'm sorry. I just forgot all my German."

The guy at the counter laughs and says, "Do not worry. It will come back."

* * * *

It's been two and a half years since I've been in Germany. It's been over seven years, since I toured Berlin, on a wild road trip with Volker and his friends. The memories of that roadtrip come back. I remember our tour on the boat and the night clubs and the food and all of Volker's worries on that trip. Now, I'm back in Berlin again.

In Berlin, I went to two museums. The first one was the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. Kollwitz was a famous German, woman illustrator, who captures the pain, poverty, hunger, and the effects of the war on the poor. Although a small museum, I really learned a lot from it. It's the only museum I've been to dedicated solely to a woman artist.

Misery by Kollwitz
Mother suffering over child
Kollwitz was the first woman artist elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Because of her father's influence about caring for the poor, most of her art focused on the poor and working class.

I was most impressed by the fact that she stayed to live in Berlin during Hitler's reign, when she could have move elsewhere. The Gestapo visited her and her husband, and they decided to commit suicide if they were sent to concentration camps. Kollwitz opposed war in general, because she lost her son in World War I, and as a result, the themes of pain, loss, and dead children surface and resurface in her works.

The second museum I visited was the Topography of Terror. The museum to dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Nazi regime. It's built on the former headquarters of the SS and Gestapo.

In general, I was rather disgusted and angry to see how an entire state moved towards destroying the lives of the most vulnerable people of their society. The one thing that stood out to me was one of the first steps that the Third Reich needed to achieve to fulfill their plan of total destruction was to wipe out dissent and criticism.

In the early stages of Hitler's reign, those who criticized the Third Reich, were paraded around town, with a sign that often said: "Enemy of the State." They were then ridiculed and humiliated in front of the people.

I had a few thoughts when I saw all those who criticized Hitler and were punished for it. Why didn't anyone in the City protest that humiliation? How could the police accept such orders to parade one of their own citizens around? Why didn't anyone in that town help those out whom were being punished?

Although you can't compare the former German state with Baldwin Park, isn't the same thing happening in Baldwin Park now? When you leaflet in the park, you get arrested and strip searched and jailed. When you plaster signs criticizing our elected officials, you get cited by code enforcement. And why do public officials need to chill such speech?

Because, as we're seeing in South Korea right now, when people lose faith in the character of their public officials, they no longer have the right to represent or rule them. So, such public officials need to silence criticism that tells the truth and stresses the abuse of power of such people.

All in all, the Third Reich terrorized their citizens to maintain control. I can't say seeing these exhibits was all that pleasant.

After finishing my tour there, I walked to the cafe across the street. I ordered a spiced wine and ate currywurst, which is a German sausage, cut up, and tossed into a curry sauce. I caught up on my emails and started making arrangements to see my friend Volker in Germany.

Although nothing stood out to me about Berlin on this trip, it was certainly I place I liked. I felt like I could work and live in such a city. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Bali Reunion in London

Will and me in London - St. Paul's Cathedral in the background
Shot by Daisie
In Camden Town, London, I moved my arm, which was on the table, from the table to my body, while the metal music was blasting from downstairs, and when I did so, I spilled Ericka's glass. The beer poured all over the table and onto Theodore's crotch; it looked like he wet himself. Erika demanded a new beer. Will said, "Good one, Paul." The table laughed.

I looked at Theodore and said, "I'm sorry." He laughed and said, "This hasn't happened in awhile." He started laughing. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, "No worries. Let's get another beer."

We were sitting upstairs. Ludo and Eleonra came back to London, to see me and other friends. I really pushed for Will and Daisie to come. We all met a year and a half ago in Bali. And I really wanted to see them again. So, we all had a little reunion, at a metal bar, in Camden Town.

Eleonra's best friend, Ericka, a pretty blonde, also lived in London. She brought her friend Theodore. Will brought his friend too. I can't remember his name; I just remember he came from Liverpool. And I would make fun of his accent and say in a high pitched voice, "I"m very Liverpool."

He would say, "OH! OH! Like I haven't heard that one before."

Then he would say, "Oh my God," in a valley girl accent, "I'm from Los Angeles."

Will would say, "Come on, Paul. Let's go down for some smokes." Will's friend and I went outside. They would smoke. It was cold and drizzling outside, a typical London night. They rolled their own cigarettes because they couldn't afford the commercial ones, which are highly taxed.

Then I'd tell his friend, "You know, in Los Angeles we have running water. Do you have running water in Liverpool?" (If you don't get it, youtube a Liverpool accent. Yes, it's a proper city, but they have such a strong country accent.)

He swore at me. And when he finished smoking his cigarette, he flicked the butt against my coat. The cherry burnt a thread. I smelled it. And he swore at me again. Then we all started laughing.

When we returned upstairs, Ericka said, "It's our turn now." Then they went downstairs to have a smoke.

At the table on my left, there was a chap, who looked nice and normal enough, except he poured out of a tube some white powder. He poured some on his thumb. He snorted it.

I asked, "What's he doing?"

"Coke," someone from my table said.

He snorted a few. He kept scratching the inside of his nose. Someone from my table said, "Can I have some?"

"No," he said. "That's all I got." He joined his friends. He kept scratching the inside of his nose.

We stayed at the bar until they closed the upstairs and kicked us out. We had to say goodbye to Will and Daisie and his Liverpool friend.

Then, Ludo and Eleonara had to go back to Italy. I hugged them. I was going to miss them. I said good bye Ericka and Theodore too.

I went back to my hostel alone to sleep at 03:00AM. The hostel manager and I argued. He thought I was breaking in. I was not. Then, I immediately tucked myself into bed and went to sleep.

* * * *

The next morning, I woke up at 10:30AM. I cleaned myself up and went to the war museum in London, where I learned a lot, but it's a topic for another day.

Around 04:00PM, Will and Daisie text me and say to come meet them. They just woke up. Around the same time, Ericka told me she just woke up too and if I'd like to join them.

Will, Daisie and I walked around London and caught up. I never forgot the two. Even though they can be like an old couple, I always remember their sweet and compassionate hearts.

In Bali, I was down and stressed on my first night. They were in my room. They took a liking to me. I told them I was too old to travel with them. I was 32 then. They refused to believe it. I told them it was the truth.

Then the two kids said I was going to travel with them, and that was the end of the matter. It was on the trip, that ten of us met and some of us stayed in touch. Then ten of us spent 10 days together. I was always grateful to them that they forced me to come and bled the sadness out of my spirit, which brought a new life in me.

Daisie, Will and me sitting on the art gallery floor
As we walked through London at night, we caught up on what happened over a year and a half. They're artists too. Daisie is a painter. She likes to paint vaginas now; she said it makes her feel free. Will is an illust rator.

I see a random guy passing by. I take a photo out of Daisie's newest vagina painting. I ask him what he thinks of it.

She says, "Paul!!!!"

I remember what the Italian lady told me: My face is my ass. (It means you have no shame.)

We find an art gallery, still open, along the River Thames. We all look at the art. Then, eventually, I sit down with Will and have a chat. There are chairs at the gallery, but I'd rather sit on the floor. So, he sits on the floor. Then, Daisie sits on the floor. Then we all chat.

I feel like we're in the television show Skins, which is an English show about the outrageous lives of teenage Londoners. It's something the characters would do. Sit on the floor of an art gallery and discuss all of life's problems. So, I have Daisie take a picture of us. Too bad Will and I came out blurry.

Then, Daisie says she's hungry. They both tell me they have no money. I lecture them on how they're being wasteful with their spending.

They both say, "Yes, Mum. We know."

I sigh, breathing out hopelessness. I don't even know why I tell them this. Are they even going to listen?

"Come on, then. We're going to China Town. I'm buying you cheap Chinese food. You two need to eat."

So, we walk to China Town. I ask Will, "How do we know, when we're at China Town?"

He says, "Believe me, you'll know."

When we arrive in China Town, there's a great big and ugly Chinese gate. And I said, "I think we're here."

Will says, "I would say you're right."

We find a cheap Chinese place. It's 5 pounds per person, but we can't eat inside. So, I buy three. We then decide to go to Leicester Square. We find somewhere to sit, but the stone we sit on is cold. We eat our food. We watch all the hustling and bustling and busy people. It's cold outside. When we talk, clouds of cold smoke fume from our nostrils and mouth. They finished their food. I finish half of it and take the rest to my hostel.

 We walk back to my hostel at Oxford Circus, which is an amazing location, in central London. After we finish, Will and Daisie take me through the dark and dirty alleyways to get back. I saw things, I shouldn't have seen.

As T.S. Eliot once wrote:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...

When we get back to my hostel, I go to my room. I get them their gifts.

I give Will a rare book on American cartoons. I give Daisie some American cashew chocolates. I tell them how I wish we could have had more time together. As the poem says, And indeed there will be time . . . Time for you and time for me[.] But that time will not be now, I think.

She says, "I know," in a bit of whiney way.

Will says, "Come back to London."

"I guess I'll have to."

I give them both a hug. I walk them out.

The lady at the front desk, who is from Italy tells me, "I almost felt like crying, when you said bye to your friends."

Well, that deserves a chit chat, I thought. So, I talk to her a bit, until I know I can go back to my room.

When I go to bed, I think to myself, I wonder if all this was meant to be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Local Business Owner Sues the City of Baldwin Park for Violating His Free Speech Rights - Special Report

Greg S. Tuttle, local business owner, filed a lawsuit yesterday agains the City of Baldwin Park, for violating his Free Speech Rights, because it has threatened and issued a citation for having a sign that criticizes Baldwin Park's Council Member Ricardo Pacheco for being corrupt. The lawsuit asks the court to strike down Baldwin Park's laws on signs, because it violates both the state and federal constitution, which guarantees free speech rights to individuals. It also asks for a temporary and permanent restraining order, which would seek to stop Baldwin Park from citing residents whom wish to hang the Pacheco sign. Finally, the lawsuit asks for damages and attorney's fees.

The public officials have had a hostile stance towards the residents' rights, which guarantee them the freedom to speak out against public officials' corruption. In July of 2014, Mayor Manuel Lozano attempted to get a restraining order against the attorney and activist, Paul Cook, who was leafleting at Morgan Park against the Director of Parks and Recreation, Manuel Carrillo. The court criticized the City of Baldwin Park and specifically told it, "You know that he [Cook] has Free Speech Rights." The Mayor's lawsuit was dismissed against Cook.

Then, Cook sued the City of Baldwin Park in federal court for retaliating against him for his exercise of Free Speech, because the City arrested him, had a woman officer strip search him, and threw him into jail. After the filing of the complaint, the City settled with Cook for $67,5000.

Then, when Greg Tuttle began investigating the City's business practices in luxury hotels and restaurants in Santa Barbara, Council Member Ricardo Pacheco also filed a temporary restraining order in order to halt his investigation and discredit his findings. Mayor Lozano and Council Woman Monica Garcia followed. Cook defended Tuttle in court and had all three lawsuits dismissed. The court told Ricardo Pacheco to his face, that being a politician comes with such criticism, and that he needed to grow up or move on.

Since then, a number of residents have been angered over a number of votes that Council Member Pacheco has cast, which they believe has been fueled by receiving bribe money. As a result, these residents have been plastered banners on their building with a portrait of him as a donkey. The banner has stamped on top of it the word: "Corrupt."

(Not only have residents been complaining, but former women employees and two Council Woman are also complaining that they have been either physically or verbally assaulted, because they were women, by Ricardo Pacheco.)

In response to the plastering of the sings, the City of Baldwin Park then ordered code enforcement to warn everyone with these signs to take them down or be fined. When they did not take them down, code enforcement fined these residents. And when they did that, Tuttle's attorneys: Carol Sobel, Fred Zelaya, and Monique Alarcon, filed a lawsuit in federal court to protect Tuttle's and other residents' Free Speech Rights.

The Mayor and City Attorney have stated that these lawsuits hardly affect the City because the insurance company pays the damages anyways. Therefore, it appears that the City has taken a stance that they're going to violate law, until an actual lawsuit materializes and results in a court order. And even when the court issues an order, like in the Casas' lawsuit, the City has still chosen to violate them.

Nonetheless, it doesn't appear that the City's strategy is working. In the last few years, the City has been deluged with lawsuits. What's special about this lawsuit is that it's the first lawsuit in the City's history attempting to invalidate a law the City has enacted. In other words, if Tuttle prevails in the lawsuit, the court will effectively tell the City it doesn't have the right to make illegal laws or enforce them.

The next step is that the City will now have to respond to the lawsuit. We'll see what happens.

[Update on Dec. 14, 2016, San Gabriel Tribune writes a story on the case. Lawsuit alleges Baldwin Park code prohibiting political signs violates free speech]

Monday, December 12, 2016

My Days in Copenhagen, Denmark

Kongen Nytorg, Copenhagen, Denmark
Shot by Paul Cook
All of this happened while I was walking around cold in Copenhagen – the strange city no one leaves from, until she has left his mark on him. I took a break from London and flew into cold, Copenhagen.

I liked the hostel I was staying at. It reminded me of staying in an old hotel, that was centuries old. The bottom floor was restaurant and tavern, where they served alcohol. But it wasn't like an American bar. It felt more like a living room downstairs, and the tables were long and grand. And you can imagine vikings used to seat there, after coming back from their voyage, and drink their liters of mead, laughing and telling stories. And upstairs, there were the bedrooms.

I didn't feel like talking to people now. I met so many people in London and Italy, and I felt like I needed my own time and space. I chose to come to Copenhagen instead of Paris because it was supposed to be sunny. And it was. Even still, Copenhagen got dark early. It got dark at 04:00PM.

I heard that Denmark was the happiest country in the world. I could see that the land of ice was a good place to live. I could see that the people of ice, with their golden hair and their icy blue eyes, were also polite. (They kind of all look the same, though.) But, it lacked that fire inside, the fire I found in Spain and Italy.

If Italy was a great lover, Denmark would make a great wife, except she's very expensive and demands a lot out of you. That's one thing that wore on me. It was so expensive in Copenhagen.

I spent $30 on a Danish lunch. I had one Christmas beer, which was $10. Everyone was drinking it. So, I thought I should have one too. It wasn't worth the price. Money is hard to make. And to waste it like that, made me feel guilty. The sandwich, which was just one piece of bread with trout eggs on it, cost $12. The waitress said I should have a half shot of Danish Christmas liquor to finish my meal. Everyone else around was drinking it. But that too, cost $6. I spent $30 on a Danish lunch, and I felt guilty about it.

Coffee is expensive. Food is expensive. Everything is expensive. So, I told myself to suck it up. I was on in Denmark for a few days.

When I was in Denmark, I didn't want to talk to travelers. So, I walked to the Danish Parliament alone. I was in awe of the Parliament, only because I saw it so often in a Danish television series called Borgen. I was thought to myself: Wow, I'm really here.

Danish Coat of Arms
And there, the guards let me in. I did however talk to the guards. I asked them about the Danish coat of arms and what it meant. I love the Danish coat of arms. It's of three lions and hearts. (Courage and love in my view.) When I saw the crest stamped in red wax and with red ink, it just struck me as so regal.

Inside, I walked up the flight of stairs, all the way to the top, and saw an open session of parliament. (It would be like watching Congress in Washington D.C.). And even though I generally can't stand politicians, I was also in awe of watching the politicians argue. The ones engaged in the conversation were stately and noble. The other ones not paying attention, were on their cell phones and reminded me of my Baldwin Park council people - whom in my view are all shameful.

But then, I even saw the Danish Prime Minister. I don't know why I was impressed to see him, because I could care less for public officials. But there was something interesting about watching him speak to his cabinet members, and they looked like they were talking about something very important indeed. What were they talking about? I wondered.

When I returned back to my hostel, I took off my boots and set them aside, while I sat in the comfortable recliner. I watched the people talking in the dimly lit hall, until the Italians in my room approached me.

The Italian girl started up a conversation. She told me she was having a problem with her travel documents. (Do they know I'm an attorney? They must have a sixth sense about it.) I do engage her. I tell her I just came back from Italy. She's actually from the same region as Ludo and Eleonara. She introduces me to her friends. We chat. They tell me they have to go to the airport. I told her if she has problems and come back, I'll be here to help her out. I never told her I was a lawyer.

She says, "Gracis."

I say, "Praigo."

She didn't come back. She must have made her flight.

On my last day in Copenhagen, it got dark and gloomy. The northern arctic winds start blasting. And even though I was wearing many layers of clothes and a scarf, it started getting bitterly cold. The winds pierced through all my layers of clothing, and chilled my skin. It chilled my bones. It chilled my marrow. It chilled my blood. And the chill stayed in me. I shivered and hated it. I hated it and shivered.

I thought to myself, I can never live here. It's way too cold.

On my last day in Copenhagen, the Court of Appeals asked me for more information regarding one of my motions I filed. I responded by asking for more time. I even wrote on my application for an extension, "Happy holidays to the court from Copenhagen, Denmark." I don't know if attorneys generally do that, but the court needs to be wished well too, from time to time. (The court eventually granted the extension; so I could enjoy the rest of my winter holidays.)

Upon having to leave the City, some of me wish I had seen more in Copenhagen. A part of me just wanted to leave the land of ice and salty sea. A part of me loved their bread, which was freshly baked, which had a crunchy crust, but was soft and buttery inside. A part of me resented their high prices and their heavy taxes.

In any event, my final conclusion is that Copenhagen left it's mark on me. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Christmas Party in London

Big Ben, London, United Kingdom
During a Christmas party in London, I told several New Zealand guests that I was going to one day become prime minister of New Zealand. I told them it wouldn't be that hard; I would just have to unite the explosively growing Asian population together and have them vote for me. They laughed. Then one of them said that he would have to oppose me, because I may bring Donald Trump's ideas to New Zealand.

After Italy, I flew into London to meet an old friend named Ilya, and his wife, Mandy, in London. Although Ilya is Russian and Mandy's Malaysian Chinese, both are New Zealand citizens. I haven't seen Ilya in eight years, which was when I was living in New Zealand. So, I was excited to see Ilya and he, me. It's been a long time.

From the airport, I took the train into London. It was the same train that I rode 15 years ago. (I was studying my physics then, in the South of England, under a Scottish professor who was skeptical of everything.) I couldn't believe the tickets had the same design and color. The route was the same. The only difference was that the demographics of London has seemed to change a lot; there are a lot more foreigners. It appears that the foreign population is larger than the native one.

It was a bit of shock to come into London from Italy. In Italy, we were living the slow and relaxed way of life. At the train station and the Underground (which is the name for their subway), it was so busy and hectic. People were rushing to get to their next location. The whole place seemed to be moving at a much faster pace. And in that rush, while I dragged my luggage down the stairs to the Tube, I cracked one of the wheels. It set me back 30 pounds.

And I felt sorry for London, because although it's advancing, I asked myself what it's losing to advance so fast. Ilya and I ate at an Indian restaurant for lunch and next to me was a young student, eating alone. Because he was eating alone, I introduced myself, eventually. He told me he was studying at one of the best schools in the United Kingdom, the London School of Economics. But he seemed lonely.

I wanted to invite him to our party. But I never got the chance.

When I told Ilya my scheme, he said, "Paul, you can just invite random people over."

I said, "Why not? He seemed lonely."

Ilya shook his head. I think they think I'm crazy. Maybe, I am.

I told him, I need to bring him a stray cat, then. He said that would be even worse. I protested that it'd be lucky for him. He didn't believe me.

While I was in London, I was lucky, though. The glorious sun came out and warmed the cold air. Nonetheless, the yellow smoke still slid along the streets.

Did you know that in Shakespeare's Henry IV part 2, the King of England tells Prince Hal that he should only appear in front of commoners once in awhile, because the King is like the sun in England. If you appear, only once in awhile in front of the people, they're happy to see you, as they're happy to see the sun. It's a difficult play to understand without knowing the history, but I love Henry IV. It has so much insight, like when Henry's partying friend, Falstaff pretends to be dead in the war, so as to not get killed. Falstaff believes better to be a coward and survive than be brave and die, though of course it's not royal conduct.

Back to be being in London. I didn't do much sightseeing in London. It's expensive. Almost everywhere you go, except for museums, they charge you.

Ilya and Mandy were hosting a Christmas party for Kiwis. There were 11 Kiwi guests. I'm half a Kiwi, since I have permanent residency but not citizenship. They wanted to make a turducken, which is a chicken stuffed into a duck, which is stuffed into a turkey.

I helped. I told them to bring the turkey, since turkey is generally bland. I also took the skin off the duck and blanketed it over the turkey, so the turkey skin would cook in duck grease. The roasted duck skin was crispy, fatty, and to die for.

During the Christmas party, we played pass the parcel (package). The parcel is wrapped ball of strips of toilet paper. Every once in awhile, when you remove a strip, a joke or instructions or a gift comes out. It's like hot potato, and if the parcel lands on you, you unwrap a part of the parcel.

When I unwrapped my parcel, it told me to lick my elbow. I looked stupid. Everybody laughed. Everybody drank too, mainly mulled wine, which is spiced red wine. Ilya, being Russian, also passed the shots of vodka around.

After the party ended, around 02:30AM, we all slept. We all slept in.

The next day, I went to the British Museum. I didn't do much sight seeing, but I loved the British Museum. I loved seeing the Egyptian sculptures of the pharaohs and the sphinxes. They were huge. They were grand. They were so impressive!

I also saw the mummies, and I felt like a kid again. I imagined that they would wake up and chase after me in the museum. Oh, they were so wicked to see. Do you think they really have curses and can become ghouls? Who knows?

Well, after British Museum, I took the Tube to the airport. I was flying to Denmark. I'm just spending my time there, until Ludo and Eleonora come to London. Then, it's time to continue the good times. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Eating, Drinking, and Loving in Northern Italy

View from Piemonte, Northwest Italy
In the forest, high up in the hills, we were eating freshly baked pizza and drinking red wine made by Ludo's uncle. We toasted; the glass rang; I thanked my hosts for their hospitality; and we ate. I could see their old, white dog, wandering in the cold forest. It was a Sunday, and we were feasting on some of the best pizza I had; it was really good because it was made with love.

Eleonora, Ludo's sister, captured some wild yeast and spent several days to grow the culture. Then she pounded and kneaded the pizza dough with wholemeal flour. When she pounded the dough, and smashed it into the counter, you could hear the bang.

Ludo and Eleonora told me for days they were going to make me pizza. I didn't know it'd take so much time to make. I didn't know it'd taste so good. Eleonora preaches to everyone she meets the importance of using wild yeast instead of the commercial kind, both for health and taste purposes. She's right - you know?

I'm convinced I found my heart in Italy. At one point, I couldn't help but tell Ludo and Eleonora the truth. I told them, they had such big hearts. And truly, their hearts were forged from the same furnace, because they were made of gold.

When I arrived into Northern Italy from Madrid, it was grey, dark, rainy, and gloomy. Ludo and Eleonora drove an hour and a half to pick me up from the airport. Gasoline (or petrol) is twice the price in Italy than the United States. I tried to pay them for the fuel, but they wouldn't let me. It's been over two years since I've seen Ludo.

I met Ludo on one of my trips. If you're an avid reader of my blog, you can figure out which country I met him in. I didn't think I'd get along with him too well. Never thought we'd be unfriendly to each other either, but we're very different from each other. It's like pairing a bookworm, wallflower with a party animal.

One time, Ludo came back to the hotel from partying until 05:00AM. I woke up at 09:00AM to get breakfast, and he said, "Wait, Paul, I'm coming with you." Then, Ludo wouldn't sleep again and party until 05:00AM again, and then get breakfast with me all over again.

But Ludo says, I'm really crazy inside. That's why we get along. Could be?

I stayed with Ludo and his sister in their big Italian house. (It's a flat, but it feels more like a house, since it's so large.) One of his female flatmates is studying to be a sex therapist. Another female flatmate studies philosophy. His male roommate is studying design. Ludo is studying psychology. And Eleonora is an artist. (Incidentally, Ludo gave up his bed for me to sleep on, while he slept somewhere else.) (And for reasons I won't go into in my blog, I called his flat the love-flat.)

Living at his flat for a few days, brought back memories of my days in college. It also gave me the experience of living with artists, which I never did in college. I loved my roommates back in college, but I believe they were all scientists. Although I was a scientist too, I think a part of me sees the world as an artist and part of me wished I lived with artists during my younger days.

And as artists and Italians, they're always eating together and drinking together. Almost every night, they cook dinner for each other. In fact, on the first night, I cooked risotto for them. (I bet, they didn't know that I could cook Italian food, even though I'm Korean-American.)

During those days, when we ate and drank together, we talked about everything, from politics to art to literature, and they especially liked to talk about love. (And Eleonora likes to tell everyone about her newly found passion about wild yeast.)

I keep complaining that the Italians feed me too much. Once, after returning home from wandering through Europe's largest open flea market, the sex therapist's mother was in the flat. She invited me to sit next to her.

They fed me an Italian rice dish. She said, "My English not good. But I try." She then explained that even though her English is not good, that she's Italian and knows how to use her lively hands to talk to anyone.

She then said in Italian, "My face is my ass." The people at the table laughed. I'm told it means that she has no shame in trying. When she leaves, she hugged me and kissed me on one cheek then the other. She's a wonderful woman. I love her.

And after she feeds me, another flatmate asks if I want more food. And they always ask, "Paul, do you want a coffee?" They make me a coffee before the meal and during the meal and after the meal. Then they tell me, "Paul, you drink a lot of coffee." And I just laugh to myself, thinking, Yeah, because it's so good.

Did I tell you, all they do is feed me and give me drink? When we visited Ludo's father, he made a hunter's pasta for us. It had pieces of meat and vegetables. They serve me wine, made by Ludo's uncle. It's rich and nice. But I've ate so much food and drank so much wine, I feel so tired. I walk up to Ludo's room and nap.

When I wake up, they say, "Come on, Paul. We're going to visit a friend for dinner." Aye, more food and drink. The feasting, the drinking, and the love never ends.

In that region, they were celebrating on a Sunday a truffle festival. It's one of the few regions in the world that sells white truffles. Truffles are a sort of mushroom that grows deep in the earth, in the forest, around oaks, and dogs or pigs are required to find them.

The shop owner lets me smell one. It smells nutty and strong and pungent and oh-so-good. I never ate a white truffle. We don't have them in Los Angeles.

So, I buy a small one, which costs about $15 and is the size of small chestnut. In the States, it would cost upward of a $100. It's for the flat.

Later in the week, they make pasta. Ludo slices the truffle thin. They look like tiny sheets of paper. We throw it into the pasta, while the pasta is still hot. We add fresh olive oil and salt with it. We mix it. And eat.

It tastes wonderful. The girls bought both red and white wine today to drink it with.

Well, I have more and more stories of food, drink, and conversations. But all in all, I was sad I had to go. So sad, I realized that I couldn't let Ludo or Eleonora go.

I looked into my mileage bank account. And for a few days, I talked to Ludo about going with me to London. Ludo would say, "Paul, I have finals; I have to study for them."

I replied, "Don't worry. I'll make sure you study. I'll take you to a cafe. I could read. You could study."

A wicked grin surfaces. I could feel it. And it belies my words.

"I don't think I'll study if I'm in London. I have finals."

. . .

Ludo says, "When Paul wants something, he really pushes it so strongly."

I say, "You have to fight for your ideas."

He says: "Remind me not to go against you." (Remember; Ludo is an Italian. They're lovers, not fighters.)

But after relentlessly talking about what could be, he finally agreed to come with me to London. I looked at my mileage account and had enough to book him a flight from Italy to London.

When he agrees, I tell Ludo, "Contact all the people we know in the UK. Tell them we're coming to London."

He says, "I will."

Eleonora found out. She thought about coming.

Then she said, "I want to come too." So, I booked her a ticket too.

And had they refused, I'm sure I would have plotted a way to kidnap them and take them with me both to London.

I asked myself, Why should the feast stay in Italy? No, it should go, wherever we go.

My time in Italy reminded me, kindness makes more kindness, generosity makes more generosity, and love makes more love. I'm convinced, living like this could cure almost anything.