Thursday, November 21, 2013
Bulgaria, Bad Knees, and Japanese
October and November tend to be my busiest business travel months, with at least one trip each to Europe and Asia. In October I did a customer visit tour in "only" four countries: UK, France, Bulgaria (sunset in the hills near Sofia, above), and Czech Republic (though I slept one night at the Vienna airport and drove through part of Slovakia). London, Nice, Manchester, Wales, London, Sofia, Vienna, Paris, and then home. This is a light five-day schedule for our European distributor.
A special wrinkle on this trip was a bad knee. After months of increasing pain, I was recently diagnosed with a torn meniscus in my right knee. I was worried about long flights, big airports, train station stairs, and long car rides, but most of it went OK with the help of a new rolling backpack computer bag and a special effort to pack light. The fact that I don't have to carry books anymore helps a bit on this - I have hundreds of Kindle books on my iPad Mini, iPhone, and Kindle, and now the airlines even let you use these small devices in "airplane mode" from gate to gate (at least inside the US). After an MRI and two orthopedic opinions, I will have arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus next month. So I should be good as new (plus or minus a few decades) by January.
I spent last week in Japan, after working several weeks to prepare for optical/software presentations and product demos that I don't typically do in my day to day work these days. Since long ago I studied and still enjoy optics and pretending to design lenses (we call these "demos"), I look forward to these fall trips when I get to meet with some of the Japanese engineers who have designed many of the camera zoom lenses, DVD player lenses, and what-not that I have bought and used over the years. This trip involved even longer flights as well as many trains and train stations. In spite of all the stairs in the subway stations, my knee felt pretty good, which made me realize (this week) that most of my knee pain is triggered by driving, not by walking and climbing stairs.
Imiwa? (the name means "what about the meaning?"). I use this to refresh my fading knowledge of Japanese, taking notes on various interesting words or phrases that I hear or see. I also bought a few copies of a children's magazine that I haven't bought in many years, Takusan no Fushigi ("A World of Wonders" in English). Intended for Japanese children 8 years and up, each monthly issue focuses on a particular non-fiction topic, from a museum of curiosities in Paris, to the life cycle of a certain moth, to the workings of Air Traffic Control (ATC, October 2012, at left), among many others (hundreds of titles published since the 1980's when I first discovered them when exploring Japanese bookstores on my early trips).
Just for fun, I read the ATC one on my flight home (cool because I like flying stuff as well as Japanese). A key point is that most of the kanji ("Chinese characters") are printed with furigana, small phonetic characters that give the pronunciation. Japanese adults don't need these, but Japanese children (and I) do for all but the basic kanji, of which I know around 200 or so. Since I know how ATC works (from private flying and from listening to United's channel 9 for many years), it was fairly easy for me to follow the text, which consisted mostly of radio exchanges between pilots and controllers (although in fact ATC in Japan and in most of the world is done almost entirely in English, because the many international pilots cannot understand Japanese). I still had to look up probably every fourth or fifth kanji-based word (many flight-related words in Japanese are adapted from English and spelled phonetically in katakana, so those are easy to read).
This trip was also the first time in 31 years of travel to Japan that I tried fugu (known as blowfish or pufferfish). I've wanted to try it for years, but it's too expensive for an expense report, and no one ever invited me! Fugu has a bad reputation because its liver is deadly poison, and if it is not prepared properly, the poison can contaminate the meat, and you can die (this sometimes happens to amateurs who try to prepare fugu at home without special training). Restaurants are of course very careful, and it is actually quite safe, and pretty tasty. It is cut almost translucently thin for sashimi (photo above - it is light pink, but the dark pattern of the plate shows through making it look gray in places in the photo), but we also had it in soup, fried, and broiled. Oishikatta! (It was delicious.)
This was also the second time I had tried hirezake, a rather strange drink. It is warm sake with the fin of a fugu soaking in it. It sounds strange (ok, it IS strange), but it tastes pretty good. So I guess technically, I had "experienced" fugu once before. It's also popular enough that you can buy it in individual cans from some drink vending machines. Japan has many vending machines that dispense small cans of cold or warm beverages (typically coffee or tea). In this case, the sake is warm, and the fish fin (possibly not always fugu?) is in a separate small container on top that you add to the sake yourself. I guess you don't want that super-soggy-fish-fin taste in your hot Japanese rice wine, do you?