May 31st: Brief Lessons

Five language lessons in and we can finally, in perfect Mandarin, order a bottle of milk, a glass of wine and three dictionaries. What I failed to manage this evening was to convince the taxi driver I wasn’t really capable of joining in with his Mandarin-based rendition of Nessun Dorma. “Eaaaah?” beckoned the taxi driver in a rising tone, gesticulating with two thumbs up (whilst driving the taxi) and beaming at me in his mirror, “Eeeaaah, ho ho ho!?”. Never been so glad to hear adverts appear on the radio.

What I was trying to do in the taxi was work out at what point Shanghai becomes “home”, or indeed, what makes something home. Nearly two months in, the lack of furniture means the house still feels more like a hotel. But our local area is becoming more and more familiar, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the food (two very spicy Sichuan meals this week so far) or the late nights (JB forcing us to visit a late night pool bar after our Mandarin lesson on Wednesday night).

According to Wikipedia, home is “usually a place in which an individual or a family can live and store personal property.”

B*llocks of course: home is wherever Bronwen is.

Boris Bikes, Shanghai Style

May 27th: Plastic Beer

If you’re going to name your establishment “Dr. Beer”, selling five on-premise brewed beers at fairly expensive prices, then please, please, please don’t serve them in plastic glasses.  Fancy plastic glasses they may well be, but they’re still plastic.  Specially moulded plastic too, to disguise the fact that I’m getting somewhat close to a small-bottle-sized serving; nowhere near a pint.  And I don’t care if it keeps the beer inside the plastic a little cooler!  A relaxed Friday evening eating snack food with Bron in Dr. Beer was somewhat spoiled by the fact the fresh, flavourful, non mass-produced beer tasted, well, plasticky.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how several sights we’d once viewed as strange now appear normal.  One exception to this is spitting.  Since this blog is a record of our time in China, it has to include the lows as well as the highs; seeing people (usually men) spitting in the street certainly counts as one of the lows.  It’s not so much seeing it but hearing it that bothers me, since the act of spitting usually follows an elongated cleansing of the throat (I guess just to make sure whatever’s down there is all going to be ejected).  Some of the guidebooks talk about the necessity of cleansing the body and so in theory it’s far better to eject that which the body attempts to naturally expel rather than swallow it or deposit it into a tissue that could (potentially) infect others.    Regardless of why, I’ll just be British and say I find it unpleasant.

Enough complaining.
Gardens at Ding XiangWe have a “Walking Tours of Shanghai” book that throws up some fascinating nooks and crannies we’d never otherwise know about.  The book is also invaluable in revealing hitherto unknown restaurants and bars down these nooks (that’s bars in nooks, not nooky bars; I think that’s something else) and crannies.  On Saturday we discovered a superb dim sum restaurant at the end of a huge private garden.  So although we weren’t allowed in the garden, we had a great lunch overlooking it.

Saturday night was spent with work colleagues in a trendy bar called Char Bar overlooking The Bund, followed by a few games of pool in the not-so-trendy Big Bamboo.

Brunch at Sashas

Brunch at Sashas (not quite as poncy as it sounds) gave us an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable way to spend Sunday afternoon.  A good few hours, again with the work lot, sat outside with free-flowing sparkling wine.  Not quite a British beer garden, but it did for us both today.

And Dr. Beer owners please take note – the sparkling wine served was served in glasses, not plastic containers resembling glasses.

View of The Bund from the Char Bar

May 24th: The Office

A few people have asked why I haven’t mentioned anything to do with work in the blog. So let’s give it a go: Working in the office here in Shanghai is just like Milton Keynes, apart from the fact that we have a total of 3 lifts for 24 floors (with each floor easily accommodating over 150 people); And that the coffee shop downstairs sells Hot Dog Danish Pastries (with Tim so far being the only one brave enough to try one); And that smoking at either end of the building is permitted; And that the ladies get a choice of toilet (sitting or squatting, depending one’s knee strength I suspect); And that the cleaning lady is ridiculously happy and gleefully chats to Tim and I in Chinese every day (that’s chats to us, not with us); And that at 12 o’clock the office pretty much empties (but the corridor by the lifts quickly fills); And that most people can’t understand what I say.
That last one is no different.

Walking to the office from the Metro station is to run the gauntlet of mopeds, motorbikes, bicycles and changing-direction-like-butterflies Chinese people.  And the shops with those outwards-opening doors made entirely of glass.

But they’re a friendly bunch in the office, and incredibly keen to help us out with our Mandarin.  Maybe I can post more about working here once we’re a bit more established as an organisation.

Away from work, a hectic week as ever. We went out to see Friendly Fires (a band from St. Albans) on Tuesday night at the Mao Livehouse with an audience made up of well over 90% ex-pats. The Mao Livehouse is somewhat akin to a student union bar – smallish, dingy but sadly without the cheap drinks. In this case, a great energetic atmosphere in a bloody hot venue. Further Mandarin lessons on Monday and Wednesday evening, and a Thai meal Wednesday post-lesson with Matt, a neighbour of older sister Karen’s, who delivered a much-appreciated food parcel of cereal, crisps, beer and shampoo.  I suppose, technically, shampoo is not food.

A bonus visit each to the local police station for me & Bron to extend our locally registered status.  This as part of the process to get enough paperwork together to release our sea shipment.  Hopefully less than three weeks’ away now… We’ll see…

And finally: Walking backwards clapping man – if you ever read this blog, many apologies for posting your picture without your explicit permission. However, you’re a cheery delight first thing in the morning. One day I hope to be able to either join you in this daily ritual or at least ask how you manage this very skillful act without being knocked over.

May 20th: Ayi and Rum

An ayi*: a lady who comes to your house to tidy, clean, shop, cook, order water, pay bills… Pretty much any domestic chore.  So thanks to Valerie (downstairs neighbour) we’ve appointed an ayi to visit three afternoons a week.   The challenge for us is that she doesn’t speak a word of English, and our Mandarin has yet to sufficiently evolve beyond introducing ourselves and counting to 100.   Not quite sure how we’d cope without Google Translate.  Her first visit was Friday – a little overwhelmed by the number of tasks we’d set aside for her , she nevertheless did a pretty good job.   And apologies for using “she” and “her” – our ayi does have a name, but not in English!

(*The literal translation of “ayi” is ”Auntie”.  The one-child policy in China is apparently resulting in words like Auntie and Uncle becoming less useful, so in typical Chinese style they’re being reclaimed for other uses.)

Hot Rum and Cold Lychee MartiniA week of sun and boiling hot temperatures inevitably gave way to rain and a far more temperate feel on Saturday.  It doesn’t take long for 20 degrees to feel almost chilly (sorry for anyone in the UK currently reading this – the temperatures back home have been more like February than May), so a medicinal lunch-time hot rum was called for at a small bar in Tianzifang.

Later in the afternoon we visited a beer festival in the pouring rain (had to be wet to give it that authentic British feel) joined by Tim, Sarah and JB.  Plenty of beers to choose from; plenty to try and leave well alone.  Despite the weather, a great time was had by all, followed by a takeaway Thai meal (courtesy of Sherpas home delivery) back at Tim and Sarah’s.

I loved Bronwen’s observation that standing around the beer festival, chatting, we could hear countless other separate conversations taking place; the difference being here at the beer festival – for the first time in ages – we could actually understand them.**

As the antithesis of the safe, saccharine music emanating from most of the ex-pat-style bars in Shanghai, “Pairs” certainly managed to awaken the post-Sunday-lunch audience.  A bloke playing drums and a lass on guitar;  a fantastic racket from two people who seemed genuinely bemused to have anybody in the audience at all.  We’d gone along to The Melting Pot music venue following a lazy, late lunch to see The Noise Revival Orchestra, an 8-piece band from Austin (Texas).  Always a bit strange to watch bands in the daytime (festivals apart) but a great way to round-off a top weekend.

**I mean because most people there were speaking English.  Not because we’d magically learned to speak Mandarin over a few pints.

May 17th: Sad Lungs… And Other Body Parts

Never quite sure how much detail to go into in a blog… So let’s just say I lost the whole of Wednesday somewhere.  Food poisoning/dodgy bug/who knows.  Was bound to happen at some point.

The week had started on a high note – great first “real” Mandarin lesson on Monday evening with Bron, followed by a meal in a nearby Szechuan restaurant.  This despite Bron being convinced the blackened chicken was really frog (judging by the size of the bones), which is often to be found on the menus here.  The Chinese are effortlessly skilled at the art of using chopsticks to eat meat on the bone via some very dextrous tongue and teeth action (meat on the bone goes in the mouth, stripped bone comes out).  With us, it’s kind of meat on the bone goes in, tiny bit of meat gets torn off, rest comes out.

The benefits perils of knowing somebody living nearby means a late night drink is always an option.  Still difficult to get used to smoking in bars being permitted out here; Tuesday night’s bar (hidden away at the back of an American-style Bistro) was more smokey than Whitelocks in Leeds circa 1995 (and that’s going some).  To borrow a quote from Rachel, “My lungs are sad”…

And something amongst that lot was the cause of Wednesday’s lost day…

Hengshan Moller Villa(The photo, by the way, is of Hengshan Moller Villa: an old mansion house now converted into a hotel from just up the road from us.  We do have green in Shanghai!)


May 13th: Pet Hates

Friday night = Karaoke night in Yang Pu district (close to the office), or KTV as its known here.  The venue for our attempt was a building entirely full of 50+ “private” rooms solely dedicated to Karaoke, with an obscure mix of songs being belted out at top volume from room 636.  The Chinese guys don’t half love their power ballads – with some powerful singing to match.  Radiohead, The Killers and Robbie Williams’ interminable “Angels” of course sung by the British lot (the last one nowt to do with me).  Bronwen celebrated the return of her voice by nearly losing it again during “That’s not my name” by The Ting Tings (selected by her thoughtful husband).

A trip to the Shanghai Brewery and a strange little bar for a few games of late night pool with Bron and JB ended the evening; finally making it to bed just after 3am.

The Apartment

A return to Indian food took us to Vedas in Jing An with Rachel on Saturday night; probably the best Indian meal I’ve had in China, and with the most expensive bill.  To continue the expense, Rachel took us to The Apartment (modelled on a New York loft-style lounge, it says here in the blurb).   A particularly popular place for ex-pats with wall-to-wall bodies; fortunately we had access to a reserved seating area.  Reserved via the means of purchasing expensive drinks…  All-in-all a top night out, but the cashpoint beckons very soon.

But it’s not all about the pubs and bars in Shanghai, honest.  Thursday provided our second Chinese cooking experience, with spicy Eggplant being the highlight this time.  Despite its insipid sounding title, this was the dish most of us had been looking to try and recreate at home.  And tonight I think we’ll be giving it a go.Spicy Eggplant

Today (Sunday), Bron and I visited an exhibition of arts and vintage clothing in a local charity event.  A cool, hippy sort of venue, ruined by the presence of many Westerners displaying the inexplicable habit of carrying small dogs as fashion accessories.  They’re dogs.  They have legs.  They are not handbags, babies or muppets.  I know you’re very fond of your pets, but please put them on the bloomin’ floor; let them walk, sniff, do whatever it is that dogs do.  Or buy a fluffy toy instead.

We may have stopped off in a bar on the way home, but I may have needed a post-rant drink.

And a plea to future Shanghai shop designers; sheer glass panels may be wonderful for allowing people to see into shops, but they make lousy doors.  Especially when they open out into the pavement.