February 28th: Ending

And so it ends.

With somewhat of a shorter trip than planned, Bronwen and I will be returning home to the UK within the next couple of months (no, I’m not going to go into further detail on why within this blog).

Inevitably we have mixed feelings on this – psychologically not quite ready to return yet, but will obviously be happy to be home.  Particularly as the UK economy is now looking so rosy and none of the credit agencies are entertaining the idea of downgrading the UK’s credit rating.  Oh.

So following JB’s week of leaving events, Richard consoled a few of us on Monday night by agreeing to lose at pool to  the fearsome team of me and Bron (following a curry).  We will no doubt see Richard again when back in the UK, but it’s on nights like we realise we have little time left to spend with our Chinese friends and our other expat friends we’ve met locally.  We broke the news to Andrea and Grace on Tuesday night at yet another curry (with Rachel), and will no doubt have many more nights like this one over the coming weeks.

Felix came over tonight for a band session.  Yet another reason to be gutted about leaving Shanghai, since (recognising this is a somewhat biased opinion) we have a few cracking songs.  And some even better ones.  We’ll try and record them all before Bron and I leave and force them on the world a little later.

The blog will live on until we return.   I may kill it soon after.

Me, Tim, and the boys from IT

Me, Tim, and the boys from IT

February 24th: Going, going…

One man can only leave so many times…

Mr John Burgess, advocate of Guinness and of pool bars everywhere in Shanghai, will shortly be gone, leaving behind him a weeping trail of trading department ladies (and men).  And leaving following the highest number of leaving dos of anyone I’ve ever met.

Bron sings "Superstar"... again...

Bron sings “Superstar”… again…

Wednesday night featured JB leaving do number 87, back in Masse (favourite bar in Shanghai) for a last Wednesday night drubbing at pool (with me the recipient).  On Friday we ventured into a KTV bar for another leaving do with most of the trading team and a few others, featuring such quality karaoke songs as Lionel Richie’s “Hello”.  And, of course, “Pretty Boy”.  The night ended in a small bar called the Wooden Box where Bron and I met Rachel around 1am (after French folk band people had finally given up with their extended Corsa advert).

Rob, Tim, me, Bron and Sarah saying another goodbye to JB

Rob, Tim, me, Bron and Sarah saying another goodbye to JB

Saturday night’s leaving do was in Mr Willis, a fairly posh restaurant (for me, that is, since I ended up wearing a shirt), also joined by the Bradfords and Jo.   This following JB’s last ever trip to Masse for an afternoon of pool and goodbyes to the staff there (in a Cheers sort of way, we can now enter the bar and have a pint poured without asking for it).

Tonight (Sunday) we’re going back out with most of the Argos UK team to say goodbye to both Richard and JB, since Richard also leaves China for good in a couple of weeks.  This is probably (hopefully) JB’s last leaving do, but he doesn’t fly until about 1pm tomorrow so there’s always time.

Today is “Chinese Lantern Day”, marking the end of the Chinese New Year festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese year).  Fireworks are currently going off everywhere – hopefully we’ll see some and not be hit by any on the way to the restaurant.

Chong – sorry to do this to you, but this was one of my favourite text conversations from the last few months (from Friday):

  • “Do you and Bronwen fancy playing badminton on Sunday morning?”
  • “Possibly, but we’re not very fit”
  • “Neither are we so it should be OK”

Shortly followed by:

  • “Do you and Bronwen have bats?”
  • “Good point – no we don’t”
  • “Neither do we.  Should we just go for brunch instead”.

So we met Chong and Isaac for brunch instead early this morning – far better.

Meanwhile, “The band” (we don’t have a name yet) has now reached four members, following the introduction of a bass player and the second visit from a drummer.  8 songs nearly complete, and a couple more on the way…  3 hours of playing guitar this afternoon means my hands are pretty well destroyed but I could get used to this.

So John’s gone… Richard’s gone… Maybe another update on the blog tomorrow…

JB says goodbye to Masse,,,

JB says goodbye to Masse,,,

A tram, in Shanghai.  Not really.

A tram, in Shanghai. Not really.

February 18th: England, Home of Simple Pleasures

Warning: Airport lounge alert. 

Thanks to the combination of a full price economy ticket, several thousand airmiles and cash for airport tax we currently find ourselves in the Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow Terminal 3.  In the lounge they have unicorns, baths full of wine and a Piers Morgan dartboard.  The staff float around on pink clouds offering manicures, exotic eyebrow extractions and black puddings.*  Other than not actually getting on the plane, there’s no better way to start a plane journey for somebody who continues to be terrified of flying.  But I now have my way of dealing with this (not for public consumption on a blog).

Many thanks to all our friends and family who looked after us or came to see us over the last couple of weeks as we completed our mini-tour of the country (for those considering a visit to England, I would highly recommend our route of Olney–>Woburn Sands–> Olney–> Worksop–>  Southport–> Liverpool–> Banbury–> Olney–> Peterborough–> Epsom.  Worksop optional – hen parties only).  For some we know you changed your schedule to take holidays or “work” from home, and we really appreciate it.   We didn’t get a chance to see everyone so will definitely try to do so next time we’re back, whenever that might be.

I’m ridiculously tired and as ever, returning to Shanghai with mixed feelings. If nothing else, I need to get back to Shanghai to protect my waistline after nearly two weeks of pies, curries and other British delicacies.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered that at my age, simple pleasures are the best.  The day after landing, we were sat in The Bull in Olney, me with a pint of British bitter, grinning like an idiot.  We’ve done little else than drive to see people, eat and drink with people, then drive somewhere else.  It’s been exhausting, but worth every single lost hour of sleep.  And with a mini-keg of beer on offer at the O’Grady’s and a never ending beer fridge on offer at the French’s (in addition to housing some lovely people), Olney still feels like home despite having other people currently living in our house.

*Some of this paragraph may be inaccurate.

Olney on a Cloudy Day

Olney on a Cloudy Day

January 27th: Christmas. Every Day.

“I wish it could be Christmas every day” sang Wizzard back in 1973, and at every Christmas since then.  Here in China, it is.  Every day in the office lifts we’re treated to the same mix of 20-second snippets of Rudolph, Frosty and a few other Christmas songs.  Interspersed with Gangnam Style.  Every day.

Here in the office, and in most of the shops, Christmas decorations persist.  A few trees have disappeared, but Father Christmas is very much still present in shop windows and advertising hoardings.  Since Chinese New Year is only a couple of weeks’ away, the general consensus is the decorations will disappear following the end of festivities.  Last year the Christmas music in the lifts disappeared halfway through April.  Maybe this year they’ll just leave it longer.  365 days of Rudolph and co.   Christmas every day indeed.

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I haven’t been to the cinema in years.  Normally quite happy to wait for the download/DVD/Blu-Ray to become available and watch a film at home without the hassle of, well, other people crunching, snorting, sniffing, coughing, slurping, talking their way through a film*.   But, on Tuesday night, we joined JB and co. at an Imax cinema near the office to watch Skyfall.

No messing about in cinemas in China.  Get in, sit down, watch film.  No Pearl & Dean, no trailers, no movie trivia, no “Please turn off your phone messages”.  Comfy seats, jalapeno flavoured popcorn and a far better experience than I was expecting.  A pretty damn good film too.

I’ve heard other people complain about the “ambience” of cinemas being ruined by the constant appearance of small pockets of light as people check their mobile phones.  I deliberately put the phone on silent (not vibrate) and in my pocket, but I have some sympathy – it’s like an itch for 2 hours: “Check me, check me!”.  I resisted.

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Some meat, on a street.  I have no idea what most of it is.

Some meat, on a street. I have no idea what most of it is.

Wednesday night saw the sad occasion of my last regular post-language-lesson pool evening with JB, following the news he’ll be returning to the UK  in late Feb.  We’ll miss JB – always up for a pint and a natter, even if he’s pretty useless at pool.

Felix’s attempts to find a drummer for our nascent band meant a trip to a basement studio on Thursday night to try out a few songs with a new drummer.  Felix’s other advertisements for band members have so far resulted in one promise of true love and another of marriage, so a genuine drummer was a rarity.

Although it’s been great to spend a weekend without getting on a plane and heading out of Shanghai, it’s been a hectic one.  Following a relaxing night in De Refter with Bron on Friday night, we spent most of Saturday afternoon playing Mahjong (or Majiang) with Anny and Frank.  Obviously not for money, since I believe Anny would have easily fleeced us.  I think we’re slowly learning the rules, although the number of tiles we’ve yet to involve worries me a bit (adding complexity to an already fairly complex game).

Saturday night meant a trip to Emily’s apartment to help her celebrate Australia Day.  A little bit of Men At Work, a few Australian food delicacies but sadly no Kylie.  Since we’d been up since 6.47am (the exact time when I was woken up by the nearby building work), a 3am Sunday morning finish wasn’t what we’d planned.  A great party though – thanks Emily!

After a little more guitar playing today, we’ve been out wine tasting (in my case, to be social).  To be more descriptive: we met up with some people in a wine shop to help ourselves to the contents of five bottles of wine.   Not really what we were expecting, but then again, this is Shanghai.  Following a Thai meal with Rachel, Bron and Rachel disappeared off for a massage, leaving me to go home to write this blog.

When the local government reading says "Severely polluted", there is no doubt.

When the local government reading says “Severely polluted”, there is no doubt.

On the way back I could see stars in the night sky.  After ridiculously high levels of pollution all week, this meant a literal sigh of relief.  We can breathe again (for the moment).

*I am not in an airport lounge.  Parity has been restored.

January 20th: The Hong Kong Musical Family

I’m going to try and write this without it sounding like a tribute to Abba’s “Thankyou for the music”, although of course please feel free to hum along as you read.

The Bride and Groom

The Bride and Groom

In the past, I’ve been to weddings where the bride, groom, or perhaps one of the guests has performed a song, but nothing quite like this before.  Over the weekend, Bron and I have been in Hong Kong to attend the wedding of Heather and Adam.  A wedding where it felt like half the guests contributed to the entertainment by singing or playing instruments. And this wasn’t karaoke style amateur singing – all performers had perfect voices, perfect harmonies and sang without ever straying into vocal gymnastic territory  ( (c) Mark Radcliffe I think). Guitarists playing so effortlessly that it took us a while to realise one of players was quite happily still sat at his dining table, avoiding the attention of the stage.

My personal highlight – “Uncle Danny”, with his five-song-in-one tribute to the newly married couple.  A man so talented he can hum a trumpet impersonation  whilst playing the guitar, and reappear later on on the keyboards.  And the drums.

With the groom sporting a bright yellow Mohican-style hairdo and the bride opting for blue hair, this was never going to be a traditional wedding.  Ending the night in a bright-red rockabilly-style dress (her third outfit of the night), Heather looked fantastic.

Heather, Me and Bron after the do

Heather, Me and Bron after the do

I have never been to a wedding quite like it.  And although some of the music isn’t what I’d choose to listen to at home, it was sang and performed with such passion that even I managed to temporarily discard my musical shackles and enjoy it.  This was a wedding without awkward silences or restless attendees, so enthralled were the guests by superb performance after performance. To be an architect of skyscrapers, a top executive, a millionaire banker: these are jobs people aspire to, skills people long to learn.  But nothing can bring such simultaneous joy to a room full of people as can music**.   As Adam’s Dad (keyboard player extraordinaire) said to me after I revealed I played the guitar “Whatever else you do in life, don’t ever stop making music”.

Shackles are back now though.  Abba, you can b*gger off.

A great reason to visit Hong Kong, with our three night stay compensating for our very brief previous trip (about 4 rushed hours with JB on the way to Macaw).  Carmen entertained us on Friday night with a visit to another great seafood restaurant and an excellent, smokeless* whiskey bar. A balmy 18 degrees meant t-shirt weather for me and a cold-weather warning for the locals.

Hong Kong's Avenue of Stars

Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars

On Tuesday, our favourite loony hyperactive American returned from her extended holiday in the US, so a spicy celebration was in order over at Sichuan Citizen.  Shanghai without Rachel is far too safe and sensible – where else would you find a lady who washes dishes wearing sandwich bags to avoid damaging her hands (but still managed to cut a finger on a glass)?  Rachel describes it as being part of a little Shanghai family.  Definitely a weird family, on extended holiday in a strange but brilliant country.

And with yet another Wednesday evening defeat to JB at pool, Shanghai once again settles into relative normality.

*Take note Shanghai small bar establishments: I will drink more if I can actually breathe.

** One day I’ll do a comparison of my blogs written outside of airports with those written in a heightened emotional state in airport lounges.  Written as my  conscious brain tries to ignore the message of panic being offered up by my primeval subconscious given the journey that is about to take place.  All whilst never quite ignoring the irony that this feeling is known as “fight or flight” syndrome.

January 2nd 2013: New Year, Thailand Style

Bron on the Chao Phraya river

Bron on the Chao Phraya river

There’s a point at which my natural aversion to trusting anyone who approaches us whilst on holiday may well border on paranoia.  But in Bangkok, was it really just a co-incidence we happened to be intercepted by a guy with “Tourist Police” on his t-shirt who flagged down a passing tuk-tuk and “persuaded” him to take us to see three major tourist sites for the low price of 40 baht (about 80p).  And after the first site  the driver insisted he would miss out on an annual bonus unless he took us to a particular jewellery shop after seeing the sites.  And that a random bloke in site number two (a very quiet temple) just happened to start speaking to us about the very same jewellery store – they do such great deals that he “buys lots of jewellery from there and sells it to Ernest Jones in London for a big profit”.
A remarkable string of co-incidences or a very elaborate and well-worked tourist scam?
We didn’t buy any jewellery.

And come on tuk-tuk drivers:

  1. If I’m carrying a map and pointing to it, I know broadly where I am.   You can’t say “We are here” and point to somewhere completely different on the map in an attempt to charge us more money.  And…
  2. Saying “the river taxi isn’t working today so I can take you directly back to your hotel instead” isn’t going to work if we’d already taken the river taxi earlier the same day.
Honesty in PatPong

Honesty in PatPong

Bangkok then.  A wonderful world of extremes in which the spiritual mix with the seedy; the Monks mingle with the masses (and the Buddhist Monks are so ubiquitous in Bangkok that they have their own immigration lanes in the airport).   A city in which we can be refused entry to a palace in the daytime due to our inappropriate clothing (we had the temerity to wear shorts in 30 degree heat) and yet at night inappropriate clothing (and behaviour) seems to be nigh-on encouraged.

A fascinating place though – three nights wasn’t enough to do it justice.  And checking into a hotel at 3am is never a particularly good idea, especially when the hotel reception claim we can only have our room for one night before having to move rooms.  30 minutes later, the stubborn Brits won out and we were given an upgraded room for the three nights.  And what an upgrade – it was more of an two-bedroom apartment than a hotel room.

We thought whilst in Bangkok it made sense to try out a Thai massage, and ignoring anything dodgy (we went to a reputable place), a full body massage turned out to be just that.  My ears have never felt so good.

Our expectations for excellent food were also met – Indian food for breakfast (not sure why it was available, but not complaining) and some superb Thai food in the evenings.

White Temple in Chiang Rai

White Temple in Chiang Rai

So after our brief stay in Bangkok we flew up to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand to stay at Le Merdien’s resort hotel (not too far away from Chiang Mai, which seems to the tourist location most people are familiar with).  An excellent resort despite some seriously laid-back service (apart from the manic French director of food who seemed to be trying to compensate for the apathetic approach of his staff).

The ladies at the farm

The ladies at the farm

And so for our main reason for visiting Thailand: earlier in the year, Andrea had invited us to spend New Year’s Eve with her extended family on a small, relatively remote farm about 45 minutes away from the hotel.  A farm co-owned by Andrea’s brother and his family, which led to a gathering of people from many parts of the globe.  An evening discussing cultural matters with a Thai lady from the north, politics with an Iranian man living in San Francisco, and the perils of voluntary work with a lady originally from Ellesmere Port.  From watching the sunset over the farm to perhaps the world’s most dangerous fireworks display at midnight (those fireworks accidentally planted upside-down quickly turning the “oooh” of those nearby into an “AAAH!”), a fantastic evening of entertainment, food and drink.  Local Thai cuisine mixed with classic burgers (and a ridiculously spicy salad) meant we were in no danger of going hungry.

4pm on New Year’s Day and Bronwen finally had her wish of getting me to take relax by a swimming pool whilst on holiday.  Although my idea of relaxing and Bron’s are somewhat different (Bronwen sleeps, I try to work out how to record music on an old Korg synthesiser on the iPad).

New Year’s Eve definitely made up for our rather subdued Christmas Day.  Working on December 25th isn’t something I want to do again – with most expats gone and the event understandably not meaning a great deal to the local guys, it really did just feel like a normal day in the office.  Elouise and Ryan came over on Christmas Eve for a Christmas meal (pre-cooked by a local firm), complete with crackers thanks to Marks & Spencers.   We’re all in agreement that this is hopefully a once-only event.  Next year, one way or the other, we should be back in the UK for Christmas.