Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Day of Renewal

After Sunday's debacle, we took Monday as a day of recharging and rest. In my case, that meant shopping, massage, and manicure. I picked out a cute wool military-style jacket (which causes Bob to start singing "Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" each time he sees it), Joanna got a boyfriend blazer sans boyfriend (pretty sure she could have her pick of any fellow in Hoi An, though), and Bob got a snazzy leather jacket. Then Joanna and I went for $15 massages. I don't speak Vietnamese, but I could have sworn my masseuse was saying to the other one, "what in hell happened to her?" about my bruises and scrapes. And the day ended in a restaurant overlooking the river, where it was said that Mick Jagger dined. Then today we visited the ruins of My Son, an ancient Hindu-Buddhist complex that the Americans bombed almost to the ground during the war. The weather was drizzly and misty, and we were warned not to wander off since there were still unexploded bombs dotting the countryside. It all had an apocalyptic feel.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bike Fail

Hoi An is an adorable town, teeming with people, and dotted with colonial homes along a charming river. So we decided to do a bike tour. Did it matter that the last time I had been on a bike was in Amsterdam, ten years ago, when I rode into a parked car? Nah. We set off -- Bob, Joanna, and I since Daniel opted out -- and within minutes I had had a close encounter with a stone wall.

I scraped my leg and sucked the blood off my finger and decided to keep that moment to myself. Those of you who know me well know just how long that lasted. Anyway. We carried along. Steve, being a sociable Brit, would ride along each of us and chatter away. When he finally asked me what was the best thing I ever read, I admitted to him that I couldn't bike and converse at the same time. It took every ounce of my concentration to stay on the path, sometimes paved, sometimes mud, sometimes sand, and to avoid the chickens, dogs, motorbikes, bikes, sometimes cars, little children darting out and screaming "hello! hello!" coming in every direction. I managed.

And then, this happened. We came to a bridge. A small, narrow stone bridge with no railings that traversed a stream. I had just a second to think, this is the place where Daniel said he nearly rode off a bridge when I, well, I rode off the bridge. Or, to be more precise, I veered right and into the trees, never making it onto the bridge. I could hear Joanna scream behind me. Now some people might ask why I rode off the bridge. Those same people would also wonder why later, after stops for lunch with beer and rice wine, I rode off a second bridge after I had gone almost all the way over it. I managed to catch myself before I landed in the drink. I may not be able to ride a bike very well but I'm damn good at falling.

The day continued to fall apart, and it seemed that every time there was a narrow bit, a bridge, a turn, people, bikes, or sand, I would fall. I ended up with five big falls, and my arms, legs, and even my neck (hey, you try riding straight into a bamboo fence -- sorry Vietnamese family! -- and I provided a source of entertainment to many people in the villages and islands around Hoi An. The good news is that it could have been much much worse. And today's adventure certainly answered one question I had been toying with: whether I should get a bike in Beijing.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

In Hanoi Airport

A donation box for "especially difficult children." I was very tempted to throw in a couple million dong.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Not That Impressed

We've been shivering our way through a Hanoi that's mostly been shuttered for Tet. Tomorrow we head further south, and I'm not sad to leave. Hanoi residents have been unfailingly warm, but it's hard to muster enthusiasm for sitting on those tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk and eating pho when the weather is barely in the 50s and a soft drizzle fills the days. And the allegedly indoor restaurants we've tried have tended to be freezing cold. Tonight, for instance, we ate in one called Old Hanoi, where the dining room was open to the outer patio. I sat there with my fleece jacket and wool scarf. Bob wore gloves, Daniel sulked and pointed out that he could see his breath. A great meal would have made this somewhat tolerable, but that wasn't in the cards. The other tables were filled with older French people on a tour. No Vietnamese dining there, which should have been a hint. Anyway, it's all part of travel, right? This morning Bob, Joanna and I jogged twice around Hoan Kiem Lake. I sometimes think the main reason to jog in unlikely places is just to see the reactions of people as you sail by them in shorts on a cold January day.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On the Road in Vietnam

As we drove in a mad bus with a madman driver to Halong Bay, we passed some odd sights: at a statue maker shop, a tall Virgin Mary stands next to a fat laughing Buddha. She seems to avert her gaze. At the next statue shop, a Statue of Liberty stands next to a female god. The private homes are long and narrow, designed for avoiding taxes, even in the countryside. The bottom floor of the homes is sometimes a little shop, sometimes an open entrance where motorbikes are parked, and often open to the cold January air. It's interesting to adjust to signs in letters instead of Chinese characters. The mind keeps trying to make sense of the words. One sign you see all over is Chuc Mung Nam Moi, which I assume means happy new year. Everywhere there are red flags either with a gold star or gold hammer and sickle. The countryside is still dotted with rice paddies and workers in conical hats. Halong Bay was misty but beautiful, and in fact, the entire country seems to be enveloped in a mist. I have what I'll call Hanoi Hair. There may be photographic evidence of this later.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's Been a Quiet Tet in Hanoi

After the riot of fireworks celebrating the new year in Beijing, we didn't quite know what to expect when we arrived in Hanoi. But the city is surprisingly quiet -- I mean by bustling Asian city standards -- and there are no fireworks and only the occasional firecracker. I guess that makes sense in a country as scarred by war as Vietnam. They've had enough of bombs and things that sound like bombs. We visited the notorious Hanoi Hilton today, the prison that incarcerated John McCain and other Americans. Of course the general theme was that the Americans didn't have it so bad and the imprisonment of Vietnamese by the French was far worse. Even with the propaganda, it was a sobering place, with a shiver-inducing guillotine and leg shackles made of iron. The city is also surprisingly cold and I'm glad I brought my fleece jacket. We kept ducking into cafes to eat soup or drink hot chocolate. Tonight we'll splurge on "gourmet Vietnamese" food and tomorrow we'll venture on a day trip to Halong Bay, said to be even more beautiful than China's Guilin. I'm a big fan of karsts. And even though Hanoi is chilly, it's still better than bitter cold Beijing, and it's been fun to have a family vacation like the old days.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Creating a New Tradition

As fireworks continued through the day, Bob and Daniel discussed Mao in the living room, and Beijing sounded more and more like a war zone, Joanna and I decided to create our own tradition for the Chinese new year: chocolate chip dragon cookies.

As assistant art director for this project, I was in charge of the conversions: setting the hand mixer up with the electric converter, figuring out the temperature on the stove in celcius, figuring out what "two sticks of butter" means, and deciding if two small Chinese eggs would be enough. We had a few glitches with the ginger-flavored brown sugar. Apparently, hard brown sugar is a global problem. Either that or my brown sugar karma has followed me to Beijing.

It mainly worked. The only casualty was a mixing spoon, which succumbed to the rather stiff batter.

But the art director on this project was insistent that we think of a way to honor the year of the dragon.

We shaped them like a dragon tail with a head that used a tiny piece of our Christmas peppermint pig (yay, blending of traditions!) as the tounge.
The result was pretty nifty. And they tasted pretty good too.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ups and the Downs

After a very discouraging day yesterday where I "fixed" my iPad by inadvertently deleting my VPN and completely killing out all my downloaded issues of the New Yorker, a process that took me all day, I was ready to give up and crawl under a down comforter until it was time to come home from this place.

And then, my new friends invited me to a Chinese New Year party, sponsored by the government of the Chaoyang district in Beijing (you know, the "civilized" one that Joanna describes on her blog http://joannaexplores.blogspot.com/). And that made all the difference. It was an odd hodgepodge of magic acts, adorable little children singing and dancing (described as "Healthy Children Happily Play in Spring Festival"), and tables laden with extremely mediocre wine (the label said California, but I'm thinking California kicked out this wine). Plus, a bunch of Aussies and a couple of Americans taking it all in as we popped pistachios, a jelly-like candy, and, at the end, plate after plate of delicious dumplings.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tips for Living in China

  1. Don’t assume the Internet will be faster than dial-up speed, and always keep reading material next to the computer. This may prevent you from punching the computer. It probably won’t prevent you from swearing at it, though.
  2. Don’t let the dishes get ahead of you. A twice-a-week ayi doesn’t account for three-meals-a-day dishes.
  3. Don’t let the laundry get ahead of you, especially with a machine that holds, at most, two bath towels at the same time.
  4. When you’re out and about and you encounter a western toilet, use it. Seize the loo. But also understand that you will need to learn to use the other kind too. Pee happens.
  5. When you have the inevitable stomach issue, thinking of it as a cleansing.
  6. Don’t ask why your pants suddenly feel snug. You know why.
  7. There’s no reason to suffer from jet lag. That’s why God made Ambien.
  8. If you want to reach people, send them a text. There are no answering machines or voice mail, and lots of folks don’t bother to check email.
  9. To survive a Beijing winter, you have to have a steady supply of body lotion, chapstick, and a humidifier. Never leave the house without a hat or gloves either.
  10. Get over your American sense of a body space bubble. The rest of the world gets a lot closer.
  11. Don’t be so tidy that you leave nothing for the ayi to do. That’s when she starts messing with the clothes in your closet.
  12. When you’re not looking for a taxi, you’ll see hundreds of them. When you desperately need one, you’ll suddenly be in competition with Beijing’s other 22 million residents. You may be body-checked by an older Chinese woman for a taxi door. When you realize you’ve lost, it will not be your finest moment.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Back on Houhai

This time I convinced Bob to try ice-biking.

It was fun until we encountered Chuckie, a robot pulling a little child in tight circles around the ice. The little child didn't seem to be disturbed, but I may never sleep again.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Stuff My Ayi Does

  1. She hides my coffee. I found a can on the very top shelf of the pantry, way way in the back.
  2. She takes anything loose in the pantry, like tea bags or nuts or granola bars, and stores them in plastic containers.
  3. She closes the curtains in the dining room and the bedrooms when she leaves so that it’s pitch dark.
  4. She takes all my socks and underwear and rolls up each one, lining them up in the basket like so many cloth terracotta warriors.
  5. She folds up the giant shopping bags we got at Ikea.
  6. She tries to teach me Chinese even though I can tell from the expression on her face that she thinks I’m unteachable.
  7. She hides the Christmas presents I had left out for Bob, tucking them way in the back of the closet.
  8. She piles up our suitcases into a giant, tidy tower.
  9. She tries to get Smudge to like her, chasing her around the apartment and saying, “maow, maow!”
  10. She makes me a mug of tea and hands it to me as she leaves the apartment.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How to Overcome Jet Lag

I've discovered the perfect cure for jet lag, although it may not work for other folks in other cities.

Go out on a frozen lake, preferably Houhai Lake in Beijing, and ride a bike on skates, preferably at breakneck speed. If you can, pick a day when the air quality is only "unhealthy" and soak in the filtered sun on your face.

For a true jet lag cure, figure out how to get the bike sliding so fast on the pocked ice that you can whip around and go backwards as you cut a sharp turn.

Finish up with a communal lunch at the oldest restaurant in Beijing, where for about 40 RMB ($6.33), you can have multiple dishes and tea and listen to all the other expat wives raving about how much they love their life in China and how much they dread going back home to a mundane world. Even the Brazilian.

I am cured. I still miss drinking tap water and being able to download my New Yorker onto my iPad in 3 minutes, But I can say I'm seeing the other side of the picture on the other side of the world.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

And That's It

Well, I'm heading back to a dangerously smoggy Beijing after a delightful sojourn in the States. Here's the tally:

Number of calories consumed: 200,000,000,000
Number of calories burned in exercise: 500
Number of ravioli made: six dozen
Number of ravioli consumed: eight dozen
Pairs of pants I bought: three
Pairs of pants I bought that actually fit me now: one
Friends I didn't get to see: too many to count
Friends I did get to see: ditto
Tear-jerker movies watched: two
Number of times I told the same story: too many to count
Number of beers consumed: depends on who's asking
Number of glasses of good wine consumed: two
Number of glasses of wine consumed: uncertain
Number of blooming onions consumed: one
Number of times Susie asked to be mentioned on my blog: three
Number of Italian meals consumed: 35
Number of French meals consumed: one
Number of Indian meals consumed: one
Number of Japanese meals consumed: one
Number of Chinese meals consumed: zero