Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Quotidian Existence in an Ice World

Last night we went out for dinner at an Italian place called Barolo. It was in a part of Dalian that was new to me - up into the foothills a bit - and the winding streets, inclines and architecture reminded me a great deal of Portland and Seattle. Compared to the industrial, dockside grittiness of our hotel's district, this was a nice change.

We passed a park that was festively lit with white lights and big red lanterns - more preparation for the impending New Year. Our driver told us it was called "Haijun" and the best translation he could come up with was "sea army." We stopped later to take some pictures and figured out that "sea army" meant "navy", judging by the giant ship's wheel and massive anchor that were displayed in the center.

The restaurant was in an older house - nicely appointed with dark wood paneling and windows in each dining area that looked out over the city. A really romantic spot and well known for that quality judging by the couples having dinner. We were escorted up three flights of stairs to a small dining room. John Coltrane was on the speakers, the lighting was dim and the view was extraordinary. In China, larger parties are often seated in private rooms and the effect is sometimes nice and other times stilted depending on the composition of the party. It can be strange to be tucked away without the benefit of anything to look at. We ordered, had a look at the wine list, gasped at the $300 items and ordered a couple of bottles of Pellegrino.

Dinner came and was really quite nice, sort of Nouvelle Italian using local ingredients. I had a dish called Chicken Voronoff which was pieces of white meat sauteed and served in a white sauce with a little cylinder of brown rice garnishing the plate. And it was flavored with something called "smoked speck" which was attracted me to it in the first place. Never did fathom what that was.

We finished and were presented with the bill. The total was very reasonable so we paid and made arrangements to leave when the headwaiter decided to broach an apparently uncomfortable topic - he wanted more money. One of our party was fluent, so the discussion moved into Chinese while the rest of us sat there and gaped uncomfortably. Clearly it was not going well and the waiter was trying to remain deferential while pushing his point. Eventually he acquiesced in a demonstrably peeved manner, said "okay" and left. We asked for an explanation.

One of the downsides of private rooms is that the establishment often requires a minimum expenditure. This can present a volume of food problem as meals are so inexpensive and most of us can only eat so much. Sometimes this is solved using the Chinese method of restaurant ordering - you buy far more than anyone can eat as a sign of respect for the guests. Other times you make it up in beer. In our case, it not being a family style restaurant and none of us being in the mood to party, these solutions were not ideal. In any case, we were done and paid before this came up. And interestingly, the minimum for the room was 1100 while our bill had been 1350. The waiter was trying to make his case by saying we were using a private room. We'd countered by saying we didn't ask for it. He was asking for another 200, and eventually it became clear that this was simply to cover the surcharge of using a credit card. His stand was shaky, his data suspect and so he had relented. Sometimes it pays to have a fluent person on the team.

Today, we had a tour of the construction site. I'll say that the methods and standards of industrial work sites are far different here than in the west. But I won't say much more than that, because after that realization my brain stopped working due to the cold.

It was probably the coldest I have ever been, which is saying something since I grew up in the Great Lakes region. I'm used to tough winters with low temperatures and bone chilling humidity, but this was on a different scale altogether. There must be something special about Siberian air. Supercooled as it blows in from the steps, it somehow retains elements imparted by the permafrost it blew in over.

Outside it was in the teens, but in the building where the sun doesn't shine it was deadly. First my toes went, then my fingers and eventually my nose became numb. I was walking along with my head tucked down into my collar trying to re-breathe my exhaled air in hopes of catching some heat. It didn't work. I had a genuine ice cream headache without the benefit of the cone. I made this remark to one of the guys walking us around and he said "think about the workers." Which brought me up real quick.

Here I was in my $300 snowboarding jacket and my $100 boots and $30 gloves and my favorite Banana Republic knit hat and I was dying. Looking around, I took stock of the men. One was wearing a pair of worsted wool pants, the bottom half of a suit. Many had on fur collared coats that were clearly army surplus. Most were wearing simple work gloves. I was getting sleepy and wanting to lie down and die, they were in it all day long. My companion told me that at least at this site the men had decent quarters, not tents like the regular Chinese construction project. It made me take stock for a second and had I not been locked in the throes of hyperthermia, I might have had a life defining moment. Instead, I checked my nose to see if it was still there.

We finally made our way back to the office building and the promise of warmth. As is often the case when you've been frozen, my body was slow in recovering. Lunch time beckoned, and so we went out to hunt and gather. The choice for the day was Eddie's 77, a sandwich shop in the development area.

Walking into the shop we quickly discovered that there was a deficit of heat here too. That was easily determined because we could see our breath, inside. We went up the stairs into main dining area and while it was warmer, it clearly wasn't warm enough to remove our outerwear. As if the cold wasn't enough, "Seal it with a kiss", the ultimate summer vacation song was playing in the background reminding me that once, I had been warm.

After ordering and sitting there shivering for a moment or two we decided to move over in the direction of the space heater and a table that was bathed in its output. It helped, a lot, but not enough to warrant jacket removal though at least I could eat with my gloves off. The heater was set to 30C but putting out air in the 20C range, evidently the input was presenting too much of a challenge. The input air also provided a challenge to me as it set up an flow that pulled freezing cold air in a stream over my feet before slightly warming it and dumping it on my head.

Lunch was great - Philly Cheese Steak and french fries, suprisingly served on a bolillo, that staple bread-form of Mexico. Once again, melding cultures? I don't know, it was good and warm and slowly but surely my extremities were coming back to life. I listened to Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World", finished my meal and dreamed of warmer climes.


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