Sunday, September 07, 2008

A bit of work and a bit of fun

Saturday was house hunting day in preparation for my scheduled move in November. We had a long list of stops and so we rolled out of the Shangri La at 9:00 with Maria, our handler and her driver.

Like every other day here it was threatening to be sunny but coming up short due to the haze. The daily color of the sky in Dalian makes me wonder how they get those glorious blue skies that serve as a background in every promotional video and photography layout. Either it’s a whole load of Photoshop or they have video crews on 24 hour standby whenever it happens to be clear. Probably a combination of both.

Based on the commute time, I narrowed my hunting zone to within 20 or so minutes of work. A long time ago I lived on Long Island and I spent at least 1 hour twice a day commuting. I swore I would never do it again, and since that time (more than 20 years) I haven’t. In my business it pays to be close, because sometimes the call comes at 1 AM and it pays to be close to work.

I won’t go too far into the details other than to say that it is a strange experience to be apartment hunting after so many years of living in my own home. The last time I wandered through rentals with a long stay in mind was college; it was slightly displacing to be doing it again. Certainly wandering through a place while the current tenants, the landlord and the rental agent follow you is not something you’re used to. At least I wasn’t.

The floor plans are pretty much western, we didn’t find any strange combinations of rooms and hallways, but just about every place was furnished or provisioned in some strange way. For example, one development constructed by a Spanish firm had a 30 foot tall elephant with a golden pyramid on its back as a piece of lawn art. That didn’t register with me until I saw the Salvador Dali paintings decorating the hallways leading to the elevators. Right, Spain – Dali – Apartment Complex – China, got it.

One brand new apartment had a nice little modern galley kitchen with no refrigerator, at least not one in the place where it belonged. The landlord in an attempt to attract higher-end customers had bought a massive side by side and lacking a place to put it, went ahead and dropped it in the corner of the dining room. Another apartment, the one with tenants was furnished with the most gargantuan baroque furniture, bigger than anything I had ever seen. It was so big you might have had to plan on rappelling up and down from the seating surface. The wood was black and the coverings deep, red damask, a color that played well against the gold swirl brocade wallpaper. I thanked the residents profusely for their hospitality. One last stop at this particular location was a trip to a Barbie Dream House, all done in whites and pinks and blues with swans and butterflies and unicorns filling out the motif. It was as though anyone’s 10 year old daughter had been given a home with an unlimited decoration budget and sent out to the local Disney Furniture Store and told to “go wild.” The place was quite nice, but getting beyond the glitz was challenging and made my eyes hurt.

Taking a break in the middle of the day, we asked Maria to take us to whatever restaurant she would like, preferably something local but not to spicy in deference to My Lovely Wife’s food preference. She chose a famous seafood restaurant off the beaten path in Kai Fa Qu.

The front of the place was done in a Chinese interpretation of Pirates of the Caribbean. A fa├žade of logs, cannons and lions decorated the front, all wrapped in red bows to keep out the Devil Wind. Dumplings were the specialty but we were first shown to a room with 12x18” photographs of the dishes decorating two of the four walls. No one seemed to know what the food in the pictures were, including the very disinterested waitress who was paying more attention to yelling at her peers and looking at us with lightly disguised disgust. When asked for something mild, she recommended “deer meat” and when questioned what the story might be with that food stuff, we got a blank stare. I finally took charge and pointed at three and we were shown to a table.

Once there we were asked to order some dumplings (pot stickers) and deer meat was once again offered. We decided to throw caution to the wind and just go native, if only for a moment or two. The steamed version was ordered.

The first dish came, slices of pork in a clay pot covered with chopped scallions and a rich, clear broth - it was excellent. The second dish arrived and I would characterize it as “interesting.” In my effort to find a vegetable option, we had ended up with a stir fry of slices of tiny cucumber and some sort of local mushroom, one not unlike a gelatinous shitake. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that great either. The dumplings finally arrived and they were grand - tender, juicy and very, very savory. Clearly this place knew its way around deer meat. Being sick of bottled water, we had ordered tea with our lunch and it was good if not boiling hot. But unlike every Chinese restaurant I had ever eaten in, the tea pot was not left on the table. Maria explained that in China, the waiters like to fill your cup when needed in a show of attention and respect. And that would be all fine and good if the vessels were not the size of demitasse espresso cups and if the waiter actually bothered to come around and check on whether that little cup was full or not.

The bill was a bit of a challenge too, Maria was required to pay her half so we had to get it split. She disappeared for a bit and while gone one of the waiters came by and started talking to me in Chinese. I explained that I didn’t speak it, and he pretty much stood there staring at me. I stared back, figuring I would wait him out. He smiled, I smiled. Maria came back and rescued me. On the way out I told My Lovely Wife that this had been an excellent choice and someone at a table we passed said, in perfect English, “This is an excellent choice.” I’m not sure what that was about.

We called it a day shortly after that having visited 8 or 10 spots. At some point, you just can’t look any more.

Today was Sunday and so our chance to go out and see the sights a bit. It was also a major wedding day judging from the vast number of red arches in front of the major hotels and the countless car caravans decorated with bunches of red flowers driving around town. One thing I’d not seen before – the bride and groom sitting up on the back of the car being led by an SUV with a video crew recording their day of joy. At one hotel we happened by when the fireworks were set off, covering the path into the restaurant with multi-colored confetti made from rolls of paper. The happy couple stepped out of a white stretch Lincoln and stopped at the entrance to stomp on balloons. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the number of weddings was the traffic they generated – the processions tied it up all the way from our hotel to Xinghai Square, our destination.

Overlooking the sea, Xinghai is a major stop for sightseers here in town. A large traffic circle with gardens and a tall stone totem pole, it is surrounded with large statues made of metal mesh that depict the various Olympic sports. On the edge, carriages with tired and in most cases lame horses wait for customers. A strange stone building that looked like a skateboard park invited visitors to fall off the back to their sure deaths below. People posed by bronze statues for family pictures and the rides at the two local amusement parks whirled around and around.

My target for the day was the Dalian Shell Museum, a place I had visited two year prior and one I figured that My Lovely Wife would like. It is located in a giant castle on the side of a hill overlooking the ocean. I’d heard that the castle was a failed luxury hotel, but I’m not sure if that tale is apocryphal. Whatever its origin, it was a strange thing to see.

We climbed the very steep driveway up to the entrance, hoping to benefit from the expected air conditioning and only to be disappointed when the cooling was more like a basement in the Northeastern US than the luxury hotel it was supposed to be. I was sweating like a sailor; My Lovely Wife glowed, as only women can do.

The Museum is a great place, with more examples of shells than you can imagine. We wandered from case to case marveling at nature’s crazy design schemes and picking out specimens that we had seen or collected in the past.

The trip down the hill was far easier than the one up and we headed back towards the main square to find a cab. Along the way we passed a couple of women with a big dog, one that looked like a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and a Newfoundland. I offered my admiration in Chinese and the owner gave me a thumb’s up and a big smile.

Walking along we passed couples who would stop and in many cases turn and watch us go by, again gawking at My Lovely Wife due to her height and blondness. Once while sitting a young woman came so close it was as though she wanted to put her face in My Lovely Wife’s blonde locks. It’s strange being this kind of center of attention, not disconcerting, just odd. Perhaps they think she’s a Russian.

We caught a cab and I tried to tell the driver where to go. He laughed at me so I showed him the card and he smiled. I asked him if my Chinese was bad, he smiled again and gave me a thumb’s up. Everyone seems to be giving me a thumb’s up today.

We stopped at Olympic Square and negotiated with a Moon Cake vendor. Today was apparently THE DAY for Moon Cake, at least according to Maria. All over town people could be seen with the maroon and gold bags that are provided for Moon Cake shoppers. I continued my quest to understand Moon Cake in the car with Maria yesterday. Like everyone else, Maria said she didn’t like it. I asked her where they go, and she told me people just save them, and that one can generally find last year’s Moon Cake in almost everyone’s house. All across China, Moon Cakes are changing hands, destined to be stored in closets for all eternity.

Wearing out from the heat and the humidity and the stench of sewage flowing across the square, we stopped in Starbucks to have a cold drink and to allow the air conditioning to dry out my soaked shirt. Having finally had enough, we decided it was time to head back to the hotel, just to have a break from the air and the city. But I did want to find the electronics mart that I knew was nearby so we went back out into the street and I found a guy to ask. Leave it to me, I found the only hearing-impaired guy sitting on a stoop in a city of 6 million and asked him. He shook his head, I showed him a card with the characters, and he nodded and pointed the way. I thanked him and went on to find that the directions were wrong. That was pretty much the last straw so we caught a cab and I had a nice chat in Chinese with the driver until he pushed my vocabulary to its limit and I was reduced to “I don’t understand, my Chinese stinks.”

I guess I need a bit more vocabulary.













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