Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We went in search of art, and came away naught to the better.

I was feeling pretty wrecked after my bike excursion so I figured I’d take it easy for the rest of the day with a trip to town to try and find a certain artist for the Walters and then some quality time tuning up their family bicycles. Around here we expats have developed sort of friendly barter economy – I trade my wrenching skills for dinner every Tuesday night. So after a shower and some clean clothes I went out and down the street to meet them at Starbucks.

When you live in the tropics you develop little second nature behaviors that make being outside as pleasant as possible and walking along I realized that I had forgotten one of the critical ones that I learned in Shanghai – hugging the shade patches. In the cities of China most of the big boulevards have sidewalks commensurate with their stature. A four lane “road” will often have a parallel bike/scooter lane on both sides and a marble sidewalk that is about 2 lanes wide. They look very grand and they do provide a nice alternative for the cars and taxis that don’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam. The problem is, when the sun is overhead at the peak of July they are like strolling around Khartoum. Even worse when you consider that Khartoum is desert-dry and this place is like a steam bath. In the older parts of Shanghai, such as the French Concession, the walks are narrow and the streets are lined with dense-packed Plane Trees. But in the quest to modernize and to promote the triumph of the People’s Spirit, the city architects went the other way with the vast open spaces that serve only to use your head as a Tajine to bake your brain like so many sweetbreads.

The answer though is simple – you walk fast from shade pool to shade pool and only venture out into the sun when challenged by a minibus that wants to use your path. I was lucky on the early part of the walk as there are a couple of tall buildings that cast giant squares of cool, gray dusk across the whole of my side of the street. And walking between them only involved being seared for a couple of yards. Getting across Liaohe Xi Lu was another story as the asphalt offered a nice black body radiant heat source from the feet upwards. I made it though, but the path ahead was bleak – no darkness for at least two blocks. And did I mention that Chinese blocks are really long?

Passing the impotent (in shade production terms) Back of China tower, consternation changed to elucidation – there might not be any trees but there was something better – a half-block long, 15 foot high plywood wall protecting a construction site. I remember from long ago my death trek back from the Shanghai Zoo on which long run of these walls had actually saved my life and I shot across to the uninterrupted 4 foot wide patch of coolness that it was thankfully affording. Along with quite a few Chinese who were doing the same thing. While the Chinese might be aggressive when it comes to queuing and driving, they are quite gracious when it comes to sharing the shade, even stepping out in the sun for an instant when passing if both walkers won’t both fit.

At the end of the site I had to scramble across the expanse to a pool beneath a sad cousin to the Shanghai Plane Trees where I traded spaces with a young woman eating an ice cream bar who was doing the same thing. Eventually though my luck ran out and I had to cross the street to the other side where there was no break whatsoever.

I finally made it to the indoor shade and air conditioning choosing to cut through the cosmetics department at the Anshan Department Store instead of walking around to the front door. I ordered a Pellegrino (which required the young woman behind the counter to walk out in front of the counter to see what I was talking about and an apple scone, figuring the water and the carbs might speed my recovery from that nasty bike ride.

I was sitting and talking when I realized that my phone was ringing. Answering it I was surprised to discover that it was my driver Jiang calling. His English and my Chinese do not warrant an attempt at a phone call so I was surprised. He asked me where I was and I told him “home” which was of course not true - I wasn’t trying to avoid telling the truth, it was just that our conversation was so fractured that seemed like the easiest option. But then he told me that he was at my house and so I was accidentally caught out in an unintentional lie. We went back and forth like this completely missing each other’s point until he told me to text him. Good idea, wish I had thought of it.

Texting with your driver can be a hit or miss proposition. I don’t do characters on my phone and most Chinese do not read Pinyin, a device invented to help westerners properly pronounce Chinese words. In English, the ability of most drivers is limited to “What time pick you up?” and when Jiang told me the other day that he could read Pinyin a little light bulb went off in my brain. While writing it without the tones can be imperfect, if it’s simple enough and if the context is clear, communicating that way could be a genuinely valuable tool.

Switching over to typing I told him I was at Starbucks with friends and asked him what he wanted. His reply was surprising, “I brought you lunch at your house.” I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that information but while pondering my response he went on to ask if I needed the car that afternoon. Now we were getting into tricky waters. The drivers live very close to the bone getting paid little while being responsible for all kinds of work expenses. And they live for overtime which is something I rarely use, having decided long ago that I was not going to live in my car like everyone else does. So in that sense while I might be a really loveable boss I don’t generate much extra income for Jiang. The little wheels were turning now – was he out here and so decided to bring me some food or was this a blatant attempt to get me to use the car so he’d make some money on Sunday afternoon? It didn’t matter because in either case a line had been crossed. I ended the speculation by telling him that I did not need him that day and that I was walking to a friend’s house for dinner. He said “Okay” and told me he’d see me in the morning. Your relationship with your driver always a delicate thing requiring lots of attention as it can go from good to too good to very, very bad with one slight misstep. The easiest but harshest solution is to sit in the back and treat him like an employee while the grandest mistake is to make him part of your family. And there are a hundred shades in between. I like to sit in the front and talk because I get some education out of it. But you cannot allow an overture like this to be unintentionally rewarded. Of course, I could have dreamed up something to do that would have involved my car for the rest of the day. Do it once though and there is no going back.

Before heading into the city I asked for a couple of minutes to run into my building to see what the story was with the lunch. Was it with the guard? The building does have security and so I wasn’t quite sure what “at my house” meant. So while my friends waited I went up to my floor where I found two containers in a plastic bag hanging on my door knob.

Last time before leaving for home I had left some paintings I had purchased with Kris to be framed at an inexpensive but competent framer she had found. The work was good and the price unbelievable - $12 for a 3’x3’ painting with frame and glass. One of my pieces had caught her eye and so I promised that when I returned I would take her to the woman who had sold them to me. Her place was located in a multistory art commune across the street from the Shangri La hotel in downtown Dalian. Before going though we decided to have lunch and after much debate we decided on the one and only Tapas restaurant in the city.

There was some question as to whether the place was open and an even bigger question about whether it was a good option as the last time anyone had been there a lot of jack hammering was going on in the building which seemed to be under renovation. We called and the ensuing conversation taxed the language capabilities of both parties to the point handing the phone to the driver and asking him to figure it out. “Open” is easy enough, but asking a Chinese restaurateur of the noise in his place is just a tad beyond our capabilities. The answer of course was “Open and quiet” so off we went.

I’d been to this place a couple of times before and the food was a bit dodgy, as in croquettes with frozen centers. But in general they do a good job and the atmosphere is pleasant. I mean where else in China can you have lunch in Barcelona on a Sunday afternoon?

We turned out to be the only patrons for quite a while and it was quiet as promised. The dining room is on the second floor and it’s dark and cool and very, very peaceful. Spanish music played quietly, completing the illusion. The tables are set up high and you sit in these woven iron chairs that weigh so much that your first attempt to pull it out from the table always results in you being pulled forward into the back of the chair. The backs are so straight that you are forced to slouch but at least they have seat cushions which save you from having the woven metal pattern embossed in the backs of your thighs. We ordered the food and after a slight problem the waitress had deciding who was going to get the two cold Cokes and the two warm ones, it started to arrive. Garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, potato brava, garlic mushrooms, spicy potatoes, Parma ham – all served with crusty pieces of baguette. A tapas meal is such an enjoyable way to eat encouraging a leisurely pace, good conversation and true enjoyment of the food.

After our meal we headed off to the art building and upon arrival we were shocked to find that it was gutted, part of the pre-work for a giant building project that is tearing down whole city blocks in this district to make room for a fancy residential/retail complex. Interestingly, the most famous “shady” bar across the street stands intact, rumor being that there is enough incriminating evidence on the government decision makers to buy a delay while a better deal can be worked out.

Two guys were sitting out front and our driver asked where the artists had gone. One of them came over to the car and handed us some business cards with a map on the back. We thought that we had hit pay dirt until we figured out he was giving us directions to the new location of the golf supply shop that had also shared this building. The business card guy suggested that some of the artists might have moved to the other art commune a couple of blocks away on Gangwan Square. So off we went again.

It turned out to be a fruitless exercise. I stopped by a guy who had sold me several paintings in the past; he remembered me but did not know the woman we were seeking. Wandering around a woman outside a stall made a big noise about remembering me and I thought again we had solved the problem. But while her art was similar (and she was similar too) she was not the one. And so our quest came to an end knowing full well that those people are out there somewhere, just slightly beyond our ability to find them.

On our way back to Kai Fa Qu we stopped at Decathalon, the local French sporting goods superstore where I was able to find some decent tire levers to replace that set of Park levers that had disappointed me so thoroughly. Along the way we were a bit surprised to see a Met Life blimp docked out in the swamps by the shipyards. Why, I do not know but I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation, just like there is for everything else around here.

After fulfilling my bike mechanics promises (which included completely field stripping and WD40 drowning a Shimano thumb shifter) I headed on home with my nicely framed artwork. When dinner time rolled around I decided to have a look at what Jiang had left for me, two containers of the best stir fried Chicken and hot peppers I have ever had, the perfect meal for stretching out in my Poang chair in my big bay window and watching the setting sun cook the chemicals in the air.

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