Unlike a regular US Thanksgiving, our Chinese version turned out to be a moveable feast and a pretty full weekend to boot.
A day of work after our great expat evening out led to a night of music and Sichuan cuisine. I had plans to attend the most recent installment at the Kai Fa Qu theatre, a string group by the name of Trio Broz. According to the musician’s biography, they are specialists in arrangements of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which I thought sounded pretty intriguing. When my regular music companions were laid low with what seems to be getting everyone around here I made plans with some other friends to pick up tickets and for them to collect me about a half hour before the concert for the short ride down the road. Normally I’d walk, but we were in the middle of a wind enhanced deep freeze so I though a ride might be in order.
As it turned out I would have been better off on foot since standing in place outside your building in the sub zero temperatures and a roaring wind while waiting for someone to show up has the undesirable effect of really freezing you to the bone as opposed to the mitigating influence you get from a power walk. Live and learn I guess, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be downstairs on time particularly when people don’t show up and your lobby is only a couple of degrees warmer than your parking lot. Eventually I was in the car but by then I was pretty much frozen to the core and we all know how hard it is to overcome that, minus a hot tub.
The concerts here have been very good but you would never know it if you based part of your assessment on the ticket sales. I’ve never seen more than 50 people in the theatre and I know it must be hard for these performers to come half way around the world to this grease spot and stand on stage to receive an ovation from that few people. Their agents no doubt tell them this is their grand tour of Asia and it might be grand in terms of scope, but it looks hardly so in terms of attention. Tonight was no different – our tickets were purchased on the day of the show and we had the finest row in the orchestra section entirely to ourselves; the remainder of the concert goers were spread around the main floor.
I have to admire the Chinese parents who take the time and spend the money to bring their children to shows like this. We attend quite frequently in the US and you never see grade school kids at such performances. Here though you see them regularly and if only the parents could figure out a way to get them to sit still and pay attention the cultural impact would be profound. Instead the little boys crawl around on the floor, sit upside down on their chairs and generally cast their attention everywhere but towards the stage. Gratefully they normally leave at intermission.
The program indicated no Bach tonight; instead string quartets by Beethoven, Dohnanyi, Sibelius and Schubert in an unspecified order. While my favorite young woman always comes out and announces the next piece, you have to pay close attention to her rapid fire Chinese to catch the name of the composer. Generally you don’t and if you are not familiar with the piece you’re out of luck. Not that it really matters unless you want to rush home and buy it from iTunes.
Before the concert I had checked the Trio Broz web site and discovered an announcement about their tour - “From November 19 to 30 the trio will be for the first time in China, engaged in a tour in the most beautiful and prestigious halls of some of the main eastern megalopolis.” “Beautiful and prestigious,” enough to make you laugh if it wasn’t so sad. Barbara, Gaida and Klaus Broz make up the trio, playing together since 1993. Pretty amazing that a single family could produce three world class musicians and that they’d be willing to spend all their time together.
They came out on stage and you could see right away that ashen cloud of disappointment that washes over these sad people who show up here, passing across their faces as they squint through the floodlights wondering why the applause is so tepid. It isn’t that the audience doesn’t love them, there just isn’t any audience. They sat down on their patio chairs and the announcer girl came on stage. She is probably my favorite part of any show because her choice of clothing is always so interesting. Tonight, a plain brown top complimenting medium brown skin tight leather pants that were a bit too clingy in the wrong places. Finishing the ensemble was a pair of 5 inch diameter silver hoop earrings. I think she’s so sweet and so naïve that I’d like to strike up a conversation and buy her a cup of coffee.
Off in the distance I could hear a rhythmic thumping, no doubt some techno bleeding through from the badminton courts downstairs. I hoped it would stop.
The Beethoven piece was first and it was pretty well executed and lovely to listen to. At the end they stood up to take the applause and the middle sister, Barbara I think, had one of those looks on her face that must get her into trouble all the time. I know, because I have one too, sort of a “You have got to be kidding me, I flew all the way here and ate at the Inn Fine Hotel just to stand here and take this abuse?” She must wear her heart on her sleeve, because here innermost feelings were certainly pretty evident from her expression.
Sibelius was up next, appropriate I suppose since it was pretty much Finland outside. I didn’t like it all that well but the team gave it a good shot and they were rewarded with another solid albeit muted round of clapping.
After intermission they launched into the Dohnanyi work and it really didn’t do much for me being a bit too modern and way too frantic. But there were a few technical flourishes that made it interesting to watch. The Trio pulled a fast one on us after the third movement though, raising their bows in the universal sign of “we’re done, time to applaud” but it was a feint – they weren’t done and they were only tricking us into clapping to show what a bunch of rubes we were. And it worked, they even caught me. Barbara’s wry smirk passed to Gaida and Klaus this time.
Schubert closed the show and again I was not moved beyond the execution. Halfway through the piece the announcer gal came and sat right in front of me. I couldn’t have been happier because it meant I could distract myself from the music by paying attention to her.
She took a few photographs, turned her camera off and sat there playing with her fingers which I thought were unnaturally small - kind of a normal size at the base but tapering up to tiny little pads on the end that didn’t look adult. Sort of if you took a kids finger and grafted it to an adults at the middle knuckle. Bored with those, she took off those giant earrings and put them on her wrist like bracelets. And then she started playing with the skin on her neck, pulling it this way and that way in little pinches and folds. She pulled some sort of pins off of her shirt front and stuck them in her hair bun. Just as she started violently rocking her head back and forth, the music ended and she got up and went off to give a boot to the little kids with the bouquets.
At the end Trio Broz bravely took their bows, received their flowers and left the stage, never to be seen again. There simply weren’t enough people in the audience to bring them back for an encore. I was actually relieved; I couldn’t bear to watch poor Barbara’s suffering. And I’m sure they were even happier than I was.
We went from there to a favorite Sichuan place for too much food and 8% beer. I had my favorites – rabbit and green beans – along with a new duck dish that was excellent. My companions turned their noses up at my choices while imploring me to try their Tofu which I thought tasted like a kitchen sponge. When I sat, I had placed my coat on the back of my chair and the waitress had covered it was a cloth bag, no doubt to keep the food off. Nice touch except that it prevented me from putting in on when the current of cold air snaked its way from the open front door across the place to my lap. My core was still frozen and this wasn’t helping. But eating warms you up, especially food that is loaded with red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Your mouth gets so numb and burned simultaneously that you pretty much forget you’re shivering. I escaped the cold of the restaurant to the cold of the night just in time and my woes were solved later by soaking in a hot shower before bed.
Saturday dawned cold and windy but not enough of either to keep me off my bike. I went out to take my favorite loop along the ocean and suffered accordingly. It’s a tough ride and I was not up to it having been off the bike for 3 weeks due to illness and travel. But the day was sunny and I persevered, stopping at one point to chat with a man who was tending his flock of goats along the road. They were up on top of a road cut, slipping and sliding on the bright orange scree, one billygoat standing nobly at the top watching his flock. I told the man that his goat thought he was one of his mountain cousins, and the man laughed. To kill some time and gain a few miles I rode along another new road towards the city that parallels the ocean. The wind was bad now and I was getting genuinely cold but I did get to see big flocks of ducks on the bay and a Common Bustard, cousin to our big hawks, flew low across my path making my suffering worthwhile.
My second Thanksgiving was on Saturday night, this time forty or more people and lots of kids. Everyone pulled out the stops on the dinner, desert and wines and it was grand. I spent my time drinking a white wine that I’d brought only realizing at the end of the bottle that I was the only person working on it. One of the cool things about cooking and preparing here is the improvisation that takes place in the absence of things we take for granted. A white flour roux strained through a cheese grader and a bottle of red wine cleansed of its cork bits with a French coffee press. Sometimes you do what you have to do to get what you want.
We had one last bike ride for the weekend that was too hard and too long, the wind and the hills getting the better of me. We availed ourselves of a stretch of the Jinshitan road that was closed to traffic instead being used by hundreds of giant trucks ferrying loads of fill dirt from a spot up the road to a place where they are expanding the port. We had the right lane to ourselves while the trucks barreled along on the left, blowing their horns and proving Doppler right as the pitch of the sound changed by their proximity and position. At the loading zone backhoes were busily taking apart an entire mountain and putting it in the trucks to be dumped in the sea. Someone recently asked me if the world’s oceans were rising due to global warming or because of all the dirt the Chinese are dumping into them. We had to get off and walk a bit here because the road was truly broken. On the far side and wonderful peace set upon us as it was still officially closed to traffic but now with no trucks. When you get silence in China you notice it right away because it’s completely unusual. We had the wind at our backs and it was so quiet you could hear the dried Plane Tree leaves skittering down the pavement. At one point I rode parallel to a small red mesh bag, decorated with gold filigree that was silently tumbling end over end, buoyed by the wind.
We rode along the beach which was completely deserted, not a single person out for winter’s walk. At the end of the strand we climbed up from and along the sea to a new suspension bridge that spans a canyon in one of the headlands here. On the far side of it our plan became suspect because we were faced with a long steep slog into a howling wind that about ended my day right then and there. At the top we divided an energy bar and a bottle of water and wondered what the hell we were thinking.
Approaching the dirt depot from the other side, we rode gingerly in among the trucks themselves trying to stay upright in the mud while avoiding getting run over by the behemoths going this way and that. I had to get off the bike to cross a tall dirt barrier and one of the drivers laid in hard on his horn lest I slow his forward progress.
On the home stretch we came upon an accident – a minivan had driven off the road and into a bridge abutment. The front of the car was destroyed – pieces everywhere and a gang of men were standing around looking at the ground. When I finally took the whole scene in I realized they were staring at a man stretch out on the pavement, no doubt pulled from the car; or perhaps an unfortunate pedestrian in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dead or unconscious, I don’t know, but he certainly wasn’t moving. I looked quickly away and rode on.