Monday, November 30, 2009

What do you do if you look outside an you can't see anything?

It occurred to me tonight that I might have lost most favored patron status at Starbucks. I ended up there following a quick trip to the department store to collect a bottle of wine for a dinner invitation (tomorrow night) and a box of grape juice to get me through the rest of the week. I’m down to one last liter of Blutorange and I hate to open it knowing full well that whatever is left behind will almost certainly not survive the 5 weeks I am about to spend in the US. And given that to me it’s a treasured resource, I’m not about to sacrifice the lion’s share for a single glass on Friday morning. So out I went to pick up those items and to have an iced Americano.

The traffic for tonight’s commute was absolutely horrid, a combination of an uncountable number of company owned commuter buses hogging the center lane, a single dead car and the normal amount of crazy Chinese driving. It was tough too because I had a passenger and so I was unable to spend any time talking to Jiang. He dealt with his stress by putting on his Backstreet Boys/Carpenters CD which has precisely the opposite effect on me. The three of us sat there commenting on the fog and looking for opportunities to advance our position in the jam.

Eventually I made it home and in the time it took for me to microwave the rabbit a friend’s wife had brought me from Chengdu, the lurking fog we’d had all day intensified to the point where I could no longer see the ground from my 24th floor window. It was so bad that I couldn’t catch a photo either as the camera had nothing to focus on. Even the neon on the buildings across the street was completely obscured. I decided to go outside right then and there, figuring that there would be some interesting photo ops down at street level. But before that I had my rabbit to eat accompanied by a big pile of Green Giant French Style Green Beans. This rabbit was quite different than the legs and thighs I normally have. It was more or less boned aside from its limbs and spine and it had lost its head somewhere in the process. I guess it had been braised and then re-cooked with the normal set of Sichuan spices because the meat was a deep crimson, but in the preparation someone had also taken the time to flatten it leaving it with the look of having been run through one of those old wringer washers. At least I suppose that’s what a rabbit run through one would look like, having never actually seen such a thing. They say looks don’t matter though and in the case of squashed bunny they might be right because it was darn delicious.

I loaded up and headed down the elevator. Outside everything was slick with a thick coat of dew. The cloud bank was not as thick as it was up at the level of my apartment, but it was still pretty opaque. The almost full Moon I’d seen when I left work had beaten it for more accommodating climes, knowing that no one in Kai Fa Qu would be enjoying its glamour on this evening. In my experience deep fog like this often has a damping effect on the sounds of the city, just like a heavy snowstorm. Here though I guess that is too much to expect because it was just as noisy as ever. I walked down the street stopping now and again to take a photograph and to answer my phone which for some reason had the idea that I was suddenly popular.

Winter here in northern China is governed by one of two styles of weather – incredibly cold, clear and windy or intolerably thick, gray and depressing. The latter is far more common, the product of too many wood fires, too many houses heated with trash and corn sheaves and too many uncontrolled power plant exhaust stacks. The fog associated with those producers always bears the characteristic odor of things on fire and I was quite surprised tonight that this batch didn’t stink too badly. Instead it had a mild aroma of conflagration that was held in check by rotting cabbage, car exhaust and plain old moisture.

In terms of temperature it’s either cold or colder and living within that range can be a challenge given the lack of control of the heat in one’s apartment. Plenty of hot water flows through the pipes, but there are no controls available to tune it to your liking. These days in my house I take advantage of the sun I get on the south side assuming it’s not too foggy and the rooms remain quite mild. Allowing the radiant floor heating do its work during the night ends up par boiling you under your covers because unfortunately it works a bit too well. Most evenings when I tuck myself in I turn on the air conditioner in my bedroom and set it to 65 degrees so that between it and the floor heating, the cold air and the blankets I get a nice approximation of my winter time bedroom back home, minus My Lovely Wife. Of course I could just open the window but I don’t like waking up covered in ash.

After my stop at the department store where I used my Chinese to put the little cashier girl into red-faced giggle shock, I headed under the street to get my cup of coffee. I say “under” because here at the intersection of Jinma Lu and Binhai Dajie the city government has kindly installed underground passages that allow you to reach any of the four corners of the intersection without having to brave the traffic. Recently they added huge arcs of Plexiglas and steel that look like the carapaces of some giant insect in the process of burrowing down into the Earth, their purpose I guess is to stop the elements from raining down on the marble steps that descend to the tunnels hopefully preventing them from becoming dangerously slippery. As in just how they were the last two winters I was here. The shells are a nice improvement, but I’d have been happier if they fixed the perpetually broken escalators which would allow one to avoid the marble steps in the first place. But no, those still stand silent and the stair treads are just as clogged with wet black garbage as they ever were even if their moisture content is not coming from the sky. At least the rain won’t go down my neck anymore.

None of the people I know from my favorite Starbucks crew were on duty tonight so I was just a regular customer. The place was full of 20-something Canadian boys going on about their local teaching assignments, or perhaps I should say “aboot”. They were interesting to listen to - so knowledgeable and expert in how to work the system to get temporary teaching assignments all over the world. At the same time they seemed blithely unaware that this place is hardly one that any of their peers back in the world would consider glamorous. Mostly the effect their conversation had on me was to make me wonder what the heck I was doing sitting here listening to them. But I know the answer to that; it’s all about the money and the Sichuan rabbit. Tonight though it was additionally about drinking iced coffee, taking some pictures of the fog and waiting for the end of the week to roll into view.

















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