One of the tricky things about eating in a foreign place is the menu translation. You might be perfectly accustomed to a meal described one way in one language, and when it gets translated, it gets a bit garbled.
This was certainly the case for me in Paris, where I was loath to get an English menu instead of a French one -- not because of snobbishness, but for better understanding. With an English menu, it was hard to tell what I was supposed to eat because the translations were often nonsensical.
Saturday night we went for Sichuan hot pot, and it was the same thing. But this time, at the mercy of an English menu, and I suspect that no matter how long I lived in Hong Kong, I always would be. Hot pot is sort of like Chinese fondue. You get a big pot of broth on your table, and as it cooks (usually over a fire or burner) you add stuff. There is a large menu of things you can add.
We'd seen hot pot restaurants around. In fact, there was a very popular one across from our Tin Hau apartment. It was a hole-in-the-wall, with maybe three tables inside and about 20 tables outside -- all of which seated at least four people and more like eight. They encroached so far into the alleyway, that the apartment building put in a row of potted plants to keep them from crowding the front door. It doesn't look like fancy food -- you see bubbling pots of who-knows-what and lots of big beers and people having a good time. It looks like a lot of fun. And, I think if we had a bigger group it would be even better.
But we had just the two of us. We were tempted by some of the exotic-sounding items, but went, instead, with sliced American beef, mushroom dumplings, pork dumplings, baby bok choy and soba noodles. We opted for a fragrant clear mushroom broth (probably chicken-based) instead of some of the spicier choices. You also can choose Yin-Yang, which is half spicy and half not.
Some of the things we passed on, transcribed verbatim: Dumpling materialed with fish skin The front portion of plungh Pork dumpling with stuff Pilling ink fish Sliced green carp breast Flavored meat pill with mushroom
Usually, when you have a funny translation, you can guess. I think with Chinese items (as well as some French -- rognon anyone?) it's kind of brave. What is plungh, do you think? Ink fish may very well be squid or cuttlefish, but then it would be translated as cuttlefish. And who knew carp had breasts? This is rather like the fish lips we keep seeing on the menu (not to mention the pig chin).
That wasn't the only thing we didn't quite grasp. Each of us had a bowl of spices in front of us: coriander, peanuts, chili, chopped garlic. I figured you were supposed to put it into the soup. We had three kinds of mushrooms in ours already but sampling it indicated it was a bit mild.
One of the waiters rushed over when he saw me dump the bowl into the soup. He seemed almost horrified. Clearly I had done something wrong. It turns out you're supposed to spoon the soup into the flavors and not the other way around, which he demonstrated for us. And then you use the flavored soup in front of you for dipping.
We wish he would have offered more advice, in fact. Like, put the bok choy in earlier and order only one portion of dumplings instead of two -- at least for just two people. Portion sizes in Hong Kong are usually very small, so we had no idea how much to order. Four things, or five things including two vegetables, would have been sufficient.
In any case, our meal was delicious and I think we cooked everything long enough to avoid E. coli or salmonella. The one thing that baffled us to the end? When we were seated there were two bowls of snacks. This is not uncommon; often it's boiled peanuts or somesuch thing. These were peanuts sauteed in spices and someting pickled. It had the consistency of chopped, dried apples and was both sweet and savory.
We asked one woman what it was. She said something to us in Chinese, we nodded politely, and she brought back a take-away container! We asked another woman what it was, she circled it on the bill -- (you get charged for everything here, even if you didn't order it -- sort of like the bread and tablecloth charges in Italy) -- went to ask someone, presumably, and then passed it off to someone else. When the man came back with the bill, we asked him again what it was, and he just repeated whatever was printed -- in Chinese -- on the bill.
We left satisfied with the meal, but none the wiser.
I enjoyed a lovely massage today; it was my Hannukah gift from Paul. It was relaxing and effective, as all good massages should be. And it made me think of all the massages and styles I've enjoyed in different countries.
I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm a connoisseur of massages, but I have had a fair number of them. And it's a bit fascinating to go over in my mind the different social mores involved.
Here in Hong Kong, there are massages offered everywhere. I don't know if they differ in quality or style or only price. There are Thai massages and therapeutic massages and reflexology (foot) massages. So much choice! I had a body massage, and it involved my back and neck and shoulders. Heaven!
The office looked more like a therapeutic health office than a boutique spa. And the little massage room was wall-papered in fur. No kidding. It was bizarre (see photo, above). But the atmosphere was calm, with pop music -- love ballads, mostly -- on the stereo. I was the only person in the shop.
The young woman left me alone to change, and there was a Velcro-close bath towel for me to put on. This was kind of silly, though, because with the towel fastened that way, she couldn't really get to my back. Ultimately, it was just moved down and she covered the rest of me with a series of towels.
The gold standard for massages, as anyone who has had one in Paris knows, is Craig Dennis. His massages are beyond amazing -- therapeutic and relaxing -- and well-priced for a metropolitan market. He also does an American-style massage, with the attendant modesty issues taken care of. One is always covered by a sheet, which is nice.
My first French massage involved a bit of a stand-off between me and the massage therapist. She wanted me to undress and I wanted her to leave the room while I did so. I caved first. The room was well-heated, and there wasn't much covering involved. Maybe I'm a prude, but I found it hard to relax that way.
When I was in my 20s, I had a massage in a hotel room in Palm Springs by a big Russian woman. She wasn't clear on the modesty concept, either, as she remarked on the size of my breasts. ("How tiny!" she said.) She started to massage them, and I was horrified. Since then, my whole front torso has been a no-go zone. I always say I'm ticklish so it doesn't become an issue.
In Morocco, I went to a hammam (Arab sauna) frequented by locals. It's a woman-only spa, and any hopes one has of modesty goes right out the door because everyone is pretty much naked. I had my underwear on for my massage, which made the large Moroccan woman laugh. Then she pulled it right up my butt. Problem solved, for her. It's an interesting concept, to see a bunch of women in all their shapes and sizes and in all their glory, and then to watch them in the dressing room as they cover up and put on their veils and head scarves.
In Tunisia I passed on massage, even though I was in a fancy hotel. There wasn't much privacy -- just one big room with several tables.
Egypt was probably the weirdest -- and bear in mind that I mention it because it stands out, not because it was typical. I would say most of the massages I've had in my life are fine and enjoyable. And the Craig massages -- well, outstanding. But in Egypt it was a little weird.
I was on a Nile cruise and the women I was hanging out with all wanted massages. Suffice it to say the massage therapist was inappropriate with several of us and was kicked off the boat. That was weird.
Ultimately, though, I think it's rare to have a bad massage. Even a boyfriend massage (when the woman rubbing you uses such a light touch you might as well have your boyfriend do it for free) is better than no massage.
I was worried today about running a few errands. I shouldn't have been. As far as I can tell, it's business as usual, unless you're trying to get something at one of the family-owned non-food specialty shops.
Well, the bloom is starting to come off the Hong Kong rose. Its charm is fading a bit.
Perhaps it is because I see the end or that I've been here just long enough to grow tired of the newness, but either way I'm looking forward to going home.
There are many really cool things about Hong Kong. It is vibrant and lively and visually amazing. The food is great, the people are cordial, the views are spectacular. But it lacks a few things, too (like all places, I imagine).
Tiny apartments and crowded streets and too-tall buildings are wearing on me. I really want to be able to cook something. To ride my bike along the beach. To sit outside without coming home with a dozen mosquito bites. To go out with friends. (To have friends).
Simply put, I've had enough. I came, I saw, I enjoyed. It's time to get back to my life in California.
The question becomes: Do I want to go home because I know I can (and will)? Would I be more interested in staying if I knew I were? I say the point is moot, because in a few weeks, we're both out of here.
I'm reluctant to post anything, because I really want to keep the elf video at the top of the page, but here goes. (And I have a sneaking suspicion none of you enjoyed it as much as I did.)
Everybody knows chickens don't have lips, and I saw the proof up close and personal tonight. We ordered crispy chicken (a half) and there it was on the plate, the chicken's head. Or, to be more precise, half the chicken's head. I think you're supposed to suck out the brains. But, um, no. Which is weird, because when I found the liver/gizzards, I went right after them. Same with the tail.
I have to admit, there is no rhyme or reason as to what I'll eat or why (not). Duck tongue, pig knuckle, chicken feet, eel, jelly fish ... no, thank you. Fried fish heads, kidneys, chicken feet, tripe ... no, thank you. I am embarrassed to say the list is longer that I'd like and it seems to be getting longer. How is that possible? And I have a sneaking suspicion that if things were presented to me, without explanation, I'd probably be okay. But until then, I'm gonna peruse the menu a little more closely.
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Speaking of food (isn't that the purpose of this blog?) I have finally found my perfect fruit. I've been waiting for tangerine season seemingly forever. Clementines, tangerines, mandarins -- whatever they are called in whatever country -- I adore them. And here, they are amazingly good. At the grocery store they come individually wrapped in little cellophane baggies. They are cheap -- about 13 cents apiece -- and juicy and sweet. They haven't been available long -- perhaps two or three weeks -- but I haven't had a bad one yet. They also sell them in the street markets, sans cellophane and with leaves attached, but I've had such good luck with the ones at the grocery store I'm reluctant to try any others.
You all know how much I like risk and change.
Have I mentioned we're back in the tiny apartment? The one the size of my living room in Long Beach (which is hardly a ginormous space)? Yeah, sad but true. I never realized how much different an extra room would make. But it does. Fortunately, the couch is big enough to a. sleep on and b. for both of us to sit on, barely.
Who would have thought I'd be yearning for 500 square feet?
But the two things I miss most are the view and the air. Being on the 23rd floor instead of the 2nd floor makes a huge difference in terms of air flow. And I was able to look out on the harbor all day long -- made the place feel really spacious. Here, well, I can see the fence on the patio and enjoy the aromas wafting up from the street.
Remember how I was lamenting the location of the last place? Well, I got used to it, and now that is our favorite neighborhood. That's the upside of moving around. If we stay, I now think we're likely to be in Mid-Levels. We managed to figure out most of the bus and minibus routes, thus minimizing a lot of the inconvenience. It's still no Tin Hau, in terms of shopping ease, but it more than makes up for it in terms of space and altitude.
The holidays are here and it's evident, even though the weather isn't really cooperating. But then, we're used to that in SoCal. Still, it feels weirder here than at home, so it probably isn't just the temperature. But I can't really explain why. We have a small poinsettia on the stove (no kitchen table) so it's festive. And a string of lights. Next up -- I find a menorah. They say you can find anything in Hong Kong, so I'll put that to the test.
All the malls have Christmas carols on in the background (and we heard them in the MTR, too). They bear some resemblance to American carols, but are slightly different. Same tune, different words. I like it; never knew how many different versions of Jingle Bells there were. Still, it feels holiday-like without the repetition.
There are lots of Christmas trees up everywhere, too. And fake snow. And lights on the sides of the building. And Santas and reindeer. The people here seem fascinated by it, taking pictures in front of everything like it's new. We haven't been able to see into any apartments to see if anyone is decorating, but the stores seem to be making some effort.
And can I just mention that getting around town above-ground is like being on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride? Every taxi driver (and some bus drivers) seems to have a serious case of flutter-foot. Good gracious. Some speculate it's because they spend most of their time in traffic and aren't used to going far. Maybe. But all that stopping and starting is seriously queasy-making. And on a double-decker bus, it's particularly bad.
On the minibus back from Stanley on Friday my driver behaved like he was in the Macau Grand Prix. I've never seen a minibus reach speeds of 71 -- especially on a windy mountain road. I don't expect my commutes to be thrill rides. Thank goodness for ginger chews, eh?
The highlight of that ride, of course, was when we hit the roundabout and he slammed on the brakes -- yes, the bus slammed on the brakes, explaining why there are seat belts on each seat -- and came within inches of the taxi who was trying to pass. I guess the biggest mystery is why there aren't more accidents. I've been in half a dozen near misses and I'm rarely on the road.
OK. Rants over.
It's like when I was a kid, driving with my Grandpa Aaron. Ugh.
It's a great pleasure in my life, and one that's been missing almost entirely since I moved away from Paris. My friend Mary brought me a very ripe Camembert when she visited, and Paul and I cracked it open the other night.
It was incredibly stinky. Stinkier than any cheese I've eaten (and certainly smelled) in a good long while. And it was delicious. And sharp. Really ripe.
You forget, I think, what a true, raw-milk cheese can be like. Two years out of Paris I eat mostly cheddar. At least when I'm in California; in Hong Kong, there's not much cheese at the local grocery store that doesn't come in slices, individually wrapped in plastic. And there certainly is no artisanal Camembert at my local Wellcome.
My family likes raclette, which we get at Trader Joe's and which is different from French raclette. In France, raclette is a cheese that's good for melting on potatoes but I don't recall it being particularly strong. It's not mild, but it's not strong. The one we get in SoCal, though, we call "stinky feet cheese." It's that nasty. But it tastes good, absolutely.
This Camembert beats any raclette by a mile. It arrived vacuum-packed and when I opened the plastic I had to take a step backward. When I opened the wooden container it was worse. And then the wax covering. Phew! But after that first creamy, sharp bite I was in heaven. I didn't mind that my clothes were stinky, that the apartment was stinky, I just relished the cheese.
We have to finish it tonight, since we move in the morning. And by the time the owner of the apartment returns on Tuesday he will never know what he missed.
The temperature here has dipped to a frigid 64 degrees, and the denizens of this fair city are bundling up.
Outside today, when it was closer to 70, we saw girls in winter coats, guys in ski vests and both with mufflers wrapped around their ears.
Now as a Southern Californian, I understand the desire to change with the seasons. I get that you reach a point in the fall when you want to put on your tall boots and your sweater. The shops here have been marketing winter wear since we arrived in October. But this goes above and beyond. Girls on the street are huddled together, trying to keep the cutting wind off their faces. (The sea temperature is a brisk 74 degrees, after all).
When the temperature dips like this in SoCal, we just put on a fleece and wear shorts. We don't even change out of flip-flops unless we put on our Ugg boots. It takes 40-degree night temps for us to really bundle up, much to the amusement of our Midwestern cousins.
In point of fact, it is colder in our apartment, during the day, than it is outside. And Hong Kong apartments aren't designed for cold weather. There is no central heating (just as there really isn't much central air conditioning). Our plan, then, is simple: Bundle up. Put on a sweater. Wear socks. Find the blanket that we know is somewhere in the closet. And count our blessings before the stifling humidity returns.
I have been to Nobu in Paris and in Hong Kong, and it has been as good as I expected both times. I was musing with a friend about why I wouldn't go in Los Angeles. I guess it seems too frivolous or expensive or indulgent. But in retrospect, that was not the case either time I went.
The only question I have now is when will I get to go again.
The Signature Bento Box, clockwise from left: Tuna sashimi (although it does look seared in this photo), sushi and cut rolls, sauteed vegetables on rice, black cod with miso glaze and popcorn shrimp. An amazing mix of flavors.
I've been on vacation all week, in my "own" backyard.
My friend Mary, from Paris, was here in Hong Kong for a conference and extended her stay for a few days. I took the opportunity to take some time off as well because even though I can do plenty of stuff in the day and work at night, well, who wants to?
In a few short days we managed to go to the Kansu Jade Market, Stanley Market and visit a dozen high-end shops in fancy malls. We bought jade and pearls and silk and designer duds. We ate Nepalese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Dim Sum and Sichuan and took the tram up to Victoria Peak at dusk to see all of Hong Kong Island. Not bad for what was, essentially, a long weekend. (photos at flickr, eventually)
And we went to Nobu, and sat at one of the "good" tables along the waterfront of Victoria Harbour, with a magnificent panaromic view. It was awesome -- the food and the view. I won't say Nobu was the high point, but it was one heck of a highlight.
It was interesting to be a knowing tourist. While we had guidebooks and cameras in hand, we also had an inkling of how to get about town. We used all the modes of transportation: MTR, taxi, mini bus and double decker bus.
The jade market was neat -- about 100 stalls under a makeshift tent in a district in Kowloon. The guidebook said to get there early for good deals, which seemed counterintuitive. Seems to me you get the good deals at the end of the day, when everyone is closing shop. Not so here ... apparently it's a matter of making a first sale. The vendors will, supposedly, offer a better price earlier because they need the sale. This is not the case in Stanley, which I'll get to in a minute.
Upon arrival we were accosted by a woman selling pearls. Her wares were lovely, her tactics very aggressive. But I've already been through the whole "never buy from the first stall" thing. Mary moved on fairly quickly, but the woman grabbed my arm and held on, like a grandmother would. She wasn't letting me out of her sight. I did not, ultimately, buy anything from her, although I did promise to come back. I did come back, in fact, and after seeing all the others' wares, I found that hers were at a good price for a reason. The quality just wasn't there.
Mary and I returned home laden with semi-precious stones. Our only regret was not making it to the opal market.
The next day we took the bus to Stanley Market. Stanley is on the south side of the island, and isn't accessible by MTR. From where we are, in Mid-Levels, you have to take a minibus to the bus depot in Central, then take one of six buses out to Stanley, about a 20-minute ride. Although it takes 20 minutes only if the road isn't closed for construction. Then it takes about an hour.
I'd been to Stanley on my only other trip to Hong Kong in, I think, 2000. Stanley itself is considered a nice place to live, especially if you don't mind the commute. It's right on the sea and has fairly low-slung buildings on the coast. It's very pretty, and fairly rustic, compared to the rest of the island. You absolutely feel as if you're far from Hong Kong on the way out there. The bus travels from Central south through Happy Valley, past the racetrack and the hillside British cemeteries. Once you get through the tunnel you end up on the other side of the island, which has some very nice coastline.
Stanley Market is a maze of shops and stalls selling all sorts of stuff, from toys and baby clothes to linens and silks to jewelry and leather. Mary had a particular interest in finding something for her two boys, and she did. We also were keen to pick out some silk scarves. We'd been to the Shanghai Tang boutique the day before and they had gorgeous silk clothes and scarves. We knew this was knock-off stuff (not to be confused with counterfeit) but do you need a $100 scarf when you can get it for $11? I know I'm willing to overlook a few lapses in quality to save $90. That's U.S. dollars, mind you.
I was tempted by many more things, but didn't take the leap. If we're going home, I don't want to have to move around a lot of trinkets etc. and if we're not going home then I'm not sure I need new cushion covers for the couch in Long Beach, no matter how well they match.
We had read in the guidebook that prices in the Stanley Market weren't as good as they used to be. I think this is probably true. There is no need there, as at the Jade Market, to heavily discount things because there are far more tourists. Shopkeepers let us walk away many times. We were lucky to get 20 Hong Kong discounted from a big purchase, and that's about $3. I guess they figured there were another dozen marks behind us. That said, some things were indeed a very good value.
In between shopping we managed to see some non-commercial sights, in particular Victoria Peak. We met Paul at the tram (actually, a funicular) up the hill and rode to the top, 1,810 feet above the city. It is the highest mountain on the island proper, according to Wikipedia. We paid the extra fee to go to the lookout tower and it was pretty spectacular. We decided against Madame Toussaud's. Going up the hill, and then again backward down it, is not a pleasant sensation. Passengers are on wooden-slat seats and the angle is so steep that there's a sort of gravitational pull that is not quite pleasant. On the other hand, people used to get up there by sedan chair. But yeah, absolutely, the view made up for it. You can see both sides of the island. It's very cool.
So that, along with lots of food and a few drinks, was my vacation.
I went to the bank today to give them some forms so we could effect wire transfers from the internet.
The flaw in my plan was that unlike the form online, this one required a signature and the account is in Paul's name. He also was at work already. So I signed it myself. I have forged his name dozens of times, including when we worked together and I needed something approved. It's never been an issue.
But of course this time it was. I handed the paperwork to the teller who said the signature did not match the one she had on file. Hmm, I said. Perhaps he just got sloppy? No, she said. It didn't resemble it and she was sorry, she couldn't take the form. Was he in the U.S. she asked? I said no, because then it would clearly be obvious that I forged the signature. I said he was at work and she asked that we come back tomorrow.
I tried to give her all sorts of substantiating documents, including his passport and my driver's license, indicating I was, in fact, sharing his name and his address. But it was no good.
Ultimately, this is a good thing. I was asking for access to his account and for permission to move 100,000 Hong Kong dollars per day. It would have been dangerous if she had a doubt. But I found it curious that she was worried enough about the matching signatures not to approve it, but not worried enough about my forgery to, say, have me arrested.
As I've mentioned, I don't cook here in Hong Kong, and that's a bit of a shame. As a result, I also don't eat in a healthy way. It's hard. Hong Kong is not known for an abundance of either greens or fruits in the diet, and I have to make an effort. And these are foods I do, indeed, like to eat.
While there is Chinese broccoli available with Chinese food, and mushrooms, I wonder how many vitamins are actually left after it's been cooked. And the only salad I've seen in the stores is iceberg, and while that's a nice taste, it isn't terribly nutritious. It's true you can get fancier salad, but it runs about $6 a bag, so it's a bit of a splurge. Not many nutritious-type veggies in Thai or Indian food, either. And those three make up most of my diet.
And as for fruit ... surprisingly, a bit of a dead end. I eat a lot of bananas. A ton of bananas. To no one's surprise, I'm a bit picky about my bananas. They have a window of about two days before they're inedible, as far as I'm concerned. But since we always live within steps of a grocery, I can have perfect bananas all the time. And they're very good.
I would have guessed that Hong Kong, tropical as it is, would be rife with fruit. I was envisioning papayas and mangoes and exotic fruit like I had in Thailand -- rambutan and mangosteens. But not so much. Perhaps it's the fact this is an island. Or that the bulk of the affordable produce comes from China. I see a lot of apples and pears and neither is very interesting or very good, and I'm usually a big fan of apples. I keep waiting to see tangerines, but haven't. The peaches over the summer, in Beijing, were big and gorgeous and tasted awful. And we've now pretty much exhausted the choices of fruit.
To be fair, there are melons for sale, and occasionally I see halved papayas in the street stalls. But not often.
So I have turned to dragon fruit. This luscious, exotic fruit is, supposedly, very high in Vitamin C and dietary fiber. The perfect fruit. It is shocking pink on the outside, with soft spikes. Inside, it is white with kiwi-like seeds. To my mind, it also has the consistency of kiwi, a fruit I like very much but am allergic to.
It turns out they are easy to eat, too. One only has to slice it in half, and then scoop it out with a spoon. Like eating a kiwi. But in fact, it isn't at all related to kiwi, despite the similarities. The meat is slightly sweet, and not at all strong. It's very pleasant. I'm going to make a point of eating several a week.
But I'm not sure how to tell when one is ripe, or overripe. And I don't know how long they keep. So I'll have to do some research and keep experimenting.
Meanwhile, I worry if I should start to take vitamins?
It's hard not to have an interesting day here, at least when I leave the house. I imagine at some point, soon, the novelty will wear off, but it hasn't yet.
Today I had to make myself scarce for a few hours this afternoon so I decided to go to the movies. It is, in fact, fairly easy to get there and back, as I discovered on my way back.
I thought I'd take the bus down the hill and see where I landed. The schedule said the bus would stop at the Central MTR and I wanted to go to the IFC mall so that worked out nicely. But it's a bit difficult to gauge where you are in this city because everywhere, especially in the Central district, you are at the bottom of many very tall buildings.
Through a maze of skyways and walkways and mall-insides I found myself at the IFC mall, an expansive, expensive shopping center with luxury stores aplenty. I haven't experienced a movie here, but had been told by a colleague the experience was first-rate.
The theater isn't exactly your regular mall theater. There is a cafe adjacent to the ticket sellers (they aren't secluded by a booth, but are behind a counter) and the whole atmosphere feels like an art-house theater. There are books for sale, film books perhaps? and posters advertising the upcoming films and film festivals.
I decided to see Quantum of Solace, the new Bond movie. It was playing in more than one "house" as they are called here. The "house" I was in was quite small, perhaps 8o seats. Eighty leather, comfortable, wide, spacious first-class airplane-like seats. With cup holders. It was luxe. Plus, when you buy your ticket you buy a specific seat. This is mostly good but a little bad. There is something to be said for walking into the theater, assessing it, and then choosing a seat. Especially if it's crowded and you don't want to sit next to someone.
But I digress.
The lights dimmed promptly at 3:25, the time that was listed. There was a preview and then the usual ads. What amused me about the ads was that there were the usual admonitions not to talk or use your cell phone, but they added one for no recording. As if, I started to think to myself. Then I remembered the pirated DVD we watched the other day and said, oh, yeah.
The experience was grand. The sound was too loud for my tastes, but it was a Bond movie. I had a perfect sight line, and even if the theater had been full, nobody would have been in my way. And if someone had wanted to walk past me with their popcorn, that would have been fine, too, because there was an enormous amount of leg room, and even some very large Westerner would have fit by easily.
There was no matinee price: Tickets were 75 Hong Kong, or about $10. There is a senior price for those over 60 and a discount for Tuesdays, at 50 Hong Kong. As it happens, the next few times I will have to clear out are, in fact, Tuesdays so it looks like more movies for me.
After the film I wended my way through the mall, stopping to look at this or that, and finding a very nice bakery in the fancy CitySuper grocery store. That shop is much like a Bon Marche, filled with very pricey imported goods. The bakery is Western and I had a just-out-of-the oven garlic bread.
I was a little concerned about getting back. It had gotten dark, and I was sure the commuters would be packing the streets and escalators. As it turns out, the IFC is exactly at the bottom of the escalators, so you only need to make your way across the main road by skyway, turn left and you're at the base of the escalator. Amazingly easy.
So we're in the latest apartment: A lovely, three-room place in Mid-Levels. We are in one of the more desirable neighborhoods in Hong Kong. We are also in one of the most inconvenient neighborhoods in Hong Kong, as far as I can tell.
On Sunday I went to run a simple errand, and as easy as it was to do in Tin Hau it was as difficult in Mid-Levels.
Our neighborhood is largely residential. Sort of the 7th arrondissement of Hong Kong. There are few shops along the street, and they are limited, largely, to hair dressers, pet shops and real estate agencies.
So what's a girl gotta do to get a computer cable? Glad you asked. First, I walk about a kilometer to get to the Mid-Levels escalator, which is about 800 meters long with a vertical climb of 135 meters. The total travel time is twenty minutes, but some people walk while the system moves to shorten their trip. This is a bit misleading, though, because the escalator only goes up during the day. So actually, you have to make a vertical descent, via stairs and steep pavement.
Along the sides there are dozens of restaurants and bars; it's very cool.
At the bottom is the Central business district, and while this isn't necessarily the closest commercial district, as the crow flies, it's the only way to get somewhere that has a way back up that isn't hundreds of stairs.
Anyway, I went to the Fortress appliance and electronics store next to the Central MTR station looking for a WLAN cable. It took me about 30 minutes to get there. Easy, i thought.
Not so easy.
The guy at Fortress, which sells TVs and phones and computers and printers, says they don't have one. I ask where I might find one. He suggests the computer shop up one flight of stairs in the same shopping mall. I find the computer shop and it's one of the few shops closed on a Sunday. I start to contemplate my options. As I'm walking back to the street I see a sign for another computer shop in another mall. I go up to the second level to find that shop and it, too, is closed.
Now I have to figure this out. I don't know the area well and I'm not sure what sort of shop I need to find. I think perhaps the Fortress was just too small. Maybe the shop guy meant they didn't have them at his shop. So I get on the MTR and go to Times Square, in Causeway Bay. If you read Paul's blog a while back, he describes the madness that is Times Square, and we both vowed never to go back on a weekend. But I needed the cable to work Sunday night.
So I make my way through the gigantic MTR station and finally get to the Times Square mall and go up seven flights of elevators to get to the Fortress and another identical shop, Broadway. The guy at Broadway says nope, no cable. I ask him where I might find one. He suggests the computer mall in Wan Chai. Ack. I desperately don't want to do that. It's another metro ride (the easy part) but it will take me 15 minutes, at least, to get to the train and then I still have to find the Wan Chai computer mall.
So I go over to the Fortress, and ask the guy there if he has a cable. I know he doesn't, but I ask anyway. He tells me if I go down the street to the department store Sogo there is another computer mall nearby. The instructions are very vague.
Mind you it took me what, 10 minutes, the other day to hit the florist, the laundry and the key shop. I'm now into my second hour and I still can't even find a shop that sells what I want.
I go back down seven flights of escalators and realize I have no idea where Sogo is. I end up asking three more people before I find it. Meanwhile, I see a PCCW shop on the street. And since that is the company that provides the internet service and modem that I'm using, I think maybe they have a WLAN cable. Ha. That guy sends me to the same computer mall, and I'm still not clear where it is.
Wading through the hordes of people (see my flickr site) I find the shopping mall. It's called Windsor House. The computer mall is on the 10th floor, and they don't have escalators, so I find the elevators that are designated 5-16. And now this story is about as long and tedious as my search for the cable. Which I found, finally, two hours and four malls after I started looking.
The prospect of a three-stop metro ride and 20-minute escalator ride (did I mention that the previous night we walked up the stairs because we got there after the escalators were turned off?) and a 1K walk to get back was too daunting. I hopped in a cab.
So the point is, I won't be running many errands the next month. And we probably won't live in this neighborhood, as nice as it is, if we stay in Hong Kong.
But until then I'm going to enjoy the space and the killer views and errands be damned.
We checked into the Ibis North Point hotel this afternoon. We're using it as a bridge between one apartment and another.
And we discovered that for a mere $88, we could be transported back to Europe in the blink of an eye.
The Ibis is a French-owned hotel; part of the Accor chain. It's known as a budget hotel, to be sure. Probably comparable to Motel 6, but Euro-style. We have perhaps 180 square feet of space -- two thirds the size of my childhood bedroom -- with a bed and a desk built into the window. I have a fabulous view of Victoria Harbour.
But all those perks of Hong Kong I was talking about yesterday? Not so much here. There is French-style check in (slow and uninformative) and an almost French-sized elevator. It took me as long to get internet service, today, as it did for me to run three errands yesterday.
C'est la vie.
I'm told the IHT puts its tryout editors here. Ack. I can't imagine spending two nights here, much less a week. We were fortunate enough to stay in the Harbour View when we first arrived, and it's head and shoulders above this hotel. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, only $40 more at this time.)
But we're here just for 24 hours. Not enough time to worry about space, and I'm working days, too, so Paul and I only have to co-exist to sleep.
There is no disputing that life here (my life, anyway) is pretty easy. I have no chores and my errands are easy to accomplish.
I was a little concerned that moving back to a city would mean that daily life is a little more complicated. That certainly was the case in Paris. But not here. My goodness ... you can get anything you want everywhere. The shops don't close early and they seem to be open seven days a week.
This morning I needed to run some errands before work. I managed to go to drop off the laundry, get keys made and buy an orchid at the florist, all in under 20 minutes. Beat that!
The laundry is across the street from our current apartment (and yes, we are moving again this weekend) so that was a piece of cake. In at 12:45 p.m., out at 5 p.m.. 36 hong kong dollars. The I crossed back to the apartment and cut across the alleyway, past the always-crowded hot pot restaurant and over to the hardware store. (see photo).
The hardware store is probably the size of my sister-in-law's sewing room, nee walk-in closet. It offers faucets and light bulbs on the outside, and switches and keys and all sorts of other things. It cost me 20 hong kong and 5 minutes to get 4 keys made. Granted, getting keys made in SoCal isn't difficult, time-consuming, or expensive. But it isn't always easy to find a place that will make them for you.
And in Paris, it's worse. They don't really do keys there ... Keys are proprietary and expensive. You must prove you are the owner or legal resident of an apartment before you can get copies made, and then they take 10 days and cost upward of $50.
Then, I went looking for a plant. I went to two florists, actually, before I decided on a lovely pale green orchid as a gift for the guy whose apartment we're borrowing.
Total time, about 15 minutes.
It's amazing to have everything at my fingertips, so to speak. Supermarket, laundry, restaurants galore, stationery shop, framers, florists, butchers, green grocers, bakeries ... everything in one square block.
I was wandering around the neighborhood today and thought I'd check out the Causeway Bay Market. It's an indoor market filled with stalls, not unlike an outdoor market.
The signs outside suggest all sorts of interesting things inside, so in I went.
Things were a little too interesting. I don't think there are many Westerners in there; I got almost as many stares as I offered back. At first I thought it was just the usual fare: fish and meat and vegetables.
There was a cage at one of the fish stalls, and I glanced at it, thinking the shellfish was an odd size. Then I realized it wasn't shellfish at all, but frogs! The look on my face said it all, and then the vendor started to look at me, so I bugged out.
Moseyed around the vegetables and produce; nothing out of the ordinary up there. Although I think I saw some hundred-year-old eggs. These are eggs preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and rice straw. Anyway, I certainly smelled them. They are, I understand, an acquired taste.
Went back downstairs just in time to see the live birds. Ack! I'd been avoiding this. I looked over and the stall owner had a chicken by the neck, and was measuring it with the knife. Ack again! I looked away.
I didn't think I was squeamish like this. I'm OK with my meat hanging in the open air, although I do prefer refrigeration, yes. I'm OK with my fish laid out on ice. And in Paris, especially during game season, they hang dead animals all over the place. Recently dead. With fur and feathers.
Who knew my limit would be frogs and live chickens?
So Paul wrote earlier about his encounter with Chinese bread and just after reading it I passed by a bakery on my way back from running errands.
This was a different bakery, around the corner from the Indian restaurant. As I passed, I could smell the fresh-out-of the oven baked goods. Normally, I'm not a bakery kind of girl. I like cookies, but pastries not so much. And I'm a little wary of Chinese baked goods. They often have sesame or bean pastes hidden in the middle, and that often surprises me.
Anyway, the smell was tempting. I actually passed the bakery, then went back half a block. In the open window were apricot jam sticks, like croissant twists with raisins in them, and, presumably apricot jam. There also were pineapple buns, which I'd heard of and marshmallow buns, which I had not heard of.
Apparently pineapple buns contain no pineapple, but instead have a cross-hatch pattern on top that makes it look like a pineapple. I have no idea if the marshmallow buns have marshmallow in them, or just have the consistency of a marshmallow.
So I bought one of the apricot sticks, and it was hot and fresh. They use plastic bags here, instead of paper, which don't lend themselves to hot steaming things -- just makes them soggy. When I got it back to the apartment it was sort of falling apart.
But that's not what's important. Was it good? It was. Was it apricot? Sort of. Not slathered in apricot, but there was definitely some there. It was warm, and moist and tasty. A perfect bakery food.
Maybe the trick is to stay away from the proper bread?
So earlier I mentioned that I was amused, walking by the many fish markets, to see the live fish. They pull them out of the tank and they flop around.
Well, I'm not amused anymore. Now I feel just awful. The more I see them, the more I see them gasping for breath. Their wide open mouths opening and closing and the gills flapping. It's really terrible.
Why the change of heart? I couldn't tell you. Maybe I've just been by more fish stalls since I've been here than I ever have before. But now, I don't want to see the gasping fish any more than I want to see the butcher kill the chickens. (And, thankfully, I haven't seen that).
It's not like I'm about to become a vegetarian. I understand that food lives, and comes from someplace. But I don't want to be amused by it.
Last night I hit a tipping point. I couldn't, as one colleague put it, bear to eat one more slimy noodle.
We went to grab some dinner last night in our new neighborhood of Tin Hau. Now, we've been in Hong Kong for 23 days, and I've probably had Chinese food (or food, as my brother Dan likes to say) 21 of those 23 days. My aim had been to hit a Thai restaurant I'd seen as we walked to the park in the afternoon, but before we got there, I spied an Indian place.
I'm not too proud to say I came just short of begging Paul to go in. He likes Indian, but is allergic to curry. I promised him there would be something he could eat. The menu was in English, the smells were exotic and nothing came with noodles. We ordered papadam (which I adore) and chicken tikka and lamb vindaloo and cheese naan. It was delicious.
My vindaloo, which supposedly had potatoes as well as lamb chunks, was incredibly spicy. Apparently, I have lost much of my ability to handle really spicy food, and this was a bit over the top.
Hong Kong has a long-established population of South Asians, according to Wikipedia, including more than 20,000 Indians. It is my understanding that a large number of them live Kowloon-side. Regardless, we haven't seen any Indian restaurants that I can recall.
Like Wan Chai, Tin Hau is dotted with dozens of restaurants. Unlike Wan Chai, however, there is a greater variety of cuisine available and a bit more attention given over to decor and presentation in the restaurants, without, it seems the prices going up dramatically.
We passed three Thai places, two Vietnamese, a Japanese and two dumpling restaurants. There also were two Chinese sweet shops serving only dessert. One of them, Ching Ching Desserts, is noted for its cream of almond and black sesame soup. According to one blogger "It's like drinking marzipan . . . and could find its way onto the menu of any five star restaurant in the world but you can get a bowl in Hong Kong for less than three bucks. "
And all this -- including the usual Chinese fare -- in a three block stretch.
The place we're staying now is well-located. We are surrounded by restaurants (there is a Chinese hot-pot place just across the alley) and food stalls and there is both a grocery and a laundry across the street.
Each neighborhood we go to (and this is our third) I find something even more appealing than the last one. If things go as planned (and of course, the never really do) we will try at least one more neighborhood and perhaps two before we leave.
It's been a blast discovering all these things. Now I have 10 days or so here to take advantage.
It's posted in the MTR and the people here have clearly taken it to heart. There are lots of signs in the subway, and most seem to have little effect. There are the constant admonishments to hold the handrail on the very steep escalators. There are signs encouraging people to take the steps for "good health." But mostly, people pay attention to the request not to be in a rush.
I have a few city traits, like walking quickly to get to where I want to be. For some people, it's because they are late. But I only walk quickly in comparison to others here. People here mosey. They meander. It doesn't help that I tend to go out about 2 p.m., when everyone is finishing up their lunch hour so the streets are crowded. But they clearly are in no hurry to get back to work.
It's rather maddening. The streets are crowded and it's not easy to maneuver around people -- especially because they have this uncanny ability to sense when you are about to go around them, and then they move in that same direction.
There is a theory that things here are slow-moving, contrary to most great and cosmopolitan cities, because of the weather. I haven't tested it in jam-packed Central, home of bankers and expats and movers and shakers. But I am not optimistic.
It's just unexpected. I know that Mexico and the Middle East have "manana" cultures. But I'm not living there and trying to get something done. And, it seems to me, Acapulco and Hong Kong and Marrakech are worlds apart in more ways than one.
OK. I feel like I'm not explaining this well. Imagine you are in Paris or in New York. You are going about your daily business, trying to get to work or run errands and the city is filled with tourists who are gawking. They stop to look up at the skyscrapers, they stop in the middle of the street to look at their maps, to find the metro, to marvel at a window display. This is daily life in Hong Kong. The residents behave like this. It's crazy!
Even if I learn to slow down, which is probably healthy, there will still be people in my way. The security guard in the MTR who decides to stop right in front of the escalator. The old woman who zig-zags down the sidewalk. The hordes of people going nowhere in particular.
It's a subtle thing he does: Makes a suggestion for a way I can go outside. It always sounds so innocuous. Why don't you go take a walk on the beach? How about reading in the park? He does it in Long Beach, too. We both know it's a good idea, but I always need a little push to get out and about. He's been going out to Victoria Park to run a few times a week, and when he got back this morning, he suggested I spend part of my afternoon there. And I did.
It's two stops away on the MTR and as you walk into the park you can feel the calm envelope you. I'm not being melodramatic. The farther into the park you go, the more obviously you leave the city behind until you're so far in, all you can see outside the tall trees are the tops of the glass skyscrapers and mountains right behind them.
Inside, I found a bench in the shade near the jogging path and started to read. The benches with the backs were mostly in the sun, so I took one of the flat benches. There was almost nobody around. There are signs all around the path telling people the track is only for jogging. If you need to rest, you must get off the track. If you feel the need to walk slowly, you must give way and stay to the side.
There are policewomen/track watchers out to make sure people obey. On a crowded day they shoo the kids on skateboards, and the people who meander across, seemingly oblivious to the fact that people are actually trying to run.
Apparently, they are also the park bench watchers.
The park was pretty empty, mostly older residents strolling very slowly on the jogging path. The stray faster-paced jogger. An amah with a stroller. That's about it. And me. Reading quietly on the bench. On my back. With my feet on the bench.
Apparently that's not allowed.
I noticed someone watching me, and I sat up to see what was up. Once my feet hit the ground (I think perhaps this was key ... no feet on the bench?) The park bench policewoman smiled and said thank you. I felt properly chastened. But there were no signs. I think there are some things you're supposed to know. Like in France, you don't sit on the grass. Ever.
A little later I moved to a bench with a back on it, although the view wasn't as nice. People here in Hong Kong mostly leave me alone. I'm acutely aware that I'm different, but if they notice, they don't make it obvious. They just walk on past. I read for about two hours, rejoicing in the quiet leafy-ness and the incredible breeze that made the whole place feel so livable.
When I walked out (I'd had a disagreement with a bee of some sort) I knew what I was leaving behind, and the temperature change was palpable. It rose about 10 degrees as I came out of the greenery and walked onto the pavement.
You would think that feeding oneself is a pretty simple concept: I am hungry, therefore I eat. But I swear it seems more complicated than this.
Each night, pretty much, I venture from the apartment to find some dinner. Now we have plenty of grocery stores here, easy and convenient. But we haven't stayed anywhere long enough to build up a pantry. And in the current place we're in, we won't. We also have an oven (too hot!) and two electric burners, but that's it.
So when I want something to eat, it's usually far easier, and cheaper, to go out to one of the dozens of restaurants nearby than to cook something. I can get barbecued pork and rice, for example, for around $3.
We keep milk (which is very expensive -- about $2.50 a quart) and cereal and yogurt and bananas in the house, but not a whole lot else. That's fine for breakfast, and even lunch, but for dinner, I want something that's going to hold me most of the night, since I'm up until 7 a.m.
I also need something that I can eat cold, if need be (see kitchen limitations, above).
When I go out, I sort of have an idea in mind: The soup place below and next door, the new (to me) malaysian/chinese laksa place. Once, when I went to Kowloon side to pick up the keys to the apartment, I brought back Thai satay.
There are many choices, to be sure. But there are more places that offer unknown choices. I think the soup place also has real food -- there are picturse of vegetables (ok Chinese broccoli and kale, the only real vegetable available) and I saw the owner eating something that looked like fish and rice. But when I went there, they told me they only had noodles. The woman who runs the place doesn't speak much English, but maybe I'll try to ask for something else next time.
A majority of the small restaurants only have window signs in Chinese. The might have menus with some English on them, but then I feel committed and what if it's too expensive or I don't like it? (Although in reality, neither is likely.)
Tonight I ventured a little farther afield than usual, in search of barbecued pork and rice. (Last week I found the barbecued pork, and chicken, but it came without rice -- it was just a butcher stand, apparently). I went in a direction I don't usually go and didn't come upon a barbecued pork place (They are the ones that also have the barbecued ducks hanging in the window).
But I did find a Thai stand. I'm ordered Thai green curry. I asked for rice, and they seemed baffled as to why I'd want that. I just like it that way. I also picked up a bag of fried squid. That would have been tasty if it wasn't lukewarm and a little soggy. I may, indeed, drag out the frying pan and see if I can crisp them up tomorrow.
The curry has chicken in it -- parts, anyway. I think I found a foot. I don't really want to know what's in it, honestly. But it's very tasty. Although I don't see it keeping. I don't mind cold Chinese food normally -- the Yang Chow fried rice Paul and I like, filled with little bits of pork and egg and other things is just fine cold. But cold curry, not so much.
If we ever get into a long-term apartment, or are sure we're staying here longer than another week or two, I will buy oil and pasta and rice and spices. And a microwave.
And then, presumably, it won't be such a big deal.
After the whirlwind excitement of arriving here and rushing about reality is setting in: I am the trailing spouse and it's going to take some getting used to.
We've been here just two weeks, although it feels like a month. Some of my unease comes from a lack of routine. We still don't have a permanent apartment and are reluctant to settle in. More of my discomfort comes from the truly horrible schedule I have, working from midnight until 7 a.m. This requires me to sleep in shifts, because my body isn't capable anymore of sleeping past noon. So I sleep from 7 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m., then try to sleep again around 5 or 6 p.m. for another two or three hours so that I can stay awake until 7a.m. I start to lose it around 5 a.m.
If I were in Long Beach, the options would be plentiful: Go to the beach, ride my bike, go to the gym, catch up on errands, have dinner with friends. But here I'm at loose ends. I don't quite know what to do with myself, and probably won't until we settle on a place to live.
Paul has the luxury (as I see it) of going to the office, talking to people, meeting new people. I am at "home" stuck in an apartment the size of my living room and surrounded by people who don't speak my language. It's different than when I went to France; I was the one with the job there.
I know this will pass. I will look on expat websites and forums to search out others who are free during the day or evening, and I will try to create some sort of routine. But until then, I'm trying to keep a positive outlook on all of this. It's an adventure! We share a Saturday off! We can take a ferry to an island!
In Hong Kong, you are never far from the water and there are ferries in abundance to take you where you need to go.
We didn't need to go anywhere, but thought it would be amusing to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon side. Although you can cross from the Central district to Tsim Sha Tsui by MTR, the Hong Kong subway system, many commuters (70,000 per day) like the ferry because it is fast and efficient. And it is a bargain: 28 U.S. cents.
As we pulled away from the dock, which was manned by ancient mariners in World War II-style sailor suits, I thought of the last ferry I took -- from Newport Beach to Balboa Island. That one costs $1.
It takes less than 10 minutes to cross the harbor, and it reminded me that it wasn't all that long ago that there wasn't a tunnel or a subway and this was the only way to cross. The harbor has narrowed so much due to land reclamation and construction that it's hard to imagine that it was a major port. The whole reason it existed. England's crown jewel of the east and part of its storied maritime empire. And still, the ferry is the only way to get to the other outlying areas.
It was a charming way to while away a few minutes.
According to Wikipedia, the ferry's four routes carry 70,000 passengers each day
This is how the Chinese word dim sum translates in English. And on Monday at lunch, I did.
Paul and I have been tip-toeing around dim sum, little plates of dumplings and steamed buns, when we were able, but hadn't yet made it to a full-fledged traditional dim sum restaurant. A colleague invited us to join him for lunch at the famous Maxim's in the Hong Kong City Hall. It is described, by colleague Joyce Lau in the Herald Tribune, as "a rough-and-tumble Cantonese experience. ...There are no menus. Instead, Chinese women push around carts with steamed things in bamboo containers, and you order by pointing."
The restaurant is on the third floor and looks out at Kowloon side. The dishes are refined, and the tea cups have handles. The table cloths are starched and the decoration is ornate. It was a lovely, if sprawling, space.
All along I had had the feeling that there was a great dim sum secret that would only be revealed on this side of the Pacific. As it turns out, there was a revelation, just not the one I expected.
In fact, all the best dim sum has been successfully transported to California. San Francisco, the sprawling eateries of the San Gabriel Valley, they can do everything The Fabulous Hong Kong Maxim's can do.
Except replicate Maxim's fabulous view of Victoria Harbor.
We ordered from ladies pushing trolleys. Starting with rice-noodle wrapped vegetable dumplings and spring rolls and barbecued pork buns and continuing with lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice, beef balls, shrimp dumplings and pork dumplings. It was all excellent. But aside from the xiao long bao -- Shanghai-style soup dumplings -- I didn't encounter anything I hadn't already seen and tasted.
In fact, I saw less than usual. Whether this was because we were there toward the end of the lunch service or that this restaurant is popular with Western tourists, I don't know.
My family likes to go to NBC Seafood in Monterey Park, Calif., for dim sum on Sundays. We are often the only "Western" family there, among hundreds (the restaurant seats about 1,000) of Chinese families there after church. The ladies there speak less English than the ones at Maxim's and there is definitely more pointing.
But there are seemingly more options and more exotic things. Running closely behind the barbecued-pork char siu bao as my favorite dim sum is the spicy salted squid. I saw something that looked like pork rinds at Maxim's, and they had spicy cuttlefish -- what looked like squid tentacles. But that was the most exotic thing I saw. Not even any chicken feet.
My meal on Monday was excellent. The atmosphere is lively. But there was just the one thing that came by on the carts that was any different than what I'd had before.
Paul's colleague Mike, who took us, told us that unless we dine with people who speak Cantonese, there will always be things that are off-limits to us. He recounted a time at a well-known Hong Kong restaurant and said his meal was fine, but not exceptional. But when he brought a Cantonese-speaking friend along, the meal was superb.
The Chinese, he said, don't tend to order off the menu; they use it simply as a guide to start a conversation. "What's good tonight?" is usually the first question a Cantonese-speaking diner will ask. We, of course, are at a disadvantage and must rely on the menu, however limited it seems.
The fabulous thing about dim sum, though, is that we can see what's on offer, and come to our own conclusions about "what's good."
And it points out a more global concept: The U.S., with its immigrant populations, has ethnic restaurants on a par with the originals, I have come to believe.
We moved out of the hotel Thursday morning. We're staying temporarily at the home of a colleague who is out of the country and Paul blogs about it here.
While Paul was at work I spent the day sort of sussing out the neighborhood. We are in the district of Wan Chai, which is fairly vast. But I kept close to the apartment. I discovered three whole blocks of market streets selling everything from vegetables to live fish to hair barrettes and jade. I enjoyed it so much, and have a little regret that I won't really be cooking here. At least not in this apartment.
I tried to take photos of the live fish flopping. I know some people have issues with this -- live fish, not photos. I guess I don't put fish into the same basket, so to speak, as animals. I probably wouldn't be happy to watch a chicken get beheaded, but the whole fish episode sort of tickled me. Am I twisted?
After walking around for a while, I came away with an idea of what's available, but not many purchases: bananas and pumpkin seeds. (And have I mentioned just how amazingly good the bananas are here? I think they're from the Philippines, and I have no idea why they're better than the bananas we get at home, but they are.)
I also discovered a dim sum shop, a barber shop for Paul, a dozen different tiny restaurants and the laundry.
We don't have a washing machine in this apartment, so I need to send out the laundry. It is something I've heard of people in New York doing. It seems like an extravagance. But here, it costs between 26 and 30 Hong Dollars (about $3.50) for up to 6 pounds. That's a deal. I dropped it off at about 4 and it was supposed to be ready at 7 p.m. I actually don't mind doing laundry, but it would be a tempting option if I had it at home in Long Beach.
After that I made my way to the grocery store, Wellcome. I prefer the Park and Shop, but haven't seen one nearby. I think Park and Shop is more for Westerners. They have tons of imported things and more variety. For example, Paul discovered he likes vanilla soy milk, and Wellcome doesn't have it, although it has about 8 other varieties. I think he opted for soy milk in the wake of the whole tainted Chinese milk thing. (He now tells me he chose it because it's sweet).
I also made a stop at the phone monopoly PCCW, like AT&T I think. They handle phones and internet and television. I was concerned about getting an internet hookup in time to work, and had borrowed a start-up CD from someone at the IHT so I could use the existing broadband hookup in the apartment. Turns out I didn't need it.
By the end of the day I'd accomplished a ton, but was seriously overstimulated. I capped off the night late -- at 11 when Paul got in -- by going downstairs and next door to a hole-in-the wall restaurant for some dinner. I asked the woman for an English menu. No go. She offered me a variety of noodles. I stopped her at won ton noodles and ended up with a take-out bowl of soup.
Things I've noticed this week but probably can't write a whole lot about:
The elevators here seem incredibly slow. Soul-suckingly slow. And the buildings are tall. It takes forever to get to the 27th floor. This seems slightly less true in the newest buildings.
Chinese are, apparently, lactose intolerant. This means there's not a lot of cheese in the grocery stores, which is bad for me. There is milk, but more soy milk. There is yogurt, thankfully. But this is the really interesting thing: other products, like crackers, have extra calcium added, and advertised on the label. At first, I was thinking "Who wants to buy high-cal(orie) crackers?" My yogurt has "50% more calcium than ordinary yogurt." I guess to make up for the lack of dairy in the diet.
There are plenty of hairdressers here, but a surprising number of people have bad hair. Women and men alike have bad dye jobs with skunk stripes of gray on lots of people's heads. It's incredible. At first I thought perhaps since I'm in a non-Western neighborhood, that it's only my sense of vanity. Then I realized for the gray to show, someone had to dye the rest of it first ...
The yogurt comes with tiny fold-up spoons in the lid. This is very cool.
The MTR system is awesome. The trains are frequent and wide and air conditioned. So are the stations. So far, it takes me where I want to go; I don't know if this is true for most residents.
People in the neighborhood where I'm staying are in no hurry, no hurry at all. They mosey. Again, perhaps this is different in, say, Central, which is the hopping bank district. But boy, you walk down the street and not only are the people in front of you moseying, they're meandering. You can't pass them. An expat Brit we talked to the first night had a bizarre theory for this, suggesting people look down when they walk so they don't have to greet people they might know. Um, yeah.
There is no shortage of places to eat. This is a very good thing. Groceries seem quite expensive here, and eating out much less so.
Now these are just random, ill-informed, first-impression, been-here-all-of-a-week observations. Isn't it fascinating???
I've discovered a slight flaw in my plan to eat my way through Hong Kong.
It's rather insidious, actually. Or maybe that's not the word I want. How about naive? I didn't really think this through. I went from point A. Mmmmm, Chinese food!! Dumplings!! Street food!!! to point B. What else is there to eat?
The thing is, I'm discovering that I'm only familiar with a tiny bit of Cantonese cuisine, and precious little other Chinese cuisine. So when we go out, I order things that look familiar. We've gone out enough times that while I haven't ordered everything I know about, I've come close.
And the menus we see are vast ... So part of the problem, I think, is the language -- in two ways. First, the menus available in English are only a small part of what is really available. I know a lot of things fall under the "Not for you, Western eater" category. But it's more than that.
At the Nice Garden restaurant, where Paul and I have eaten twice, we have seen billboard-like advertisements on the wall, offering specials and dinners and all sorts of deals, it looks like. But when we get the menu, it's pretty small and straightforward. No specials. No deals. There are tanks full of fresh fish, but no seafood on our menu.
The second problem is my apparent lack of adventurousness. Do I really want to try pig knuckle and beef tendon? I've already made up my mind about chicken feet. And I'm not a big fan of tripe. And these are the things that are on the Western menu.
So I'm not sure how to proceed. Do I go to the little restaurants, ask for something generic (soup, please) and see what I get? In the little places, there are signs on all the windows but they are all in Chinese. There are dozens and dozens of dishes. I don't know what any of them are. I could point, blindly, and see what comes out. I'd like to go in and have someone just bring me food, knowing I'm a Westerner and taking that into account.
Today is the first night of my approximately four-month overnight schedule. Since it's Sunday, I'm easing in, starting at 8 p.m. instead of the weekday start time of midnight.
I have no idea how well this will work and I haven't really figured out the logistics. Do I just sleep late? Do I nap? Do I sleep until midnight, then work, then go back to sleep? The jet lag doesn't make things easier. I was on a perfectly nice schedule the first 48 hours and then bam -- sleepy at all the wrong times.
It's approaching midnight now and I'm four hours into an eight-hour shift. Paul is asleep and I'm at the desk in the hotel room. I've turned off the television and we're both in the dark -- which is good for him, at least.
I'm eager to get into an apartment, and a routine, so I can figure the best way to deal with this. We've been looking for a one-bedroom apartment, in part so one of us doesn't have to sit in the dark (or be very quiet). Neither of us makes a lot of noise, but it's the little things, I think. Even in our apartment in Long Beach, which is comparatively spacious, when one of us is sleeping the other will try not, for example, to use the toaster or the microwave. (The smell of toast would surely wake me, and I worry that the hum of the microwave will wake him)
In theory, once Paul starts working, he will get back around 10 p.m. and won't likely be asleep for another few hours. That might offer me some company in the first few hours, but I'll still be on my own for the next few. Tonight he fell asleep around 9 p.m. (it's tricky, because I have the only chair in the room ... he has to sit/lay on the bed or, well, that's it.) and I'm sure he'll be awake by 4 or so, just in time for me to go to bed.
And if we don't get into an apartment with internet right away? Then I'm looking at working out of the IHT office in the middle of the night. The logistics aren't supposed to be the hardest part of this job ...
So I mentioned earlier that Hong Kong is, in so many ways, everything I expected Beijing to be. It is very Chinese. If you didn't know it had been a British colony from the middle of the 19th century until 1997 it would not be immediately obvious.
Yes, English is an official language, but very few people speak it. In many neighborhoods, especially outside the financial district, there are very few Westerners. The open air markets, called "wet" markets because they are hosed down at the end of the day, are filled with butchered parts of animals and live fish in bowls and tanks and exotic fruits and dried mushrooms and assorted odoriferous unknowns.
I saw none of this in Beijing, which is striving so hard to be Western I wonder if it has lost all of its Chinese-ness, or it was just hidden for the Olympics.
Hong Kong blends the cosmopolitan with the Eastern. It's foreign and familiar at the same time. It's a huge, fabulous city with skyscrapers nestled between the hills on the island and old cobblers setting up shop on the sidewalk. I want to walk slowly to take in all the sights but there are too many places to look and too many things to see. (And too many people in the way, but again, another post)
Here, I know I am in China. There is no doubt. I don't know how the people in Hong Kong feel about this; there is a sense of separateness from China. Maybe they were an English colony for so long they believe they are different. But, far as I can tell, they are more Chinese than the striving and status-seeking Chinese in Beijing.
Did you all know I like dumplings? I think I might have mentioned it.
Hong Kong, so far, has been everything -- in so many ways -- that I had hoped Beijing would be. But this post is just about food.
In just a short time I've enjoyed Dim Sum of barbecued pork bao buns and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. I've had won ton soup with noodles and Singapore style noodles. We had gigantic mushrooms in sauce on top of Chinese cabbage. And seafood spring rolls.
And me without my camera.
An IHT colleague is a foodie and promised to take me for soup dumplings, which I first had with my friend Ursula at a Shanghainese restaurant in Marin. We have passed by tiny little shops with barbecued ducks and pork in the windows, and pictures of Dim Sum of every kind.
I'm trying to get to as many places as I can before Paul goes to work on Monday ... He'll be working 2-10 and right through dinner, and I'll have to fend for myself. If we have a stove (see previous post) I might cook, but groceries are expensive and takeout is less so.
After a little more than 36 hours in Hong Kong, we've already had a week's worth of activity and adventure.
Mostly, we've been playing the home version of HGTV's "House Hunter:" Will they choose the "cozy" (300 sq ft) apartment on a market street with a view of Victoria Harbour? Or the 2-bedroom Chinese-style, dungeon-like apartment in a warren of shops? How about the high-rise with a magnificent harbour view and the bathroom of a youth hostel?
We've seen eight apartments in two days and each one had at least one good thing about it ... and at least a half-dozen bad things. We will probably see at least two more Saturday, and have made inquiries about three others.
Space is precious here, and people build up, not out. Some of the apartments are devilishly clever -- fitting so much into such small spaces. Others are merely small. We hear the market is ready to dive, that prices are coming down and that everything is negotiable.
It was Saturday night, and I don't leave until Tuesday night. Those of you familiar with me, and this blog, know I'm a last-minute packer, and 72 hours doesn't count, even if I do have to pack for a four-month trip.
So I got to thinking about people who pack early and, moreso, people who unpack. Does everyone unpack as soon as they get back? Really? I'm preparing for the moment I look into my rolling duffel -- the one I took to Beijing -- and discover there's still a lot of crap in there that I never put away.
I'm sure I meant to; it's just so.hard.to.get.around to some things. Unpacking, apparently, is one of those things.
What is it they say? You have to crawl before you walk? Or unpack before you pack?
How did this happen, you might think? Well, we got back from China and a week or so later got an e-mail from the International Herald Tribune asking if we had any interest in going to Hong Kong.
I didn't think we did, but Paul said sure, let's look into it.
A week later, he was hired on a temporary contract as an editor for the Asia edition of the IHT and scheduled to begin Oct. 5. With the IHT you never know; sometimes things move slowly and sometimes fast. This time, it was pretty fast. About a week.
So, five weeks or so after we got back from Beijing we're headed to Hong Kong.
Well, I think that experiment worked pretty well. I managed to write without embarrassing myself, or even feeling all that self-conscious. And I was able to let people know about my trip without having to write 30 simultaneous e-mails.
The trip back was uneventful -- which is always good. We did some sightseeing the last day, but didn't make it to the Great Wall, unfortunately. Still too sick. Tried without success to have lunch near Tiannamen Square, but ran into language problems at the first place and time issues at the second. Apparently 2 p.m. is past the regular lunch hour, but the waitress was very apologetic.
We made it to Quan Jude for Peking Duck -- a restaurant known for the local specialty. I took some photos, which I will post to Flickr as soon as we hit September. Apparently my files were too large and I hit my monthly limit, so the Forbidden City pix and the Duck pix (oh, and the scorpion pix!) will appear on Sept. 1.
Now, I don't have anything else to say. Seems a bit self-indulgent to just write about any-old-thing that crosses my mind. Who cares?
I used to say, and believe, that I would eat anything -- meaning I wasn't a picky eater. Then I moved to France.
My friend Ursula started to keep a running list of things I wouldn't eat, pointing out that I was much pickier than I admitted. But I think by American standards, I pretty much will eat anything. In France the list of things I will eat -- and like -- is longer than things I won't and don't. I do like snails and whelks and foie gras and gesiers (gizzards) and all kinds of stinky cheese. I do not care for tripe or kidney or pig's feet.
The phrase I'll eat anything takes on new meaning in a place like China, however. Popular items in the Beijing night snack food market Donghuamen are things like scorpion on a stick and fried cicadas. I can say in all confidence: Not gonna happen.
But I was reading an article in the English-language China Daily listing all the less-exotic treats available in the snack district, and I don't think I'll be eating them either. Some popular snacks are glutinous rice cakes, cheese juice, flour tea, pouch-shaped baked wheaten cake, water-boiled sheep head mutton and jellied bean curd. Pass, pass and pass.
I know that a lot of this is cultural; my French friend Isabelle thinks Jell-O and pumpkin pie are disgusting. But I've never really cared for Chinese sweets, and when they're translated like above, I'm pretty sure I'll stick with the tried and true.
Maybe Chinese people think deep-fried Twinkies on a stick are unpalatable, too.
Almost everyone who already speaks a language thinks it's easy. Of course. If it was hard, you wouldn't be able to speak it. What I object to is trying to teach people by saying, "see, it's easy!" Aurora Carlson hosts a program on the international, English-language station of Chinese state television called "Easy Chinese." In it, she gives you an easy phrase to memorize and repeat in times of need. "Where is the bathroom?" "I need some medicine."
This is a better idea in theory than in practice. As someone who learned a new language from scratch, I can tell you there are two parts to communication. Speaking the language is one, but understanding it is the other. It does me no good to know how to say, in Chinese, "Where is the bathroom?" if I cannot understand the answer.
So you haven't just had me memorize the "easy" phrase: Wei sheng jian. I need to memorize the possible answers: To the left, to the right, down the street, past the McDonald's in the alleyway -- you can't miss it.
I appreciate what she's trying to do. But she relies on memory for sounds that are alien to most people, and has a teenager's "Come on!! It's so easy!!" attitude about it. She also demonstrates by writing the phrase in Chinese characters. It seems to me it might be easier to remember if she wrote in Pinyin, phonetic Chinese, so that non-Chinese speakers could at least try to picture the sounds in their minds.
I have settled on a compromise. I have learned to say hello (ni hao) and thank you (xei xei) and content myself with my efforts. Because there will always be answer that I haven't memorized.
Having just had a birthday, I realize that I am of an age where I think everyone is awfully young. Like doctors. And it doesn't help here, because everyone actually is young. Even the doctors. Or those who play them at the Main Press Center.
There is a volunteer medical office in the press center. I went yesterday because I was so awfully sick. Children of 19 or 20, it seemed, asked me questions. You have coughing? Fever? Flame? (turns out he meant phlegm ...) That was the pre-screening. They had me put a thermometer in my armpit. After the day I had, I thought that was gross.
I told them yes, I was coughing (and then I started this horrendous coughing jag and they needed no further convincing). Did the "flame" have color? One girl wanted to know. Did my head hurt? They huddled together and decided I should have antibiotics.
Are you allergic? No, I said. OK. They gave me two days' worth of amoxycillin, and some sort of pill to help with the "flame." It had no name on it; I have no idea what it was. Three times a day, after meals, the girl said. You got it.
I slept until Paul came in around 8, feeling pitiful. The coughs are body-wracking and deep -- not the scary, dry hacking cough I usually have. This one is worse. It makes people move away from me. I try not to cough on anyone. I feel like Typhoid Mary.
I haven't been sick like this in about 18 months; coincidentally, the last time I traveled abroad. I think I have created a sort of familiar-germ cocoon in California. I am at my house, my parents' house, my mother-in-law's house -- that's it. No public transportation, no 14-hour airplane trips, no recycled air conditioning with 5,000 coughing, hacking, sneezing foreigners.
With luck, I'll be well before I fly. If not, my head may explode.
Friday I visited the Forbidden City. I had hoped to do it Thursday, but torrential rains delayed me. Yesterday I was slowed by some sort of bug. But no matter -- I was determined!!
The day started off badly: I got three quarters of the way to breakfast when I realized I didn't have my credential. So, back to get that. When I arrived at breakfast, I was a little more than warm (probably feverish, too). I had some fruit, some dumplings, then off to the bus.
Some euro woman decided on the bus that it's perfectly nice summer weather and we don't need the a/c on in the bus. She makes that decision for all of us. Rather than putting on a sweater, the rest of us should sweat. Doesn't get why we would want it. I know this is a euro thing; I lived among them. And I'm even betting it's part of why I'm sick. But it's hot and humid out, and I sure would like the a/c on. No luck.
At the press center, I stop for a bottle of cold water and some Tylenol Cold at the pharmacy. I'm all set.
I decide to take the subway and walk from the MPC over to the station. This would have been a better idea if I had checked the Athletics schedule -- then I would have known I was trying to cross the street in the middle of the men's 50km race walk. On the upside, I finally got to see an Olympic event as the world's greatest waddlers streamed past. On the downside, did I mention it was hot?
OK. I manage to get past all these roadblocks, check my map and my guidebook ... two transfers and smooth sailing to the Tiananmen Square metro stop.
I had big ambitions when I left the hotel: I was going to hit the Forbidden City, then stroll over to Wangfujing street for some lunch.
I was coughing severely on the metro, and was obviously self-conscious about it. Bad enough that I'm a foreigner, but I'm infecting the locals. But nobody seemed to mind. I tried not to touch anything, but I was still embarrassed. I got a few stares, but mostly because of the credential around my neck (which is beginning to feel like a leash) and not because of the cough or the fact I'm not Chinese. We had been warned in guidebooks that the Chinese tend to stare a lot; I think they must have already had their fill. We are no longer novelties.
When I got to the metro, I asked one of the volunteers which way to the Forbidden City? Up till that point, things had been pretty well-marked in English. The volunteer gave me directions -- literally. Go through the tunnel and then north. Since I neglected to bring my trusty compass, I just blundered out of the station. I don't know north on a good day, and the since the sun was directly overhead, I couldn't exactly use that as a guide. (And if you know how to do this -- well, don't tell me.)
Given a choice of two options -- despite statistical realities -- I will almost always pick the wrong option. Without fail. It's uncanny. And, I did. My map showed the Forbidden City behind Tiananmen Square. But it didn't suggest that Tiananmen Square isn't really a square. Or at least I didn't grasp that. There are several squares, with museums and monuments and displays etc. I asked at least six more policemen where to go. One of them sent me the wrong way. I wandered for over an hour before I realized behind Tiananmen Square meant behind the wall. Where the big old Mao portrait is hanging.
So I did get to see a few more things. See photos here. But it's also hot. Have I mentioned that? In the 90s hot, with high humidity. One of the worst days so far, even though the air is relatively clear. All the women on the street have light-colored umbrellas, for the shade. There is no shade in this part of the city. None. People stand in each other's shadows for shade. I'm sweating like crazy. But I am determined (!!) to see the Forbidden City.
I finally go with the crowd toward the Mao portrait. It's pretty cool. There are soldiers everywhere, but most are unarmed. I take their pictures, and they don't seem to mind. I start to go through a gate, and show a soldier the words Forbidden City, in Chinese. He tells me to go the middle gate. There are so many tourists here and they are almost all Chinese. They can't be local -- not on a Friday afternoon. The ones who aren't Chinese are wearing Olympic garb -- athletes and coaches and journalists.
I get into, I think, Tiananmen Square. It is not what I thought it would be like. Behind the square is another square and another and this goes on for about seven squares. At some point (probably the second or third square?) I have hit the Forbidden City. I know this because they are charging admission. Because of my credential I don't have to pay.
By this time, I am so hot and so sick that I don't much care. I want to see things, but not with a lot of effort. I don't rent the audio guide, and I probably should have. There are random signs and my guidebook has an entry, but it's sort of a pocket guidebook, and so it isn't very useful.
The buildings are wood, they date to the 1400s, they have burned down several times, this was the imperial palace. Forbidden City in a nutshell.
I take lots of pictures. I don't know how to identify them, because, frankly, they all look alike. Everything is lovely, but not amazing. I don't know if this is because I am jaded, after living in Europe, or because it's hot and crowded or because it just isn't that spectacular. I think probably all three.
I have seen old things before: the ruins in Egypt are magnificent, with the painted walls and the carved hieroglyphics, the palace at Versailles -- which is certainly as old as the actual buildings here, and much more elaborate. I feel bad that I am not more impressed. There is nothing that makes me ooh or aah. I feel like a failure. A sick failure. That I can see something that is lovely enough to be on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sights and just say, hmmm, that's nice.
I like to think if I weren't deathly ill (as it turns out I was) and ready to die from sunstroke perhaps I could have appreciated it more. At least that's what I tell myself.
I skipped the lunch and shopping. I had no more energy, much as I wanted to explore the hutongs (alley-ways) of Beijing. I ignored all the rickshaw hawkers and walked toward what I hoped was a taxi stand. The sign said 50 meters. In addition to being bad with directions, I have no idea how far 50 meters is. When I tired of walking, I crossed the street to Jingshan Park, thinking there might be something to eat there, or a taxi.
There were loads of stores selling memory chips, batteries, sim cards and film. Not much food. Then, I didn't even care. I just wanted to get to bed. A run-down sort of man tried to help me flag a taxi. I was leery of him; in most countries people don't help you for no reason. I thought he would ask me for money. But he was just helping me. He was very nice, and I probably wasn't gracious enough.
The taxi took me straight to the MPC, and it was quick. Surprisingly so, since it took 35 minutes on the subway and the cab ride was fast and cheap back. My clothes were soaked, I had no voice and I could barely stand.
This is how sick I was: I went to the doctor. They gave me some medicine, I went back to the hotel and slept for 15 hours.