Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Deadly Frogger and Comfort Food

I think anticipation makes me a little crazy.  For example, whenever I land in a new place for the first time, I tend to be amazed that it doesn't look exactly like what I had pictured in my mind.  But of course what I picture is often insane.  When I first landed in Germany I was a trifle disappointed to not be immediately in the midst of gingerbread houses, not in the middle of rainbows and leprechauns in Ireland, not a Von Trapp in sight in Austria and was astounded to find that Cape Town was actually a city and that we weren't plunking down right in the middle of the savannah.  So I guess I shouldn't have been all that shocked by my introduction to Beijing.

My first thought upon landing was "I am going to be sick.  Violently and explosively sick" but that was mostly due to the turbulent landing.  Which ended up being a constant as far as landings went whenever entering that city's airspace.  Later, after clearing customs and baggage claim and all that other assorted airport nonsense I finally took my first steps outside and took a deep breath of the muggy air.  A few minutes later, the coughing had subsided and I wiped my streaming eyes on the back of my hand as I peered suspiciously at the heavens.  I don't know what I expected to see, a long thin dragon undulating by perhaps? but what I assuredly did not see was the sky itself.  What I saw instead was a thick milky cloud cover.  The sun was a wan disc hung low in the sky and particulate floated through the air like Phase I of a stealth alien invasion.  I smothered another cough, hailed a taxi, and after pulling out my printed sheet with the name and location of my hotel in Mandarin and getting a terse nod from the driver, we were underway.

I quickly learned that the traffic rules in China were slightly different than in the States.  For example, as far as  I can tell, you get a point every time you change lanes.  Bonus points are awarded based on how long you are able to drive in the shoulder before whipping across multiple lanes to rejoin the traffic flow.  It was during this first ride that I also learned that I was able to stuff my entire fist in my mouth.  I figured this out in an attempt to stop myself from screaming as we careened along the highway like a rogue pinball.  I managed to keep it down to a small terrified squeaking in between bouts of hyperventilation.  Finally, mercifully, we arrived at the hotel and I stumbled out of the cab.  As I tottered into the lobby I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the highly polished surface of the entry doors and prayed that the pale, waxy cast of my skin was a trick of the light.

The lovely, kind people at the front desk brought me a tiny porcelain cup filled with a chilled spiced tea and it did wonders for my mental state.  After getting up to my room I did my usual routine of taking out my small framed photo of Honey and putting it on my bedside table, punting my nasty traveling clothes across the room and using the requisite half bottle of shower gel to turn myself into a soap monster as I scrubbed the airplane funk away.  After wrapping myself in a fluffy towel and dragging a comb through the tangles in my hair, I sat down by the window and stared out at the Beijing cityscape.

There were a few buildings that had the sloped roof style that I associated with Asian cultures but most of the buildings were regular skyscrapers.  Later on, I would see that there really was a lot of amazing architecture in the city.  From a building shaped like a dragon, to a pair of pants, to a massive hard drive to one that looked like it was being squished by a giant robot hand, there was some cool stuff out there. But still, I couldn't see much of that right at that particular moment, it was only my first afternoon in town and I knew I was going to have to get out and walk around if I was going to stay awake.  The 12-hour time difference wasn't hitting me too badly just then, but all that travel was still tiring.  I stared out at the grey city for a while longer and watched the little bits of whatever float past the window.  And began to realize that during my time in China, I was going to be the absolute cleanest I have ever been in my entire life.  Because if I was constantly going to be out in the humidity and pollution I was going to be taking a minimum of three showers a day and lo, so it came to pass.

After putting on some fresh clothes I swung by the front desk on my way out the door where the following exchange took place:

           Me: So what's all that stuff floating around in the air?
           Front Desk:  Madam?  What stuff?
           Me: You know, the bits of things that look like fluff or snow or something.
           Front Desk: Ah, yes, that is just from the trees.
           Me:  ......the trees?
           Front Desk:  Yes, the wind blows the flowers off the trees.
           Me:  ........what trees?
           Front Desk:  ..........
           Me:  ...........

After the guy just stared at me in silence for a minute I finally just said "um, okay" and headed out.  Flowers, my ass.

There didn't seem to be much in my immediate area other than a Starbucks (of course) and a place called Sunshine Kitchen, which turned out to be a hot pot restaurant.  I ended up trying that a few days later and it was delicious.  But for today I wanted to wander a bit more and see what else was around.  I moseyed around the buildings and stopped cold on the sidewalk, struck by what I saw across the street. Molly Malone's stared back at me like a beacon of heavenly joy, a ray of sunshine through the smog.  An Irish restaurant?  Here, in the middle of Beijing?  Done and done.  Now all that stood between me and my lovely Irish food was about six lanes of traffic.  Sigh.

Here are a few things everyone should know about being a pedestrian in China.  First and foremost, you do not under any circumstances have the right of way.  And I'm not trying to be cute or funny about that, I mean you literally do not have the right of way.  There are so many cars and so many tourists that if cars were stopping for pedestrians the already insane traffic would essentially come to a grinding, cursing halt.  There are so many cars that you have to enter a lottery to even be allowed to get a car and that's AFTER you jump through all the flaming hoops to qualify for a license.  Even after you get your car depending on what number your license plate is you can only drive on certain days of the week.  And if someone turns you in for driving on an off day they get a reward so there's no trying to cheat because you will get caught.  

I also quickly discovered that the crosswalks were about the worst place you could try to cross the street.  Just because there's a green light doesn't mean boo if a car comes careening around the corner so it doesn't do to get lulled into a false sense of security there.  The best thing to do is just make a run for it.  And while I was fairly certain that I greatly resembled a frightened gazelle when darting across the street for the first few weeks, I soon got the hang of it.  That first day however, I decidedly did not have the hang of it.  After waiting quite a while for a break in traffic that seemed destined to never arrive, I darted out and frogger'd my way to the center line where I stood, panting and trying not to stroke out while cars whizzed by on both sides of me, missing me by inches and blowing my hair around in their wake.  I finally saw an opportunity approaching and broke my fear-driven paralysis long enough to dart across to safety.  I stumbled into Molly Malone's and collapsed into a booth, trying to keep my newly-found PTSD at bay.

After a few moments a server slid a menu in front of me and gave me an odd look before backing slowly away.  I gulped and raked my hands through my wild, car-tangled hair and looked at what they had.  In their defense, they DID have a few Irish dishes, fish and chips and cottage pie-type stuff.  They also had a number of Italian dishes as well as an astonishing selection of Japanese, Thai, Chinese (naturally), and Indian dishes.  Again, to their credit, they did have Guinness on tap, HOWEVER it was ten bucks a glass.  Now I value my Guinness quite highly and know that beer is more expensive in a bar than just buying a six-pack at your local market but STILL.  And so it was that when the waiter came back by that I ordered a German wheat beer along with what is probably my favorite dish in the whole world.  A dish that can be found seemingly anywhere you go and that is astonishingly hard to mess up.  Spaghetti Bolognese.  I love it so.  And that is how I ended up on my first night in China in an Irish restaurant, drinking a German beer and eating an Italian dish.  Hey, I'm nothing if not well-rounded.

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