Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Struggle is Worth A Thousand Words: Beijing Edition

Here's the thing about me: I'm a super creeper. When not challenging strangers to trivia contests and whiskey drinking races, I'm the person at the edge of the party, taking pictures, catching uncomfortable moments and suprise instances of double chins (a tragedy common to all but maybe Kate Moss, and I dislike her, so she doesn't win this one). And here's the thing about China, it's practically made for staring. It's like New York Fashion week, all kinds of crazy things are going on, everyone is wearing heels, and no one seems to have heard this rumor about "pants". You replace Anna Wintour with Chairman Mao and you are in business, baby. (By the way, if Beijing had a Fashion Week next year, you heard it here first. I'd say China would owe me money, but I think we all know how that nation feels about copyright laws...)

Anyway, considering that not only did I elicit looks everywhere I went, especially in Beijing, and will be included in more then one chinese family's photo album ( I'm not going to tell you the number, but I was asked to pose with quite a few smiling Chinese families and even had some solo photos snapped of me with various camera phones. I now know how Brangelina feels, obviously), I decided it would be perfectly socially acceptable for me to retaliate in kind. Turnabout is fair play, right?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sino-Strugglet Relations

Everyone talks about travel as an education. And by everyone, I really mean the people I meet who don't travel very much at all. They ask me what I'm doing and I tell them I've been traveling for the past year and they say, oh, how wonderful, what and experience, that's so amazing, I wish I could do that, and all of it comes out in the tone of voice that let's you know that these people would be lost like Gilligan if they ever ventured anywhere outside of Blackberry wireless service and Starbucks range. And while some people might then spend the time after that revelation wondering if they are a Ginger or a Mary Anne (personally I think I'm a Professor...) I decided that I didn't have time to invent a coconut radio, and so, phone-less (let alone Blackberry-less), and uncaffinated (I, well, I don't know how to order coffee in Chinese. It's an issue), I stepped out into the world. Or at the very least, into the China.

But of course, when you visit a major city in any nation, from Kenya to Kuwait, it's always going to be a little easier then anywhere else. The thing about cities is that they are magnets for people, for immigrants, for languages and for English Menus. Traditionally cities were built on major waterways, take, for example, Egypt, as evidence, or the Roman Empire, or however the Vikings made it past the frozen tundra of Scandinavia and into our hearts and minds. But a fun fact about Shanghai is that while these days it may be one of the two cities people can actually remember exist in China (The other one is NOT Hong Kong. Come ON people, is history just something you learn from The Tudors? Please don't answer that..), if you think back about 80 years ago or so, Shanghai was a one horse town filled with ex-pats, opium dens, and young ladies from the east who wanted to look more like they were from the west. These days however, well, I mean, subtract the horse, add thousands of cars, bikes, and poorly designed scooters, and, frankly, keep the rest of that definition, and you have Shanghai in 2010. And while Shanghai these days may be mad, bad, and dangerous to know, it's not so very different then it was less the a century ago. It's bigger, richer, and more important, but it's got no fewer foreigners (if anything, it has MORE), and it's still a place where a girl can get herself around and, despite more then a few misunderstandings, make herself understand. But you know where that's NOT possible? Beijing. Or to be more specific, it's not possible on the 13 hour train ride that connects Shanghai in the south to it's more northern facing counterpart, the Big Dragon. (I don't think anyone acctually calls it that, but I'm going to make it a thing. Spread the word.)

Now, given that the trip between these two cities is so long, and given that if you go to China, you go Great Wall or you go home (to be fair, you go home either way, the People's Republic isn't a fan of long stays, residence permits or anything that would keep subversive Western ideas like "human rights" or "seated toilets" in the country), one might think that the methods to get to Beijing from Shanghai would be large and various. Not so, my friends, no so, let's not forget, this is China,
and China is a country where they figured out the least efficient way to do things and just decided to model everything on that. So you can book a flight from Shanghai's Pudong airport, if you like, and you plan it in advance, or, if you want to be a complete struggle (which I obviously always do), you take an overnight train. In an ideal world such a train would be comfortable and reasonable, and you would spend the evening sleeping away as the countryside breezes by outside, unobserved and unsung. But this is not an ideal world, to be fair, and it's made an even less ideal one by a little thing I like to call the Shanghai Expo. The expo is supposed to be a cultural event opening the city to the world but what it actually is is a huge pain in everyone's collective buttocks, raising prices everywhere and, if in any way possible, actually making traffic worse. And it hasn't even offically begun yet. So I couldn't get a bed, and I settled for a seat, figuring, well, it's wouldn't be the first uncomfortable night I'd had in my life nor the last. How bad could it be, right?

Well, not entirely wrong, Bad would be a misnomer for my 13 hours spent in a seated position, clutching my bags on my lap to deter potental passport thieves, and confronting the stares of the entire train car. Amazed by my pure dazzleing differentness, my fellow passangers spent the entire long and sweaty evening watching my every move, some covertly, some blatently, all curiously. When one of the ventured to give me a hesitant "hello", my rejoiner of "hello" caused ripples of reaction spreading out through the car, possibly through the entire train. Maybe they were suprised that a white person had taken one of the cheap seats. Maybe I look wildly hot as I drool onto my seat cushion at 4 in the morning. I really couldn't say. All I know is, when I was awoken at 6am by the dulcet sounds of Chinese pop-power ballads and the call of the wheeled congee cart, the stares were still there. Oh, well, so was my passport, so I really can't complain. Every part of my body aching from the ride, my clothing and hair emitting the sweet odors of the chili-beef ramen and green tea that had been consumed by my seat mates during the trip, I finally found myself blinking in the hazy dirty light of the Beijing afternoon.

Better enjoy standing up while it lasts, I thought to myself, in three days, you have to get back on the train and do it all again. And this time, I reminded myself, you really need to try and dress better. Apparently people are watching.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Struggle is Worth A Thousand Words: Shanghai Edition

China is the future, people, and not just because it's at least 12 hours ahead of the Continental United States. No, China is the future because it's huge, inexplicable, the people dress like chaffing is something that happens to other people, and no one knows what the hell is going on. Ever. And if you've ever seen an episode of the Jetsons, I think you'll find this is pretty much exactly what we all thought the future was going to look like. OH! And everyone has a maid. So, yeah. Welcome to the future, hope you know how to eat with chopsticks, because they will MOCK you if you don't, and you wont even understand them, or worse, you will, and in your flustered embrassment almost knock over an entire box of sausage stuffed onion buns when all you wanted to DO was get a CUP of COFFEE. Or something. Not that I'd know.

And so if China is the future, Shanghai is the capital of what is to come. I had always hoped the future would hold jet packs and flying cars and mandatory silver uniforms to make my morning outfit battle easier. What a fool was I, therefore, to expect anything other then struggle. I'll say this for Shanghai, though, in the future, the struggle moves at the speed of light.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Struggle Gets Shanghaied

Let me tell you something you might not find surprising about the Peoples Republic of China. Now, to be fair, there are indeed many things that ARE surprising about this here country, it’s visa fees, the fact that you have to register with the police upon arrival, it’s curious lack of other ethnicities… but that’s enough of that (and people may be reading this, so…). And besides, when you go to visit your friend who has moved to China because of all “opportunities”(Hi Lisa!) because there just aren’t enough real jobs  at home, you have to expect a certain amount of crazy, if only because as a US citizen you don’t feel super great appearing in public in pajamas (one of those pesky little puritanical rules that sticks with you). But to return to my original point (feel free to scroll up, I tend to wander) this place is not easy to get to, and I will be more then happy to tell you just how not easy it can be.

Those of you who have been playing along at home will recall that my last port of duty was a small and remote little town that the locals call London. I spent a bit of time in this London place after my stay at the not-Yale that is Oxford, indulging in amazing Indian food with my friend Andrew (Hi, Andrew!) and watching amazing disturbing Italian melodramas  and dodging French tourist while staring at Mesopotamian artifacts in a British exhibition case. You have to love a post colonistic country, they have the best of everything. They should, after all, they stole it.

So, having watched the sun indeed set on the British empire, (and, to be honest, it looks like when the sun sets everywhere else. Please don’t tell India, Rushdie will be SO out of a job) albeit from the Gatwick aiport, I boarded a plane to Dubai, on United Arab Emirates Airlines. Let me tell you a new life rule, if you have the chance, ALWAYS, and if I didn’t make myself clear, ALWAYS take United Arab Emirates Airlines. The air hostess outfits alone make this trip worth it, but the combination of halfway decent food (the best you can hope for on a plane) hilarious safety demonstrations, movie selection and free booze make this trip the best that 15 hours with a stop in Dubai could possibly be. Having done my best in my 3 hours in the Dubai airport to marry rich (hung out in the duty free, helped several asian tourists buy cigarettes, left without a ring, you tell me the modern age has no great tragedies), I boarded another plane to Shanghai, and after an addition few hours (or 8, or 9, or so…) I finally reached the beginning of the Silk Road, from whence all raw materials begin. That is to say, as western visitor, I couldn’t help but create my own sphere of influence. In other words? How do people who are not from China look at China in anyway other then predatory? Our money, for the time being, is worth more, and this is indeed the place to buy, to buy whatever you want, whatever you can conceive, whatever is made by hand it made in China. You can’t get a glass of wine here for a reasonable price, and bread is like some kind of precious gem, but silk made gowns or slippers, ceramic bowels or rubber shoes, cotton, linen, hair ties and glasses, rugs and watches, fake designer, well, whatever, shoes, ties, bikes and wallets, my friend, you want these things for cheap? You want these things from China. And darlings,  let’s be real, these things from China? I’m buying them.

Today, Lisa and I, and by the way, this Lisa character I keep talking about? She is a saint. She speaks this lingo (and who else really does, I mean, a pictogram based language? COME ON), and, well, we went to a fabric market. I had, at Lisa’s recommendation, brought a favorite blouse of mine to get remade by Chinese tailors. We picked out a few bolts of silk (as once does in China) and bargained (she bargained) the saleswoman down to the lowest possible price to get things tailor made for me in what seems to be the garment district of Shanghai. I am now, by the way, the proud possessor of a bathrobe, 5 boxes of cookies and 3 imaginary but assumed shirts. I really think this is how I’ve always imagined China to be. Irresistible, but full of imaginary things. Let me assure you, this is not untrue. Come to Shanghai. It’s worth the Struggle.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Strugglemobiles

Traveling, my friends, is not without it's downsides. Sure you see exciting things, catch interesting diseases, take some nice pictures and meet, well, let's just call them characters, why don't we, because anything else is just offensive (and indeed it WAS offensive to meet such people, but mostly just, you know, for me). But the issue that I find most troubling about travel is the element George Carlin discussed so often in his work, and that's the issue of stuff.You see, when you travel, whatever else you might be experiencing can be totally over shadowed by your concern about your stuff. Where is my stuff? Is my stuff safe? Did the nice man I asked to look after my stuff while I go to the bathroom steal my stuff? Or, if I took my stuff to the bathroom with me, how do I get my stuff, which weighs exponentially more the longer I carry it around, back up that flight of stairs? Am I missing any of my stuff? Did my stuff get lost somewhere between Berlin, London and Guam, and, in fact, is my stuff going to be used by a small indigenous tribe living in South America for bartering? Are they mocking my underwear? How dare they mock my underwear! Are they going to separate my whites from my colors when they wash my clothing? These are, in my opinion, the primary questions of humanity, not who am I or does God exist, but where the hell is my luggage, and how to I get it from point A to point B.

Now, this has been one of the primary issues in my mind for the past few months, because the more you travel, the more you accumulate, and the more anxiety you have. For example, I'm currently sitting in a dorm in Oxford's Magdalen college (Thank you so much Anna, and for those playing along at home, that's pronounced Maudlin, because the Britsh have never met a word they could completely alter via pronounciation, I attribute this to their envy and rivalry with the French, but that sort of talk could get me burned alive here, so keep mum, wont you?). I'm surronded by my stuff, which has, against all odds, arrived here in the United Kingdom intact. This is, in fact, quite an accomplishment, and here is why:

In the last two days I've taken 6 trains (including metros, tubes and s-bahns) one bus, one plane, and one taxi, all so I could get to a place that, well, looks almost exactly like the university from which I recently graduated. I traveled from Hamburg to Berlin by train and S-Bahn, and then, after a delightful day in a blissfully warm and springy Berlin,  at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning (can you believe there are people who actually work at that hour? That's barbaric!) I made my way via train to Berlin's Shoenefeld Airport (thank you, EasyJet, for all your cheap orange wonders, your ridiculously archaic flight attendant outfits and the fact that you charge extra for everything but the BATHROOM). Two hours in the air saw me sleeping on the shoulder of a nice young British man who was too polite to make me move, and after the Luton immigration officer determined that I didn't seem like a likely person to wire bombs to London Bridge (fooled HIM) I was off again, boarding a bus, a train, the tube, another train, and a taxi (which terrified me by driving on the wrong side of the road, it's better just to shut your eyes when you come to this country and think longingly of interstates) all so I could get to Oxford. I suppose in the long run that was the easier option, apparently I saved myself from something called the A Levels, which is how young British people get themselves to this school, so being out some 20 pounds sterling or so and a few hours of the day has to be an improvement on that, right?

Of course, my next major move is going to be a 15 hour flight (give or take three hours in Dubai, anyone want a Porsch from the airport?) from Gatewick to Shanghai Pu Dong. Consdering all of the things that could happen to my stuff in the meantime, this past day and a half was gravy. At least when I'm here in Oxford, I sort of speak the local language, and, after all, I know where I'm going, I've been here before. Sort of.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Das Struggle

When I was but a young struggle, innocent and naive, filled with the flush of youth (so, you know, two years ago) I spent some time in Russia, eating blini and pilmeni and looking for a motivation, as one does. And during my time in the artist formerly known as the Soviet Union, I had to take a film class on Russian cinema, which was very good, very bad, and now is very good again, because such is life in a system in which the FILM watches YOU! But of the good and bad and straight up bizarre Russian cinema I watched every Saturday morning for three months while outside, you know, snow happened, one of my personal favorites has to be The Fall of Berlin. Now, this is not a good film. This is in fact a terrible film, it's cliched, it's pure propaganda, and every single person in the movie is in love with Joseph Stalin, girls, boys, farm animals, everyone. But despite the fact that this is terribly acted, directed and filmed, and believe me, it is, this movie is just hilarious. Leah, you ask, how can a Soviet propaganda film, made after the Great Patriotic War, featuring one of Stalin's favorite Stalin impersonators (you read that right, he had several), a love story between a steel worker and a teacher (a marriage of labor and education), which portrays Hitler as a crazy McCrazy, Eva as a ho and a half, and the United States as a German ally be hilarious? Well, did you read that last sentance? Um, yeah, I think I just explained it perfectly. Picture "Springtime for Hitler" but without the irony. Yes, that's it. What's not to love?

So why am I bringing this up now, one might ask? Well, here's the thing, strange as this may sound, whenever I think about Berlin, I think about this movie, which, at the very least, is just SO unfair to Berlin, and more then a little weird for me. But in just two days time I'll be leaving the peaceful and beautiful city of Hamburg for busy and bustling Berlin for a night, which I'm expecting to be just the way it is in another propaganda piece, though this one is less beef borsch and more apple pie.

Now, if you ask around, most people who come to visit Germany don't look to Hamburg as a vacation destination. It's famous red-light district is more slimy then sexy, and since some boy band played here back in the 60's it hasn't exactly been the center of the music world. But the truth is that Hamburg is a graceful and interesting city, and the wealth it's citizens amassed during Hamburg's heyday at the end of the last century means that the city hall is a gaudy gorgeous little overcompensation for whatever was lacking in the lives (and pants) of Hamburg's then prominent merchant class. Moreover, Hamburg  to this day remains a shopper's paradise, and if the exchange rate didn't cause me physical pain you can bet I'd have accumulated enough for a second suitcase by now. Sadly I've had to restrain myself to art postcards purchased at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg's Expressionist-heavy art museum. And, you know, some H and M. What? I have needs!

So I will indeed be sad to say goodbye to Hamburg, but I can't say I'm not excited spend a day in Berlin. After all, I've had hamburgers from the best. I can't help but be excited to be a jelly donut for a little while.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Brief Essay on the Northern Renistruggle

Italy talks a good game (and when it does, it soundsa likea thiiis) about the renaissance being a purely Italian innovation.   Who needs Albrect Duhrer and early Franco-Flemish development when you have Michelangelo, Raphael, and a whole host of other crime fighting reptiles? So in the grand scheme of History (it deserves a capital letter) most people who don't look too closely will find themselves ignoring Holland and it's troubled little cousin, Northern Belgium.

But see, here's the thing, such people are fools, FOOLS I tell you! Because there was a lot going on in Northern Europe at that time, and, despite a few odd wars and modern architects (hard to say which is deadlier) it's still pretty great to see. While painting a chapel might get you some press in the southern countries (and, really, you want some painting done? I know like five painters, reasonable rates, and they aren't going to take YEARS to do it, come on), the north has seen such a back and forth of will-they-wont-they Catholicism that walking through a town in Belgium is like walking around with an argument between Martin Luther and St. Peter on your shoulder. And while the rest of the world might still be waiting with bated breath for those two crazy kids to work it out, as a member of the chosen people, I'm just enjoying the ride. The wild and crazy, Hieronymus Bosch themed ride. (Oh yes, that's right, while the South is carving out a statue and getting all excited about the stars or whatever,  Bosch is busy inventing new ways to be crazy and scare children in the process. Beat this, Di Vinci)

This is not to say that Flemish Belgium today feels like it did 500 years ago. Back then, a walk around Flanders was all about decrying the Reformation, avoiding the Plague and burning the Jews (because it was believed that they had magically created the plague. We can't catch a break, I swear). Today Antwerp is all about chocolate, fries, Thai food, castles, and taxing the Jews, given that we are the major diamond cutters and polishers in that part of the world (and while it might seem like an upgrade from burning to taxing, I wouldn't be so sure...). But while the culture might have changed, the city itself honestly doesn't seem to have altered at all.  And it's not just Antwerp, either, it's Bruges and Ghent as well.  These three towns resemble nothing so much as medieval Disney World. Seriously, I kept expecting to see rides along the lines of "Ye Olde Torture Rack" and signs for "Buye one, Save Thy Immortal Soul for Free!", and I walked extremely fast through the cobblestone streets (pathways) of each city because I couldn't help feeling like once you stop you are likely to be hit in the face by falling midden. Of course, I somehow doubt they had Burger King and H and M five centuries ago, though I can't be sure, never underestimate the power of corporations.

As charmingly feudal as Northern Belgium was, and believe you me, any place that looks like a Renaissance Faire just threw up all over it is bound to be charming, it was something of a relief to return to Holland, and to move from Holland to Germany, which is where I am now. Honestly, that much history was giving me a headache. Luckily, I wont find any of that here in Germany, right? RIGHT?