27 December 2018

Beyond the Wall, my book on a Polish and Soviet adventure available on all Amazon sites.


My latest book:

Beyond the Wall:

Adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle

Beyond the Iron Curtain



has just been published and is available on all Amazon sites.



Description:

1980: the Cold War between capitalist West and socialist East is in full swing. Tensions are high but, at the academic level, some channels of useful exchange remain open. The author and two classmates would join one such program linking a leading American university and its counterpart in Poland. They drive to Warsaw in a bright yellow VW Beetle and, in addition to attending classes, travel far and wide within the country as well as to several of the neighbors in the socialist bloc where the Soviet Union called all the shots. They drive across the USSR and visit the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the division of Europe. Throughout, Marco takes detailed notes of what they see and hear.

Almost four decades later, the East-West division of Europe is gone. Marco recently found his diary and decided to publish an expanded version of it. His written notes from 1980 have been enriched with descriptions and analyses of historical events that will help the reader see his personal experience in a more significant cultural, social, political and economic context.

The author hopes this real life story will help younger generations, who did not live through the Cold War, better appreciate the blessing of living in a European continent that is immensely more open, rich and free than it was then.

17 December 2018

Skiing in Cervinia and Zermatt

15 December 2018

Sled-dog in Cervinia

01 October 2018

National day in Guiyang

Today it's China national day, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. It is the beginning of one week of celebrations in the whole country.

We take a walk in the Culture Park. Lots of families, and quite a few children, many waving Chinese flags.

Chicken paws

We celebrate in the evening when we have dinner with family and friends. The main curiosity of the day is pig intestine, at least for me, they are used to it of course. Also, duck paws and melt-in-your-mouth breaded pork cutlets. To finish off the meat dishes, some frogs! Everything delicious!

Pig intestine



The men are drinking considerable amounts of distilled alcohol, 4 of them share a bottle. O. empties the bottle into their 4 glasses and then they make various toasts and challenges to each other until it's all gone! (It does not take very long!)
Drinking away

O. says he wants his son to marry a girl who has an older brother so he can protect her. But he wants his daughters to marry men with older sisters who would then help their younger brothers set up their families. It is a bit convoluted but his reasoning has its own logic from a traditional point of view. Good luck! These days Chinese kids find their partners online and I doubt the gender of their siblings is an important part of their decisions.

30 September 2018

Massage and herbal bath

They opened a new massage parlor near home. It is the second branch of a company we tried last year. They offer a broad series of treatments, they sell beauty products and they complement it all with a herbal bath in a hot water tub.

It is located on 12th floor of an apartment building that includes lots of modern shops and, at the ground floor, one of the biggest supermarkets in town.

I am surprised to see this kind of service in a town at Guiyang's stage of development. Is it a sign of gentrification in the area?

The masseuses are all ladies, no masseurs. There are several rooms, each with one or two massage beds and, in an en-suite bathroom, a wooden tub. The tub is lined with a thin transparent film and filled with hot water. A bag of herbs is sunk into the water an hour or so before the treatment so as to diffuse its scent through the water and the whole bathroom.

Before the treatment they offer tea. The masseuses are mostly little skinny girls but they are very strong. They massage especially hard massage at the base of my skull, which is a bit painful but I can feel the muscles and joints enjoying it.

At the end I feel great my joints are smooth, my muscles relaxed and a big red area on my back, along my upper back, demonstrates the energy the little girl has put in her hands as they pressed and slid along my spine.

More tea is provided at the end of a blissful hour and a half of treatment.

As I leave my masseuse and two others escort me to the elevator, I thanked them and asked if they were hungry for lunch now and they nodded in unison, and wave goodbye.

The subscription for this parlor is 3988 Rmb for 20 treatments no expiration date. It is not cheap, actually very expensive for local salaries (about two months' wages of a waiter) but they are in business and expanding, and there are no tourists in the city, so the only explanation is that there is a growing middle class who is eager to use this kind of services!

27 September 2018

Grey day and wedding

Grey day at home working on the English edition of my Maldives book.

Mother in law and niece went to a wedding of some neighbors from Yan Jia village who are throwing a party in Chenzhou.

We had decided to go for lunch to a Korean restaurant in town, one of many new restaurants with foreign food which are open for business trying to attract the up and coming local middle class. Been there before, but would love to go again, look forward to some different kind of food. However, the clouds and especially the cold drizzle eventually act as a powerful deterrent and we decide to stay home.

Mother comes back with plastic bags full of of food, left overs from banquet: fruits sweets even a half kilo or so of delicious spicy prawns. It's the custom here: invitees to wedding receptions take home their share of leftovers. She said they took away the least compared to everyone else at the party. Some parents unabashedly tell their children to grab as much as possible as fast as possible!

24 September 2018

Festival della Luna a tavola

La festa del "mezz'autunno" lunare. In pratica coincide, con date variabili di anno in anno, approssimativamente con l'equinozio d'autunno solare.

Dopo il capodanno cinese è la festa più sentita, più partecipata in famiglia, anche se non si vedono le migrazioni di massa bibliche del capodanno. Ci viene a trovare qualche parente, ci si scambia qualche invito con i vicini.

Gran pranzo a casa, tutto cucinato fresco: il giorno di mezz'autunno è proibito mangiare cibi cotti precedentemente. Niente minestre riscaldate!

Si pasteggia con l'alcol fatto da mio suocero facendo fermentare patate dolci. Colore ocra gialla, profumi di mele e pere cotte di media intensità, mediamente secco, ed equilibrato al palato, e di media lunghezza anche se non molto complesso.

Piccoli bicchierini per tutti, tranne ovviamente la nipotina e mia suocera che ultimamente non beve alcol, non ho ancora capito perché. Tocca a me, il genero, come uomo meno "senior" di versare a tutti. Poi brindo, con il Jian kang! (Alla salute!) di rito, facendo attenzione che il bordo del mio bicchiere tocchi il lato del bicchiere di mio suocero, quindi sotto il bordo del suo bicchiere, in segno di deferenza.

Se provo a bere un sorsetto senza brindare a mio suocero (mi capita, anche perché sono quasi sempre inevitabilmente tagliato fuori da ogni conversazione in dialetto hunanese) mia moglie mi redarguisce e devo subito rimediare. Idem se il bicchiere di mio suocero resta vuoto e io non lo rabbocco all'istante. Per gli altri commensali basta brindare una o due volte nel corso del pasto. Comunque mia moglie è paziente, non si scompone troppo e mi continua a rammentare di rabboccare.

Il "vino" di prugna è una novità, ma devo ammettere che con il cibo medio-piccante che preparano i suoceri si abbina alla meraviglia. La morbidezza del resto, me lo hanno insegnato all'AIS, anzi è stata addirittura una mia domanda all'esame da sommelier, è la migliore amica del piccante.

A pensarci bene è un po’ come tra due innamorati, lei morbida e delicata, lui piccante, leggermente aggressivo ma pronto ad arrendersi e farsi avvolgere dalla seduzione.

Solo alla fine, quando non si beve più alcol, l'ultimo brindisi è preceduto da un Gan bei! (pulisci il bicchiere!) che indica l'impegno a svuotare completamente il bicchiere, fino all'ultima goccia.

Chissà perché, una volta che tutti hanno fatto gan bei, si comincia ad aggiungere riso al vapore nei piatti. Non ho mai capito la ratio di questa consuetudine anche se ho chiesto ripetutamente. Forse, ma è solo una speculazione, quando una volta c'era poco da mangiare a tavola, prima si finivano i cibi nobili (carne, verdure) e poi, se si aveva ancora fame, si riempiva la pancia con il riso. Che comunque non era necessario finire, poteva aspettare nella pentola fino al giorno dopo. Forse un giorno scoprirò se è veramente così.

A fine pasto mio suocero tira fuori anche un distillato, sempre prodotto dalle patate dolci. Pungente all'attacco, ma con finale morbido, si sente quando scende in gola. Ne prendo un assaggio, dopo vari bicchierini del fermentato non vorrei trovarmi sotto al tavolo.

Ma nessuno si può alzare da tavola senza aver provato il liquore di prugna: semplicemente prugne affogate per qualche mese in alcol puro, al quale cedono il loro sapore. Un goccio e mi fermo, il gioco si sta facendo pericoloso!

23 September 2018

Market n. 2 in Guiyang

Morning to buy food for the lanterns day celebrations at Market n.2, just a kilometer or so from home.

On the way I cross paths with a lady who is carrying a balancing basket. She is collecting paper and plastic bottles to sell back to commercial recycling companies, apparently a common activity here.

Lots of sellers of ducks line up the streets today, it is the traditional moon festival meal. All the ducks, of course, are sold alive and kicking in their reed baskets.

One lady buys a duck but she does not trust the seller's scale, so she grabs her animal  and asks the next seller down the sidewalk to weigh it, not sure how it turned out but she bought the duck, 30 Rmb, about 4 euro.

The market is very busy, meat fish (always alive in water tanks) veggies of all kinds. Large quarters of cows are hanging from the roof of the covered market, and the butcher slices off any cut and size his clients require. On one side, a man with a grinder produces the typical spicy chili paste that is so common in Hunan cuisine.

As I snap away a policeman approaches me and Lifang and explains he doesn't want me to take pictures of his police car, which I haven't done and have no interest in doing anyway.

 A little girl drinks fresh juice out of a plastic cup then throws cup on ground, I pick it up and try to show her to hold on to it until she can put it in a bin but her mother takes it from her and shows her how to throw it... on the ground! I give up.

At home mother in law has bought a duck, which is swiftly slaughtered in the bathroom, fairly quickly and effortlessly. The blood flowing from the neck is collected to make bean curd and then used in a soup. It's very delicious!

22 September 2018

Train from Hangzhou to Chenzhou

Grey sky drizzling. We pack our stuff check out of the hotel and are off to station with an ever reliable didi car.

At the station we are welcomed by a very crowded waiting hall, lots of people going home for the mid-autumn day celebrations.

Lifang goes to get the tickets she has booked online while I wait in line to check-in. I've got all our suitcases and proceed with some difficulty. It's all the more difficult because the wheels of one suitcase are broken, so I have to drag it. But instead of helping me people try to jump the queue and get ahead of me. I manage to keep them behind me and make slow progress.

When she's back we go through to the waiting room a huge hall with thousands of people waiting for their train. From here batches of  travelers are admitted to the platform in the order of departure of their train.

Lifang manages to buy some bananas and processed duck meat for the trip, we've skipped lunch after all. I like the boneless duck bums especially!

The station is quite impressive. Electronic boards show the next 3 or 4 departing trains: red letters and numbers when you need to wait, yellow when you need to get ready and green when the gates (which look like those at the London subway) are open. We slip our tickets through and take the escalator down to the platform.

Then it's time to take position at the color-coded marks on the ground which indicate where each car will stop.

When the train arrives and stops with millimetric precision where it is supposed to stop I'm pleasantly surprised to see departing passengers patiently let arriving travelers off the train first!

We board and struggle to find a place to put our luggage, the aisle is so crowded.

We're off at 300+kmh through Zhejiang province toward Hunan. We barrel through fields of farms, many towns and cities where modern tall and thin residential buildings contrast with old traditional houses.

Too many screaming Chinese children on train, parents could do better to calm them down. Or not. Half the passengers are listening to their favorite TV program or playing a video game online, and not one of them is using earphones. the result is a somewhat less than enjoyable persistent monotonous and loud cacophony.

Once we get to Chenzhou we need a taxi (or Didi) to Guiyang. There is a taxi stand by the station, the fare is 100 Rmb. We try and get something cheaper but end up wasting time with an unofficial taxi before calling a Didi and getting home for dinner! Lesson learned: you may save a few Rmb by using unofficial and/or pooled transportation, but it's probably not worth the hassle!

21 September 2018

Temples in Hangzhou

After breakfast we take a trusted Didi car to the old city street, then walk up to the Dongyue temple. As soon as we arrived and walked inside the temple it started pouring cat and dogs. Not so convenient for walking around but it made for a picturesque scenery and it cooled down the air.

Three ladies are silently practicing tachi by entrance to the temple, completely oblivious to our presence.

The temple is from the Song dynasty and it contains Tao figures from before tang dynasty as well as big paintings celebrating inauguration of an emperor of the dynasty. We spend quite a bit of time looking at pictures for details. These celebrations lasted 67 days and cost 8 million yuan which at the time was an enormous amount of money.

The highlight of the day is our visit to the temple of the Soul's Retreat. It is a huge complex of several temples. As we walk in past the electronic ticket check we are greeted by a long series of Buddhas carved in the stone of the adjacent hills.

In the first temple a couple paid the monks to get their blessing. It was not their wedding, that had been done before, but a kind of enactment of a ceremony that to my untrained eye looked like a wedding. The groom is dressed very casually, just a cheap t-shirt really, while she is a little bit more elegant, but still no wedding attire of any kind. The monks, some thirty of them, gather at one corner of the temple and recite their mantras while the couple make an offer to a small altar lit by a few candles.

They then move to centerstage for more blessings and some drum playing by the monks.

We finally go outside with them and place incense sticks in a large bronze cauldron by the back door.

We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the huge complex. I can't see any foreign tourist, though there are many Chinese visitors, including quite a few pilgrims.

In one building we find a traditional writing desk with brushed and ink for people to try their calligraphy. More interestingly, there is a set of traditional robes and hats, for man and woman, for any one to try on for free. There is no one to be seen so my wife and I take our turns at dressing up and posing as a traditional Song dynasty family!

I rang a huge bell after reciting some vows.




Dinner is back at Grandma, this time we share a table with a couple of middle-aged and rather large Chinese guys who keep ordering more food than they can possibly ingest. That seems to be a recurring trait in upscale restaurants in China. Maybe they do it to show off, I am not sure. Maybe the sudden abundance of wealth and food over the last few years still needs to be matched with a culture of avoiding waste.

19 September 2018

Hangzhou: Confucius temple and pork intestine

Large temple dedicated to Confucius near our hotel. I am almost the only visitor or maybe just three or four couples share the quiet air conditioned rooms and courtyards with me

There is a large collection of Stèles inscribed with figures of wise men and confucian texts. Many have been heavily damaged over the centuries but have now been meticulously restored and preserved. A serene place that I am sorry to leave.

I reflect how this is in stark contrast with the way that treasures were treated in recent past when doing the cultural revolution the red the guards destroyed with abandon anything that had to do with ancient Chinese culture.

Later took a walk around the west lake shore. I sat down and absorbed the landscape on a bench by the water. Lots of Chinese tourists and and all the German or French here and there. it is very hot and humid otherwise I would have taken a ride on one of the gondolas that ferry tourists around the lake.

I have lunch at the Grandma restaurant, which served all kinds of enticing food whose pictures were printed on a large menu together with the English translation . Today I went for green peas and braised intestine of pig. Peas are not that different from how we would prepare them in Italy, sweet tendency. Intestine is tender, a tad on the rubbery side but not chewy. It melts well in the mouth with minimal effort.

When I was finished the waiter presented the alipay barcode to me to pay electronically which however I could not do it. I am not allowed to open an Alipay account without a Chinese identification. I will have to look more into it as I have seen Alipay used outside China. So I have to pay with cash which made me look very much XIX century. Everybody else paid with their phones. I am not sure they even take credit cards I haven't seen anybody using credit cards in China these days except perhaps at big hotels. It seems China has leapt forward from cash to electronic payments via mobile telephone, largely skipping the credit card era together.

After lunch I walked around a bit more and then made it back to my hotel just in time before the heavens opened up and a heavy downpour put an end to my explorations for the day.

18 September 2018

Il "Lago occidentale" di Hangzhou di sera


Stasera Lifang è andata a cena con un'amica che non vede da qualche anno. Una collega insegnante con cui è rimasta in contatto dopo aver lasciato la Cina tramite l'onnipresente Wechat, l'incredibile app cinese che fa le funzioni di Whatsapp, Facebook, Paypal and Instagram tutte insieme.

Io ne approfitto per una lunga passeggiata sul lungolago, che sarà pure considerato un posto turistico ma è piacevole, tenuto bene e comunque frequentato anche da tanti locali. 

Che poi non ho mai capito quelli che dicono che quando viaggiano non vogliono andare dove vanno i turisti, come se loro fossero esploratori. I turisti fanno parte del paese che visitano per il tempo che ci si soffermano, dunque stare in mezzo ai turisti è comunque visitare il paese. Anzi, evitare i turisti è una finzione, come quelli che quando fotografano cercano sempre di inquadrare come se non ci fosse nessuno intorno a loro. Sono foto false.

Una volta ho discusso con un sedicente fotografo viaggiatore che a chiamarlo turista si offendeva. Andava a Roma per la prima volta ed era fiero di dirmi che avrebbe evitato il Colosseo, San Pietro, la fontana di Trevi ecc. Mi disse che voleva vedere la "vera" Roma. Gli dissi che quei luoghi erano la vera Roma da secoli. Se poi avesse avuto tempo anche per andare a fotografare le borgate, i quartieri popolari, gli angoli nascosti, , benissimo. Ma se fosse ripartito senza aver messo piede a Piazza di Spagna non avrebbe potuto dire di aver visto Roma.

Per tornare al Lago Occidentale, col buio si accendono le luci e l'atmosfera si fa tiepida, un po' umida, ma una lievissima brezza rende l'aria piacevole ed invitante alla camminata. Per me come per migliaia di locali e di turisti cinesi provenienti da tutto il paese-continente. 

Dopo un po’ mi siedo su una panchina e guardo il flusso ininterrotto di umanità che scorre liscio lungo l'acqua nera, disordinato ma disciplinato. Nessuno parla a voce alta, nessuno butta niente per terra.

Ci sono alcuni ristoranti dall'apparenza piuttosto tristanzuola, menù striminziti, aspetto sciatto e qualche cantante con le cosce bene in vista ma  la voce stonata che in teoria dovrebbe attirare clienti. Senza molto successo, i locali sono vuoti. Evito. Torno invece da Grandma, una sicurezza, do mangio ancora benissimo e sono sempre l'unico a pagare con i soldi, tutti gli altri con il telefonino e WeChat.

Ci sono tanti negozi di lusso: Cartier, Rolex, Hermes. Grandi negozi sfavillanti. E pieni di gente. Non so quanti di loro poi effettivamente comprino, ma è chiaro che di denaro ne gira. Entro da Cartier e faccio finta di voler comprare un anello per mia moglie, tanto per farmi dire i prezzi da una delle commesse tirate a lucido. Prendo nota e dopo, online, verificherò che i prezzi sono anche più alti che in Europa. Ma i cinesi comprano.

Ammiro alcuni padiglioni sul bordo dell'acqua. Ci sono sempre le "coppiette" di versi scritte sulle colonne. Scatto qualche foto per potermi poi far tradurre i caratteri da Lifang. Una recita:

The Spring is long on the lake with the greenery and the plans you get drunk

Un'altra:

Everybody is saying that this pavilion is beautiful and when you stand in front of it you can feel it energy right away

17 September 2018

Suzhou to Hangzhou by fast train, tea ceremony

Rainy morning in our hotel, we decided to take advantage of the luxurious facilities, we have not used them much these days, always busy visiting. The saunas, steam room, and swimming pool were pristine and inviting. After absorbing some heat in the first two I headed for the pool. There is no one around even though the hotel is rather full.

In fact there is someone around: the lifeguard, who looked kind of bored on top of his high chair until he approached me and said something that I did not understand but then pointed to his head and it was clear he wanted me to wear a swimming cap. Most pools require that in China these days. I tried to explain in my broken Chinese that I am completely bald, and rubbed my clean cupola with both hands to drive the point home. He insisted a couple of times, pointing to a sign on the wall that made it clear it was mandatory, but I insisted even more and in the end he smiled, climbed back up his high chair, and left me alone.

In the afternoon we take a trusted didi cab to the station, but when we reach the modern building I realize I forgot Lifang's necklace in the hotel's safe, even though she had asked me twice to check the safe before check-out. Now, if I had forgotten to check, that would be bad. But I HAD checked, and still forgot the necklace, so that made me feel even worse. Leaving it behind was not an option, this was a special one I had bought her in New York.

But my wife is not someone who gives up easily. She almost got upset, but regained her cool quickly and while calling the hotel, she told me to wait and stay put with both eyes peeled on our bags while she rushed back to the hotel. She made it quite fast and found the necklace, but we now had another problem. We would have missed out train, and we had a dinner appointment with one of her former English students in Hangzhou tonight. It would have been regrettable and impolite to cancel.

No worries: on the taxi back to the station she changed our reservation to a later train, though this one would depart from another station, so we had to rush across town with the local underground, which was slightly stressful but we made it! Just before boarding we even managed to grab a bit of black pepper beef and pork belly with white rice.

The train ride was smooth, the new CHR (China High-speed Rail) trains are quiet and very fast, over 300km/h. The passengers however do not always meet expectations one has on such luxury service. Most people are either on their cell phone, or streaming videos, without earphones, or both at the same time and at high volume. Some passengers even smoke though it is strictly forbidden!

In the end we made it on time to meet our friend, who took us for a tea ceremony in an upscale teahouse by the West Lake. here is a short video. He was a soft-spoken person, a manager in a large automotive company who said little but always made a lot of sense. He quoted Confucius to us: "Is it not a pleasure to have friends visiting from afar?"

In Chinese 有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎? (yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bú yì lè hū?)

16 September 2018

Suzhou garden and merchants

Mattinata al famoso Giardino dell'umile amministratore. Sito Unesco come patrimonio dell'umanità, è un immancabile punto di riferimento di ogni visitatore della città. Architetture tradizionali perfettamente restaurate, bacini d'acqua con pesci rossi enormi, verde lussureggiante ovunque.

Un cartellone ci informa che ci sono state anche 9000 persone qui dentro a visitare questa enorme casa che proprio tanto umile non sembra. Oggi però siamo solo 1600. Nonostante l'affollamento si respira un'aria pacifica, l'atmosfera resta serena. Fa molto caldo. La prossima volta spero di venirci la mattina presto, appena apre, con meno gente e aria fresca.

Quando abbiamo finito chiamiamo un Didi per andare a casa. Didi è l'equivalente cinese di Uber, anzi ha rilevato Uber in Cina due anni fa, pagando con azioni. Pare anche sotto pressione politica, infatti in queste settimane Didi ha annunciato un programma chiamato "Volante della bandiera rossa", che vuol dire promessa di assumere qualche migliaio di autisti membri del partito comunista. Non solo, ha promesso anche di metterli in evidenza nella fila per l'assegnazione delle corse, dando priorità rispetto agli autisti che non hanno la tessera del partito. Non proprio un criterio meritocratico. Ma per ora funziona benissimo, lo usiamo spesso. Costa poco, sono di solito puntuali e gentili, o almeno più gentili degli autisti dei taxi. Per esempio aiutano con le valigie.

A quel punto si avvicina un taxi e ci chiede dove vogliamo andare. Al che ci offre la stessa tariffa di Didi, quindi accettiamo e cancelliamo la prenotazione Didi. Mentre ci porta in albergo si lamenta della concorrenza di Didi, proprio come i tassisti romani si lamentano di quella di Uber. Però, a differenza dei colleghi romani, i  tassisti cinesi si rimboccano le maniche e affrontano il mercato che cambia. E soprattutto, a differenza dei tassisti romani, conoscono le strade e sanno usare il navigatore.

La sera, dopo cena, a spasso per gli ampi spazi dell'albergo. C'è un grande negozio di giada e antichità, il proprietario ci offre forti sconti, dice che vuole liquidare tutto e aprire un ristorante di "noodles", si fanno più soldi. Per finire la serata andiamo a fare una passeggiata per una delle vecchie strade "hutong" restate a Suzhou. Anche qui entriamo in un negozio di giada e antichità e, sorpresa: il proprietario ci offre forti sconti, dice che vuole liquidare tutto e aprire un ristorante di "noodles", si fanno più soldi!

15 September 2018

Suzhou colazione, seta e perle

Al nostro albergo scendiamo per colazione ed un bel tavolo accanto ad una luminosissima finestra sul giardino è libero. Facciamo per prendere posto ma arriva un cameriere che ci dice che il tavolo è riservato, così come un altro tavolo accanto. Sono i due più bei tavoli del ristorante. Io/ mi sarei pure accomodato altrove, ma naturalmente Lifang non accetta la spiegazione, insiste e alla fine il manager cede e ci fa accomodare al tavolo.

Mentre facciamo colazione noto che almeno una dozzina di altri clienti dell'albergo provano a sedersi al tavolo con vista n.2, accanto al nostro, ma vengono tutti cortesemente allontanati dal manager. Nessuno osa contraddirlo come ha fatto Lifang. Sono fortunato ad averla come moglie, per tanti motivi, cui oggi si aggiunge quello di poter fare colazione al miglior tavolo dell'albergo! E comunque, durante l'ora abbondante in cui ci siamo gustati l'ottima colazione al buffet, nessun cliente con la "prenotazione" si è presentato al tavolo accanto al nostro, che è rimasto vuoto. E nessuno, manco a dirlo, ha reclamato una prenotazione per il nostro, di tavolo! Chiaramente era una finzione, non c'erano prenotazioni.

Probabilmente il manager tiene i due migliori tavoli liberi senza prenotazione, in caso si presentasse qualche cliente notabile, qualche suo superiore, oppure, verosimilmente, un dirigente del partito comunista. Non ho prove di questo, ma so che succedeva spesso nei paesi comunisti dell'Europa orientale. Ai ristoranti come al teatro, qualche posto veniva tenuto libero per i grandi capi, just in case...

Solo vero la fine dell'orario di colazione, mi pare fossero le 10.30, quando il buffet stava per chiudere, ad una coppia di tedeschi ritardatari fu acconsentito di sedersi all'agognato tavolo con vista vicino alla finestra!

Oggi saliamo su un piccolo bus per fare un giro guidato della città. Non è il mio modo preferito di viaggiare ma abbiamo poco tempo e per una prima infarinata della città si può fare.

Prima fermata al "Lingering Garden". Giardino tradizionale cinese ben curato e preservato con strutture in legno e sculture in bronzo di notevole interesse.



Ripartiamo per il fiume e sul bus la guida parla ininterrottamente per 45 minuti. Nessuno lo ascolta, tutto sono presi a chiacchierare o guardare i loro telefonini, ma pare qui sia usanza - mi è capitato varie volte -  che la guida comunque parli senza pause, soprattutto per fare pubblicità a prodotti commerciali. Ogni tanto fa qualche osservazione sulla vita di coppia (mi traduce Lifang) si come vivere serenamente insieme per tanti anni. Non so come faccia, quasi non respira, parla velocissimo senza pause per tre quarti d'ora.

Anche sulla barca, stessa cosa. Una guida che accende la bocca e non la spegne per tutto il tragitto, cercando di vendere qualche cartolina o souvenir che fa vedere e poi lanciando qua e là alcuni patetici aneddoti sulla città, che Lifang mi traduce ma che risparmio al lettore! Qualche volta fa una risatina per le sue proprie battutine, ma nessuno dei passeggeri reagisce in alcun modo.

Mentre scendiamo un funzionario della compagnia di navigazione, con tanto di mostrina che legge, a scanso di equivoci in inglese, "Chinese Crew", come se qualcuno potesse avere dubbi, cerca di venderci mazzi di carte da poker. Vai a capire.

Ci fermiamo per pranzo in un ristorante sulla strada. Un grande locale pieno di locali e turisti cinesi, mentre non si vedono stranieri. A giudicare dai profumi che provengono dalle cucine dovremmo mangiar bene. Ordiniamo un menù completo da 35 Rmb, ma la cameriera ci dice che non c'è più, esaurito. Invece ce ne propone un altro da 108 Rmb. Lifang naturalmente sente puzza di bruciato, ci sono quintali di cibo ti tutti i tipi che escono dai pentoloni, stanno solo cercando di farci spendere di più, e ce ne andiamo. A pochi passi c'è un altro ristorante, simile, e qui prendiamo un menù da 35 Rmb. Infatti i cibi sono identici al precedente, forse sono la stessa azienda. Riso con ortaggi vari ripassati al wok e un pezzo di maiale all'osso in salsa appena piccante, ottimi!

Il "museo" della seta in realtà, manco a dirlo, è un meganegozio. Ci fanno una dimostrazione di alcuni minuti su come si coltivano i bachi e su come si tesse la seta, e  poi via al negozio a cercare di vendere. Bellissimi Copri-piumino, lenzuola e federe per cuscino in seta liscissima, molto invitanti, tra i 4.000 e gli 8.000 Rmb. Se compri il copri-piumino ti regalano il piumino!

I prezzi non sarebbero male se confrontati all'Europa, ma Lifang decide di non comprare. Potremo acquistare online, sui siti per grossisti, risparmiando e con consegna a casa nostra! Il commercio online ha decollato alla grande in Cina, anche se i siti sono spesso solo in cinese d dunque non ancora mirati ad una clientela straniera.

Stessa cosa alla vicina "fabbrica" di perle. Cinque minuti di presentazione dell'allevamento delle ostriche perlifere e della loro lavorazione e poi via ai banchi dell'immenso negozio, che si sviluppa su vari piani.

Perle per gioielli di colore bianco, grigio e persino oro. Poi creme di perla per la pelle, maschere facciali per rendere liscia la pelle a base di perla, polvere di perla (non mi ricordo a che serviva) e per finire... dentifricio di pasta di perla! Con la madreperla invece tanti oggetti, quello che più mi ha colpito è un cucchiaio per massaggiare.

14 September 2018

Treno per Suzhou

Oggi ce ne andiamo a Suzhou in treno.

Stazione nuova e ben organizzata, tranne che per i controlli di sicurezza, che sono organizzati qui, come in tutte le stazioni ferroviarie cinesi, e persino in molte stazioni della metropolitana delle grandi città, sul modello di quelli degli aeroporti.

Solo che a differenza di quelli degli aeroporti qui a Suzhou le guardie non prestano alcuna attenzione a quello che passa. La suoneria non scatta mai quando un passeggero che attraversa il cancelletto a rilevatore magnetico, nonostante non ci abbiano chiesto di toglierci le cinte o le scarpe, o di levare dalle tasche oggetti metallici. Anche i bagagli vengono infilati in una grande macchina a raggi X e qualcuno butta un occhio stanco sui monitor, ma nessun bagaglio viene controllato. Speriamo bene.

La novità oggi sono i massaggi automatici in sala l'attesa, 20 Rmb per 20 minuti su una comoda poltrona nera dentro alla quale si agitano meccanismi misteriosi che producono colpetti di piacevole pressione, a sorpresa, su varie parti del corpo, soprattutto schiena e gambe.

Ma sono i treni che sono impressionanti. Arrivano puntuali, a pochissimi minuti l'uno dall'altro, e all'avvicinamento di ogni convoglio il relativo numerino sul tabellone diventa prima giallo poi verde e via giù tutti al binario a mettersi in fila ordinata davanti al punto, preciso al centimetro, dove è indicato che ci saranno le porte quando il missile si sarà fermato.

All'arrivo prendiamo le camere nel bell'albergo Pan Pacific costruito nelle mura della città vecchia, fa parte dell'antica muraglia adesso, dormiamo dentro un pezzo di storia.



E poi via nel giardino/museo Pan con la torre di Ruiguang, adiacente, con la carta magnetica della stanza l'ingresso è gratuito. Tipico giardino cinese, rigorosamente dotato degli elementi essenziali che ogni giardino deve avere: uno o più ponti, una pagoda o a volta una struttura architettonica alternativa, una roccia con cascata d'acqua in un lago, (i pesci rossi nel lago sono un optional quasi obbligatorio) e molti fiori, tra i quali non manca mai il loto nel lago.













13 September 2018

Shanghai Museum of Music Boxes and opulent lunch

 

A remarkable personal collection, about 120 years old, now open to the public.

It is not among the most widely advertised attractions of this megacity, but it is well worth looking for in the Science and Technology Museum in Pudong.

music box museum we'd been told in Singapore, similar size but the experience is not as good. the young lady doing hourly tours does not know much, looks bored and cuts corners in her presentation. Here is a video of our visit.

 

We can also admire a 1750 "first": a singing birdcage, where an air pump pushes air through a flute to imitate a bird's singing. The bird has been constructed accurately, 250 parts in all, and covered in real feathers!











Some drawings and projects of music boxes complete the collection.

Too bad the museum is left in the hands of a bored and boring girl who makes a dull presentation, what a contrast with the enthusiastic older man who showed us the Singapore museum!

Today's lunch is at the "Ark" restaurant 2nd floor of a grey concrete building, like many others. Restaurants in China are often not at the ground level, like in Europe, but higher up. Someone told me it is because Chinese patrons like having their own private room, only for themselves and their friends, away from the prying eyes of others. And of course no windows on the streetside! 

(On the other hand, doctors’ and dentists’ practices are often at the ground level, with large windows so that anyone passing by can almost literally look straight into the mouth of a patient while a tooth is being drilled.) 

Large samples of Shanghainese cuisine, meat, and seafood, not spicy but intense flavors. 

A few memories from the huge menu ordered by Qinlong: Shanghai baby eels, garlic oil pepper spring onion, fried fish, turnip, pork ribs, crab meet with crab roe, in whole orange with orange pulp and prawn,

Then, shanghai bun with sweet minced pork and crab and a pot of chicken, ginger, leek, with chicken stock lept warm in a pot on live fire which the waitress placed smack in the middle of our table.


Following the above, asparagus with Tofu and "century egg", a chicken egg that smells from a kilometer away after it has been treated and "aged" for not quite a century but a few weeks and up to month or two.

All washed down with a drink of fermented sweet potatoes, rice and barley, just 11 abv, easy on the palate and well paired with the food. 

I still preferred a mildly bitter but round and consistent local beer. 

This was quite a treat by Qinlong, and although he is not a local in Shanghai by any means, he is from Leiyang like Carrie, but he works here and therefore considers it a sacrosanct duty to treat us to impress us. But I am sure he is genuine, he likes us and we like him, that was clear at his wedding a few months ago.

A walk in the beautiful "Century Park Garden" ends the afternoon with warm sunset rays that pierce through the thick branches of the tall trees near Century Square near the metro stop where we will catch a train to the hotel. 

walk to subway station nearby, have to be careful with electric motorcycles, can't hear them coming! all motorcycle are electric haven't seen a single petrol engine on two wheels the whole time since I've arrived in China.

electrification moving forward fast, they're building xxx nuclear power plants in addition to..... 

The Chinese planners are pretty good at building lots of cement, steel, and glass structures in their new cities but also much green space, and plant many trees all over the place.

Quite a few dogs without a leash, the Chinese are picking up a bad western habit.

Evening at the hotel's spa, we are not hungry after Qinglong's huge lunch and so skip dinner. In the pool, a child is learning to swim, still unusual in China, where most people, including divers, do not know how to swim.

Then we go to the famos Peace Hotel jazz bar and drink a good Belgian beer ! It is an old group made up of old players. They have been playing for 38 years, ie ever since they were allowed to play again after the death of Mao in 1978! 

They play tunes from 1920 and 1930s, with a female vocalist for most of the program. Their sax player is the best, the others look tired, even bored. Some of the music we hear still got energy to it, some less. The bass player is 87 years-old. I am thinking: on one hand it's great he's still got energy but he's really just pinching one or two strings, not moving either hand, his notes are almost imperceptible. Maybe it's time he gave room to a younger player


12 September 2018

Zhujiajiao, a "Venice" of China


Today we take the metro from Shanghai for this special village. Good system, the trains run frequently and are comfortable and, unlike the subway stations, are air-conditioned. The ticket one way is 8 Rmb (1 euro) for a longish ride, I did not keep track of time but maybe one hour.

Comfortable and fast ride, only waited a few minutes, trains are quite frequent. One reason the trains are comfortable is that the A/C works well, which cannot be said for the stations where it feels a bit sticky.

While we wait for the trains I notice some lines on the platform, which mark the place where people should stand in a queue to board, after having let passengers get off first. The train comes to a gentle halt a few seconds after a polite voice announces its arrival  in Chinese and English - but it does not say "mind the gap!" No one stays in line, most people rush for the door without worrying about passengers who try to get off. I recall much more disciplined tube riders in Singapore and Hong Kong...

Zhangjiajie is a small village which now lives of tourism, there are myriad restaurants and souvenir shops everywhere, but it does still have a charming atmosphere. And lots of canals, for which is it often referred to as the "Venice of China" One of the Venices of China actually, the most well-known one is Suzhou. How come every town in the world with a few canals has to call itself "Venice"?? Anyway, true to its nickname, there are no cars, not even bikes; just canals and stone bridges.

When we get out of the subway station it's just a short walk to the old village, but an entrepreneurial middle-aged man approached us and offers a ride on his tricycle to "the heart of the town". He expects a tip of course, but this is much less than the cost of the ticket we would have to pay to enter the historic center of town, an attraction in and of itself.

The first thing I notice once we are on our own is gondolas. They are not nearly as elaborate and impressive as those in the real Venice, but still, they do take tourists around the canals for a picturesque view of the village from the water. For a fee of 80 Rmb per boat, not per person, we get less than 10 minutes, a rip-off as bad as the real Venice, luckily we share with 4 others. Never mind.

Of course, like for everything else, Lifang pays for this with her omnipresent and seemingly omnipotent Wechat pay app. She has yet to use cash once since we arrived in China. I am the only one to do so it seems, I feel so old!

Lunch at a quaint restaurant by the water. Lots of different dishes, I loved slightly spicy fresh-water snails and chicken paws.


 


We don't have an internet connection but the waitress sets up a mobile Hotspot and all Lifang needs to do is to scan the restaurant s bar code and we're done! sometimes a shop will scan her barcode, on her phone, same thing...

Shopping is interesting, we find a small workshop that sells cotton embroidered shoes made by a local shoemaker, 250 Rmb for a pair. Very comfortable and you can only buy them here. he says he does not want to sell online, I wonder why. Maybe he does not have enough to satisfy online demand and cannot scale up. The shoes are pretty, comfortable and affordable.

Dinner by the main bridge. A nice table by the canal. The owner is quite loquacious, he comes over and is quite willing to spend time with us. Perhaps because I seem to be the only tourist around, at least the only non-Chinese tourist. He said the restaurant has been around since 1938, and his family has always lived upstairs. He also worked also during the Japanese occupation. Unline most Chinese I meet to he does not seem to feel much resentment toward Japan. Not anymore anyway.

After the Communist victory in 1949, his family was no longer allowed to run the restaurant as a private enterprise and they all got jobs as workers or employees in the public sector.

in 1998 he lost his job, thought about what to do with the rest of his life, and as he had some money saved away the following year reopened the restaurant in the same location where his father had it before. This is one of the few times we paid with cash, we're offline somehow!

Dinner is big black seashells stuffed with pork, bizarre pairing but it tastes good, a strong flavor yet not spicy! Shoots of water bamboos, fried chicken to complete the menu.

Partly because of the tasty portions that kept landing on my plate, partly because I enjoyed listening to the stories of the owner, and perhaps most of all because of the romantic setting I was enjoying with my wife, especially after they turned on the amber lights of the bridge, suddenly we realized it was getting late and we risked missing the last subway train back to Shanghai.

Easier said than done. It is actually difficult to exit. First, some threatening barking dogs blocked the way to "Exit n. 1", which is the closest to the subway station. Slightly worried, we rushed to "Exit n. 2" on the other side of town but from there we would need a bus to the subway station.

Exit n. 2 was not easy to find. We asked many local people working in the shops for directions, it was the end of the day and business had slowed down, some shops were beginning to shut down. Still, they were all busy with their phones and we had to insist every time to get their attention.

When we finally got out of the old city we waited at the bus station but no bus materialized. By now clearly worried we might have to spend the night here, Lifang asked a couple on an electric motorcycle and they pointed to another bus station a few hundred meters away. When we arrived we're the only passengers for the lonely bus in the empty parking lot, the last of today. The driver sat casually in his office playing with his phone. He said we needed 1 Rmb per person to buy our tickets: cash only! No cards, no Alipay, no Wechat pay. It must be the last place in China to require cash.

Well, we are in luck, I thought, as I pulled a 10 yuan note from my wallet. (Lifang did not have any cash, I think she has not used any in China for the last decade.) But no, the driver does not have any change. I was ready to give him 10 yuan for 2 yuan worth of tickets, of course, just to get out of here, but this would have meant being overcharged by 400% and Lifang would not countenance that option at all.

She ran to the last car in the adjacent parking lot as it was leaving and asked them to change our bill, but they did not have any change either. However, they did give her a 1 yuan coin. She thanked them and pointed her open hand (the Chinese never use the index finger to point at someone or something) to me, and said something along the lines that it would have been nice to take her husband back to Shanghai as well. So the generous car driver gifted us another coin. 

How generous! In my limited experience, the Chinese usually are not so generous. I've never seen anyone giving any change to a beggar in the street. Maybe that's one reason why there are not so many beggars, it's not a good use of their time on the street.

Or on the subway for that matter. When we finally reached the subway and caught the very last train to Shanghai, we saw a musician walking along the train car playing a strange kind of clarinet but no one gave him any money at all.

11 September 2018

Shanghai museum and French concession

An impressive museum, I remember seeing it exactly 20 years ago and it was even more impressive then, maybe because it was new and brimming with cutting edge museum technology.

I remember being amazed by soft lights illuminating ancient calligraphy only when a motion sensor indicated a visitor was in front of the exhibit. At any other time, the display's lights were off, saving energy and, more importantly, helping to preserve the fragile paper and colors.

Lots of priceless pieces from all branches of Chinese art: bronze, painting, calligraphy, porcelain, jade and furniture. A must for any visitor to Shanghai.

Evening at the French concession. At first, it was not easy to find. We got to the general neighborhood by didi and then asked around, but no one knows even when we're walking just next to it.

Some luxury homes reveal themselves inside a gated community, security guards don't pay much attention and we can sneak in to sit down and enjoy the gardens on a bench, eating fruits, and breathing what the atmosphere must have been like a century ago when French administrators and businesspeople lived here.

We later walked around the main area of the concession, with lots of European style pubs and restaurants. Not especially French really. We found it by following the long lines of lamp posts that are reminiscent of Paris, or at least the gas lamps in Paris of 100 years ago as seen in movies.

Most locales have tables outside but almost every patron is a chain smoker so we decide to give it a pass. It's now, of course, mostly Chinese who come here for a drink and a smoke, though still, quite a few foreigners are to be seen.

We ended the evening in a modern bar with a band from the Philippines. A lady vocalist is quite talented and keeps pulling down her short black tube dress that risks revealing her most intimate parts every time she moves her hips with the music.

When she stops playing we try to get a taxis back to hotel but every time they want to overcharge us. There must be a kind of taxi cartel, the same cars keep driving around the block in the hope (certainty?) to pick up a drunk western tourist or expat and charge whatever, without turning on the meter at all. They ask us 100 Rmb (about 12 euro ) and we refuse, it's a total rip off. It's late and there are no didis available, strange...

Lifang proposes to move out a couple of blocks and magically the first taxi that we flag down welcomes with a smile and charges by the meter (25 Rmb). the driver is a fine elderly man, polite and respectful. he says he is ashamed of his colleagues who try to take advantage of foreign clients. taxi drivers stories identical pretty much the world over.

10 September 2018

Giardino e food court a Shanghai

Visitiamo il palazzo, anzi i palazzi del giardino "Yu", costruito durante la dinastia Ming intorno al 1560 e poi distrutto nei secoli durante successive vicissitudini belliche e sempre ricostruito. Tradizionale architettura cinese: costruzioni in legno con il tetto a baffo, bacini d'acqua brulicanti di pesci colorati, statue, ponti.





Dopo la visita, giustamente affamati, andiamo in un enorme "food court", non so bene come tradurre questo concetto di un enorme ambiente, su più piani, con dozzine di ristoranti indipendenti al suo interno. Frequentati da locali come da turisti, giovani e anziani. Il tutto generalmente abbastanza economico e sempre molto informale.

Mentre mia moglie va a comprare il pranzo (delego a lei questi giorni, ogni volta è una sorpresa) prendo un tavolo e mi siedo a guardare i famelici avventori che mi sfilano davanti. Tutti sempre molto seri in viso, non sembra che si stiano divertendo. Forse non si stanno divertendo, sono in pausa pranzo dal lavoro. Molto disciplinati, il che non è sempre il caso in Cina, fanno la fila con pazienza al buffet ed alla cassa.

Poi una sorpresa, ma non è il piatto scelto da Lifang. Sono alcuni poveracci, hanno l'aspetto di essere senza tetto, comunque senza cucina perché si avvicinano ai tavoli appena vanno via i commensali per raccattare gli avanzi. Molti cinesi hanno un po’ il vizio di ordinare troppo, o comunque di mettersi troppo sul piatto, soprattutto quando il prezzo è fisso al buffet. Risultato è che ci sono spesso porzioni esagerate che poi non sono finite e restano lì. I poveretti si avvicinano con una bustina di plastica e racimolano il loro pranzo. 

Qualche volta si avvicinano a chiedere a chi sta ancora finendo di mangiare, prima che vada via. Uno viene pure da me, ma poi vede che il tavolo è ancora vuoto, sto aspettando anche io, e se ne va. Un po’ triste vedere chi ha fame in mezzo a tanta pantagruelica opulenza. È la prima volta che mi capita in Cina.


09 September 2018

Shanghai dopo 20 anni

Dopo vent'anni sono di ritorno a Shanghai, la città il cui nome significa "sul mare". All'arrivo in aeroporto mi sorprende una lunga fila di macchine che raccolgono le impronte digitali dei viaggiatori stranieri in arrivo. Poi al controllo passaporti me le riprendono comunque. Chiedo alla guardia sorridente il perché e mi dice che è per essere sicuri!

Il profilo della città è cambiato drammaticamente. Nel 1998 c'erano cantieri che lavoravano 24/7, tre turni al giorno, tutti i giorni dell'anno salvo forse il capodanno cinese. Adesso hanno finito il loro lavoro, vedo pochi lavori in corso per tirar su altri grattacieli. Forse un sintomo dell'eccesso di offerta di immobiliare di cui si legge soffrano alcune grandi città cinesi.

Ma anche senza cantieri edili l'attività è frenetica come e più di allora. Sul Bund, la "banchina", tradizionale lungomare cittadino, si scatena la vita dei giovani. Coppiette che si vengono a far fotografare il giorno delle nozze e musica per tutti la sera. Non pochi poliziotti passeggiano tranquilli avanti e indietro, ma non hanno molto da fare, la gente è educata.

Qualche negozietto sotto la banchina vende spuntini ai turisti, prezzi come a Londra e qualità mediocre, dopo un timido tentativo di ravioli al vapore lasciamo perdere, basta allontanarsi qualche decina di metri e si trovano ottimi ristorantini locali dove mangiare genuino, anche se Shanghai è sempre cara per gli standard cinesi cui sono abituato con la famiglia in Hunan.

Un panino ripieno di maiale e gamberi costa 50 Rmb, 5 euro circa, molto per la Cina ma è ottimo. Tofu di sangue di anatra con crostini e ortaggi misti è comunque il piatto del giorno, sapore dolce e amaro, a me è piaciuto molto.

L'altra cosa che non c'era nel 1998 era il motorino elettrico. Adesso ce ne sono milioni, anzi sono tutti elettrici, puliti e silenziosissimi, non abbiamo visto neanche un vecchio due tempi, ci hanno detto che sono stati vietati. Primo passo verso l'elettrificazione completa del trasporto cittadino. L'unico problema è che non li sento arrivare, e un paio di volte sono stato quasi investito! 

Tofu di sangue di anatra con verdura

Altra cosa ancora più buffa è che si ricominciano a vedere un po’ di biciclette! Quaranta anni fa naturalmente c'erano solo biciclette. Poi sono sparite per far spazio alle auto. Nel 1998 non se ne vedevano praticamente più. Adesso son tornate, vuoi per il traffico che le rende più veloci delle auto per i brevi percorsi, vuoi per la coscienza ambientalistica che si sta diffondendo.

Oggi ho accompagnato Lifang ad un centro di massaggi per sole donne. Al decimo piano di un anonimo palazzo, però la vista era molto ampia sui quartieri centrali della megalopoli. Cosa curiosa, il quartiere residenziale di Laoximen, dove ci troviamo, sempra essere diviso in tre: una parte di case tradizionali, a 2 o 3 piani, le vecchie case cinesi che spesso avevano (e molte ancora hanno) il negozio a piano terra e l'abitazione al primo e casomai al secondo piano. Sicuramente la parte più piacevole per me oggi per passeggiare, più umana.


Una seconda parte, tagliata di netto da qualche viale di asfalto, di palazzi sui setto o otto piani. Ed infine una terza parte di grattacieli, i "fiammiferi" li chiamava una interprete che avevo usato quando facevo la guida, che sembrano appunto piammiferi in una scatola, 25  piani e oltre. Tutto ordinato e ben pianificato, sarebbe difficile ogni abuso edilizio qui, si noterebbe subito. 

Una volta lasciata la moglie nelle abili mani delle massaggiatrici me ne vado a spasso. Avevo visto su Google Maps che c'è un tempio Tao qui vicino, ma ho fatto fatica a trovarlo. Per quanto ben preservato, è praticamente inghiottito dall'edilizia residenziale e commerciale moderna. Panta rei.

Arrivato al tempio ho trovato tutto chiuso. Anzi il cancello era socchiuso, ma non c'era nessuno. Erano le 4:45 del pomeriggio e i raggi del sole che cominciavano ad arrossarsi disegnavano sinuose curve con le ombre degli alberi del giardino del tempio. Dopo aver aperto il cancello sono entrato timidamente nel cortile antistante il tempio ed ho trovato la biglietteria, dove un impiegato era pronto a sprangare bottega e andare a casa. In qualche modo capisco che si chiude fra 10 minuti. 

Mi fa cenno di entrare, niente biglietto, visita gratis, ma devo sbrigarmi. Il tempio è piccolissimo, e non c'era nessuno. Mi sarebbe piaciuto fermarmi di più, magari a meditare solo soletto per un paio d'ore, ma oggi non si può.



Continuo a passeggiare nei viottoli "hutong" delle case a tre piani, e incontro tante signore che passano il pomeriggio a chiacchierare sedute, qualcuna fa il bucato. Una nonnina regge con le braccia allungate un pargoletto, all'inizio non capisco poi vedo che questo è il modo per non sporcarsi mentre il piccolo libera il proprio intestino sul marciapiede. Nessuno dei presenti fa notare un qualsiasi tipo di reazione alla cosa, tutto normale. Be’ almeno avrebbe potuto farla accanto ad uno dei tanti alberi delle strade, almeno sarebbe stato un buon concime. Shanghai cambia ma alcune vecchie abitudini restano.

Spuntino al ristorantino di Papa Chan, il cui motto, scritto in cinese e inglese a grandi caratteri sulla cucina a vista, dice:

"Piccoli Dim Sum ma grande sforzo, 
per una reputazione eterna, 
al di là di questa breve vita."

La dice lunga su come si muove la Cina oggi.

Un negozio di pianoforti Schimmel, tedeschi purosangue. La musica occidentale è molto seguita in Cina. Ho letto che si fabbricano più pianoforti qui che nel resto del mondo, e la qualità ha raggiunto livelli di eccellenza. Come il talento dei giovani pianisti cinesi. Penso a Lang Lang, che è diventato famoso in tutto il mondo e fa un po’ troppo la primadonna, ma anche a tanti altri che si avvicendano nelle sale da concerto di Londra. 


Mi viene in mente il libro (recensito in questo blog) "The Secret Piano" che racconta di quando avere un pianoforte era considerata una forma di corruzione culturale, se non un crimine da "borghese".

30 August 2018

An afternoon in Napan Yaur village in West Papua

Today, between dives, we visited the Napan Yaur village in Indonesian West Papua. As our outboard approached the beach for a wet landing, a couple of dozen children or so started to group on a wooden bench, under a tree. When we got close enough, our wet feet covered with sand, they started to sing some welcome songs for us. It was a highlight of the day, for them and for us.

Some young men were playing  volleyball a few meters away and they did not pay any attention to us.

There were many more children running around the village. Thanks to the translation help offered by Simone, our Brazilian dive guide who spoke some Indonesian, we learned from a local woman that the village's families, on average, have between eight and ten children ach.e

I roamed around a bit and ran into a school, where the blackboard indicated the pupils were learning English and French.

All around were tidy gardens full of pretty flowers. Most homes had chicken and dogs playing in the yard, though, when asked, they said they do not eat the dogs. No pigs, which I thought unusual as pork is a staple food here, but they told us they prefer to hunt wild boars in the surrounding mountains covered with thick rainforest.


24 August 2018

Flight to Indonesia

Morning packing and getting ready to fly to Indonesia for more diving.

Taxi to the airport just 17 Sgd, so cheap in the context of an expensive city. You can choose a normal taxi or a "deluxe" one, which is more expensive, but the normal one is deluxe enough for us: clean, spacious and the driver is professional and friendly.

The only problem with Singapore's taxis is that sometimes it is hard to find one. Now there is an app, called Grab, a sort of Uber for South East Asia, which I am told is super efficient and even cheaper than taxis. Next time I'll have to download it.

Changi Airport is amazing, so well organized and pleasant I am always sorry to leave it. I could spend days in here shopping, eating, getting massages, ... But I am not going to buy anything today, no point carrying stuff to Indonesia, I will load up on the way back. I know I want some TWG, the famed Singapore tea brand. They just opened a store in central London, but it is cheaper here. Still not cheap at all, but cheaper.

Our flight to Jakarta is delayed, we are using Batik Air. Hopefully, we'll make the connection to Papua. There are not so many flights to Manokwari, in fact, we only have one useful connection per day, and I didn't want to risk missing the departure of our cruise therefore I built a buffer day in our itinerary, if all goes ok we'll have a day to explore Manokwari.

23 August 2018

Singapore maiolicas and crabs

Sveglia tardi, forse ancora un po’ di jet lag. E poi siamo stati in piedi sempre fino a tardi in questi giorni, io a scrivere il mio libro sulla Polonia e Lifang a far post-produzione dei suoi video per il sito cinese. Coppia molto attiva.

Piscina e relax fino al primo pomeriggio, poi in visita al Thian Hock Keng Temple, uno dei più venerati a Singapore, dedicato alla dea del mare, Mazu. Simbolo della tradizione Hokkien tramandata qui dai tanti immigrati che sono venuti a cercare fortuna nel corso dei secoli.

Prima però un rapido pranzetto in un ristorante che ci era stato consigliato ieri dalla guida del museo delle music boxes, proprio davanti all'entrata del museo. Scegliamo una zuppa di pesce agrodolce e due enormi gamberoni leggermente piccanti. Le possibilità di ristorazione a Singapore si confermano infinite, si mangia quasi sempre benissimo e si spende quasi sempre poco.

Dopo la zuppa, mentre aspettiamo che siano pronti i gamberi, notiamo un piccolo museo della ceramica affianco al ristorante. Anzi, fa parte del ristorante, stessi proprietari. Strana combinazione, ma ci alziamo a dare un'occhiata. Ci sono maioliche antiche di molti paesi, specialmente giapponesi, belghe e inglesi. Stranamente mancano quelle italiane e olandesi.

Il proprietario dice che è il suo hobby, quando viaggia per il mondo compra maioliche e poi le rivende qui a Singapore dove sono una vera rarità. Ingegnoso.

Serata al MBS, vediamo lo spettacolo suoni e luci alle 8. C'è molta gente, peccato per un gruppo di russi maleducati che fanno chiasso, rovinano un po’ l'atmosfera. 

Cena per un tradizionalissimo "black crab" ad uno dei tanti ristoranti sul lungofiume a Clark Quay: 1,5 kg di crostaceo per 98 dollari. Un cartello avverte che non è educato chiedere il peso delle signore, ma è necessario chiedere il peso dei granchi quando si ordina, per evitare sorprese al momento del conto!

Buffo finale. È quasi mezzanotte, stanno per chiudere. Arriva una coppia asiatica, forse malese non sono sicuro, e chiedono di essere serviti nonostante l'ora tarda. Lui in T-shirt, quasi trasandato, lei con un grazioso vestitino rosso, chiaramente in ghingheri per la serata romantica, mentre lui quasi pare pronto per andare a giocare a pallone. La cameriera esita, hanno già cominciato a pulire i tavoli e ammucchiare le sedie. Poi parla con il capo e annuisce, gli porta due menù e gli lascia qualche minuto per decidere l'ordine. Quando torna il maschione della coppia (molto corpulento, mentre lei è una mingherlina quasi fragile) ordina due ciotole di riso. Ue ciotole di riso! E basta.

La cameriera è visibilmente delusa ma dopo un paio di minuti torna con le ciotole e le mette sul tavolo, e intanto allunga il conto all'imponente ragazzotto. Passano i minuti, noi abiamo finito il granchione nero e ce ne stiamo per andare, la cameriera torna per ricevere il pagamento dell'omone ma lui, con gran faccia tosta, chiede di poter restare ancora al tavolo! Ristorante chiuso, sei arrivato tardi, ordini una ciotola di riso in bianco e vuoi restare con la pupa a chiacchierare davanti alle luci si Singapore fino all'alba?!?

22 August 2018

Singapore music box museum and cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world

The highlight of the morning is the Singapore museum of music boxes. It is the property of a Japanese collector who somehow decided to open this exhibition to the public here in Singapore three years ago.

It contains about 45 pieces, mostly Swiss machines but also German and American ones.

Our guide is a part time employee, an elderly man, maybe about 70 years old, who gives a private tour for two of us. He loves the boxes, knows everything, and treats them, literally, with white gloves. He knows in great details the inner workings of each machine and his meticulousness and enthusiasm for this technology is apparent at every step of the presentation. He plays several of the instruments for us as well.

The ticket is 12 very well-spent dollars.

He also recommends a bigger museum that apparently the same Japanese collector opened in Shanghai. It does sound strange that a Japanese would open a museum in China and one in Singapore, instead of Japan, I will have to research this.




Dinner is with CK, my classmate at MIT. This time he takes us to Hawker Chan, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, 3.6 SGD for rice chicken, their signature dish, but more for veggies.

After we order and sit down they close the restaurant, it is not yet 9 in the evening but they said they ran out of food. Victims of their own success. I am very grateful to CK for having taken us there, of course, he is always generous when we meet in Singapore. 

He is a remarkable man. His grandparents immigrated from China, they were farmers. he studied hard, went to university and became a researcher in the engineering department. He then won a scholarship to get his master's degree at MIT, where we met, and returned to a brilliant career in Singapore, crowned with his appointment to head the engineering school at the National University.

But the rice chicken was good, not great, I am not sure it was worth a Michelin star. And I have eaten at quite a few multi-starred venues over the years.


As we walk back to our hotel after dinner we noticed lots of workers getting the lights and lanterns ready for the upcoming Chinese mid-Autumn festival. Lifang talks to some of them and we find out they are temporary workers, mostly from Sichuan province, who come for a few months to make some money and then go home.



Apparently many Chinese come here for work on a tourist visa, they do not have a work permit but the government leaves them alone as long as they don't stir up trouble.

21 August 2018

Japanese dinner


The most memorable thing from this easy day of work in my hotel (it was mostly raining) is dinner at YAKINIQUEST, a Japanese restaurant on Clarck's Quai that specializes in wagyu beef from Japan.

Two floors: upstairs it is totally empty today, for now at least. I choose to stay downstairs, with the fridge of beef in good view and I am the only patron anyway but at least there are staff to see and talk to.

We are welcomed by a sweet Philipino girl who speaks with a very low voice but works fast and efficiently to set up my table.

The boss tells me he receives about 400-500 kg of meat every month from southern Japan.

He nods repeatedly with conviction: it is true that some farmers massage and give beer to cows to make them relax and eat more and produce better beef.



The sequence went from raw to grilled to marinated and ended up with ice cream. Dessert was a Japanese curry, oddly enough if you are not Japanese.













20 August 2018

Ancora a Singapore

Rieccomi a Singapore. Non mi ricordo più quante volte ci sono venuto, ma son passati sette anni dalla prima volta, nel 2011. Non posso certo dire di sentirmi a casa, però mi sento decisamente a mio agio. Come non mi capita in tanti posti dove pure amo andare e passare del tempo. Sarà la pulizia, la sicurezza, la cucina. 

Forse, semplicemente, vorrei sentirmi a casa qui, ci verrei a vivere domani se riuscissi ad organizzarmi la vita in quel senso. So che Lifang sarebbe d'accordo. Vicino alla famiglia in Cina, vicino a centomila posti dove andare a fare immersioni. Ottimi servizi, rispetto, educazione. Il clima perennemente caldo umido senza stagioni? Il paradiso non esiste, ma al clima mi abituo facilmente, ogni volta.

Oggi abbiamo un po’ di jet lag, ce la prendiamo comoda in piscina. La sera quattro passi a Chinatown, sempre piacevole soprattutto sul tardi quando sciamano i turisti. Che pure che male avranno mai fatto i turisti? I turisti in genere cercano di evitare i turisti. È così che li riconosci. Quando uno dice "io non sono un turista, sono un viaggiatore!", ecco avete trovato un turista. E io che sono? Un viaggiatore naturalmente, son qui sulla via dell'Indonesia e della Cina per andare a trovare la famiglia. Non sono un turista!

Lingue di anatra alla sichuanese










A cena in un ristorante di cucina Sichuan, piccante. Ordino lingue di anatra. Sono particolari perché hanno un osso all'interno! Il che facilita il compito dell'anatra quando deve acchiappare un pesce e trattenerlo nel becco fino ad ingoiarlo intero. Contorno di peperoni verdi e salsa piccante (naturalmente!) di peperoncino del Sichuan.

26 July 2018

Book review: The Judgement of Paris (2005) by G. Teber, *****

Synopsis

The Judgement of Paris was a blind tasting that pitched American wines from California against French reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy. The name is a play on the "Judgement of Paris" in Greek mythology.

The author was the only reporter present at the mythic Paris Tasting of 1976—a blind tasting where a panel of esteemed French judges chose upstart California wines over France’s best—for the first time introduces the eccentric American winemakers and records the tremendous aftershocks of this historic event that changed forever the world of wine.

The Paris Tasting of 1976 will forever be remembered as the landmark event that transformed the wine industry. At this legendary contest—a blind tasting—a panel of top French wine experts shocked the industry by choosing unknown California wines over France’s best.

George M. Taber, the only reporter present, recounts this seminal contest and its far-reaching effects, focusing on three gifted unknowns behind the winning wines: a college lecturer, a real estate lawyer, and a Yugoslavian immigrant. With unique access to the main players and a contagious passion for his subject, Taber renders this historic event and its tremendous aftershocks—repositioning the industry and sparking a golden age for viticulture across the globe. With an eclectic cast of characters and magnificent settings, Judgment of Paris is an illuminating tale and a story of the entrepreneurial spirit of the new world conquering the old.

Review

The definitive book on this historical event. French wine had been the uncontested world leader until that day, and maybe continued to be the leader, overall, but it was now hotly contested!

Spurrier put Bordeaux vs similar blend Californians, and Burgundy vs Californian Chardonnays. It was initially intended to be a tasting to introduce Californian wines to sceptical French experts, but once everyone was around the table Spurrier told them the real plan: a challenge.

The test was not scientifically exact: more American wines (6) than French wines (4) were included in the sample. And yet, take the whites: every single French judge scored an American chard first.

Another charge was that French wines were too young and would give their best later on in life. But several rematches years later saw the Americans prevail again.

A very detailed book about a pivotal point in wine history.

See my review about the film "Bottle Shock" about the same story which I reviewed in this blog.






09 June 2018

Nude bicycle riders in London

 











Today traditional annual nude bike rider tour of London, starting from just next to my home at County Hall.

24 May 2018

Guernsey and its Little Chapel

Island with a population of 63,000 people. In 1215 King John promised a special charter, the locals would not have to pay taxes to London or obey Westminster laws as long as they recognized the Queen as their sovereign in her capacity as "Duke" (not Duchess) of Normandy.  Apparently Queen Victoria loved it and came to visit no less than five times.

Today it is not part of the EU though it applies all standards to such things as food. Mints its own coins which are on par with the UK pound, but they are not accepted outside the island. If you get sick, good luck because neither NHS nor European Health Insurance Card are accepted here.

Funny to think about it now but French official language until 1920s. The switch began in the 1880s with English newspapers becoming more  and more popular. Lawyers must study French even today because of old laws in French. French language killed off in WWII when kids went to England.

It was occupied by Germany but Churchill did not attempt to retake it until the end of the war.

The property market has two separate tiers: a) a local market only for residents average 400k and b) an open market property for all but only 170 houses, very expensive 1.5mill at least. 

An honor system for selling milk cheese and veggies produced by private people, no license just pick up and leave money in a jar.

In the past privateers, pirates allowed with the letter of the mark by king if they pay 60pc of their loot to him, and pirates from here caught Spanish Dutch and French ships. Today, our guide says, the main industry is banking , a sort of modern piracy ! Then tourism ...

Interesting little music box in some shop we visited on the island.



Visit to Little Chapel, the smallest inthe world, they say. Here is the description of Little Chapel from the Visitguernsey website:

The Little Chapel was a work of art and labor of love built by Brother Déodat, who started work in March 1914. His plan was to create a miniature version of the famous grotto and basilica at Lourdes in France. The version you see today is actually the third version.

The first, measuring a tiny 9 feet long by 4.5 feet wide, was criticized, so Brother Deodat spent the following night demolishing the building. He soon set to work again and, in July 1914, the grotto was completed and officially blessed. This survived until September 1923; Brother Deodat demolished it in that month because the Bishop of Portsmouth had not been able to fit through the doorway.

He soon set about the construction of a third chapel - which we see today. The building operation proved laborious, collecting pebbles and broken china to decorate the shrine. Then suddenly the Little Chapel became famous, thanks to an illustrated article in the Daily Mirror. Presents poured in from around the world and Islanders brought colored china to Les Vauxbelets with the Lieutenant-Governor offering remarkable mother-of-pearl.

In 1939 Brother Deodat returned to France because of ill health. After his departure, the care of the Little Chapel was entrusted to Brother Cephas, who continued to decorate the building until his retirement in 1965. In 1977, a committee was established to restore the chapel and today it falls under the care of The Little Chapel Foundation.

There is no charge to enter the Chapel as it relies totally on public donations.






Tribute to the crew in kitchens and restaurants at the end of the cruise!