Hello Uncle Foreigner

olives

May 24, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Back to Ciqikou

The rat-free Perfect Time is the perfect place

We found a great hot pot place by Ciqikou

We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.

It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!

After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.

Look at this spice
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.

So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.

We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.

On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.

Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.

Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.

Hey, there's a wedding
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!

Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!

And then, before we knew it, it was time to rock.

Feb 17, 2013

Winter break: Let’s go to the mall!

And the boutiques, and the street markets, and the grocery store …

The Rainforest Cafe has great bagels
The Chocolate ShopThe night market

The triforce that creates the perfect Penang vacation, we read in our pre-trip research, is made up of eating, beaching and shopping. Check, check and … meh. Neither Peter nor I are big shoppers, but two out of three would be perfect enough for us. We’d leave the shopping to everyone else.

Or so we thought.

Our first trip to the mall was out of necessity: I needed a new bathing suit. But once that was out of the way … we kept on shopping.

The malls of Penang are big and modern. They’ve got all the familiar chains — The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, ESPRIT, Subway, Carrefour (and its not a vacation without a visit to Carrefour’s import section) — and, importantly, air conditioning. They’re also a good place to find massage chairs and junk food; We ended up using them as giant rest stops when Georgetown’s streets got a little too intense.

But these big boxes of international commerce are the least the island has to offer. We basically tripped over shopping experiences everywhere we went. Upscale boutiques to rink-a-dink flea markets. Our spoils from our spree included handmade jewelry, a Daredevil-shaped USB flash drive, T-shirts galore, bagels(!) and cheesy-cute sunglasses. And what fun we had acquiring them!

The coolest — and maybe most stereotypically touristy — transaction was at an Indian clothing store called Sam’s Collection. They offered beautiful men’s and women’s clothing in cotton, linen and silk. The lovely patterned fabrics, some with intricate embroidery, were the height of southeast Asian traveler chic.

Malaysia has a bargaining culture, just like China does, and at Sam’s I decided to try my skills — partially motivated by the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the ATM. Peter had some RMB in his wallet and they liked that, so we ended up making a deal in two currencies. How cool are we! As we paid up, an onlooking clerk threw a “Nice haggle!” our way. I felt pretty boss.

Sam's Collection

Nov 1, 2012

We found olives!

Maximum western comfort: Achieved

We found olives

We picked up a couple of cool souvenirs in Qingdao, but our favorite purchase was the bottle of olives we found at Carrefour. Meaning the best martinis in China were at our house — for almost one full week!

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Thinking of home

The western afternoon

A bustling market in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: Western Chengdu

Objective: Find the West in the East

Once we made our realization in the Subway, we decided to embrace our longing for home and have a totally western afternoon.

Level 1: Grocery shopping

The first thing we needed was supplies. The Pug owners told us about the item shop, Carrefour, that might stock what we were looking for. We got a tip that it was to the southeast of our Inn, aka the Loft, so we took a bus in that direction and then wandered a bit.

I joke sometimes that I don’t just have a bad sense of direction, I have the wrong sense of direction. And sure enough, I was a millisecond away from saying, “Peter, I don’t think this is the right way,” when we spotted the little red, white and blue logo.

Welcome to Carrefour. Here you can buy items that will heal you and your party, and satisfy your desire for western products. What do you want to buy?

All of our goodies
Carrefour appeared as a mirage on the horizon and beckoned us to spend our money …
  • Wasabi
  • Dijon mustard
  • 100% Tomato juice
  • Ground black pepper
  • 2 American mustard
  • Pickled gherkins
  • Tobasco
  • Twinings Earl Grey
  • Rosemary sliced
  • Basil chopped
  • Prosciutto
  • Red wine (from France!)
  • Brie
  • Parmesan cheese

You may notice that something is missing from the list; they were out of olives the day we were there!

Level 2: Relax

After hauling our treasures back to the inn, we were in need of some chill time.

Have a rest

Level 3: Impulse shopping

I bought a new dress and purse

One thing that we missed at Carrefour was a good loaf of bread. They had some, we just thought we could get some closer to home (breaking Rule of Chinese Acquisition No. 5: If you see it, buy it because you may never see its like again). But when we scoured the area near the Loft, we found no good bread. Bright side: I did see a dress that was so cute I had to have it RIGHT NOW.

I have excuses for what happened, but they’re not good, so I’ll skip it and just admit I bought the dress one size too small. I had a bad feeling about it, so I tried it on again back in our room, and, yup, I couldn’t raise my arms above my head.

But! We went back first thing the next day, with 交流 written in my translation notebook. No worries, they gave me the bigger size. They even made me try it on again, and I think the woman said to me something like, “I tried to tell you that you needed the XL last night!” But it was totally no hassle! I’d shop there all the time if I lived in Chengdu.

Level 4: Hors D’oeuvres for dinner in the room

Our western-style hotel feast

Back in Brooklyn, one of our favorite meals was something we called “party dinner”: veggies, dip, cheese, crackers, pickles, olives, etc. So it was great to re-create it with our supplies from Carrefour. It was as delicious as ever — more so, actually, for its rarity.

The pickles, specifically, were so good that we even considered bringing the brine home in a thermos so that we could pickle more stuff in it. (We didn’t follow through, which I kind of regret.)

But wait! There’s more …

Jun 30, 2012

Replace your passport: Eating freshly

It’s sandwich time

A real, live Subway sandwich

☆ Side Quest: Subway

Objective 1: Put it all together: This trip, occasioned by a visit to “American Soil,” has become a total western long weekend
Objective 2: Don’t feel guilty about it; You’ve given China its due, and you just miss some things from home. That’s OK!
Objective 3: Have a sandwich

It was a hot and humid afternoon, we were a little lost and a little hungry when Subway the Sandwich Chain hewed into view. We were curious (and, don’t forget, hungry), so we decided to take a break from being lost and try out a Chinese Subway sandwich.

Subway in China? Is exactly the same, down to the smell, as every other Subway in the world. They’re even on the lookout for good “Sandwich Artists” or potential franchisees. (We took a flyer, just in case we get bored of this teaching thing.)

It was totally surreal. Outside the window was China, but inside was always and only Subway. This is where we realized that the occasion of our “trip back to America, sort of” had unconsciously triggered a sort of west-stravaganza for us. All week, we’d been hunting down cheese, English-language TV, felafel, scotch, new books, olives

Part of the reason we moved to Luzhou, rather than a bigger city, was so that we could fully immerse ourselves in Chinese culture, without being tempted by the ease and comfort of, say, taco nights, or ex-pat Scrabble groups, or whatever. Not that these things are bad, and I’m sure that plenty of ex-pats live fulfilled Chinese lives with them, but for us, having access to them would mean that we’d still be saying to each other, “One of these days we’ll get to learning Chinese, making Chinese friends, venturing out from our comfortable English-language hidey-holes …”

But cutting ourselves off from our home culture completely and forever was never part of the plan. So when we’re on vacation, we have some cheese!

And, realizing what we were doing - indulging in western goodies - cast the crappy theft and replacement of my passport in a totally different light: That crook did us a favor!

And the sandwich was pretty good, too.

Jun 28, 2012

Replace your passport: Back to the Consulate

I can almost prove my identity in an international context

Should you try a hot dog?
No hot dogs for me

New to Passport Quest? Follow the adventure from the beginning here.

☆ Side Quest: 7-Eleven

Objective: Have a snack

We were about an hour from having the best tacos in China, so Peter talked me out of the 7-Eleven hot dog, though he did take a photo of it. That’s for you, dad! (Coincidentally, we later read a small write up of 7-Eleven in Chengdoo. About the hot dog, they said: “It’s depressing to look at. … All I taste is ketchup and soggy bread.”)

Instead we got some juice and a Snickers. We sat at the counter to eat our snack, because 7-Eleven has a dine-in option here. A nearby school let out while we were there, and the place flooded with junior students on break. You may already suspect this, but I can tell you for sure: being a 12-year-old boy involves a lot of punching and shouting, wherever you are.

☆ Side Quest: The Lazy Pug

Objective: Mexican food!

Part of the reason that we planned our return trip to Chengdu the way we did was so that we’d be able to hit up Taco Night at the Pug. We’ve been salivating for these tacos since the last time we were there in January.

And they did not disappoint. What’s more, our delirious memories of cheese and tortillas had overshadowed what was a superb drinks menu, so we were pleasantly surprised all over again. They had bitters! And ice cubes! And mint! And ginger ale! And … wait for it … GREEN OLIVES! They were big and meaty and stuffed with peppers.

Giddy with delight over the meal we had just had (OK, and the drinks may have played a role in this too), I went to pay the bill while Peter went to the washroom. I struck up a conversation with the bartender/half-owner:

Me: Where do you find olives here? Do you have to have them delivered?

Bartender: No. They’re just at the grocery store. At Carrefour. [He seemed a little surprised that I wouldn’t know this, I think.] Though they can be hit-and-miss.

Me: Really! I’m living in Luzhou. We don’t have olives there.

Olivetender: Oh! Where is Luzhou?

Me: Four hours south of here. We don’t get a lot of western things there - like olives, and olives - so we’re excited to be here for a short trip. So we can have olives.

Oliver: What do you do in Luzhou?

Me: We’re ESL teachers. We never get olives! OLIVES!!!

Here's where the tacos happen
Tacos and martinis make me awkward with strangers.

There’s no official transcript of our conversation, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. On first analysis, I thought the awkwardness came from the fact that I hadn’t small-talked anyone in English in ten months, but now I think that each of us just thought the conversation was about something different; he was having a nice back-and-forth about a Chinese city near to his own, and I could not be swayed from my single-minded pursuit of olives.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the takeaway was that the Case of the Olives in China was back open!

(Actually, the literal takeaway was a couple of extra tacos that we enjoyed back in the hotel room later that night.)

Chapter 5: The Consulate

Objective: Pick up your new passport

When we got to the consulate on Friday afternoon, the line for Chinese nationals wrapped around the block. And there were a ton of school groups (we could tell by the uniforms) on line; our guess was that summer study abroad programs were starting soon. Being American, I got to jump to the front of the line - which felt like fair play; at the Chinese Consulate in New York last August, we waited forever while Chinese nationals just cruised right upstairs.

I presented my receipt and paperwork, and received my shiny, new, visa-less passport.

The main quest beckons us back to Luzhou, but there’s still plenty to do in Chengdu before departing …

Jun 27, 2012

Replace your passport: Return to Chengdu

More eating

☆ Side Quest: The Sultan and The Shamrock

Objective: Eat something delicious

The Sultan front doorA delicious Middle Eastern meal

Back at Bookworm, we had picked up a flier for a Middle Eastern restaurant called The Sultan. They prominently touted their vegetarian options, and the word online was good, so we figured it was worth a try.

And it was delicious. In an attempt to try everything on the menu, we ordered way too much food. Beautiful hummus, felafel, shawarma (for the meat eater), peppers stuffed with homemade cottage cheese, Turkish naan (made with real butter!) … It was too good to leave anything behind, so we ate it all with the intention of walking it off.

Rolling up on the ShamrockDrinks

Along our walk, we passed by The Shamrock, an Irish bar that we had checked out in the winter. We actually didn’t really like it in the wintertime - it was smokey and they played horrible music really loudly - but they had an outdoor area that looked palatable, for one drink, at least.

And it was pleasant. Some European soccer tournament was on, so all the seats facing the TVs were taken. But as non-sports fans we were happy to sit at an obstructed-view table. The place still had kind of an impersonal super-pub vibe, but a martini under the stars provides its own atmosphere.

And, green olives! Back in the fall, when there was no sign of them in the grocery stores in Luzhou, I tried to order some from an ex-pat grocery delivery service. They told me that to deliver to our small city would cost around $200, so, dead end. Occasionally we see “martinis” on a bar menu, but they’re usually served with black olives, which isn’t quite the same. We’d came to accept that living in southern Sichuan meant no green olives. Which is really not a bad trade-off for everything wonderful that we’ve experienced.

But, at Shamrock, these magnificent libations had our precious green olives. We were so psyched we even briefly considered buying a jar or two from the bar. (Though we both realized that that was the gin talking.)

The world tour continues …

Nov 29, 2011

Hong Kong: Pizza and Martinis

A decadant feast

Martinis!

On Saturday night, we found a lovely place that served pizza and martinis! In Luzhou, we can find neither. (Well, the Western restaurant has something they call pizza, but it isn’t. “You can call it a ham pie,” says Peter.) Spasso is actually located in a giant mall in Kowloon, but Ruby Tuesdays it isn’t. When we asked if they had olives and could they make us dirty martinis, our server asked us, “How dirty?” which was music to our ears; She knew there was a variable degree of dirtiness to a martini!

Pizza at Spasso
The pizza was not the best pizza, but it was very good pizza. It fit the bill for us. Also, It was quite nice to have some real wine. A night of indulgences was just want we needed! Or, wanted, I guess.
Look at the lights
This was the view from the patio. You’re looking back at Hong Kong Island.
We're actually here, in Hong Kong!
Here’s us, with our backs to the view. We had a lovely meal, Spasso. Thanks!