There’s nothing like a thunderstorm to soothe the soul, with rain pattering on the windows, lightning flashes reflected in the windows like camera flashes. With the Weepies and a glass of plum wine for aperitif hour, it’s a made-to-order Sunday night (well, Tuesday, but Sunday in my mixed-up world, since Wednesday is my first day of the week’s teaching schedule.)
Occasionally there’s a crash of thunder so loud it makes my stomach lurch. It jars me up a little, but as it dies away in a cross rumbling, the Weepies carry on and I can hear the rain again.
In a few weeks I’ll have a break from work, in between my old contract’s conclusion and signing a new one. I wanted to rally a friend, someone, to travel with to somewhere. The one I had in mind couldn’t get time off, so I’m trying to decide where to go, alone. I’ve never travelled by myself, and I’m looking forward to it, not with the excitement and comfort of sharing it with another, but in a quieter way.
In France I was by myself a lot, for odd hours during the day when I waited for my kids, or when one of my girlfriends couldn’t show up to duck around Paris with. Then I sat in cafes in Orsay, drinking a Hoegartten before noon and scribbling in notebooks. I couldn’t tell if the gruff bartender disapproved of me or not.
Anyway no matter where I go I won’t be sipping Belgian beer in dark wood-paneled cafes. But I will have that blissful lonely freedom–freedom of pace and choice. I can walk at whatever speed I choose, stop wherever I want.
I have to go somewhere cheap. I can’t spend more than 4000 yuan on the whole trip, and probably I should spend less. I might go to Qingdao, or Dalian, both coastal cities. I’d like to go to Hangzhou, a sultry city in southern China, with a lovely lake and tree-lined streets and rental bicycles and lots of tourists and spicy food. Daniel told me it was a little expensive, though.
After this contract break, though, comes the real excitement…Katie Crowley and her boyfriend and her brother are coming to visit for three weeks! Although I’ve met Q and Dave before, I don’t know them well–although I feel like I do because of all the stories swapped in Paris that year. But it’s not exactly right to say, “My Irish friends are coming,” and it’s a bit long to say, “My Irish friend and her boyfriend and her brother are coming.” So I’ve taken to saying to Brett, when making plans for their arrival, “When the Irish people are here…” It’s more convenient, albeit absurd. I switched it up the other day by saying, “When Katie and her posse are here, we should…!”
It’s funny how, when you have guests coming, you start seeing your city in a new light. You start seeing it through their eyes, guessing at how it will look to them, seeing everything new again. Things I’ve gotten used to–the fat men on bicycles, weathered women picking through piles of garbage looking for plastic bottles, waif-thin girls with skin the color of porcelain…and then weathered Tibetan peasant girls, their faces blown berry-red from the plateau. These things don’t always go unnoticed, but surely they are less noticed than before, which is a rotten shame, really. I want to go on noticing, and write down what I see. I want to stay wide-eyed. I can’t completely, though. I’ve settled in. This has become home, if just for a little while. I’m used to the men spitting, I’m used to the dirty bathrooms, to the point that, when I read a scathingly critical essay by David Sedaris about his visit to China and Beijing in particular, I felt a little defensive. It’s a funny essay, actually, and contains accurate depictions of Beijing. One certainly can’t defend the bathrooms, the turds on the street.
Of course I’d like cleaner bathrooms. I’d like toilet paper and soap in the bathroom in the NICE MALL where I work. But…I don’t mind the spitting. It’s relaxed, it’s chill, it’s whatevs…you want to spit, so you spit. I like the hole-in-the wall restaurants. Sure, the food there is dubious, but so’s the food at McDonalds. Both taste good, sometimes.
Yeah, sure, sometimes I want to move somewhere clean, emptier, with blue sky and farmer’s markets. Or even to another, cleaner city. Sedaris’ depictions of Japan are appealing–I’d love to visit Japan. But I sort of resent his constant comparisons of China to Japan. Why should China be like Japan? Why should you expect it to be? I guess it’s natural to compare countries in the same geographic proximity, maybe.
I can’t wait to show this city–which has become, for now, my city–to my Irish friends. I’m excited to show them the clash of modernity with ancient culture and poverty. The mile-high bars, the bizarre modern architecture, the Olympic village, the maze of hutongs, the little dumpling place near the house, the luxury malls full of every top brand in the world–most of them disconcertingly empty. The elderly and middle-aged women doing exercise moves on the street corners to boom-box music at dusk, the fat babies with their bottoms out in the open for all to see, in their little cut-away onesies, made for easy peeing-on-street-corners. There’s so much to see.
So much, in fact, that I’m going to spend the rest of my evening making a list…a must-see, must-eat-at, must-picnic-at list for these upcoming September weeks. I think the rain has safely died down, and I haven’t heard the thunder’s death rattle for awhile, so I think I’m safe for a trip to Joy City for some groceries and wine. Some roasted potatoes with parsley-caper lemon vinaigrette, maybe a fried egg and a green salad, and some olives and a glass of wine…yes, I think that’s the perfect meal to accompany list-making.