Spain Week 10: Kindnesses Encountered

  1. While we looked for a more permanent-type piso, Yolanda, our Airbnb host, allowed us to extend our stay day-by-day, lowered the price, gave us a bottle of wine (a drinkable wine, she assured us, when we said we didn’t really know how to like wine), didn’t charge for our last two nights, gave us sheets, towels and a Vitoria-Gasteiz apron, and drove us and all our bags to our new home when the time came.
  2. The owner of our apartment, Marta, was entirely unconcerned when we didn’t bring enough for the deposit because we had reached ATM withdrawal limits for the day. Tranquila, she said, I’ll get it from you another time.
  3. Marta saved us the pain of muddling through government websites by writing out what number to call to make registration appointments at the town hall, exactly what to say over the phone to make sure we made the correct kind of appointment, what documents to bring, which building to go to and how to get there.
    1. She also annotated our lease in everyday Spanish to help clarify the long-winded legal language required for such documents.
  4. Amin down at the print shop, who speaks English and Spanish to us, French to others, and Arabic to others, told us if we needed help with anything to let him know. We live on the same street, we found out.
  5. It takes a while to get internet connected in Spain, especially when you want it to happen quickly so that you can watch your stories and do your work. So we bravely tromped upstairs to ask our neighbors if we could pay them to use their wifi in the interim and they responded so kindly and enthusiastically, and refused payment of any kind. Todos somos extranjeros, Youseff said.
  6. Later, Youssef brought us a tray of Moroccan treats (he and his family come from Marrakesh), and every time we bump into him leaving or going into the building he asks how we’re settling in and how everything is going.
  7. My colleagues have made me feel welcome in every respect. Some examples: Ana often treats me to coffee from the machine in the teachers lounge and even brought me a mug so I don’t have to carry mine back and forth. She speaks to me in Spanish when I want to practice Spanish, and English when I want a little break. In one class, Paco’s students told me about traditional Christmas sweets and the next day he brought me a turrón to give it a try.
  8. Josh tutors a high schooler twice a week. When we met with her mom to receive his payment, she paid him extra (with the money tucked into a Christmas card), and said that, once travel restrictions are lifted, she’ll be happy to drive us on a sight-seeing tour of Álava.
  9. One day in the BM supermercado a woman overheard our unmistakably American English chatter, and approached us to explain she’s from Texas and is married to a Spaniard, and to give us her number just in case we need anything.
  10. Javi, the groundskeeper at Josh’s school, gives Josh and the principal, Arantza, a ride back to Vitoria-Gasteiz at the end of the school day. Every day, Javi puts on an English CD and they proceed through the lesson in turns: first Javi repeats the English, then teaches Josh the Spanish equivalent, then Arantza gives the English a go, and so on for the twenty-minute ride.

Leaving Shanghai

Early in the evening of February 3rd, Josh and I stood beside Beijing Road, our bags in a pile on the sidewalk. It felt like a late spring afternoon with sunlight filtering through the trees. The street was almost completely empty and you could hear birds singing, a rare sound in this city of 24 million. Somewhere above us arpeggios from a trumpet floated out an open window as we waited for the Didi we had ordered to take us to Pudong International Airport.

Four days earlier, neither of us felt sure whether we wanted to stay in China and wait out the virus, or call it a day and say zàijiàn to Shanghai. We had spent almost two weeks inside our apartment, with trips to the Star Market around the corner and walks in the nearby sculpture park our only outings, with the occasional short run when the air quality permitted. The combined effects of the coronavirus and the Chinese New Year left most public places closed, and even though some restaurants and coffee shops did stay open, we agreed it was better not to spend too much time out and about. You know, just in case.

So we spent our days reading, watching Netflix, watching movies, watching YouTube, doing YouTube yoga, and cooking Brussel sprouts and pasta. Which isn’t a terrible routine, really. But we didn’t know when schools were going to start up again (at the earliest it would’ve been February 29), and, although I’m the very definition of a homebody, I felt restless and antsy. However, there was still a lot that we liked about Shanghai, and we were about to start new jobs teaching literature, with good pay and four-day weekends so we would’ve had a lot of opportunities for exploring China. It was hard to tell what the best thing to do was.

Then the front entrance to our neighborhood was closed and we could only enter and exit through the back gate, and we had to sign in and out (which proved quite challenging since our already-limited Mandarin was fading as weeks without lessons slipped by). Then the sculpture park, our one truly enjoyable outing, shut its gates for an unspecified time. Then the U.S. Department of State raised its travel warning to China from level two (“exercise increased caution”), to level three (“reconsider travel”), to four, the highest level (“do not travel”), with the advice that “those currently in China should attempt to depart by commercial means.” So we booked a flight to Denver, and it was cancelled twenty minutes later.

I don’t think that we were in any danger of getting the virus. A very small number of cases were confirmed in Shanghai, and we were cloistered in our corona-free apartment. But all the things that I liked about Shanghai were temporarily on hold. Exploring the city by subway, finding new restaurants, going to museums, reading at my favorite coffee shop, having Mandarin lessons, planning trips to other provinces—these were all on pause for the moment and it was hard to tell (is still hard to tell) when all of that could resume. So when the flight to Denver was cancelled, well, that made me feel like I’d rather not wait around for all flights to be postponed indefinitely.

With most flights to America either suspended or prohibitively expensive, we decided to head west, to the land of milk, honey and windmills. We booked a flight to the Netherlands on Friday, refreshing the airline’s website constantly throughout Saturday and Sunday, our breath bated, half expecting another cancellation. And on Monday, we left China.

Sitting in the back of a minivan on the way to the airport, we rode through the city in the gloaming. Unlike most of the underground traveling we did around Shanghai, this last ride gave us a chance to see the city. Not in its entirety, of course, but in larger swaths than how we usually got to see it. We could look behind us and there was the Oriental Pearl and the Shanghai Tower and that one building that looks like the Eye of Sauron at night.

It felt weird to be leaving just three days after making the decision, and sad, too. But at the same time I have never felt so relieved for a flight to board on time, so grateful for the crew who already have what sounds like the most exhausting job, now flying in and out of a country nervous with a novel sickness. After two temperature screenings at the Shanghai airport and one during a layover in Abu Dhabi, and after wearing face masks for over 24 hours, we exited the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and breathed in the windy, crisp Dutch air.

Things that I like(d), pt. 2

(I drafted this weeks ago and never got around to posting it. Even though I’m not in China anymore, I still like these things.)

A delightful trip to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains)!

We rode the train from Shanghai to Tunxi, in the Anhui province. From there a bus took us to the town of Tangkou. We bought cherries and a mango from a fruit seller, and walked to the cozy hostel/hotel Zero Five One Seven Inn, where we had a delightful stay. The folks there made us breakfast in the morning and helped plot out a hiking itinerary for us.

It’s hard to describe how beautiful Huangshan is. The day we were there it was icy and crisp and granite peaks stretched so far into the distance. At first I was grumpy with the big groups of people and accompanying loudspeakers, but, like anywhere touristy, a little extra walking will take you far from the madding crowd. Before we completely left the tourists, we had a really pleasant interaction with a woman selling postcards from a wooden kiosk. With our very limited Chinese we talked about how lovely it all was. Normally people couldn’t understand us when we attempted to speak in Mandarin, but she was very patient and encouraging, asking us where we lived and what we were doing in China. It was a brief conversation, maybe lasting a minute, but left a warm and lasting impression.


Coffee breaks along the Bund!

A few weeks ago it was a sunny, fresh-air day and we set off on a walk in no particular direction. We ended up at the Bund, where we sat, drank a Family Mart coffee, read a little, and watched people. The city looked good and the air felt good. It was one of those days that feel like school is out and everything is a possibility.


Parks!

Every park I entered in Shanghai was so lovely. Some were full of people walking, playing badminton, dancing, and practicing musical instruments, while others were quiet and seemed far removed from the churn of the megacity.

There was a park by my job that I loved. I always made a point of walking around it at least once before going into work, and liked to bring a tray of fruit and a book there during lunch. Often there would be groups of musicians playing together, flutes or saxophones, trumpets or clarinets, and stringed instruments I couldn’t recognize. On one rainy day, a musician set up two big umbrellas over his synthesizer and sheet music and played away, safe from the constant drizzle.

My favorite part of the park, of all the parks, were the cats. There were at least a dozen cats that lived in this one park and they seemed well-taken care of and content as only cats can be content. One morning I saw an old man tearing newspapers into small sections and periodically placing them on the ground. Then he bent over each little newspaper plate and filled it with rice and kibbles for all the park cats.

Shanghai: week 19

Don’t drink the water, don’t you breathe the air.

Modest Mouse

I’m not actively worried about contracting the coronavirus. Chances are that I won’t come in contact with it and even if I were to get it, I would be fine. But it is a weird time. I got a bad cold a week ago, which took the wind right out of my sails, and then the air got really rotten, and then it kept drizzling a stupid grey drizzle that just made things wet but didn’t freshen things up, and then the sun stopped shining (for good, it seems).

I’m off work because of the Chinese New Year and the air has finally cleared up quite a bit, but I feel a little shy about going to any public spaces because what if someone coughs on me and that’s it? And many places are closed for the new year, anyway. Today, when Josh and I finally mustered up the fortitude to walk to one of our favorite restaurants for lunch, we found it closed. It was an almost eerie walk—normally a bustling street, it was nearly empty and the few people we did come across were all wearing masks. I know it was quiet because people are ringing in the new year in their hometowns, but it’s easy to imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario where a virus breaks out and all the stores sell out of masks and you aren’t supposed to go outside because there are zombies that carry the virus and if you aren’t wearing a mask then you’ll get eaten and you’ll get the virus.

I like living in China, I do, I even have posts dedicated to how much I like it, but sometimes I shake my fist at the country at large and shout: “BE DIFFERENT!” I want to turn on the faucet and be able to drink the water and I want to check my air quality app every morning and think, “Oh yes, of course it’s a good air day and I can go running whenever I want to.” I know I’m being a little unreasonable, but sometimes I even want the language to be different. Maybe just two tones instead of five, how’s about?

I love you, China, but I’m going to go have a sandwich and watch The Office now. I’ll see you tomorrow.


Service center no. 4

I live on the west side of the Huangpu river, where there are all the coffee shops, restaurants, malls, cars and scooters you could hope for. Sometimes it is nice to cross to the other side of the water, where there is a 45 km foot-and-bike path and where, even if it isn’t actually, the air feels fresher. This time of year there are marigolds along the path and some of the trees still have their leaves.

A few weeks ago, Josh and I took the line 2 subway (which I like to complain about because it’s always crowded and I’m a grump about sharing space on the subway) under the river, and got bikes from the ubiquitous bike-share program Hellobike. Armed with a baguette, some pastries that are like madeleines but aren’t, and a thermos of instant coffee, we leisurely biked in the very autumnal air. (The only speed of biking I know how to do is leisurely. Sometimes I think I might just tip over sideways, I go so slow.) We saw a big bridge, biked alongside barges lumbering down the river, and heard a saxophone coming from some hidden park.

We noticed buildings every once in a while that looked like little cafes, with signs that said Service Center, and each had a number. Heading home we stopped at one and it was the most pleasant discovery. A big room with big windows looking over the river. Tables and chairs, a sofa, and a counter with stools along one of the windows, bookshelves with books for borrowing, and an electric tea kettle for heating hot water. It was basically the coziest coffee shop I’ve been in, only you don’t go to buy anything (you can bring your own food and drink, and there is drinking water available); you simply go to have a space to be.

Josh and I settled in with our treats, coffee and books. The winter sun came warm and low into Service Center 4. Some people typed away at laptops, others read, and three older men sat around a table, emphatically discussing (something), drinking tea and peeling oranges.


Bye, 2019!

Thanks for all the reading time!

January

– Harry Potter y la orden del fénix by J.K. Rowling (author), Alicia Dellepiane, Gemma Rovira Ortega (translators)
– The Emissary by Yoko Tawada (author), Margaret Mitsutani (translator)
– Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
– Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (author), George Bird (translator)
– The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

February

– The Library book by Susan Orlean
– La familia de Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela
– Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

March

– Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper
– The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
– A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

April

– Harry Potter y el misterio del príncipe by J.K. Rowling (author), Gemma Rovira Ortega (translator)
– Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Worsley
– Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
– Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar

May

– The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams
– The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
– The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee
– North by Scott Jurek (with Jenny Jurek)

June

– El Little Príncipe by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author), Ilan Stavan (translator)
– Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer
– The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
– Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank

July

– Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
– The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaantje
– The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
– The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
– High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
– The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager

August

– Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
– Crónicas marcianas by Ray Bradbury (author), Francisco Abelenda (translator)
– The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
– Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (author), William Weaver (translator)

September

– In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
– Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
– Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
– The Lost City of Z by David Grann
– A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
– The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

October

– When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
– Buzz, Sting, Bite by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (author), Lucy Moffatt (translator)
– Normal People by Sally Rooney
– O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

November

– Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
– Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
– Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
– Cantonese Love Stories by Dung Kai-Cheung
– Labrador by Kathryn Davis
– Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth

December

– Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
– Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
– Harry Potter y las reliquias de la muerte by J.K. Rowling (author), Gemma Rovira Ortega (translator)

Shanghai: week 14 (Hong Kong)

Outside the wild boars root
Without bending a bough underfoot

Joanna Newsom

My fight-or-flight response system is heavy on the flight side. One time I was walking with my friend Danica when a big dog behind a small fence startled us with loud snarling. Instinctively, I placed Danica (maybe with a gentle shove) between the fence and me and took off running down the street. Another time, I saw a huge spider crawling on my friend Maren’s shoulder. I screamed and ran away, then screamed again from a safe distance, and wouldn’t even come close enough to tell her there was a spider prancing about on her.

The wiring of my sympathetic nervous system isn’t great for friendships (luckily I have very patient friends), or for being out in nature, because everything in nature is a little bit scary. Which is probably one reason I didn’t finish a 260-mile hike in July with my big brother, and why, when Josh and I came upon a small herd of wild pigs on a trail in Hong Kong, I reflexively ran the opposite direction, bopped off the trail and scrambled down a hill. After a roundabout go of it, we got back to where we would have come to a trailhead had we stayed on the trail, and saw hikers and joggers happily going through the group of pigs. One jogger got out her phone and went right up to a small pig to get a picture. So maybe I didn’t need to panic, after all.

Despite, and because of, the wild pig encounter, that hike in Hong Kong was one of the loveliest of my life. We started the walk from our hotel, wound our way over steep hills, on dirt, concrete, and brick paths, went up so very many stairs, and almost always had a view of green hills and bays with yachts and boats and barges. Our plan was to walk about seven miles from our hotel to a well-known trail called Dragon’s Back, and walk five miles on that trail until it ended at Big Wave Bay. Josh did the navigating using a very useful and mostly precise app called maps.me, but the distance it predicted was not quite accurate.

After eleven miles we hadn’t reached Dragon’s Back yet. We were a little hot and a little under-hydrated and hungry, when we saw stairs leading down to a mostly secluded beach. It was late afternoon and the sun on the sand and water was very inviting, and after getting in the water we sat on the stony beach and ate Lara and Kind bars and dried hawthorn fruit, which is my favorite treat I’ve found here. Shortly after that we found Dragon’s Back and saw more views and paragliders and people. We didn’t make it all the way to Big Wave, but the unnamed, unexpected cove was just as good (or even better, who the heck knows) and at the end of our hike we enjoyed a dusky walk toward our hotel, through a quiet and tiered cemetery, and into bustling Hong Kong.

The next day, we took the Green Mini Bus 40 along the coast to Stanley Bay. I really like seaside towns in the off-season. They are quiet and seem to move a little slower than normal and smell like sea salt. I assume, in addition to it being November, that the protests decreased the number of tourists. We didn’t see any of the protests (and didn’t seek any out, worrying a little about endangering our Chinese visas), and offered (impractical) mental solidarity to them, while enjoying the privilege of being carefree tourists. After a swim in Stanley Bay and a picnic with everything that a picnic should include, we hiked toward Repulse Bay.

It was a shorter hike, about five miles, and the first leg meandered past two Buddhist temples, quiet and with incense burning. We had gone about four miles when we came to some steep stairs that lead to a road that we would follow before jumping onto the last bit of trail. Josh was walking a little ahead of me and suddenly stopped short.

“That is a big mother—” he said, taking a step or two closer to get a better look. Blocking the top of the stairs were a stout wild pig and her two adolescent children. So I said, “Okay, we don’t really need to go to Repulse Bay, bye,” and turned around, because that’s what I do. Luckily, Josh was reluctant to turn back (we were tired and wanted to sit on the beach and were so close), and we waited until we saw the piggy family trot into the woods, then we continued up the stairs. I’m not sure what plans the wild pigs had, but I didn’t want to be included in them, and worried they might like to chase after and then eat a running human, so I made myself go slowly, but was very ready to fly.

And it turns out it was well worth coming close to battling the wild pigs. I swam in sunsetted water— one of the best ocean swims I’ve ever had—and read on the beach, and drank an overpriced vacation coffee and watched the sun do its thing over the hills and ships and water.



Things that I like, pt. 1

ferry-ride-and-jellyfish weekends


bullet train trips to cities with stairs and woods


Tintin store visits with the same friends on different continents


late evening flower purchases from a man on a scooter


fruit-shop cats: different colored eyes and apple-box naps


Star supermarKet! Everything you could ever need, plus the friendliest people


Shanghai: week 9

And Polo answers, “Traveling, you must realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form.”

Invisible Cities

Flying into the Tokyo Narita airport feels like flying into Kansas City, but not in a bad way. Even though I was excited to see Japan (and Asia, for that matter) for the first time as we descended toward Tokyo for a brief layover, I was sort of relieved to see the familiar bunches of trees and quilt-y farms and low-hanging clouds. It made Adventure feel a little more like adventure, which is, to be honest, more my type of outing.

Before leaving I was very eager to move to Shanghai. I felt antsy in Minneapolis and I wasn’t sure What I Wanted to Do (which disappointingly probably means how I wanted to make money), and I am very glad to have come here. I’m excited to explore other parts of China while here, and, in the future, to explore other countries. At the same time, I’m trying to figure out the value of having Experiences and Adventures versus being near people that I know and love.

To be sure, there is a lot that I like about Shanghai. There are bakeries and incredible public transportation systems and Mandarin lessons and fruit shops on every block, and there are tall, lit-up buildings, and parks with their park-cats and their denizens practicing musical instruments. There are the innumerable delightful daily interactions, like when the corner store clerk plopped two Chupa Chup lollipops in our grocery bag on October 31 with a grin and a very heartfelt: “Halloween!”

But China is also far away from a lot of people that I really like (for example, you, seeing as how you’re reading this [hi, Mom and Dad!]).

Shortly after starting my new job, I had a tremulous week of feeling wholly uncertain whether it had been the right decision to come here. I think a lot of that was getting adjusted to a great many things, including a very different type of work (so many children suddenly descended into my life). But even though the novel context magnified the emotions and now I feel much more at ease, I still want to unravel this desire to go out and about and see the world at large when that means geographically distancing myself from familiar and loving people.

I once had a college advisor tell me to abandon traveling because photographs just end up in the trashcan and to become a lawyer instead. I don’t think that there is any inherent merit in traveling over not traveling (in fact, if you don’t like traveling, it can probably be one of the most miserable things to subject yourself to), but I do like it, and it is what I want to be doing right now. It’s more than just photographs (even though I value those—I take dozens of really unfocused pictures a day); it’s about—and this is the part I can’t quite explain to myself—that shapeless genre of Experiencing New Things. I like the joyful struggle of trying to communicate in a new language and I like looking at a menu and pointing to a picture and seeing what I get, and sometimes I even like the jostle of walking among dozens of pedestrians and dodging scooters taking shortcuts across sidewalks.

But I also like, and miss, the smaller adventures of being closer to home: learning to fish and doing crossword puzzles in Broomfield; taking walks and watching fireflies in Columbia; playing pingpong and losing at chess in Lafayette; feeding chickens and eating in the fresh air in Boulder; drinking tea and talking short fiction in Denver; running along the Mississippi in Minneapolis; taking a reluctant dog for a morning walk and stumbling up the Great Sand Dunes in Alamosa.

Maybe it’s just that I’m realizing you have to choose one place to be in at a time, and that’s sort of a bummer when where I’ve chosen to be means being 6,000 miles away from quite a few places that feel like home. So, yeah, I’m glad that things don’t always look very different all the time.