Sunday, December 31, 2006
If this is a milestone, then the only thing it tells us is that we're on the wrong road.
Friday, December 29, 2006
With Abe still riding the nationalist wave in Tokyo, and the six way talks involving Russia and the Chinese stalled like a second hand Lada, the question isn't so much whether Kim Jong-il will listen, but how he can be manoeuvered into concessions without the whole thing toppling down, taking much of East Asia and the rest of the dollar with it.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Monday, December 25, 2006
We ticked off the traditions one by one: a fried breakfast followed by half an hour trying, and failing, to get one of those new interactive DVD quizzes to work, then start reading or fall asleep on the coach. Just after noon I got my bike out and pedalled to Marsden Bay, returning just in time for dinner, hurriedly punctual as ever at the stroke of two.
Whatever happened to Christmas tele? Did it really use to be that much better, or did I just have nothing more interesting to do when I was ten years old? I ended up watching a whole hour's worth - Doctor Who - over the last two days, and even that felt like slightly too much. Instead we knocked back a couple of bottles of wine and played a board game in the back room, giving up drunk, lethargic and stuffed full of food just as it was beginning to get interesting.
And that, to me, is what Christmas is all about, not the money swindle consumer mentality, Santa Claus or the religious add-ons. In what used to be the dead of winter it's still magical to have a few days with friends and family where all you have to do is eat, drink and be artificially merry.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
It's Christian political correctness gone mad!
Friday, December 22, 2006
As comforting as his words of sympathy will be to the children facing Christmas without their mothers, I can't quite shake the feeling that Richard is a loathsome, repugnant, braying, talentless hack moron racist long overdue a bit of electronically aided psychiatric help.
Here's another sensible idea: stop bombing innocent people and supporting the use of torture, scrap ID cards and use the money you save on IT consultants to improve intelligence and border security, identifying the people who pose a danger to national security and leaving the rest of us to go about our normal everyday business free of molestation from inept, illiberal idiots.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Friday, December 15, 2006
Especially when all we get from the people in power is precisely the last thing we need: more hot air.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
I don't suppose that one would have made many headlines, but it would have been a lot closer to the truth.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
If he'd intentionally left home with a loaded gun that morning, and had fired off a few rounds while waving it in the air, would he have been charged with dangerous shooting?
The effect is the same. Why not the crime?
Thursday, December 07, 2006
We caused the mess. The very least we can do is help clean it up.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
I knew today was going to be a wash-out so, with nothing better to do, I had a long walk around Sunderland city centre yesterday afternoon. In keeping with the season, lights had been slung across the bare branches and an ice rink set up by the bandstand in Mowbray Park. In the paved oblong between the glass front of the Bridges Shopping Centre and the bombshelter of a station, little wooden huts sold mulled wine and crepes and pipe-cleaner toys wrung from metal.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
You know, I think I wouldn't mind seeing her again.
Friday, December 01, 2006
It looks increasingly like the government will try to tackle traffic congestion - and raise lots of money - by forcing motorists to pay to use roads. The idea works in principle, but I still don't see why taxpayers' cash should pay for improvements to a privately owned rail network, particularly when the train operators keep raising ticket prices by way above inflation. Will even more public funding lead to cheaper fares or higher share dividends? If you price drivers off the roads on to expensive, overcrowded trains isn't that just another form of taxation? And why is renationalisation still a dirty word?
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Friday, November 24, 2006
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Friday, November 17, 2006
Yesterday was a glorious autumnal day, the kind when everything's in sharper focus. On my morning jog I could see clean across from Gateshead to Penshaw Monument, while the wind scraped clouds rolled out like dough across the sky. After work I went out for a few drinks with a primary school teacher I met last week. As fun as it was I couldn't help wondering what we'd find to talk about once the travel stories ran out. She was obviously looking for something serious, or at least something more serious than I can be bothered with right now.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
If these parasites really wanted more of an atmosphere, they would talk about cutting ticket prices, creating singing areas or bringing back the terraces. It was antiquated facilities, poor policing, metal fences, hooliganism and overcrowding that caused tragedies like Hillsborough, not the act of standing itself. But then there's no money to be made in any of that, is there?
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Thirty seven years since we last won a trophy - with this lot it'll be almost as long till we next win a game.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
If you're looking for a job, Donald, I hear they have plenty of vacancies in the infantry these days.
Nine weeks after I applied for my criminal record check I received a letter from Newcastle Council telling me that I need similar checks done in every country I've ever lived in. The only help I was given was a fax back telephone number, which only has details for two out of the five countries. I'm surprised they didn't set the letter to self destruct as soon as I'd read it. From what I can gather, I'll need to visit the embassies of China, Japan, Korea and the Czech Republic in person, forking out cash for travel, postage, consular fees, official translations and having my fingerprints taken. The Italians will let me do everything by post, or at least I think they will. But unlike K, I won't be getting any kind of job in a school until it's all finished.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Monday, November 06, 2006
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
With the start of winter comes talk of divorce. We've decided to do everything in the Czech Republic rather than here, mainly because of the cost. In Czech law, as long as you've been married for a year and separated for six months then no more questions need to be asked. All we have to pay is £20 for the document itself, and then around the same again for the translations. No wonder they have the highest divorce rate in Europe.
I still have conflicting emotions about the whole thing. On the one hand, it's the very last thing that I ever wanted to happen and I can't help thinking that I'm giving up way too easily. Nonetheless, it wasn't my decision to walk away from the marriage, and I'm certain that there'd be no hope of reconciliation even if I wanted there to be. Under the circumstances, a clean break is doubtless best for both of us.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
It seemed a pity to waste a sunny day so I took the metro to Seaburn and walked the four and a bit miles along the beach and the riverbank to St Peter's. Watching the yachts circling each other out at sea made me think back to those long Sundays sitting on the sea wall in Siracusa, wandering narrow streets lined with leaning, biscuit-coloured palazzi that crumbled like stale cake, listening to the World Service by my front door as the sun went down over the Ionian Sea, oil tankers crowding the horizon on the way up the coast to the refineries at Augusta. Sunderland's not quite so exotic, but it'll do for now.
Before that, I'm off to the seaside.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Luckily, big things had happened in the morning. A letter came about an interview for an ESOL teaching job, then I found out I'd got a month's worth of paid work on Monday and Wednesday evenings at the place where I've been working voluntarily. Add on the three and a half days I'm putting in at Newcastle College and I should be rolling in the cash come Christmas.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
So now I'm working there every Monday for the forseeable future, plus I'm continuing with the registers on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday afternoons. It'll be a squeeze now I've just got a three day weekend to rest up in, I'm sure, but hopefully I'll manage to last as long as Christmas.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
My first go at gardening wasn't half bad at all. I grew asters and marigolds from seed, got four or five courgettes, more basil and sage leaves than I knew what to do with, a plastic container full of spring onions, and I haven't had to buy a single tomato since I came back from China. This morning I noticed that, thanks to global warming, even the plants I stuck in the corner of the garden as an experiment have turned out all right. In fact, the only things that failed were the garlic bulbs I tried to grow in pots in the greenhouse. I might have another go at those next year, if I haven't stumbled across another hobby by then.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
In retrospect, I should have known what was coming. I'd touched on some examples of her recent selfishness - such as emailing me a couple of weeks ago to moan that she was really down, had realised that she was losing something special and just wanted to be in my arms; then following it up the very next day with a brief message informing me that she was now in a "really good mood" because she'd solved the problem at work that had apparently been the sole cause of her depression. I was trying to caution not antagonise her, to show how her more thoughtless actions affect others, and could affect her in the future. As my email was friendly and non-judgemental I naively imagined she would be big enough to at least listen to my point of view.
Her response was swift. She never loved me - why else would she have allowed me to go to China? As proof, she was always happy to see me go because she could finally have her own space. Conveniently enough, she neglected to mention that this was space in which she started an affair with her brother's married best friend, which is obviously the very best kind of space a person can have. Next up, I was the selfish one, damned because I hadn't offered to go back to the Czech Republic with her. As the temporary boyfriend was still juggling her, his wife and children for a full three weeks after I returned from China to hear that our marriage was dead and her flight home had already been booked, I'm slightly baffled by her revisionism.
But not really baffled, of course. It's much easier to project blame than to dwell on the consequences of our own actions. Nor does any of it particularly matter - whether she loved me or not is wholly immaterial as far as I'm concerned. Despite the disastrous end to our short-lived marriage, it would be immature and pig-headed of me to obliterate the good times we shared together. If she wants to do so, then that's a matter for her alone.
It's sad that it had to end like this but I'm only very fleetingly angry and not at all bitter. In the couple of dozen emails and two phone calls we've exchanged since she left she has never once expressed any kind of regret or understanding (I did get a text message twenty minutes after I told her that I'd found out about the affair with a few easily-typed platitudes - you are the best man I've ever met, I didn't deserve you), only self-pity and requests for help with tax forms and translations for her new job. Enough is enough: my life is better without her; we have no more ties, only the memories.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Monday, October 16, 2006
The weekend was obscured by the shadow of that relationship; I felt the extent to which I'd grown accustomed to living with someone, sharing touches and feelings, knowing that they're always there. On the occasions when my shoulder isn't killing me, I feel the loss of those things rather than the absence of Katka herself, though perhaps the two are really bound together. Fortunately, both can be replaced.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Autumn has arrived, bringing crisp, chilly air and pale blue skies. I drove down to Durham with my brother this morning. After a quick look inside the cathedral we walked along the riverbank and up to the Durham Light Infantry Museum, re-treading old footsteps every inch of the way.
More memories yesterday afternoon. At a loose end after a late morning trip to the cinema, I took the metro out to the coast at South Shields. Walking along the sand, I retraced part of the route I used to jog along before I went to Japan for the first time, the place by the rocks where I played boules with Myung-hee and my parents in the boiling summer just after I got back from Sicily, and the bit of sand where Katka and I stretched out by our bikes a few weeks before I left for China. Was that really only four months ago?
I don't regret going to China one little bit. If I'd gone back to the Czech Republic instead, I'd probably still be married now, but it would only have delayed the inevitable by a few months, a year at most. I think she'd already cheated on me once before then, though I didn't know it that day by the sea; I'm sure she'd have done it again, and I would've ended up wasting an important part of my life.
I don't spend very much time thinking about any of this. Honestly.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I always knew how insecure she was, but I trusted her to resist the temptation of drunkenly following up on a few kind words and a bit of attention. What really stung was not her cheating but the sheer extent of her immaturity and selfishness: from the moment she arrived back in the Czech Republic at the beginning of July I ceased to exist as a person, let alone as a husband. I noticed the change immediately - no more phone calls, only five or six short, semi-glacial replies to my emails in the whole six weeks she was back home - but, at the time, I was just happy she was enjoying herself...
This hurt me deeply, of course, but it also helps. It makes it so much easier to let go.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
We set at half past eight yesterday morning, and were starting up the side of Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain, around four hours later. Unfortunately, the clouds came down quicker than we could go up, so that by the time we'd reached the top visibility was down to around twenty metres, and the wind, rain and steam-like gusts of cloud were almost knocking us sideways. Still, for the half minute or so that we were absolutely alone at the rocky summit, we were indisputably the highest, and very likely the coldest and wettest, men in England.
After a long breakfast this morning, we drove north and hiked around the edge of Loweswater. Back for more when spring comes.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
And then we were walking out of the shabby, deserted airport and into a black and yellow taxi, bumping along dirt roads, rounding people and cows and auto-rickshaws. It remains scorched into my mind: the baking heat, the beggars pressed up against the windows, the menacing pandemonium of it all. We both had exactly the same thought: What the hell have we done?
Hell was the street between our hotel and the train station, lined on both sides with open fronted shacks. Small fires burnt here and there, naked children ran along the edge of what passed for the road, hunched women stared at us through exhausted, vacant eyes.
Thankfully, things got better after that.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Monday, October 02, 2006
Sometimes I think I'm really ok, but then I walk into somewhere as simple as a dentist's surgery and am immediately struck by the thought that last time I was here I was with Katka, or she was waiting for me back at home, or we'd just eaten dinner. I felt that in the three or four weeks before last Monday, of course, but it didn't have the stamp of finality back then.
I'd been watching a documentary on Albert Speer and the Nuremburg Trials right before I read that email last week. I wonder how long my mind will continue to associate the two events? Funnily enough, I often joked that some of her opinions were a bit fascist, and her infidelity does seem like a fairly final solution.
Good news: easyJet have emailed me a £25 voucher. Ironically, it's an apology for them cancelling Katka's flight home at the beginning of July. She had to re-book and wait twenty-four hours. Shame it wasn't a couple of months...
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Everything else I did this week seems utterly irrelevant, though there was a little new growth among the carnage that followed Monday night. The temporary job went well, and my ESOL teaching career is slowly taking shape. On Thursday I found out that I may well be getting my first paid work from the place I currently volunteer at. The following morning I had a phone call asking if I'd be interested in applying for another position, this time teaching people from settled immigrant communities who don't have enough English to hold down decent jobs.
And I need to give this a try. I crave normality, and I think I have done to varying extents for at least the last year and a half. Despite its many attractions, I've had enough of moving around. I feel a need in me to settle somewhere, to feel my feet are firmly rooted in the ground. I guess that's why I was so eager to get married - I have this terror of ending up like Jay Gatsby, thinking that I can just reach out and grasp something only to find it's already silently slipped away.
I'm still jogging - every day except two for over three weeks now - I read whenever I can concentrate, and I'm listening to stuff that I'd neglected for too long - David Bowie, Al Green...it reminds me that there were a lot of things I never got round to doing with Katka. I don't want that to sentence to be misconstrued: I could have done no more at the time given the circumstances that prevailed, Katka being Katka and me being me. There are no what ifs.
Life isn't easy, but I don't suppose that's a bad thing. We learn and re-evaluate, we recover and move on. Eventually.
Saturday, September 30, 2006
I did some things that I'm not very proud of, but they were the only things that I could think of doing at the time. I can't say with any exactitude how I feel right now, only that I know I must be patient, and I know that I can't blame anyone else for what happens from now on in my life.
So I start by moving forwards; just tiny little steps at first. I called Katka and told her I forgive her, that I know she did only what she had to do. I refuse to carry any anger and bitterness with me, wherever I go from here.
Tomorrow is October. A whole new month. I'm sure I've always hated September: daddy long legs and the end of the summer. It doesn't help that Katka left so many things lying around. What do I do with the nail varnish and hair spray, or the half full box of tampons on the windowsill? I can hardly give them to the next girl. But it does help that when I look around the room I don't only see things that are intrinsically linked to her - this was also the place that my grandparents lived. My grandmother died six years ago, when I was in Korea. I remember coming into the darkened room on New Year's Eve to say goodbye to the empty space, fighting back the tears.
"You don't weep unless you've been happy first; tears always mean something enviable."
Last night in the pub I felt like I was back in a world of limitless opportunities, which I may or may not be able to take. The one constant I have is that you can never say never, and that you can't know what you'd do in a situation until you've been in that exact same thing. An example: on the morning of the day I met Katka I spent ten minutes explaining to someone all the reasons why I couldn't be bothered having any kind of relationship with anyone. Six months later I was married.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Monday, September 18, 2006
Tonight I was back at the ESOL centre in Newcastle, helping out with evening classes for refugees and migrant workers. It's liberating but strange being a volunteer in somebody else's lesson. Usually, I'm well-prepared and in control in the classroom; now I'm now just one more pair of hands, circling cramped tables and scurrying between the students and the photocopier. This is not very good for my huge teacher's ego. Or my feet.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The last day of sunshine: we drove south along the coast through the dead towns of the East Durham coalfield. At Seaham, the pit shafts had been replaced by orange-brick supermarkets and shoebox housing estates. Above the pebble-strewn beach there were more retirement homes than pubs, more parking spaces than people.
We didn't stay long.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Mid-September and the sun's still out. In Newcastle this is as sure a sign of abrupt climatic change as the shrinking of the polar ice cap. As if by decree, wobbly-bellied men stripped off to the waist and old-aged couples drove to coastal car parks to take the air, silently gazing out over the North Sea with the side windows rolled down an inch or two. Prolonging my latest health kick, I cycled the twenty-odd miles to St Mary's Lighthouse and back in the afternoon, climbed 137 spiralling steps to the top, and saw all the way along the coast from the white wind turbines at Blyth to the graphite-shaded pier escaping the north bank of the Tyne. I'm now attempting to douse my thighs.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Friday, September 08, 2006
So we beat on, boats against the current...
I feel restless at home. I need to keep moving. On Wednesday afternoon I wandered around North Shields Fish Quay, climbing the steep stone steps for views of the concrete-coloured river and a warm pint in the Wooden Doll. Yesterday I went to the Roman fort at Segedunum, where I looked into lots of glass display cases and breezed round the baths and excavations. Today I spent the best part of the afternoon at Bowes Railway, touring workshops and old coal mine rolling stock. In between, I've written a few emails, uploaded loads of photos, filled in some forms so I can start my new, and as yet unpaid, job as an ESOL tutor for Newcastle Council, read the 500 odd pages of John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener, started jogging for the third time in four years, and done very little else of any consequence at all. As usual, I'm waiting. For what, I'm not yet sure.
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Saturday, September 02, 2006
Yesterday I went camping with Katka, my brother and Derek Wood, in some ways the most interesting of my acquaintances. Clouds and showers blew over our heads all day but we managed to have a good walk around the village and part of the lake followed by a drunken night's sleep relatively undisturbed by the fact that we'd mistakenly brought just a single two man tent for four people. A couple of times I caught myself thinking that this would be my last ever trip with Katka. I'm still prone to bouts of pointless sentimentality in spite of all the people and places I've left behind.
The rain came heavily this morning and looks like it might never stop. We drove home happy but silent, covered in midge bites.
Friday, September 01, 2006
I arrived back in Newcastle at 1pm yesterday afternoon. Within ten minutes I found out that the face to face discussion I was expecting to have with Katka was, in reality, a fait accompli. Result: my marriage is now over.
The rain came everyday while I was in Shanghai, big thunderstorms on the first two days and then damp, clinging fog all Wednesday that made the big buildings of Pudong look like emasculated ghosts standing along the riverbank. I suppose I should have seen the ominous signs even then. Despite that, I liked the city much better second time round. The narrow pavements and leafy streets of the French Concession and the enjoyably ghastly Old Chinese Town made me feel like I was in a city with an identity of its own. After a while, I even began to like the fake watch touts and art student scammers on Nanjing Lu.
Things will be fine.
Monday, August 28, 2006
I met up with Derek and Jo, two friends from Newcastle, at the hostel around six o'clock. We went out for few happy hour beers in the French Concession and then came back by way of a Russian restaurant and a convenience store, laden with bottles of Tsingtao lager. First I need to deal with the de-hydration, then I'll work out what I'm doing today.
Friday, August 25, 2006
A few things that still make me smile: inane western presenters talking about eating candied hawk on CCTV9; sunburnt, topless men who push into queues at train stations; waitresses who hand you the menu and simulataneously whip out their order pad; the Volkswagen Santana - the poor man's car of choice; takeaway aubergine and tomato every lunchtime; people taking outdoor showers in their underwear; students using sellotape to strip the ink off their paper when they make a mistake; motorbikes on the pavement; students telling each other that "you only know what the government says" - a conversation I thought it better to truncate. Although the teaching industry and raw capitalism can sometimes be dispiriting, I've never regretted coming here. China has been an experience.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Monday, August 21, 2006
Another interesting weekend. After a twelve hour shift on Saturday, I took a late morning bus to Hangzhou and walked around the western edge of the lake to Lingyin Si, one of the few major Buddhist temples to survive the Cultural Revolution. The place was more like a zoo: coach party after coach party led by tour guides screaming into megaphones charged through grottoes full of Buddhist carvings; slouching policemen and tourists with expensive digital cameras pushed aside devout middle-aged Chinese people waving burning incense sticks as everyone clambered to get a view of the orange-robed monks. How I love Sunday sightseeing!
Friday, August 18, 2006
Later, just for a laugh, I turned on CCTV9 - China's Newspeak language answer to CNN or BBC World. The latest in their nightly reports extolling the new Qinghai to Tibet railway was a half hour panegyric to the environmental sensitivity of the construction workers. Since the railway opened on July 1st - when the "eyes of the world were all on Golmud" - 400,000 tourists have swamped Tibet. There's currently a three day queue for train tickets and a week-long wait to visit the Potala Palace (probably a bit longer if you're the Dalai Lama). Near one of the stations, a Tibetan businessman proudly showed off his gigantic new plasma screen TV and microwave. His wife stared blankly at the remote control and cooked butter tea on a stove heated by horse dung.
In other news, I learned the name of the company chosen as the official wine supplier to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the location of both the Milk Capital of China and the Kite Capital of the World. I'm still waiting to find out why elderly Chinese men think it's acceptable to walk around the streets in just underpants and flip-flops on balmy summer evenings, though. Maybe tomorrow.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
I'm glad I came but I don't think I would like to do it again. Summer schools - the next week and a half excepted - are just too much work, too little organisation and not enough fun. I'm looking forward to a long, long holiday.
Monday, August 14, 2006
Going on a five-hour hike with just a guidebook map, a small bottle of water and a shed load of suncream probably isn't the most sensible thing to when the temperature's nudging forty degrees, but needs must when you're working six days a week. I got off the bus just south of West Lake at 11am, aiming for a narrow trail called the Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies and, eventually, the famous Dragon Well village, home of China's most expensive green tea leaves. I ended up finding the village but not the trail, instead wandering along a circuitous route that passed car parks, Chinese kids bathing in muddy pools, a hidden cave full of Buddhist carvings, and a tea room that had pictures of a confused looking Queen Elizabeth taking tea with smiling Chinese politicians all around the walls. In the room where I was hurriedly seated there were a few mushy slices of watermelon, two cigarette butts, an cork-topped thermos of hot water and a single scruffy armchair: I eventually concluded the Queen had probably knocked back her cuppa somewhere else. Or did the price suddenly double for her, too, when she passed on the chance to buy a big bag of overpriced tea leaves? A sudden thunderstorm meant I had to abort the last leg of the walk, so I took the bus back to town and stuffed my face with pizza in a Chinese owned, Australian themed place above Starbucks and across from the Ferrari Store.
I got home around 8pm, had some sushi for supper, knocked back a bottle of Tsingtao and lay on my bed until I fell asleep. The things you can do when you don't have any classes on a Monday morning!
Friday, August 11, 2006
This week has really dragged. I've hit maximum contract hours with six full teaching hours everyday, which means, including preparation time, I'm now working solidly from eight in the morning until gone six in the evening. In the evenings, I have just enough energy left for a long walk home before I flop onto my bed to drink beer and watch DVDs. I've been asleep by eleven every night. I hardly needed to come all the way to China to do any of that.
Thankfully, the teaching begins to wind down next week.
Monday, August 07, 2006
Despite its inauspicious beginnings, the weekend actually turned out pretty well. Saturday was poker night - playing for jiao (half pence) coins, I cleaned up and made enough for my bus fare to Hangzhou and back. Which is how I found myself walking very, very slowly around West Lake, one of the top five tourist attractions in the entire country, yesterday afternoon.
Unfortunately the lake's popularity ensures that it suffers from all the gawdy excesses of modern Chinese tourism. Restored pagodas reached by escalators cut into the hillsides; twelve seater golf buggies laden with sightseers bump up and down over three hundred year old stone bridges; mass parades led by flag waving guides; boat trips and musical fountains. With a bit of patience, though, you can still find some peace and quiet: wander through the willow trees lining the main path and you'll find families dipping their feet into the cool water. And at the botanical gardens I had a bamboo forest all to myself for the best part of an hour.
Next weekend, weather permitting, I want to hike through the hills to Hangzhou's tea plantations. Only five more days to grind through till then.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
For an hour and a half in the early afternoon I shared a ten by ten metre room with twenty-two Chinese kids. My only instructions were to play lots of games, to avoid teaching them anything new, and not to prepare any handouts or printed materials. Less teaching, more babysitting.
Luckily, it was a one-off. Instead, I now have a one-on-lesson for three hours a day with a 16 year old kid who has very rich parents and very little desire to learn English. The first class started at 8.30 this morning.
I need sleep, beer and a little bit of silence.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Five minutes later the whole building was down on the street. Some smoking cigarettes, some gossiping by torchlight, some sitting calmly on the kerb. The neighbourhood supermarket didn't sell candles so the owner - fat and barechested with red marks down his back that made him look like he'd been attacked by a suction cup - lent me a torch for the night. When I got back, a workman had clambered up a lampost without a harness and was scrutinising the power lines, while a crowd of people gathered on the road below. As I opened my door the lights all came back on. The big white box on the wall started belching ice cold air. The front doors closed one by one.
Monday, July 31, 2006
Shanghai was, in the end, only Shanghai. Big buildings, neon lights and Western multi-nationals on every corner. A composite of every other big Asian city I've ever visited. A characterless Tokyo with a motorway of a river. In the evening we sat in bars full of Westerners, then passed round cans of Japanese lager on the promenade across from the Bund. Homeless people were curled up in the doorways, dark shapes under brightly-lit buildings, the unseen poverty beneath the conspicuous wealth. In the big cities China is no longer even nominally communist: the system merely remains as a means of control. I ended up drinking too much on an empty stomach and spewing mushroom slices up on the hostel floor. The next day I crawled baked and dehydrated around the Bund and Pudong taking photos and feeling nothing.
The most interesting part of the trip was the train ride home: an airport-like station with five floors and a huge glass roof; the peasant-faced man next to me who gnawed chicken legs in between loud mobile phone conversations, and the child's musical candle across the aisle that played a tinny version of Happy Birthday on an uninterrupted loop for an hour and a half. The uniformed staff swept cigarette ends off the floor with brushes made of twigs and gave loud sales pitches from the middle of the carriage for cheap bracelets and children's toys. I spent most of the time staring out of the window trying, and failing, to shut out the senseless commotion.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Another Saturday morning.
A malign atmosphere pervades the teachers' room, largely due to the sudden necessity of writing student reports on top of giving tests, preparing lessons and teaching the kind of teenage kids who like to draw pictures of themselves shooting their teachers to death on the whiteboard. Some of the newer teachers have reached the end of their tethers - hardly surprising given the lack of support they've been getting recently. Shanghai couldn't have come at a better time.
I felt really tired last night so I left early and took the long route home up the few hundred steps to the Martyrs' Monument to see the setting sun, then right along the top of the ridge, where I stopped at a restored pavilion and watched the neon come on one by one as the day began to die.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
After moving to the UK, it took Katka a couple of months, two branch visits, a signature and four official documents before she could open a bank account. Here in China things are evidently a little simpler.
To mark the halfway point of our teaching contracts, ten of us are off to Shanghai this Saturday afternoon on an overnighter, returning late Sunday evening. Hopefully the city will live up to expectations. As usual, the organisation of transport and accommodation hasn't been entirely straightforward - if only the Chinese bank account principle extended as far as someone booking a hostel and sorting out bus and train tickets for me before I even realise I'm going to need them.
This week I've also managed to whittle my preparation time down to around two and a half hours, which means I'm now working eight hour days with an extra two hours on top for general time wasting, Internet surfing and eating. Life's a blast.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Saturday was strange. Very, very strange. We set off from Xiaoshan just after two in the afternoon for the forty minute drive to Hangzhou. Newly built apartment blocks had sprung up on either side of the dual-carriageway, many with Alpine style roofs or mini-pagodas and Eiffel Towers tacked on top. Rose bushes had been planted every few metres in the central reservation, stretching mile after mile after mile. Crossing the river, flat barges moved silently through the grey water like gunboats on the Mekong.
Then came the paintball. In stifling heat I sat through an hour long induction conducted entirely in Chinese, during which I gathered precisely two things: we would be carrying full size AK47 replicas up and down a hill, and we'd be shooting high velocity beebee pellets at each other rather than splodges of paint. My enthusiasm plummeted still further when the costumes arrived - camouflage trousers that ended at my ankles, a plastic GIs helmet and a Darth Vader mask with a few pin-prick size holes for ventilation and no peripheral vision.
We started the game minus half our body weight after half an hour's marching around and standing to attention practice, which the Chinese kids lapped up with worrying eagerness. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell the foreigners what we were supposed to be doing, so I ended up still playing the first game as the second one was starting. In a blow to national stereotypes, the French girl quit after two minutes while the Pole fought off five hundred Asians in a desperate rearguard action before she surrendered and her home was razed to the ground.
The barbecue was pandemonium. A free for all involving fat Chinese rich kids, skewered raw meat, live shrimp, smoke and fire. I stayed in the corner cooking bits of tofu. The karaoke kicked off later, at almost exactly the same time as the heavy rain started. A 15 year old kid stripped off to the waist and started gyrating in front of the teachers. Another used his camera flash to strobe the dancefloor after the techno music started banging out. As we drove home huge forks of ligtning ripped through the night sky.
Friday, July 21, 2006
Tomorrow I'm going paintballing with forty-odd rich Chinese teenagers and the other six summer teachers. Tonight I'm going home to sleep.
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Middle-aged women doing step-aerobics on the steps of the Bank of China building. A shop that sells nothing but shoes for very small children stays open until 10.30 at night seven days of the week. Surprisingly, custom is scarce. KFC playing a muzak melodied Chinese language version of Jingle Bells on a Monday evening in mid-July. A dog refuses to piss in a bush so its owner spends thirty seconds waving her finger in its face before smacking its bottom twice. (I wonder if the one child policy has had some strange psychological effect on broody Chinese women.)
Xiaoshan itself remains almost iredeemably dull. Yesterday I noticed a student-made poster in one of the classrooms on the city's tourist attractions: many cars, some KFCs, many tall buildings, many people...
Book early to avoid disappointment.
Monday, July 17, 2006
The beginning of week three.
Yesterday nine of us took the hour-long bus ride to Shaoxing, forty-odd kilometres, several million concrete buildings and one or two rice paddies to the east of of here. After walking along the canal banks in the rain we took a city bus to East Lake, where we squeezed into wooden boats propelled by gap toothed old men who pedalled with their bare feet and steered with long bamboo poles under low stone bridges and through green and blue striped caves. Hiking back from the far side of the lake, we passed a bamboo wood, green tea plantations and a tea house clinging to the rock face next to aubergine plants and oriental orchids.
Judging from the guide book description I'd expected Shaoxing to be a pleasant provincial backwater, a bit like one of those small towns in Northumberland that have a castle at one side of town and a river at the other, and very little else in between. I discovered that very few places on the east coast of China can be described as backwaters anymore - little Shaoxing accounts for almost 70% of the region's textile trade; plush hotels, western restaurants and their indigineous imitators like Kung Fu Fast Food and Winner Pizza throng the centre of town, while huge out of town textile supermarkets and foreign joint ventures congregate on the outskirts. The concrete in front of the train station almost gleamed.
Next weekend we're going paintballing in Hangzhou with a busload of teenage Chinese students. One more strange experience to look forward to.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Back home, it was way too hot to stay cooped up indoors so I changed and went straight back out to investigate the neighbourhood. I walked up and down sidestreets lined with hole-in-the-wall shops selling dried fish, men's polo shirts and, bizarrely, cleaning implements and hard hats. I found a pond overlooked by decrepit apartment buildings and a main road with a bridge made out of two eight-metre-high dragons, their mouths closing over a pearl in the middle of the water. Further on, a wide street had a dozen tyre fitters on one side and the same number of hairdresser shops on the other. I stopped at a convenience store, bought two beers, and went home to sleep.
Monday, July 10, 2006
I didn't stay up to watch the final. The World Cup was a serious disappointment - and not just because of England's clueless coach and overrated, pampered superstars. How many really great games were there in the whole tournament? Three? Four? Fewer? Too many teams care less about winning than they do about just not losing. Things will get worse before they get better.
I left home just after noon with an empty backpack and no suncream intending to walk round the corner to the air-conditioned supermarket and back. Somehow I ended up hiking in the hills edging the north of town for the next three hours. At a small temple old women fed me sticky rice and fruit while female monks in black capes intoned rapid scripture in front of a seated Buddha. From the top of the hill Xiaoshan spread out in every direction, apartment buildings sticking up through the haze on the horizon all the way to Hangzhou, small neighbourhoods clustered at the foot of skyscrapers waiting for the wrecking ball.
Saturday, July 08, 2006
Then came the heat, accompanied by the shrill wail of invisible cicadas. The temperature went from bearable to cloying faster than a Ferrari does 0-60. You end up feeling as if you're saturated with sweat, like a sopping wet sponge that's been wrung out countless times but never fully dries.
My shirt was stuck to my back about two minutes after I left the flat just after eleven. Xiaoshan has wide pavements and traffic lights that count down in seconds. Not that it makes crossing the road any easier. If the customer is God in China, then the pedestrian is Cristiano Ronaldo. The green man was lit solid and the counter told me I had twenty seconds left before the colour changed, and still I stepped into two lines of moving traffic - cars, buses, motorbikes, pedal-rickshaws and cycles turning right into the street in front of me and, on the far side of the road, the same volume of traffic turning right out of it. In the centre you're vaguely safe - only motorbikes and taxi drivers veer across the middle of the road. Essentially, it's a leap of faith.
Even though I don't have any classes on Saturdays, we have to be at the school for six hours on top of the five hundred we do during the week. So far today I've sent three emails, composed one blog entry, listened to three CDs, ate one meal and prepared all of Monday's and half of one of Tuesday's lessons. This evening we're planning our first visit to the KTV - Chinese karaoke.
Friday, July 07, 2006
Last night I went to the Taiwanese place next door and ordered food by the point at pictures on the wall method. I thought was ordering curry rice but apparently I'd selected the scrumptious processed meat and dry breadcrumb sandwich, a plate of fried dumplings and a large coca cola instead. Things got stranger on the way home: a middle aged woman let her dog foul the grass verge by the main road, then took its left paw in her right hand and walked the mutt upright across the zebra crossing as if it were a small child. Further along, at the top of the park that stretches along the side of Xiaoshan's Venice style waterway, an open air ballroom dancing class had attracted forty or fifty people, who were twirling about on a patch of concrete under the streetlights. I stood and watched for ten minutes, sipping tastless beer from a rapidly warming can, the weird scene backlit by red and blue neon, three quarters of a moon poking through the clouds, and a searchlight sweeping back and forth across the night sky. This is China. This is why I'm here.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
Today I'm back on the sweet and sour. With a side serving of rice. Boiled.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Last night I attempted to wash my smalls in the ancient looking washing machine located on my balcony. This entailed me filling the machine with water from the tap using a length of dirty rubber pipe, flicking a switch to drain the water out of the bottom, refilling it using the pipe again, transferring the sopping clothes to the attached spin dryer, and then holding on to the machine while it threatened to jump out of the window. This evening I'll be taking my shirts to the laundry.
Monday, July 03, 2006
The dream is over. I watched the game in a Chinese disco on a big screen hung in front of the DJ stand. Loud Mandarin language pop boomed out, and two girls in shorts and crop tops danced on either side of the screen. Afterwards I wandered outside to see Cristiano Ronaldo's smiling face on a huge TV screen fixed to the side of a skyscraper. I can't believe that one of four very average sides will be World Champions this time next week. How much further forward are England for five years of expensive foreign coaching? Timidity and blandness instead of chaos and hell for leather, that's all.
Yesterday we took the bus to Hangzhou, a rich city swollen with half finished apartment buildings that resemble upturned packing crates. The journey was reminiscent of India - fumes and dust, dirty upholstery and karaoke videos playing at full volume above the driver's head. We passed field after field of advertising billboards - China's second largest crop after rice - spotlit from below and bearing pictures of urban development, Western consumer durables and Japanese high technology. After finding the city's famous West Lake we traced a route along the banks while the sun gradually roasted my skin, and then got hopelessly lost trying to find the bus station for the return journey.
I had planned an early night but it was too stifling to sleep even with the aid of a late night can of weak lager. The apartment is so hot that you have only two choices: leave the air conditioning on all night (too noisy) or turn it off just as you close your eyes and hope that sleep comes before the sweat starts flooding your body. Apparently cockroaches don't have the same problem.
This morning was my first lesson. Two slow Chinese teenagers with a combined vocabulary of five words. Fun and games.
Friday, June 30, 2006
My flat is a fifteen minute walk from the school, along the banks of a small stream ruuning away from the centre. It's on the fifth floor of a grimy building with bare concrete steps, no lift and no lights in the stairwell, which made arriving after dark with three bags a lot of fun. There's hot water in the shower heated by a gas bottle that leaks when you turn the top, and a bed that's just about big enough for me to fit on with a woven 'mattress' not much softer than the floor. Added to the horrific 1970s Socialist Realism style decor, it's a bit like kipping in a really cheap caravan park. Other than that, everything's cool. Except the temperature.
My first impression of the city wasn't too bad. There are plenty of pointy hills on the horizon and quite a bit of green in the middle of all the concrete. It spreads out for miles, with a mini-Manhattan of bank buildings and department stores at the centre and a spider's web of smaller shopping streets almost completely covered by trees for hundreds of metres on either side. The architecture is a mix of glass fronted towers with stone lions by the entrance and frayed around the edges three and four-storey buildings with shops on the ground floor and grotty apartments up above. Like Korea, most of the shops either sell exactly the same things - cheap shoes, flowers, sportswear, alcohol and jewellery - or random products lined up behind a bored looking salesman. Most of them have more glass display cases than customers.
Tonight is ping-pong and beer. First classes are on Monday.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
The flight from Newcastle was late, leaving me with a ten minute dash from aeroplane to aeroplane at Dusseldorf. After a long three hours at Munich, I got on the Lufthansa flight to Shanghai to find that the in-flight entertainment was made up of a tatty magazine that I'd already read in ten minutes flat and two cack American films shown on an overhead portable TV screen located directly behind the head anyone wandering up and down the aisle. I hit the spirits and managed to get some sleep.
China on the way from the airport: heat; building sites, building sites, building sites; endless concrete flyovers; a sky with real clouds, not just an ecru haze; motorcycles on footbridges; big black cars with tinted windows. The driver's English ended at 'Welcome to China' so I had a bit of shut-eye and then enjoyed the action on the road. When the traffic was moving freely, cars ping-ponged from lane to lane - overtaking in the hard shoulder, indicating left, then immediately right if the first lane looked as if it might be clearer after all. Like pensioners jostling in a post office queue. Then the traffic would slow to a near crawl and the road would turn into one of those puzzles I had when I was a kid where you had to slide small squares around to make a picture; cars squeezing in and out, in and out of small spaces, always further away from where they wanted to be.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
From now on watching the World Cup will be a nocturnal activity. At least England are playing in the early game on Saturday. Without Deco and possibly Ronaldo, Portugal are definitely beatable. Whoever wins the tactical battle, wins the game.
Monday, June 26, 2006
Today is Katka's birthday. Impatient as ever, she had all her presents, cards and birthday cake by teatime yesterday. The other big news this morning is that I am now going to be teaching in Jiaxing, a city of around two million people more or less halfway between Hangzhou and Shanghai, and not in Xiaoshan, a city of around two million people on the other side of Hangzhou, and an hour further away from Shanghai on the train. Shanghai, Hangzhou and possibly Suzhou are all manageable daytrips from Jiaxing, which suits me down to the ground. Now all I have to do is pack my bag and sort out my first couple of lessons.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Portugal and Holland kick off in twenty minutes. If the Dutch win, England could scrape through to the semis. I think Portugal and Scolari have too much movement and tactical awareness for Eriksson to counteract with his unimaginative, safety first gameplan.
Friday, June 23, 2006
Another early morning start. This time I was in Edinburgh for quarter past eight, and in and out of the consulate in exactly ninety seconds just under three quarters of an hour later. I had enough time to walk up to the castle and then along the Royal Mile as far as Waverley, before taking in the views from the top of Calton Hill on the slow route back to the bus station.
Five more days till China.