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Back in the USA

I’m back in the USA. I know I haven’t posted in ages. That’s been for a number of reasons:

– I’ve been wrangling contractors as we finalise our house renovation. The project is running really late and I’m running out of patience. Let’s just say that the politest collective noun for contractors I have come up with is “a bodge”, but more of that later.
– I’ve also been slowly readjusting to life back in the States. You obviously experience culture shock when you move to a new country, and I did experience that when I moved to the US. Then I experienced it again when I moved to China. Since I got back, I’ve been going through the same thing all over again. All those weird things that bothered me when I first moved to America are bothering me again (those creepy gaps around loo doors, the food culture etc etc). In the meantime, I’ve really been missing Shanghai, the food, the energy and my friends there.
– I guess the combination of those things has meant I’ve not felt like posting anything very positive for a while.

But, I have now readjusted to my new life on the West Coast. And the really good news is that I LOVE San Francisco. So I’m back on here to let you know what I’m up to.

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Wow it’s been too long

Well here we are in October and I haven’t blogged in the longest time. I think that’s due to a combination of things – for a while there I was really busy, both with work and with fun. There was so much to share that I just didn’t know where to start. Then I got out of the habit. Then I got a bit depressed aboutmy imminent departure from Shanghai.

So – in order to fix a) the not blogging thing and b) to feel a bit better about leaving, I thought I’d start by focussing on the things that I’m really going to miss about Shanghai. And those that I’m not.


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I crossed one off the bucket list

While I was in Auckland I managed to cross off something that’s been on my bucket list for a while – a bungy jump. I’ve only ever really had the opportunity to jump off a crane or similar – and that didn’t really appeal to me. I thought that it would be more fun over water. So I booked to jump off Auckland Bridge.

It was fab. I can’t pretend that I’m scared of heights (as a former trapeze artist) so it wasn’t some sort of momentous moment of overcoming fear. It was just an opportunity to do something cool. So while a lot of my fellow jumpers were terrified, I was more concerned about making it look good. I mean there’s no point in just falling off the platform like a bag of spuds is there? Well not if the whole opposite gantry is bristling with cameras to immortalise your moment.

It’s quite a long way to look down, and you see various boats gathered to gawp, but once you’ve taken off, it feels like flying. I didn’t even notice the decelleration as I just touched the water (I asked them not to soak me as I was heading straight to the airport and didn’t want an 11 hour flight potentially smelling like a wet dog. Not that I do usually, just you never know…)

I’d absolutely do it again.

So you’d think that my bucket list got a little shorter, but unfortunately I’ve added at least a few more items in the last couple of weeks. I’m going to have to live a very long time to get through all these things!

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A mini pilgrimage to Marlborough

New Zealand is an amazing country, positively crammed with geological fascination, ancient culture and unimaginably beautiful countryside. But what was I looking forward to seeing more than anything? Marlborough. I’m ashamed to say it but I was ridiculously excited about visiting Marlborough Vineyards, the northernmost region of the South Island and the source 0f arguably the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world.

In particular, I was looking forward to visiting Cloudy Bay. Not because it has the best wine (not the best, but exceedingly good) but because the name is my strongest association with New Zealand wines as this vineyard has successfully exported to UK and US wine shops for many years. They export their Sauvignon Blanc by the truckload, but it turns out that they have a really rather good Pinot Noir and some tasty bubblies too. The wine gets its name from a beautiful nearby bay. Come to think of it, I was pretty excited to visit there too, so much so that this part of the trip felt like a mini- pilgrimage.

We visited by mountain bike  – positively the best mode of transport for going wine tasting (in the past we seem to have visited rather a lot of vineyards by motorbike which is not a good plan for many reasons).

The vineyards are beautiful – but striking in their diversity. Some are quite ruggedly stunning like those in South Africa, others can be found in lushly green neatly ordered rows like those in France, others on chalky windswept hillsides or barren riverbeds. The climate changes from one hillside to the next – from one corner to the next, are dramatic. We were there in the middle of the NZ winter – so the vines were dormant  – but the weather was warm and the whole area was stunning. I can’t wait to go back.

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In which I meet the police and qualify for numpty of the year…

I recently had a serious attack of airhead. So bad in fact that it qualifies me as a serious contender for numpty of the year award.

In fact it was party the fault of crappy hire cars. You see while I love cars, bikes, engines etc it turns out that I have absolutely no interest in cars that are, well, not interesting. The offending vehicle was a grey Ford Focus (see? that’s pretty dull).

Anyway, I had driven the offending vehicle down to Palo Alto to meet a friend for dinner. I was running uncharacteristically late when I arrived in town and then struggled to find a parking space. I drove round and round, up and down, totally ruining any sense of direction I had cultivated, before eventually finding a space. I have had *ahem* recognition issues with the offending car in the past so I used technology to help me. I dropped a pin on my car park helper app and hurried off to the restaurant. Note to self – don’t rely so much on technology.

Dinner was fabulous catching up with my friend and as a result I was surrounded by a happy aura as I walked back to my car. Which wasn’t there. I even checked my app. I was right next to the electronic pin I’d dropped but the car definitely wasn’t there. But some rather suspicious red lines on the kerb were.  So I’d obviously been towed. Great.

In denial I paced around around a bit to make sure I wasn’t just off by a few metres…but no luck. So I called the local police:

“Hello, I think you may have towed my car. How do I get it back?”

“What makes you think we’ve towed it?”

“It’s not where I parked it and nobody goes joyriding in a Focus…”  He had the decency to laugh

“Do you know the town well?” By this he clearly meant “Obviously you are foreign so may have mistaken the street”

Pah, I know where I parked it, I even used an app.

But they hadn’t towed it.

The nice policeman sent one of his colleagues in a black and white over to help. Said second nice policewoman then took my keys and proceeded to drive around with them randomly clicking the alarm switch at parked cars (funnily enough I’ve done the same in many a car park). Anyway, she came back soon after, handed the keys back and said “It’s just over there around the corner….”. It was maybe 50m away around the corner. I had walked straight past the invisible vehicle to get to where I thought it would be.

Oh the shame. What is wrong with me?

I have to say though that the police were fabulous. My previous interaction with the constabulary has involved me being stopped for alleged speeding. I apologised for being an idiot, and they said that this happens all the time. There you go – I am sure it doesn’t happen all the time but they were being nice…Hurrah for the Palo Alto police and their kind and respectful treatment of numpties. Boo for cars that are so boring they are invisible.

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It’s all Dick van Dyke’s fault

I have a strong dislike of Dick van Dyke. He’s got a lot to answer for. Specifically for his appearance in the unspeakably awful “Mary Poppins”.

It’s not that the film was particularly bad, it’s just that I think his appearance in the film is entirely responsible for the majority of the population of America thinking that I’m Australian.

I’m serious. I believe that, because I don’t sound like either the Queen or Dick van Dyke that people assume I’m not British so must be Australian. I’d mind less only NOBODY sounds like Dick van Dyke with his garbled vowels and horrendous expressions. It really is all his fault.

On a side note – what is wrong with people who think that Brits, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders all sound the same? Urgh.


Big bag of frogs anyone?

Found (or rather nearly stepped on) at my local market.


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Pulling a U turn from the back seat

Before we moved to Shanghai we were told that we weren’t allowed to drive here (something about Westerners being regular targets for car accidents as they are well insured). So how are we supposed to get around? We get a driver…

My first reaction was that we just didn’t need one. The metro network is great and the city is pretty walkable. I also don’t think I’m quite ready to be sitting in the back saying “Home Jeeves, and don’t spare the horses” or whatever people say to drivers nowadays. Some of the people I met when we came out for a visit in April seemed to be pretty dependent on their drivers -using them to get a lift virtually around the corner. Not for me.

Or so I thought.

We have a driver. I use him fairly frequently. So what caused the astonishingly rapid U turn?

Well, I met the driver and he is GREAT.  If you are going to be driven around then you want someone who shows up on time, knows where he is going and won’t get you killed on the way. It turns out that these things cannot be taken for granted. The bonus is that our driver speaks enough English to ensure that you get to the right place but not so much that he understand a lot of conversations you might have on the phone/ back seat. In other words he’s perfect.

So the thing is we sometimes need a driver – the chap has to get to the office for a start, then there are all the trips to the airport, shopping in the supermarket etc – so we have to hang on to the perfect one we have. And to hang on to him we have to use him. In particular we need to use him evenings and weekends so he gets enough overtime not to drop us. That’s the danger you see – some drivers sack their clients if they don’t use them enough. So now I’m actually trying to think up trips that we might do and arranging to lend him to visitors.

Jeeves*: “Can you say U turn?”



* he’s not actually called Jeeves. Duh!

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How do you choose your own name?

Something I find often charming and sometimes weird is the English names that Chinese people choose for themselves. I believe that they routinely choose their names as teenagers during English class. Some are pretty regular names, such as John or Emma. Some are what your great aunt and uncle might be called, Fanny, Bessie or Herbert. There are others that are very much in the spirit of celebrity baby names – things that are plain bonkers such as Ice. Then there’s a whole set that are actually lovely  – I recently met a Monroe and thought it was great.

I was thinking that maybe I should choose a Chinese name. Maybe somethign like teapot or fire hydrant. Or maybe not.

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My trip to the Great Wall.

On my day off during my visit to Beijing I visited the Great Wall.  It really was the most amazing experience – completely breathtaking scenery and a challenging enough route to give me a real sense of accomplishment. I’m still smiling.

I’d undertaken some research about where to go. Most tours seem to go to a couple of the sections quite close to Beijing. Most of these have been significantly renovated, or rather rebuilt to the extent that they are far from authentic – in fact some people refer to these bits as “the Disney Wall”. Also, with car parks and gondolas making it so easy to get to these sections, they are packed with visitors – not ideal for my planned weekend visit.

So I found a tour that was more up my street – a guided viist to Jiankao –an area that is original, remote and quite rugged.

The hike totally exceeded my expectations – not least of all because of the feeling of accomplishment I felt at the end of the hike. My guide asked me on the way up if I preferred a flat section or a more up and down section. I figured that the up and down bits would be more interesting so off we set. When we got there it quickly became apparent that “up and down” translated from the original Chinese means “vertical ascents and descents”. So much of the time on the wall was spent literally scrambling up or down sections of the wall that had crumbled. It wasn’t *quite* rock climbing as the bricks and side walls made for great hand and footholds but it was certainly close. An bearing in mind that the wall was build essentially along a mountain ridge it was a long way down. It was only when I was clinging onto one of the trickier sections that I remembered the guide’s apparently conversational enquiry in the car whether I was scared of heights… Afterwards he told me that he has had to virtually winch some people up on a rope when they were paralysed with previously unencounterd vertigo. Yikes!

The fact that this section really was off the beaten track meant that the whole day we saw only approx a dozen people, all Chinese, and only near the paths from the nearby village. The rest of the time, we were pretty much alone with the wall and the spectacular scenery. The absence of people made it much easier to appreciate the sheer feat of engineering. Some sections that were partially crumbling allow you to see all the brickwork that went into building it. Every single rock had to be carried up a mountain. It’s just mindboggling.

The scenery was breathtaking. Ruggedly corrugated mountains stretch to the horizon on all sides, with the wall snaking along the mountain ridge. I felt like I was standing on the top of the world.  I know people say this is one of the wonders of the world – but it takes seeing it up close to appreciate the sheer audacity of building thousands of miles of wall across a seriously inhospitable landscape. I can’t help wondering how the intial orders went down. “Right lads, we’re going to build the biggest wall EVER to keep the Mongols out.” “But the mountains keep the Mongols out. “That right we’ll build it on top of the mountains.” You can only have respect for those folk. Now if only we could get them working on some much easier road projects closer to home…roads nearer to home.

Check out some more of the pictures here.

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