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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Chinese Crack bread

Take a look at this.

Chinese Crack Bread

It looks pretty innocuous doesn’t it? But be warned. This is the most addictive substance that I have ever come across. Quite possibly more addictive than various Class A substances. I have forgotten what it is called in Mandarin – I just call it Crack Bread.

I had thought that my time spent in America had cured my love affair with bread as the vast majority of the bread there is bland, textureless and far too sweet – in all joyless and only good for feeding to ducks. I pretty much stopped eating bread as a result.

That’s until I found this stuff, that is. It is available all over Shanghai but my favourite vendor is a tiny little stall on Wulumuqi lu. This stuff is completely perfect – starchy, a bit greasy, slightly salty and layered and delicious. Sprinkled with sesame seeds it is completely and utterly irrisistible, particularly when it is fresh and warm.

Here’s where I buy it from. Ok it doesn’t look particularly inspiring…

I quite often pick some up after my vegetable shopping and all the way home I am deliciously aware of the warm bundle in my shopping bag. It is virtually impossible to leave any in the bag. In fact, I think I can hear some calling from the kitchen right now…

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Up close and personal with Shanghai traffic – and loving it

Since I passed my driving licence a few months ago – I’ve been driving a Chang Jiang around town quite frequently. It’s essentially a Chinese copy of a Russian copy of a second world war BMW, complete with sidecar. It looks like the bike Steve McQueen drove in the Great Escape.

It’s not terribly reliable and it has rather a lot of foibles but I’m absolutely loving it. It has a greater range than the scooter and you can get an extra person on it. So sometimes I give people tours of the city. I’m turning into a real cheerleader for Shanghai as a result.

So many people come here, hang out in Nanjing Lu (like Oxford Street in London) or in Pudong and think they have seen the city. They have only seen one side of it. There’s SO much more. For a start there’s some astonishing art deco architecture, including the only art-deco ex- abbatoire that I have ever heard of, there’s the old town with its tiny streets and chaotic markets, and there are the hidden villas of the former French concession that reveal secrets about its gangster past. Also, Shanghai was an open port for many years, so received a disproportionate number of incoming migrants for years, for example during the Russian revolution and in the run up to the second world war. I think that’s some of what makes it such a unique city in China.

The sidecar is a fantastic way of getting around – you do have to obey more of the rules of the road than on an electric scooter, but parking is still easier than for cars and you can squeeze down some lanes too small for cars. I also think that you actually notice more on a bike – I think cars are just so familiar that it is hard not to just filter everything out. On a bike you are a little more up close and personal with the traffic (Ok that’s not always a good thing here) but it does make everything much more immediate. I’m enjoying showing people aspects of a Shanghai they didn’t know existed, and I’m learning so much myself too.  Here are some of the chap’s colleagues who have joined me.



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The worst thing about Shanghai summers…

Summer has arrived in Shanghai. We’ve just had weeks and weeks and weeks of rain, then all of a sudden it stopped raining and summer arrived. Wow it has been hot. Actually it’s not off the scale in terms of temperature – it’s been late 20s/ early 30s Centigrade but it is so humid it feels far warmer. We’ve had 80-90 percent humidity which in my book is just a few percentage points off being in a shower.

So walking around is pretty brutal and even a few blocks walk feels like an expedition. But that’s not the worst thing about Shanghai summers. Oh no.

The worst thing is that when it gets hot, people want to wear fewer clothes. And, as is the case all over the world, it is never the right people who take their clothes off. The young attractive people seem to wear a rather a lot of clothes even in summer – most often because they don’t want to get a tan. (Actually the Chinese think it is hilarious that Westerners try to get darker when they spend rather a lot of money on whitening treatments.) But the old guys don’t care –  they like to roll their vests up into grotesque crop tops. They are everywhere. *shudder*. The bigger the belly, the hotter it gets I guess.

That said, I have been a bit shy to take a portrait of one of these lovelies, so here’s a pic of one on the move to give you an idea. Lovely huh?

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The elusive FIVE star Shanghai taxi driver

Recently I was lucky enough to witness a rare occurrence here in Shanghai. More unusual than hens’ teeth, I had a sighing of the elusive five star Shanghai taxi driver.

It isn’t a secret to most people who know me that I have issues with taxi drivers. I have had so many experiences where they have tried to overcharge me, take the very long way round, or shortchange me (you guys in Italy, you know who you are). Surprisingly I have found the drivers in Shanghai to be actually pretty good. For a start they are all locals (or seem to be) so they know the way around.  They also charge what the meter says and don’t play tricks with change. Fortunately my Mandarin is just about good enough for me to tell them where I want to go then direct them when we get close. The only downside is that they sometimes want to chat so tend to turn all the way around to look at me while doing so. Unfortunately my Mandarin is not up to asking them to look at the road ahead. Ironically, I think they are generally chatting about some idiot other driver which is clearly far from out of the ordinary here.

The trouble is, that for anyone with NO Mandarin it can be tricky, mostly because relatively few drivers speak English. Aha! you say, I have my taxi driver flash cards/ app with all the handy destinations on. Good idea (or hao zhuyi as we say here) , but a lot of them can’t actually read. Ooops.

This problem was identified a few years ago, when legions of foreigners descended on Shanghai Expo and presumably failed to get where they wanted. So a ratings programme was established. Drivers are rated between zero and five stars. There are a lot of conflicting stories about what exactly you need to do for each star, but from what I can gather, three or more stars means the driver understands some English, knows the key tourist spots in town and has not had a recent accident. Very reassuring huh?

Most of those I have used have been zero to three stars (so presumably have no English and possibly recent crashes). Actually they have been fine too. Certainly Ok enough for me to take taxis sometimes (unheard of usually). Either that or I am mellowing in my old age.



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I know labour is cheap but…

I had my hair cut today and very nice it turned out too. Nothing really out of the ordinary except for the way they section hair. You know how hairdressers usually use those plastic grip thingies to section off hair? Well they didn’t use them today – they used a person to hold bits of hair. Effective but unorthodox.

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The best seats for the Shanghai GP

This year’s Grand Prix season has been pretty exciting so far –with the possible exception of last weekend’s Monaco snoozefest.

By far the most exciting race for me was the Shanghai GP. Not just because it was on my doorstep, but because we had paddock passes. I enjoyed the race and Force India’s hospitality thanks to some rather fortuitous and generous connections. Now I’m ruined for life. I watched the whole thing on a TV at the back of the garage.  In the absence of any commentary I quite honestly had no idea what was going on but I did get to watch the pit-stops from a few metres away. Oh yes.

You could blink and miss this - but this is a pit stop....

One thing that really surprised me is how calm everything was before and during the race. Beforehand, all the race engineers are calmly running through what I assume are pre-race procedures. No tension, just calm.  I’m quite sure I’d be emptying my adrenaline soaked stomach before a race but instead the drivers are hanging out, talking to people, having lunch etc.

During the race, all the race engineers sit on neat rows of seats, motionlessly watching a rather small TV. It wasn’t a bored stiff sort of motionless – they were alert and totally focussed on the events on the screens. They could be statues until just before each pitstop  – when there’s a brief flurry of calm, collected activity. Given that pitstops only last about 4 secs now (ridiculous I know) I barely managed to get my camera out before they had sped away again.

Engineers all watching tiny screens in surprisingly tidy rows

Just around the corner, race techs watch  the cars progress around a virtual track, monitoring a dizzying amount of information about every aspect of the cars’ performance.

Here's where it all happens - every single race variable is constantly analysed and optimised

Another surprise was quite what a British centred event the GP is. You see all the international drivers and assume this is an international spectacle, but really a significant majority of the players seem to be Brits. So each Grand Prix is a small British island of craziness completely untouched by local culture of customs. This mobile island is really like a travelling circus that sets up in a new town, puts on a show, then packs up and moves to the next place. And it packs up remarkably quickly. While the podium celebration was taking place, the paddock quickly filled up with all sizes of packing boxes and packing crates – just one week later it was all going to be repeated in Bahrain.

The final thing that surprised me was quite how starstruck I was. I’ve worked in Chelsea for years and was entirely underwhelmed by the procession of footballers, minor celebrities etc that were sighted every week. But I was genuinely surprised at how excited I was to be standing watching the podium from the pitlane behind Ross Brawn, only to turn round and have Eddie Jordan walk into a picture I was taking. The drivers were strolling around and of course Coulthard was EVERYWHERE.

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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.


The summer fair – more British than a bulldog in a bowler hat at the cricket

Apart from the weather, there are many things that I love about being in England, many of which are simple pleasures that you take for granted when you live there. It’s not that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s more that you see things with fresh eyes after a time away.  I was recently taken to see a bluebell wood in darkest Cambridgeshire and it’s the sort of place that would make you want to write poetry. If you are that way inclined of course. Which I am not in case you thought I might go a bit Vogon on you all. In any case, it gave me the sort of smile that I usually get from vehicles with really rather large growly engines.

Another very British activity I recently participated in was a summer fair. It was so over the top, almost caricature British it wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Midsommer Murders. Except of course nobody was killed – argh you know what I mean. Anyway, it really was everything that makes a traditional English summer fair; the soggy grass that consumed stiletto heels and caused chair legs to slowly sink, a human fruitmachine (where three people whirl around and choose a random piece of fruit out of three buckets) a Pimm’s tent, a tat filled bric-a-brac stall, a stand with slightly wonky WI cakes and another with straggly plants. It even had a Queen impersonator (THE Queen not the band….) doing a walkabout and someone I think might have been the local mayor wearing a Union Jack suit. “Oh God I bet there was also a chubby drum majorette group or a dog show…” commented a friend when I mentioned the fair “there’s always one of those” he added somewhat unimpressed. Actually it was a dog agility relay but it was great.

My unimpressed friend was not alone. Anyone else I told about this “charming fair” rolled their eyes. I do know why. This is the sort of thing you see every year on every soggy village green in the country (at least they didn’t call it a fayre). It’s just that it is so different from anything I have experienced recently (dragon festivals or 4th July parties anyone?) that I am seeing it with fresh eyes.

The other possible explanation is rather more alarming – I’m slightly worried that it might be a symptom of me turning a tiny bit American. Before I know it I’ll be calling anything over 30 years old “quaint”. And I’ve been thinking about getting my teeth straightened. Please help save me from myself.

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Just like pulling teeth

One of my 2012 New Year’s resolutions was to get my teeth fixed. The slight challenge to making progress on this was the fact that I have no intention whatsoever of letting a Chinese dentist do anything at all. I am sure that China has most excellent dentists but when we are talking about major (my definition) dental work, then I want to be able to understand what is going on.

Well that’s not quite true. I had arranged to have my badly behaved and directionally challenged wisdom teeth extracted at a surgery near the house in Pennsylvania.  The denstist came with many recommendations and seem to know what he was doing. And I liked him. Finally they had actual rooms in his surgery – the last place I went to in the US lined everyone up in a big rooms with office dividers – so it felt more like somewhere you’d get a pedicure. NOT somewhere I was going to have teeth out.

So last Monday was T-Day. I’ve been nervous about this day since the day I found my pesky wisdom teeth growing (very late – only a few years ago. I’m still waiting for the wisdom too). I showed up shaky with adrenaline but just about holding it together. I was arranged on the seat by a nurse/ assistant who gave me a really attractive bib to catch the inevitable drool. She also decided to take it upon herself to talk me through the procedure. She started with “…he’ll give you injections so you won’t feel anything, you’ll just feel a slight pulling. And then you will hear a pop when he cuts the ligaments…” “Can I stop you right there…” I interrupted. “ I don’t want to know about that.” Undaunted she carried on “the ligaments are tough so when he cuts them…”. At this point I really wished she was speaking Mandarin.

I tried twice more to interrupt then just asked her to stop talking. I think she was mildly offended and left. My previously tenuous grasp on normal behaviour was gone though, so when the other, actually nicer nurse/ assistant came and asked me a simple question (“hello, how are you?” probably) I just burst into rather undignified tears (also due to lack of waterproof mascara I suspect I rapidly resembled a refugee from Kiss).  She took pity on me and just said “I think we’ll use the nitrous rig”. When the dentist came and I tried to  apologise for overreacting and attempted to explain that my rational side knew that it was an easy routine job, but the less rational, terrified-of-medical-things side was currently beating the crap out of my rational side. He was very kind. He said that actually it wasn’t a particularly irrational reaction…he was about to pull things out of my head after all…

Strangely that did calm me down. The nitrous oxide helped a treat too, so while certainly not anything I want to repeat in a hurry the whole extraction thing was OK. He offered just to do one but I refused point blank – they had to both go NOW. He did a great job actually and had given me so much anaesthetic I couldn’t feel most of my face for hours, let alone the teeth. He didn’t even have to put his knee on my chest for leverage, which was one of my memories from a previous extraction. The other memory was enormous pliers. I have no idea if that’s what this chap used because I kept my (rather smudged) eyes firmly shut for the duration.

Recovery has so far been OK too. A soft diet was recommended so I lived on smoothies and red wine for several days. I’ve been taking plenty of arnica too so that may have contributed to the fact there was very little swelling – actually just enough to look like I’ve had some cheek filler and actually quite fetching.

Things could definitely be worse. I could have grown four wisdom teeth not two for a start…

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