The all new Cecilie's Pen & Wok Blog
I thought of that the other morning walking my dog at 6AM when I saw not one but two different outdoor pooings on the pavement near my house. One of them (the pooers) had been considerate enough - to himself - to use tissue, the other had just let it rip in a stream of diarrhoea. This seems to have become a thing here in El Terreno. I can't say I'm much of a fan.
Talking of fans, when I was living in Hong Kong and worked in RTHK, teaching Cantonese to the honey-voiced Sarah Passmore and the world (we had fan letters from Ukraine and South America! 45 000 hits per month! Just saying) one of our first broadcasts was from a public toilet in Jubilee Street, Central. Four years and 200 episodes later, our last programme was also broadcast from that toilet - unusual in Hong Kong in that it offers paper - and very emotional. Apart from teaching Cantonese live, that job was the best I ever had. During those four years that toilet had been closed for at least six months and we feared the worst. Would it be wafting perfume and music, feature wood panels and soft overhead lighting? We breathed a sigh of relief when the new one was revealed: It was exactly like before, but with new doors. Pink.
This was the very same toilet where I recorded my first music video! Unfortunately the punning, or rather, homonym-making, is all in Cantonese.
Oh RTHK! Oh Sarah! (Ah Sa) Oh Hong Kong, where they still have to wear stupid face nappies in the street, on pain of death!
I really miss filmmaking. I haven't made a single language film since before the covid rigmarole scam fascism started, but before that I had a pleasure of cooperating with famed Spanish and Catalan expert Heather S on a few films for Spanish World Hong Kong.
Yes, it's all Spanish now, slowly getting there. I said something in the past tense the other day!
I'm still looking for a way to combine the two languages into something called Spantonese, but where will we shoot films and record programmes when there are no public toilets?
I like public toilets. They represent freedom. Here in Mallorca you have to go to a bar or restaurant if the urge takes you, or try to stand it until you get home. I always feel obliged to buy something as a thank you for the use of their service, and that something is normally a coffee, which ironically only exacerbates the situation.
With public toilets, on the other hand, you’re in and out in a couple of minutes, no small talk, no coffee, you provide your own tissue - sorted.
Many of the public toilets in Hong Kong even have western style, sit-down toilets, which, if you’re wearing a long dress or long trousers, are easier to use than the squatting toilets so hated and reviled by many western visitors in Asia.
Me, I never minded squatting. In fact, one of the first “Chinese” things I taught myself when I first arrived in China in 1988 was to squat and stay squatted as long as possible. I can still do it. It’s good for health! And indeed, Hong Kong people, and especially the el cheapo tourists from mainland China who started flooding into HK in the mid 2000s (they were known as ‘locusts’ -swarming in, buying up everything and leaving) couldn’t quite get used to these sit-down toilets with their many rings and covers. They climbed up and squatted on top of the porcelain, often on top of the plastic ring.
No matter how upmarket the hotel or shopping mall: if you got in there before the toilet attendant had had time to clean after the last customer, you would find the shoe prints of Jimmy Choo or whatever, on top of the porcelain.
I couldn’t help thinking how acrobatic these people must be. Not only balancing on top of the narrow ring, but in high heeled shoes as well. Even in bars, while sloshed! I wondered if there is a statistic somewhere of toilet related incidents of concussion or downright death of drunken high-heeled altitude squatters?
The Hong Kong government tried to get rid of the menace with signs like these:
But to no avail. Who would want their under-thigh skin to touch the places where other people’s skin - or worse - had been?
In all my years in China and Hong Kong I saw only once a solution to this dilemma and it was brilliant. It was in a youth discotheque in Hunan province: A sit-down toilet where one could squat only a few centimetres up from the floor without the fear of serious injury, and with space to park your fag. It was so simple and ingenuous, it was bound not to catch on.
I wonder if there were public toilets in Mallorca before the advent of bars? Perhaps they have had them and removed them again? Or have they always used church stairs and the backs of dustbins?
While I plough through the history books, you can learn some Spanish. It’s easy, just buy for a modest, nay, tiny sum my book Plonkers Abroad, Learn Spanish without Really Trying.
If that sounds too ordinary, learn Cantonese instead, or as well as, with my course Cantonese - The Movie!
Why, you ask. Well, you’ll be sticking it to communism, for a start!
I was glad, for that pavement is frequently used as a toilet by happy revellers from the church stairs across the road, where they can drink cheaply and revel loudly. After a few beers nature calls, also loudly, and hey! Behind the dustbins across the road from me we go; it is almost like a real toilet, almost like being at home. Right?
And behind the dustbins is the chosen receptacle not only for what beer results in either. My dog Koldbrann is a keen seeker out and eater of human poo, and when I got here I realised there were few places I could have him off the leash for this reason. All the stairs in the neighbourhood are party central on a Saturday night, with the inevitable result.
But I normally only find out the poo is imminent when Koldbrann alerts me to it. That wasn't the case last Saturday morning when we were walking in nice middle class area Son Armadams on our way home from early dog walk. I saw a man who looked to be in trouble, kneeling on the side of a car, facing the pavement. Oh no, was he dying? But I didn't have my phone, nor did I know the emergency number.
Then I realised he wasn't kneeling but crouching. That is to say, squatting. It was light enough to see a blue shirt, then skin where the trousers should be... the bearded face of a 30-something-year-old as he looked straight at me as if asking for a tissue.
But did I give him a tissue? I did not! I reached for Spanish and found the only expression adequately covering the situation was in Cantonese: 你有冇攪錯呀!*
People say all the relieving of oneself in streets and stairs and of course in open wooded areas is because there are no public toilets here in sunny Palma de Mallorca. I don't think that's necessarily true.
Where I lived in the Hong Kong countryside there were five or six public toilets within a 500 metre radius, but that didn't stop happy beach and mountain visitors from letting it rip whenever the fancy took them. How did I know? Because my dog, Piles (a pain in the arse) liked to roll in it. Fortunately Piles was a black but mostly white dog, so it never took me long to realise where the terrible stench came from.
Cleaning his collar was the worst.
In that respect Koldbrann wins hands down, for although his liking for human faeces is somewhat sub optimal; when they're gone they're gone, right down the hatch with not even a lingering whiff.
Talking of Piles, he sadly died of kidney failure in 2011 but his memory lives on as the tiny puppy the Smith family in my Spanish textbook "Plonkers Abroad - Learn Spanish without Really Trying" acquire, thinking he is a teacup poodle.
He turns out to be more of a Great Dane, admittedly with a fondness for teacups.
Oh! If I had only spoken Spanish as well as I do Cantonese that day with the crouching reveller, and especially a few minutes later when I saw two guys knocking over a large recycling dustbin for plastic bottles and metal!
Then I wouldn't have had to resort to 你有冇攪錯呀* or any other Cantonese OR English expression, but could have said Un poco de civismo, ¡por favor!
If you don't know what that means but want to, you can join my book editor Heather in her Spanish group in Palma next month.
Meanwhile, Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!
(Thank you, lockdowns, The Great Reset and ESG!) No, I like to be busy and engaged in meaningful pursuits. Since April I have been working tirelessly at being a marketing manager, so tirelessly that I have actually felt myself a bit tired at the end of a 13 hour day; tired and just wanting to watch old DVDs instead of going out to enjoy all the wonderful things that Mallorca has to offer.
Also, we still have the ridiculous mask mandate on public transport here, so although I am gagging for an adventure trip, I just can't do it. I won't.
But yesterday, a Saturday, i thought, NO! Enough of this! I want to live like other people. I want to go outside and take time off. I want to... I want to go shopping.
Not mindlessly waft around the shops seeing if something takes my fancy you understand, no, I had a specific product in mind about which I have been thinking, nay, fantasising about for many months. In fact, since early April.
A pair of plastic slippers of the brand Natura, looking almost as good and being almost as comfortable as similar-looking mainland Chinese brand Sport. I bet they, Sport, invented the style and Natura stole it! After it was stolen by Birkenstock, Zara Home and others. Oof, "plastic slippers", it sounds so bad when I say it like that. Let's call it stylish, elegant and practical footwear without heels.
So off I went after the day's work was done about 5pm, to a nearby shopping mall called Porto Pi. I was so excited; finally I would get something new to wear! Almost like a normal person!
Clutching the right amount of euros in my sweaty paw, I dashed into Natura, thinking should I choose the black version or the navy? Or should I go wild and buy lilac that doesn't go with any of my clothes but adds flamboyance?
Crushed! A disappointment almost as powerful as that of being cheated out of a long-awaited meal brought me to my knees.
Natura had switched to their winter collection, displaying thick socks, jackets, hats and slippers made of fleece.
This was August 13th. Outside: 41 degrees. Celcius.
Two days earlier, I had heard the dulcet tones of Cantonese outside my office, like two angels dancing on a harp. It was two Hong Kong women with young children in strollers, trying to get to Bellver Castle before their cruise ship left the same afternoon. I asked them where it is hottest, here or in Hong Kong? Because I thought Hong Kong with its 34 degrees and 99% humidity, was the hottest, and almost all year round.
"Here!" they said in unison. "Because Hong Kong has air conditioning!"
It is true. In Hong Kong you can live your whole life indoors, going from one freezing shopping mall to the next, through a network of tunnels and overpasses, never having to set foot on the street and certainly not dragging a stroller up stone steps to see some castle.
Then again, the last seven or so years I lived in Hong Kong, bright blue skies were so rare, people including me were photographing them and putting them on Facebook.
I don't know what the situation in Hong Kong is now, but seeing no one goes there and the factory activity across the border has been halted, I imagine they have blue skies every day. But what's the point of blue skies if you have to wear a stupid face nappy outside?
There is only one thing to do: Learn Cantonese the natural way - from a Norwegian.
To anticipate a delicious meal for ages (even minutes) only to see it not materialise or turn out to be inedible must surely be among the hardest knocks dished out to us humans.
One of the delightful things about living in a Spanish city (town) after 30 years in the Hong Kong countryside, is that I can order food deliveries online. I can't tell you how excited I was the first time I heard a motorbike pull up outside and saw an Indian take a paper bag out of box on the back of the bike. Chicken tikka masala - in my own house! That he had forgotten the Kingfisher beer I had also ordered was not a problem, I just extracted the 3 euros from the price. Yes, I always choose to pay cash on delivery.
HOWEVER. Last Sunday I stupidly logged in to a delivery service instead of ordering as a guest. Whoosh! Before I knew it, the money had rocketed out of my card. Noooo! Cash is king! Oh well, now at least I would soon be biting into a delicious Pizza Margarita, my favourite. The motorbike came with the little box, and I settled down in front of La casa de papel, ready to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a succulent pizza.
But what was this? A piece of dry crispbread with some elements of cheese? They had sent me a pizza Margarita without tomato sauce or basil. And I had no recourse.
It made me think about the time when I came back to Hong Kong after working as a volunteer teacher in a small village in Sichuan. I had chosen this province especially for the food, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can still remember the first lunch my local colleagues took me to on the first day: Dish after dish of spicy, colourful, pungent, succulent, crunchy food; food that had been in the earth or walking around that day.
A dish called Fish Fragrance Aubergine, so named because the sauce, spicy, numbing, sweet, sour and salty, is of the type sometimes used together with fish, quickly became one of my favourites with its riot of colours and all the tastes of Sichuan combined. It was this I ordered on my first visit to a restaurant back in Hong Kong.
Ahhrghhh! It came to the table as a grey slop, just some boiled-to-death aubergines, over-salted and overcooked and worst of all, full of little dried salted fish. I hate fish! The waiter argued that it wouldn't be called fish fragrance if it didn't have fish in it. It's like saying something wouldn't be called hamburger if it didn't contain a German city.
It was possibly the worst food related disappointment of my life up until then. (Something good came out of it, though: I learnt to cook Sichuan food for myself.)
But that was in 2002. What would become and still is the worst culinary kick in my face happened in 2011 in Xiahe in Gansu province, a Tibetan stronghold. We had an hour to go before the last bus of the day would take us back to Lanzhou and thence Kazakhstan, just enough time for dinner.
There it was on top of the menu: Yak. Glorious, beautiful yak; 10,000 times better than beef and right up there with reindeer and moose. It's even better than horse meat. We ordered through tears of joy, jumping a little with impatience as we really couldn’t miss that bus.
After 50 minutes and three promptings, a waiter mentioned nonchalantly and without any shame that they had forgotten our yak. A lesser person would have played the racism card, but as it was we just got up and ran to the bus, crying.
One thing I'll say about Hong Kong; as much as I love the city and everything (that used to be) in it, when it comes to food they can't really cut it. But what does that matter as long there is CANTONESE? But even Cantonese is on death row. Soon only foreigners and overseas Chinese will be speaking it.
Take lessons from me, or, if you can't afford it, buy a super cheap course!
This category contains episodes of the CantoNews From Exile podcast.