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To encourage people to drive less because of ESG - OR maybe to say a tiny sorry for all the livelihoods they squashed during Covid (guess which one I think it is) the Mallorcan government decided that all public transport would be free this year.

Well, like all “free” stuff it’s not really free - the taxpayer who also pays exorbitant fees and taxes for owning a car must now pay for other people’s transport as well, but there it is.

As a resident, I am entitled to free travel as well, and a few weeks ago I trotted over to the central bus and train hub, a 50 minute walk, to get my hands on a free travel card.

Oh hoi! About 200 other people had had the same idea, and I saw at once I stood no chance. Meh! Whatever. Sour bus journeys hang high, and who has the time to go gallivanting around the Mallorca countryside anyway?

Empty-office Pen & Wok Blog - PenAndWok.comBut a few weeks later the lure of the free drew me back to the station; this time quite early in the morning. The room was packed, but I got a queue ticket, number 52. The number on the screen was 37. I could wait! And wait. After 20 minutes the number had soared to 39. I am no mathematician, but even I could see that the road to 52 would be too long. I gave my ticket to an ecstatic new arrival and legged it grimly home.

Three weeks later I turned up at 8:45 on a Saturday (the office was supposed to open at 9) and BINGO! Only ten minutes past nine a bored clerk opened the door. This time I was second in line. I came well prepared, with my passport, my resident card and my Mallorca ID card. Yeah, baby! Soon I’d be adventure-hopping all over the island, completely free! (As if I couldn’t have done that before for a very low price).

The clerk studied my documents with great care. Then she seemed to get an idea:

“Do you have proof of address?” Er, I have proof that I am a resident and an ID card?

“No no no. You need proof of address.”

“I have this document (showing my address and ID number on a piece of paper stamped by the government from last time I went to the mainland)?”

“No, that is from a different department. That is proof of address for travel. You need to go to the department for proof of address.”

Ahhhrghhhhh. OK. So yesterday I turned up 0900 sharp, with all the documents and more, ready for battle. But where was the screen with the little numbers?

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I should have known. Between my last visit and this one, the government had changed the routine and you now needed to make an appointment online before you could go and apply for a free bus card. I scanned the QR code and: Friday 12:48 I’ll have my chance again! Yeah baby! If time is money I have wasted more money to get something “free” than I would have spent on buses and trains during the whole year anyway, but I will see this through.

And all’s well that ends well - swinging around the Chinese supermarket from a different direction now that I had so much time, I discovered a brand-new Sichuan restaurant!!!

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Today's Cantonese: 排隊  - pai doi - stand in line 


Hong-Kong-colonial-flag Pen & Wok Blog -

 Today is the 26th anniversary of Hong Kong’s glorious return to the Motherland after 99 years of suffering under too lenient British rule.

Celebrations must be raging through the city, because as everyone knows, all Hong Kong people are delirious with happiness over yet again living under the protective iron fist of China. When I say must be, I mean we can only guess at with what joy and tears of gratitude Hong Kong people are celebrating this the most momentous day in China’s history after June 4th 1989. Unlike in the photo below, the joy can no longer be seen, because to protect people from getting hurt by umbrellas (protection against rain AND sun) or blinded by the reflections of a sea of white t-shirts, the government has wisely banned all demonstrations on this and all other days. Like, for example, June 4th.

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It’s just another example of the benevolence bestowed on HK by the Chinese communist party. Why, weren’t HK people, despite their intransigence and lack of gratitude to the Party during the riots of 2019, told to rest at home for months and months during Covid, for example? And later allowed to wear protective paper face coverings for a year longer than anyone else in the world?

This and many other lifesaving actions such as getting rid of dangerous newspapers and people who speak and write words, shows how much the motherland cares about Hong Kong people.

Hong-Kong-flag Pen & Wok Blog -

Just kidding, they despise Hong Kong people and see them as some irritating gnats, much like the Tibetans and Uyghurs - people to be suppressed and watered down with Mandarin speaking imports until they are no more. 

For a while Hong Kong people seemed to half believe the 1997 promise of the communist party that the territory could carry on like before for another 50 years. They started using the bank holiday on July 1st to stage huge marches up to a million people strong, to protest against this and that, such as new national security laws enabling the Chinese government to get rid of people who spoke out against communism, for example.

I took part in many of these demonstrations, wanting to be part of something huge. Or just because I like to be squeezed by a million people in 36 degrees Celsius and 99% humidity.

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One year my student/friend ah-On and I thought we, instead of just marching for fun, would demonstrate against something, namely the eradication of Cantonese. With two hastily written posters saying “support Cantonese! Down with simplified characters!” and “Hong Kong people, speak Cantonese! If you don’t get it, off you piss” (an expression I had picked up in 2010 when in Guangzhou, the cradle of Cantonese language, protesting against the removal of Cantonese from that city’s radio and tv stations), 


we marched sweatily on to much applause and laughter, with people filming us and taking photos. In fact the photo above is taken by a reporter at Apple Daily, one of the newspapers the central government has since removed from Hong Kong’s streets, putting its owner, Jimmy Lai, in prison. 

That was the end of demonstrations, peaceful or otherwise. No more sweaty marches under a burning sun.

Here's to Hong Kong and down with July 1st, 1997. AND simplified characters. And tyranny. 

Today's Cantonese: 香港人講廣東話,聽唔明就返鄉下! Heung Gong yan gong gong dung wa, teng m meng jau faan heung ha! Hong Kong people speak Cantonese, hear not understand then return ancestral village (If you don't understand it, go back to the village).


Rhododendron Pen & Wok Blog -

 The other day I swung around the motherland (no, not the Motherland China but the normal motherland, Norway - my hometown to be precise) and was at once catapulted back to... January.  

 No, really. Although boasting about being the lightest time of year with 24 hour daylight, my hometown was suppressed by such a gloom that we had to keep the lights on in the middle of the day.

 I had to wear fingerless gloves indoors like a suffering Russian anarchist and and as I sat shivering over the laptop I regretted bitterly not having packed - tights! In June! Ahhrghhhh.

 When I went out in the icicle-like rain, I found almost a communal spirit among the fellow chillblain sufferers, joking grimly about the temperatures maybe one day possibly if we were lucky in a different life reaching double digits.

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Hedge advert for April. NOT June.


And what do you know - one day they did! 10 degrees!

 But did I care? No! I was in the company of people with the right attitude: That board games = life. Every night we played various games, and all thoughts of summer evaporated like drops of beer on a woodburning stove going at full blast. (Which we had.)

 A few days later and a handful of kilometres further south, a heatwave and drought were killing off all the fresh hedgerows my company had delivered this spring. This hot on the heels of a gruelling winter that had dispatched a lot of plants.

Nesodden-spirea Pen & Wok Blog - PenAndWok.comMy good, good friend C. and I took a road trip down the coast east in the country where I of course had never been, interviewing people about their hedges. How fun to meet “live” people I have only talked to on the phone.

 Unfortunately they all got cold feet when it came time to pull out the trusty old video camera and mike and start shooting, but at least they agreed to do interviews and have their pictures taken. FUNNNNN

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 I was well impressed by the town of Fredrikstad which was more or less dedicated to hedges with parks clothed in walls of beech.

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 An old fortress town, Fredrikstad was well set up to ward off enemies and, it turned out, also tourists. At least tourists from Spain (me).A starter in an average restaurant cost well over 25 euros, a glass of wine 20. And yet, people were sitting around in the many riverside restaurants getting drunk, filling up on three course meals and desserts. “How can they afford it?” my friend C and I exclaimed in unison.

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 But photo op wise, and for one whose business is hedges, it was indeed a glorious trip, as are all road trips with my friend C.

Fredrikstad-1 Pen & Wok Blog - PenAndWok.comAnd don’t think Hong Kong is now any cheaper than Norway - the other day I saw advertised a pint of beer for “only” HK$ 80. That’s almost 10 euros! That’s actually more than in Norway! Gasp. Shudder.

We’re heading toward a new feudalism. I can feel it.

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Therefore it’s very important to be able to speak Cantonese. Take lessons from me today. You won’t regret it. Knowledge is something they can’t take away from you.

 Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!

 Today’s Cantonese: 好X貴呀 - Hou eksie gwai ah - Well damned expensive



Palma-idiotic-palm-tree Pen & Wok Blog -

Palma’s widest road that isn’t an autopista (motorway) is probably the Paseo Maritimo, official name Avenida de Gabriel Roca (the engineer who designed the thoroughfare).

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 It’s built on reclaimed land, creating a border between El Terreno, the delightful neighbourhood in which I live, and the sea.

 I suppose every Mediterranean city and town has a screaming thoroughfare right next to the sailing boats and the beach umbrellas, so nothing new there. What is new is that in Palma they are actually going to make it narrower instead of widening it.

 Yes, there will be more restaurants, more bicycles and more trees, and the cars will have to make do with two lanes in each direction instead of four. To accommodate all the new trees, most of the old, big shady trees have been removed, leaving only tall palm trees.

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Palm trees are silly, aren’t they. I hate them. What are they for? They are not beautiful - just long sticks with some crap on top. They give hardly any shade with their thin and spiky leaves. They look naff, fake, like the worst excesses of those 1970s wallpapers. 

As far as I know, the palm trees in Mallorca don’t even have coconuts. So what are they for?

The palm trees in China’s southernmost point, Hainan Island, although also pretty naff and silly, at least are indigenous and have a purpose: To produce coconuts.

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 I had been looking forward to drinking fresh coconut water straight from the nut, for during many beer-laden trips to mainland China I had fallen in love with 椰樹 Coconut Milk as a tasty hangover cure full of electrolytes or potassium or something. 

It's available from the excellent Chinese supermarket i Uetam street, and I have one every time I'm there. 

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 But my first (and probably last) fresh coconut water turned out to be a big nothing burger! It had absolutely no taste. I was so disappointed that I had to make a film. 


My Cantonese student ah-On and I had come down from Guangzhou on the slow train. Ah-On thought it took a long time and the word 'plane' was mentioned, but our 18 or so hours on the train had nothing on the large group of holidaymakers from Heilongjiang in the farthest north east of the country. 

They had been on the train for three days and nights, many even without as much as a hard bunk to sleep on, but they were still full of beans. They were decked out in full holiday regalia: Hawaiian shirts and shorts, as well as up to three floppy hats - per person.

Hainan-Hawaiian-shirts Pen & Wok Blog -

For Hainan is known as the Hawaii of China, probably because there are palm trees, in the same way as Suzhou is called the Venice of China because there are canals. Compared to Heilongjiang, presumably the Siberia of China, the people on the train must have thought Hainan was boiling with its 12 or so degrees, while ah-On and I, wearing wool, shivered our way through the tasteless coconuts.

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Tropical paradise my arse. But they did produce a lot of coconuts, and in fact my beloved Coconut Milk drink was produced on that very island! 

By the way, I just checked their website and found some interesting nuggets.

"You can tell how good this Coconut Milk Drink is by tasting it when you drink one." Heh! So that's how you do it. "Like sipping coconut juice directly from the coconut." Er, no. sipping coconut juice directly from the coconut has exactly zero taste.

They go on to say: "Do you know that one of the top ten most powerful corporations in the soft drink sector, Coconut Palm Group specializes in deeply processing tropical fruits like coconuts." Now I do! 

On the bottom it says:

Consuming this product can expose you to chemicals including lead and cadmium, which is known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects, or other reproductive harm.

A Perfect Choice for a Healthy Drink!"

Mmmm. Lovely. I don't think the lead and cadmium come from the actual trees, no matter how much I dislike them - but I wouldn't put it past them either.

The other day I saw on a poster the local government pledging to plant 10 000 trees in Palma, to lower the temperature in the streets. Wait, is that in addition to or including those in Paseo Maritimo?

I hope to God they won't be palm trees. 

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Hainan Island, where even the toilets are in a holiday mood, is WELL worth a visit though! And of course the people there, unless they are Mandohooligans, speak Cantonese. 

Now this language can be yours for a low price with high entertainment value, when you learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!  

Today's Cantonese: 我好無鍾意椰樹!O hou m jung yi ye suk! I hate palm trees. 



Chinese_smokers_ Pen & Wok Blog -

One of my students, an absolutely delightful girl who lives in San Francisco, emailed me the other day apologising for her absence from the Cantonese lessons - she had been forced to look for a new flat. 

"[...] my downstairs neighbor is a cigarette chain smoker and he lights a cigarette every 30 mins starting at 8 am until midnight when he goes to sleep. And he is retired so is home all day smoking, and I work from home and the smell is killing me and driving me crazy.

It's been a nightmare, even my clothes and pillows and mattress smell like cigarette smoke. My landlords aren't doing anything about it, I've only been here for 6 months but I have to break my lease."
Ouch! Ouchissimo! That's a tricky one. Personal freedom, all well and good - but when it ruins other people's clothes and pillows? Poor girl, she has to move out. Or start smoking herself, which I presume is out of the question. 

My next door neighbour in Palma is a back to back smoker, but only of cigars, which smells strangely good considering how awful cigarette smoke is. 

It wasn't always thus. Although I was never a ‘suck down the life-giving smoke before getting out of bed in the morning’ type; my thing being ‘drinking without smoking is meaningless’, I still managed to pack in stacks of the packs. Coming to China in 1988 was like coming to a freewheeling smoke filled paradise. 

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China and smoke are like... lips and teeth. One can exist without the other but it’s a miserable existence, cold and full of longing. Guys (few Chinese women smoke) light up as they walk into lifts. Restaurants, shops, taxis, massage parlours; no place is off-limits for the Chinese fuming male. Smoking is something men do, and the further away you get from big cities, the more any non smoking adult male will be viewed with suspicion. 

Not smoking would be like... not paying off your teacher with a carton of cigarettes to give your son good grades! (Yes, like in prison, cigarettes are currency in China.)

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I remember clearly the day of my awakening. On an already full overnight sleeper bus to Beijing from Dandong, on the North Korean border, the driver started letting on stray people without official bus tickets soon after departure until every square inch of the bus was full of people, mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows. The hull on the Mayflower would have been like a ballroom in comparison. And all the men smoked, maybe to allay their fear of death as the overfilled bus careened all over the road for ten hours.

 I spent the night in a state of hyper alert, terrified of perishing in a fireball.

That’s when I decided to stop smoking. And only seven short years later, I did. I didn't see it as "giving up" but freeing myself from a terrible yoke. But I had to get down on my knees and ask God to take the burden away from me. Three weeks later I had my last cigarette - ironically on a Christmas trip in mainland China - and never thought of it again. 

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Illustration from my Spanish textbook Plonkers Abroad

Now it seems so strange that I have ever been sitting around with a little fire sticking out of my mouth. Smoking has be the strangest addiction - it doesn't taste good, it doesn't change your perception of the world, there are no benefits except perhaps staving off hunger. 

(Here is hoping you find a new gaff very soon, delightful girl whose Chinese nickname is a tea! And that it smells as fragrant as said name. 香片,我掛住你)

You must continue to Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! 

Today's Cantonese 我 唔 食 煙  O m sek yin - I don't eat smoke. That's right: Eat smoke means to smoke. 






This category contains episodes of the CantoNews From Exile podcast.