Trying to create a new identity: Writer
As long as I can remember I have wanted to be a writer, or rather, an author. Oh, to see one's name on the back of a book, and on the front, preferably followed by "Oliver Twist" "The Three Musketeers" or "Tom Sawyer's Adventures," my three go-to books as a child. I must have read them 50 times put together, in addition to the hundreds of other books I read each year to escape from my childhood.
The problem with those books was: They made me want big adventures. I wanted to go everywhere and see everything. I wanted to BE D'Artagnan, Tom Sawyer and, to a certain degree, the Artful Dodger, not sit in a room by myself and write. So I half solved it by, when I finally became an adult, travelling a lot but writing hundreds if not thousands of letters to friends and family.
When I finally ended up in Hong Kong, I somehow managed to be asked by a publisher to write a book - about anything. The result was Blonde Lotus, a semi-autographical novel set in China and Hong Kong, which took me five months to write.
That's when I realised that what I really wanted from life was to have had written books. Book launches, book tours, signing books, yeah, baby! But the actual process of writing? Not for me! It was so excruciatingly boring and mentally punishing, not to mention physically painful (arms, back) that I swore one was enough.
Then a Norwegian publisher asked me to translate and rewrite Blonde Lotus, a novel, ... to Blond Lotus, en roman! That was only slightly less punishing, but the book tour of Norway (to all of two towns) was great fun. After that, I wrote Don't Joke on the Stairs, a collection of essays/travelogue describing 20 years of travelling through the surreal fun fest that was the China of yore, complaining of back pain and boredom all the way, and swearing "never again."
Then I felt compelled to write a cookbook, CHILLies, Sichuan Food Made Easy, while the whole time working at South China Morning Post as a columnist and feature writer.
But do you think I saw myself as a writer? Oh no. Writers sit in brown, book-filled rooms in Paris overlooking an autumnal park, not on an island in Hong Kong with humidity-sweat dripping down on the keyboards, teaching Cantonese for a living, running an AirBnB and buggering off to mainland China at every given opportunity.
But now! Now I live in Mallorca and spend my days writing. Next week a business associate and I are launching an online magazine which is all about Mallorca! Watch this space.
It's so exciting. This is what i always wanted to do: Like the late great A.A. Gill of The Sunday Times, to "go to places and interview them." And I write in a beautiful room overlooking a garden with falling autumn leaves.
Do I feel like a "writer"? Do I hell! But I've come to realise that the label or identity isn't so important. The most important thing is jolly well doing it.
Dog poisoning in Hong Kong and Mallorca
The Bowen Road dog poisoner was the scourge of Hong Kong throughout most of the time I lived there, and apparently after 30 years he is still active.
Hundreds of dogs in the leafy hillside of Mid-Levels, one of the few places people can legally walk their mutts in dog-hostile Hong Kong, have fallen victims to his psychotic canine cleansing. He? Well, yes. For some reason, everyone thinks it's a he, although he has never been spotted as he puts down his choice pieces of chicken or pork drenched in poison.
I lived far away from Bowen Road on an island, but dog poisonings were not unknown there either: Villagers with an axe to grind, barbecue materials left behind, crap with crappy crap in it everywhere, etc.
Koldbrann in Mallorca, Bellver Forest
I was therefore so happy to come to Mallorca with its cleanliness and dog loving shops and restaurants - imagine the double take I had to do the first time I saw someone taking their dog into the bank! But my joy soon turned to dismay. For here, people love animals so much, they put out dried cat food absolutely everywhere, and since coming here, Koldbrann has developed an even finer sense of smell.
He is like a heat seeking missile, honing in on cat food, discarded baguettes and other delicacies from kilometres away. One of his favoured delicacies is outdoor deposited human poo, the incidence of which has increased exponentially this year with young people partying outdoors where before they sat civilised-ish in a bar.
I keep Koldbrann on a leash most of the time, but even then he manages to dive like a hawk to vacuum up all sorts of crap from the pavements, forest lanes and tree rings. If something has ever been alive, been inside a package or someone's intestine, he will find it.
But when he is at home he is a paragon of restraint, waiting to eat until he is invited, never touching the dustbin or things on low tables or chairs. And he sleeps through the night.
I therefore knew something was seriously wrong when he woke me up at 02:43 Friday morning, dancing round the bed, nudging me and yelping softly. What the? I had only seen him like that once before, last year when he wanted to get outside to puke. But this time the balcony door was already open, and what's more, I saw to my alarm, he had already puked.
I jumped in my clothes and flip flops, feeling there was no time to waste on shoe laces. Out we dashed, but wait! We are living under curfew! House arrested! Koldbrann was beside himself with - something - and dragged me down the street, galloping. Oh no, a car! What if it was the police? Wouldn't it be absolutely ridiculous if I were arrested - for being outside? I dove into the shadows, feeling like some kind of beret wearing heroine of the Resistance.
Koldbrann looking at goats, Mallorca
Finally we were in the little harbour of Can Barbera, the nearest nature-like place. And that's when Koldbrann could finally let it rip, with a projectile diarrhoea so straight and perfectly aimed at a tree, no one would think it wasn't ... just discoloured water.
We trudged home, clinging to the shadows, and I went back to bed. At 04:45 the same thing happened. Hop, hop, yelp, flip flops, projectile diarrhoea in Can Barbera.
It's a good thing I like to get up early! I got a lot done that day.
And were we ever caught breaking the curfew? Of course not! No police. Only lawbreakers like me are outside at that time of night.
New island, new language
When I moved from Hong Kong to Spain in 2018, I had this crazy idea, well, faint hope, that it would be like coming to China all over again. I would fall in love with the country, Spain, the island, Mallorca and the language, Spanish, possibly Mallorquin, just like I had felt myself born again and been riveted by everything Chinese way back in 1988.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Perhaps I don't see everything quite as much in love and hate, black and white, and yellow yellow yellow as I did then - yes, I just can't muster all the hormones and strong feelings about everything that I had when I was young. But I was content with living in a stunning place with fresh air and very pleasant people.
Still, I'm a born-again linguist! Why couldn't I get super interested in Spanish and study day and night until fluent? It irked me. I thought I knew the reason: Spanish just isn't anything special. It's too normal. Cantonese is this really cool, happening and subversive language with its own Chinese characters that the Mandohooligans (Mandarin speakers from north in mainland China whose purpose is to eradicate the Cantonese culture) can't understand, and speaking it feels like belonging to an exclusive club. Spanish? With a normal alphabet instead of pictograms and a syntax similar to that of my mother tongue Norwegian, with lots of boring grammar and verb declensions, it felt like studying accountancy.
There was only one thing to do: Write a Spanish textbook! In cartoons.
(I advise you to do the same. If there is something you don't know or aren't interested in, write a book about it! )
It helped, somewhat.
Ah, but Spanish is so cumbersome and uses so many words, where Cantonese is short, elegant and to the point. "Long time no see" is straight out of the Cantonese playbook. I missed the terse, four worded missives, especially "Mou ban fat la" which means something like "I have no other choice" or "There is really very little I can do about it."
Would the Spanish have such an expression?
Only a Chinese could answer me. A Mandarin speaker, but better than nothing. I trotted off to the closest China shop, the owner of which I knew spoke good Spanish.
"Oh yes, that's easy. No hay le medio," she said.
Really? That sounded strange. No hay, there isn't any, okay. But "le medio"? For him half? I wrote it down and showed her. Yes, yes, she nodded. No hay le medio.
My super fluent friend Heather, who is also teaching my Spanish course Learn Spanish without Really Trying, cracked up when she heard it.
"It should be No hay remedio! There is no remedy!" she cackled between gulps of air.
Ahhh, so that old chestnut, that Chinese say L instead of R, was true after all. From Hong Kong I was used to Chinese people saying W instead of R when they spoke English; not the famous "flied lice" but "fie wie." But of course, the Spanish R is something else! Only L will do.
Cecilie's Cantonese school, Happy Jellyfish Language Bureau, is still going on. Currently only on Skype, but if you live in Mallorca...
You know how they say 'you can't go back'? Well it turns out it should be 'you can't go away.'
I left Hong Kong after 30 years mainly to get away from high-rises and the increasing incident of metal fences, railings and walls. I'm not knocking Hong Kong, an extraordinarily successful city until now, I'm just saying that feeling like an ant in a canyon of dark, forbidding glass and metal surfaces while being corralled down a pavement made ever narrower by metal railings "for your own safety" while choking on fumes just wasn't for me anymore.
Water without high-rises Mallorca
So when I moved to Mallorca where I could cross the street anywhere I liked, houses were two or three floors and the air was fresh, I breathed a literal sigh of relief. Hong Kong was great and China was the best thing that ever happened to me, but it was time to move on. I moved to the outskirts of Palma de Mallorca, with the water in front of me and with a huge park/forest behind me - great feng shui!
The neighbourhood was peaceful and my traditional terraced house old and beautiful.
So what if on one side it shared a wall with a house that had been empty for 40 years, and on the other a house that had a 八卦 (bat gwa, nosey hag) on the second floor who liked to watch loud tv until two in the morning. Then late last year the stick-in-the-mud 1972 mindset socialist government must have had some kind of mental breakdown, because they suddenly allowed people to do renovation on their own houses.
All at once an explosion of work started in the neighbourhood, including on both sides of my house. I felt myself catapulted back to Hong Kong, where incessant pile driving, drilling, hammering and double drilling is everyone's life all the time, every day.
Hong Kong island seen from Kowloon
Because in Hong Kong, if someone moves out of or sells a flat, that flat must be completely, and I mean completely renovated before the next tenant moves in. Gutted. Taken apart. Not for them a fresh coat of paint, a carpet and some new curtains - everything must be powderised, annihilated, and crushed.
Suddenly I found myself between two such renovations, where the house on the left was torn down altogether, and the one on the right gutted, powderised, etc. with a new roof, new walls; lots and lots of new walls, and new everything.
All well and good - my rent went down and noise doesn't bother me although it has rather been like living inside a pneumatic drill while having all your teeth pulled out without an anaesthetic. But then the building of the new house on the left started. And not only wouldn't it be the same size and height as mine anymore, but its edge would reach all the way to the middle of my garden, and it would be one floor higher than mine. OK - more protection against the elements for me?
When I moved to Mallorca, the one thing I had been a little worried about, apart from missing Hong Kong too much, was the EU. Rules and regulations, niggling measuring of millimetres and tearing down of houses with the wrong door frame colour, that kind of thing - not like free-wheeling China and Hong Kong.
But I needn't have worried. When the brickworks reached my balcony, the workers didn't put up any protection, but let wet cement and little pebbles rain down on my balcony and on my garden.
"Please put up some protection!" I said.
They just laughed.
"Please stop spurting wet cement on my wall and on my clothes drying on the rack!" I said, but in Spanish, so it probably came out as "No. Bad. Net. Help. No cement. My clothes. My wall. No. I don't like."
"It's not from us, " said the foreman, who was standing there with a trowel in one hand and a brick in the other, 30 cm away from me.
Oh glory! It was exactly what a Chinese bricklayer would have said. I'm HOME! Doubly.
Next episode: More ways Mallorcan housebuilders are eerily similar to those of Hong Kong.
Lockdown is the mother of invention
Yesterday I met a friend "accidentally" in a shopping centre. We cruised around the aisles, masked and be-gloved, trying to look as if we didn't know each other. That was the highlight of my week. That, and my fabulous IDEA.
As I mentioned last time, book writing, for the most part, is a ticket to starvation and death. But actually, that's only if you don't become a successful author. No, forget about the starvation. The worst thing about writing is the boredom (can't do other things while writing) and the physical pain in shoulders and wrists. So when I got a freelance job demanding eight hours of writing per day on top of the book writing, I thought: I need a proper office chair!
Two years ago I got an office chair from a charity shop:
Cool, eh? All I need is a long nail, an eyeglass and a white cat, and I'm good to start world domination. The only problem is: The chair is ONLY for looking at. Comfort or workwise it's actually worse than no chair at all. So if I don't want to wreck my back, I'll need a modern, comfortable, real office chair. But it's the kind of thing I really should try before buying, and I can't try when everything is closed. Also they're damned expensive.
Then, because I'm now totally self sufficient, it came to me. No chair! Stand and write! Like a pulpit or... or a lectern! Buy a lectern? Buy online? Buy... bu... BUILD a lectern!!!
Didn't I have a lot of wood in the garden, thriftily collected to use as firewood? Woo hooo! Full of pioneer spirit I set to work.
It worked. Now I do all the work standing up, and I can't recommend it enough. I also give speeches and sermons from behind my lectern, which my dog Koldbrann listens to with rapt attention in his sleep. This, combined with some Skype and secret meetings near the pickled cucumbers, makes being shut away not only bearable but enjoyable!
When the food shortages start to bite in earnest it will of course be different, but by then I will have grown my own vegetables and caught a couple of cows and chicken. I feel there's nothing I can't do now.