I should have predicted there would be one or two other people travelling in Spain at Easter, but I was so hungry for travel I didn't care. That's how I ended up paying five star prices for minus two star hotels, but let those sleeping flea-ridden death coffins lie. I'm over it now.
What I wanted to say was I eventually ended up in another country, Portugal, where I actually knew people from Hong Kong, both former students and friends from the old village. I tried to speak Spanish in Portugal but whoa! Big no-no. It turns out Portugal is not a fan of Spain. I wonder why? Must be something about colonialism, or football, or something.
Before they became Portugal and Spain, both had been invaded by the Moors, who left behind a legacy of tiles, among other things.
I like tiles. Some tiles. In some places. Those places are: Bathroom walls, kitchen walls, floors - and morgues.
Places where I think tiles don't belong: Everywhere else. Especially not the outside walls of houses. But there they were all over southern Portugal and Lisbon: Tiled houses. Some of the tiles were beautiful; elaborately painted, and even I thought, not bad.
However, my friends from Hong Kong, now expats, or rather, re-expatted again like me (most people I know who have left Hong Kong have gone back to their country of birth, not to yet another foreign-dom) told me the tiles weren't there because of some cultural quirk, but rather because the houses were so badly made, the tiles served to cover the cracks.
Did the Moors learn about glazing, tiles and ceramics from the Chinese? The Chinese claim to have invented the method of glazing ten thousand years ago or more, so I'd say definitely! Also, the Chinese invented everything, so there's that.
I am particularly obsessed with the topic of tiles. I saw mainland China go from beautiful, traditional architecture:
to a shithole place where all the outside walls were covered in tiles
in only a few years.
I think traditional Chinese architecture is among the most beautiful and functional in the world. I used to know where I was in the country just by looking at the buildings; grey bricks in the north, packed amber-coloured clay in the west and of course the elegant town houses of the south with their dizzyingly high ceilings and tall, stained-glass windows.
Now the whole country looks exactly, drearily the same, and so grotesquely bad taste one would think they had lost a whole generation to communism. Oh wait, they had. Three so far.
I have a term for the handful of beautiful and interesting dignified relics from a time of excellent workmanship that still haven’t been destroyed: Hovelage. Wandering around hovelage used to be my favourite part of any trip to mainland China.
Chinese tourists apparently love Rome, Paris and London because of the atmosphere that only old buildings can give. Why can’t they keep some of their own?
The only thing that remains of Chinese culture now is the Cantonese language! Preserve world heritage by learning Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!
You could do worse than downloading a couple of teaching videos actually. That way you won't have to be stabbed with a pen through the medium of Skype!
P.S. Chinese, Portuguese, everybody everywhere: Tiles are NOT supposed to be on outside walls! NOT!!!!!
I must have read that book 30 times between the ages of six and 12, hoping against hope that this time Madame Bonacieux wouldn't fall into the evil Mylady's trap. But every time the book ended in the same way. Then I saw a picture of D'Artagnan in a different edition of The Three Musketeers and realised he had facial hair! It was all over between us.
Moving into early adolescence a real, living human caught my attention: Cat Stevens. Dark, curly hair, divine songs, what was not to love. Although he appeared with a beard in several photos, he kept it well trimmed so it was acceptable. Just. I realised I was drawn to the dark, mysterious looking guys. My best friend at the time liked David Cassidy and Donny Osmond but they were just too clean for me. Cat Stevens turned out to be a worse bad boy than anyone could have imagined; a few, well, many, years later he was suddenly called Yusuf Islam, grew a long, disgusting beard and advocated for Salmon Rushdie to be killed for having written words. It was all over between us.
Now began my real youth and I promptly fell in love with Dave Swarbrick, the fiddle player in Fairport Convention. It was at a concert in my hometown when I was 16 I saw him, so cheeky and a virtuoso on the violin. He is the only one of my distance infatuations I have been in the same room with, (not counting D'Artagnan but he was in a book in the same room.) My first trip abroad happened that year. I went by myself to Shetland to visit a friend I had bumped into... somewhere. We went together to London where I realised I must always live abroad. When I came home, or maybe the next year, Swarbrick had grown a moustache. It was all over between us. (He later became morbidly obese and smoked himself to death. But I still listen to the music.)
Becoming busy with real life boyfriends, I hardly had time to cultivate fantasy ones, not even with fictional characters. But then came 1981 and the film Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson. Holy mother of phwoaaaar, kill me now, etc. This was the ideal man for me. He kept churning out films, Mad Max 2, The Bounty, The Year of Living Dangerously, in which his talents and attractiveness just increased and increased. What a pity he would turn into an action hero. Still, I loved him for many years until I went to China and found
Cui Jian, 崔健， China's rock sensation number 1, who had just burst onto the scene the year before I got there. Oh, the heady days of China 1988 and 1989... until June 4th that year, of course. The haunting 一無所有 (I have nothing)became one of the anthems of the post Tiananmen movement in Hong Kong. Cui Jian! So good looking, great voice and using traditional Chinese instruments and melody lines to play rock! I still listen to his music, but our love couldn't last, because I left Beijing for Hong Kong, where I discovered
Chow Seng Chi 周星馳， slapstick comedian extraordinaire who became quite popular abroad too with his Kung Fu Hustle.. He parodied every cliché in Chinese films, costume dramas and karaoke videos, and coined lots of Cantonese phrases with his "mou lei tau"* style humour. I kept a photo of him on my pager (yes pager, this was right at the beginning of mobile phones the size and weight of a tree trunk and in fact they became something of a favourite murder weapon of triads) but was forced to burn it symbolically in an ashtray on my wedding day to another Hong Kong guy. So it was all over between Chow and me.
Living in exile in Spain, I no longer have any photo or film loves to cultivate. My only love now is - you guessed it - Cantonese!
If you are trying to learn Cantonese, I strongly suggest watching Chow's impressive canon of work, especially the early films. AS WELL AS taking lessons from me, of course! This way we can help keep the Hong Kong culture alive. God knows mighty powers are working day and night to eradicate it.
I had been gagging to go away for months although it's certainly easier to live without travelling when you already live on holiday, and for some reason it was Valldemossa that kept popping up in my head. So last Saturday I got up extra early, took the dog for an extra long walk and legged it to the bus station. But hello! The next bus to Valldemossa would leave an unbearable 53 minutes later! Ahrghhhh.
Suddenly I thought of my former life in China and the excellent habit I developed there; a habit I would recommend to everybody, especially the young people of today so glued to their iPhones and GPS and Alexa and pre-booking and Tripadvisor that they can hardly get around by themselves anymore: Go to the bus station in Shenzhen (just across the border from Hong Kong) and get on the first bus available.
The first bus leaving from the central bus station in Palma went to a place called Estellencs only a few minutes later, and I sprinted onto it, filled with an almost adventure-like joy. After an hour's drive we had reached Banyalbufar, a place much praised in tourist brochures.
Charming! And the starting point of many interesting looking, not too long, hikes. I get bored with walks that take more than a couple of hours.
The first 'throw a dice' bus I got on in southern China took me to Sei Wui.
Unlike Banyalbufar it was lively to the point of hysteria; so bustling in fact, that it was impossible to see the ground for walking, cycling, laughing, chatting, selling and buying persons. And they welcomed me and my various travel companions into their midst with much staring and laughter. It became my go-to for Cantonese 'language seminars' because we were guaranteed to be invited to eat and sing with locals.
I would return to Sei Wui again and again over the years, noting with satisfaction that here was a town whose activity level wildly increased during Chinese New Year instead of shutting down, unlike the bigger cities like Guangzhou.
August 2017 was my first trip to Sei Wui in maybe two years, and by golly the developers had been busy. The formerly throbbing and ubiquitous markets had trickled down to a sedate, nay, sterile few stalls, and several new supermarkets and towering, tiled high-rises had sprung up where before there were beautiful winding old streets with really good hovelage.
The old women selling same-day-harvested vegetables had been driven away, possibly because they didn’t have the licence needed to keep a horde of government officials in clover, and were now doing guerrilla produce-selling on street corners around town. I bumped into a bunch of street sellers that I recognised. They were still laughing at my and my friends’ middle-class abhorrence about hanging live, flapping chickens and other birds upside down.
As we chatted, a little jumped-up government official clipboard Nazi came running and chased them away. Well, naturally we can’t have screamingly fresh, inexpensive produce sold on the pavement! Get thee to a supermarket and buy overpriced, plastic-and-polystyrene-wrapped vegetables from last week like everybody else, Ophelia. That’s what the modern people do.
The outdoor clothes-and-trinkets market outside my hotel was gone too, as was my favourite restaurant on the riverbank.
In the middle of the meat market on the other side of the river, not completely razed yet because the stalls were attached to buildings, a spanking new 20-floor luxury hotel reared up, like a super model gate-crashing a homeless people party at the soup kitchen. It was all marble and shininess, and with a logo looking strangely like that of the Sheraton – but no one can have copyright on the letter S, right?
I went to have a look, but was distracted by some blood-curdling yelps and screams. Right outside the door of the hotel stall owners were slaughtering dogs. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that is very modern.
Yes, slaughtering dogs, and not in a nice way. I will have to get back to this, perhaps least appealing aspect of the Chinese cuisine, later.
I suppose most of the villages and towns around the Pearl River Delta, cradle of Chinese emigration, are gone now. It was inevitable, because it is the jealous nature of that country's government to raze everything cool and funky to the ground.
But the Cantonese language still exists, despite all aforementioned govt's efforts to eradicate it. I think you owe it to Southern China, whence all the laundries and Chinese restaurants in the western world sprang, to carry on the tradition.
But don't you think January exploded in sunny weather, the kind that would be called a nice summer's day in Norway? The flowers burst out before I had a chance to see them, three weeks early.
Fortunately my excellent editor and Spanish crutch Heather has a car, and she was kind enough to take me to Anthrax (Andratx, place name), we managed to catch the last seconds of almond flowers before they dropped off the twigs. A right bucolic scene it was, complete with sheep etc. What joy! Next year I'll be ready.
Come to think of it, the almond flower season is a bit like Hanami (flower viewing) in Japan, where people flock to park and field to see the famous cherry blossoms and get shitfaced. I always missed that too, mainly because every time I went to Japan, it was in October or November. And also, cherry blossoms flowering lasts only something like a day and a half and happens without warning, so it would be impossible to buy the ticket at the right time. Hnnnnn.
Talking of my editor Heather - she is so good at Spanish! And Mallorquin too. I think you should take lessons from her, or at least buy the book we made together, Plonkers Abroad. In it, you can learn Spanish through the method of 'plonkerism' - learning from other people's mistakes.
And while I'm at it - I can't urge you enough to take Cantonese lessons from me! It will open up a whole new world, stave off Alzheimer's forever and irritate the hell out of the Chinese government. Win win much?
Instead of learning a language from perfect people who never make mistakes, thus throwing you out in an abyss of despair and envy, thinking (probably quite rightly) "I will never sound like them!" you can now feel smug and supercilious, safe in the knowledge that at least you're not as thick as the protagonists of Plonkers Abroad!
I think I have invented a new teaching method: Plonkerism! Learning through other people's mistakes. Yes, believe it or not, that's a thing. Unlike other textbooks, these people don't arrive in the new country speaking the language fluently, no, on the contrary they know not a word. And of course they want the new language to be like their own, which makes for many snigger-worthy situations.
My excellent editor Heather S used the book to teach a group of English and South African people, first in Binissalem and after covid started biting, on Zoom. They quickly jumped from beginners to good conversationalists. Heather still has room for more people.
Me, I can't teach Spanish except through the written word, although my spoken Castellano (Spanish) has received a boost recently with the arrival of ah-Hoi.
Cantonese, on the other hand - oh! I can teach that, and how! My excellent student Snow Dragon 雪龍 in Sydney, stellar in every way, has decided to save up for a flat (smart) instead of learning Cantonese but she's more or less fluent anyway, so I have an opening.
Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! This is the best thing you can do to irritate a certain party in whose country's fake snow olympian skiers are tumbling as we speak. And it's also fun. And who knows, maybe together we can invent a new language: Spantonese?