August 27, 2007

Paris, Lille, London...
I took an expensive TGV ride from Geneva to Paris, where I met up with Marie at Starbucks. I know it's sad we went to Starbucks in Paris, but it was a bit of a China tradition (Marie taught French in Baoding). It was nice to catch up, pass along hellos and bonjours, and remember the so-so old times in Baoding.
The next day I headed out of Paris to visit Marie closer to her home town. We had an amazing lunch on a terrace, wandered around the Monet gardens at Giverny, and visited some of her friends in the evening. We decided that I should pretend not to understand/speak any French when she introduced me, just to see how they would react. It was quite funny for me, understanding everything, and them trying to make small talk with their high school English. By the end of the evening I couldn't help just bursting into French, which shocked them all. Lots of compliments on my French though, and one girl even said "he speaks more properly than me!"
The next day I just wandered around Paris visiting all the familiar sights, and I finally got to see the outside of the Centre Pompidou. I don't know how many times I've been to Paris -I honestly don't- but I've never actually seen the Pompidou.
Then it was off to Lille, where I used to live and teach English in 2003/2004 (you can read through the archives if you want). I only spent 23.5 hours there, which was just enough to see the city and remember some of the good, bad, and funny things. I had my favourite snack (croustillons, like fresh TimBits), ate at my favourite restaurant (Aux Moules), had coffee in my favourite cafe (Notting Hill), and went though my favourite stores (i.e. Le Furet du nord). I'm glad that I got to re-visit the city. It was almost the way I remembered it (cold, windy, rainy), but there was less dog poo because they had street cleaners with huge vacuums cleaning it up!
The next day I took the Chunnel to London, where I saw my parents for the first time in 11 months (and 1 day, according to my mom). It was great to see them for a few days before I had to head back home, and they headed on to Barcelona.

August 25, 2007

Italy and Switzerland...
After some time in Spain, I flew from Seville to Bergamo (just east of Milan) with RyanAir for only 26Euro which included all the taxes and fees. The flight itself was only 0.01Euro! I decided to spend the night in Bergamo and look around the city a bit, but I should've gone straight to Turin to visit my friend Carlotta, whom I met in Baoding the first semester I was teaching. It was great to see her again, and to finally meet her boyfriend who cooked up an amazing pasta dish (he's a chef at a restaurant). We spent time catching up, and going through photos and stories of China. The second day I was there she took me through the city, showing me the sites (including the church where the Shroud of Turin is) and taking me to the best gelato place in town. And all I can say is that the gelato was incredible! The best I've ever had anywhere. We also went out one evening for authentic Naples pizza which was also very good (though I should have tried it with the buffalo mozzarella cheese). Yummy Italian food!
Next stop was Geneva, to visit Conrad and Meghan. It was great to see both of them again and to enjoy Swiss chocolate and cheese. I've been to Geneva once or twice before, so I wasn't overly keen on running around and seeing all the sites, but I did wander around town and the lake for a day or two.

August 23, 2007

Chinese in Madrid...
One of the funny stories from Europe happened when I got to Madrid. I could read and understand some Spanish, but I could hardly say anything. So when I went into a little corner store to buy some fruit and juice I was a bit surprised to see a Chinese lady behind the counter. I picked an apple and said, in Mandarin, "how much is this apple?"
The lady went totally slack-jawed and stared at me for a few seconds before saying in Mandarin, "you're speaking Chinese!!?"
"Yes, I'm speaking Chinese. How much is the apple?"
The lady wouldn't let me go (or answer my question despite me asking for the next 20 minutes) because she wanted to know how I'd learned Chinese, what I'd done in China, did I like Chinese food, and all the typical Chinese questions. Her son then came in, and she said to him in Chinese "look! This foreigner speaks Chinese! He scared me when he came into the shop and started speaking to me in Chinese." The son wasn't nearly as interested as she was. The lady eventually told me how much the apple was.

August 21, 2007

I spent about half of my European adventures in Spain, a country that I hadn't really visited before but that I'd heard great things about. So after London I flew down to Madrid (cheap flight from EasyJet!) and spent a few days there before heading to the north-west of the country. I spent some time in La Rioja (wine country) as well as in the Basque country. It was quite interesting for me to see the ads and propaganda for an independent Basque country, and to compare it to some of the Chinese propaganda that I saw while in China. Not to mention that the Basque language is fascinating (it's not related to any other language in Europe!), so I had to buy a Basque hard-rock CD which is actually pretty good. I went to San Sebastian, a Basque sea-side resort, Vitoria, the capital of the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain, and Pamplona, the city famous for the running of the bulls.
Next I headed south-east to Valencia, then down to Granada. By this time it was getting really hot in Spain, between 35 and 40C. Granada is a cool city with a lot of Arab influence as it was the last Moorish city to fall during the reconquista. I went up to see the Alhambra, where the Moorish rulers used to live and rule. It's a beautiful site, and the Moors did amazing things with design and architecture. Then you see the later Christian buildings on the site which look primitive in comparison.
Next stop was Malaga, on the Mediterranean coast. The beach wasn't as nice as in San Sebastian, but the water was warmer. I'd heard a lot of mixed review about Malaga, but I actually enjoyed the city. My last stop in Spain was Seville, where the heat was almost unbearable. Luckily the amazing hostel had air conditioning for part of the day. Once again I loved the city (despite the heat), and went to a little flamenco show which was beautiful. Very cool to see flamenco in the heart of Andalusia.
Next stop... Italy and Switzerland to visit friends.

August 20, 2007

Europe 2007...
I'll be hitting the books pretty hard this September, so I thought it would be good to take a break/vacation while I still have the chance, time, and money before law school starts. So I took off for a bit to visit some friends and see some new and old places along the way.
I started my Euro 2007 tour in London staying with Sonja and Martin, family friends, for a few days. The last time I was in London was about 3 years ago when I came as a chaperon for a field trip with the French school where I was working. Needless to say I didn't see to much, so it was nice this time to see more of the city.

One of the first things that I wanted to see in London was the Tower of London. It's one of those places that has so much history and myth surrounding it that they can charge a fortune for entry and people will still pay it (£16, or about $35CDN!) It was more than worth it though as it has a bit of everything -crown jewels, castle, prison, history, torture, intrigue, etc. It was originally built as a fortification/castle for William the Conqueror, but was left by the royalty later on for more modern castles. That's when it became a prison for famous prisoners.

Two interesting side-notes. The first being that the famous red/gold uniforms that the Beefeaters (Yeomen of the guard) wear cost something like £12,000 each, which is why they only wear them on special occasions (i.e. not for my visit, I guess they didn't know I was coming). The second note is that the yeomen actually live at the Tower of London with their families, a doctor, and a minister and that they have a pub on site which opens after the tourists go home.
There are of course a few other places that I've wanted to see in London, such as Buckingham Palace. I have to admit that it looks more grand and a lot larger seeing it on TV. Having heard mixed reviews about the inside of the palace, and my budget being blown out of the water by the cost of things (especially food) in London I decided not to go in.
Also high on my list of must-see-London was the British Museum which houses some amazing artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone and a statue from Easter Island. I was told by a friend that there was a large white marble Buddha statue from the 6th century taken from a village near Baoding. So I went looking for it and actually found it in the stairwell, 2 stories tall. Quite weird to see something from where I lived in China in the British Museum.
I met up with James, who had taught law in Baoding, for a day. We took the boat from London out to Greenwich. It was amazingly sunny for London. Greenwich is a nice little area, with some cool pubs and old naval stuff.

I also spent a day out in Oxford, which is not too far from London. It's one of those places you hear about, but is still really cool to actually see. All the famous colleges, cools buildings, and even some punters on the river. It seems to make Harry Potter a bit more believable.

August 15, 2007

Problems With Chinese Goods...
In the news recently we've been hearing a lot about problems with imports coming from China. Things like lead in paint on children's toys, toxic fillers in dog food, potentially toxic toothpaste, and more. And these are just a few of the things that we've actually heard about! Of course, China rejects the FDA claims that the toothpaste had problems, but that's China for you. Even the Taipei Times has criticized the Chinese media coverage of these scares saying
"This common story line of a US-driven plot to discredit China and Chinese products has run into difficulty, however, as Japan, the EU, certain Southeast Asian countries and even Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, have all announced tightened controls or stricter inspections of Chinese consumables".

I can't pretend that all this surprises me. While in China I heard about cheap lead put into meat to make it weigh more, therefore charging the client more money. Officials in South Korea even found 500 pounds of lead in blowfish imported from China in one week in 2000! Luckily though the U.S. is starting to put some pressure on China to clean up its act, and hopefully China will. After all, they don't want to damage their image too much before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing which they are incredibly proud of, as was seen by the quick arrest and deportation of two protesting Canadians last week on the Great Wall.
More links to "The China Syndrome" from MSN Money, talking about pollution in China, Chinese Wal-Mart, and problems with China's super-heated economy. They've got an interesting article talking about how the levels of pollution actually negate all the growth the country claims.
Stolen Mail...
One thing that annoyed me at the school where I was working in China (Number 17 Foreign Languages Middle School in Baoding, Hebei) was the amount of my mail that was stolen. I know that it wasn't ChinaPost that lost the mail because everything I mailed home or to friends, from postcards to letters to big parcels, arrived with no problem and more or less on time. Instead, the problem had to be at the school where I was working because friends at other schools didn't have problems either.
While in China I knew there was a problem with my mail, and figured that up to half of it had 'gone missing', but when I got home I realised that it was well over 50% of my mail that was stolen at or by the school. Postcards from grandparents and friends, letters from people in various countries, and even a number of parcels from my parents. It's not that the letters were addressed incorrectly either, because I don't think that my parents would write the address correctly one time then incorrectly the next time. And they knew the letters were for me, being the only foreigner at the school for 6 months. One friend even wrote "laowai" (foreigner) in Chinese characters just to make sure.
I don't know who has my mail, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a combination of people including my students. On Christmas Day I was lucky enough to catch one student with a package wrapped in Christmas paper, from my parents, walking into the dorms and almost up the stairs. I just happened to be leaving my room and in the hall as he saw me and said, "oh, this is for you." Suspicious?
Of course I mentioned this to the school, who effectively did nothing because my mail still went 'missing'.
So if you mailed me something while I was in China and I never thanked you or replied, you now know why. It was stolen.

August 08, 2007

One Year to Go...
There's only one year left until the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, PRChina. There was an excellent article on entitled "Beijing's yearlong party begins as Olympic countdown clocks reach 1-year mark " which is worth the 2 minutes to read. It's fairly well-rounded, especially after all the Chinese propaganda I read while living in China about the 2008 Games.
The article highlights the Chinese excitement for the games, noting a speech by Wu Bangguo "laden with communist jargon such as 'Deng Xiaoping theory' and the building of a 'harmonious society'."
It also mentioned a few of the difficulties China will have. Some of these difficulties were noted by Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, who "said the dirty air in Beijing might force some events to be postponed". That can't be good.

A beautiful, sunny summer day at Houhai in Beijing!

But the Communist party is making things better by moving polluting factories away from Beijing and closing some down for up to 3 months before the Games. They will also force up to 1/3 of Beijing cars off the roads during the Olympics, as they did during the African Leader's Summit in the Autumn of 2006. They're also hoping to help the pollution situation by "control[ing] the weather. Meteorologists began tests last month, firing rockets to disperse rain clouds - a move to guarantee sunshine. They've also fired rockets containing sticks of silver iodide to induce rain to clean the air." [More about Chinese controling the weather!]
Other difficulties faced are "old habits, such as spitting in public, jumping ahead in line and littering", all of which are being addressed by special committees to improve Chinese behaviour. I can attest to the bad behaviour -I don't know how many times I was spit on, shoved out of the way, or had someone literally point right in my face and shout "LAOWAI!" But on the positive side, Rogge says "preparations for Beijing 2008 are truly impressive in every regard."