Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bullet Point Updates on Life in Taiwan

Bullet point notes on Life in Taiwan

• We did not go to Luang Prabang Lao during Thanksgiving. It seems that a civil uprising trumps a trip. The protestors took over both airports in Bangkok and held them until the King’s birthday by which time there were close to 100k people stranded in the airport and in Bangkok. Our airport driver called us around midnight to say all flights were cancelled. After one night stranded in O’Hare, I have no desire to be a human shield during a civil war in an airport. We stayed home, rested, worked on our porch and said THANKS for not letting us get in harms way.

• Kindness….the young owner of a DIY bake shop who was so excited talking with Carol about baking that he gave her four books he wrote on Chinese baking. No way would he take an NT$: just come back so he might work with Carol baking.

• Traditions….for the third year we went downtown to the Xinyi shopping district near the 101 bldg to watch the multiple street performers entertain the cutest children in the world. There were 3 performers dressed as ET like aliens with blue costumes with 1’ fingers. They invited the little kids to come into their midst and shake their fingers. There was a band of young jugglers and acrobat contortionists who placed three young children between them, posed them in the traditional Taiwan picture pose with the V sign in both hands and then juggled bowling pins over their heads while the kids stayed still, absolutely frozen in smiles.

It is so hard to describe the joy of the many families who are strolling between high end shops with kids dressed with rainbow colors in multiple layers, animal backpacks, striped pippi longstockings, holding hands and speed babbling about the sugar blowing artist or the balloon bending artists or the terra-cotta warrior wooden clapper performer or the African drumming ensemble or the Disney ad-girls dressed in thigh high white boots, butt-showing white short shorts and Vegas headdresses. OK I know this is a RO sentence but that is what Xinyi is like…one beautiful sensory overload piled on another in a living collage of vibrant city life. Merry Christmas to us!

• Bread…as I have said before, we are awash in fine bakeries, sometimes 6 in two blocks all displaying chocolate, fresh fruit and cream laden fantasies that are sculptural wonders of sweet design. But then there are the specialty breads encasing wieners, pork floss, onions, cheese, shrimp, peanuts, pineapple ……and the flours based on taro, green tea, red beans and yes, the pitch black squid garlic bread. As with all Chinese cooking, there is nothing wasted in baking even the black briny ink of the squid. Uh…….Yum I think?

• Christmas cookies…Carol had just said, I do not think I have time to bake cookies this year when her Tai Chi class reminded her that she had “mentioned” having them over for real American style cookies (never a date suggested). Well, they , the class, told Carol when they would come over. No negotiations. Just “family lunch” at the American’s house. And besides, this gives them a chance to inspect and pass judgment on our apartment for any additions or new design elements. Very important that her friends know everything about her…How old are you…really?

• HUGE spiders…Carol said she is warming to the 4-6” inch spread-hand sized hairy tarantula-like spider that we can not catch in our apt. I am telling you, this is a monster spider, the stuff of which nightmares and C-grade movies are made. It hides someplace in the living room and occasionally migrates to my office and scares the sh.t out of me when it pops up. But, and here is its virtue, it eats the 2-4” cockroaches that are natives of Taiwan. So, it is balance of life, Yin-Yang, whatever. Sigh

• Fruit excess…Papaya, mangos, guavas, 5 different kinds of bananas, bowling ball sized asian pears, square watermelons, pineapple, sugar cane, oranges, rose wax apples, chermoya (Buddha head), durian, jackfruit, lychee, dragon eyes, pomegranates, mangostens, rambutan, cow-eye size grapes, blueberries, strawberries, kumquats, calamancie, …..can I stop yet? These are fruits we have available to us almost all year long. Some are imported but most are grown on island and sold in the street wet markets or off the back of trucks double parked along any street. Yet, I regard our Sunday breakfasts on our balcony with fresh cut passion fruit to be the height of indulgence. Passion fruits are deep purple 3” diameter thick skinned balls sold in a bag of 12 for about USD $2. One lets them get all wrinkly and shriveled before cutting them in half to scoop out the deep yellow loose flesh and grayish black seeds cushioned in orange juice colored liquid. The taste….oh my…slightly tart with a saturated sweetness that is knee-droppingly wonderful. It feels like health coursing through your veins to lustily suck down one of these wonders. The flavor absolutely vibrates you with pleasure. Oh,, and if they are available in the states, they are about USD$3 each!

• Temples…..There are approximately 10,000 temples on this little island. We have posted pictures of some including our own local one. The worshipping population at this temple is particularly active sponsoring imported Taiwanese operas (presented only for gods, no audience required), puppet shows presented in a rented theater space built over the sidewalk and part of the major street in Tien Mu, and feast days that end with block long strings of firecrackers lining both sides of the street as well as the median strip. There is always lots of activity with brown robed choirs chanting to bored, cigarette smoking drummers and erhu playing accompanists. But it has been especially interesting to watch the members repaint all the dragons, relacquer the inlaid offering tables and re roof with ornate ceramic tiles. No expense seems to be spared as real gold leaf is applied to all the dragon scales and gods’ robes. Not only is it good luck to walk through the temple on the way to school but fascinatingly instructional as well.

• Winter—we know winter is here, kind of, by the way folks dress, kind of. The two biggest clues that it is winter are the boots and the rabbit fur scarves that pop out as if by secret message between women. You can not begin to imagine the variety of boots that are here; knit boots, white boots, thigh high boots, boots with bling, boots with leather tassels, Hello kitty boots, everywhere boots. The guys are pretty dull in their down stuffed parkas. But wait…I am still happy in shorts and a tee shirt and there are many girls in provocative short short short shorts and off the shoulder expensive ripped shirts that create a quandary about perception and reality. Whether it is winter or summer,Taiwan fashion is a wild and all over the map, over the top, cute, weird, cacophonous, collaged and a jumble of disparate elements that seems to work on the locals folks but does not translate to westerners at all. Oh well, OshKosh bibs look out of place on them…But That is the ONLY thing.

• Offerings…the porch kittens and their vicious mom Mei Mei are great hunters as most feral cats are. They live on our porch and love to pull down the broom so they can sleep on the broom head. They race up and down and momma sits on our chairs and outdoor table making many tableaus, Mama avec kittens. In gratitude for the kitty munchies which we supply daily, they brought us a rat, a big rat, a big, thank you, dead rat and laid it between the food bowls so we would step on in and notice it when we opened the sliding porch doors to go outside. It was so obviously an offering for us, so completely displayed as to not be missed, that all we could say was, “Thanks a lot ladies.”

• Body percussion…Alright I admit it, I am a hedonist and one of the many joys of here is that massage is a part of normal life. We mentioned that we have the beautiful Megan come once a week to hurt us sweetly. But the new ritual we are trying to start is a Friday afterschool music department communal foot massage at a new local parlor followed by a Bombay martini and an evening activity. So far we have had 4 regulars who troop into the 6 Stars Foot and Body Massage parlor near our house and sign up for the 50 minute foot and shoulder massage session. The most important task is choosing your therapist. Personally I am partial to #28 because he has just the right balance of firm but not excruciating touch that leaves you breathless yet breathing. One starts with proper disposable slippers while attendants whisk you your shoes and socks to a locker and then offer you your choice of teas to have during the session…somewhat akin to the old rope between the teeth trick of the old west amputation days. I am partial to the lemongrass tea. Then is it on to the massage station for a good soak in warm water while the therapist finds every knot in you neck and shoulders and applies every once of body weight to replace your old pain with new pain. You know it will only last 13 minutes because you have been shown the timer that says “13” on it. At least you can hope they hear the alarm on time, One has to straighten up every now and then just to see if you still can. Then it is time to switch to the leather chair with the side mounted TV in case visual diversion might distract from the uplifting (read rising out of your seat) actions of #28. He will dry you feet, calves and thighs and apply a lotion. I rather hoped it had novacaine in it but no such luck, just slippery soothing gel to let his hands glide over every single muscle, fiber, tendon, blood vessel and bone you have in you lower body. At least sticks are not used like in Thailand but let me tell you a thumb on the hand of a person who knows how to use it can be a near lethal weapon, so do not underestimate the power of 1…..;thumb that is. Okay so after 35 minutes of intense focus on every minute aspect of legs and feet (remember the timer… it was reset to say 40 minutes with the new round of stimulation.) one is then wrapped in warm towels and the party begins. Each therapist has his or her own signature drum tattoo that they beat out, and I do mean BEAT out on you legs and thighs. I think it has something to do with circulation or some such. In any case, once #28, #13, #52 and old what’s his number found out that we all were musicians, they really bent (us) to the competition of who could have the most complex repeated rhythmic pattern applied to our lower body. I really do mean the are coming down on you from about 3 feet away and not pulling their punches. Listen, Stravinsky would have been proud of the rhythmic layering that goes on at the end of our sessions. And the number people look at us waiting for approval of their minimalist ensemble. Out of the haze of pain, one looks up and gives them a warmish sort of grimace at which they smile and carry on past the 40 minutes just to show you how much they want you to be satisfied…. wipe off legs and feet, hobble down stairs, land with no dignity on the stools, on with the shoes that somehow do not seem to fit you as well they did before, take the business card from you guy (I already have #28’s card) and then it is out the door and on to the martini. Only after the martini does one assess the quality of the experience and the relative merits and characteristics of each #. I still think my #28 is going to be my choice next week. And rest assured we are strong. We WILL be back next week on Friday, after school, before the martini, before the adventures of the night.

• Whiskey samples…Go to Carrefour (French) or Costco (US) stores and you can have samples of Glen Livet, McAllen (sic) , any other single malt scotch whiskey or red wines from Chile, white wines from Australia or heavy malted beer from Germany from the time the stores open until the time they close. The beer girls are in their ubiquitous thigh high white boots with the skimpy plastic everything but the scotch ladies are in gold ( scotch colored) dresses with 4” high heels. The only thing you don’t get is a cigarette after you drink the scotch and look at the girl. Ah well… Wait there is more…whilst on the XinYi expedition, outside of NEW YORK NEW YORK mall, the scotch ladies kicked it up several notches by serving samples on the sidewalk BUT in overstuffed leather chairs on a royal blue carpet, I repeat, on the side walk. Because they were outside and because it is winter, remember winter?, their skirts and dresses were modestly an inch below the knee, but who was looking?

• Advertising…next to the scotch ladies was the outdoor sales pitch area for COLDSTONE CREAMERY. I know, you are getting confused with all these familiar US iconic names, but we really are in Taipei not Santa Fe. Anyway, there were long lines of fathers and daughters lined up to buy a special Coldstone ice cream treat and then get fitted from a special rack of Coldstone logo’ed, stuffed down parkas before they could” EXPERIENCE THE FEELING OF -9 C TEMPERATURE” in a special sidewalk freezing cabana. It should be noted that in honor of the occasion, the replicated stature of liberty outside NY NY held a dripping ice cream cone instead of the torch. As the kids came out they were met by the spouse who was too frightened to go who consoled and tried to warm them after their ordeal. Ya, just gotta laugh.

• Carols…on a concluding tender note, it brings tears to our eyes to hear familiar Christmas carols sung in the stores by choirs of little children who neither have any idea what they are singing nor how to pronounceate the words. The Chinese accent on Jingle Bells is truly charming in its innocence and just for a moment, reminds us that we are not in Kansas or Wisconsin. Sniff.

We hope we will have time to post more before the Holidays. We will try again to go to Bangkok for a week and then on the an island south of Bangkok to see just how many massages one can have in a day before OD’ing. Please know we do miss you and offer you our thanks, best wishes and hope for peace during this season and in the New Year. Change We Can Believe In!!!

Our best,
B and C