Archive | November, 2011

Wilkommen in Peking – German Embassy Christmas Market

30 Nov

Gallons of Gluehwein, slabs of Stollen, a hearty Bratwurst and a good dose of Bavarian dialect – why travel 4,500 miles when there’s an echter Christkindlmarkt right on your doorstep? Meine Damen und Herren, ladies und gentlemen, wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome to the German Embassy Christmas Bazaar.

Having spent some of the best days of my life slurping (and occasionally regurgitating) Punsch at the Christmas markets in Vienna (the life of a British Council language assistant is never easy), I was literally salivating at the prospect of some good krauty Christmas cheer.

Unsurprisingly, every teuton trapped in China was experiencing the same excretion of oral juices. The Christmas Bazaar has happened on the last Saturday of November for about a decade. According to Ella Wong in her That’s Beijing article, it draws crowds of over 4,000 annually, but aside from one or two modest magazine listings, it’s barely advertised. However, word of mouth is definitely enough. By the time we arrived at about 12.30, the queue was stretching around the block.

After two hours of foot-stamping and coffee runs (thankfully the weather was cold but reasonably sunny), we made it inside through a passport check and a bag search and full-body scan.

The courtyard was full of the classic Christkindl toybox booths. The smell of sausage and spiced wine hit us full in the face.

As the queue had suggested, it was heaving inside. But apart from a slight wait at the mulled wine stand, it did not feel unpleasantly full – no Fragrant Hills to say the least.

Soon we were sampling Deutsch delights in a display of gluttony verging on sin. Leberkaesesemmel (think sausage meat sandwich) with sweet Bavarian mustard, bowls of Goulaschsuppe, Schweinsbraten (hog roast), Bretzeln (pretzels) and Apfeltascherl (apple turnovers) and disappeared down the collective group gullet, along with several mugs of Gluehwein and hot chocolate.

What with the jovial “echte Bayer” from Siemans and BMW who were serving it all up, it almost felt authentic. The Chinese vendors all had a decent dollop of Deutsch between them too.

But what helped most of all was the fact that the majority of the patrons seemed to be German speakers. I felt an odd sense of warmth towards the irritating bunch of shrieking, Eastpak-wearing teenagers who had jostled us throughout our queuing time. I could have been in a queue for the ski lift in Hochkoenig. My ego was suitably massaged as the otherwise utterly useless “BA Oxon German” at the end of my name had a rare moment to shine.

It was pretty chilly outside, so we shuffled into a building where charity cards and yet more cake were on sale. A little model stable had been set up for a bit of Christmas story-reading, and  children (ahem) could decorate gingerbread and baubles.

At 5pm we left clutching  extra pretzels, bottles of strong winter liquor, and a self-decorated tree dangle apiece.

Was fuer eine tolle Weihnachtsvorbereitung (what a great preparation for Christmas).

O Tannenbaum, o Tian’anmen.

We Three Pekings of Orient Are

28 Nov

Little Mao Zedonkey

It may not be December yet, but rest assured the UK (or frequent patrons of Starbucks across the globe) will already be asphyxiating in the Christmas Spirit. Any time I chat with anyone back home on Skype, some mention of the big 2 5 comes up, whether spoken in tones of childish over-excitement or like a death-knell of the apocalypse.

“And when are you coming back for Christmas?” they ask. Their horror, their disbelief at my answer is always the same. I’m not. I’m staying in Beijing.

God knows, I tried to escape. But my boss wasn’t having any of it. She told me brusquely (or as brusquely as one can be over MSN) that we had a newspaper to produce that week, that Christmas was not something that one does in China, and that I would simply have to understand.

It was a blow, to say the least, but one that made me determined to turn this into a Good Christmas. Banishing my inner Scrooge who usually emerges like Mr Hyde at this time of year, and shoving my fingers in my ears to drown out my mother’s persistent wails (“What do you MEAN you won’t be coming to Aberdeen?????”), I let the eagle eyes of my alter ego – not Ebeneezer this time, but the great Chicken Feet’s King – take over. The mission – to save Christmas in China.

Like that wonderful blend of Chinese and English language that is known as “Chinglish” (or “Chingrish”), I determined to create Chingmas out of anything and everything remotely Christmassy in China.

Over the next few weeks, the all-new Chingmas section of the blog will become an island of merriment in the sea of Mao. Chingmas will review Beijing’s Christmas events and let you know about those to come. And more besides.

Confucius bless us, every one. It’s gonna be the best damn Chingmas yet.

It might sound cheesy but…

23 Nov

Italy? No. This spells Home.

Gorgonzola, Emmenthal, Red Leicester, Port Salut… every expat has their own little nostalgia from home that they ache for. My homesickness can be summed up in one word. Cheese.

The mere mention of any cheese, from Ardrahan to Zamorano, is enough to get my mouth and eyes watering for home comforts. Like for like, in those moments when I see a picture of a London cab or turn on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme (at 2pm rather than 6am as it is in the UK), my cheese craving kicks in with a vengeance. It is as if Jim Naughtie’s dulcet tones were wired to my tastebuds.

It took a while for this somewhat inconvenient psychological tic to develop. But what started out as the occasional “ooh, could really fancy a spot of cheddar” has now become full-blown Cheesesickness. Once my Cheesesickness strikes, I know I will have no peace until it has been satiated.

As part of the China acclimatisation process, I have managed to concoct some makeshift remedies to alleviate the symptoms of my condition. A large pizza on a weekly basis (preferably with extra parmesan) is a good way to keep prolonged Cheesesickness at bay. Flare-ups can be calmed by dashing to Subway and in a quavering voice asking for a six-incher with triple extra cheddar. At home these insipid yellow plastic triangles would be shunned. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

For the worst attacks – the ones that involve tremors and cold sweat –  the only solution is to throw money at the problem. Scarlett, the restaurant of the G Hotel, does an eight-cheese selection platter for just over 200 yuan. The Vineyards near Lama Temple has a number of salads that come topped with a decent crumbling of blue, brie or goat, depending on which one you go for, most around the 60 to 70 yuan mark. It’s a bit pricey, but it takes the edge off that persistent feeling that you are a “laowei out of water”. Until someone makes the mistake of suggesting we watch Notting Hill, of course, and you have to launch into another manic hunt for a bit of brie.

But here’s the thing. While cheese is not exactly big in China, in Beijing it is not actually hard to come by. Supermarkets do stock it, albeit dumped in the same aisle as other “unnecessaries” like butter and non-instant coffee. Once you convert the yuan into pounds or dollars, it’s not actually that much more expensive than our home-grown stuff.

I also have a slight confession to make. Back in the UK, I wasn’t even that into cheese. I’d have a nibble at the post-Christmas stilton, but given the choice would rather have an extra bowl of figgy pudding. When it came to cheese, I was something of a snob. I wouldn’t eat it unless it was really pungent, so ripe it was practically crawling out of its dish. Instead of scanning a menu and hysterically jabbing my “zhe ge” finger at the first cheesy item I saw, I would, nice young lady that I was, select the more delicate options of fish or even – dare I say it – a healthy noodle soup.

If I cast my mind back, I realise too that I have developed obsessions like this before. I spent a year in Austria as part of my undergraduate degree in German, and the moment my plane touched down in Vienna airport, I was struck with a desire for tea with milk. Never mind the fact that it had always made me retch before, from then on tea with milk became a daily requirement. Ditto the glutinous, salty spread Marmite, which they say you have to be British to actually like. In the UK I’d been happy with the occasional wipe of Marmite on my morning toast. Once I got to Austria I was eating Marmite straight from the jar. With a spoon.

The London riots, football hooligans, binge drinkers, Prince Andrew – I am the last person to say that I am proud to be British. But somehow, in leaving England, I have become more English than the English.

Perhaps going abroad turns everyone into a rampant stereotype. Or perhaps it’s just the old adage – that the cheese is always bluer on the other side.