I was pulled over on the side of the street near my hotel in Milan. I was at the trunk, organizing my stuff to bring up to the hotel when a man on a scooter came by and said "Scusi!" and started talking to me. Asked me if I spoke English and was trying to introduce himself. He didn't pull completely over to where I was standing, remaining a few feet away. I was feeling a little puzzled. Why was this man trying to talk to me? What did he want? Because he was kind of far away, before I stepped over to him to find out what he wanted, I instinctively looked back at the car to make sure it's okay (I'm more careful now after having our bag slashed in Rome). And I saw another man leaning into the backseat of my car!!!! Did I leave the back door ajar?? Or did he open it while I was being distracted by his scooter cohort?? I don't know. I yelled out "HEY!" to him and he turned and started to run while holding my jacket (which was in the backseat). I took a step back and reached over to him and pulled my jacket back before he was able to run away. By the time I turned around, the scooter accomplice was gone as well. My heart was racing a mile a minute and I closed the trunk and jumped back in the car and locked all the doors and tried to calm down. I've never directly confronted criminals before. It was unnerving. To think, all my camera equipment were in the backseat as well!
I was almost going to overlook the incident in Rome because, fine, you can get pickpocketed anywhere in the world and maybe it just happened to have happened in Rome for me. It didn't necessarily have to mean anything (even though it did confirm what all the guidebooks and even local Italians, say about crime here). I was willing to chaulk it up to bad luck. BUT, now twice in two weeks I have been robbed. That's insane. In 31 years I was not robbed once. [Well, okay, I had my camcorder stolen in Amsterdam, but that was more about me being careless and leaving it unguarded. Nobody used a knife to slice anything open and nobody tried to trick me into leaving the camcorder; it was all me.] Now twice in two weeks in Italy I have been (almost) robbed. That's no bad luck, that's just a scary country.
Tonight we went to a Michelin 3-Star restaurant, Le Calandre, in Sarmeola di Rubano, a few minutes outside of Padova, near Venice. [For those of you non-European and/or non-foodies not familiar with the Michelin Guide, here's some information on what it is and what it means to have three stars.] I have never been to a Michelin 3-starer before (or 2-star or 1-star, for that matter) so I was quite anticipating the meal. Some people consider this the finest restaurant in all of Italy. The chef, Massimiliano Alajmo, whom we met at the end of the meal, is the youngest chef ever to have been awarded 3 stars by the Michelin guide. Of couse, I also heard from somewhere that the Michelin rating system is not as accurate in Italy as it is in France. But it's got 3-stars and I have read many fine reviews of this place, so I think it's safe to say that it's one of the very best in the country.
So how was it?
It's roughly the mid-point of my trip through Italy. So far I've visited: Rome, Ovieto, Parugia, Assisi, Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Florence. Here are some thoughts and observations (mostly complaints, you know how much I love to whine):
The guide books weren't kidding when they warned against being pickpocketed. Within hours of arriving in Rome, our bag was sliced open while we were jammed on a subway car. Luckily the bag was so packed with our hats, scarfs, gloves, etc, that nothing fell out except for the polarizer for our camera. Well, the bag is ruined as well, of course.
I've been riding subways almost all my life and all over the world and this was the first time that I've been pickpocketed.
Thinking back, I should have been more vigilent as earlier that same day I saw a man on the bus I was riding chasing after a thief who had just took his bag. On top of that, at the entrance to the subway station where my hotel was, there was a HUGE sign saying BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS. Serves me right to ignore warnings.
Not sure if it's just my imagination, but after that experience, when I was on the subway in Rome, a couple of times I felt people feeling around near my pockets, seemingly trying to see if they can take anything from me. Except for a few Asian countries (Tokyo and Seoul come to mind), you're almost always told to be mindful of your belongings; but I always sort of took it as kind of an obvious, useless advice. I didn't realize that for Rome, you literally have to clutch your stuff if you don't want it to be stolen within minutes.
I then went back to the guide book to read more carefully the section on dangers and it also said that there are scooter gangs that ride by and snatch your bags. So anytime I hear a scooter coming up behind me (and that's all the time), I instinctively hold on to my stuff a lot harder.
Or at least that was my experience anyway. Your mileage may vary.
I know I said I would post stories and photos as I toured Asia, but as it turned out, I didn't post that much at all. Kind of hard to sit in front of a computer when you are having that much fun, you know?
Anyway, I'm leaving for Rome in a few hours and I want to at least put up the snapshots from the Asia trip before I go. The Figure/Ground entries on these cities are still in the works, I'll put them up sometime after I get back from Italy. But what my friends and family really want to see are these (damn narcissists we all are):
- Last set of pictures from Taipei: These are almost all from one night right before I left Taipei. As they had all month long, Cube琪, 神秘欣 and my cousin 嘉嘉 provided me with hours of silly fun.
- My week in Seoul: The days blew by in a drunken blur. Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts on this city which I will share when I put up my proper travelogue entry on Figure/Ground.
- Shanghai & Xiamen: This set is mostly of my parents, who live in Shanghai.
Okay, that's it for now. Off to Rome!
Last month in Seoul, I tried live octopus (산낙지/san-nak-ji).
I've eaten a bunch of almost-live/just-died seafood that continue to wiggle as they are served. (Only in Asia, though. Asian people have a fascination with watching the animal suffer as they eat. I don't get it myself. Or maybe Westerners would have a similar fascination if there weren't those pesky animal rights people around.) For example, I've had fish and lobster where the heads and tails are still moving while you eat the flesh, but at least the flesh is "dead." But this dish of raw octopus contains still moving flesh. Some pieces are hard to pick up as the suction cups are still working and they are stuck onto the plate. Not sure if my host was pulling my leg, but I was told to chew them real well before swallowing to avoid the pieces from suctioning to my esophagus. Lovely.
We got to pick our victim from the tank ourselves. The lady at the restaurant advised against our first pick, a lively looking fella. Apparently, the active ones are a little loco and don't taste good, therefore you should pick the more sedate ones. Whatever. She could have told us anything and we would have had no choice but to believe her. Any Korean readers out there can confirm or deny her claim?
So how was it? How do you think it was? I don't even like octopus sushi (tako) so I didn't much like this either.
This ridiculous article titled "From cells to bells, 10 things the Chinese do far better than we do" has been making the rounds in the blogosphere these past few days. I say ridiculous because it was obviously written by someone who has not traveled widely in Asia (or at least meant for someone who has not traveled widely in Asia), as almost all of the things that the author claims China does better (like cheap cell phones, stop lights that count down, wireless service bells, parking data, slipcovers for chairs in restaurants, etc, etc) can be found all over Asia (HK, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei, etc, etc). It's an Asian thing, not a China thing.
In response to that, I present you with my list of ten scary-ass things about China, most of which are uniquely Chinese. For this list, I won't include anything pertaining to politics and government (like human rights, or lack thereof, for example). You could easily make a top 1000 list of horrible things about China if you included the government. This list will only include stuff that bother the heck out of me on a day-to-day basis living here. Keep in mind that I've spent most of my time in China in Shanghai, easily China's most advanced city (along with Beijing). Everything I mention below is progressively worse the further out from Shanghai you go. Believe me, I've ventured past Shanghai several times and each time I've been scared shitless.
- The internet here is almost unusably bad. Many overseas sites simply aren't reachable and even the ones that are, are very, very slow. Must be their uber censorship router filtering everything coming into the country.
- Horrible Mandarin. A properly educated mainland Chinese person speaks beautiful Mandarin, I have to admit. Unfortunately, most Chinese people aren't well educated and they speak horrendous Mandarin.
- Simplified writing is an abomination. It's as if one day the American government decided that not enough people are literate so they decide to adopt text messaging shortcuts as the national written language "cuz it's EZer 2 Lern."
- Chinese people have absolutely no concept of waiting in line. It's just one manifestation of the general lack of curtesy here. I've never met a population of people that exhibited such rudeness. It's all part of the lack of education that I mentioned before.
- Pollution. And I include with this not only the horrible air pollution, but noise pollution as well. The constant honking on the streets slowly drives me insane as I walk around the city. I know this isn't just Chinese, it happens in many other places, but man, they love to honk here. Car horns. Bicycle horns. Police whistles. It's non-stop noise everywhere.
- If the honking doesn't drive you mad, the cacaphony of people hocking up phlegm will do it. Maybe it's the horrible air quality, but why do Chinese people have so much phlegm????
- Chinese people love to yell. You'll usually find at least one or two people on every block angrily screaming at someone about something or other.
- Food generally speaking is horrible here. The hygiene is low-to-non-existent and the culinary skills are seriously lacking as well. I wouldn't be caught dead eating anything from a street vendor in China. You can get food poisoning just by looking at them. Speaking of restaurants, the quality of service in China stinks as well. Due to the cheap labor, the ratio of the waiters to customers is frequently 2-to-1. Yet most Chinese wait staff have no idea how to properly wait a table.
- Bad architecture and design. Chinese people's concept of good architecture is a building with a faux european renaissance look with a lot of gold trimming, hopefully with a fancy top. Driving around Shanghai, you'll notice that almost every building has some sort of "hat" on top.
- Too many instances of dirty old men paired with hot young things. It's just disgusting and sad. I know there are sugar daddys all over the world, but it's literally all over the streets here. You can't turn around without seeing an old man with a pretty young girl.
I'll end the list at ten, but I could go on and on. Well, I've always said China is a scary-ass place. Scary as in it's scary backwards. It's progressing fast, no doubt, but it's still very, very backwards. Scary, too, because it is progressing beyond the sophistication of the populace.
I remember the first time I came to Shanghai three years ago, I didn't think much of it. Then perhaps because the idea of Shanghai generates such enthusiasm everywhere, I, too, became quite enthralled with it on my following visits.
Yet, having just spent the previous 5+ weeks in some of Asia's other great cities (Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul), I find myself having a very poor initial reaction to Shanghai this time around. Somehow all the things that didn't bother me the last two times are bothering the hell out of me. The constant honking. Bicycles everywhere. Dirty little cabs. Poor little 5-year-old girls made to sell flowers on the street. The phlegm, oh the phlegm. The horrible Internet access (a lot of sites that I read just aren't reachable from China for some reason ~ including my own figure-ground.com ~ damn you communist censor bureau or whatever hell else agency is responsible for this). Etc, etc.
But mostly, it's the lack of manners of the mainlanders that really put me off.
It's only been a few hours, maybe I'll get over my initial repulsion and get back to appreciating the positives of this city.
The last 5 days have gone by in a drunken, tired blur. I'm not sure if it's the cummulative effect of 5 weeks of being away from home or it's just Seoul, I have been really, really tired ever since arriving here four days ago. Mostly I think it's the one-two punch of not sleeping at all the last night in Taipei and the bottle of Jack Daniels on an empty stomach the moment I arrived in Seoul. I never really recovered fully after that.
Anyway, some final thoughts on my month in Taipei.
- People talk about globalization and how the world is getting smaller all the time, this is how it has impacted me: Thanks to broadband Internet and the power of BitTorrent (best client: here), I was able to continue watching all the shows I watch back home. And thanks to webcams and Skype, I was able to see and interact with my family almost on a daily basis. And thanks to mlb.tv, I was able to watch every single Yankee playoff game (including the last four excruciating defeats). It's little things like that that can help lessen homesickness (although I could have lived without watching the heinous Yankees-Red Sox series).
- The month went by much quicker than I had expected. Where did all the time go? I didn't end up doing anything I had thought I might have time to do, like traveling around Taiwan for a few days, for example. Or, I had wanted to eat 20 sticks of 豬血糕/Zhu Xie Gao and 20 bowls of 牛肉麵/beef noodle soup and I only managed 15 sticks of 豬血糕 and 14 bowls of 牛肉麵 (see the comments section of my 牛伯伯 vs. 牛爸爸 post for a list of all the places I tried).
- But somehow, without trying, I consumed a whopping 16 plates of 涼麵/cold noodles. Damn you, Leslie, it's all your fault.
- If that sounds like a LOT of carbs to you, it is. I don't care who you are, if the next time you see me you tell me I gained weight, I will not hesistate to punch you in the face. I know I'm fat, I don't need you to tell me.
Actually, no "rest in peace" for these damn Yankees. I hope the over-paid chokers burn in hell for having the greatest collapse in sports history. Against the Red Sox, no less. I don't want to hear anymore about how the Yankees "know how to win" from now on... Thanks for making my last day in Taipei a miserable one.
October 20, 2004
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