Shanghai Cheese

Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.

When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.

Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.

On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.

We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.

Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.

The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.

The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.

The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.

In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…

Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”

Ah! The power of food!

We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.

But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.



Out on the town

We received an invitation from the South Africans who work with us and their visiting children, and so we headed out, each with one yuan clutched in our hand.

This time we both paid, all 7 of us finding a seat on the bus. The mood was light and fun. We got off the bus a little later, following the two experienced South Africans, who have lived here for a year. They led us through the Lanzhou streets.

IMG_4524The city was busy, not quieting down after five, but instead seeming to come alive. We passed along streets, passing shops, some of which were a little familiar as we had seen them on our previous excursions.

The air was nippy and people were out, wrapped up in their puffy coats, some emblazoned with English words, not always spelt correctly and often inappropriate, for example – ‘screw you’…

The bare trees and pillars along the arcade which we walked down were strung with strings of lilac lights.

Outside the door to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ stood a Mongolian looking man playing a large drum which was hanging over his shoulder. We all passed him by and moved into the massage parlour (Big Foot Ancestor) beyond.

It was a plush room, elegantly decorated, with a Buddha lamp (he appeared truly enlightened) and a cluster of small Chinese men and women, dressed in the traditional, button across the chest cotton shirts and trousers. Each person wore a name tag (actually a number tag) pinned to their shirt.

Our South African friends, who had been to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ a few times before, assured us that a ‘99’ was the massage that we wanted. They organised that all 7 of us would be ‘done’ together in one room.

L looked a little uncertain, but, after a stop at the Chinese loos, which were immaculate and fragrant, we were all led into one big room, with 7 chairs (rather like Lay-z-boys) standing around the room.

IMG_4578We were all shown to a seat. The room was warm. We all took off our jackets, boots and socks and sat down. The women in our group were assigned men (I got no. 022) and the men were assigned, women.

022 was a young man, who seemed almost shy, but for almost an hour he worked on my feet, soaking them in hot water and massaging them with his very strong, very firm hands.  Glass mugs were constantly filled with hot water and we were urged to drink it. I struggled to understand but I tried to do everything that I was told to do.

There was much laughter, both from us foreigners and amongst the masseurs. As we were a rather tall, and, well, not a small group of South Africans, I felt for the very dainty group of Chinese youngsters working on us. Together we probably constituted more square centimetres of flesh than they had ever worked on before.

They were sweet, and, as the time passed the group of us lapsed into silence, the masseurs’ hands working their soporific effect on us.

Some details stand out – the extreme heat of the water into which we had to place our feet, the Chinese TV on the large flat screen facing us (we insisted that the sound be switched off) and the little glass bowls which the masseurs stuck to the soles of our feet. The air had first been removed from the little bowls by a large flame, skilfully applied and swirled around by each masseur. The little bowls remained stuck to our feet – by means of a type of suction – until the masseurs removed them.

When 022 removed both my little glass cups he turned the open mouths towards me to show me their contents. I think I saw something floating like a little ghostly fish in each little fishbowl, but I couldn’t be sure…

It was hard to rouse ourselves after 2 hours of feet, back and shoulder pummelling. We put on our coats and boots and headed back out into the cold. I felt very relaxed and would have liked to have been carried through the streets. The freezing air soon woke me up.

IMG_4581Next stop was ‘ Miracle Pizza’ a restaurant that caters to both Western and Eastern pallets. The sign outside said ‘Miracle Pizza – Love and Joy’.

Inside we were seated around a large table and L and I chose to eat pizza (for old times sake). I chose a curried chicken pizza. We ate it with mango flavoured and coloured fruit tea, served in a glass teapot on a warmed stand. It was delicious, sipped from very small glass bowls.

On the opposite wall was the word LOVE, set out in large silver letters.

We left the restaurant, having had both our massages and our meal paid for by our new friends. We walked through the busy night streets and nearly missed the last bus home.

The head of our party sprinted up some stairs and over a bridge and succeeded in persuading the bus driver to wait for us. We all moved as fast as we dared over the icy bridge, climbed aboard the bus and the bus driver took us safely home.