Saturday, April 3, 2010

for jo

This probably won't make any sense to the 6 other people that read this blog, but it's for Jo.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


The city is angry. Speeches distorted by cheap amplification ring across the rooftops and echo against the neighbouring buildings. The meaning is lost but the tone makes it clear. The city is angry.

Intersections are blocked, guarded by makeshift gates and eager young men in bandannas and red t-shirts. Hundreds, thousands of people are animated by an energy not often seen this close to the equator, where heat and humidity conspire to rob you of momentum, of direction. It makes you shuffle and dawdle and crouch in the shade of trees.

Now the people seem possessed with an urgency that is at once calm and electrifying. They drive around, riding in flatbed trucks and pickups, grinning. They gather at the intersections and squares, eating and chatting and listening to fiery tirades and waving at strangers. They walk around with purpose and determination, angry and excited and happy all at the same time.

Their counterparts are the uneasy groups of young soldiers and police that seem to huddle at every street corner. They are armed and burdened under riot gear, with heavy helmets and perspex shields, formerly clear but now clouded with the scratches and insults of previous battles. They too seem alert, but less confident. There is much tension in the air, making it heavy, adding to the heat and humidity and smog that sits over the city.

Amidst all this I sit in the company of bronzed and burnt tourists. We sleep and read and laze around a rooftop pool. Occasionally the wind will shift, and the speeches and rallies are momentarily drowned out by the music from the clubs and cafes that line the streets below. We shift about, in step with the sun as it marches across the sky. Oblivious to the tension in the street, blind to the angry city.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Given the pace of the changes we witnessed while we lived in Beijing, it should have come as no surprise that 5 years later the town doesn't quite resemble the images it burnt into my memory like a branding iron searing the flank of a very surprised calf.

It's not that Beijing doesn't at first glance appear the way I left it. The differences become a little more obvious the deeper I looked. The taxi drivers still speak an almost impenetrable dialect, but the cars are newer, and the meter now speaks to you in a stilted, robotic english voice, reminding hapless tourists to please remember their things. The high-rises are still there, of course, but there are more and more of them, shinier and somehow more adventurous, embellished with extra facades and angles. The biggest shock came with our first trip on the metro. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies selling tickets, printed on the ubiquitous cheap chinese paper. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies checking those tickets, tossing them into overflowing rubbish bins. They have been replaced by overworked slightly-less-surly younger women in crisp uniforms selling magnetised plastic keycards. There are even automatic machines, complete with touchscreens and english language options. The stations are bedecked with clean white tiles, guarded by x-ray machines and shining, blinking turnstiles. The trains are crowded (that I remember) but people line up at the assigned queues before jamming themselves (sometimes with the assistance of the blue-jacketed platform attendants) into clean carriages, again with english announcements and computerised subway maps. It was almost too easy.

I might go as far to say that the Olympics have ruined this city.

But then we made it over to the west side of town, to districts we once spent a lot to time in. The pavement was cracked. The buses were crowded and we could find our way around. We didn't see any foreigners, and when we did they had that same look in their eye: a studied nonchalance in stark contrast to the mix of exhaustion, frustration and wild-eyed wonderment that marks the tourists of Wangfujing and Tian'anmen. I remembered that look. It says "yeah, I know it's Beijing. It's big, crowded and noisy. It's hard work. But I can elbow those grannies out of the way on the bus, I can shrug off the scammers and beggars, I can get a local price on a knock-off North Face jacket, I can find the best
baozi in town." I may have imagined it, but when I wore that look it felt like I was a member of an exclusive club.

And maybe that is part of the indefinable appeal of China. It is hard work. It isn't for everyone. I've said before that this town could make or break a person. I am certainly not the same man I was when I first came here. I joined a club whose membership is defined by their ability to cope with Beijing and not go mad.

My membership may have lapsed over the last couple of years. In some ways Sweden has made me soft. The buses are too clean, the restaurants are too quiet, the air is too crisp, there are not enough people. So today I am going out to renew my subscription. I am going to haggle over prices and navigate buses and argue with grannies. I am going to find that elusive

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


We're about to head out the door. My bags are not packed, I haven't picked up my tickets, my passport is at the embassy (hopefully) getting stamped. I'm seriously under-prepared. I haven't even written a to-do list, and we all know how to-do lists are one of the seven habits of highly effective people. All I have is a departure date - a time I need to be at the ferry terminal in Stockholm. I'm not even sure if we can make it there - the train I have booked may or may not be running due to the snow that has blanketed Southern Sweden over the last couple of months.

It is a curious state of limbo. I find myself unable to complete the simplest of tasks. I bury myself in the mundane - two hours shoveling snow here or there, baking cakes or fixing elaborate dinners, chopping firewood, doing the laundry. Anything to avoid organizing the pile of random things scattered around our borrowed room upstairs. Anything to avoid organizing the myriad things that need to be organized when one moves halfway around the world. Anything to keep my mind busy.

Running is proving to be especially effective. It's tough going out there in the snow and ice, and I have explored my way around Northwestern Skåne, taking random roads as they appear. My mind is occupied taking in the new surroundings, concentrating on my breath, the pain in my legs, the slipperiness of the roads. And then I get to record it all. Data here and there. Websites, time splits, race goals, calories in and out.

So I get to bed each day tired. Physically exhausted. Longing for sleep. And as soon as I lie down (amid the detritus of our move, the dirty laundry - something to do tomorrow! - the piles of paper, the boxes remaining to be packed) my brain, happily switched off all day, springs into action. To-do lists write themselves, potential pitfalls, delays, problems explode into my consciousness. I start sweating (long a sign for me that things are not as they should be, I sometimes sweat heavily at night). So I toss and I turn. I get up. I switch on the computer, looking for a distraction. I don't sleep.

All of this is making me unpleasant to be around. It's not great to leave people, the people you love, the people who have made the last three-odd years interesting or engaging or even possible with a bitter taste in their mouths as you disappear over the horizon on a trip that makes everyone envious. Common courtesy dictates that you should be happy about the trip you are about to embark on. It's not polite to complain about the administrative tasks that are an essential part of the process.

And in the classic way that these things go, I am least pleasant to she who is most important. This has to stop. Today.

Today I will get things done, and feel good about it. Today I will be nice to be around on my last full day with my adopted family.

But first I'm going for a run.