It’s a quarter to six in the morning and from my window I’m watching the street food vendors down on the corner feed their first customers.
There’s the steamed bun stall, with a row of three bamboo steamer baskets each stacked three or four high, each basket holding thirty buns. The steamer baskets are as wide as the vendor’s arm is long and he reaches across to the handle on the far side of the basket to lift it up off the steamer, sending a cloud of steam billowing into the air above his head. He disappears momentarily from sight then brings back another full basket of freshly risen buns, white and plump, and places it down firmly on the steamer, cutting off the flow of steam.
Next door, the most popular stall in the row of six shops already has a short queue for the array of fried goods they offer. The fried food stall is always the busiest for breakfast, and clearly locals love a bit of oiliness first thing in the morning. There are deep fried you tiao
(oil sticks), squares of pressed rice, deep fried to give them crunch, and an enormous saucepan of hot fresh soy milk.
On the very corner itself is the congee stall with pots full of six simmering varieties of rice porridge. An early morning customer walks past in his pyjamas along all six stalls before deciding on an oil stick and cup of soy milk.
We moved house this week, back to a very quirky old apartment on Nanchang Lu overlooking one of the best street food spots in the city and I couldn’t be happier.
Some of you know that two years ago our stay in our original house on Nanchang Lu came to an unexpected and abrupt end when the landlady increased the rent by 250% in at the end of our lease. Seriously. (She mistakenly thought Shanghai Expo would bring a flood of rich foreigners to Shanghai and she would get wealthy. Instead, we moved out and the house remained empty for the next 14 months. There’s no accounting for how often greed and stupidity go hand in hand.)
We then spent the next two years in a wonderful old lane house on Huai Hai Zhong Lu and I agonized over whether to change the name of this blog to suit, but somehow ‘Life on Huai Hai Zhong Lu’ didn’t quite sound right, was hard to pronounce for most people and the original title stuck. Which in retrospect, was very lucky indeed as we now find ourselves back on Nanchang Lu for our last year here in China. It’s as though it was meant to be.
In an effort to downsize our lives in preparation for living in a campervan
for the last six months of this year, we’ve moved into a smaller old apartment. It’s rather quirky, with an odd layout and a glorious view of a decaying concrete wall from most of the side windows, but one aspect really sold it to us.
The kitchen is enormous, lit by a wall of enormous arched windows which look directly down on to the street food corner. Every morning this week I’ve risen early and stood at the windows, drinking my morning cup of tea and watching the street come to life below. It’s the most enjoyable part of my day.
Of course, living in an old place on such a busy corner has its disadvantages – the afternoon traffic is gridlocked on the street below and accompanied by orchestral arrangements of horn-honking, bell-ringing and tooting. But I quite like the bustle and noise.
And there are the old house issues. We come off the street into a little alcove at the bottom of the aged stairwell, a space packed with drying washing, bicycles, plastic bottles, unwanted bits of furniture and a motorbike. The wiring in the alcove, supplying the whole building, is interesting to say the least, and we have already formulated our family fire escape plan. Mind you, the building has been there since the 1930s and hasn’t caught fire yet, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too paranoid.
There is space to leave Big Red
up on the first floor landing, but she weighs a tonne and when I tried to get her back down the stairs I lost my grip coming down the last four steps and caused something of a chain reaction/avalanche involving a bamboo ladder, the bedhead of an ancient Chinese wedding bed covered with a blanket, a whole pile of washing, a stack of newspapers and another bicycle. Once the dust had settled there was a large hole in the wall, but I can’t be entirely sure it wasn’t already there….
From now on I’m going to shove her into a small space in that already very crowded alcove to avoid further disasters.
Despite all this there are so many wonderful things about being back on Nanchang Lu:
My corner store. He arrives with it every day at six am, and from the bicycle tray a miraculous arrangement of hats, brooms, carpet beaters, toilet plungers and aprons unfolds itself. Nothing is priced over ten yuan ($1.30) and he also sells sewing needles, tape measures, washing up gloves, spare plugs, toilet brushes and plastic bags. Very convenient.
And Nanchang Lu itself – on one of Shanghai’s most beautiful quiet streets the plane trees, bare for so many months, have just started budding this week, their leaves an extraordinary bright pale green. In no time at all the street will be one long, green archway perfect for cycling along. Can’t wait.