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Life (Back) on Nanchang Lu

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.

Haircut, Shanghai Style

OK girls, imagine this nightmare scenario – you are plonked into a foreign city for a year with no hairdresser who speaks your language, and it’s now 3 months since your last haircut. Aaaagh! What to do? At the point of desperation you are relieved to discover that English-speaking hairdressers do exist in Shanghai, however you have to make an appointment to see them 28 months in advance, and they will charge you the equivalent of a years’ worth of Cherry Ripes to cut your hair. And a colour? About the same price as a plasma TV, or 10 years of Chinese lessons.

So it becomes obvious – you are going to have to find a Chinese hairdresser. This is totally terrifying. Firstly, the language barrier means that nuances of cut and colour will be lost in translation. No, I do not want to look like Lady Gaga. Or Roger Federer. And what if they put hair dye suitable for asian hair on mine? What if all my hair falls out? The ways in which the whole thing could go terribly, horribly wrong are many, and my Chinese Hairdressing Words are few.

I take the plunge. I do a reccy first, on my bike, to see what the salon looks like. It looks pretty good, all-white decor, Kerastase products. Then I go in to make an appointment. They want to know do I want a haircut now? This would normally be seen as a bad sign (no waiting list, no talent) but not in Shanghai where anything is possible anytime at the drop of a hat. But I need a cooling off period in case I chicken out, so I make the appointment for the next day and cycle off.

Yesterday was D-day. The first thing I notice as I take my seat in a plush white leather chair is the total absence of female staff – every single person working at the salon is male. I bet they’re all straight too, although I find that harder to tell here as perfectly red-blooded Chinese heterosexuals are likely to be wearing pink girls’ sunglasses and Hello Kitty t-shirts. 

Then, the consultation with the senior stylist…..he speaks no English at all, but has chosen Benson (as in Hedges) for his English name. I unfold my helpful list of Chinese Hairdressing Phrases, pulled out of a tourist magazine 6 months ago and kept for just such a situation. I scan through it for “Please give me a modern bob, cover up all my grey with natural looking highlights, and while you’re at it make me look 20 years younger’

Oh…there’s nothing on the phrase list that even remotely helps. It’s got really useful ones like: ‘Please make me look like a rockstar’ and ‘Can you shave it all off?’ Even ‘Don’t make me look like that dog of yours’. I’m a dead man. I revert to miming, and indicate a kind of shape like a bob. ‘Bo-bo?’ asks Benson. ‘Bo-bo’ I reply.

Now for the colour. Trickier, because the colour book seems to consist entirely of shades of black. I whip out my ipod and show Benson a photo of my hair when I was in Paris two years ago. On reflection, the background of the Eiffel tower is what makes the colour look good. It’ll have to do. We get the only English-speaking staff member to translate. I ask him:’Is it a permanent colour?’
‘No’ he says, ‘Not permanent. Forever!’ Reassuring.

So the fun begins. I have no less than eight men doing my hair, including one whose job is just to wash it, and another who just combs after washing. Sadly, Benson rejects his combing and the comb is passed to someone with more experience. For five long hours I am sat, wrapped in a cape, while weird stuff happens to me and my head. It begins with 2 large black plastic ear covers, so I look like Goofy, and a white neck wrap around bandage thingy to keep hair dye off my skin. Along the way my head is pummelled, wrapped in plastic, and covered with 58 separate foil envelopes.I have mini panic attacks every 10 minutes or so when some new chemical is applied to my already overloaded head. The supposedly relaxing scalp massage is an opportunity for the overly-strong hair-washing guy to practice squashing skulls with his bare hands. Can a scalp massage give you a headache?

At last the torture is over. The wraps are off and the drying begins. During the finale I meet a new staff member whose job is just to dispense styling product to Benson, and another who holds up sections of hair while Benson dries underneath it, so he doesn’t have to struggle to use one of those annoying clips. Benson seems extremely pleased with his results. And you know what? I do too. It’s one of my Best Haircuts Ever. And its definitely my Best Haircut in a Foreign Language (I recall that distressing time in Thailand I came out looking like Macauley Caulkin in Home Alone).

On the way home Daughter Number One says ‘I don’t like your haircut. You look 25!’ Since when was that supposed to be an insult? What do you think?

The Firework Seller, Nanchang Lu

If you want to buy some firecrackers for New Year’s Eve, look no further than your local fruit shop. You’re very likely to find that a makeshift stall selling fireworks has sprung up beside the bananas and baskets of tangerines, just like this one on Nanchang Lu.
Now if you only have 5 yuan, that will get you about 50 short sparklers. Enough to keep 2 children occupied for say, 5 minutes. And requiring about 150 matches.
If you have 20 yuan you can buy 10 Super Sparklers, they shoot flames from the tip. They’re about 80cm long, alarming easy to light and much more entertaining, although slightly more hazardous.
Should you have 100 yuan, you can have a big fat box of really noisy, totally unregulated, full-on fireworks. Enough to keep one husband and about six other helpful blokes very happy.

Cooktop anyone?

Every now and again some random impromptu shop sets up in my lane. So this morning, directly outside my front door there is now a shop selling gas cooktops and extractor fans. It is attracting quiet a lot of attention as you can see, but it must be semi-official because the lane is normally policed by a small woman wielding a broom, and she seems unperturbed. Perhaps chinese cooking puts such a toll on your gas burners you need to purchase new ones each year. Or perhaps some people are as excited by extractor fans as I am by shoes. I guess that is possible.

Let it snow!

We have a house full of Australians staying for Christmas. In my part of Australia it never snows. Not ever. A really cold winter day might plummet to, oh, 13C. Everyone puts on their boots and jumpers when it hits 20C. So imagine the collective household excitement when we saw today’s newspaper………snow predicted! By late morning the first flakes were falling. Had you been here, you would have noticed a group of eleven foreigners walking down Haui Hai Lu, twirling around with their heads back and their mouths open, and causing a lot of commotion on the footpath. You can see the view from our lane below.