We’d searched high and low in Greenwich Village, but even New York had let me down. A few years later, it was Beijing that delivered – hidden on the sixth floor of a nondescript office complex in a place I’ll probably never find again, there it was, the coffee house from Friends. I love the show more than I’d like to admit on a blog, and it was almost perfect. The orange couch, the mugs, the ‘Service’ sign, it was all there, plus a huge TV showing Friends episodes with Chinese subtitles. Admittedly the space was a bit too square and the ceiling wasn’t there, just the building’s skeletal piping, but perhaps I’m being picky. It would certainly be pointless to wonder whether the cafe’s owner has cleared copyright, being as it is the land of fake Apple stores and can-I-get-away-with-it business acumen. And it would also be unwise to get upset that later I found out there had been another replica, all this time, in Chester, England, somewhat closer to my London home.
For all DD’s efforts to stop me being a self-pitying recluse, it was Central Perk that perked me up and got me out. I was taken there by a partner of another Foreign Office worker, a lovely girl from Northampton who is also under 30 and doesn’t have kids, an unusual find in a family-heavy embassy. She is much better at joining expat activities – I’m not so keen on the idea of the British Club’s Dr Who-themed ball or the charmingly named sewing club Stitch’n’Bitch, but with her encouragement I’ve signed up for a Chinese cookery class. Together we’ve discovered more shopping malls, standing tall and glitzy on every road, all with maze-like layouts and very few customers, and today we headed out with the National Holiday crowds to street food central, where we saw skewers with live scorpions, spiders and seahorses, and fluorescent drinks that were mysteriously bubbling. It’s a buzzing place that rewards an empty stomach and an open mind, and leaves the pungent smell lingering at the back of your throat for hours afterwards.
Going out and about in Beijing, there are a few things I’ve learned so far to keep in mind.
Most importantly, always carry toilet paper. Public facilities tend not to have any. I tuck a few sheets in my bag while DD, being of a cautious nature, carries a whole roll in his rucksack. And I also try to remember not to flush the paper after I’ve used it, but throw it in the bin by the toilet as instructed, to prevent the city’s sewers from choking and flooding. Which brings me to:
Plan my peeing. Toilets in shopping malls and hotels are clean and pleasant, others are, without going into detail, last resorts. Which reminds me:
Don’t be horrified at toddlers doing their business on the side of the pavement. Some wear trousers with slits at the back, handy for a quick squat.
Also, ask specifically for cold water at a restaurant, otherwise they’ll bring warm water. It’s a bit like accidentally swallowing bath water, though it does make sense – why not drink water that’s nearer your body temperature?
And don’t rely on cabs. Even though they’re cheap as chips, foreigners sometimes have trouble hailing them, as drivers tend to not want the bother of the language barrier. My looking Chinese comes in useful here – I stand on the roadside and wave a taxi down, DD and I jump in, then DD talks in Mandarin to the puzzled driver as I look on with a vacant smile.
But don’t rely on public transport either. Buses are slow in gridlock traffic and the subway is not yet ubiquitous, while rickshaws might try to scam you.
With all this, and the smog that settles thick as winter approaches, it’s still tempting to stay indoors. But with the help of those who are less cowardly and whiney than me, it feels good to be getting out and about.
It also helps that at the end of the day, I can always kick back with a Tsingtao and this pirated box-set of Friends which, with its nonsensical tagline and creative misspellings, promises hours of subtitled bliss.
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