Saturday, April 01, 2006

All good things have got to end

Before the talk on Friday, Andy took us out for lunch at his favorite place in Beijing. We had again a private room and an endless stream of dishes. I was shamed into eating kidney, and there goes another food taboo. As always, the whole fish dish was my favorite.

On our way out, I notice that other people are having lunch in semi-private rooms, that are closed on three sides and then have a sort of carved wood screen to partially close the fourth side. Poor people, I find myself thinking, having lunch on a weekday in a place where other customers can see them. How can they live like this? I am in for a rude awakening when I am back in San Francisco.

In the afternoon, Hoeteck and a friend take me to go shopping. I really like the way several guys dress in Beijing; it's a style that I can't quite describe, sort of Urban Outfitter but without trying so hard to be cool. Something that I really like are those jackets that are cut in the shape of a three-button sports jacket, but more roughly, without shoulder pads and cuts in the back. They fit tightly and they are worn over jeans and light sweaters, as if they were a coat. I have seen them sold for about \$18 near the university, but I did not know how to ask for size and color.

We go to a department store two floors of which are divided into lots and lots of small cubicles, each cubicle being independently operated by one or two people. I see something I like in one cubicle, try it on, and Hoeteck's friend takes it from there "If you want it, I can get it for \$12.5" he says in English, and then the bargaining starts in Chinese. The owner wants about \$50, we start at \$10. We walk out on our final offer of \$12.5, while the owner is down to \$15. She actually agrees to \$12.5 when we are already out of the place, but we decide to see some more. The scene plays itself out a few more time, and it is a lot of fun. I end up buying two jackets for \$13 and \$15. It turns out that one has to be really thin to pull these jackets off, and even I don't quite have the right body type, but at these prizes I'll give them a try. (One of them is the 3-buttons style, the other is a more conventional Spring jacket.)

On a different floor, there are stores of what must be local brand names. One sign says "No Sale" in English (what? I wonder) and, more accurately, "No Bargaining" in Chinese.

I remember that, when I was a child, it was common in Italy to bargain at locally owned shops. Even now, some pleading can take 10% off. But, at the time, this was so common that department stores had similar signs that read "Prezzi fissi." (Fixed prizes, meaning no bargaining.)

For dinner (I am sure you wanted to know) we want to go to a Shezuan place that Hoeteck knows. It is a small chain and it has a branch not far from where we are. It turns out that it is in a fancy shopping mall, the one with the Burberry store, the Ermenegildo Zegna store, and so on. The restaurant is full of Westerners, they have a menu in English, and they add a 10% service charge. These are not good signs, and dinner for three is \$60, at least 50% more than it would have been at the other branch Hoeteck had been to. The food is good as usual, and the whole fish is, as usual excellent. For dessert we have green tofu. It is serverd boiling hot (and liquid) in a terrine when we are midway through the dinner. After it cools down, it becomes solid, or about the consistency of a flan.

Finally, once more to the usual club, where the night plays like a repeat of last Saturday, and so the whole week comes full circle. This morning, off to San Francisco, way too soon.

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