Thursday, September 01, 2005

Second Day in Taipei

This whole experience since we got here has had a touch of the surreal: CNN televising the horrors in Mississippi and Louisiana and warnings here about the typhoon, which so far is something of a no show, I'm happy to report. Last night the southern part of Taiwan had damage and huge floods, but here in Taipei we have only had some high winds last night which did some minor damage to trees and shrubs and a few scooters abandoned on sidewalks.

This morning at breakfast we chatted with a couple who were here for a veteran's celebration memorializing something the British did here in WW II. We agreed to try to go to the Palace Museum if it was open and they were to call us after they had heard from their "guide," but after one oclock came without hearing from them we decided to go for a walk as Peter was getting stir crazy.

We walked several blocks from the hotel to the area where the Chang Kai Shek memorial gate and Cultural Center are. It is a huge place, with a gate sort of like the Arc d'Triumph only several times larger, and wide boulevards like the Champs d'Elysee. The buildings are gigantic temples which, except for the style of the architecture, would make great settings for Gotterdamerung. On either side were gardens with fish ponds and lotus and lots of overgrown goldfish of every possible yellow and gold hue. The place was empty except for a very few other would-be tourists and the wind whilstled through the fir trees in a way that made me want to reread Heidi. After about an hour of walking around the theater, the cultural center, the gate, and the gardens in 90+ degrees and 130% humidity I said "enough" and Peter got us a cab, which we told to take us to the Hilton because we thought it was close, would be cool, and would serve lunch and a drink. The cab driver took us to a hotel, not the Hilton, but it was cool and had a restaurant so we went in to order lunch. As is so often the case when you think you know exactly what will happen and everything is finally under control, even if only for a brief moment, we had a real adventure.

A very tall, thin Chinese man came to take our order and I told him we wanted to try the Chinese wine. After taking our orders he left us to the mercy of some other waitstaff who didn't understand much of what we said. Our glasses of water came, without ice, and I asked for ice. The waitress reluctantly brought me a few cubes and then disappeared. We sat for what seemed a long time, at least by American restaurant standards, with no interruptions or service except the young woman who had brought the water brought to our table what I thought was a tumbler and two tiny glasses somewhere in size between a thimble and a shot glass. Another while later, yet another waiter brought to our table a brown bottle shaped like Johnny Walker Red with a gold label and a screw-off cap—to show us the wine. He then disappeared for another several minutes ostensibly to open it, returning with the cap unscrewed but still attached, hanging at a rather rakish angle. He proceded to pour a large portion of the brown and foul smelling liquid into the tumbler, which turned out to be a beaker with a lip on it. He then used the beaker to pour a small amount in the two miniscule wine glasses, smiled at us, and retired.

After tasting the wine we imagined he went away to laugh. To say it was dreadful would be generous. Nasty. Wretched. I had asked for ice from the waitress twice and although she seemed to ignore me, about this time a young man with a bucket of ice came to our table. Aha! we thought. It will be better with ice. And it was, the same way, no doubt, cod liver oil would be less hideous if chilled. Peter continued to drink it but I ordered a gin and tonic, which made me quite happy. Peter said this would make a great story for my blog, and we laughed about the whole thing, saying no wonder the Chinese don't drink wine if it all tastes like this and so on. You can imagine.

Then the original waiter from whom we had ordered returned to the table to see if we were happy, and I said the wine was really really bad and smiled about it. But he said we didn't know how the Chinese drank it and if we wanted he would show us. So we said sure, figuring we had nothing to lose, and interested to see how this dreck could be transformed. The experience put me in mind of the first time I ate feta cheese or drank that nasty Greek retsina wine. He said that the Chinese heat the wine and then put dried salted plums or limes in it. He took the wine away, heated it slightly, and brought it back to the table with two new beakers and four more miniglasses. I asked him to join us but he demurred since he was at work. He put some of the dried plums in one beaker with some of the warmed wine and several slices of lime in the other beaker of wine, which he mashed a bit with a spoon. After the plums had soaked a bit and the limes mixed with the wine, he poured some of each in the tiny glasses for us. We toasted him, and tried it again, and it was much better. The plums are good to eat after drinking the wine except they are dried in salt and are reeeely salty, but Peter liked them, and I liked the wine with the limes in it. The waiter even put the rest of the wine in a gift bag for us with some dried plums so we could take it with us and share it with others.

So, I thought, this makes a very good zen koan. We were sitting there feeling like we knew all about what was happening and being smug Americans. The service seemed slow and backward and the wine dreadful. But in fact the service was perfect for people who weren't in a hurry, and even more to the point we weren't in a hurry. We were just so sure we knew everything, because we were in a western-looking cafe in a big city and everyone knows that's the same the world over. Well, I'm here to tell you, not in Taiwan. The Chinese waiter would not have told us about the wine without my comment because he would have caused us to lose face by assuming we didn't know—even though to my mind that would have fallen in the "obvious" category. But once we had admitted we didn't know, he was happy to share with us the secret of the Chinese wine.

Pleasure was here to be enjoyed as soon as we went a bit out of our way to appreciate it. But it's so easy to fall into stereotypes, particularly when hot and sweaty. Hot and sweaty brings out the worst in me, I've discovered. So I'll be on my guard from here on out. (This may mean I don't go outdoors much until winter comes, but I can live with that!)

And that beaker and glasses were the cutest things! I wonder where I can get some . . .


At 12:36 PM, Blogger K. A. Laity said...

Peter was right! It did make for a great story. The pictures are lovely too. It's fascinating to hear your experiences -- it is too easy to assume things are much the same everywhere. Not everybody is as open to new experiences as you two.

At 9:32 PM, Blogger Bryna said...

Pat, only the 2 of you cud find such joy in nasty tasting wine...& I s'pose a few glasses of scoth didn't hurt. Glad ur having a good time and the typhoon seems to be dying.Time for Nightline, tho I'm about "Katrina-outed" after all this time. Be well,later.Hugs.

At 6:25 PM, Blogger Margaret Waisman said...

I think that after hearing about the snake/turtle slaughter, I, too, would drown my aversion in gin and tonic. The Chinese wine experience is interesting, too. And Pat, both you and my husband "wear lunch," apparently. I am enjoying reading about your adventures, and now I'm a blogger, too, although I don't have anything to post. Continue to have a wonderful time.


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