The first trip back to the US since moving to China. Landed at LaGuardia and the NYC roads were a mess of dirty slush. I finally made it back to Dumont late at night, let myself quietly in the house, even the dog didn’t wake up to bark. I was happy to see my mom and dad. The last parting had been hard. We were snowed in all right, so I walked around the house, feeling a bit claustrophobic. I looked in the glass cabinet in the dining room and saw the eggshells my brother had painted. One was a panda. He had been dead for 20 years, longer than he had been alive.
His ashes were still in an urn in his old bedroom, which was unchanged in all that time. When Chris comes to me in a dream, poking his head out from behind a tree, running away over a field, I consider it a gift. The image of him alive and moving is more real than anything in my life. He was a good boy, and he should’ve lived. Did he drive recklessly down Merrill Drive because he had seen me do it before? This is why people invent God, so someone can know the answers to these things. I remember the day he and mom came home from the hospital, in 1977. I let Mikey look at him through the back window. I was four, and I was excited to have something to show off to my friend. I remember when we went to the Tenafly nature center, some time in the ’80s, and he disturbed a hornet’s nest climbing up a tree by the pond, and we all went running like mad back to the car. I remember him, 4 years old, in the pre-school music revue, singing “Mary, Mary,” in a London constable uniform, complete with mustache and billy club. But the sweetness of those memories cannot fix the hole inside of me.
We ate at Il Molino and dad and I got horrific food poisoning from some clams. I thought I would die. When I met Allen and Sarah in NY the next day, I could not eat any brunch. Later on, I met with Chris and Mary Callahan to see Don Giovanni at the MET, I still had jetlag and dozed through much of it. I was happy to get back to Asia. I took Hera to Thailand, Ko Samet, there were troubles there, too. Bickering, knowing it wouldn’t last. But for better or worse, she was my first girlfriend in China. And we had fun setting off big deadly fireworks at 3Rock when we returned.
Now, a week after tropical Thai decadence, a group of us decided that the tales of breathtaking giant ice sculptures and nighttime dazzling colored lights were too good to put off. We were going to Harbin to brave Siberian temperatures and ring in the new year at the hometown of our 老板 Betty Wu. We checked into the Ibis and I had my first taste of the difficulty of hotel concierges in China when one’s Chinese is in its infancy. I shared a room with Carlos, and after checking in we went in search of a place we had seen on an Anthony Bourdain special. We had difficulty locating it, or locating anywhere to have a midnight toast, and just as we feared we might have a dry New Year’s, we found a place to sit down and order a beer tower. We made a plan to meet in the lobby in the morning for a tour of the Saint Sofia cathedral, and a walking tour of the old town. I had purchased heat-tech undergarments from Uniqlo and military surplus boots on the Taiping Lu, but somehow it just wasn’t enough. The previous winter’s hiking in Lake George seemed tame by comparison. We also had a fireplace there, and to this day I have not seen a fireplace in China. The Harbin streets were pretty interesting, with street signs in Cyrillic and Chinese, and there were some quaint cafes with inviting Christmas displays still up. The main pedestrian drag had some public ice sculpture displays and to our amazement, the Chinese, who drink hot water in the summer time, were eating ice cream cones out in subzero temperatures. If Chinese medicine had some explanation for this, I wasn’t listening. I wanted a hot cup of coffee, a nip of vodka, or a nice warm spa (where I eventually wound up on day two for a massage and refuge from what seemed like absolute zero). That night, we shared cabs across the river to the main ice sculpture park, and it was most impressive. The impending new year was the year of the lamb, and sheep sculptures were in abundance. We could make occasional pit stops inside a pavilion that sold hot dogs and warm ginger-flavored coca cola. The next night we met up in Ray and Kathy’s hotel room, had some pre-dinner drinks, and then headed out to a Russian restaurant that I quite enjoyed.
It was quite cold in Beijing since mid-November, so Carlos and I decided to spend our 5-day Christmas break in Thailand. We had heard great things, from Nick Nightingale and others. This was my first time out of China since arriving four months before, and I was shocked at how cheap and easy the air travel was. We checked into a cheap place not far from the KhaoSan Rd. in Bangkok, and visited the main temples in the city center, stopping for street food along the way. The midday sun was hot but comfortable. Wat Phra Kaew was probably the most impressive, golden Nagas and murals showing scenes from the Ramayana. I tried to imagine the city of the 18th century, with just elephant-traffic and rickshaws, creaky barges floating lazily down the Chao Phraya River. Carlos and I freshened up back at the hotel and decided to seek out a ping pong show on the Khao San Rd. In fact we had no idea what we were doing, and that worked out for the best. We bought buckets of MaiThai and wore Santa hats with blinking lights, and as the clock struck midnight we were sitting at a table at a two-tier bar/restaurant throwing back some beers. I pointed out a couple of good-looking ladies at a table a few meters away, and Carlos went over and began chatting – turned out one was from Colombia. I sat with a couple of local girls at another table. Carlos went for a walk with his companions, and I went for a walk with mine, and although we did not see each other again until the next day, occasional text messages confirmed that both of us were having a vigorous pre-dawn Christmas.
I bought myself a ukulele before we boarded the minibus for Hua Hin. This was a great little beach town. Carlos found a tattoo parlor to get some work done, and we saw Thai kickboxing in a little sporting arena with a portrait of the king looking down on the events, as he did virtually everywhere in this country. After dark the streets were an odd mix of Australian and European families with kids, and lady-boys and prostitutes. We ate at a table on the beach with the water reaching up to our feet underneath. The next day, we had brunch and an engaging conversation about Ray Kurzweil’s theory of living forever. Later we had a lazy afternoon on the beach, and I had just enough liquid courage to chat up a pretty young blonde sitting under a palm tree not far away. To my amazement she agreed to come over to our space, rubbed some lotion on my back, and relaxed as I played the ukulele.
These first few months, I diligently listened to Pimsleur Chinese lessons and was amazed at the abilities of Liz and Karl, who were quite fluent after a few years in China. The idea of spending two years or more in an exotic bustling city without making an honest effort at the language irked me, so I supplemented my learning with occasional lessons with Shu Lang, the piano tuner Lloyd had introduced me to. She had me copy basic characters like 爱，我，你，音乐 into the little brown notebooks used by schoolchildren here. I reciprocated with English lessons, and had great hopes for her! Alas, her English has not improved significantly. She showed me a photo of her as a young girl, posing in front of her hutong home on a snowy day in the late ‘80s. The home has since been destroyed, the memory of which fuels her rebellious posture towards the system here. She is a great lover of animals and a positive light, and if I took nothing else away from this experience in China, her friendship alone will have made it worthwhile.
On National Day a group of us went to Badachu to check out some Buddhist temples. The air was thick with incense, and this was my first glimpse of Chinese immersing themselves in a spiritual mindset. By the time we made our way to the top of the mountain a cold rain had started and slowly grown heavier. We decided to cut the trip short and amazingly, little Calliope complained the least.
On a sunny day in November I made my way to the Summer Palace, set on a hill by the picturesque Kunming lake in the northwest of the city, affording my first good view of the layout of the city. The site was littered with informative plaques mentioning the infamy of the Eight-Nation Alliance attack on the site, though no mention was made of the Boxer rebellion that provoked it.
I should talk about our setlists during this time. A typical setlist at Bookworm consisted of a couple of Amy Winehouse songs, “Valerie” and “I’m No Good,” Kylie Minogue’s “Cant’ Get You Outta My Head,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots Were Made For Walking,” The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” and “From Me To You,” a couple of country songs like “Vaya Con Dios” and “Tennessee Waltz.” I talked Lulu into adding songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and then I’d do some solo numbers like Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” I hadn’t been doing anything like this in New York, so it was pretty fun and definitely helped me get my bearings in the key nightlife hotspots of Beijing. When we added Jasmine we created some really tight harmonies on Mama’s and Papa’s “California Dreaming” and the Eagles’ “Desperado.” Kirk joined us at BeerMania.
Halloween murder mystery at Matt & Kaci’s was huge fun, as well as a Halloween-day-2 visit to the DRC with Jason Hagberg and Julie Makinen.
Epic birthdays this first month included Alejandra’s and Amelie’s.
After getting settled down at BNDS and starting to compile contacts from my amazing colleagues, it occurred to me that I could have a bit of a social life outside the job. I had already met up with Susan, who Josh had put me in contact with, and I suddenly remembered that Christophe had passed on the contact info for his cousin Imre. I promptly called him up and before long, it was evident that we could offer each other something: he had a wine bar that needed some live entertainment, and I was a musician looking for a venue.
Not even a month in a new country and already headlining a swanky wine bar – not bad! BNDS friends came to show their support and a good time was had by all. I even have the original set list around here somewhere.
Little did I know that a chance meeting from the night before would lead to a more enduring musical project. I went to the Bookworm to check out an act that had been described in the Beijinger as a “burlesque performer,” but when I got there, a Chinese girl was singing covers with a guitarist friend as accompaniment. She had the gift of gab between numbers, and when the set was done, she came over to my table to say hi and ask if I was enjoying myself. She introduced herself as Lulu, and when she heard that I was performing the next night in a wine bar on Nanluoguxiang, she suggested a collaboration. She was not happy to hear that I was getting paid in wine! “C’mon Rob, you’re just going to make it harder for the musicians who have to make a living doing this.” We had a couple of rehearsals at her place near Dongzhimen, and a couple of gigs at Parlor in early October. Early November we played Beermania, then Pandabrew with Gabriel and ET.
Soon after arriving in Beijing, this blog went by the wayside. Time to resurrect it! Above, Eric, Sharkey, and Gar with me on the Great Wall, and Lloyd ready for me to serve him some roast lamb off the spit. These were both April 2016. I am now in Gimpo airport, waiting for my connecting flight back to Beijing, after having visited with family the last two weeks in NJ and experienced the horror of the US under Buzz Windrip. My Chinese reading is making very good progress; I’m learning very useful phrases like “commutation of a prison sentence.”