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Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Curry and a Beer in Suzhou

I know Alban from around the circuit. We work in the same industry and occasionally run into one another at events and catch up for dinner or beers. He’s a bit younger and more mild-mannered than I, and in keeping with his English roots he speaks with purposeful reserve. We also both have young kids and Chinese wives.  I don’t know Alban well but I like him. He’s the perfect companion with whom to unwind after a long day on the road.    
 
He’s recently broken off on his own to try his hand at a business. The decision centered around his relocation from Hong Kong to Suzhou, where living costs are lower and the market conditions for his new endeavor are apparently ripe. I haven’t seen him in nearly a year so I am keen to learn how things have been going. Leaving a good job at a multinational firm to go solo is a bold and respectful move. He’s the type of guy for whom you can only wish the best. 
 
Over a curry vindaloo, I am happy to hear that his business is doing well. He shares innocuous details about his clients and his plans for development, and it sounds like he made the right move. His daughter is also happy in Suzhou, and he enjoys the now extra time to commute her to and from nursery school. He also now has another child on the way. 
 
Alban has a prominent scratch or perhaps scar across his forehead. The lighting is too dim to tell. It’s a feature I don’t recall from before though possible had always been there. Given our relaxed conversation, it seems too abrupt a change in topic, if even inappropriate, to say anything. We finish dinner and he suggests an expat bar he’s been meaning to check out.     
 
At the bar he soon discloses that his wife has not adjusted well to the move. In fact she was not supportive of the whole idea from the beginning, feeling it was too risky and also much preferring life in Hong Kong. But he had made her come around in the end (he is after all a good salesman), so eventually she went along with it. In recent months, however, she has not been happy. Maybe it’s hormonal, I suggest, but he indicates there is something more. They had an argument a few week back that ended with her hurling a glass at his head. Pointing my attention to the dried gash on his face, the incident resulted in a trip to the hospital for stitches.
 
Alban nervously continues telling me that his wife sometimes gets violent. I’m not sure exactly what he means, but I assure him he can talk to me, that sometimes talking to someone can help. He is reluctant. We simply don’t know each other well enough to have this level of trust. But he needs to tell me more. I ask encourage him to without pushing him, or at least not that I am aware. 
 
I want to know the frequency and nature of the violence. And what I soon hear does not sound good. Sometimes she throws things, sometimes she hits him, scratches him. She becomes uncontrollably angry, he tells me. He fears she has a  mental problem. He knows she does. Sometimes his wife beats him. 
 
And this has been going on since soon after they met around two years ago. He had gotten her pregnant within the first few months they were dating. He didn’t know her well. At first he passed off the anger fits to pregnancy hormones, but by the time their daughter was born the episodes had  become bi-monthly or even weekly . And since making the move to Suzhou it has gotten worse.
 
Over the next few drinks I learn about her broken childhood, about her absent father who may have abused her, about her estranged brother, about a lot of unhappiness and darkness. Alban is cautious telling me all this, remarking on more than one occasion how he has not confided in anyone to this extent and how uncomfortable it all feels. But he is amatter-of-fact with the details, and I listen as empathetically as I can. 
 
We soon finish our last-call pints. There are two other patrons at the bar. We have discussed all options, all contingencies, all scenarios, and with the best intentions of reconciling their marriage. But there is sadly only one conclusion. He has to leave her. I have said it to him, and Alban knows it. It was not the thing I would have expected I could say to him only several hours prior over dinner. The separation will be tactically difficult, extremely painful, if even dangerous. But there is no other choice. 
 
The next day from the train station I think of calling Alban. Maybe it’s to reassure him of my trust, to extend a more sober acknowledgement of our night, I am not sure. I want to tell him that his secret is safe, that I support him. But I don’t know exactly what to say or if it will matter. And besides, my train is here, and I was, after all, just passing through while on the road.          

Sauce on the Side: a Peking Pizzeria Debacle

I’m at a pizza place in Beijing, maybe somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where. It’s in China so I usually get the same thing: pepperoni, sausage (if it’s homemade), mushrooms and/or onions (depending on spontaneity), and always extra cheese. Sometimes I do half and half, like a Margarita on one side and more loaded on the other. But this type of order invariably confuses the waitstaff, most of whom are conditioned to the prescribed titled options, like “Meat Lovers,” Quatro Formaggi,” and so on. Anything customized tends to rattle them, requiring a slow and deliberate explanation. In some cases the manager or chef is involved.

It has usually worked out in the end, and even when it doesn’t I’m still happy. Aptly written on a bumper sticker I once saw, “Pizza is like sex. When it’s good it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” I’m a New Yorker after all, which makes me a venerable pizza junkie from birth. And while the bar for good “zah” has been set to the highest of Queens standards, I’ve years ago forgone any snobbery for a quick and easy fix.

But the last few years things have changed as a direct result of the growing prevalence of the cheese crust. The problem with the cheese crust is it doesn’t have enough flavor. So the logical and, from my upbringing, obvious solution is the addition of a simple side-dish of pizza sauce. It is upon this innocuous, if even harmless, request when the pizza situation goes pear-shaped.

The server is usually baffled, if even speechless, or at least floundering for words, in English in Chinese, it makes no difference. The sauce thing goes far beyond their training, far beyond the comfort zones of expectation. They have no idea what I’m talking about or what to do. And exhorting that I’ll pay extra for the pleasure only compounds complications.

I’ll call another passing server to come over and assist. While the original waiter still bumbles with inaction, the new one listens intently. This one scurries off and as quickly whizzes back with one hand proudly toting a bottle of grated parmesan.

“No, no, no. The TOMATO sauce the CHEF uses to MAKE the pizza.”

The first waiter finally speaks since taking my order, and he confesses that HE doesn’t know how to make pizza. While an incredulous reply, anything, after all, is possible with oft exception of the most obvious. So here I am, teaching THEM the basics on how to make pizza.

Luckily, I have an iPhone to assist in the crash course, and I’m Googling for images of pizza sauce, pizza, anything that might help. But the connection is too slow and besides, none of us has much patience. The waitress buzzes off again and soon reappears hopeful with a bottle of tabasco sauce. This is nothing new, I’ve seen this before.

A third person, a manager type-of-sorts, enters the scene. With optimism anew I extol my desire for dipping the cheesy crust into flavorful pizza sauce. She listens intently with the trained ear of one who’s ambitious for more authority. I ask if she understands, the flavor thing, does she get it? Does she eat pizza, does she even know how to make it? Reluctantly but with a disingenuous smile she noncommittally shakes her head denying all knowledge.

With the iPhone still in hand something occurs: a stroke of genius. I have a pizza-making app on the phone. My four-year old son loves playing it. It’s called “Pizza Party” or something. I open it with haste and hope, and the three of them huddle in. I select the make-your-own pizza game option, not the timed game where you have to make the pizza they choose.

I hurriedly get through the first stages: with an index finger I chop a pepper and click “ok;” now onto spreading the dough into a gooey amoeba shape. The accompanying sound effect of slurps goes unappreciated, even by me. And then onto the grand finale, and the very purpose of this entire song and dance: the sauce!

I excitedly finger the screen in circles showcasing the red splotch and reveling from the epiphany.

“Ketchup?” she bleats.

It is always the same: nonsensical and hopeless.

But the culinary dream is within reach, it is just a matter of endured passion, a matter of going the extra mile. It is not for lack of language nor of reason. And if I knew it were my only play, I would even march right into the kitchen with the three of them surely running after me and grab the pot of sauce in triumph.

But the inexplicable goes beyond understanding. Butterflies flap their wings. Brains fall apart.

I go into auto-drone: “pizza sauce, pizza sauce, pizza sauce?” I say it over and over. This is a desperate tactic, and they know it. I suggest someone asks in the kitchen. A simple favor. One of them goes, I think, then comes back. It is irrelevant.

On this occasion she returns and finally utters the magic words, “Pizza sauce.” She says them cooly and matter-of-factly as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired between us. She even confirms to my amazement that what I want is some extra sauce they put on the pizza, after the dough and before the cheese, the pizza sauce, yes, she knows now. But there is a problem, there is a catch, a caveat if you will. It couldn’t have been this easy. The issue at this juncture is the pizza sauce is cold. It is cold, I see, and so they can’t serve it this way. She is worried, at an impasse. She/They can’t be responsible if I get sick.

Though I would have never seen this coming it is still a step in the direction of progress.

“Heat it up. Put it in the microwave. I’m not going to get sick. It’s pizza sauce! I absolve you and your franchise of all responsibility.”

I raise my voice in case other patrons should bare witness. I again offer monetary compensation for the unusual provision. Harmony seems to have been restored, my chosen lunch order finally recorded.

Twenty minutes later the pizza arrives. Two waiters dutifully bring it over, one making a clearing on the table and the other presenting it. The manager comes stomping from the kitchen behind them with a smaller tray holding an elongated lasagna dish. It is empty accept for a thin layer of pizza sauce spread across the bottom. They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong than if they brought me the open can.

And the pizza sucks. The sauce instantly goes from microwave-piping hot to cold and congealed. I just want to cry, but I acknowledge the achievement with obligatory thanks, and I devour the sad pie and scrape the lumpy crust through the barely edible paste. I have long ago relinquished the bar on good taste. I am as happy as a pig in shit. And this story, this routine, in one iteration or another, would be entirely uneventful and unworthy of note were it not for the bizarre fact that I have lived it, as if through quantum parallel universes so often a time: the craving, the quest, some sauce on the side.