Sunday 31st of December 2017, 5 am, Fuzhou, China.
My alarm clock pulls me out of my sleep. I slowly open my eyes with a big smile on my face. It’s time to get ready!
I could not find my sleep last night. It always happens when I am too excited. Today, my friend Yance and I are flying to Shanghai and it is the most exciting way to end the year and start a new one.
On the way to the airport, I am thinking about the NYE and the one before that. Two years ago, I was contemplating the fireworks over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. Last year, I was in Auckland, unpacking boxes and drinking champagne with my ex-boyfriend in our new apartment. This year, I am in China, free as a bird, and I am going to spend NYE in Shanghai with my dearest friends. Life is truly unpredictable.
The icy air of Shanghai instantly freezes my face as I get off the bus. It’s much colder than Fuzhou and today is a bad day. The air pollution is quite high and a giant misty cloud covers the city. An unusual palette of colours gives the surroundings a vintage look and feel. Yellow, brown, grey, I have the impression to discover Shanghai through the reels of an old movie.
My first Shanghainese discovery starts at a lovely suburb called The Former French Concession (FFC). The French Concession is the area of Shanghai that the French government administered from 1849 until 1946. Time seems to move a little slower here and an air de déjà-vu brings me back to Europe. I love the gorgeous tree-shaded avenues, which invite lingering strolls and exploration. The architecture, the fine, old houses, the many wrought iron fences and stair railings remind me of Paris.
As we walk, I spot many restaurants, breweries, concept bars, boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. I am amazed by the beautiful streets, quaint and pretty with outdoor cafés sprinkled here and there. The French Concession is brimming with little treasures that are delightful for the eyes.
A lovely window of a café catches my attention. “Pain Chaud“, a French bakery. My craving for French food pushes me to open the door. A familiar and exquisite smell tickles my nostrils. The myriad of pastries, croissants, croissants aux amandes (almond croissants), pains au chocolat and baguette sandwiches make the taste buds dance in my mouth.
After feeding our greedy bellies, we are setting into our Airbnb where we will be staying for the next 3 days.
“What the hell,” says Yance at the doorstep once we’ve arrived. We look at each other, both wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. We’re standing at the door but the place looks like an old barn that is about to collapse.
We’re starting to ask a few people and look around, but for a moment we’re thinking that we got scammed! As the last attempt, I dive into a little street a bit farther away, when I finally see it. The wooden door, number 46 that we’ve been praying would exist. In our defence, how confusing is it to have two 46s in the same area?
Filled with excitement, we open the door and the most charming vision enchants my eyes. The place is a cosy little loft with a very artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration. There’s a smart combination of hippie, natural and vintage style. The atmosphere is so peaceful and details like a turntable, a vintage retro projector, and a ceiling rocking chair make me want to live here forever.
“They are here!!!” shouts Yance. We rush outside and run like lunatics to welcome our dear friend Christine and her boyfriend Jeff whom we haven’t seen for a year.
I met Yance and Christine in Sydney 3 years ago and they’ve become my best friends on this side of the world. How beautiful it is to meet up with your dearest friends in another country, and start the new year with a huge dose of friendship?
The best thing about real friendship is that no matter how long you have not seen your friends, you always feel like it was only yesterday.
We start to talk like old times, catching up about our lives and what’s been happening with all of us. It’s good to hear Christine’s laughter again, she has the most infectious laughter and I like when she giggles.
We decide to go for a night walk and explore the surroundings. It’s really cold outside and the smell of some beautiful food makes us stop at a little street food stall. The shop is tiny and run by a lovely Chinese couple of oldies. I have no idea of what type of food it is but the old lady is talking about “Chinese pizza” with mince, spinach, pickled vegetables and it smells just like it. We order two and while the old man is kneading the dough, I am observing his every move. It does look like the making of a pizza but in the Chinese style. The best part is how they cook the pizza. The oven is a big barrel with fire at the bottom and the pizza is “thrown” on the side of the barrel for 5 minutes until it’s cooked. I’ve never seen that before and the result is pretty delicious!
For our first reunion night, we set up a giant bed in the attic of the loft so we could all sleep altogether. It’s like a pajama party and we talk about everything and nothing until one of us falls asleep. I finally close my eyes after a big day, squished by Yance who’s literally sleeping across the whole bed we’re sharing, and lulled by the cute sound of Christine’s snores.
Monday 1st January 2018, Shanghai, 9 am.
“Aaahh, aaaaaaah!!” Yance’s yelling brutally wakes up all of us.
Yance sometimes talks during his sleep, but this time he must have had a nightmare by the sound of it.
“Let’s go have breakfast, I know where to go!” I say all excited.
Of course, I had to take everyone to “Pain Chaud” and start the day with some delicious French pastries and coffees.
After stuffing our faces with croissants and coffees, we decide to go to Tianzifang in the French Concession district, a must-see fascinating arts and crafts destination. The area retains an “organic and original” look and feel because of its untouched human marks. While much of the older homes and buildings have been replaced, the character of this old European district has been carefully preserved in its architecture and layout. The design is a Chinese-style Shikumen (stone gate) building fused with French Colonial architecture.
I am delighted to discover the small laneways and green alleys begging to be explored. There are small galleries and craft shops on every corner. Artists can be watched working on their craft in their little studio.
Tianzifang is an artsy area, flooded with hundreds of bars, cafés, craft shops, design studios, art galleries, and boutiques.
We are wandering in each alley, each shop, sometimes we’re getting lost in the multitude of laneways and boutiques. Food is omnipresent and the stalls are filled with a variety of local food.
The place seems to be very popular and even though there’s a line, we’re getting in the queue just out of curiosity. The drinks menu is quite surprising: cheese green tea, cheese ice blended strawberry. Tea with cheese? I have a mixed feeling about that but we are all keen to try.
The shop is so busy we have to wait for our number to be called out. After 30 minutes (we got lucky that day, I’ve read that it’s usually way longer!) we finally get our drinks.
The layer of cheese is an about an inch, a mixture of whipped cream and cheese (cream cheese, I assume), lightly seasoned with salt poured at the top. The cheese layer is fluffy, thick, creamy and rich. It is surprisingly good and quite filling.
After getting our bellies filled with cheese tea, we are heading to Yu Garden to unwind from the busy city. Yu Garden has been built in the Ming Dynasty, more than 400 years ago. The unique layout, beautiful scenery, and the artistic style of the garden architecture have made the garden one of the highlights of Shanghai. It perfectly blends decorative halls, pavilions, glittering pools, zigzag bridges, pagodas, archways, and impressive rockeries.
After a morning of walking around and exploring the city, we decide to have a massage. The idea of getting pampered for an hour sounds appealing to all of us.
Yance, who’s turned into our tour guide today, is already looking for a well-rated massage place on his phone.
In China, there are some really good massage places where you can stay for the whole day, have lunch or dinner and rest in your room while eating fresh fruits and drinking tea. It is pretty much like a hotel and I find the concept really smart.
Yance has found a massage place where they can have 4 people getting massaged in the same room. We get in pretty excited, get changed into a kitsch pink outfit and lay down on our comfy beds.
Four masseurs come in. Two women and two men. I ask to have a woman but I probably shouldn’t have. I did not know but the women are trained to massage men and the men are trained to massage women.
So this tiny Chinese woman is massaging me with the strength of a man and my sensitive body can feel every inch of pain.
My cries and yells make everyone laugh. The woman goes hard, she jumps behind me and twists my arms pushing her feet at the bottom of my back.
What the hell is that? I feel like doing sports combat on a massage bed and I am clearly not winning. After getting pampered (assaulted in my case) for a couple of hours, we are heading back to our Airbnb to get ready.
Tonight we are going to The Bund, a famous mile-long stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River. For a century, The Bund has been one of the most recognizable symbols and the pride of Shanghai. To the west of this stretch stands 52 buildings of various architectural styles: gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles. It is often referred to as “the museum of buildings”.
It is the perfect way to end a beautiful best friends reunion in Shanghai.
I got in touch with a friend of a friend from France who’s been living in Shanghai for 4 years. She is running a cocktail bar and lounge in the heart of The Bund. Her name is Lucile, “Lulu” to her close friends and the Chinese people who find it easier to pronounce.
The taxi drops us off in front of an impressive early 20th Century building. The sophisticated entrance and hall let us guess that we’re about to discover a special place. Little did I know that it would be one of the most glamorous nightspots of Shanghai.
Upon entry, I am struck by the kaleidoscope of art on the walls and the mix of styles that bring a very original and unique look and feel. The place sparkles with an eclectic decor, gourmet bites and a cocktail menu that dazzles the senses. The bold colours splashed on the walls mixed with masterpieces from a private collection give a playful, fun and chic atmosphere. Not to mention the peacock peering at you.
I spot Lulu straight away and she warmly welcomes us. She leads us to a table and we all follow her, eyes sparkling and bursting with joy. She has reserved a table near the window with a spectacular view of the Shanghainese skyline. As we’re sitting down on stylish chairs and sofa, the waiter brings us 5 flutes of champagne, offered by the house.
What a perfect start to the night. Canapés and gourmet bites follow the champagne and it’s like a succession of delightful delicacies. Tonight, we are the privileged ones and we are enjoying every second of it.
As if it could not get any better, Lulu takes us to the private balcony of the dining restaurant. I could not hold my joy and I let a scream of amazement. Standing here, in such a special place, makes me realise why Shanghai is called the Magical City.
Besides the breathtaking view, it’s the atmosphere that strikes me the most. I feel like I am in a futuristic space city, ready to see a spaceship flying down the Oriental Pearl Tower. The misty clouds enfolding the buildings and the silence high up on the rooftop give an impression of solitude and mystery.
I can’t get my eyes off the Oriental Pearl Tower. Its architecture fascinates me. This 468m (1,536ft) high tower is the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV and radio tower. Built with eleven steel spheres in various sizes, hanging from the sky to the grassland, the body of the tower creates an admirable image. It is described in an ancient Chinese verse as “large and small pearls dropping on a plate of jade.” (大珠小珠落玉盘).
Standing in front of such beauty with my dearest friends makes me reflect on my life. Who would have thought I’d be in China in 2018, teaching English to children and so far away from my comfort zone? At this very precise moment, I feel fearless, I feel powerful. I am the captain of my life, the master of my destiny, and even if I don’t know what the future holds, all my decisions, my actions define me and will lead me as far as I want to go.
Yance pulls me out of my reverie and after taking a hundred photos we get back to our table. The rest of the evening is a decadent feast for the belly and the senses – delicious food, surprising cocktails and to close an amazing night, Lulu orders a beautiful 2 tier cake stand overflowing with desserts including my favourite: a Pavlova, a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside topped with fruit and whipped cream. I could easily get used to getting spoiled like that. It is truly a magical night.
It’s now time to head back home and we’re getting in the taxi, our minds filled with amazing memories and very content bellies.
Wednesday 3rd January, Shanghai, 5 am.
Yance and I wake up silently to get ready to go to the airport. Our Shanghainese trip is coming to an end and we have to leave our dear friend Christine and the charm of our cosy loft.
As we are about to walk out the door, Christine wakes up, still half asleep. We all hug, quite moved as we won’t see her for a while. Then we depart, leaving the warmth of the studio to a cold and windy dawn.