Little Humans of China

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I have been teaching English to little Chinese children for almost a year now. I have seen them progressing and evolving, opening their little hearts to me and it’s one of the most rewarding life experiences.

Witnessing their evolution and being part of their lives have brought me so much joy and motivation every day. I call them my kids, they hug me when they walk in the classroom and the smile on their faces would enlighten the darkest places in the world. They are all rays of sunshine and they warm my heart with their adorable faces, their intelligence and their incredible sense of humor.

I have decided to portray a group of them. This core group of students is very special to me because there were my first pupils when I started to teach. In a few months, we have built a connection that has beautifully evolved. I have seen them growing up, becoming more confident, happier and getting better at learning English.

This is a tribute to my lovely students.

 

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Winnie

This is Winnie. He is 4 and he is the youngest of my students. He is also the cutest and my favourite. I know that, as a teacher, I am not supposed to have a favorite but it would be a lie to say that no teacher has a special student they’re deeply fond of.

I remember how shy and lonely Winnie was during the first classes. He would not say a word to anyone and was expressing his anxiety by going to the toilets every 5 minutes. It took me a long time to make him feel comfortable and finally see a big smile on his cute little round face.

After 9 months of English class, Winnie can introduce himself and recite all the words he’s been taught. He sings, performs and does the warm-up exercises even if he’s a bit lazy sometimes. He plays with his little friends and shows a real happiness that melts my heart every time I watch him. He is the mascot of the class, everyone loves Winnie, he is the most adorable tiny human on earth. He is also very smart and has an incredible sense of humour. His answers are always hilarious and unexpected. I asked him one day why he did not do his homework and he said that his dad told him not to!

Winnie’s characteristics:

* He always wears pants with a hole instead of a fly so he can pee more easily

* He is very stylish whatever he wears

* He is the biggest fan of Pepper Pig

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Nico

This is Nico. She is 6 and from the very beginning, she has been the one who has shown the most excitement and interest for our English classes. What I love about Nico is that she is always happy. I have rarely seen her grumpy or reluctant to do anything. She is so consistent with her positive attitude and her love for learning! It is a true joy to have her as a pupil.

She’s also very warm and affectionate. She’s opened up to me very quickly and she gives me a hug, shouting my name, every time she walks in the class.

One day at school, she saw me from far away at the other side of a long corridor. She shouted my name, we both ran to each other and she jumped on me to give me the biggest hug ever. How can you not melt in front of so much love?

Nico’s characteristics:

* She has a big crush on Yance, my teacher colleague who is also my best friend

* She makes really funny faces

* She is the best performer of the class

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Sunny

This is Sunny. She is 7 and she is very smart. She is a talented student and she is very hardworking. She loves learning English and her skills are really impressive. I can sense in her a strong desire for perfection. She has ambition. She is very studious and she is pushing herself a lot which sometimes makes her a bit nervous when she has to perform in public.

Every time we have to show an example to the students, we ask Sunny because we know she is going to do great. She is a good role model just like her little friend Nico. She is reliable and mature for her young age. It’s definitely awesome to have a leader like her in the class.

She takes the class so seriously that she gets annoyed when others students disturb the class. She tells off the naughty ones and it’s hilarious to watch! Don’t mess up with Sunny!

Sunny’s characteristics:

* She loves cats, wears cat outfits and meows like a cat

* She is always part of the best students of the week

* She loves doing her homework and can’t stop practicing!

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Sunny and Nico are very good friends and it’s heartwarming to see the love these two have for each other.  

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Tobby

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This is Tobby. He is 5 and at the very beginning, he could not stop moving and running around the class. It was hard to catch his attention and keep him still. He was obsessed with getting the chairs in order and could not stop moving them around! After a couple of weeks, he started to settle and feel more comfortable. He just needed time to get used to a new environment.

Tobby is a good student and has progressed so much! He’s always enthusiastic and curious about everything. He always asks questions, he is very alert and needs to understand how things work. He has his head in the clouds and is a bit shy when he has to perform. I have noticed he’s really shy when we ask him to team up with a girl! He starts to blush and I can barely hear him enunciate the words. It’s actually really sweet.

Tobby’s characteristics:

* He is our best helper, he always helps us out after the class to tidy up and clean up the classroom!

* He wants to become a policeman when he is a grown-up (which matches his obsession with order!)

* He is a fan of Mickey Mouse

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These children make my day every day. They are a true source of joy. They remind me why I am a teacher and how wonderful and rewarding it is to see the progress of a student.

As a teacher, my mission is to teach the children the love of learning and to help them to feel confident and great about themselves. Because that’s what children are. Awesome.

 

Hit the Road Jack!

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars. On the Road – Jack Kerouac

Have you ever done an epic road trip in the far-flung lands of a country with nothing but a backpack, a camera, and complete freedom?

From all the great life experiences, hitting the road and living like a gypsy is probably one of the most memorable and fulfilling adventures. The feeling of freedom is priceless and it’s worth every little misfortune happening along the way.

Road tripping for a year has been my best therapy after running away from 29 years of a comfortable life and quitting an office job in which I buried myself for 7 years.

I’ve tasted the quintessence of liberty being on the road, with no roof over my head but a blazing sun or a sky full of shiny stars. I have never felt so free and happy. I had the best time living an oblivious life, meeting extraordinary people and experiencing things I have never done before or could not even imagine achieving.

I was desperately in search of freedom, of authenticity, and excitement. Sometimes, the feeling itches me: the urge of hitting the road again and live exciting adventures.

What is the point of your life when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events are waiting to lurk and surprise you? Something else much more exciting was waiting for me and the time has come to pursue the crazy adventures I dreamed up while I was a young whippersnapper.

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1st of October 2013, Mission Beach, Queensland, Australia, 5:30 am. 

A soft ray of sun tickles my face. I open my tired eyes, lulled by the song of the waves. A  pink light dazzles me. The sun awakes and offers me its most intimate moment. A stunning sunrise that I contemplate in silence with a smile from ear to ear.

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I shake my sleeping bag covered with sand. I fell asleep on the beach, the embers of last night’s campfire are still crackling. I look around and see the shape of my traveling companion Aurélien a few metres away, his entire body buried in his sleeping bag.

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After spending a month at the farm in Carwell, we have decided to go up north and stop by Mission Beach. Mission Beach is a little beach town of 5,000 inhabitants and well-known for its stunning 14 km long beach bordered with coconut trees. A real heaven on earth.

We have found the best spot to camp. 3 steps from the beach between two palm trees. I feel like living the adventures of Robinson Crusoe. I literally sleep, eat, cook, and live on the beach. Read a good book, have a rest in the shadow of a coconut tree whose perfect shape reflects in the golden sand. Some simple pleasures that make me forget about everything.

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Being on a road trip is a limitless freedom to enjoy to the fullest.

Hit the road, get lost, retrace your steps, find your way back and get lost again a few miles away. Stop to take a photo of the scenery, have a bit to eat, make a campfire on the beach, hit the road again and get carried away by the wind, listening to your whims and living in the moment. Wake up on the beach, lulled by the sound of the waves, or in the middle of the jungle woken up by the birdsongs. A priceless freedom that I will always treasure.

But driving thousands of miles across Australia has taught me that a road trip is a rock solid logistics organisation. It’s a daily logistical brain teaser to enjoy with true joy, lots of laughter, and a little bit of irritation sometimes!

Here’s my random list of the little things about what’s a road trip like. Please feel free to leave a comment if you wish to add any ingredient from your own recipe 🙂

A 5,000km road trip is…

* To check every two days that the car is in good condition;

* To look desperately for a petrol station because there’re only 2 litres petrol left;

* To do your accounts every day;

* To try to remember what you bought the week earlier because you forgot to do your accounts;

* To wonder where all your money went;

* To wear the same old outfit every day and not care about it;

* To appreciate the simple pleasures of life;

* To look for a free spot to spend the night;

* To have a policeman knocking at the window in the middle of the night because you’re parked in the wrong spot;

* To wake up with the sunrise and watch the sunset every day;

* To take off the bags on the back seat, put them at the front to set up the bed at night;

* Do the opposite in the morning and hit the road again;

* To wear your swimsuit every day

* To stop to change a flat tire;

* To do the groceries every day and buy the same cheap food because even on a road trip you still create your own little habits;

* To have drinks and snacks on the beach every evening;

* To see epic scenery every day;

* To live a simple but beautiful life;

* To get lost in the middle of nowhere;

* To encounter some wild animals;

* To fall asleep on the beach;

* To get the food and the gas cooker out, holdalls and plastic containers full of everything three times per day;

* To have barbecues nearby the beach;

* To play endless card games;

* To get a fine because you parked in the wrong spot;

* To lose your stuff along the way;

* To cook and eat anytime anywhere;

* To eat inside the car/van because it’s pouring outside;

* To do the dishes in the sink of the public toilets;

* To sleep on a wet mattress because it rained and the window was down;

* To smell bad effluvium of food in the car that you end up getting used to;

* To spend the night in the middle of heavy trucks at the petrol station so you can shower;

* To get lost for miles and miles without noticing it;

* To make fire camp on the beach and eat grilled marshmallows;

* To cry out of joy while driving because the scenery is incredible and you feel grateful to live this adventure with your best friend;

* To push and challenge yourself;

* To discover deserted heaven of peace;

* To enjoy nature to its fullest;

* To have no privacy;

* To shower every time you find a shower and shower in public;

* To stop and ask for directions;

* To unpack and pack, unload and load over and over again;

* To constantly look for something and not finding it or finding it when you don’t need it anymore.

* To argue and fight with your traveling buddy because even though you love each other, living with someone 24 hours a day is super challenging!

* To listen to the road trip playlist songs and sing like you’ve never sung before

* To feel as free as a bird and live the most incredible experiences

* To put things into perspective and forget about the futilities and turpitudes of life

* To live an extraordinary human adventure, full of memorable encounters and friends for life;

* To create the most epic memories that you will tell your children and grandchildren one day!

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Now, pack up your stuff and hit the road 😉 !

A retreat in Songkou, the ancient town

Monday 12th of April 2018, somewhere in the deep mountains of Fuzhou, China.

The road gets more and more winding and the series of turns makes me nauseous. However, it feels good to enjoy the silence. We are lost up in the mountains and the air by the window tickles my cheeks. A getaway from the busy Fuzhou city is all I need. Finally, I can breathe some fresh air and feel connected to something else than buildings and noise. Nature, trees, the sounds of the birds, I am missing it.

The deeper we get into the mountains, the more authentic it feels. The civilisation is slowly disappearing, leaving some space to little towns and villages. There are farmers working hard in the fields, oldies and children selling food along the road. We stop on our way to buy some fruits. A Chinese fruit that I have never seen before and which is quite tasty.

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“Oh my god where are we?! Where are the people and where are the shops!” ask Yance, my dear friend who is panicking at the idea of losing trace of civilisation.

I laugh. This is the whole point of this trip. A retreat far away from the city life. An adventure I haven’t experienced since I have been living in China. Discovering an ancient Chinese town and feel the old vibes of what China used to be thousands of years ago.

Two hours later after a trip that felt like four because of the winding road, we finally arrive. I jump out of the car and look around. What strikes me the most is the very peaceful atmosphere that reigns here. There are no cars horning or motorbikes slaloming. No untimely brouhaha coming from every corner of the streets. Probably because there’s only one main street in this old town.

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I spot a sign “Songkou”. Songkou is an ancient town in Yongtai County of Fuzhou. Located beside mountains and rivers, the town used to be the original residence for Hakka ancestors migrating from Fujian to Guangdong. The Hakkas or Hakka Han are Han Chinese people whose ancestral home are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian and a few others provinces.

The architecture of the ancient town features a combination of Chinese and western styles. Songkou has a history of over 1,000 years and is notable for a wealth of well-preserved old buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. I can tell this town isn’t yet a year-round major tourist destination, which preserves its tranquility and authenticity.

We’re walking to our guest house which turns out to be a charming cottage built of wood and stone. The scenery is picturesque and delightful to the eyes.

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As we get in, I smell the scent of wood and jasmine. The place is cosy and warm. The design combines Japanese and vintage style. The wood, the stone walls and the decoration give an impression of old mixed with new. I am guessing that the place is a very ancient building that has been renovated with wooden structures. I like seeing the vestiges of the past with the big cracked walls and the roof made of old bricks.

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The bedrooms upstairs are simple and minimalist. Every single piece of furniture is made of wood. I lay down on the big Totoro bed on the floor, the dream of many children and big kids like me! There’s a Japanese style living room where we can sit on pillows and have some tea.

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I go up to the last storey of the guest house and go out on the balcony to look at the view. I feel like going back to the XIV century and sense an air of the old China during the Ming dynasty. The architecture, the shapes of the roof, the old stones, the bricks and the walls that curve like a maze. I am so glad to capture this unique atmosphere full of history.

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After unpacking our bags and a quick rest we go out exploring the town. Exploring is my favourite hobby when I am discovering a new place. I feel inspired when I explore.

We’re going down a beautiful pedestrian street made of stones which shelters food shops and little home-craft shops. I like witnessing the lives of the local people. They are looking at us, city people that we are and they’re watching me with an air of curiosity.

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This stuffed onion little bread is so addictive!

There are oldies sitting at the front of their shop, smoking and whiling away the time selling fresh drinks and fruits. I spot a rudimentary hairdresser, probably the most authentic I have ever seen. The street is very calm, there’s no noise here, only the laughter of children, and the rooster’s morning song. The simplicity of life in this town revitalises me. At some point, the city life, especially in China, eats you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Here, it’s like coming back to the basics and the simple values that we tend to forget.

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We go down the stone street and to my great surprise we end up on the shore of a beautiful river coming down from the mountains.

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The ancient town of Songkou was once the second largest port of the inland rivers of Guangdong and the Maritime Silk Road. With its rich Hakka history and culture, the town has become a cultural hub for overseas Chinese and traditional folk songs.

There are some very ancient houses on each side of the rivers and some of them are literally about to collapse. I jump on a large wooden construction that turns out to be a boat. I would have liked seeing these large pieces of wood put together, floating on the river. I smell the odour of fish that fishermen leave on the sun to dry out in big wicker baskets for a few days.

 

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As we walk alongside the river, I am having a close look at the houses on the shore. I even walk on people’s property without knowing it. These houses and their authenticity fascinate me. They carry so much history and have remained untouched. They make me travel back in time and fill my imagination with pictures of ancient eras under the reign of Chinese emperors.

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The heat is getting more intense and we happily go back to the guest house where an afternoon tea is offered by the house. The main room of the cottage is cosy with an artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration.

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We sit on a little couch by the window. The hostess brings us some dry plums and pours our glasses with a thick yellow drink that appears to be tea. I am surprised by its unusual thickness and its delicious fruity taste. It’s probably the best tea I have ever had.

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After drinking two pots of tea, I go exploring the guest house and its every detail. This place is full of little treasures. I find out there’s a small art gallery on the last storey. I spot a small ladder and climb to discover a little attic with a Japanese set up where you can relax and read a book.

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The morning of our departure, I devour a delicious breakfast made of local products:

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Life in Songkou is peaceful and relaxing. The pace is slow, there’s not much to do around. If you’re seeking an exciting nightlife, there is none. Songkou is the place to go for a retreat and forget about the turpitudes of the modern world. I love the simplicity in which people live their lives, far away from the city, with no artifice, a life full of authenticity. The ancient town definitely gives a sense of the old China and its impressive history. For a couple of days, I felt like I was living in another century.

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Into the Wild

Tuesday, 3rd September 2013, Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

I jump off the taxi and hug my traveling companions. My sunglasses hide the tears rolling down my cheeks. After a memorable journey traveling and wandering around Queensland, I am on my way to explore the far-flung lands of Australia. Alone.

On the bus that departs from Townsville, I realise that my personal quest starts now. The challenge, the adventure, the real one.

I get off at the bus stop in Cardwell, a small coastal town located 2 hours from Townsville in Far North Queensland. It pretty much comes to one long street, a few shops, and a petrol station. I breathe the heartland of Australia and a very provincial area.

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I am standing in front of the Deli Café, the place where I have been asked to wait to be picked up. It certainly that does not go unnoticed with its huge red crab on top of the roof. The perfect spot for a meeting point.

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I hear a woman hailing me. It’s Chris, the mother of the family with whom I am going to spend a few weeks. I will be helping her with the daily tasks at the farm she owns with her husband Wes.

After quitting my job and leaving everything behind me to move to Australia, I have decided to spend my year traveling and volunteering. It’s as if all those years working in the bowels of a money maker pushed me to run away from it. I am seeking authenticity, wildlife, wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, new lifestyles and cultures but I want to associate something useful with it. Volunteering has appeared the best compromise to me.

Chris warmly welcomes me. She carries my big backpack and puts it in the boot. I open the door of the truck, an old Land Rover over-used by the years. A dog jumps on me and licks my face. I make my way through and sit in the middle of petrol cans, dusty objects, and rusty tools.

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Chris starts the engine. We’re sinking into the Australian bush. Deserted dirt roads, mountains, endless pastures, trees and grass burnt by the sun are all around. After a 10 minute drive, she stops the pickup. We have arrived at the farm.

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I get off the car and look at my surroundings: a vast ground with green trees and a wooden shack covered by a tarpaulin. No walls, everything is open. I spot a “living room” and a “kitchen” under a roof built in sheet metal. A bit farther away, a “shower” and the “toilets” are made of wood and scrap iron.

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I can see two old shaky caravans and some abandoned treasures: an old Mercedes, a broken Jaguar, a van, some carcasses of boats all over the place. There’s also a barn filled with a nameless mess. I can sense a place where all sort of objects, useful and useless, have been stocked for many years.

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I catch glimpse of two horses walking around freely, some dogs and cows. I am not surprised to see some spiders and a few dead snakes. I see in that place everything hostile that the Australian fauna and flora has to offer.

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No electricity, or running water. Life here relies on a generator that needs to be filled with petrol every day. Someone has to start it every morning and stop it every night. To get some hot water, we need to turn on the fire in the wood burner of the kitchen.

Chris tells me that a violent hurricane ravaged the town of Cardwell two years ago. The farm has been entirely destroyed.

Everything that I am seeing could have made me run away. But somehow, it’s making me want to stay even more. The change is extreme and without any transition, but this is what I wanted. These people need my help and the lifestyle is far beyond anything that I have experienced in my life.

I can feel that I am about to live in this place the most memorable and crazy adventures.

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7 am, 15th of October 2013, Cardwell, Queensland, Australia.

The deafening sound of the generator pulls me out of my sleep. I had an awful night. The gusts of wind haven’t stopped shaking the old caravan. I thought everything was going to collapse.

I get up to have breakfast. The boys are already awake. Since the destruction of the farm, Chris and Wes have been taking a few backpackers to help them in the daily tasks at the farm. I end up with two French boys, Aurélien and Franck, to share my adventures with. Rosie, the old mare, is already waiting for her piece of toast.

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It’s now time to work. I sit at the back of the old pickup. Jo, the dog of the farm loves coming with us. As usual, he jumps on the passenger seat. Aurélien starts the engine and after a 10 minutes drive on a stony dirt road we stop in the middle of nowhere.

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This morning we are going to do some fencing which consists in fixing the fences to prevent the cows from escaping from their pen. We have to remove the damaged poles, replace them with new ones, stretch the lines of barbed wire and fix them. The very physical and hard work has left a few scratches on my arms and legs.

After a couple of hours, we are back on the farm for a quick break. Then Wes takes us in the bush to cut and pick up big tree trunks. It’s boiling hot and the place is infested with snakes. I stomp my feet every 5 minutes to scare them away. The heat is unbearable, I can feel my whole body melting. I wanted to know what it was like to work hard under the blazing sun, I know for sure by the sweat of my brow!

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It’s finally lunchtime and we’re heading back to the farm. Chris has made some tasty sandwiches and salads that disappear in a flash. We promised Wes to sand the floor of the “living room”. It’s 50 degrees in the sun and the heat is intense but a promise is a promise. With courage and good humor, equipped with pickaxes, rakes, and buckets, we joyfully start the work.

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At 4 pm, we stop our duty. Time has come to relax and rest. As usual Aurélien, Franck and I go down the river. There’s not much going on near the farm and the river has rapidly become our main playground.

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I find interesting the fact that without nothing to do around, there’s actually more space for creativity. We have come up with the idea of building a makeshift raft with two wooden pallets and two inner tubes from a truck. Let’s see if the floating system is on point! Jo, our loyal companion, is always the first one to dive into the fresh and crystalline water of the river.

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Our beautiful raft with the tricolor flag, whose approximate floating system has led us straight to sinking and hysterical laughter!

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After a happy return to childhood acting like kids, it’s time to get back to the farm to…

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…fill the generator with petrol so we can get some electricity.

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…turn on the fire in the wood burner to have hot water.

…and eat a generous dinner! Chris has cooked and the smell tickles my nostrils. It’s a gravy dish with meatballs, mushrooms, onions, mashed potatoes, some cheese and some bread. Not the healthiest but definitely very tasty and well-deserved.

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After dinner comes animated conversations, laughter, and endless card games listening to the sweet sounds of nature.

9 pm, lights out. Time to turn off the generator. Silence takes place, finally. A dark night envelops the farm whose presence can be only guessed under the light of the starry sky.

Life at the farm is far from being easy. The work is hard and the living conditions are difficult. However, I feel like home. I push and challenge myself every day, I learn, I discover and discover myself. I had no idea that I could achieve that much.

Fix cars, build a henhouse, run after chicken and ducks, drive a tractor, a Jaguar, a pickup, fix and repair fences, feed animals, sand the floor, pick up woods, cut it, garden, dig holes, clear lands, load trailers, unload them, work in the bush under a blazing sun, live with insects, spiders, snakes, frogs, toads, and all sorts of poisonous creatures…

I feel like living a second life, thousands of miles away from everything I have known, far away from my familiarities, my habits, my routine and the turpitudes of the modern world. Here, I manage to live in the moment intensively, without fearing what tomorrow will bring. I am not scared of it. I embrace it.

 

 

Egyptian dream

5th of May 2006, somewhere in the White Desert (known as Sahara el Beyda), Farafra, Egypt, 4 am.

A strange sensation pulls me out of my sleep. “Something” is licking my toes and for a second, my whole body freezes out of fear. I open my eyes and slowly raise my head to see “what” is getting down to lick my foot. In the obscurity, I catch the glimpse of two long large ears on a small head with fluorescent eyes. I release a sigh of relief. It’s a fennec. Those cute little foxes living in the desert. It must have been attracted by our stock of food, and probably the smell of my feet.

I am glad I did not scream out, waking up the whole camp for nothing. I am looking around, everyone is peacefully asleep. The campfire is slowly dying but I can still hear the crackling sound of the flames. The millions of stars are shining bright, I can’t find my sleep anymore. I get out of my sleeping bag for a walk. I want to enjoy the surroundings at dawn, when the desert awakes.

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The scenery of the White Desert is quite unreal. It is strewn with alien shapes and boulders of glossy white, which stand up right from the surface of the desert. The rocks are coloured from snow white to cream colour. I feel like walking into space, on another planet or in the setting of a science fiction movie. The history of the White Desert is incredible, it makes the place magical and completely out of this world.

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70 million years ago, the sea covered the east part of Egypt. The White Desert used to be a seabed for 30 million years before disappearing. During this period of time, some white limestone was built upon the ground, reaching a thickness of 300 metres. After the withdrawal of the sea, the erosion has never stopped to shape and work the limestone. That is why the White Desert is famous for its spectacular white stone mushrooms, shaped by the wind erosion and contrasting with the ergs of yellow sand.

There are also many fossils left by the sea and its marine flora like seashells and other non-identified objects shaped in the most improbable ways.

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It’s hard for me to believe that I am here. Standing next to these massive stone mushrooms and contemplating a masterpiece that only nature can create. I feel little, so little. Silence and wildness prevail on human marks. It’s a place of solitude and there’s something very spiritual about it. The White Desert is a yellow and white planet filled with giant stone mushrooms and curious objects left by the vestiges of the past.

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As I keep walking, I can see the boulders, crowding together at different places, creating shapes resembling animals or humans. As dawn crawls in, the shapes seem to shift with the constant change of natural lighting. The furtive silhouettes of fennecs wandering around are the only living sound that I hear.

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I stop my wander and sit on the sand for a little while. The sky becomes lighter. The shiny stars slowly disappear. The pastel colours on the horizon and the yellow shades indicate that the sun is going to rise soon.

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I stand up and shake my bottom covered with sand. I’d better get back to the camp.

******

10th of June, on the way to Khan-el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt, 10 am.

“I would like to go to Khan-el-Khalili” I say to the taxi driver with my very poor Arabic skills.

The taxi driver shakes his head, meaning get in, get in! I jump in and I have not closed the door yet that he starts to drive.

I am meeting my friend Karima for a coffee/shisha and a stroll at the zouk. Khan-el-Khalili is the main souk in the historic centre of Islamic Cairo. The bazaar district is one of the most popular attractions and probably the most lively area of the city.

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I get off the taxi and wave at Karima who’s waiting for me at the entrance. I met Karima when I arrived in Cairo 3 months ago. She’s French with a Moroccan background and we rapidly became inseparable.

“How much are the slippers?” I ask the woman of a little shop filled with hundreds of colourful oriental slippers.

“400 EGP,” she says smiling at me.

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“Don’t be a fool, she is trying to rip you off, it is not worth that much, let me handle it,” whispers Karima. After an animated conversation in Arabic, Karima turns back with a proud smile on her face.

“I got them for half the price.” Since I have arrived in Cairo, Karima has been my white knight, saving me from the unscrupulous merchants.

Khan-el-Khalili lives day and night. The souk is a busy little village that never sleeps. The first time I went there, it made me dizzy, the heat was unbearable and the cacophony of sounds was intense. Then the places become more familiar, every time I visit. The merchants know me well now and greet me politely.

I like wandering in the narrow alleys, there is always something new to discover. It’s a real cavern of Ali Baba in there. The warm colours, the smell, the shiny carpets and hessian on the walls make the place very welcoming and cosy. My favourite stalls are the spice ones. I love the palette of bright colours, yellow, orange, red. The mountains of spice powder in their jar are beautifully even and symmetrical. The scents emanating are strong in flavour but I like it. It makes me want to cook.

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The delicious smell of the pastries always tickles my nostrils when I walk past the pastry stalls. I love Arabic pastries, especially the gazelle horns called Kaab el ghzal. These little Moroccan treats stuffed with almond paste make the taste buds dance in my mouth.

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We decide to stop with Karima at a café to have a coffee and smoke a shisha.

Also known as “hookah” or “nargila”, shisha is the ornate, Arabian water pipe through which Egyptians while away the hours, toking contentedly on fruit-scented tobacco.

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Smoking a shisha alone, or with some company, forms the basis of much Egyptian social life. The first time I tried, I liked it because of the flavour and the bubbly sound of the water when you inhale. I naively thought it was healthier than a cigarette but rest assured that a shisha contains as much as nicotine and other nasties as cigarette tobacco.

Egyptians usually smoke apple flavoured shisha. Other flavours such as strawberry, watermelon, orange and even coffee also exist but they are mainly for tourists.

“Wahad shisha tufa min fudluck” (One apple shisha please), I ask with my clumsy Arabic accent. It is probably one of the only sentences I can say properly.

We also order a Turkish coffee. The thick texture and strong flavour surprised me the first time I had it. But like many things here, I got used to it.

I’ve found out that Turkish coffee is made by boiling very finely ground coffee beans with water and usually sugar, then serving into cups, where the grounds are left to settle.

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After our little coffee break, we’re strolling back in the zouk, wandering around until getting lost. What I like the most about Khan-el-Khalili is that the place is always brimming with little treasures that are delightful for the eyes and the senses.

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*****

15th of July, Alexandria, Egypt, 3 pm, 

“Wow!” I shout, not able to contain my astonishment and waking up the whole study room.

“Shhhhht!” says the man at the reception with a reprimanding look.

I can’t believe I am inside The Royal Library of Alexandria. This monument used to be the largest library in the world and the most significant library of the ancient world. It was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the Arts.

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The ruins of the Great Library of Alexandria

The heritage is colossal and I can feel the extraordinary history behind these walls. Even though, the library has been restored today by modern infrastructures.

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There’s a mythical atmosphere reigning in this place. As I am walking around, exploring the rooms, I am learning the incredible story of a monument whose mystery still keeps inspiring and haunting the minds.

The Great Library, with its impressive and unique collections of works, books, scrolls filled with knowledge of many ancient civilizations, lecture halls, and gardens, was part of a larger institution called the Museum of Alexandria. It was a place for arts, literature, philosophy and science. Many of the most famous thinkers and writers of the ancient world studied there: Homer, Plato, Socrates and more.

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It is popularly believed that the library has been destroyed in a huge fire around 2,000 years ago and its voluminous works were lost. The destruction of the Library has haunted the imagination of poets, historians, travellers and scholars, who have lamented the tragic loss of knowledge and literature.

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As an old Literature student and very passionate about it, it is quite unreal to be in that place. I spent many years learning and studying about these great thinkers, reading and analysing their philosophy and masterpiece. And now I am standing where they stood, I am walking where they walked, I am thinking where they used to think. I feel extremely moved, honoured and grateful to be here.

I leave the Great Library fulfilled and dreamy, my imagination filled with pictures of a glorious past.

******

Goodbye Saïgon

‘The soil in our area is Red Mud, RED-BLOODY-MUD.

It drives me mad … It’s the only place in the world where you can be bogged down in mud up to your neck and get dust in your eyes.’

Vietnam

In tribute to my uncle and his inspirational life

When I went back to Vietnam after 14 years of absence, I found a powerful source of inspiration: an extraordinary family story that I knew nothing about. I immediately felt the urge to pay tribute to my uncle, my mother’s brother, whose inspirational life has made me want to write. I started to ask him some questions about his past and one thing leading to another, he slowly opened his heart, talking about his memories, his fears, his hopes, and his life, before, during and after the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

When I started the interview, I could feel his hesitation, his answers were short and punctuated by long silences. I thought I’d better stop, maybe it was a bad idea to bring up the past. But I looked at him and spotted a sparkle in his eyes. He began to smile and his face suddenly enlightened. He just needed time to put his memories into words.

He started to recall his childhood, his youth and his strong commitment to a cause he thought was right. I realised that he had never confided in anyone about this chapter of his life. I felt extremely grateful and privileged to be the one to hear it.

The story that follows modestly relates the time of his commitment in the Vietnam War in 1973 as a South Vietnamese officer, fighting alongside the Americans. It is based on his true story and real facts, although I’ve brought my personal style.

 

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My wit and wise uncle

I dedicated 10 years of my life to the war: five years to the famous School of the Officers in Thu Duc in Vietnam, two years fighting at the front and three years as a prisoner in a labor camp in the hands of the Communists. Ten years in a lifetime seems little, but these ten years have changed my life forever.

My name is Hoàn, I am Vietnamese born in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The second son of a family of three children, my father worked at the French embassy and my mother was a French teacher. We were mostly immersed in French culture, the tricolour presence at that time was dominant in what used to be called “l’Indochine” (Indochina: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). From this family heritage, I can speak Vietnamese, French and English, languages that I learned when I fought alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War in 1973.

I was born with a natural appetite for culture and knowledge, literature, music, Medicine, Law, languages, and everything that came from overseas used to fascinate me so much in my younger years.

Cambodia during my childhood was peaceful and quiet. King Sianouk was the king at the time and he has always been tolerant toward the Vietnamese community. I was fortunate enough to get a solid education. I went to a French school and graduated from University majoring in Medicine. I had the best time over there, probably the best years of my student life. I met an exceptional Cambodian professor who became the most brilliant Minister of Culture that Cambodia has ever had. I loved this oblivious and happy life and yet, I decided to leave everything behind. I made the decision to join the army and fight in Vietnam. How to keep living a quiet life in Cambodia when my homeland is put to fire and the sword? At the age of 25, it was time for me to find a purpose in my life.

 

23 January 1967, Phnom Penh. Departure to Vietnam. 

I left without turning back. Jaws tight, with a heavy heart but determined and committed to my purpose. I got accepted to the prestigious School of Officers in Saigon. My mother, like all mothers, cried all her tears at the idea of her son not coming back; my father, with his usual self-control, gently tapped my shoulder.

“Do what you have to do brother, I will join you later. If we both go now, we’re going to kill her,” said my older brother, the “hothead” of the family and looking at my mother in tears.

“You will come back big brother, right? You’re only going for holidays?” asked my little sister,  who is seven years apart in age and too young to realise.

The picture of my father, when I told him I would fight alongside the Americans, the antithesis of his convictions, still haunts me today. In his eyes, I read the deep sadness and the strong disappointment from a father, powerless towards his son’s irrevocable decision.

March 1973, Châu Dôc Front – South Vietnam.

The war is raging. From one side, the North and its popular army and the “Front de libération” of the South called “Vietcongs”, and from the other side, the South-Vietnamese troops supported by the Americans.

The sound of the bullets whistles in my ears and yet, I am not fighting on the front line. I can hear my companion soldiers yelling to give us some courage and attack the “enemy.” At the back, holding a radio in my sweaty hands, I am in charge of reporting every combat scene to my superiors. I don’t know what is worst. Watching my dear companions getting shot or keeping my self-control and accomplishing my official duty. To inform, to get commands, to obey, and make sure the orders are applied. This is what war is about, a succession of obligations coming from the top. And at the bottom stand the soldiers, the ones who kill, and the ones who die.

25 April 1974, Chàu Dòc, 8 pm. 

A thousand clapping hands resonate in the big room of the army camp. I hear the cheerful whistles of my companions, impatient to see on stage the beautiful Khanh Ly, an emblematic and engaged Vietnamese singer who came to support the troops. The Asian Joan Baez in a way. It feels so good to hear the soldiers laughing, the yells, the sound of the glass of beers banging together, the thundering voices of the fervent soldiers and to feel a jubilation warming up our hearts numbed by the cold of the war.

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The Vietnamese and engaged singer Khanh Ly

1st May 1975 – Saïgon. 

The American troops are pulling out. Vietnam endures a reunification on the authority of the North. The Communist are coming to power and rename Saïgon, Ho Chi Minh City. In a complete rout, the Americans are leaving, distraught Vietnamese people take refuge to the American embassy with the hope to be evacuated by plane. My superior, the captain J. whispers in my ear: “Hoàn, your place is not here anymore, we can send you to America and get you the status of ancient officer. You will be able to live a quiet and comfortable life other there.” I firmly reply: “Thank you, I really appreciate your help. but my place is here, in Vietnam, beside my comrades in arms and my family, until my last breath”.    

The Vietcongs have won. We have lost. When my troop had been taken by storm by the Communists, I did not fight back, just lowered my head, my weapon, and gave the order to my soldiers to surrender. Penned in a big truck with other prisoners, they are taking us to a labor camp hidden in the forest, somewhere in the North of Saïgon. (I still don’t know today where it is). I can picture the procession of torture imposed on “traitors to the motherland”: brainwashing, extortion of admissions and more… but I am not losing my hope. Hope is all I have left.

5 June 1975, labor camp, 5 am 

“Hoán, wake up!” My cell comrade pulls me out of my sleep. I can barely open my eyes. It’s time to do our collective gymnastics in the main foyer of the camp where more than a thousand prisoners are squeezed to work out and “keep in shape.” I can hear the stomachs rumbling, craving for the two sweet potatoes, the manioc root and the small piece of fish that constitutes our meal of the day.

We’re heading to the forest to cut some trees. Huge trunks, bamboo stems, bulrush we have to collect to build the shack, cover the roof and make the straw mattress for our beds. Carrying enormous burden on our shoulders, bringing tree trunks using the force of our arms, with an empty stomach, weakens the strongest of us. The hardest to endure is the lack of food.

21st December 1975, Labor camp, 6 pm.

It’s time for our regular “brainwash”, poor lost souls that we are, the pariah who have disowned our homeland to join forces with the enemy. As usual, we are gathered in the main foyer to attend the political class about the good deeds of communism. Today it’s the apology of Karl Marx and Marxism. At the end of the class, our professor asks to stand up and shout: “Communism is the only regime that can save our country!” Like robots, we all repeat a sentence that does not mean anything to me.

15th April 1976, Labor camp, 2 pm.

“Hoán, mail is here!” yells the prison guard. On the envelope stamp, I read “France”. A smile enlights my face. It’s my little sister, Dung (Eva is her French name), the youngest of the family that my father has sent to France so she can build a new and safe life. In the letter, she says she has given birth to a healthy little boy. She’s named him Christian, Hanh in Vietnamese. A happy event that appeases the excruciating pain of having lost my older brother, shot on an immaculate beach in the center of Vietnam in Summer 1972. He also joined the army to fight alongside the Americans a few months after me…

In my misfortune, I consider myself lucky. Life at the camp is very hard but we are not mistreated. I have even managed to find my own place, to adapt myself to a hostile environment and to establish a contact with my jailers. Many of them ask me to teach them French and English. During our free time, we read, we draw, we build instruments with wood and bamboo. I’ve discovered that the camp shelters an educated and cultured elite: intellectuals, architects, doctors, former ministers. My aptitude for foreign languages gets the attention and the curiosity of the leaders, step by step I have won their trust and esteem. I remember this corporal sergeant who could not stop asking me to recite Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem: “l’Automne est mort” (Autumn is dead).

16th June 1978, Labor camp, 8 pm.

The railings of the main gate open. But this time it’s different. They’re not opening to go to the forced work in the dark forest but to offer me something that I have cherished like a lost treasure: my freedom.

My exemplary behaviour during these last three years of detention got my jailors to free me, with a few of my comrades. I feel like a child who’s been rewarded for having done something good. In the truck that brings me back to Ho Chi Minh City, Saïgon in my heart, I realise that everything is over. Strangely enough, this war that I have hated so much has been the purpose of my life. It has allowed me to move forward and to bear the pain of losing my brother in 1972 and my father in April 1976. This inner strength, with its weaknesses, has guided me during all these years. I thought that I endured the worst but getting back to a “normal” life seems as frightening to me. I hope to keep my head clear and find again the peace of a life tormented by the war for too long.

Vietnamese New Year (Têt) 2008, Cambodia.

It’s my first pilgrimage in Cambodia, my country of heart and where I was born, after 40 years of absence. An initiatory trip that I haven’t had the courage to do earlier. I am getting teary-eyed when I see, as I am crossing the border between my two countries, the alley of palm trees where I used to walk when I was a child.

Everything has changed and the house of my childhood does not exist anymore. But I can still feel an imperceptible breeze of days gone by, only palpable by myself and probably by a subjective memory. The country is healing its wounds, I cannot compare the horror of the Cambodian genocide to the trauma of the war in Vietnam.   

But one thing is sure, I will carry, forever in my heart, the country of my happy childhood. No regret, no bitterness, only an immense gratitude towards life that has brought me all these exceptional experiences and enriching encounters.

******

April 2014, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Hoàn is 72 years old today. He has managed to go back to a “normal life” and has kept his head still filled with the souvenirs of a vivid past. His memory has stayed untouched, so have his convictions. Married, father of two daughters and a son, he has six grandchildren who love him deeply. He is still teaching English to a new generation of students and lives a peaceful life in the suburbs of Saïgon. Every now and then, he spends the weekend in our family house on the shore of the Mekong River. He loves going there to rest, read, sleep in the hammock in the shadow of a palm tree. But what he loves the most is fishing in the little river near our home. Patience and silence is his philosophy of life. “Never complain, explain sometimes” is his motto.

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Happy grandchildren
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Our family home near the Mekong river
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Brother & Sister (my lovely Mum, Eva)

I consider myself very privileged to have witnessed my uncle telling his story. There are so many questions I would like to ask but I feel it’s time to stop now. I have to leave him with his secrets and his beautiful reticence. I wanted to ask him why he decided to fight alongside the Americans, against his father’s will and the majority of the Vietnamese people… but then I realise it was not the point. From one side to the other, from a conviction to another, the consequences of the war stay the same for everyone who experienced it.

But above all, when he confessed these few words that I knew were the truth: “I have not killed”, it touched me so deeply that a tear rolled down my cheek.

Thank you, my dear uncle. Live and be happy forever.

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Dear Mum & Dad

To my Mum and Dad, without whom I would not be here today. 

Friday 2nd of February 2018, Fuzhou, China.

Dear Mum & Dad,

Today is a rainy, cold winter day in Fuzhou and the sad weather always makes me feel nostalgic about the old times. Maybe because of the yellow and grey colours that give the surroundings a vintage look and feel.

I’ve never told you why I wanted to write a book about the memories of my childhood, but it seems pretty natural to me that the main reason comes from you. I owe my beautiful childhood to your loving parenting and deep in my heart, I want to pay tribute to the most meaningful moments of having been this shy little girl of yours.

I want to remember the child I used to be. The little things I used to do, the walks in the woods with you Dad, the smell of your perfume Mum, or the love letters I used to write to a boy who never noticed me at school.

Despite my bold decision to leave everything behind and go venturing on the other side of the world, the woman that I have become today has never ceased to love you and think of you.

I know the worries that I have caused when I left and I try not to think about it too much because it makes me very teary-eyed. However, by giving me your unconditional love and support, whatever my decisions are, you have helped me to fulfill my dreams and to be at peace with myself.

Sometimes, I wish I could travel back in time and get to know your young selves. Fleeing a country at war in your twenties and building a new life so far away from your homeland is the ultimate act of courage. I can’t imagine what it was like, and I feel so lucky and grateful for the life you’ve given me.

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My heart will be forever filled with gratitude and admiration for both of you. As parents, it is hard to let your children spread their wings and fly. You’ve allowed me to be a free bird, exploring the world to find my own tree and build my nest.

You’ve respected my decision to choose a different path for my life. Even though I would have loved giving you what most parents expect from their children, somehow, you knew that I was different. A safe path and safe choices were not goals to fulfill anymore. What is the point of your life when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait to lurk to surprise you?

Sometimes I feel selfish for thinking about my own happiness. But this is the price to pay to enjoy my freedom to the fullest. I feel the urge to enrich my life with as many experiences as I can. I am passionate about learning, discovering and facing new challenges. This is the fuel that makes me move forward and keeps me forever young. I want to share my appreciation for life with people, and spread inspiration around the world.

I know you want me to settle down and I am, but at my own pace and staying true to myself. Don’t worry too much about me because everything I do, I do it with a good balance of wisdom and boldness. I am using what I’ve inherited from both of you: Dad’s voice of reason and Mum, your romantic heart. The mixed culture I’ve been brought up with has had a huge impact on my perception of life. The wisdom from my Asian heritage fused with my passionate French free spirit have shaped my mind clearly. I’ve always loved and have been inspired by my Philosophy class at school. No wonder why I got my best mark writing an essay about Liberty.

Freedom to me is being able to live my truth and listen to my instinct and my guts. It has led me to live the most enriching experiences so far, the kind of adventures I will remember until the day I die. It has helped me to be stronger and brave. From this shy and reserved little girl living in a small French village, I’ve become a determined and fearless woman exploring what the world has to offer.

I hope you are proud of me as much as I am proud of you. I want to thank you for everything you have done for me and for our family. Even during tough times, we all stick together to face and overcome the challenges of life. I might be far away, but my heart will be forever with you, no matter where I am in the world.

I love you both deeply.

Your loving daughter,

Julie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shanghai Mon Amour

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s time for a break and we all want a refreshing drink, something typical. We spot on the other side of the street a line of people queuing to get in a milk tea shop called Hey Tea. 

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

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One day one night in Hong Kong

I had to leave China to do a visa run a few weeks ago and it led me to visit Hong Kong. For those who don’t know, a visa run is a quick, one-day trip across the border of a neighboring country and returning. This is usually done a few days before the expiration of one’s visa.

It can be seen as annoying to do but I was actually pretty glad to be forced to leave the country to discover another one. It gave me the chance to experience the Hong Kongese lifestyle for 24 hours and although my trip was short, it was quite intense because of it.

The first thing that struck me was how multicultural Hong Kong is. After 3 months of total immersion in Fuzhou, a very “Chinese city” where no one speaks English, seeing the waves of foreigners on the streets brought me some comfort and I felt like I was home. I must have looked like a creepy lady, staring at people and smiling. I just wanted to say “hi” and talk to everyone!

As soon as the taxi dropped me off at the hotel, I quickly checked in, threw my bag on the bed and jumped straight away in a shuttle to go explore the city. I had no particular idea where to go, I just had the urge of discovering as much as I could in a limited period of time.

 

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I took the subway and stopped at Central Station, in the centre of Hong Kong. I ended up on a very busy street named Queen’s Road. As soon as I got out of the subway, the Hong Kongese vibe made me think of New York. A Chinese NYC. Lively and busy collection of streets filled with restaurants, fancy bars, cafés and stylish shops. Big buildings, skyscrapers, international brands, a multitude of red and white taxis on the lookout for customers and hurrying businessmen hustling down the street.

Hong Kong is an intriguing mix of Asian and Western culture. A unique place where “East meets West”. As a foreigner living in China, I was really fascinated to observe the Hong Kongese lifestyle which is quite the opposite of mainland China’s. The vast majority of the population is ethnically Chinese but the long period of colonisation and exposure to the Western culture has resulted in a very distinct cultural identity from China. Most of the Chinese people living in Hong Kong speak English and the mainstream culture is an Eastern culture influenced by a British lifestyle.

As I was walking down the street, a tiny but colourful entrance of a place that looked like a café caught my attention. Spongebob’s and Patrick Star’s faces were plastered all around, making me want to discover a bit more. I ended up having afternoon tea at Dim Sum Icon, where you can eat steamed egg yolks buns, quench your thirst with a full-sized pineapple drink and have a bit of a Spongebob ma lai gao, aka the Spongebob spongecake.

What I do best when I explore a new city is to get lost. I don’t really mind getting lost, it’s part of the adventure. Without knowing it I ended up in Soho, a vibrant district filled with lively little streets going up and down. Every 5 square metres there’s a pub, a restaurant, a bar, a café and all of them are busy. I kept walking for a long time looking for a French restaurant called La Vache. Of course, I could not find it and after asking directions from 3 people who gave me 3 different answers, I started to worry a little. My phone was dying and my Chinese internet data was unusable in Hong Kong. A small detail that I flippantly ignored. I was supposed to meet up with a French couple that I virtually met via WeChat for dinner.

In China, it’s a common thing to find power banks in cafés to recharge your phone but here in Hong Kong, I could not find any. My old backpacker’s habit led me to McDonalds where I nicely asked the cashier if I could charge my phone and use the free wifi.

I finally managed to get in touch with the French couple who came to rescue me. They took me to La Vache in Soho (check out their website, it has the cutest design!) which is probably the best French restaurant in the Hong Kong dining scene. I was craving a steak-frites and La Vache, took me back, for a couple of hours, to the heart of Paris.

 

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The stylish, Parisian-style brasserie serves a unique menu: an organic green salad followed by a USDA prime ribeye with unlimited crispy frites served with generous pots of La Vache’s house-made sauce. A beautiful treat for the taste buds.

On my last day, I met up with a friend of a friend who is Chinese. That’s what I love about travelling – meeting new people is one of the most enriching human experiences. Yolanda took me to the most typical Hong Kongese places and we talked for hours about our different cultures and lifestyles.

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We walked down to a secret place that only locals know. It was located underground, in a small shopping mall. The restaurant was crowded with a line of people waiting to be seated.   

The place was so small and packed that we ended up sharing a table with two other girls. That is one of the facts that I have noticed. The lack of space in Hong Kong. With about 7 million Hongkongers in a territory of 1,104 km2, Hong Kong is one the most densely populated regions in the world. People live in tiny studios in the city and the rent is very expensive.

Hong Kongese food is a fusion of Asian and Western food. It reflects the history of the country. Local Hongkongers like eating buttery toast while having noodle soup. They love drinking milky tea and coffee. I was surprised to see some Italian pasta in an Asian bowl of soup with potatoes and tomatoes. This fusion also characterises Hong Kong’s cuisine, where dim sum, hot pot, and fast food coexists with haute cuisine.

After a traditional Hong Kongese lunch, we went for a walk to Victoria Harbour, a natural landform harbour between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in Hong Kong. We enjoyed the colourful Christmas decorations and an impressive panoramic skyline view.

And that concludes my short but intense Hong Kongese trip, one day, one night full of flavours, beautiful encounters, and unforgettable memories.

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10 Random facts about China

After more than 9 months of observation and getting more acquainted with my Chinese life, I have to say that the customs and habits in China are pretty fascinating. Especially the behaviour towards the digital world.

Here’s a list of 10 random facts about China that strike me the most.

#FACT 1: CHINESE PEOPLE LIVE IN A DIGITAL WORLD

In China, you can order EVERYTHING online and get it delivered to you. I insist on the word “everything”. It literally is. Food, clothes, furniture, groceries, plants, anything you can possibly imagine. My friend Yance even bought some tropical fish that arrived two days later in a special container! The best part is that it gets delivered to your door or left in the mail room that each building has.

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Chinese people always have their heads down looking at their phones. It’s very common to see motorbike riders typing on their phone while driving!

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#FACT 2: CASH IS DEAD – LONG LIVE TO MOBILE PAYMENTS! 

Cash is pretty much dead in China as the country is living the future with mobile payments.

Chinese people don’t use cash or coins anymore to buy things. They use their mobile phones. They have a digital wallet with money and all you have to do when you purchase something is scan a barcode and type in the amount. The first time I saw Yance paying the taxi driver this way, I watched it with my mouth wide open. I thought it was the coolest way to pay for stuff. It actually made me want to buy something just to try it out.

The online payment technology is incredibly advanced. No wonder why China’s economy is one of the world’s fastest-growing in the worldThe Chinese mobile payment volume more than doubled to $5 trillion in 2016*.

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The two most popular online payment apps are WeChat and AliPay. They are the major players in China.

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In many ways, using digital money makes your everyday life easier. It’s just more convenient and faster. There’s no need to carry cash or a credit card. You only need your phone.

I like the “transfer” function. If you owe money to a friend, you can just look for his/her contact in WeChat and transfer the amount. It’s so much faster than getting their bank account details! I was a bit concerned regarding the safety, but my digital wallet is locked up with a passcode that I have to type in every time I make a payment.

The only crucial thing is not to lose your phone! You can’t live in China without a phone!

*Source: Analysis data cited by Hillhouse Capital. 

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#FACT 3: WECHAT, CHINA’S “APP FOR EVERYTHING”

WeChat is a magical app that makes the impossible possible. It has been called China’s “App for Everything” because of its many functions and platforms. It is one of the world’s most powerful apps.

If China lives in a digital world it’s mainly due to this kind of multi-purpose social media mobile app. It has such a huge social impact on Chinese behaviour. With WeChat you can order, pay, book and pretty much do everything. It’s crazy to think that an app has replaced real life and physical actions like going to the supermarket or getting cash out at the ATM. It fascinates and scares me at the same time.

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#FACT 4: THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA

With the rise of the Internet in China in 1994, the country has struggled to strike a balance between “opening up” to the Western world and keeping its people away from the Western ideology. The Great Firewall of China, formally known as the Golden Shield Project, is the Chinese government’s internet censorship and surveillance project developed in 2000.

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This Golden Shield Project caught my attention as I think it reflects pretty well the position of China towards Western countries. I believe it poses one of the most interesting dilemmas in modern history.

On one hand, the Chinese government wants to use the information technology that comes with the Internet to build its blooming economy and make it thrive. On the other, the Internet inherently encourages diversity of ideas and represents a tool for democratising society. While the Internet is important to China’s economy, its very existence also undermines the political stability of the country. China is constantly seeking to strike balance between these two ends.

With the firewall, much to my desperation, I must say, many popular websites are banned in China. You can say goodbye to search engines like Google, Yahoo, but also media (Youtube, The New York Times, Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde – Yes, even French media!). Social media are of course the focal point and are completely banned (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and more).

You can check out the list of banned websites here.

But don’t panic if you’re planning to go to China. There’s a way to bypass this firewall (otherwise you would not be reading this post!) and still get access to your favourite websites. You will need to download a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Any mobile app store will have VPNs. On my end, after trying at least 3 different ones, I have purchased Star VPN which works pretty well and costs me $3 a month.

You just have to be aware that there’s no perfect VPN and sometimes the connection can be slow or not functional. All you need is a lot of patience!

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#FACT 5: A WONDERLAND OF DISCOUNTS

But only if you have a trained eye! The first time I saw a shiny 90 sign, it really enticed the western shopper in me. I thought “Wow! 90% off?! That’s the best sale ever!” However, I was just a fool. 90 isn’t as great as it seems.

I found out that Chinese discounts work in a completely opposite way to western discounts. While a western shopper sees 90% off, a Chinese shopper sees that you pay 90 percent of the price. That means 90 is actually only 10% off!

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But generally speaking, there are always ways to get cheaper things in China. They have insane discounts and special deals that defy the rules of competition. Especially when it comes to food. Let’s say you order online and reach a certain amount, you can sometimes get 30  50% off. It’s also very common to see sales guys from restaurants giving away vouchers in shopping malls to get 50  100 RMB off your meal.

Online prices are cheaper than retail stores. My friend Yance buys all his clothes online and I have started to do this as well. In case we’re not happy with our purchases, we just call the courier who comes to our place to pick up the items and we get a refund straight away online!

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#Fact 6: CLICK THE RED PACKETS! 

A red packet is a monetary gift in a little red envelope which, in the Chinese tradition, is offered during holiday seasons or for special occasions (weddings, graduations, births etc).

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But there’s also a digital version of the red packet that blew my mind the other day. After working hard for Thanksgiving at the school where I work, our managers, as a reward, sent to our WeChat group a rain of red packets! The concept is simple: someone sends in a group a red packet with a defined amount of money and chooses how many people he/she wants to share the amount with. The first person to click on the red packet earns a random amount of money.

For instance, I can send to the group a red packet of 100 RMB and choose to share the amount between 5 people. Once the red packet appears in the group conversation, its members have to quickly click on it to see how much they’ve earned. That’s when it gets funny and exciting because the whole concept of the red packet is based on luck. The first 5 people who’ve clicked earn a random amount. One can get 30 RMB, another one can get 2 RMB and so on until it reaches 100 RMB. The amount of money you earn goes automatically into your WeChat wallet!

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For Chinese NYE, people send big rains of red packets and the amount can go up to hundreds of RMB! It’s probably the easiest way to make money just by clicking some links on your phone. There’s no doubt, Chinese people love playing with money! No wonder why they love gambling so much.

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#FACT 7: CHINESE PEOPLE LOVE DRINKING HOT WATER

In China, the tap water’s not clean and you’re better off not drinking it. The first day I got here it was so hot that I poured a big glass of tap water and started drinking it.

“What are you doing?! yelled Yance laughing at me. Don’t drink tap water in China, you’re going to be sick!” I emptied my glass and I suddenly missed the clean and fresh water of New Zealand.

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Chinese people drink hot water (even under 30 degrees) and it took me quite some time to get used to it. It’s not even tea, just boiling water. When I ask a Chinese person why they drink hot water, the answer is usually “it’s better for your health”. I did not really get it at the beginning. Apart from burning my throat, I could not see the benefits. Now that I’ve reviewed my habits and that it’s freezing in Fuzhou, hot water has become my new tap water.

But to be honest, hot or cold, water is water and both are fine to drink! It’s just a question of beliefs and habits.

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#FACT 8: THE MOST TYPICAL DISH IN FUZHOU IS…

Hot pot! Each region of China has its own food specialty. In Fuzhou, you will find many hot pot restaurants. Hot pot is a soup with a variety of East Asian foodstuffs and ingredients, prepared with a simmering pot of soup stock at the dining table. While the hot pot is kept simmering, ingredients are placed into the pot and cooked at the table.

Typical hot pot dishes include thinly sliced meat, leaf, vegetables, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings, tofu and seafood. The cooked food is usually eaten with a dipping sauce.

It’s the perfect dish to share with family and friends as it’s very convivial and can last hours! I absolutely love it, it’s delicious!

 

#FACT 9: CHINESE PEOPLE KNOW HOW TO PARTY

I wrote about the nightlife in Fuzhou in a previous post. I am still amazed by the Chinese hospitality when it comes to party or going out. The nightclubs are insane and they really make an effort to put on a big show. People in nightclubs talk to you and naturally buy you drinks. They don’t expect anything from you except having fun.

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#FACT 10: A NEW SKYSCRAPER IS BUILT EVERY 5 DAYS

China never sleeps. It’s constantly developing and expanding. Buildings, skyscrapers, and massive shopping malls are popping up like flowers. Towers appear in little to no time and in a couple of months, a new suburb is born. China is like a giant tree whose branches keep growing.

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