Saturday, 24 September 2011

Silly Things I Have Done in Taipei

Sometimes living in a foreign country and not being able to speak the local language can be a challenging experience and, personally speaking, I am prone to making more than my usual complement of mistakes.

Getting into Strangers' Cars

When I was looking for an apartment the other week a parent at Conrad's school told me that one was available in her block, and kindly offered that her husband would come and pick me up to go and look at it. "He'll be driving a green Toyota," she said. Sure enough, as I waited on the side of the street at the correct time a green Toyota pulled up directly in front of me. The windows were tinted so I couldn't see inside.

I reached for the handle to get in, and a tug of war ensued with the person who was already there. How strange, I thought, to come and pick me up then refuse to let me get in the car! It finally dawned on me that all was not as it should be, and I gave up my struggle. The driver pulled twenty feet forward, stopped again, a passenger got out of the back and walked off.

Not a word was said on either side.

Walking Through Restricted Areas

I've been trying to find a route to Conrad's school that would avoid the necessity of taking the bus. Following Googlemaps on Andy's mobile, we once walked the shortest route hoping that, if it wasn't too busy, we could cycle to school every morning. Unfortunately there was a stretch that had a lot of traffic and there wasn't a pavement, so I was relieved to see that we could take a short cut over the lower hills of the mountain. It was very quiet, with very few cars and in fact, hardly anyone around at all! The people that we did encounter gave us some strange looks but, hey, we're foreigners - we get strange looks wherever we go.

After dropping Conrad off at school, I naturally took the same pleasant route back. As I reached the end, a policewoman stopped me and asked me where I was going. "Home," I said. "This is a police area. You can't come here." Humphhh. Why do the police get all the nicest areas?

Eating at Restaurants Where You Can't Read the Menu

Andy loves Japanese food. A couple of weeks ago he found a very nice-looking restaurant that promised some delicious fare. The only problem was that the menu was entirely in Japanese and Chinese. No English at all. No pictures, either. This is not a problem, usually, Andy can read some Japanese; enough at least, given time, to figure out a menu.

As we entered it became clear that this was indeed a high-end restaurant. Everything was tasteful and expensive. Only one other table was occupied, allowing the staff to be extremely attentive. Now, Andy can figure out a menu in Japanese if he doesn't have the head waiter standing next to him with his pencil poised over a notebook. In the latter situation, it becomes more of a challenge. He tried to ask the waiter to give us some time, but met with a blank stare. No English. He suggested I could help with the Chinese, but my learning has been restricted to less useful stuff so far.

Finally, he settled on one of the set menus. You can't go wrong with a set menu, right? Well, it turned out we had ordered one of those banquet-type meals that entailed the waiter bringing out a succession of dishes, each of which was at the more extreme end of challenging Japanese cuisine. I'm sorry, I can't tell you a lot about what we ate that night. I've blanked a lot of it from my memory. One dish was raw squid tubes stuffed with large raw fish roe. To cap it all, the chef was so proud of his efforts that he came out of the kitchen to watch us eat each masterpiece, checking on how much we appreciated his skill.

Of course, because neither of us could read what Andy had ordered, we had no idea how many of these dishes were coming. We hoped each one was the last, only to be disappointed. Finally, the pace seemed to slacken and we appeared to be heading for dessert. Now, in Asian cuisine, it's customary to have sweetened beans as a sweet dish. Even though I've encountered this several times over the years, I've never become used to the taste. So I was sitting in the restaurant, girding my loins ready to face the dessert, thinking to myself, please don't let it be red bean soup, please don't let it be red bean soup.

Yes, you guessed it.

Signing a One-Year Lease on a Very Noisy Apartment

Our apartment is fine. It's lovely in fact, now that I've cleaned it. It's spacious. There are two bathrooms. There are no insects. At the moment it's very bare because Andy's had to go back to the UK for a few days and I've just bought the essentials. We can kit it out properly together when he returns. Let me show you some photos (bearing in mind I don't have an estate agent's fish-eye lens):

The only snag is that it wasn't until the evening of last Monday, when Conrad and I moved in, that I discovered that the large yard at the foot of the block is a recycling facility. Lorries come to drop off glass, plastic, paper and cardboard which are then sorted and transported away again. This is a surprisingly noisy activity, with the lorries' engines and reversing beeps, the glass crashing and the workers shouting to each other over the noise. Somehow they manage to time it so that the peak periods are at night when you're trying to get to sleep and first thing in the morning. There's also a resident cockerel and some vocal dogs.

We may be moving again. I'll let you know.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Apartment Hunting II

Well my goodness what a week. The countdown to the end of our stay in our serviced apartment drew nearer, and still we couldn't find anywhere permanent to live. The nice apartment in Jingmei turned out to have one quite major drawback. When I had first been to see it, it was night time and there wasn't a lot of street lighting, so I couldn't see exactly what surrounded it. We'd decided we'd take the apartment but I thought I'd better go back and meet up with the person who'll be handling our shipment when it arrives in about two weeks, just to check that the apartment block had sufficient access for Conrad's piano. In daylight, this is the sight that greeted me:

Basically, the builders had scooped away part of the mountain, shored it up with concrete, then built an apartment block in the newly available space. I was a little nervous of living next door to a potential landslide in an earthquake-prone country, so I asked a Taiwanese friend if she thought it would be safe. She said,"Yes, it should be." So I said, "Would you live there?"  "No," she said. So that was that.

We then had only one or two days left to find somewhere and allow time for signing of contracts etc. The same kind Taiwanese friend took us back to an apartment I'd looked at before, plus one or two others. After much prevarication I finally settled on an apartment in a tower block. I didn't really want to live in a isolating environment because, after all, we're here to learn about and live in the local culture. However this apartment is very quiet, which is something quite difficult to find in Taipei, and Andy needs quiet to work. Plus it's in quite good condition and has a lovely view:

I will post some photos of the apartment when I've cleaned it!

Another incredibly kind Taiwanese friend came along and helped us with the contract negotiations with the landlord. I really cannot adequately express how kind and generous the parents at Conrad's school have been in helping us to get settled in. They have made this whole experience so much easier for us. The same is true of all the other Taiwanese people we've met, and Andy's former work colleagues. Even the landlord invited us to dinner once the lease terms were settled (we couldn't accept his invitation unfortunately). My Chinese is abysmal but I've yet to encounter someone who didn't have the patience to listen and try to understand me as I bumble my way through.

One highlight of the week was a delicious Taiwanese hotpot dinner. I'm getting better at finding things to cook at home, so we don't eat out so often now, but sometimes the local cuisine is too tempting. With a hotpot, you sit at a table with a heating element and a pot of stock that is brought to the boil. You can choose from a selection of ingredients, and you cook and eat them at your leisure. You also have a sauce to dip things in. I had a seafood one. These were the vegetables:

And this was the seafood:

The oysters, fish and prawns were among the best I've ever tasted.

This is Andy enjoying his pork hotpot:

Finally, I would like to announce two new arrivals. Just outside the window of our current apartment, there is a bird's nest, and we've been (as unobtrusively as possible) watching the mother bird sitting on her eggs. Then the other day, I saw the nestlings had hatched! I'm pleased to report both are doing well.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Apartment Hunting

My apologies for not posting sooner. Lots of my time has been taken up with looking for apartments within a reasonable travelling distance of Conrad's school. Also, my husband Andy has been ill with some kind of flu-like virus which has of course made everything a little more complicated. He now seems to be on the mend, thank goodness.

Well, it has been hard work but fun looking at apartments in Taipei city (apartments make up about 99% of the real estate here). We need a three-bedroom one to accommodate my other sons when they come to stay with us over the university summer break, and larger apartments are not as common as single studios. However, I did manage to find some. The first I went to see was this one:

It is on the ground floor, which is not ideal here because of the air pollution and noise from the street. However, it was situated around the back of the block and had a little garden, so was actually quite nice. The landlord had ingeniously remodelled it into a kind of one and half level house, making maximum use of all available space. I really liked it but unfortunately there was no bus from there to Conrad's school.

I've seen several others since then but I can't post the details as they were all found for me by other people, rather than from a website. This is by far the preferable way to find somewhere to live - through word of mouth, as letting agent fees are quite steep.

 I've been overwhelmed by the kindness of people here. I told a parent at a school open evening that we were looking for an apartment, and she told the teacher. The teacher then asked all the other parents to help if they could and will be asking all the teachers too! Here are some photos of places I've been to see:

Yes, the kitchen and the rest of the house was full of the owner's belongings, which she hadn't been back to collect since she left two years ago, she said!

The above photo is how most of the empty apartments look. Tile floors, white walls and air conditioning units. Most apartments have some kind of balcony area for drying clothes, a very small kitchen (what in the UK we'd call a galley kitchen) a living area and bedrooms. Three-bedroom apartments quite frequently have two bathrooms, one with a bath and one with a shower. Many apartment blocks have security guards, not because the crime rate is so high (in fact, it's very low) but just to generally manage the buildings.

Our selection criteria are: situated on a quiet street, close to a green area (preferably the mountains), three bedrooms, reasonably well-kept, within walking distance of an MRT station and near a bus route to Conrad's school, and with with access to admit a full-size upright piano. I think I've found just the place, and have only to check the final criterion with our removals company before saying we'd like to take it. Here are the details:

The only disadvantage with this place is that there's only one bathroom. I'm also quite concerned about the piano access as there isn't an elevator and the stairwell is quite narrow, hence my request to the removal company to come and look at it. It does have a great view of Taipei 101, though! Lots more to tell you all, but I've got another long day tomorrow so must go to bed.