The day after my 19th birthday, I got on a plane to Beijing, where I was to spend the next 8 months teaching English to kindergarteners.
The job itself was not great. At 50+ hours per week, it was my first full-time job. These hours confused me. I understood that, in theory, there were jobs that required you to be there 10+ hours per day, but "assistant-teacher in an international kindergarten" didn't seem like it should be one of them.
For each class of 15-25 kids, there were 3 teachers: One head teacher, and 2 assistant-teachers (one for English language, one for Mandarin / Chinese). The head teacher (Maggie) was our boss, but because the Chinese assistant-teacher (Anya) was an actual teacher-in-training, and spoke Mandarin, and was infinitely better at her job, she was also sort-of my boss.
The sum total of the preparation / qualification required of me to get this job, by the way, was a one-day course on Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). The course was intended to be an introduction for people wanting to complete an actual TEFL program, but the 3rd-party employer who hired me insisted this would be sufficient.
Each day began an hour or so before the children arrived, and ended about as long after they'd left. We ate breakfast and lunch with them. We took them outside to play. We put them to sleep for a nap, and then woke them up again. Sometimes Anya or I (who were both, technically, "on duty" during this nap period) would take turns taking little naps of our own.
My teaching time mostly consisted of me bringing out my guitar and teaching them to sing a simple song. One of the songs was "Bread and Gravy" by Hoagy Carmichael. I don't know why I picked that song. It's not one of my favourite songs, and it doesn't say anything especially interesting, but for some reason, the kids really liked singing:
Bread and gravy // Lots of bread and gravy
Beans and bacon // Lots of beans and bacon
No more frettin' // Since I've been gettin'
Lots of bread and gravy all the time.
I don't think I even explained what gravy was.
I think I might just have performed an 8 month-long concert series for a bunch of 3-5 year-olds who were supposed to be learning something. Shit. Fuck.
To give you a more general idea of the degree to which I was ill-prepared for this experience: I arrived at the airport, met the liaison sent by the crowd who’d hired me, and said -- by way of greeting her -- “Konnichi wa”.
This is not an especially inappropriate greeting, other than for the fact that it’s in Japanese.
As it turns out, whatever amount of offense or eye-rolling I may have induced, must not have been overly off-putting. I know this because some time later, I -- in concert with her employer and the local authorities -- was compelled to get a restraining order placed on her, barring her from coming within 500 metres of my apartment building, and from calling me at all hours of the night with the sort of heavy-breathing calls only too-familiar to a former late-night hotline operator such as myself.
Before all that though, she helped me find my first apartment. Sadly, I was only there for 3 days before being kicked out (I was told it was because I was a foreigner, and the building had some sort of protected status. It wasn’t an old building, but every room other than mine was occupied by pairs of taxi drivers, mostly from provinces outside of Beijing, who had bought a taxi together and shared both car and room: working 12-hour shifts, then swapping, and sending more or less all of their earnings home to their families).
On my very first day in the taxi-driver building, I was returning to my room, having found the kindly landlord I’d met the evening before, to ask him why the toilet wouldn’t flush (the only response was a knowing smile). En route, lost in thought, I bumped into two other foreigners, who were coming down the concrete stairs, and who nearly lost their lives when they saw me.
They were American postgrads, architects, and had been interviewing residents of this building for the last couple of weeks. They were part of a studio-project that was just around the corner, and wanted to interview me as well, as the only non-Chinese person living in the building.
It turned out that I’d just moved in to what was (then, at least) the art-production hub of Beijing: Caochangdi. 20 or more galleries and art-spaces of various sorts, including (direct neighbours of my new architect friends) the studio of Ai Weiwei. He actually came over for dinner once, because the architects would throw these weekly dinner parties, cooking food for 60+ people, mostly foreigners, like me, with probably ⅓ or so being Chinese people. He didn’t do anything wild, though. Just ate his food & talked with his friends mostly. As people got drunker, they started to go up to him & say “hi” or whatever, but I don’t drink, so I just watched him from afar, as he talked and ate his gumbo.
Even after I’d left that apartment, I would go back to Caochangdi at least once a week: either for the dinner party, or just to wander around and hang out with my new friends Josh (24) and Nina (26), the two Americans I’d met on the stairs. Although Nina left relatively shortly afterwards, Josh and I became fast friends, and would meet up often to see art-things, or practice our Mandarin in the various night-markets of Beijing, where the prize for correct pronunciation was fried-chicken, or lamb-skewers.
I haven’t had many good guy-friends in my life, and Josh was not only a good friend, but he was also good at being a friend -- which, to my mind, are different things.
To be a good friend, for example, might involve helping you move in or out of an apartment; listening to you when you're upset; or stopping and waiting when you're both walking with a group of people, and you need to tie your shoelace. On the other hand, to be good at being a friend, although not unrelated, is the distinct quality of being able to do anything a “good friend” might, without making you feel like a burden in doing so.
We would also spend a lot of time wandering around the 798 district, which is the more-commercial art district in Beijing. It’s where a lot of those factories / studios in Caochangdi have their showrooms. Since 798 is more central, it generates much more foot traffic, and so a bunch of record stores, bookshops, and restaurants have also appeared there. This makes for nice warm summer afternoons / evenings wandering around with your Josh (or Josh-equivalent), looking at the less mentally-taxing versions of the art; pretending to consider buying a gramophone; seriously considering buying a large wall tapestry with Chairman Mao on it; and ultimately eating a pizza at the only restaurant in the city (to our knowledge) with an Italian chef.
We tried lots of other pizzas around the city. Whenever he would get a pang of homesickness (I don’t get homesick really) I would get a text that it was time to go to one of two places: Kro’s Nest (a heavily-graffitied warehouse filled with, frankly, obscenely big pizzas), or the Italian At Café.
Kro’s sits in the buzzing “expat hotspot” “Soho of Beijing” area called Sanlitun. I’ve never been to Soho, but I can tell you that Sanlitun is the kind of area every capital city has: there’s an inexplicably large Uniqlo store, a place to get “really good sushi, man”, and an open-for-breakfast strip club (for you business travelers out there).
For a variety of reasons though, we usually ended up at the Italian place, At Café, in 798. It became shorthand for a kind of affordable luxury, where the luxury part felt sincerely luxurious, and the affordable part made it feel comfortable and home-y.
Summer and autumn in Beijing are wonderful, but the winter can be brutal. Beijing is a smoggy city, so although summer rains help clear the air quite a bit, in winter, it gets so dry that the smog and dust just sit around, depositing a powdery sort of film over the whole city, and the lungs of its inhabitants.
For this reason and, of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is often a large outflux of foreigners from the city, towards the end of the year.
Although he hung around probably longer than he needed to, by December 19th, Josh had left, along with all my other friends.
I’m not the kind of person who gets lonely, really. But those few days, when it was always dark and always cold, and there was no-one left to call, and I faced the thought of my first Christmas not with family, and not at home, those few days were fairly bleak -- even for me.
But, not wanting to wallow for too long, I did the only respectable thing a person can do in that situation, and I took myself out for a pizza: At Café.
Although usually packed, regardless of what day of the week it was, on this occasion, the restaurant was completely empty. I figured it was just because of the time of year, and sat myself down at the only table I saw that still had a table-cloth.
I’m not an especially demanding person, so I was happy enough when 15 or 20 minutes passed by without any signs of life in the place. I didn’t even have a smartphone then, so it was some real, good, old-fashioned waiting.
Eventually, an Italian-looking, chef-looking man came out from the kitchen, a sort of dazed smile on his face: smiling into the middle distance about some tomatoes or something I guess.
Then, as he took in the rest of the space -- and me with it -- he did one of those there’s-no-way-anyone-actually-does-those-in-real-life double-takes, where his head did a 10x speed version of the full-rotation neck exercise a doctor once prescribed me.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone more stunned in my life. Or at least, more obviously stunned, in the face.
After he’d gathered himself -- and he was a tall, broad-shouldered guy, so I imagine he took some gathering -- he started taking big chef-steps over to me. He pulled out a chair, spun it around, as if to do the cool-teacher-sitting-backwards-to-show-he’s-not-like-the-other-teachers thing, before continuing to spin it around the full 360 degrees (just taking it for a little dance, I guess) and sitting down normally -- albeit with undeniable flair.
“Do you recognise me?” he asked, smiling like a fucking weapon.
This, I remember thinking, was a bold pick-up line.
After a brief moment, I abandoned my hastily formed visions of married-life in Tuscany, and said, barely audibly:
“Uhhhhhhh -- sorry, I don’t think so? What’s your name?”
Later research indicates that this may, in fact, have been his family name, but this was, I assure you, how he identified himself to me.
“Sambuco, ah, nice, good, uh I’m --
Here, I extended my hand (it’s a fairly common form of greeting, I think) which he took in one of his much-larger hands, almost fully enclosing mine in his and, holding me like a little ball of mozzarella, uttered those fateful words:
“You look-a just-a like-a my son: Luigi!”
I promise I’m not making him sound extra-Italian for comic effect. I also promise that his son’s name was Luigi. I never saw any pictures of Luigi, so I can’t promise anything about whether I actually looked like him or not, but, do bear in mind that I was a young-looking 19 year-old, and Luigi --
“He’s-a twenty-nine-a, and-a just have his first-a child this year-a”.
Naturally, I extended my sincerest felicitations to Sambuco on becoming a grandfather.
“Yes-a, and-a you look-a so much like-a my boy, I have to come over, just to make-a sure it’s not my Luigi, who I haven’t see in-a six years now. I thought, you know, maybe he doesn’t recognise me.”
I made a little note in my journal entry for that day, saying that we proceeded to talk about “books and travel”, but I don’t remember any books we mentioned, or any places we talked about having been, or might visit.
I remember that a waiter came over to give me a menu, and that Sambuco took it out of my hands, saying, sweetly:
“What-a you like?”
Of course, I liked a pizza, I probably liked a side-salad, and I liked a coke.
It’s not often in life that being of service to someone else can be so effortless, and so enjoyable, but we must have spent 3 hours or more together, eating and talking, pausing only for Sambuco to run into the kitchen to bring me this or that: Little variations or additions to dishes that Luigi would have liked.
At last, the time came for my favourite part of any meal: the dessert. I told him the “joke” I always tell, which is that I have a separate, much larger stomach, just for desserts. It’s never been much of a joke, to tell the truth, but people always seem to laugh a bit, and Sambuco gladly joined the hordes of people who’ve laughed kindly at my non-joke, saying:
“Maybe you are-a my Luigi after all-a!”
Without even asking what I wanted, he brought out a large portion of tiramisu, and said, as he laid it down in front of me:
Now, to be candid: until this point in my life, I had never tasted coffee. My family was mostly a (low / no caffeine) tea household, and although my mom drank coffee, it was almost always accompanied with a cigarette. The two had more-or-less congealed in my mind, and so, assuming that coffee would taste how cigarettes smelled, I’d avoided both.
“Oh yes! Great!”, I said.
He brought over one shot of espresso, and went back to the machine, to make his own. But I was already confused: My only experience of coffee had been my mom’s large mug of what she would call “a nice milky coffee”; plus a few people from university who couldn’t show up to any pre-noon lecture sans the requisite half-litre of the almost-Starbucks in the canteen.
Needless to say, I felt a bit short-changed. Had Sambuco somehow sensed I was a tea-drinker? Had he, not wanting to waste his valuable Italian coffee on a philistine such as myself, offered me the minimum possible amount of coffee?
Before he could rejoin me, I had already necked the piss-ant amount of coffee my supposed father had brought me.
He sat back down, and began to sip from his tiny cup.
“I’ve somehow offended him,'' I thought, “I’ve done some shit Luigi would never have done, and now he’s mocking me, by taking one thousand years to drink a half-cheek of coffee.”
“You like-a one more?”, he said.
Oh you fucking bet I would. I’d get a full cup of coffee if it killed me.
“I could even do two?”, I said, baiting him.
“A double then?”, he said.
“A double!”, I said, eyes narrowing.
He made his way back to the machine, smiling away, big melty head on him, playing the fucking innocent.
Bringing me back a marginally bigger, but still miniscule cup, he said:
“I make-a you a triple!”
He had humour, I had to give him that.
While he continued nursing his first micro-dose of this haunted, bitter muck, I -- to show him I was not to be trifled with -- inhaled my “triple shot”.
About 20 minutes later, I’m still pretty livid with Sambuco, but I’ve regained some of my composure, remembered I’m supposed to be Luigi, and I don’t want to ruin this ersatz-reunion he’s having with the Irish ghost of his son. Not only am I composed, but I’m feeling excellent. Really very good actually. Our conversation intensifies, accelerates: I find myself imagining what Luigi does for a living, and talking animatedly about sheep farming (about which I know nothing).
Sambuco is fucking loving this.
Although I began the evening more staid, more stolid, I had blossomed now: I was just excited to see my father again.
Just as I thought we must, surely, be nearing the end, he puts his hands again over mine, and asks:
Now, as the diligent reader will recall from the earlier scene, in which I chose not to speak to Ai Weiwei (out of a deep respect and cowardice): I don’t drink. In fact, I had never even heard of this “limoncello”.
I’d had a brief encounter, once, with his namesake, Sambuca -- but this was under parental supervision, and was intended to help me decide which alcohol I liked best (it was none of them, because they all taste disgusting), and I hadn’t even felt a twinge of the much-discussed effects.
When you’re a non-drinker -- that is, when you’ve been one for forever -- you don’t really think about alcohol at all. If someone offers you a beer, you just go for a water or something instead. I mean, it just doesn’t enter your head that something might have alcohol in it.
In this case, I simply thought to myself:
“Hmm. Limoncello. What could that be? Well, it sounds like “lemon” and “cello”: I like lemons, and I’ve always thought the cello is a wonderful instrument…”
And then said:
“Make it a triple!”
My Italian Chef-Dad laughed as he had always laughed, and went back behind the bar, pulling out a clear bottle of glowing, neon-yellow liquid.
He brought over 2 highball glasses, and poured himself another tiny amount, and -- in all fairness -- gave me what looked to be a solid couple of mouthfuls of the stuff.
Well, we cheers-ed, and saluti-ed, and sláinte-ed, gānbēi-ed, and then we lashed the stuff down into us.
“Delicious!”, I said.
“I make it home-made!”, he replied.
“Oh that’s lovely now,” I said, “I can really taste the lemons!”
He took this as a sign of encouragement, and poured another round for us both: Same proportions as before.
“Finally!”, I thought, “Now this man will slake the great thirst he has provoked in me”.
I yargled the stuff back, it hardly touching the sides of my throat, before hitting the mark below.
It really was good.
Another hour went by, in rapt conversation. Then another still: Plans were made, and shortly after broken; great causes were championed, and moments later disavowed.
The night was ours, and I felt my teeth swimming in my mouth, and my knuckles rolling around in the bags of my hands, and there was only me, and Papa, and the slowing rotation of the planet, and the warm arms of the Milky Way.
I felt the current pull a little too strongly then, and so I grabbed with both hands onto the glowing yellow bottle, with a view to returning myself to the restaurant.
I succeeded, for a moment. I pulled the bottle closer, noticing now that it was not entirely clear. Some markings, some writing had been made on the bottle.
“Seventy-five percent?”I asked, “That’s a lot of lemons!”
“No lemons”, he said, “alcohol.”