Just got home after nearly a month of travelling with the family.

Visiting Paris this time was quite different from my previous trip about three years ago. Having learnt some of the language this time round, I felt less like a tourist who was only there to stay for four days, and much more like a newly transplanted international student trying to get my bearings, soaking in every single linguistic tidbit with a mixture of wonder and bewilderment. I eavesdropped (sans guilt as only language students can! :P) on every nearby snatch of conversation, savoured every street and shop sign, read the backs of sugar packets and seatbelt warning labels… I was almost sad to leave Paris for Rome when the four days were up.

Anyway, here’s where a great jumbleclutter of pictures begins.

We took the Eurostar from London to Paris. London was lovely (though drizzly as ever), not least because this was my first trip back to England since graduating from secondary school, and I got to see some fabulous old friends. —St. Pancras is a remarkable train station, warm yet grand:

London’s pre-Olympics atmosphere isn’t anywhere close to the overdone frenziness of Beijing leading up to 2008, but there are still a few prominent signs here and there

Paris’s Gare du Nord, where we ended up, is a bustling area, and has a very high Rumoured Pickpocket Index: we got warned about theft in the area by various enthusiastic strangers three times. It has quite a cheerful vibe in spite of it, and plenty of streetside cafés.

The Centre Georges Pompidou, a modern & contemporary art museum/cultural centre, is where we spent all of our first afternoon.

Here’s its distinct backside

The quirky fountain to the side of it

and the front

One of my favourite things about many European museums is the sheer number of very young children/school groups (some of them barely walking steadily!) you can see in them, interacting with, learning about, or just taking in the artwork.

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How amazing to see perplexing and mind-bending artworks like these in person at such an early age. Maybe a bit like reading a great book that was too ‘old’ for me when I was a kid? — I didn’t ‘get’ it and might have been confused, but I felt expanded and exhilarated by the connection anyway.

The work of this photographer, David Goldblatt, had a wonderful focus on the amazingly diverse textures and shapes of everyday life

A creative take on steel fencing

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this one

…and they weren’t quite sure what to make of me

This is a sign that I walk by all the time. I’ve only ever seen fire hydrants pictorialised this way in China:

It only makes the design more intriguing when one discovers the actual hydrants look pretty much the same as the ones anywhere else..

And here’s a manhole which I also pass by almost daily. It ‘has character’: if you look at it from a certain orientation, it’s patterned all over with the Chinese character for ‘person’ (人). Though I’m not certain it was intentional..

The Chinese word for ‘manhole’ is jinggai (井盖), which literally means ‘well-cover’; so no direct references to people climbing in and out of them, which the English ‘manhole’ so baldly points to. Anyway, intentional or not, I like to think of this pretty patch of steel, with ‘人’ all over it, as a translingual visual pun. :o)

I had brunch today with two close family friends, Pingping and Lele. We hung out in a little alley, Wudaoying (五道营) Hutong, which is nestled in a network of smallish streets very near to Beijing’s Llama Temple (雍和宫).

Wudaoying is peppered with tiny cafés, restaurants, bars, and slightly off-kilter shops. It’s very charming and uncrowded; and also the kind of place that many Chinese people would describe as rather xiaozi (小资), or ‘petit-bourgeois’. (It’s perhaps additionally telling that the larger restaurants on this street specialise respectively in Greek, Italian and Spanish cuisine, and that many of the cafés and bars are heavily European-influenced in terms of décor and menu.)

Because of China’s Communist legacy and the continued circulation of its ideologies among the general population (much of it tongue-in-cheek), xiaozi / petit-bourgeois is actually a commonly used phrase and not seen as high-faluting talk at all. Fascinating how the ‘same’ phrases carry such different baggage across languages. I’m trying to imagine, say, American university-age friends saying to each other over salads and fries: “This place is sooo petit-bourgeois!”  Hmm…

Anton, a good friend of mine, is into bird photography and took these lovely pictures on a recent trip to Xinjiang. He’s super nice and let me post some. : )

Here’s a European bee-eater:


This is the very same bird from a different point of view:


How spiffy is that? Amazing how beautifully formed every part of it is..

This fellow below, a greenish warbler, defines dapper. It could attend a wedding or luncheon pronto, right off the cuff (/wingtip), don’t you think?


Now for gorgeous shades of blue on an azure tit: