Do They Know It’s Christmastime At All?

It’s been interesting, spending the last two Christmases away from home. I love Christmas—not the commercialism and all, but the joy and traditions and the time with family. But as I’ve fully entered adulthood (as much as someone who still plays pretend with her friends at improv practice ever will) I’ve been more disappointed by Christmas each year. Many of my family’s traditions have faded or changed, and the magic that always seemed to surround the season disappeared for the most part. I hope that one day, with my own children, I’ll feel that again but for now, I honestly haven’t been sad to skip the whole thing the past couple of years.

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Last year I found myself in Malaysia, ordering room service breakfast and watching Home Alone 2 on cable. I was by myself and it was actually delightful, but this year I opted to spend time with a couple friends.

This year, I went to Taipei with two friends, a married couple I work with named Eric and Haley. Or, as Eric called it, “Tai-bae” (this is also, apparently, the correct pronunciation, funny enough).

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Just three weirdos at Christmas

Easily one of the most pleasurable aspects of the trip was getting direct flights from Ningbo to Taipei and back. I love my travels, but I rarely fly direct because of the cost and there is only so much fun to be had in any airport terminal.

I have developed a bit of a reputation this year—pardon the humble brag—among my friends for being particularly good at finding excellent restaurants in the cities we visit. I don’t see anything special in what I do—if anything, Google and Trip Advisor deserve the credit—but hell, I’ll take the praise! And I have had an usual amount of success as of late, so yeah, just call me the Travel Titan…the Dining Dutchess…THE MEALTIME MAESTRO.

Ok, I’m done.

Our first afternoon, after checking in at our respective hotel (them) and hostel (me), we grabbed lunch at a diner called Whalen’s in the city. I’d seen it online and it was touted as American/Canadian, which is difficult to find in China so we checked it out. It ended up being one of those meals where everyone sits and eats and just moans over how good the food is.

Despite being a little wary of it, I had poutine for the first time ever and it did not disappoint (it’s a Canadian dish of fries covered in cheese curds and chicken gravy). Haley was, to put it delicately, very fond of the gravy that accompanied the poutine. There is something special about living in another country and coming across your comfort foods from home. That food never tastes as good as when you haven’t had access to it in months.

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Apple Crisp at Whalen’s

We then made our way to Taipei 101, the big, iconic tower in the middle of the city. I’ve now been to many a tall building—Empire State Building and Freedom Tower in New York, Sears (IT IS SEARS NOT WILLIS) Tower in Chicago, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai Tower in (duh) Shanghai, and I’m sure several others. I’m not so impressed by the big, tall buildings anymore but it was worth a visit.

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Personally, I think “Taipei 101” sounds more like a course at the local university…

Unfortunately, the day was a big smoggy (as per usual) so we didn’t have the best view but it was definitely unique in terms of experiences I’ve had in tall building observatories. You could literally see the grime of pollutants on the outside of the building’s windows and I wondered, not for the first time, about my risk of lung cancer in the future…

One new aspect to this building was the gigantic steel ball positioned in the middle of it to help offset any wind from the many typhoons and earthquakes Taipei is at risk for. I didn’t fully understand how it works (because, let’s be honest, I didn’t quite care enough to watch the explanatory video) but from what I gathered, there’s a hydraulic mechanism that kicks into gear when a storm or seismic event occurs, helping keep the building from collapsing.

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It’s that kind of thing that reminds and impresses me with the ingenuity of the human brain. Super cool.

The one thing I always seek out in any city I visit is a foreign language bookstore, because I’m basically Hermione. I’ve taken to collecting books in each city I visit and inscribing them with the date and location where I purchased them. One day I will own a house with an international library—or maybe a private jet as I continue my journeys across the world.

We wound up at Eslite department store, which includes a massive book section. I was very excited to find another edition to JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike detective series, which I find delightful. I clearly enjoy her writing style and I read the first two in the series this summer. They’re compelling, easy reads that each have a good twist at the end. The two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellicott, are far more fleshed out and interesting to read about than many characters I’ve come across in popular mysteries/thrillers, but I digress…

We finished our night at a Thai rooftop restaurant in the area, which was fairly unremarkable except that my rice was served pyramid-style.

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On our way down from the restaurant, the already-packed elevator opened into a very crowded nightclub. Several people proceeded to load in a woman so intoxicated (it was about 8pm) that she was in a wheelchair and had a plastic bag attached to her neck.

If you know me at all, you know I have a serious case of emetophobia (IT IS A REAL THING) and the sound/sight of someone vomiting literally makes me want to bolt in panic. So there I stood, in the corner with my eyes shut, plugging my ears and humming tunelessly to myself as this woman proceeded to vomit continuously the entire way down the building.

I felt more impressed with my ability to make it through that situation than I did after bungee-jumping off the Auckland Bridge last year (ok maybe not quite, but it was up there).

I hope that woman was taken to a hospital and recovered. I also hope to never be that drunk in my life. That has to be a 9 day hangover, minimum.

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The following day I played tourist, visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial and then taking a walking tour of the city. Free walking tours are my favorite way to see a new city—though I’ve had a mixture of quality on them. The tours run by Sandeman’s in Europe have been the most excellent, but they are also the best established. I appreciated my tour in Taipei (though I snorted when one of the guides commented that Taiwanese people don’t party much, remembering my elevator ride the previous evening) but when we started to hit 3½ hours, I found an excuse to duck out.

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That evening I met back up with Eric and Haley to eat at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called James Kitchen that serves traditional Taiwanese food. It was hidden at the end of a busy street, a place that I would have normally walked right by had I not done my research ahead of time. The meal was excellent, the best parts being crab meatballs and pumpkin glass noodles.

We then ended up in a leather shop, buying ourselves Christmas gifts, and off to an expat-frequented bar called Revolver—picked based on it’s reputation and my fondness for the Chicago-based improv troupe of the same name. With the assistance of my two wing-friends, I worked on my flirting game. In my world, this consists of noticing a cute guy across the bar, making eye contact multiple times and quickly looking away. Maybe smiling. In Haley’s world, this consists of striking up conversation with the guy I’ve been looking at.

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I appreciated the cheeky decor at Revolver

One of these techniques resulted in me having a very pleasant conversation with an adorable German man.

 

Spoiler: my technique was not the successful one. Maybe I need to change my tactics.

 

Our third and final day in Taipei (Christmas day in fact) started with me nursing a spectacular hangover and attempting to skype with my brother, nieces, younger sister and sister-in-law. The camera only worked on my end, resulting in a hilariously narrated conversation in which my incredibly generous brother gave my younger sister a trip to visit me in China this spring. Having not had any visitors yet, it was a truly awesome gift for both of us (that will most definitely also result in some hilarious additions to this blog).

I then made my way to meet the others for brunch at Pig & Pepper, another delicious restaurant, and then board the bus up to Keelong Bay and Jiufen Village.

Jiufen Village a little tourist village on the mountainside outside of Taipei with a gorgeous view down into the bay. Our visit was marred slightly by my repeated necessity to chomp Pepto-Bismol (hangovers, amirite?) but it was a very worthwhile jaunt. We wondered among stalls full of food, handcrafts, touristy souvenirs, and all kinds of knickknacks, passing the time from late afternoon into evening and watching the sun descending over the valley and water below.

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The view down to Keelong Bay from Jiufen Village

A perfectly delightful Christmas afternoon, free of expectation and unnecessarily forced frivolity.

Back in the city, I explored the Raohe Street Night Market while Eric and Haley went back to their hotel. While the night markets in many of the cities I’ve visited have started to feel very similar, I still enjoy walking through them, observing all the people, salivating over the delicious foods, and exploring the stacks of goods up for sale. I greatly enjoy the feeling of being lost in a crowd—alone among hundreds of people—and night markets are an excellent place to do that.

It’s hard to regret missing Christmas when doing so had afforded me the opportunity to see places like Taipei. I do miss my family and regret not seeing them (save through the lens of my phone’s camera as my mom points me at the ceiling fan repeatedly) but these last two years have given me some pretty extraordinary experiences in compensation.

One of my friends—or possibly my siblings—once said that perhaps I’ll be that wild aunt who rolls into town once and a while with fabulous gifts and amazing tales of my adventures abroad.

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I think I’d be ok with that.

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