Oddments

Q: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards?   A: New Age music.

I used to think that our own New Age music held the high cards on inanity.

But I am now prepared to offer the Howard Prince Hotel in Taichung as the straight flush of musical kitch. The music pumped into the elevators, gym, sauna, and breakfast room – plinky electronic versions of bland western songs – is enough to send me screaming for the compexities of Steve Halprin and his electric piano.

* Dr Ben tried to take me to the science museum today, but all was shut tight on Monday, as was the world’s largest greenhouse – but I was able to find a novel in English to while away the hours not spent on the computer or watching the repetitive cycles of CNN.

* Seeing small kids with brightly-colored flannel face masks – am I looking at the future? Bring on Al Gore.

* Dr Ben took me out for dinner tonight to a ‘traditional Taiwanese restaurant’. Down the streets thick with garish signs on every shop, piled atop each other, most prosperity red. The restaurant is as brightly lit as any American lamp store, festooned in gold trim and chandeliers. At the entryway are tanks, full of oysters, crabs, shrimp, scallops, and a tub full of boisterous but trapped amphibians swimming over each other.

The waiter brings a Taiwanese and an American flag to our table; the one next door has a German flag, and an older man is speaking Hessian-accented to his young Chinese tablemate.

Dr Ben orders for us, and a succession of small dishes arrive, regularly punctuated with new hot towels and the most delicate tea. The shark fin soup is delicious, with bean sprouts and a red sauce added, but all I can thnk of is the shark, swimming away to its death without its fin. I hope the amphibians won’t show up, and that he will forget his earlier promise of ‘delicious pig intestines’. What does show up is a delicate little whole fish to be dealt with by chopsticks – I refuse to pick up the fork that the waiter has thoughtfully set by my plate – not one else has one.

A shrimp baked in a lemon custard (no, I wouldn’t have thought so either, but it works perfectly), and a marrow-like vegetable swimming in a shrimp sauce, a lobster fritter we wrap in lettuce leaves and eat like a hot dog. Heading for what I was given to believe was desert wrapped in a bamboo leaf, it turns out to be meat and beans – add a little chili and it could have been a tamale – not a great end to an otherwise excellent meal. Real ‘dessert’ – not a Taiwanese concept – was a red bean and rice gruel topped with créme anglaise.

The manager accosted us on the way out – I have finally stopped my American habit of shaking hands, and bowed on cue – he grabbed mine and shook it vigorously, handing his business card to me and Ben with one hand, so fast I could not get both of mine up to receive it. Unnoticed anyway in his flurry of bonhomie.

On the way home, Ben stopped to get dinner for his wife. “Is it tradition for your wife not to join us?” I asked. “No, she is scared to speak English and doesn’t like the cold.” It has dropped to near 70 degrees in the wake of last night’s rain.

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