We are now, improbably for March in Shanghai, on Day 5 in a wild streak of completely sunny, bright, warm days. Yesterday I went out in a light cotton Thai sun dress with a medium weight cardigan over my shoulders, not convinced that I could shed so many layers before the month was out. I could and I did before long. I felt almost chipper, what with the sun beating down and the few remaining birds in the city attempting a song.
I’d have skipped along Huaihai lu if all passersby wouldn’t have stopped to stare and point and mutter. A significant proportion of people around me were still bundled up in dark, thick winter coats, as if the warmth wasn’t enough to convince them that this was an irregular March.
When we first moved to Shanghai in February of 2009, I remember distinctly the 20-odd days of non-stop rain that darkened the skies and saturated everything for most of March. I had wet laundry draped over every surface in my flat for nearly a month. The laundry took ages to dry because the air both inside and outside was so chillingly damp, and the laundry was indoors, draped over my kitchen chairs and water dispenser, because my old-skool flat at that time only had a bamboo pole drying rack jutting out from the bedroom window. 21 days of rain meant 21 days of wet laundry.
Winters in this city can be exhausting and depressing. Because we are south of the Yangtze river, buildings aren’t usually heated and flats are not insulated. It isn’t cold like Harbin or Dalian, but it feels colder because you never get warm. It’s a bone-aching wet cold. The skies are grey and heavy for weeks on end and the smog settles down and adds layers of thick, white invisibility to the city.
Some mornings, I parted our living room curtains and looked out over the city from an uninterrupted view, 16 floors up, and saw nothing. Zero visibility. Zero visibility mixed with draughts of cold, wet air puffing in through the poorly fitted single-pane windows. If you stop to look carefully at our wall-to-wall living room windows, you might notice the .5 cm cracks and gaps between the panes. This accounts for numb toes in the flat and painful heating bills.
At one point when my parents were visiting, we stuffed the cracks and crevices with a cut up old sweater of mine and lined with panes with multi hued electricians’ tape, which then proceeded to slowly unstick and fall limply from the frame, like sad red, blue, yellow and green linguine.
In winter and early spring, I find it hard to leave the flat. We keep the curtains closed (nothing to see here, move along) and stay inside, drinking coffee, reading, baking. Not much point in going out. I mean, you can’t even see the outside outside. Why would you want to go out there?
It’s a terrible state of mind to be in when you’re intentionally living abroad. I read too many travel blogs and am wracked with guilt for really not giving a toss about exploring my local area and having meaningful interactions with local people during these months.
My super secret job involves being shipped out to 2nd and 3rd tier cities around China to interview 30 or so people at a time, so when I’m not out there working during the grimmer months, I retreat. My latent melancholia bubbles up and I get cranky and sad and start frequently questioning my life choices. My writer’s block becomes suffocating and I can remedy it only by writing about cooking (it’s impersonal enough and methodical enough to be not overwhelming). Such is winter in this city – and by extension, most of March.
However, as noted above, this week is different, at least for now. Five whole days of loveliness! I’ve gone for walks every day, thoroughly enjoying the light and the air and the warmth. If there were birds or green grass or flowers anywhere, I’d enjoy those too. I haven’t thought about running away in desperation to Oaxaca or Fez or Zanzibar once since the sun came out. Sure, I’ve thought about running away to those places, but that escapism came from a somewhat happier place this time.
We’ll see how long this can hold out. If not for my sanity, then at least for the cat’s sanity.