Odd devices, dogs on scooters and why the French don’t eat breakfast
Arriving in a new place, whether as a visitor or a new resident, many things are unfamiliar and strange. Sometimes they’re totally incomprehensible.
A student once said to me ‘I guess French people just don’t eat breakfast’.
All those croissants and pains-au-chocolat with coffee swam, dreamlike, before my eyes, and I wondered how on earth he had come to that conclusion.
But it soon became clear that on a trip to Paris, he had spent many fruitless, hungry mornings searching for the striped red, orange, and yellow cladding that denotes a breakfast-sandwich shop in Taiwan. Paris didn’t have those, nor the great steaming vats of warm soy milk, or street trolleys serving freshly-made sticky rice balls packed with hard-boiled marinated egg, a crispy dough stick, and lashings of chilli and pickles.
Not seeing any of the obvious signs, he had concluded that French people don’t eat breakfast.
Sometimes such confusion quickly clears, though not always.
The first time I saw a dog riding on the footplate of a scooter, its long fluffy tail and floppy ears blowing animatedly in the wind, I was so surprised I nearly walked smack into a lamppost.
But these days the sight no longer makes me gawp, mouth wide open, eyes bulging in astonishment like a cartoon cat. Though still noteworthy, ‘dogs on scooters’ is a concept I get. I can even relate.
Growing up in the mountains in winter, it was often my job to take the household rubbish down to the little wooden hut serviced by our Alpine village’s garbage truck. In the snow, the quickest way down was by toboggan, the bag of rubbish held carefully between my knees. Our golden retriever would usually come with me, bounding alongside, and quite often directly in front of me. I was likely breaking land-speed records for the category ‘small child on plastic winter sledge’ as I flew down the mountainside clinging to that bulging black bag. Any collision was hazardous for both me and the dog.
In my mind, the perfect solution was to ride a deux, dog and child, bombing down the snowy hillside together, ears, hair, and tail flapping in joyful companionship in the cold air. But I lacked the persuasive capacity to convince the dog to stay in the sled once we started moving. Maybe he just didn’t relish being nestled up close to all those potato peelings and old tea bags.
The result was repeated replays of me, the garbage, and a capsized sledge, covered in snow, all the way down the hill, dog frowning at me with a look that said ‘what, exactly, are you trying to do here?’.
He would eventually lose patience and take himself off to find more meaningful entertainment elsewhere.
In Taiwan, however, that communication of intention from person to pooch has been honed.
Where I come from, dogs love riding in a car with the window open. Here, they ride on a scooter, and the whole world is one great, open window. The result is little dogs, big dogs, fluffy dogs and short-tailed dogs all zooming around towns, cities and countryside, up mountain roads and down urban alleyways, leaning into the bends, ears flapping, or hopping onto the footplate of parked bikes in anticipation of another happy commute.
I feel like somewhere deep in my soul, I must actually be Taiwanese: their vision is my childhood vision, refined and executed to perfection. Though I do wonder if some dogs, given a choice, would rather not ride shotgun on a perilous, open-air missile, weaving in and out of near-death and petro-fumes, tail and nose millimetres away from catastrophe.
Sometimes, though, the mysteries of arriving in a new country remain unknown and unknowable, like a distant planet, whispering of solutions to problems which follow radically different dimensions of logic to your own. Sometimes they even identify problems that have not been imagined elsewhere.
When we started looking for a home in Taipei, one light-bulb of understanding just didn’t turn on for us.
In every apartment, built into the kitchen was a space above the sink, about 90cm by 40cm. A little wide and squat to house a microwave, we thought, but maybe microwaves here are made wider and shorter than in Europe. We asked what it was for. ‘Not a microwave’, we were told. ‘It’s for dishes’.
For storing dishes, we wondered?
Eventually, a trip to a department store enlightened us, while still somehow leaving us totally in the dark.
Those little spaces are for installing electronic dish driers.
A highly engineered device, these are slightly shorter than a microwave, but wider. They have a metal rack, draining tray, and a little cutlery box inside, as well as an impressive array of buttons on the front.
The idea is that you wash the dishes, by hand, and then stack them in the machine, close the door, and push a button. The machine then takes 2 hours to dry your chopsticks, plates, and pots.
In a country where people worry about their electricity bills, this seemed strange to us. It was not a ‘dogs on scooters’ moment.
It looked – and still looks to us – like a solution to a problem that was solved a long time ago.
Sometimes, we freely admit, technology can be an amazing and life-changing thing. Planes, satellites, air-conditioners, fridges, and rice cookers all make modern life more convenient and comfortable.
But there are other places where low-tech – or even old-tech – still has its place. String, paper, and forks, for example, have done their jobs perfectly for hundreds of years without needing to be reinvented.
So has a dish cloth.
The space for the dish dryer in our kitchen became our spice cupboard. To the right of our sink is an old-fashioned dish rack, where our plates and glasses dry all by themselves, miraculously, using only air, in less than an hour. Even better, they manage it without any carbon-footprint.