Archive | December, 2010

China, With a Touch of France

8 Dec

To all my relatives out there, I just want to let you know: Though this story is largely about alcohol, I exaggerated for dramatic effect. (My friends and I are not alcoholics). Don’t judge, just enjoy!

Last weekend was a typical Friday night in Beijing. A bunch of friends and I had agreed to meet for an annual event we’d heard about in one of the local expat magazines. So, Nancy and I met at the subway in southeast Beijing and headed down the street to find the address. “Look for white people,” I said. And so we searched.

“There it is!” Nancy pointed. Another white person? No. I looked up at the bright neon green lights of large building: Carrefour. We were headed for a raging night on the town … at a grocery store.

Looking nervously at each other, we swished through the shopping center doors and hopped on the first escalator we saw.

“Hey look! A white guy!” Nancy pointed. We were in the right place. We rode the escalator past the first floor –isles of canned goods, cereal boxes, and dairy products –up past the second floor –with home furnishings and cleaning products. Along the way, we saw scattered clues to lead us. A cracked plastic wine glass lay on the 2nd floor landing. A stumbling British girl descending-escalated beside us, her lips stained red and a glazed expression imprinted across her face as she giggled to her friend. “Imagine, all that wine for free!”

As we rode up on the third floor we heard familiar laughter.

“Mark?” Nancy said.

“Guys! You made it!” Mark said, hiccuping. “There’s so much wine!” He beamed. Mark, an aspiring connoisseur, had been especially excited about the event. He leaned in and whispered, “The waitress in the Italy section is great. She’s been giving me huge glasses all night. Follow me.”

So we followed him down the hallway and around a corner into a huge space completely filled with Chiantis, Chardonnays and Bordeauxs. Imported bottles stacked against walls, and on central displays. Flags dangled overhead indicating the provenance where the wine was from: African wine, Spanish wine, French, Portuguese … Dutch … Israeli … Icelandic … Everything. It was Epcot for alcoholics!

Mark handed Nancy and me our own plastic goblets and we raced to Italy, waiting eagerly by the Italy waitress who Mark had befriended. “You guys made it!” Several other friends stumbled over.

It was clear that entire social groups, mine included, had arrived together. Tiny Chinese women wearing aprons bustled around opening wine bottles, and western men in suits clung to their plastic glasses and talked business. It was a cocktail party at Carrefour!

“Hey, guys,” Devin said, only slurring a little, “let’s head over to Africa! Looks like they’re handing out baguettes with the wine!” We shuffled over, slurping down the last drops from our previous sample to make room for the next.

And so the night went on. We ambled through the seemingly endless isles of Carrefour, traveling around the world with plastic cups and making progressively lamer jokes about every continent we “visited,” (followed by progressively louder and louder laughter).

A few of us were oenophiles; most of us were there for free booze. Not one of us bought a single bottle. By midnight, redfaced and staggering, we poured ourselves into taxis and to our various beds.

A wine tasting at a grocery store as a major social event: odd? I didn’t think so, until I told my parents about it the next morning. “You went where? For a what?” They shrieked with laughter.

The event hadn’t even fazed me. It’s China, after all. Babies urinating on the sidewalk and donkeys walking alongside taxis are daily sightings. Compared to what I see every day, a wine tasting at a French chain grocery store is practically a debutante ball.