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A game of mahjong on one of the back streets.

In traveling to Shanghai, I was not sure what to expect and wondered whether this super-size city of 17 million would be too big to navigate and enjoy. But what I found was an exciting and dynamic city that was full of life and energy at all hours of the day and I absolutely loved it.

I loved the contrasts: glittering skyscrapers, elevated neon-let highways and luxury boutiques sit next to lanes with no indoor running water and street markets selling everything from kiminos and pearls to Chairman Mao bags and terracotta soldiers. Horn honking taxis and cars do battle for space on the roads with mopeds and bicycle carts laden with fruit. In the back streets, life is lived on the sidewalks. Hair cuts, dog baths, dish washing, cooking, teeth brushing and playing mahjong and checkers – everyday life rituals as well as entertainment is played out for all to see.

In a carryover from the past when only the wealthy could afford pajamas and thus wore them as status symbols, both men and women wear their fuzzy polar and silk pjs on the street during the daytime. That means that by Chinese standards, when my cousin and I would go to the drive-through late at night in our pjs we were actually being fashionable and making a statement about our wealthy flannels.

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While it is good to disconnect from the web, it is frustrating when it’s not voluntary. I got back last night from two weeks of traveling in Shanghai and Beijing and was blocked from entering my blog the entire time. Thus I was happy to hear President Obama admonishing China to stop censoring internet access today.

While I was not able to post, I was able to write and now have a backlog of impressions to share about the fantastic time I had there. Stockholm is rainy and dark, so a little travel reminiscing will do me good in getting over my jet lag! Thanks to everyone who wrote and wondered where I have been.

Systembolaget woes

Robert and I are having a Halloween party tonight. So this morning we got up early to get things organized, go to the grocery and go to Systembolaget to get wine and beer. As we are walking toward the stores, Robert comments on how quiet it is out. And then we come to our first stop: Systembolaget. And it is closed. Big problem. Especially since we are having a party and there is no where else we can buy this stuff.

Given that neither of us is Swedish, we did not think about Systembolaget being closed today for alla helgons dag or halloween. (It is not a holiday in the US or Australia.) Since the state controls the purchase of alcohol, the only place you can buy wine and liqour is at Systembolaget. You can buy low alcohol beer at the grocery, but none of the good, higher stuff.

After we got home, we got calls and text messages from friends that were bringing drinks to the party and they had the same problem as us. So it is kind of funny in a pathetic kind of way tha we all goofed up. Thank goodness we have some alcohol in our liquor cabinet. Just let me know when you are ready for your Halloween cocktail . . .

Today I showed my South African friend Annelie how to carve a pumpkin. She had never done one before and liked her results so much that she carved a second one just for good measure. And Mitch the Swedish guy who cuts my hair admitted that he would like to learn how to do one as well. A neighbor who saw me carrying the big pumpkin home today admitted that he had never carved a pumpkin but would like to. Given that pumpkin carving is something that I have participated in since I was a child, it was good to share the tradition.

And tomorrow, Robert and I will host an American style Halloween costume party. Don’t tell anyone, but I am going to be a vampire – a costume I have not worn since I was 12 and part of a haunted house with the other kids in my neighborhood. I went shopping today for a few accoutrements to complete the look. Of course, some makeup will play a key role in my costume. Now I can’t wait to see what everyone else wears…

I went to buy a pumpkin at my local grocery yesterday and found the rack which they had been on just the day before was now laden with Christmas wreaths. And as I went out today to buy vampire teeth for my Halloween party, I was surrounded by Christmas decorations.

Halloween has not even happened yet but it has already been preempted by Christmas. I can’t keep up. Making matters worse, a security guard was managing the line at the Buttericks party store which went out the door and well down the street. As I already spent one hour in line today picking up my China visa, I did not get my teeth.

I was waiting in a long line at Pressbryan recently (a convenience store like 7/11) and contemplating the customer service concept in Sweden. Or should I say, I was contemplating the lack of customer service. Even though the line was out the door, only one of the staff members waited on customers while the other continued to slowly stock the shelves. When the person in front of me finally reached the cash register, she then pulled her backpack off her back and proceeded to look for her wallet.

Of course, she did not do this while she was waiting in the long line and of course it took her a long time to find her wallet. She basically emptied her pack before she found it.

And of course the clerk did not ask to serve the next person in line so as to move things along more quickly. Once the women finally found her wallet, she then proceeded to chat with the clerk for a few minutes, completely oblivious to the glares she was getting. I would have laughed if I was not so annoyed.

At my old office, there was a cafe where you could buy snacks and coffee. Inevitably, the line was long but only one clerk  would wait on one person at a time. Instead of starting a latte and then waiting on the next person while it brews, the clerk stands and waits with the coffee. I always wanted to go back behind the counter and show them how to multitask. But that would not be very Swedish of me.

Long lines always seem to bring out the American in me.

Yesterday I got out for a bike ride for the first time in a while. It has been raining here every day for as long as I can remember (something more than a week – I stopped counting) but  yesterday it was just a slight mist, so I got out for my favorite ride around Södermalm. And even though it was rainy and gray and I was very muddy by the end of the ride, it was also beautiful.

It was the sort of low level gray day that inexplicably enhances the bright colors of autumn. The leaves on the maple and birch trees have turned glorious shades of red and golden yellow, blanketing the ground and branches with their splendor and contrasting beautifully with the evergreens. The waters of Pålsundet and Årstaviken were dark and calm and reflected the autumn trees in perfect mirror images.

Even though most of the boat harbors are emptying – a yearly happening that always leaves me mourning summer  – I am still so happy I got out. The autumn colors are just too pretty to miss. . . even if it won’t stop raining.