The world (yes, even the bits you know) is odder, quirkier and more downright bizarre than you might imagine. Come with us on a journey to discover where the emperor rules the calendar, Hush-hush Hannah is a star and the howling wind is given its own special name.
Say to friends you’re off to Italy and a sea of jealous faces is the expected response. Yet if travel plans take you there in August, caveat viator. The eighth month of the year in the sun-kissed bel paese can be a headache since many places close, leaving locals and visitors frustrated at the sight of shuttered shops.
Like many things in Italy, this annual cessation of activity traces its origins to ancient Rome. Emperor Augustus introduced the feast Ferragosto to celebrate the harvest and give labourers a rest. Under Mussolini the tradition of escaping the city began and discounted tickets in mid-August gave the less fortunate a chance to wet their toes in the Med. During the economic miracle of the 1950s and ’60s, factories stopped for weeks; it’s said that in August in Turin, Italy’s automotive capital, residents could at last glimpse the Alps since the smog receded when output ground to a halt.
In 21st-century Italy the practice of taking holidays in the weeks before and after Ferragosto (15 August) continues and the exodus to the seaside and mountains makes urban areas feel as if they’ve been struck by a pandemic. There are days in August when upwards of six million Italians are on the move, forming a slow, pre-dawn stream of traffic heading towards Liguria and the Adriatic coast. Those happiest at the long queues on motorways are the operators of beach clubs and hoteliers who raise rates sky high in August.
The summer slowdown in cities is a drag on the economy. In recent years, officials in Milan have organised to help the elderly in need of newspapers or groceries; many are left on their own in the heat. Then there are the disappointed tourists, facing fewer options should they want to shop or savour the cuisine.
Old habits are hard to give up but the effects of the recent recession and today’s fast-moving plugged-in world have forced Italian society to adapt. So far there has been a move to more liberal shopping hours; 10 years ago it was rare to find a Milan supermarket open on Sundays whereas today some are open around the clock. With fewer people able to afford long breaks during peak season there’s been a push by authorities to ensure more services stay open throughout August.
Small firms looking to grow have become flexible in the hope of capturing more clients. “We need a change of mentality,” says fashion designer Massimo Alba, who for the first time this year is keeping his Milan boutique open in August. “We can’t welcome visitors to the sight of closed businesses.”
Larger companies, such as coffee roaster Illy, whose business is worth about €400m annually, do their best to work around the summer stoppage. Coffee beans continue to arrive in port while at the company’s Trieste factory maintenance is scheduled for August. Office staff are busy dealing with clients abroad, who now make up nearly two thirds of its business.
Given the track record of Italy’s energetic prime minister, one has to wonder if Matteo Renzi isn’t trying to find a way to change the vacation habits of his fellow Italians to spread out the August closure of large sections of the economy more evenly. After all, it can hardly be called a sacrifice to lounge on an Italian beach under the sun on a June or September day.
The plane is heading from London to Pisa. It’s packed with Italian businessfolk returning home from sales meetings, mature English travellers going off to their long-in-the-family boltholes and the usual flavouring of bawling babies and cultural-tripping weekenders. But what this happy group of travellers do not realise is that this is also a convenient flight for anyone off to the men’s fashion trade show Pitti Uomo, and then on to Milan for the men’s shows there.
So just as everyone begins to take their seats, the demographic starts to warp. First the average height soars as male models in search of an Italian gig ease their way along the aisle, repressing their desire to do a quick catwalk-style turn as they reach the galley. Then the facial hair quota sprouts as pale, ginger beardy boys, representing some aspiring London fashion brand, climb on board. Then comes a pair of gentlemen who are so done up in their nip-waisted double-breasteds, just-so bow ties, twirled moustaches and immaculate panamas that they look like extras who have strolled from a Merchant Ivory movie (they will next be seen perspiring in the heat at the luggage carousel, so wishing they worked for a shorts brand).
The regulars on this flight begin to look a little twitchy. Did they miss the message about this being a special fancy-dress flight? Jim in 15a wonders if he should roll up his trousers a few notches to fit in. Kate down in 29f is seriously considering whipping out her scarf and fashioning it into a turban. And Umberto, despite being Italian, is pushing his carry-on way under the seat in front of him and out of sight, so unsettled is he by the number of pieces of luggage heading past him whose construction involved the slaying of at least a two crocodiles. He’s now regretting his €20 nylon bag. It’s not usually like this. Something is up.
Meanwhile, in business a painful scene is unfolding as the fashion editor in 2a keeps chirping out unnecessary hellos to his rivals who are trying to silently ease past him and down into life beyond the curtain. Well, it’s all good practice for the seating class-warfare of a fashion show.
We think of planes as having a bland culture and passengers as a homogenised bunch who rarely turn heads. When was the last time you sat next to someone you can actually recall minutes after disembarking your flight and vanishing back into your life? But it’s not really so. Mass attendees to conferences, music festivals, weddings and sports events can all make the standard mix much more intriguing – in both a good and bad way. These groups can hijack the in-air culture. They can make you feel like a gatecrasher – or part of a party.
Just at the same time as that Pisa departure, a flight at the next gate was boarding for Basel, full of people attending that city’s rich-pickings art fair. A scan of the line revealed a few headline names from the gallery world and lots of collectors, their looks subtle displays of sheened wealth. The usual demure banker types on this shuttle were truly outshone. And on a recent flight from Greece, some 40-odd seats were taken by a group of friends returning to the US after what had obviously been a fun wedding. They cleared the trolley of champagne and chocolate and were soon roping in everyone to their warm-hearted toasts.
At other times the blandness vanishes because the carrier packs so many of its national characteristics into its mini-sealed world. Or at least its homeward bound passengers do. You may, for example, be sitting on the tarmac in London or Paris but climb on board an mea flight for Beirut and feel as though you are in a café on the Corniche. Everyone seems to know everyone else and greetings really must be made before the flight lifts off.
And if you are on an ana or jal flight to Tokyo the vibe is always distinctly Japanese as people remove their shoes and put on the airline-provided slippers as soon as they settle into their seats. If these Japanese passengers want to make a final phone call before take off they will take themselves and their mobile back to the door or galley for fear of disturbing anyone. The soil of London is just a few feet below you but essentially you are already in Japan.
Meanwhile back on the flight to Pisa, Jim and Kate have discovered the silver lining that comes with the fashion jet set. As the crew come round to offer a light meal they are greeted with a surprisingly large number of no-thank-yous. The model boys have packed their own all-protein salads, the fashion editor is holding out for lunch in Florence and the beardy boys are comatose after a big night. So double lunches and extra wines are the order of the day in 15a and 29f. The rolled-up trouser people, they decide, are not so bad after all.
I had planned a trip to the Asian side of Istanbul. But the deckhand manning the briny pontoon shook his head. “The ferries are all cancelled,” he said. “It’s Lodos. He’s here.” The Lodos is a southwesterly wind that blows in over the Aegean to buffet Istanbul from October to April. It can bring balmy warm currents but also treacherous storms. Its name derives from Notos, one of the four Greek wind gods – a figure depicted in antiquity as a winged man holding an amphora, his cheeks puffed taut with air.
Like the ancient Greeks, Istanbul inhabitants are keenly aware of the Lodos. Some still see “him” as an active force, the teary-eyed bringer of rain. He is in good company on the Bosphorus: there is also the Poyraz (a biting northeasterly wind named after the Greek wind god Boreas); the Karayel (from the Turkish word kara meaning black); the Kible; and the Yildiz, among others. It’s not just mariners who refer to them: their arrivals are scribbled in diaries and muttered about in the street. The weather is no remote meteorological concept but a character in day-to-day life. It’s easy to see why Istanbul’s residents give their winds personalities: they are distinct and decisive forces. Last year I witnessed the moment autumn began: I was sitting on my balcony watching swallows surf a warm breeze when abruptly a cool swirl of air whisked from rooftop to rooftop. Suddenly it was time for jackets. This was the Poyraz, the city’s answer to air-conditioning.
Last July, on a clear, calm day I was crossing the Sea of Marmara on a car ferry when the Lodos came from nowhere and ferociously battered the vessel. For 20 minutes the waves curled and crashed against the hull of the boat. It really did feel as if someone had it in for us. (It was either Poseidon or Notos himself.)
Of course, the Turks aren’t the only ones who talk about their winds with a curious familiarity. Cairo has the dusty Khamsin. Los Angeles, the Santa Ana. Marseille is defined by its annual northwesterly nemesis le Mistral, a wind that buffets the Provençal town for days at a time. I have seen this hard, relentless squall in action blowing hot bouillabaisse into a miniature storm during a chic luncheon on the terrace of La Petit Nice hotel overlooking the Château d’If. This force shapes the landscape of Provence – and also its psyche.
A friend from Geneva recently explained the significance of the two premier winds in the Swiss-French city: la Bise (a cold northwesterly force from the alpine mountains) and le Foène (a warm southerly breeze.) “With us, la Bise is terrible,” he wrote in an email. “When it starts it can last three, six or nine days straight. It brings cold and it’s also a danger to anyone it comes across. Yet it is a paradox. In French, bise means small kiss. This wind is a slap.”
Meanwhile, le Foehn is balmy, soothing and warm. “With le Foehn one has the impression of being at the seaside ... What a dream; it’s an Indian summer. It’s like the taste of the famous madeleine in Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. You recall your beach holiday.” This type of poetic reference to weather is rare in English circles. Britons are well known for their constant stream of polite meteorological discourse but our conversation rarely goes beyond observations such as “it’s blowing a gale out there”. It wasn’t always the case. My grandmother often talked about summer zephyrs, the warm west winds that take their name from Zephyrus, the fairest of the Greek wind gods. The Romantics were preoccupied with this most gentle messenger of spring. Percy Bysshe Shelley penned “Zephyrus the Awakener” in his honour. But why should a reference to zephyrs be just the preserve of poets? Winds will always breathe over our lives, awareness of them can only help us feel the weather’s subtlety and realise its effect on our spirits.
The conversation is about birds. A Tokyo bureaucrat is explaining the policy of exterminating the urban-dwelling crows that have become a nuisance. I ask when the complaints became too numerous to ignore. That’s easy, he says: “In Heisei 13”. I am on a tour of an old soy sauce factory in a remote Japanese city. My host is the 30-year-old heir apparent whose great-great-grandfather founded the company more than a century ago. He reels off important dates and developments in the business’s history but none is as crucial to his family as the year the company got its start: Meiji 44.
A family gathering at my house in Tokyo. Seated across from me is my aunt, visiting from the suburbs. She shares her memories of fleeing what was then Manchuria after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. The fear, the smells, the deprivation – it’s all so vivid. So is the year that it happened: Showa 20.
In Japan, you often find yourself talking to people who refer to dates by “the year of the emperor”. Instead of 2015, it’s Heisei 27 (the 27th year of Emperor Akihito’s reign); Showa 20, not 1945; Meiji 44 rather than 1911. (Showa means “enlightened harmony” and Heisei means “achieving peace”.) This is Japan’s imperial calendar, also known as issei ichigen or gengo. Imported from China, the calendar has been used on and off for more than 1,300 years. In 1979, Japan adopted gengo for all government records. You see it on driver’s licences, health-care insurance cards and tax forms but it’s not only for official government documents. Commuter train passes, amusement-park tickets and zoo memberships use the imperial calendar too.
In some circles mentioning Meiji (1868-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) or Heisei (1989 onwards) can expose you as a monarchist. But that tends to be the exception, given the widespread use of this alternative calendar. Apart from official circles, you are likely to hear this method of marking the years used as shorthand for anything old fashioned.
By labelling something as Showa era, you invoke the ethos of the fast-growth decades after the Second World War when success was about owning a house, a car and a television set; the rewards of devoting your working life to one company. You might be talking about music, fashion or even fonts but you’d still tag it as Showa.
All this switching between gengo and the Gregorian calendar can get confusing. Imperial eras can overlap. For example, depending on the day, 1989 – the year Emperor Hirohito died and his eldest son, Akihito, ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne – is either Showa 64 or Heisei 1. And clerical errors are not unheard of. Last year a Japanese woman in her twenties was refused entry to Taiwan because her passport made her out to be an octogenarian. Bureaucrats in the woman’s home prefecture of Miyazaki were to blame: her birth date had been placed in the Showa era instead of Heisei, inadvertently adding six decades to her age.
Even after years of working in Japan I still get tripped up. But so do many Japanese. Ask someone to give you the western calendar equivalent of a gengo year and watch the person get that faraway look while trying to do the maths before guessing or giving up. Predictably there’s a hi-tech solution to the confusion: download the smartphone emperor-time app that does the calculations for you.
This city just won’t shut up. If the growl of traffic or the endless rattle of small-scale construction work doesn’t hit your eardrums, then Madrileños chattering will. Almost everyone in this city has something to say and it seems they’re not too picky about who they say it to.
Let’s face it: Spain is not known for being quiet. High-octane, high-volume communication is what helps set Spaniards apart. Adversarial TV talk shows can pass the five-hour mark. Even the most conservative fiesta isn’t hamstrung by what the Italians call brutta figura; Spaniards are not too fussed about looking foolish. This translates into a more fun-loving nation and also one that is more willing to extend a friendly hand.
In Madrid, now swollen with successive waves of economic migrants, people have grown so accustomed to strangers that citywide sociability reaches fever pitch, manifesting itself in multiple ways.
After just a few days in the Spanish capital I was in a lift when a corporate-type greeted me with a prompt “Buenas” as he stepped in from the first floor. When the doors slid open on the fourth we were greeted again by an unkempt junior clerk who offered a cheery “Hola”. By the time a third person hopped aboard, I found myself chiming along to the chorus of niceties.
At first these exchanges are culturally jarring. Yet they also make sense. These strangers weren’t testing the waters for a spontaneous inter-floor romance; no one launched into unsolicited conversation. It was a simple exercise in Madrid courtesy: acknowledging one another in a confined space. Small actions like these are the social lubricant that keeps things running in a city with many new arrivals.
After four years living here I get offended if an “Hola” isn’t reciprocated when I step into lifts in other Spanish cities. Now silence isn’t just offensive, it’s confusing.
Back on friendlier territory in Madrid, in a metro carriage, a flummoxed out-of-towner asks two security guards if she’s on the right track for the airport. Then something miraculous happens. People look up from their smartphones and offer their own advice. At least five people join in, eager to help. As the newly informed visitor steps out of the train amid a flurry of thank-yous, I am left thinking to myself, “This is what healthy, big-city interaction looks like.”
Incessant chatter isn’t always a good thing though, as a recent trip to the cinema reminded me. When the lights dimmed it seemed that one gabby group weren’t au fait with cinema etiquette: once the movie starts – zip it. Unfortunately a lot of Madrileños are either unfamiliar with this unwritten rule or have few qualms ignoring it. How did the audience respond? Instead of passively huffing and puffing, one loud voice spoke out: “Lads, the film’s started,” said with an almost pleading tone. “This isn’t a cafeteria,” it continued, this time delivered with brawn but not bite. The voice wasn’t angry. It simply laid down the law. At the time I was impressed with the exchange, later thinking that if people are predisposed to saying hello to strangers in a lift, it’s sensible to assume that they wouldn’t lambast someone in a cinema.
Now that I understand all this chit-chat, I am impressed at the absence of hostility on Madrid’s streets; people just seem more aware of their fellow citizens. When asked why I decided to drop anchor in the landlocked capital, my response is now a well-rehearsed speech. “Madrid’s small-town charm had me at ‘Hello’,” I tell them, launching into tales involving lifts and trains. “This city, full of uninhibited conversation-starters, really speaks to me,” I add, “because a city that likes to talk to its heart’s content is also one that wears its heart on its sleeve.”
Perhaps not judging by its street signs Everyone likes a warm welcome at a new destination; nobody wants to get lost before they so much as leave the airport perimeter. But that is the fate awaiting the unwary visitor to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade.
There is little sign of trouble as the new arrival to Nikola Tesla Airport strolls the short distance from the gate to immigration. Baggage claim is also pleasingly prompt and rental cars are actually kerbside at arrivals rather than a bus ride away.
It could be a contender for Europe’s smoothest plane-to-car experience – were it not for the road signs. Because at the exit of Serbia’s main international airport, as the slip road merges onto the e70 motorway, the destinations are written only in Cyrillic.
In an instant, a decision has to be made. A traveller heading to the Exit music festival in Novi Sad might just about manage. The fact there are two words of the correct length should at least nudge the driver in the right direction. But what if the visitor is heading to Nis or Sid? They are at opposite ends of the country but to the Cyrillic illiterate look much of a muchness. Even Belgrade is a far-from-intuitive pick when written as Beograd in Cyrillic, in which “g”s resemble “r”s, the “r”s look like “p”s and “d” is transformed into a stick-drawing of a chair. Cruising along the motorway, it soon becomes apparent that the sign at the airport exit is just about the only one that does not feature Roman transliterations of the Cyrillic script. Is this, perhaps, some kind of joke being played at the neophyte’s expense? Or a sneaky slice of nationalist nose-thumbing?
On reaching Belgrade’s old town, the historic heart of the city, it is apparent that another explanation is just as likely: the upheavals of the past 25 years have put uniformity of street signage way down the list of priorities. As a result, finding one’s way around the capital requires not only a crash-course in Cyrillic but some knowledge of local history.
Since 1990, Belgrade’s residents have found their citizenship transferred between no fewer than four different countries as Yugoslavia broke up. The ground-level impact of these ructions was that street names out of favour in the Tito era came back into use.
Sign-makers have struggled to keep up. In the Old Town Svetogorska Street seems to serve as a cry for help (or sanity) with a plaque listing its seven different monikers over the past 140 years. At various points it was named in honour of Georges Clemenceau and Lola Ribar – but the latter was both Croat and Yugoslav Partizan, neither suitable for the nationalistic mood of 1997 when the street reverted to the 1896 name. All this information is delivered, naturally, in Cyrillic.
This is not, says historian Vladimir Dulovic, a reflection of Serb nationalism but of the chaos that has long been the norm when it comes to labelling Belgrade’s streets. “The first total naming was in 1872. From then up to the present there has never been a coherent system,” he says.
The result is a city in which, for example, 27 March (old name) turns into Kraljica Marija (new name) halfway along, but the house numbers carry on as if nothing has happened.
Despite its high ranking on numerous recent travel hotlists, there is little sign of Belgrade making it easier to navigate the city. A limited experiment with multi-lingual signs, complete with historical notes, failed to catch on. And Vladimir Dulovic feels this is in keeping with the capital’s freewheeling charm. “We have a saying: ‘Read what’s on the map but ask the peasant.’ You never know, you might make friends.”
If you’re a frequent user of Singapore’s public mrt system you might have bumped into a rather thoughtful family: Stacey, Martin, Glenda, Benny and Hannah.
They are very pleasant indeed, the lot of them: “Stand-up Stacey” is happy to give up her seat to someone who needs it more; “Move-in Martin” shuffles towards the centre of the carriage to make room for boarding passengers; “Give-way Glenda” allows them to alight first before getting on; “Bag-down Benny” takes extra care with his rucksack; and “Hush-hush Hannah” keeps her volume down. These characters are cartoon decals plastered inside trains as part of a national drive to improve the conduct of public-transit users. With more than 2.6 million commuters every day, these mascots are reminders to be gracious toward each other no matter how uncomfortable one might be.
Such campaigns have a longstanding place in Singapore’s development. There have been more than 200 in just 50 years of nationhood. One of the very first was “Keep Singapore Clean”, rolled out in 1968 by Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister. With sights set on becoming the region’s cleanest nation, posters reminded citizens to use rubbish bins and competitions were held to reward the most sanitary of public toilets, buses and offices.
Such crusades have imprinted on the Singaporean consciousness countless mascots, jingles and slogans. With Smiley Squirrel teaching children the virtue of saving, Teamy the Productivity Bee championing efficiency at work and Water Wally promoting water conservation, Singaporeans have become accustomed to many an animation telling them what to do. That said, this cast of merry icons has a mixed track record: two years ago, Singa the Lion resigned. In an open letter, the erstwhile mascot for the Singapore Kindness Movement complained he was “too tired to continue facing an increasingly angry and disagreeable society”.
Many campaigns come with accompanying soundtracks. Anyone in Singapore during the Sars epidemic in 2003 will remember the line: “Sars is the virus that I just want to minus.” The tacky-yet-catchy rhyme is from a rap by the beloved fictional character Phua Chu Kang (portrayed by comedian Gurmit Singh). Singapore’s favourite contractor, Phua Chu Kang is known for his slapstick antics, yellow boots, curly mophead and protuberant mole on his right cheek. He instructed citizens on proper hand-washing techniques and advised people not to go to work if they felt unwell. For months, children and adults alike could be heard chiming lines from the rap, blaring the ending –“Use your brain, use your brain, use your braaaiin!” – at each other before dissolving into laughter.
Reliance on campaigns undoubtedly contributes to the nation’s nanny-state image. And as society becomes more educated, this top-down approach is increasingly exposed to ridicule. When the Media Development Authority released a video in 2007 featuring its ceo and other top executives attempting a rap to drum up local production in the media industry, the general consensus was that bureaucrats should stick to their day jobs.
In the meantime, campaigns remain the government’s primary instrument to get its residents to be nice, speak good English (and Mandarin) and even brush their teeth the right way. The country has been celebrating its mid-century point with the “sg50” campaign all year. Citizens can apply for funding for projects that bolster national pride. Such a government-sponsored effort may seem out of place in any other developed country but for Singapore, there is no question that campaigns are an integral piece of the social fabric.
July is upon us and those in the northern hemisphere begin filling the skies, seas and motorways with luggage and cramming what will later be remembered as the shortest two weeks of the year with restorative dips in the ocean and long woozy lunches before nodding off somewhere in the shade. By contrast, the absurd annual ritual of hunkering down for “winter” in Brazil is underway. As you sit and sip your negroni on the warm cobblestones of some Mediterranean village, Brazil is collectively shivering its way through its low season as temperatures drop to just below a seemingly intolerable 22c. Rio’s Carioca residents make a particular pantomime of this insubstantial chill, the perennial smiles and sweat-beaded brows furrowing instead against an imaginary frost whipping in off the Atlantic. There is a sudden haste in their step, a newfound “get up and go” in their gait. This is the only time of year when Cariocas pick up the pace for anything.
Flip-flops are slipped off in favour of thick socks and ankle boots while pullovers are pulled on, parkas zipped up and scarves wrapped tight. Girls empty their summer rails and bulk up their wardrobes with light furs and thick tights begin making an appearance at work. Petrol-pump attendants protect their ears with jaunty woollen hats and street cleaners mismatch those iconic orange uniforms with jazzy jumpers and gilets. I once saw a man holding a coconut with ski gloves at a beach bar between postos 11 and 12 in Leblon. Ice-cold draft beer is ditched in favour of warming Malbecs, neat cachaça and Johnnie Walker Red Label.
Skiving off work is altogether easier with bouts of influenza replacing the customary plastic-surgeon’s sick note, while excuses of waiting in for the pool filter technician or the nanny’s son being arrested go on hold until summer. Gone are the septuagenarian men who roam the city’s streets in no more than saggy Speedos, keeping fit instead by shuffling the wife’s shopping around while sporting flat caps and duffle coats. Some trees even shed their leaves in sympathy (although they grow back in a matter of days), while parrots huddle for warmth and sloths grind to a halt on their branches.
Enough! Having been raised 54 degrees north of the equator in England’s great green Northumberland, where summer days barely break that decisive 20c mark, I can’t help but give an incredulous chuckle at the sight of Brazilians layering up in mountain gear and scurrying around to keep warm. Where I come from, Mr Whippy ice cream will stand unmelting in the cone for hours and people appreciate a single ray of sunshine with all the gratitude of a starving man presented with a mug of soup.
On the contrary, it might be my favourite time of year in Brazil. It rarely rains and the oppressive summer humidity gives way to dry days and very big blue skies. Rio’s beaches are virtually deserted – a whole world away from the dense jostle of a January weekend when a single square inch of unattended sand is considered serious real estate. No matter what they say, with a mid-day average of 24c, July and August are still warm enough to sunbathe and this Englishman in particular has a healthy glow to maintain.
In reality, the Brazilian winter lasts no longer than a month, although the southern states of São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul boast lows of single digit temperatures on higher ground and a longer season overall. But I beg for a better definition of winter. I long to take my Brazilian friends on the boat crossing between Seahouses and the Farne Islands that my grandmother would brave at any time of year and only then can we have a sensible discussion about how winter should feel.
So, as you fire off your next Instagram snap of an artfully tossed insalata di polpo, psych yourself up for a running somersault off the sun-bleached jetty or slather on another layer of factor 30, please spare a thought for those poor Brazilians who still have two teeth-chattering weeks before the mercury starts to rise above 30c and balance returns to paradise once again.
Head to a Hong Kong restaurant to dine alone and you’re likely to feel a little out of place. Eating out is a social affair. On a weekday lunch hour you’ll see groups of office colleagues lining up to try the latest meal deal. Make a booking at any traditional spot for weekend dim sum and you’ll be flanked by multigenerational family gatherings. In Hong Kong, restaurants have no issue seating a table of eight or 10 – or more.
For most Hongkongers, these dining experiences offer the only opportunities for communal eating on a grand scale. The city’s notoriously competitive property market means that many people live in small apartments where full-blown kitchens (let alone sizeable dining rooms) are a luxury. So instead of dinner parties at home, people here set out for one of their city’s myriad restaurants to hold court. Many of these places cater to this need by offering private rooms. Part spaces where business can be done and part set up to make sure that screaming children (and adults) don’t bother other diners, these rooms may be intimately sized but they’re not always the most atmospheric. In search of warm low lighting or flickering candlelight to frame your meal? I think not. You’re more likely to find bright, overhead strip lights, especially in the most traditional of Cantonese places. And don’t get your hopes up for a relaxing soundtrack either. A wall-mounted television set playing everything from sports to the local news or a soap opera is a common accompaniment.
But it’s not ambience that many of these big groups are after. Here it’s all about the food and people they’re eating it with. From sizzling bowls of spicy Sichuan-style fish to simple rice dishes, menus are most often designed for sharing. Whether they’re placed on the revolving centrepieces of more upscale restaurants or on the laminate table tops of hole-in-the-wall style cafés, the process of serving and eating the dish is not simply about culinary enjoyment: it also often forms the backbone of conversation. So chefs beware: if your sauce is too thick or your dumplings are too skinny, you can bet the table of 12 in the corner is talking about it.
Much of this is due to the unspoken rules of these social gatherings. Diners never serve themselves first. Instead, you’ll find your neighbour spooning delicacies onto your plate or pouring your tea – and they expect you to do the same for them. Serving from large platters onto dinky plates means it’s necessary to constantly top up for each other, which in turn breeds careful consideration between those sharing a table. “Are you enjoying that char siu? Would you like more?”
A meal in Hong Kong is a constant appraisal of how and what you are enjoying on the table. And it’s not only in Chinese restaurants where this will happen. From burgers to bowls of ramen, if you’re dining with a group in Hong Kong, be sure to cut that burger into quarters or ask for small bowls to divvy up your ramen; when eating en masse in this city, it really is the case that sharing is caring.
Communal dining forms a key part of the social fabric. Children grow up knowing that they will likely see their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents every week at their family’s favourite restaurant. Some even have weekly reservations in place and the closing down of a regular haunt is almost like a death in the family.
And in business, a team lunch can do wonders for office morale. Dining out in Hong Kong may not always feel like the relatively quiet and private experience that it does elsewhere in the world. Here it is embraced as a social activity from start to finish. It’s not about ordering and enjoying the single dish on the menu that you want to try while your fellow diners do the same. Instead, eating Hong Kong-style means taking into consideration the needs and happiness of those you are sharing a meal with. The result can be unpredictable and frenetic, a bit like the city itself.