Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

Bicycle country

China could once have been named Bicycle Country (自行车国, Zìxíngchē guó). Although the balance has shifted to cars, bicycles and electric scooters remain a significant fraction of what you see on roads. It is not at all unusual to see loads of bicycles parked on roads. As I walked along a road in Nanjing I paused to take a photo of the parked bikes.

One of the side effects of taking photos is that you notice more about your subject than you would otherwise. So I suddenly realized that there were very impressive locks on the bikes. In my experience China is crime free; there are cameras everywhere, and watchers behind them: either human or AI. So this looked incongruous. This can’t be a country like Germany, where the general level of safety from threat does not include bicycles. If any Chinese were to complain about a stolen bike, the police would almost certainly be able to trace who had taken it.

Nor is Nanjing special in this respect. I took a photo of a rank of parked bicycles in Wuhan, and saw hefty locks again. This will remain a mystery to me until I learn enough Mandarin to have a casual conversation on the road about why people lock their bicycles.

It is also interesting that there seems to be no cultural difference between electric scooters and bikes. They follow the same traffic rules, and park together. The only difference I noticed is that in this season the scooters came with warm quilted jackets, which you could slip into as you sat down in the driver’s seat. It’s a great idea, and one that could easily be adapted to protect against rain in India. You must have noticed that the jackets were not locked to the scooter!