The Things We Do for Christmas Trees

Looks like a page from ISpy Christmas.

Since I am still in search of Christmas, I join three others to visit the Hongqiao Flower Market, which is now supposedly decked out for the holidays. The sun is shining, and though the air pervades a certain chill that hasn’t been there since I arrived, it’s a pleasant day for market shopping.

We catch the Metro to the Shanghai Zoo stop and ask for street directions. We start heading left down the street, and two of us are already hungry for lunch. A yam-vendor passes on his bike, the scent of roasting sweet potatoes catching us right in the gut.

“The next person we see selling yams, I’m getting one.”

We so aren’t in Louisiana.

Good idea. Lo and behold, around the corner, there is another sweet potato vendor. They roast sweet potatoes in the coals so they’re crispy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. It literally crumbles in your hand when you peel it open. The sweet, just fired texture is absolutely perfect on a cool day. As an added bonus, the potato keeps your hand warm too – just be careful to wear a glove.

With warm sweet potato in our bellies, we keep walking, only to start thinking that we’re heading in the wrong direction. Very easy to do. We asked a few workers about the market, but they aren’t sure of which market we’re looking for. Finally, we get directions at the huge Marriott hotel, grab a cab, go around the block, and yup, there’s the market!

This reminded me of something
from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Then, we start thinking: A lot of the pictures we have on our phones aren’t of people or cool things, they’re of addresses and street signs so we can find things again. Or, just spend less time looking for it, I suppose.

Crystals and blue lights on a tree

The Hongqiao Flower and Fish Market is pretty spectacular. It’s a maze-like outdoor building with stall after stall of flowers, plants, pots, trees, crafts, Christmas bazaar items, and pearl markets. While the route is pretty circuitous, it’s easy to get lost with similar-looking shops around every turn. The fragrance of roses and orchids compete with evergreen this time of the year. Christmas knick-knacks overpower the aisles. Bins of pine cones overflow onto the ground. Evergreens poke you in the arm. There is the cloying scent of cinnamon – from somewhere – and yes, there are even chestnuts roasting, though, thankfully, not on so open a fire. Lights blink wearily from being on all day.

My first stop is this amazing French-inspired Christmas store. It draws people in with the jumbles of displays in the windows. You must wade through the crowds and the overflowing aisles to find trinkets that you might want. I’m on the search for pretty tealight holders for my Christmas-scented Glade melts that I bought in Portland. Then, I find a Union Jack stocking. Dear Santa, fill ’em up! You know what I want in my stocking!

I am just stunned by the variety of displays. Most of them are straight out of an ISpy book, with jumbles and piles of items heaped on each other, and you’re meant to pick out certain small things in each photograph. It’s overwhelming if you’re not ready for it. But, when I went back and put the photos through Instagram, the eccentric beauty of the objects struck me.

Put the lime in the coconut.

We spent large amounts of time shifting through loads of things and picking out certain items for our trees and our apartments. It was nice to think of the holidays, a time of year I loved to decorate my tree, apartment, and classroom. Next weekend I’ll probably go pick out a small Christmas tree for my classroom so I have some cheer there too!

Real potted evergreens

It’s around mid to late afternoon when we finally wrap up our shopping. I’m a kid in a candy store, personally, and I love the idea of buying flowers for myself that aren’t ridiculously priced like in the States. I settle on some gorgeous double-tone pink roses for color. They smelled so good too. I get another vase to hold the roses.

And, oh my goodness, I have found a few little craft-type stores in there as well. I about go ape-crazy over little tins of glitter and beads. We won’t go into the sticker gems, sticky fabric ribbon, miles and miles (or, rather, kilometers and kilometers) of ribbon, and just plain stickers. OMG. I could’ve gone bonanza shopping up in there. They just about made a sales quota from me! Let’s just say, the sight of a hot glue gun and extra hot glue sticks had me in a tizzy. Clearly, I’m having Hobby Lobby and Michael’s withdrawal. I need me some scented cinnamon pine cones and about twenty aisles of scrapbook materials and yarn crafting stat!

Miles of poinsettias 

I see that two of the others have picked up a Christmas tree for their apartment. And it’s pretty big too. We have to take the Metro back to our part of the woods here in Shanghai. At least, if the tape bursts open on the box (and it did look like it would a few times!), we will be able to find him with a trail of artificial pine needles through the immensely crowded People’s Square Metro stop. It’s almost comical watching us weave in and out of throngs and throngs of people with all of our bags of Christmas swag…and a huge ole fake tree, trying not to smack people over the heads with it. There are stares like you wouldn’t believe – much like the stares I got when I brought my tree back in my backpack.

Bamboo steamer baskets of traditional
soup dumplings

We don’t really want to end the day yet. So, even before we get to People’s Square to change train lines, we stop in the French Concession for a curbside dinner – with the large tree, of course. We sit in a tiny little street shop, with these wee little white and red stool-chairs, and choose several bamboo steamer trays full of delicious Shanghaiese soup dumplings. If you ever come to Shanghai (to visit, of course!), we must go out to a little local place for soup dumplings. Before they are freshly steamed, the thin dumpling dough is rounded and smoothed into a little “package” over a jelly-like bouillon cubish thing. At least, that’s what it looks like. So, when you put it in the steamer basket, the bouillon melts into a thin but deliciously-spiced soup. You just have to be careful when biting into it (after dipping it into soy sauce and chili-garlic sauce), or else you can easily scald your mouth right red with it.

Beef broth with glass
noodles. Toss in a bit
of chili-garlic sauce for
a hearty kick!

On a chilly autumn day after loads of market shopping, soup dumplings are absolutely perfect for supper. In addition, we order a beef-broth soup full of glass noodles, beef slices, hot, steaming broth, cilantro, and fresh green onions. My belly is warming up, and my eyes are soaking up the sights and sounds of the street. Authentic culture.

There’s a man outside who has a cart with a large clear box full of sunset-colored pomegranates. They’re not the ruby red of typical US pomegranates; these are yellow and orange with only a little bellybutton of rosy red at the bottom. At first, I thought they were grapefruits, but the deep, deep, deep red of the juice didn’t fit. Then, I saw the tiny seeds that his little juicing machine was spitting out. Makes sense now. Fascinating – a fresh juice vendor.

Holiday lights with glowing red lanterns on a few trees

The sun’s disappearing, and the night’s getting cooler and more damp the further it dips below the horizon. Reminds me of frosty Oxford nights when we’d walk back from the pubs in the city centre and see our breath on the air and the velvet stars up in the sky. I remember that night walking back from the bus depot at Gloucester Green (we’d just gotten in at 4 AM from a flight to Rome), seeing my breath, staring at the clear depth of starlight above me. The chill satisfies me somehow, makes my mind sharpen focus on things I would otherwise ignore.

And now that the sun’s nearly gone, we pick up some bubble tea and then I venture to a Mister Donut for a coffee-frosting covered au lait doughnut and a minty hot chocolate to keep my belly warm. There’s a great shoe sale going on, so we have to stop, even though I know nothing will fit my size 9W feet. Glory be, I feel like Gigantaur when I’m shopping here.

A few vendors are selling scarves outside the shop. After listening to my mixture of Chinglish, he pulls out a scarf with what else, folks, but repeated prints of the Union Jack on it. The poor guy probably had no clue why I was so giddy excited. Of course, I couldn’t walk off from that scarf. I meander over to the second vendor and pick out two more and bargain with him for a very good deal – one scarf that’s sheer metallic bronze with a pretty lace overlay and another that’s silky and big and covered with nonsense words in multiple colors. What’s for sure is that I’ll never be without scarves, pearls, designer patterns, or interesting jewelry while I’m here!

As I wait out on the sidewalk, I realize that it’s a beautiful night, really. It’s damp and cold, but it’s beautiful in its own neon-sign sort of way.

My new stars.

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