Attentive readers will recall that a few months ago Elsa and I moved in to a courtyard home, a couple of hutongs south of Ghost Street.
Getting to know my Chinese neighbors and their traditional way of life, outdoor dining in a vine-covered yard, proximity to beer and baozi – these were the seductive images that had sustained my three-year search.
On the whole, I haven’t been disappointed. I do have a vine-covered yard, where Elsa delights in playing with her new rabbit Blackie. The local baozi lady is now so well-trained that I don’t even need to get off my bike; she comes out onto the street and plops our steaming breakfast into my basket as we speed on smoothly to kindergarten.
And, the piece de resistance: there’s a hole-in-the-wall fruit shop selling Tsingtao that’s so close to our house I treat it as a remote fridge – just popping outside when I fancy a beer of an evening.
What hasn’t been so idyllic, however, is the enormous amount of
renovation that surrounds us on all sides. Many of the neighboring courtyards are being rebuilt almost from scratch, and great swathes of hutong homes are being refitted for electric heating.
It’s good news in the long-term, of course, but the short-term downside is that piles of assorted debris are dumped regularly outside my front door. There they fester, until the next clear-up is due.
A couple of nights a week I’m awoken to the trundle of huge lorries, which appear mysteriously in the late hours, scoop up the offending mounds, then vanish – leaving beautifully (but sadly all too transiently) swept streets in their wake.
Elsa is singularly unimpressed with this aspect of her new home, loudly remarking about the smell at every opportunity and repeatedly asking when we can move back to our old house. After a few weeks of our doorstep being used as the local rubbish dump, I was wondering that myself.
This called for drastic action. I decided to appropriate the outside space the length of my walls and saturate it with plants; the rubble would be forced to relocate.
Cycling down a parallel hutong with Elsa the other day, I’d spotted through a half-open door, a distant row of sturdy-looking, large-leafed plants that were ideal for the purpose. I actually had a similar one in my yard, which my landlord had reassured me was impossible to kill.
Unfortunately, my attempt at Laitai Flower Market to find this miracle plant failed. Defeated, Elsa and I set off for home. Our route took us again past our leafy neighbor. Well, why not? Parking the bike, I dragged a reluctant Elsa through the yard towards the coveted foliage I’d glimpsed from the road. There we discovered a tall iron gate, and on the other side, a glorious secret garden – a fertile, colorful jumble of flowers, vines, old pots and vegetables.
Pushing open the gate, we crept inside. An elderly lady – I later found out she was in her nineties – emerged from the house where she had been sleeping.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you ” I murmured, “but I wondered if I could buy some of your plants?”
“No, no, I’ll give you some,” she replied graciously, as if foreigners turned up daily on her doorstep asking to buy up her garden.
A younger version of my benefactress appeared and started digging, and before I knew it, Elsa and I were bearing off an enormous specimen, which our new friend had assured us could be split four ways.
Now my own row of plants stands guard outside our home.
The hint has definitely been taken – the rubble is lurking at a much more acceptable remove, and I’ve secured a good few extra feet of frontage.
Sarah Cooper fulfilled a long-held dream by moving to Beijing when Elsa (3) was 3 months old. Sarah now coaches, runs workshops, writes and speaks about living and working off the beaten path (www.cowsfrommywindow.com).