Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Taipei, Percolating

We arrived back in Taipei late last night.

I've taken long vacations before - up to six weeks - but this is the first time I've spent more than two months (nine weeks) away since I moved to Taipei five years ago. On all of these trips, but this one more than most, the taxi ride back to our apartment from Taipei Main (we could take the MRT but we usually don't when we have lots of bags) has been a mostly familiar but also slightly disorienting experience.

I always seem to forget while I'm away that the architecture of Taipei takes some getting used to. I love this city and in many ways think it's beautiful (as one friend put it, "it has a patina"), but that is not an immediate reaction: that's a view cultivated over time, as the aesthetics of Taipei percolate and settle in my brain like so much dark coffee. Let's face it: while plenty of buildings in Taipei have distinct and compelling facades - from the turn-of-the-century shophouses to the whalebone-ribbed and color-tiled mid-century mid-rises - many are not so visually arresting. I'm talking concrete or white tile buildings, buildings that, rather than having a lovely "patina", really just could use a good scrubbing, featureless buildings with backlit neon signs and chock-a-block street-level shops along mangled sidewalks.

It's when these monstrosities settle in your brain and you stop looking at them that you adjust to Taipei and see other things - a charming black-and-white church on Chang-an Road or the '60s funktacular post office jutting into view along the highway to Linkou, views down busy roads on the brown line MRT, street food vendors cooking up all manner of greasy treats, a Japanese era corner house-turned-coffeeshop on Zhongshan Road, inviting restaurants, little parks, derelict Japanese wooden houses and the old shophouse outlines of renovated buildings still in use.

That's not what I see when I come back to Taipei after a long trip, though. After banishing the concrete monstrosities to the back of my consciousness, they hurtle back into full view after time away. They whiz by, advertising chain boutiques I don't shop in, scooter repair, 7-11, plumbing and electrician services, restaurants. Above float darkened, barred windows stamped with hideous conformity into dark gray hulks. I'll say it: the taxi ride back was ugly, like U-G-L-Y, you ain't got no alibi, you UGLY ugly. After renting a garden apartment in a charming rowhouse in Istanbul for a month, the six flights (six flights!) of cement stairs and peeling paint back to our apartment in Jingmei were ugly. I'd forgotten how ugly the kitchen is, and the view from it has never spectacular (although I've grown quite fond of the neon cross from the nearby church that glows red at night. You don't have to be Christian to appreciate Christian camp).

I feel it's been made worse this time due to the length of time we've been gone, the extended period of time we spent in Istanbul, which is generally more attractive, and the fact that living in Istanbul even for a short period and taking a class there has changed me and my perception of the world more deeply than one of our usual trips would.

Oh well. This only reinforces my desire to move into a newer, nicer apartment, and I'll stop actively noticing the horrible architecture soon. All of the things that are attractive about Taipei will come back into focus in time. Tonight I'll probably seek out one of my favorite haunts in Gongguan, if I'm not too jet-lagged, pour myself a classy beer and look out on the pretty-ish lanes around Wenzhou Street, and it'll come back.


J said...

First time I visited from Beijing I was surprised how ugly it was. What I like though is the street life, like how shops spill onto streets, people set up little gardens of potted plants along their walls, and all the quirky stores (and people). Also keep in mind that this weather isn't doing Taipei many favors either...

Nick Herman said...

The main attractive parts of Taipei to me are the ones where you can see mountains (hence, one of the best things about Taipei--how easy it is to leave Taipei and be in mountains(.