The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

For most Chinese, Christmas Day is no more special than any other day of the year. But why in the last few years has it become increasingly popular to celebrate the holiday?  I am reliably informed by a taxi driver that it is an excuse for members of a material-obsessed society to buy presents for oneself. But here are some other reasons that might be worth considering.

Valentine’s Comes Twice A Year  

For many young people, Christmas is a couple’s festival, meaning that men are expected to buy their girlfriends presents (although the opposite is not expected). As people travel around the city to meet their other halves, Christmas and Christmas Eve see Beijing turn into one horrific traffic jam. Thus on Christmas Day, I found myself not the only person getting out of a gridlocked car on the fourth ring road for a moonlit stroll to get to my destination.

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Christmas Apples 平安果  

The Chinese words for ‘Christmas Eve’ and ‘apple’ sound similar. Thus apples wrapped in coloured cellophane have become a Chinese Christmas tradition. So far, no shopkeeper has been able to tell me why or what kind of people like receiving individually wrapped festive apples. The most common response I’ve had so far is, ‘they just are’.

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Apples in heart-shaped boxes, square boxes and apples à la cellophane

 

Ending On A High

Of course, no Christmas would be complete without a trip to Church. My host family managed to get me hot tickets to one of the over-subscribed Christmas services at their local protestant church (which seats several hundred) where you’re greeted by aisles of grinning volunteers flinging knitted red scarves around your neck and telling you that ‘Jesus loves you!’ (耶稣爱你). Aside from a daringly unrehearsed a cappella performance of a Chinese hymn, the highlight of the service was an army of Santas handing out bags of sweets at the end.

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The Fun Never Stops 好好学习天天向上

Of course, for some university students, life continues as normal with an early morning nap in a campus convenience store to break up a all-night study session, accompanied by a little packet of duck neck to snack on.

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Missing the Taste of Home

Once a week or so, I go to a magical area in northern Beijing called Wudaokou (五道口). Also known as ‘The Centre of The Universe’ (宇宙中心), Wudaokou has an overwhelming population of foreign students, especially Koreans. So whether you need to stock up on your Italian cheese or Korean stationery, it’s the place to go.

For me, one of the highlights of a trip to Wudaokou is a look-in on an international supermarket. Gone are the days of my first and (ever so slightly) dated Chinese language textbook which, in 2014, was still insisting that Beijing’s Friendship Store was the place to pick up foreign goods. In fact, I now have better access to international foods in Wudaokou than in London in terms of both variety and price.

In walking distance from my university, and not in walking distance from where I live in the middle of nowhere, the bright lights of Wudaokou offer an overwhelming choice of everything. Although I rarely find myself craving anything foreign (apart from clean air, which you can’t even buy in Wudaokou), it can be reassuring to walk into a shop and see goods you’re familiar with from home and childhood. More than that, it’s interesting to see what other nationalities are craving.

Here’s a little tour of my favourite exhibit items.

The White Stuff

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Milk seems to be an international obsession. To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to the stuff, even after spending a week working on a Turkish dairy farm where I administered so many drug cocktails to grotesquely bloated American-bred cows that I made a (short-lived) promise to myself to buy nothing but organic dairy products from then on. But since coming to China I’ve heard many people, from Koreans to Americans to Brits, saying the milk here ‘tastes strange’ and that they go out of their way to buy their home brand. I once had a Chinese friend ask me if I’d yet adjusted to life in China, in particular to the taste of the milk.

Where the Chinese obsession with milk comes from, I don’t yet understand. Despite having a high rate of lactose intolerance, two of the nation’s most ubiquitous snacks –  milk and drinking yoghurt – are both dairy products. I’ve never in my life seen such an overwhelming selection of flavoured milks: from walnut, papaya, strawberry, or red bean. And don’t get me started on the ‘cheese’ which can be found in all sorts of inappropriate places like boiled sweets, breads and, most objectionably, bottled drinks.

When Food Is Art

A trip to an international supermarket is also a feast for the eyes: some of the packaging I’ve seen in international supermarkets might even be called art, with Russia winning the prize for giving their food the most personality. If you need to make canned sprats look sexy, get the Russians in. The same goes for adorable chocolate.

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National Pride

I couldn’t write a post without putting in a patriotic good word for Great Britain, so I am proud to report that the United Kingdom absolutely dominates the field of mini-bottles of spirits. Given that mini spirit bottles take up about a quarter of the average hotel minibar, if the world were a minibar, Britain would have as much power as it did during the height of the British Empire. As we enter an age of political change and uncertainty, and we young people must consider what we want our world to look like, I feel this is an important to bear in mind. In terms of British interests, it should be minibar-shaped.

 

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Because the food aisles are organised by type rather than country, you get to see some great juxtapositions. One of my favourite aisles is the tomato-based condiment aisle  which aside from predictable contributions from Italy and the US, also features more rogue products from New Zealand and Sweden, for example.

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Other interesting products placed together include Turkish Halal pasta shapes and Japanese udon, or dried Canadian cranberries nestled alongside Vietnamese jackfruit chips. Then there’s the inexplicably large, and seemingly unnecessary, selection of imported frozen peas from the US. But who am I to insist that capitalist legumes and their socialist cousins are much of a muchness?

Fantasy Land

On the one hand, this little corner of Beijing is a heart-warming example of racial diversity and internationalisation in a racially homogenous city. On the other hand, everyone who lives there feels a bit like they’re being scammed by their landlords.The area is innacessible to most Chinese because of the high rents, although some parents pay through the nose to live close to the great schools in the area. If you’re an international, you’re paying for convenience (aside from shops, it has several universities in walking distance) and company. Whatever you’re paying for, it’s certainly not luxury.

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Wudaokou apartment landing or The Shining?

After a few trips to Wudaokou, I realised I was missing something from home: cafe culture. Craving a peaceful environment to work in with overpriced hot drinks and other people around, I was determined to find a coffee shop in my part of the middle of nowhere. Using a Chinese app, I discovered there was a cafe a mere 200 metres from my door, in the neighbouring apartment complex. ‘What an idiot!’ I thought. ‘How could I be so prejudiced as to think that only international areas of Beijing did cafes?’  After following the map carefully into a few dead ends, I finally ended up somewhere that may once, indeed, have been a cafe but now looks more like an abattoir.

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After backing away slowly and quietly from the slaughterhouse coffee shop, I gave up on my hunt for a local cafe and made my way meekly back to Wudaokou. Living in a ‘proper Chinese’ residential neighbourhood such as mine, complete with dancing grannies and old couples playing badminton outside, also means you have to make some sacrifices. Walking 40 minutes to get to the nearest restaurant is a sacrifice I can accept, but I stop short at entering coffee shops which trigger the Psycho theme tune to start playing in my head.

 

How China Really Sees The World

Most books on China these days seem to claim that only they can tell you how Chinese people really think/are planning world domination/the spread of socialism/destruction of the environment/monopoly of the world’s resources. Actually, only this blog can tell you how Chinese people really see the world. So keep on reading.

There’s only a certain number of times you can reply to the question, ‘where are you from?’ before getting bored stupid, especially when your answer is less than exciting.

The conversation goes this way:

Chinese Person: Where are you from?

Me: England.

Chinese Person: Oh.

About two months ago, I decided I would start replying to this question by asking people to guess where I’m from, and then asking why they guessed the way they did, which has revealed a host of wonderful national stereotypes.

First, a little disclaimer: although the number of taxi drivers featuring in this post may make it look like I spend my whole life in Beijing taxis, the reason drivers feature so strongly here is that they are notoriously opinionated and chatty. You’re almost guaranteed an interesting conversation with every ride. Actually, I only spend half my life in taxis.

So, according to the Chinese public, where is the Lotus-Eater from and why? Here are the most common guesses I get.

England

Let’s start with England because I don’t think any Chinese person has ever guessed this correctly. Perhaps this is because:

1. There aren’t many of us around

2. Calling someone English seems to be a bit of an insult

I’ve been paid some lovely backhanded compliments by way of being told ‘you don’t look English’. For example, one taxi driver guessed I was French.

Taxi driver: Why did I guess you’re French and not British? Because all British people are fat.

Me: I thought it was Americans who are fat?

Taxi driver: Oh, no, all Americans are fat of course but so are English people.

Talking to a Chinese friend about stereotypes of British people, I was also told that I could pass as coming from another country because British people have very broad faces and rough features.

Russia

Because Russians are blond. And because Russians are the only Caucasians who can speak Chinese. It’s a communist thing.

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union is apparently still knocking around, according to certain members of the older generation who haven’t picked up a newspaper in a while.

Germany

Because Germans are blond. And because Germans are smart enough to learn Chinese. Actually, I have met a lot of Germans in Beijing so statistically speaking it’s also a smart guess.

Norway

Because Norwegians are blond.

America

Because Americans are everywhere. And only Americans have the dollar to take taxis, which is where I get a lot of my guesses from. A nice soft power move on the part of HM Government might be to sponsor my taxi rides thereby demonstrating the might of Britain’s economy to the Chinese people.

One of the most honest responses I’ve ever got was from a taxi driver who took it upon himself to teach me a few home truths about Americans and Brits.

Taxi driver: Where are you from?

Me:  Guess.

Taxi driver: America? Britain?

Me:  Yes, Britain. Why do you guess that?

Taxi driver: Why did I guess that? I’ll tell you why. Not everyone will tell you but I will. It’s because you all look the same.

Me: Oh, really?

Taxi driver: Yes, I can always tell. You look exactly the same. [Getting increasingly excited] Your faces! What you wear!  [Shakes his head knowingly and drives on into the smog satisfied in the knowledge of having enlightened another ignorant foreigner.]

Mixed Race Chinese

This was the biggest shock and a guess I’ve heard a good three or four times. The ability to speak intermediate Mandarin apparently means you’re a candidate for having at least one Chinese parent. Even then, it is pushing it a bit as I look not even a little bit Chinese.

I was once asked ‘Are you Chinese?’ by an earnest shopworker in a bakery after placing an order in Mandarin.

‘What?’ I replied, in a sudden attack of wit as the people in the queue behind me began cackling at him.

‘Why would you ask that? In what way does she look Chinese? What a stupid question. You ShǎGuā 傻瓜 [my favourite insult meaning ‘blockhead’, literally: ‘stupid melon’].’

‘I was confused!’ claimed the shopworker, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘She was speaking Mandarin!’

Another time, a joke I once made to a martial arts teacher about being Cantonese went a bit far when he took it seriously. He explained that he thought I was half-Chinese and that maybe the reason my Mandarin wasn’t fluent was that Cantonese is actually my first language. A girl can dream.

Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

Judging by my current experience, I would say that the biggest compliment seems to be to call someone Chinese, with Russian/Soviet coming in second place, and British usually a downright insult or at least a conversation stopper.

Which brings me on to Brexit (all roads do, after all, lead to Brexit).  After the monarchy, Brexit is probably the best thing that has happened to Britain from a conversational point of view. If you’re not asked about Kate and William, or your opinion on Brexit, the sad truth is that you will have little else to discuss regarding the land of the morbidly obese and the fat-featured. You’d be better off discussing the Soviet Union’s latest Five Year Plan and agricultural output for 2016.

What’s In A Name?

The Chinese language is great at nicknames. Everyone seems to have one. People who have just met often give each other familial nicknames like ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. I’ll often get called ‘big sister’ (JiěJiě 姐姐) by younger children, who are often called ‘little friends’ or (小朋友 XiǎoPéngYǒu ).

Supreme Leaders aren’t spared either. Take Kim Jong-un for example, who China’s netizens like to refer to as ‘Fatty Kim the Third’, ‘Fatty Kim the Second’ being his late father, Kim Jong-il, and ‘Fatty Kim the Great’ being, of course, the original Kim.

As a little gesture of goodwill to North Korea, who weren’t too happy about the name, China recently banned its use on the internet. So if you search for ‘Fatty Kim The Third’ directly, that’s 金三胖, you’ll get this on Baidu (the top Chinese search engine):

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‘Sorry, no results have been found for ‘Fatty Kim the Third”

 

 

And this on Weibo (the biggest social media site):

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On Weibo at least, the effort seems a little half hearted. Not only does ‘Fatty Kim the Third’ still auto-complete in the search bar, but you can easily get round the ban by replacing any of the characters in the name with the pinyin version (phonetic reading using roman alphabet).

Searching for ‘金三pang’, for example, yields a host of Fatty Kim jokes. One blogger lists more than 10 variations on the name (my favourite is ‘Second Fatty-Plus’)  to illustrate the fact that ‘Brother Kim’ has underestimated the flexibility and creativity of the Chinese language.

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This microblogger invites his readers to sing along to a little song he has written:

‘Oh, Fatty Kim The Third, 

You’re once as fat as Fatty Kim The Second.

Oh, Fatty Kim The Third

You’re once less fat as Fatty Kim The Fourth.’

 

 

 

 

Nicknames aren’t reserved for sizeism though. China’s first couple also go by the names of Xi Dada (习大大 ‘Daddy Xi’) and Peng Mama (彭妈妈 ‘Momma Peng’). Chinese Wikipedia’s (百度百科 Biǎdùbǎikē) dedicated page to the nickname ‘Xi Dada’ says it ‘binds the people and secretary-general together’, ‘fills the whole society with familial warmth’ and is full of ‘love, respect and expectation’. Impressive for a nickname, no?

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Say hi to Xi Dada and Peng Mama

Of course, there’s nothing to stop such names being used in a mocking way, but giving politicians nicknames, especially familial ones, makes me a little uncomfortable. In Britain, we laughed at Boris Johnson, whose nickname, ‘BoJo’, conveys some of the buffoonery he’s always been known for. But it wasn’t as funny when he went from ruffle-haired prankster to pro-Brexit campaigner, helped swing the vote to ‘leave’, and ended his  routine by vaulting neatly into the position of Foreign Secretary.

It’s ok when politicians are trying to get rid of their nicknames: it probably means you’ve hit a nerve, as in Kim’s case. And it’s fine when they’re ambivalent: I doubt Theresa May is too offended by or interested in propagating her Chinese name, ‘Aunty May’ (梅姨 MéiYí).

But when you’re not sure if a nickname was created by the adoring masses or a politician’s PR campaign, it’s creepier than the tipsy uncle who gets too handsy with the kids at Christmas. It smacks of populism, and looks suspiciously like the gateway to a cult of personality, perhaps explaining why Chinese state media have reportedly been told to cut down on their use of ‘Xi Dada’.

I quite enjoy being called ‘big sister’ by Chinese children in the street: it instantly creates a feeling of inclusivity and a degree of familiarity. But that doesn’t mean I’ll try to follow them home for dinner or think that I might actually be their long-lost sibling. Nicknames are a great way of laughing at people we don’t like, or are afraid of, or of trying to establish a bond with people we admire. But let’s not be lulled into a false sense of security by believing that a nickname really does give us a special connection with a politician, that because the nickname is silly and it sticks that we think we’re in charge, or that a politician is as invested in our interests as our family because we jokingly call them ‘daddy’.

 

Like most news over the last week, the ‘Fatty Kim’ business has largely been eclipsed by Donald Trump, another joke that ended in tears. ‘Fatty Kim’ has been relegated to the kind of bite-sized article that you’d stumble on by accident, forward to a friend for a laugh and then forget about. But if the day of ‘Papa Trump’ ever comes around, I hope we’ll all be paying a bit more attention.

 

 

Tourism with Chinese Characteristics

Blitzkrieg tourism at its best. A whirlwind of selfie-sticks, tour guide flags and hyperactive old people. On a class trip to Zhejiang Province in the southeast of China organised by my Beijing university, I was to have the genuine experience of a Chinese tour.

Thousands of Pictures Speak, Like, Millions of Words, Right?

Anyone who has witnessed a Chinese tour group descend on a site of public interest may have noticed the preoccupation with taking photos. According to my Zhejiang findings, I can report that photos fall into three general categories:

  1. The Attraction

Photographing every inch of [insert destination] with the attention to detail you would normally expect of a forensic scientist at the site of a mass homicide. Nothing is spared. Not even the toilets. Believe me. I was there.

2. The Group

Group photos with all their awkward shuffling left and right have to be taken at the end of every visit to any attraction. And at the beginning if you have time. The middle bit is optional. If you aren’t in the group photo, you weren’t there. Simple. As.

3. The Selfie

Possibly the most dangerous of the three due to the invention of the selfie-stick. I’ve yet to be brained by one but have put that down to divine intervention.

Rent A Foreigner

Before getting off our tour bus to visit Wūzhèn 乌镇 (an ancient waterside town) one day, our Chinese guide did something very strange in seeming to apologise for the presence of Chinese tourists. Specifically, he said, ‘There’ll be a lot of tourists here today from provinces all over China. Just to warn you.’

Too late did I realise he was not apologising for the fact that Chinese people had decided to go travelling within their own country, but rather warning us that we were to become part of the day’s entertainment for many people who had never seen foreigners up close. It seems that, as Instagram is banned in China, the equivalent of a really hipster filter is to grab the nearest foreigner and insert them into the photo.  In a quick survey of our travel group, it was possible to see that you can get plus points for blonde foreigners, tall ones, hijab-ed ones and ones who can speak Chinese.

I happen to fall into the blonde category so by the end of the afternoon I was pretty twitchy, having been unexpectedly snatched away several times by tiny old women with harpy-like grips. Most of the visitors that day looked to be in their 70s and upwards, with an interesting arrangements of teeth and clothing, enjoying what was probably a rare trip out of their hometown. So they were not only very excited but dressed to impress. There was much in the way of velour tracksuits, sequins, oversized sunglasses and big hair. I’d probably describe the look as drag meets Real Housewives of Orange County.

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Next Cover of Wuzhen Vogue

A Cultural Feast

One of the cities we visited was Ningbo. It happens to be one of China’s most ancient, forming part of the Silk Road and as a centre of trade, it was at different points home to Arabs, Jews, Portuguese and British who included it as a Treaty Port after the first Opium War.

So what’s Ningbo like, you ask?

Well, frankly, I haven’t a bloody clue because I didn’t get to see it.

Guess where we spent most of our time? An ancient imperial palace? An art museum? A traditional craft workshop? Perhaps a famous teahouse?

Oh, no.

A car factory.

Yes, after being given half an hour to rush around just one of the city’s ancient sites and take the obligatory group photo at the exit, we were stuffed back onto the bus like kids into the Child Catcher’s van in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to enjoy the three hour plus return trip to Ningbo’s most distant suburb to quite literally watch paint dry on car doors whilst being force-fed manufacturing statistics.

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Behold The Beauty of Ningbo                                                                                                               ‘Quality Starts With Me, Go Forward To Make The Best Factory Of The World’

One Country, Two Worlds

After being robbed of an hour of our lives by one of China’s biggest car manufacturers, we bussed our way back to the centre of town to catch a train. The Ningbo University students who accompanied us during the day rolled their eyes as soon as we were back on the coach, apologising that we’d missed basically everything of cultural and historical significance the city had to offer. “That’s the older generation’s way of thinking’, explained one student as another searched furiously on his phone for historical sites we could visit near the train station. ‘They still want to show you how strong China’s industry is. It’s a bit old-fashioned.”

Indeed, it was quite incredible how these students seemed a world away from their professors who’d planned our Ningbo itinerary. After the previous day of organised activities which included visiting the four story semi-detached house (with vegetable garden and porch) of a ‘typical Ningbo family’, the students had taken us out for a midnight barbecue. There, the conversation ranged from the likely sexuality of one of the male students who professed to be ‘a little bit confused’, to the ethics of one-night stand culture, to the hottest Chinglish phrases in Ningbo. No one talked about manufacturing statistics, no one felt the need to mention GDP, and no one wanted to chat about Ningbo’s flourishing international trade. It was quite refreshing. Probably like the sea air of the port we never got round to visiting.

What Would Goldilocks Make of China? 金发姑娘怎么看待中国?

Awful pollution like this weekend’s always puts me in a bad mood. So here’s a little bit of nitpicking for you, or TiāoMáoBìng (挑毛病 literally: ‘picking at feathers sickness’).

Much like Goldilocks’ porridge, some things in China are not quite right.

The public toilets are plentiful but they never have soap or toilet paper; the socialism is in your face but I can never tell where the Chinese characteristics end and it begins; a cup of coffee costs me the same as a 40 minute taxi ride (that’s fine with me, actually); daily life relies heavily on the internet but the wifi is some of the patchiest and slowest I’ve ever seen.

BUT.

Most fruits in Beijing come in miniature which more than makes up for all the above issues.

These ‘granulated sugar tangerines’ (沙糖桔子 ShāTáng JúZi) are the size of large grapes (large grapes, I say! Amazing!) and have popped up everywhere over the last week. I love running my hands through piles of them, they’re just too cute and I’m just too easily amused.

On that note, I’ve noticed that all my favourite foods here are orange (get in on the persimmon and sweet potato hype).

I have a very scientific theory that it’s because my air pollution app turns orange to indicate ‘moderate pollution’. Moderate pollution/the colour orange always puts me in a good mood because it’s not bad enough to have congealed into the infamous Beijing smog-soup, making it easier to ignore and get on with life without worrying about what kind of substances might be throwing a carcinogenic party in your lungs. Red (lock up the kids and throw away the key) on my pollution app makes me sad and green (what does green look like again?) is too much to ask for. So no steak or salad for me. Bring on the tangerines.

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‘Tis but a mist. Nothing but a mist. A romantic mist. Completely natural. Not poisonous. Definitely not poisonous. When Keats wrote ‘To Autumn’, he was probably thinking of Beijing’s ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Thank you, Keats.

 

Dirty Bus Rides in Beijing

 If you only have 1RMB on you, what should you spend it on?

I’d suggest a bus ride. Taking the bus in Beijing is always fun: you never know who you’re going to meet, what mood they’re going to be in and if you want to get up close and personal with real Beijingers, rush hour on a bus is really your best bet.

They’re quite communal spaces. In torrential rain, the bus driver will often pick on a passenger to come up front and wipe down the inside of windscreen with a rag (‘Left a bit! Down a bit! No! This way, not that way! More, more!’) so that he can see where he’s going. I like it when my bus drivers can see where they’re going.

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I’ve had a singing bus driver who was belting out folk songs a cappella late one evening. Another time I went all the way to the bus depot with a driver before we both realised I hadn’t got off at the last stop.

Agitated bus drivers are the best. As I get on at the first stop on the bus route, if the driver is already psyched up before they’ve hit morning rush hour, I know I’m in for a fun ride. Today’s driver was my favourite so far. As soon as we pulled out onto a main road, he started muttering darkly and bouncing around in his seat at red lights, smacking the steering wheel for emphasis. I felt a storm brewing. When a car pulled out in front halfway through a crossroads (standard procedure in Beijing) he really lost it and pulled out a tannoy which he used to address the driver in front.

The only part I understood was ‘stupid c*nt!’ (傻逼 ShǎBī for those of you working on your Mandarin), the rest was lost to me a sea of Beijing dialect’s rolling r’s.

In all, it sounded a bit like: SHABI!! arrrrarrarrrrSHAAABIarararaaaarrrrSHABI’

I’m not sure how much of the noise actually reached the driver in front and how much just echoed around the bus full of grandparents taking their grandchildren to school. No one else seemed particularly interested in the driver’s monologue but either way, the traffic moved and it brightened up my day. Maybe Transport for London should consider tannoys.