Monday, January 19, 2009

I grind my teeth again

First, a little background.

I have a nice staircase.

Non-Beijing residents will probably fail to appreciate the significance of that.

I have possibly the only nice staircase in Beijing, perhaps even in the whole of China. Certainly the only one I've ever seen.

Most Chinese staircases are grim affairs of bare grey cement. Any plaster or paint that may have been applied, was applied long ago, and in the most desultory possible manner, so that it is now cracked and peeling; but mostly it's just naked concrete and cement. There are rarely if ever any windows. There may not be much light of any kind, since few people will take any responsibility for replacing light-bulbs in a communal area (though many will not be above sometimes filching them); and the clap-sensitive switches they are usually operated by are frequently very finicky, or fail altogether - leaving you to stamp a mad tarantella for several seconds on each landing before you finally accept that either the switch is broken or the bulb is, and you must grope your way onwards hoping for better luck on the next storey. These drab, poorly-lit stairwells are usually dusty as hell, too; they're often either completely open to the elements on the ground floor, or there's a door which is left open most of the time - so the soil-laden Beijing wind can blow through freely, depositing its silt on the steps. And no-one ever cleans, of course. Landings tend to get colonised with unwanted furniture from the adjoining apartments, and/or with the tenants' bicycles. Indeed, on some levels you encounter such nearly-impassable entanglements that you wonder, "Just how many people live in this apartment? And do they really all have two bicycles each?"

That is your typical Beijing/China stairwell in an apartment block - even in the swanker modern buildings that are intended primarily for foreigners. My building is not that swanky or modern, and is not intended for foreigners (although the rest of the tenants are fairly well-to-do Chinese). I didn't really appreciate at first just how untypically wonderful my stairwell is, because I was so focused on assessing the apartment. But it is wonderful.

There is a decorative stair railing of wrought iron, topped by a varnished wooden banister (stair rails? banisters?). The floor is tiled with gleaming faux marble. The walls are whitewashed. There's a window on every storey. Failed light bulbs are replaced quite promptly, and the touch-sensitive switches - though sometimes a bit fiddly (and you have to take your gloves off) - all work. There are even a few paintings on the walls. Nobody leaves furniture or bicycles blocking the landings (although there is a family downstairs that occasionally parks a huge baby-stroller just inside the door on the ground floor). And we have an ayi to mop it clean for us once or twice a week.

It is a uniquely charming feature of my building, and it adds immeasurably to my quality of life.

Of course, there's a 'but' coming.....

Now, I don't want this to seem like a 'China rant'. I believe I am, for the most part, unusually tolerant and forgiving of the occasionally vexing foibles of the people of my host country. I try very hard not to allow myself to harbour prejudices against any people or culture. There is just one exception I feel justified in granting myself: there is one sub-set of mankind that I find to be almost invariably contemptible and deserving of no allowances whatsoever. I refer, of course, to NEIGHBOURS. (Oh, the folks in the neighbourhood may be perfectly OK; the chaps next door are often thoroughly decent and charming people; but again and again - in many different countries around the world - I seem to have found myself sharing a building with the most vile sociopaths.)

Our staircase ayi does not take out garbage. On a typical Beijing staircase, it might be quite acceptable (though not, I think, a commonplace) to leave ill-sealed plastic bags full of soiled diapers and rancid vegetable peelings outside your door for a day or two, because things are already so grubby and smelly out there that it's not really going to degrade the environment any further. On my staircase, it is not, repeat NOT acceptable. Most residents seem to understand that straight away. One or two who may have suffered an initial blindspot about this have been swiftly reminded of it (usually by the simple expedient of moving their bag of trash away from the top of the stairs [where I or other residents on higher floors are likely to trip over it] back towards the opening of their own door [where they are likely to trip over it]; I have once or twice had to resort to hanging the bags on their door-handle to emphasise the point; I've never yet been forced to tear the bag open and smear its contents all over their doorstep, although I have been mighty tempted once or twice). We get the ocasional random transgression - one or two bits of trash left outside for a few hours, one day at most - but no serial offenders.

Until this new family moved in downstairs. They are fairly regular offenders. And they have just left two very large bags of trash, one of which was full of soiled diapers (I know, I know: my British chums would prefer me to say 'dirty nappies', but being part of an expat community does internationalize one so....), almost completely blocking the stairway, for four whole days. If they hadn't taken them away today, I think I would have gone f***ing ballistic on them.

I think I'm probably going to have to have words.......

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