Taipei: "Fur Elise"



Republic of China

October 24, 2007

Dear Family and Friends,

I am shocked, shocked to find that "Für Elise" is the "national anthem" of Taiwan!

As I check in to the Han She Hotel in Taipei, "Für Elise" flows forth from the lobby sound system. It's not a very good version; it's too heavy for my taste, and not lovely and lyrical as Beethoven intended. 

As I stroll around Taipei, and in the streets of other cities and towns, "Für Elise" pours forth. But from where? At first I thought it was a loud mobile phone announcement or maybe an inducement from a shop or a restaurant. But it's playing on every street, morning, noon and night. Finally I found the source.

That lovely and lyrical solo piano piece that all of my students begged to play, "Für Elise" is the Taiwanese National Anthem of Waste Management. "Roll over Beethoven."

Ja. It's true. With their swirling lights flashing and speakers ablaze, huge yellow garbage trucks announce their route and their presence by blaring out the first sixteen measures of, it pains me to say it, "Für Elise."

(How many young Taiwanese boys and girls do you suppose are aching to play the song from the garbage truck?)

"When we hear that tune, we know it's time to bring the trash to the street" my new friend Paula plainly explained.

Matthew, Mike, Shane, Emily, Annie, Sarah, are you shocked? Look at the bright side: 22.5 million Taiwanese get to hear Beethoven every day. Ludwig, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

OK. Now for something more important. You are aching to know about my new friend Paula, right?

Paula and I met on the Internet. But not like you think.

I sent an email to The Cosmos Hotel to reserve a room for my arrival in Taipei. Paula, the Sales Supervisor, wrote to say they were fully booked. I wrote back to her to ask if she could recommend other hotels in the area. She sent me a list. I wrote again saying I was successful in finding a room and I asked for her suggestions for places to visit. Again she took the time to send me a list of her favorite spots.

Paula and I met in Taipei and had coffee at her hotel. One evening we had dinner together at the bustling night market: Japanese food and then Chinese desert at one of the market stalls. Paula also invited me to a "language exchange gathering." I had to decline since I had made plans to rent a car and leave Taipei. We had coffee again when I returned.

My brief and happy friendship with Paula is typical of all of my personal interactions in Taiwan. Here it seems everyone is both friendly and generous.

One day in Taipei I wanted to find an Internet café. I asked a young man who was working at a beverage shop. He left the shop and walked with me for two streets and took me to the entrance.

In my small hotel in Jiufen, a town on the Northeast Coast Scenic Area, I asked the housekeeper if I could have some laundry done. Jessica, a young Philippine woman agreed to help me. When she returned the cleaned shirts, she refused to accept any payment.

I had the same experience at the hotel in Fushing, a hilltop town in the Shimen Reservoir Scenic Area.

On a rainy day in Suao, a port city on the east coast, I pulled in to the Fire Station to ask directions to a hotel. The Fire Chief ordered one of the men to drive a van so I could follow him.

I got lost walking in Hualien, a large city on the East Coast National Scenic Area. I asked a man for directions to my hotel and he offered to take me on his motor scooter.

I decided to wash my rental car before returning it. In Lugang, a Taiwan Heritage city on the west coast, I found a car wash/car detailing shop. We agreed on a price. They were working methodically on other cars and eventually I grew impatient. I smiled and explained again that I only wanted a quick wash. No waxing or detailing. A young man finally hosed down the car and when I tried to pay the agreed price, the owner refused my offer. When I tried to give the boy a tip, he also refused.

Everyone smiles. Everyone is happy to help. And almost everyone doesn't speak a word of English.

And I speak exactly three words of Chinese: Hello. Thank you. Delicious. And that's it.

So, with the exception of my conversations with Paula and Jessica, all of the interactions are non-verbal. Thankfully, my Lonely Planet guidebook printed all the names of hotels and tourist attractions in Chinese characters. ** I just needed to point to the spot in my book or on my bi-lingual map. *** Hotel business cards are an absolute requirement for illiterates like me. I also have developed a full repertoire of gestures and facial expressions. You should have seen me at the car wash!

The Taiwanese are friendly and generous, tolerant and considerate, and also open to negotiation:

I was a walk-in at the four-star Azure Hotel in Hualien. Ted, the receptionist quoted 2300 NT. **** I responded with my usually successful plea, "I am just a retired teacher traveling on a budget." "OK, 2100." "Sorry, still too high for me. I will look around." One other hotel in the neighborhood had a similar price and another, a lower price but also much lower quality. When I returned to the Azure Hotel, Ted offered me the room for 1800 including taxes and breakfast and Internet.

In Lugang, the four-star Leader Hotel and Resort quotes me 2500 NT, including taxes, buffet breakfast, a swimming pool, exercise room, and free Internet. I proffer my usual "plea." "OK, 2300." I hem and haw and pace around for a bit, as I consult my guidebook. Finally, and firmly, I turn toward Linda, the Front Office Manager, "I will stay for 1900." Linda says, "OK!"

Linda is a charming woman, age appropriate for me but, she is married and has two children. Cheerful Jessica has a family in Manila. Paula is an energetic and ambitious young woman looking for a young man. With just a hint of color on his lips, Ted seems interested. I also met shy Jenny at my hotel in Taipei and just by chance, I met lovely Christa at a roadside coffee shop in the north. Now I have several new pen pals and friends who I will look forward to seeing again.

In the meantime, I am planning to send a polite but firm letter to theTaipei Department of Sanitation with a suggestion about their musical selection. How about Mozart's Rondo alla Turca?  Please mail me your own recommendations. Paper or plastic. Up to you.


P.S. If waste management hasn't spoiled your appetite, I hope I have aroused your curiosity with mention of the Scenic Areas. I have attached a few photos as a preview.

P.P.S. Enjoy the music.

** "Taiwan." Lonely Planet. 2004.

*** "Taiwan." Shan Ju Publishing Co.

**** $1US = 32 NT (New Taiwan Dollar)


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