China Diary

Day 28: Shopping Failures


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Today, I changed from my dark but spacey apartment to a small but comfortable hotel room. Instead of a nice, two-bedroom place with two big TVs, two bathrooms, two toilets and a kitchen, I now have… Well. A bed.

Located on 14th floor, I have a beautiful view over Beijing CBD district. Below me runs the always-busy main street, leading all the way to Tiananmen Square and beyond. Around, the tall rooftops are hidden in the smoggy autumn weather. The street noise is constant, yet distant, almost soothing. Like listening to waves crashing on the beach in Caribbean… Or, actually, nothing like that.

I also failed quite dramatically with shopping. I thought I have a small fridge in my room, which is kinda true, but it’s meant to keep few drinks cool, and not meant to be loaded full of cheese, cakes, ham, beer and fruits, like I did. So basically, I have to throw away all that I bought – over 50€ worth of great stuff – because it will rot overnight.

I visited the office for few hours but got fed up by the absolutely dead Internet connection there, and went back to my room. I had big plans about the evening, maybe trying my luck once more at the Maggie’s, or finding a decent place for a dinner, but none of it came to be, because I fell weirdly ill for few hours. I didn’t get properly sick, just got these chills and felt weak for a moment, but I blame the weather outside.

Unlike in Finland, where you just watch if it’s going to rain and how cold it’s going to be, here you also have to observe the air quality. And today, it was a disaster. You can’t barely see across the street, let alone the horizon! The smog has descended on the city so thick it’s hard to think sun would ever shine here. And smog, it’s weird stuff. It’s kinda like fog, but it’s more … violent. More engulfing, in a way that hurts your eyes and lungs, and really puts a concrete proof on the fact that we’re really doing our best to kill the nature around us. No matter what we do in Finland, when Beijing turns on their coal-powered heaters as the winter comes, it’s another huge hole poked in the atmosphere, and there’s not much of it left anyway…

So, all I really ended up doing was playing some Skyrim, few rounds of Hearthstone with Julius and watched a movie (12th and Delaware, a documentary on an American abortion clinic and the protesters around it, pretty good, available on HBO, check it out). Oh, and just to clarify, watching a movie here means watching ten minutes of a movies, then waiting ten minutes for VPN to recover, then another ten minutes… Thus, the term “kokoillan elokuva” – “full length feature film” comes into effect around here in ways I could never have dreamt of.

 

China Diary

Day 27: Four Stages Of Isolation


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After last night’s failure with trying to reach out for fellow humans, I woke up feeling cranky and melancholic. I love my job, I really do, but this is quite a sacrifice, not being able to go back home, not being able to have wife come over, not being able to see my kid or my parents. Or friends. Or anyone. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it again: I’ll never do a film this way again. Next time, at least in the agreement there needs to be a clause which determines frequent family travels and stuff. I mean, even prisoners get to meet their families, right?

Off to a bad start, that is. I went to the office and we had agreed a haircut at a nearby salon. My assistant Crystal said to take me there, but she was completely lost trying to find the place. The sun was scorching and I got crankier and crankier. While Crystal was searching for the barbershop, I decided I wanted a coffee.

I found a nice-enough looking café and asked for an ice coffee. What they did was they poured a glass full of tap water and splashed some espersso in it. Feeling wretched, I snapped totally. I grabbed my skateboard, cursed on the way out and left the coffee there on the counter. They tried to reach after me but I was already half a mile away. What really got me was the fact that even locals don’t drink the tap water here, because it’s basically poisonous shit – it contains sediments, rusts, bacteria, virus, chlorines, and some other heavy metals. Now, I love me some heavy metal, but preferably externally, enjoyed on a stage somewhere at German countryside with 80000 other metalheads – but not in my coffee, unboiled.

All this led me to remember that I’ve read somewhere that there are four stages of culture shock, and apparently I’m going through them, one by one.

First, is the Honeymoon stage. During the honeymoon, everything is awesome. When I first came to Beijing, I thought it’s absolutely amazing in all aspects: a city that feels like it belongs to the Beijingers, the vastness, the beauty, the history… During the Honeymoon stage, the culture shows only its’ positive side and if you’re lucky, you’ll be out of there before stage 2 sets in. That’s called the Frustration stage. That’s when things begin to irk you. Well, that’s basically what my whole blog has been about for the last few weeks. The homesickness sets in alongside the longing for the comforts of home.

What I’m waiting for is the third stage, the Adjustment stage. That’s when things start to settle, you start finding friends, understanding the culture more deeply and possibly even getting a hang of the language a bit. Well, no fear for the latter one in China, that I can say, but the rest, I believe will happen. Unfortunately, I’ll be out of of here before I get the chance to go through the fourth, and the last stage – the Acceptance. It’s pretty self-explanatory – you accept you are now among this culture, learn to live with it and life goes on as it always has, only some of your preferences have changed to fit the new culture better.

There’s a pretty good article for those wanting to read more here.

So, dear reader – and dear me, reading this years from now, take my complaining in the right context: I’m going through stage 2 and it’s shit, but it will pass. Then, I’ll probably never stop yapping how awesome China and Beijing is, so that’s another one you’ll have to bear from me in the future.

In the evening, I went to my local joint and had a delicious dinner, alone, again. I’m probably the only white guy who ever entered the establishment, and there’s always the same family there serving, but every time I walk in there – and I’ve been there at least ten times in the last month – they act like they’ve never met me before. I wonder what’s that about… But the food, the food is good. And decent priced.

 

China Diary

Day 26: Money to the Machine


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I’ve been here now for one month. That’s one month of being away from home, from my son, my wife, my parents and sister. It’s a humbling experience. And the only real contacts to outside people are Lei, and Mika whenever he’s around. With everyone else, I have no way to communicate with.

As a social person (socialist?), I crave for this kind of thing. I’m not the one who goes to his room and feels fine by just playing, reading, watching movies and going to the gym. I need human contact. Honestly, I’m cracking up here. There’s nobody to talk to, outside of the very rare people in work, and with them I can’t really go too much into personal / nonsensical level – which is, actually, the very basis of human communication! Humans didn’t become this terrible juggernaut of destruction by talking shop all their waking hours. We want to gossip, talk bullshit, joke around and argue about absolutely nothing. This is how our intelligence came to be. As a side product, we also started to solve problems, discuss collaborations and such stuff, but had we used the language only for that, we humans would’ve ended up killing each other in no time.

So, that’s what I need. Someone to talk nothing to. Even a bartender talk would do, but bartenders here – and there’s basically no bars – speak no English. They understand “beer” if I point it out on a menu, but again, no common way to have a dialogue with them on any meaningful level. Also, the culture apparently is not very stranger-chatty here: I wouldn’t expect Chinese going to a bar and yapping to the bartender just for the sake of fun. Well, same goes to Finland, of course, but the reasons differ: in China, they probably have tighter family ties and more friends and acquaintances to chat with. In Finland, we just don’t have the nerve to open our mouths with strangers, who knows if we say something stupid and will have to endure a lifetime of humiliation, self-hate and possibly eventually a suicide. Talking to a stranger can get you killed in Finland. By you.

Luckily, I have my diary. “Dear diary”, they said. Well, it’s becoming more dear to me. It’s the only entity I can unload my thoughts and feelings to. The fact that you are reading it is actually not the point, it’s actually not even very relevant as the format goes, although I do like to think there are people who read this and sometimes scoff and say: “that guy sucks”. That’s an achievement already! And I hope my family reads this every now and then. I know Annika does, I think daddy reads this too, mother also but her English is not very good for long reads. Whoever is reading, remember, this is not written for you, it’s a therapy for me.

But, back to the topic of communication. Yesterday, instead of whining about it by myself, I went out to have a nice dinner at a small restaurant close by, called Nola. They server killer burgers, so I had something like a burger and enjoyed the atmosphere. But again, the problems of communication are vast and unprecedented: the bar was full, and next to me was a happy group of Mexicans… But boy, were they loud. So there I am, craving to hear people talking and having fun, but now I had my share of it, in Spanish, shouted to my ear. I plugged my earphones on and dipped into the sad world of Finnish music – stories of longing, of lost love, grief and failures. Nothing cheers me up more these days.

After the (brilliant, yet heavy) dinner, I skated to see if Maggie’s was open today. And by golly, it was! The beautiful, inviting light shining in the night wasn’t the headlight of a Taxi, like Tuomari Nurmio sings, but the neon letters MAGGIE’S. I snuck in and found myself in a beautifully decorated, old-style bar with jazzy music, huge bar and few customers sitting around. I ordered a whiskey to help digestion, and lo and behold, a bartender comes to talk to me!

I was in ecstasy. He asked where I was from, how long I was staying here in China, what was I doing (I didn’t tell I’m a director, the less people know it the more meaningful conversations I have) and that sort of things. There were not that many people around so he had time to chat, and I enjoyed the little convo to the fullest.

All this time, a pretty girl had been eyeing me over bar counter on the other side. I knew instantly the name of the game: I’m not the guy pretty young girls give the eye over the counter because I’m a handsome hunk. Nope. They do it either because they know I’m a director of an international film and they want to present themselves as a possible actor for whatever I’m doing next, but since she couldn’t know that, the only other possibility was that she was looking for customers. And of course, she had teamed up with the bartender, so the moment the bartender found I was around here by myself, he tried to wink her secretly to get her over.

She did. She walked next to me, started asking: hi, how are you. Are you alone? Where are you from? My mood dropped. I was enjoying my drink there, chatting with friends over Whatsapp and exchanging few lines with the bartender, having good ol’ time in an environment I found pleasant, but suddenly, I had to find a polite way to tell I’m not going to buy any more services. How do you do that? “Hey, hooker, get away?” “No, I’m not interested?” “I was enjoying my time alone here?” I don’t know. We Finns are not very good in this kind of situations. So all I could think was being polite for few lines, then finish my drink, thank the bartender and the professional lady, and get out of there.

Duh.

China Diary

Day 25: Cross-Examination


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An actor came to meet with Max. Without revealing any names, he’s a big shot actor here in China, and we are trying to lure him to play one of the key roles in Iron Sky: The Ark. Max’s style is, as I’ve told before, quite interesting: he has developed this story and these characters for many years, and also he’s really aware of what’s working for the Chinese market, and he’s hell bent into making Iron Sky: The Ark a big hit here. I’m the first to sign that ambition, so I’ve given him quite a lot of say over the casting of Chinese actors, since I really don’t know them basically at all outside of the typical Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Fan Bing Bing.

So this guy is a big name. Usually, when considering big stars you would expect a huge entourage, a lot of useless waste of time around the persona and expensive taste, but this guy reminded me of a Finnish actor, one of those long-time stage actors who don’t care about the money, or which stars are attached to the project, but actually want to dig deeper into the story. They want to understand what they as an actor can bring to the table, and that I find the best kind of actors to work with.

Actually, come to think of it, there are four types of actors. Number one, and the most usual kind of an actor is an aspiring (young) talent, one looking to make her’s or his first big break. They are willing to do nearly any role, as long as it provides visibility, and want to do it as well as possible. They are easy to work with, but they usually lack the experience and the foothold of the business to really challenge the director to make their role even better.

Secondly, there are the professionals who never made it big. They’ve been in the business a countless years, and they’ve been directed by everyone plus their mothers. They show up, know their lines, do their work and go back home. They’ve lost their interest in pursuing the big stardom, knowing it’s not necessarily about the amount of time, blood, sweat and tears they pour into one role, but more – it’s a numbers game. The more roles you do as well as you can, the more probable it is you find the right director, right role and the right amount of screentime and then, you’re headed for the awards.

Third are of course the big stars. They are very hard to reach because they have an army of agents and managers working for them, so being directly in touch with them is really rare. Before they even read the script the production has had already agreed salary, shooting days and what kind of hotel rooms they want to live in. If all this matches, then it’s the script and only after that there’s a chance to approach them as a director. It makes a lot of sense: there are only a handful of names people know all around the world, and everyone wants them to work in their movies.  If they were to read every script and have every conversation with every director in the world, they’d be doing nothing but that for the rest of their days. Knowing how heartbreaking it can be reading one really bad script, I totally understand the wish to avoid that.

Fourth are the ones I met on Tuesday at Max’s office: hardened professionals who are both stars but in it for the art itself. They go hard on the director, to find out if she or he knows what they are claiming to be doing. They want to have a full trust on the director, on the story and on the character. Sometimes, this can be also very taxing: sometimes, a character doesn’t need to be the deepest, most layered presentation of human flaws and strengths – all you have to do is just go out there and say your lines and get out of there. But in the case of this role, this is exactly what I’m looking for, because it’s a delicate role: the whole film is based on a father-daughter -relationship which goes haywire, and for those little tilting points, turns and curves it takes, we need someone who can really dig into it.

In the end of the lengthy (three hours!) grilling session, he said he does have another six projects lined up, and he’s trying to make the decision between them. Until then, I was having a good feeling that this convo is going strongly, we were agreeing on the character and the way to portray it, but after the cold fact that we are not the only ones with interesting characters in the script in China market, my mood took a tumble. Well, now it’s up to the actor, agent and producer see if anything comes out of it. But if nothing else, being cross-examined by an actor of a specific role is very rare in this business in this depth, so at least there was a lot of things I came to think for the first time, really, and made me prepare better for the job in October.

 

China Diary

Day 24: Neighbourhood Watch


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I’ve really been stuck into this little area of mine, like never before. Usually, when I’m abroad working I do get around the city at least a bit, trying to find fun things to do or just rolling around for fun, but here, I’ve locked myself between my apartment and my office quite tightly.

There are few reasons, I figured out the other day: first, the language. Wherever I go, I won’t get along with anyone. Thus, it’s always a bit of a problem if anything goes wrong, or anything happens that I need, most likely there’s nobody around who has any English skills whatsoever. The other is, this is a huge city: I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s easier to just stay home, because going wandering around is like going wandering around in some Los Angeles area: unless you know what you’re looking for, most likely you won’t find anything. Third, of course, is the traffic. I could get a cab, but I don’t want to sit in a traffic for an hour. So, it’s just simply much more easier to stay in my neighborhood, and since there’s really nothing interesting going on around, I’d rather stay home, maybe go to gym, watch a movie or play some Skyrim.

But, although that’s kinda nice, I’m not very good at that kind of loitering around. I’ve always found doing nothing really disturbing thought. In the beginning of the stint here in Beijing, my days were so fully packed that there was absolutely nothing else to do than work and crash home and sleep. But now, things have slowed down a bit. Every department is crunching their work and my input is right now needed not that very much. So I have some free time off.

On Monday, I started to feel restless so I took my board and went cruising downtown. The streets here are wide and safe, thanks to ample bike lanes. The weather was sunny and warm, although the chill of the autumn can be felt especially during the evenings. I picked a Mexican to go for a dinner, kicked my way over there only to find it was closed, so I started to wander around the neighbourhood. Suddenly, I bumped into a German biergarten. A proper one, not a Chinese remake, but one that serves the right stuff, the right kind of beer and even plays the right (or wrong) kind of horrible German schlagers.

There were no westerners there, so I decided to change my dinner plans from Mexican to Sauerkraut. I wasn’t disappointed: the meat could’ve been a bit less dry, but other than that, the dish was spot on. One huge Franziskaner Weissbier I continued my journey through the area which turned out to be the other end of the embassy district. Police vans stand in the corner, guards march to show their presence and big, walled buildings line the beautiful alleys that cross the area.

I skateboarded past a bar I knew should be nice for foreigners, called Maggie’s, but didn’t go in – it was closed. There was a park which looked nice, but it was too dark already, so I decided to head home. Nola, the hamburger restaurant I like around the corner invited me in for a drink and some American country. Although the bar staff didn’t get the concept of sitting at the bar and having a drink without an intention to eat or do anything else, it was still pretty pleasant, chill experience. Afterwards, I jumped back on the board and headed back home.

 

China Diary

Day 23: Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon


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Sunday, I had a full day off. There was absolutely nothing booked for me, and I think most of the office people were off as well, so I took the day very easily. I managed to miss again the breakfast, but got a bite downstairs and then hit the gym. I did my whole exercise routine, taking all the time I needed, then enjoyed some sauna and finally wandered to the nearby restaurant for a nice dinner. Recharging the batteries for next week, this day was truly way overdue.

And that was about it. I didn’t do anything, so there’s nothing much to tell about.  End of story. Thank you. See you tomorrow.

China Diary

Day 22: All Quiet In The Western Front


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Look at that! A greasy, mushy, lovely pizza! And it went right into my belly! Right there!

Ground Control To Major Tom… Take your protein pills and put your helmets on. I woke up craving a pizza. No noodles. No seafood. No fancy Japanese, nothing weird, nothing Chinese but a typical pizza. I asked Crystal to get me one, and lo and behold, a Pizza Hut box showed up in front of my door in less than 2 hours (yeah, not that great an achievement, but I’m trying to be positive here).

Most of my Saturday was off – I was needed at the office not before 6pm, so I kicked back, had a pizza and played some Skyrim. In the night, we went to see Baby Driver with the AD team. I have a hate-love relationship with Edgar Wright: to me, he almost hits the right marks, but then… there’s always a little something wrong. For example, in the case of Baby Driver, the film started off very strong, grew even stronger – and then they sort of ran out of locations, or budget, or something. You could see they’ve tried to add every detail of the confusing plot to it, and it leaves you wondering what’s actually what and why. In the end, the film left a very unsatisfactory feeling in the back of my head, although the beginning promised that a legend had been born. Or maybe it’s the contrast, the drop that really made me feel like I actually didn’t like the film overall.

Ah, what am I complaining? And furthermore, who am I to say? When Iron Sky The Coming Race hits the theaters, I’ll be the guy with a huge bullseye drawn into my ass for every critic to gun me down if they wish, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It happened with the first Iron Sky, and while I understand some of the criticism, it’s hard not to feel some films are dragged out and used as a punching bag for less-than-mediocre writers to rehearse their dwindling skillset. It’s going to be easier with Iron Sky The Coming Race simply because it’s more an agreeable movie, but still – it’s a scifi comedy with Nazis in it. People will go see it with a predetermined set of opinions and those can’t be changed, not even if it was Spielberg himself running the show.

Back to China. When the darkness falls over the city, and especially when it rains, I feel like walking in Blade Runner set. A computer-generated set, mind you, as my lovely wife noted. And yeah, she’s kinda right, this doesn’t look like a photo, but a matte painting or something:

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“Welcome to the Sprawl, chummer. Too bad you could make it.” -Shadowrun

And what about this? Didn’t the director mention the production designer she shouldn’t use such a heavy neon sign, that we get it with much less?

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“Night City was like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. ” – William Gibson/Neuromancer
China Diary

Day 21: BYOB


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Production designer, a production assistant and DOP Mika Orasmaa digging through the latest concept artwork.

Mika left back to Finland for a week on Saturday, so on Friday we decided to throw a little party for him, as a thanks for the hard work he had done so far. The day went by slowly by scribbling more storyboards and meeting actors, and around 9 pm, we finally jumped on a car and drove to my so-far-favorite seafood restaurant in the … well, probably the whole world.

The place is crazy! It’s really local, so plastic table cloths and noisy atmosphere are a default. The food lies there in fish tanks – big lobsters, ugly-looking fish and endless selection of different type of clams.

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Almost waiting to hear one of them start talking in the voice of “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero: “You know I’ve been working with the government, right, Ton’? “

The tables have a built-in steamer in them: the waiter brings a bucket of whatever dish we are currently having – say, shrimps, that are of course still alive and kicking – and pours them in the steamer. Then, a lid is placed over, and the steamer hisses away for minute, and voilá, the food is ready!

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To get some more action to the dish, you dip it in a sauce you get to make yourself, and down it of course with a huge glass of Chinese white wine. And as I’ve told before, the white wine is definitely not a nice glass of perfectly chilled Chardonnay, but a plastic petrol canister filled with what we call “The Gasoline”. It’s 55% strong pure booze, which the production manager lugs around to every dinner we have (apparently the restaurants around here are BYOB – Bring Your Own Bucket), and me – as a director – I get a special treatment of full glass of white wine and am expected to drink it as well.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the amazing dinner and sent Mika back to Finland in style. For me, it was a relatively weekend ahead, which I had decided to take as easy as possible, because honestly, there’s no rest for the wicked here in China…

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China Diary

Day 20: Casting challenges


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Casting is the most important part of director’s job, and also the easiest. Once you meet the right person for the role, you know it instantly. All kind of auditions are a waste of time, it’s the first “hello” when you know whether or not this person is the person you’re looking for the role. What makes it hard is to make up conversation with the actors you don’t want to cast, to not to make them feel bad for taking the trouble and coming over for an audition. There are of course exceptions: when I casted Lara for Iron Sky The Coming Race, I nearly passed her because the first casting tape wasn’t really what I was looking for. Luckily, she did another one and that was a ten. But for Julia for Iron Sky 1, and Vladimir for Iron Sky The Coming Race, it was really clear the moment they walked in: that’s who I want for this role.

Casting Iron Sky: The Ark is a bit different experience. This time, I’m not the only one who has a say on things: Max knows the market here and has great experience with actors around here, so with many roles I go with his recommendation. This time, we also have to deal with the big casting agencies in USA, which adds another layer of confusion to the pot, but if the cast that I’m planning to get works, I’m going to be really happy.

Sometimes, finding the right person can be just a terrible drag. I remember casting for The President of the United States of America’s role in Iron Sky 1. I saw tens of casting tapes from actors of which none were anything close to the role, and the shoot was creeping up closer. On the last minute I got the last casting tape from this great Australian lady, Stephanie Paul, and she was perfect! I was just about to give up on the role, but she stepped in the last moment.

Right now, much of my days here go by meeting actors, doing auditions with different combinations and trying to find one or two very important actors. In addition to this, we’ve been sitting with Mika doing storyboards every night until it’s nearly midnight, so when I get home, my brain is a toast. I might’ve even written about it here, but I can’t remember anymore…

China Diary

Day 19: Little Trouble in Big China


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The biggest city in the world, and the only places I go are between my office and the darkness of my apartment. The weather is starting to get a bit less humid and murky here as the days grow shorter and we move closely towards the autumn. It also brings much-needed gusts of wind that travel down the city streets and alleys, making the air fresher – but it’s still definitely the summer, although autumn is knocking on the door. Well, soon it’s September and yet another year has tilted towards its’ steady slide towards the end. Time slides.

Yesterday, I heard some bad news for my personal life, and much of the day went to recover from that. It’s funny how a single Skype message can truly push the day off the track. Afterwards, it was hard to follow the discussions and the meetings – I was only half way in the game, when the other half was going around in circles trying to figure this other issue. Also, I do feel like I’m in a need of a full day off. I’m starting to feel a bit robotic here, and especially this week has been extremely hard, since we work the whole day first with the production, and then, just as I’d normally head back home, we open the Skype connection back to Finland and start doing storyboards, over an extremely bad Internet connection, which adds a twist of stress to the whole experience.

It feels there’s so much to do still with the production, yet the first shooting day nears steadily. Soon it’s under 1,5 months away, and I’m feeling the good old panic starting to dig in. If it wasn’t for this other shit, it’d be easy, but right now it’s like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, and while the other front is victorious, the other side is doing some pretty nasty damage to my troops’ morale. I know, it’s vagueblogging, I should just go ahead and tell what’s on my mind, but I’d rather not. But let’s just say I’m happy I have my wife’s support, without her I’d be a wreck, even if we are going through this weird long-distance relationship thing right now…

Coming back home from yet another hard day at work at 10pm, I felt pretty bombed. I started watching The Founder on Netflix, but of course the VPN decided to give up the ghost right in the middle, so I grabbed my wallet and went out to get a bite. I wasn’t even hungry, I really just wanted to see some human beings doing normal, non-work related things.

I wandered to a nearby traditional Chinese joint around the corner and sat down having few beers and some great dish of something I had no idea of what it was. They were renovating, so there was quite a commotion going on. There were loud families around, people banging with hammers on the walls and the service was as bad as you can expect – and the food: simply put – delicious. I enjoyed the whole chaos to the fullest, and even thought about heading over for a nightcap to a bar somewhere, but realized the closest one was some fifteen to twenty minutes walk away in some dark alley, and decided to call it a night instead.