Life takes us to unexpected places sometimes, and at the moment, I am in Beijing (Pékin, in French). I have a lot of conversations with people that go something like the following–if it’s underlined, it’s in Chinese:
Me: Excuse me, you can speak English question?
Other person: No. (Or, sometimes, in English: No.)
Me: (smile, walk away)
Beijing has a practically infinite number of huge buildings, but I have the good luck to be staying in a small hotel in a hutong. A hutong is a small alley between siheyuan, or residences built around courtyards; it is also the word for a neighborhood made up of such alleys. Beijing has had hutongs for maybe 700 years, and they are a traditional symbol of the city, although in recent decades, many of them have been demolished to make way for the huge buildings that compose much of the city today.
Walking through the hutong from the metro station to my hotel, I passed by any number of signs marking public toilets. “How nice,” I thought to myself, having recently come from Paris, where a free public toilet is a rare treasure. My roommate explained the reason for the large number of free facilities to me: the old residences don’t have indoor plumbing. The atmosphere is definitely interesting–on any given evening, I might walk past people cooking in the alley, or drying their laundry, or just hanging around, shirts off and smoking cigarettes. I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to try the public bathrooms yet…
Here are a couple of sentences from the French Wikipédia article about hutongs:
- passage: passage, pathway. There are other meanings, but that’s the relevant one here.
- étroit: narrow, close; strict
- la ruelle: little street; back alley; way, lane. It also seems to mean the space between a bed and the wall, but I might be reading that wrong!
- Pékin: Beijing. Some of you might be old enough to remember that the English word used to be Peking (still seen in “Peking Duck.”)
- le puits: well.