Last Saturday, I went to a social gathering I had been dreading for weeks: a wake for my friend G. Younger than me by four years, she was taken away too, too soon by that cruel and ruthless bastard cancer.
As we sat there eating smoked salmon and drinking white wine, my thoughts went to China, and to all the adventures G and I had had there in the 1990s. For G was my very first China travel companion.
She had a strange and vexing idiosyncrasy: she was allergic to chillies and favoured beige food. The first time we visited Guangzhou - before it became a mega-metropolis clogged with cars - she dragged me into something that was supposed to be a Western restaurant. You could tell it was "Western" because it had wrought iron and wicker furniture, and plastic vines hanging from the ceiling.
"Nooo, G! Don't do this to me, please!" I begged, being used only to local restaurants, where half the fun was to struggle through the Chinese characters on the chalkboard menu.
But G was nothing if not merciless. She wanted spaghetti with meatballs (or something) prepared at a safe distance from any chilli-contaminated kitchen utensil. I can't remember what I forced down, but it must have been awful.
It was there, however, that I discovered the most fabulous Chinglish menu, whose "domestic life beef immerses cabbage Brazil", "carbon burns fresh particularly must", and "three text cure" ham sandwiches have been a source of enormous pleasure ever since. Thanks G! You lit up my life.
In 2000, G suggested that we and three other people take a cruise up the Yangtze River before the Three Gorges Dam was completed. A tour? No, G! Please! I'd rather saw off my tonsils! But G was relentless, even managing to force me to fly up there instead of going by train.
Of the passengers aboard the "luxury" boat, a rusty bathtub from the 70s, we were the youngest by a good 30 years. There were three big groups on board: two American and one German, many members of which were in wheelchairs and had fake limbs. That didn't hinder Carl, only 70 years old, from trying to pick up G: "Come back to my cabin! My roommate's deaf."
The only good thing about that cruise was the excellent Sichuan food on board - which we enjoyed for exactly one meal; the next dinner, and every meal thereafter, was a Chinese take on Western food: pizza, hamburgers and steak. The Americans had complained about the awful chillies and vegetables, and had demanded "real" food.
G tried not to look triumphant - and failed.
Farewell, my friend! You're in chilli-less heaven now.