Where has the old-world charm gone?

I traipsed along the pretty streets of Fuxing Xi Lu in Shanghai earlier today, a Thursday, with company that was both gentle and genteel. It was a walk so achingly lovely, I hardly felt the cold.

It is my second time in Shanghai, after four long years, but it is only my first time to visit this very elegant part of town.  After 80 years, and even as Shanghai has morphed into a happening and a very cosmopolitan city, there is an old-world charm still attached to Fuxing Xi Lu that is evident at first sight, a feat that I am pretty sure was made possible by choice, not chance.

We arrived here mid-afternoon, went on that lovely, long, and cold walk, had an excellent dinner at the famous Crystal Jade restaurant. We walked a little bit more after that.  By then the air was colder, more than earlier that day.

I wish I had even just one photo that I could e-mail my editor along with this article, if only to share with all of you just how pretty everything was, but I don’t. Night was about to fall and we just wanted to take in as much as we could in the light of day, without having to stop every so often for a snapshot. We will, after all, be here for only three days.  I was too caught up discovering all the little nooks and corners tucked into the streets that I realized belatedly Richard and I should have taken more pictures.  I truly regret not having done just that.

I marveled at the graceful rows of strong, neatly trimmed trees lining the streets, Plane or Platane they are called.  Dotted intermittently in the vicinity are a handful of quaint shops and cafes, easily numbering under 20. There are apartments and villas, heritage and garden houses tinged heavily in beautiful European style architecture. The residents here say it remains one of the few streets in Shanghai with no skyscrapers.

I picked up some pretty little things along the way; a beach mat made of terry cloth on one side and a thinly striped pink and red cotton material on the other; silk travel pouches that were adorably and beautifully detailed; gift tags, little silk-covered blank books.  I even found plastic rulers in brick red and a forest green — just random pretty little things, very easy on the eyes.  There were a hundred more beautiful others, plates, bowls, and bracelets made of hard stone that were just perfect in that they were thoughtfully and originally crafted.  I just don’t know how to bring them all home.

I’m telling you about this lovely, lovely place that seems to have been lifted from the pages of a time so long ago, because I am feeling all nostalgic, about people and places and things.  There is something about being in an old place (never mind if it is unfamiliar) that invites me to slow down and remember old ways.

I don’t think I can say this often enough but, really, life as it was then was neither hurried nor harried.  We know that through the stories passed on to us. Now, we just rush through the days.

We also almost always look out only for what is new.  How did that come about?  What happened to the patina and flavor that only time can install in a place?  Back home, we see lots and lots of new everything, modern structures that make you forget about the majesty of a high sky.  I wish we preserved more old structures because we, too, have a beautiful heritage.

We don’t “keep in touch” as much as we really should, even if we toss that phrase around so loosely, as if wanting to stay in touch is enough.

We don’t use those pretty Spanish fans anymore. I miss the whole ritual of going to the library to borrow a book, with the borrower’s card tucked in plastic sleeves on the inside of the back cover.

I miss that time when every neighborhood was a community and everyone knew most everyone else, just like in the storybooks and movies of my childhood.

I miss the images I see in photos and movies, when boxes of letters had to be dusted as they were brought down from the attic, when we would leaf through album pages instead of browse the computer for photos.  I’m thinking it would be so nice for people to make and send handwritten notes and long letters on beautiful stationery again, and then we can all rediscover the simple joys only reading a letter can bring: the smell of ink, the loops and quirks in penmanship, the rustling of the paper, the surprise of discovering how precious and pretty the stamps used are.

We hardly use for storage pretty boxes and tins that once upon a time held chocolates and candies, we just go ahead and get those uniformly white or transparent tubs.  We don’t use aprons anymore, we hardly make anything from scratch, we can’t even find time to ride bikes leisurely! And what of sewing and potpourri and pressed flowers, and using old perfume bottles in clusters as tiny little vases?  Little girls don’t make them/do that anymore.

Yes, this is what happens when you walk through the streets of a beautiful place that reminds you of the old world.  You leave missing the old ways.

I’m simply thinking that as it is now life can be, sadly, oh so unromantic.

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