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Shanghai Return

For more than 30 years, writer Shirley Streshinsky had longed to travel to Shanghai with her husband, Ted, to find the apartment at 645 Rue Frelupt in Shanghai's old French quarter where he had lived with his Russian parents through the Second World War years. Last fall Shirley and Ted flew off to China with their 29-year-old daughter Maria, who joined her mother's quest.

Shanghai Return
by Shirley Streshinsky

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Dear Rudy,
We arrived in China with a 1935 map of Shanghai, which had the old French street names. By comparing it to a new map, we discovered that the Rue Frelupt was now Jianguo Xi Lu.

As soon as we got to Shanghai, we set out in a small bus with an interpreter and several Chinese friends. Jianguo Xi Lu was a wide avenue, lined with plane trees and long garden walls, vaguely French.

"Will you recognize it?" the interpreter asked Ted as we approached the block.

"I'm not sure," Ted said, sounding worried. Maria had fallen silent. To cover the mounting tension, we counted down.

"No. 651. . . 649. . 645"

"There, that's it!" Ted sang out, a note of triumph in his voice. Shanghai has more art deco buildings than any other city on earth, and Ted's apartment house, the Foncim, turned out to be one of them. There it was, in all its art deco glory, just as it had been 50 years ago, if the worse for wear. We walked up several flights to the top floor, and knocked on the door of No. 43. I looked at Maria. Her eyes were glistening.

No one came. We knocked again, waited. No sound, nothing.

"Not home," someone said. I took a deep breath. We had come this far; I could not bring myself to consider leaving. And then the door opened. An elderly man, quite dignified, listened to the interpreter's explanation, smiled and nodded and opened the door to us with a courtly bow.

The floors were parquet, the walls had not been painted in recent history, but even so the rooms were large and elegant, with bookcases lining the walls. Ted drifted through the flat. "This was my room," he said, sounding a bit stunned. "The bed's even in the same place. Nothing has changed." I peeked into the kitchen, where Chinese dumplings were laid out in perfect rows. Fifty years ago, I thought, they would have been Russian pirozhki.

We stepped onto a balcony overlooking a small park. "The trees are much taller now," Ted said, as if surprised that they, too, had not resisted change. Maria's hand was tucked into his arm, and her face was shining. I touched the wall to steady myself. In these rooms a family life had been lived, decisions made that had sent Ted to California, and our life together. What happened all those years ago, in this art deco apartment, was part of our family history and the very act of our being there made us witness to a past that had profoundly affected our futures.


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