Monday, November 28, 2011

Traveling Like a Queen

After filling up four days off for Thanksgiving--the kids were with their father and second mom--with seeing friends and distracting myself with a lot of walking and magazines, I spent my Sunday evening watching a wonderous French film, Queen of Play.

It's about chess, but of course it's a metaphor.  The story is familiar, with a working class woman for whom suddenly the world cracks open and she can't turn back, even though she knows she should.  She's no sweet young thing but a woman with a long marriage and a teenaged daughter, making it more Bridges of Madison County than Pretty Woman.  But it's a French movie so, happily, the viewer doesn't need to be whacked over the head, and the relationship between Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline), who speaks in French through the whole thing, is more about delicious flirtation than getting down to it.  Bonnaire's character discovers her game through an encounter with a guest at the hotel where she changes beds, and she sees a path she must walk down, the village gossips be damned.

We're all held in by our internal expectations of behaving well.  My recent trip to Asia was sanctioned given work commitments, but I tacked on a couple of days in San Francisco for my own benefit.  There were friends I asked to come along, but they have kids and men and work, and I wondered for a brief moment if I should just do the proper thing and come straight home.  "All by yourself?" my little good girl voice asked.  This was the moment when I realized it is possible to wait forever to find a person to do things with, but if I want to do something it was time to do it myself.  I haven't the patience to get on a tour bus, so solo it was.

After a week in a smoggy Beijing and thirteen hours in coach, I landed at SFO.  It was Chamber of Commerce weather, with such perfect sunshine off the Bay I practically wept.  After a hot shower I hit the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building and ordered lunch and a fine glass. I was so tired and turned upside down it wasn't weird to be there by myself.  The couple who sat beside me struck up a conversation and told me to hit Chaya for sushi later that night.   I hadn't really liked the woman of the team when she came in and started talking, but suddenly I realized being approachable might not be a bad thing and decided to take her advice. 

Chaya's bar was upscale and also fun, even at an early hour.  It was amazing to me how people, men and women, just started chatting me up.  I met a writer, a cool woman from Kansas who'd been educated in the UK, and a couple of crazy chicks.  A man with the warmest voice I've ever heard bought me a glass of wine from the other end of the bar, and when I thanked him and shook his hand, I felt like I'd met someone I'd known forever and had a strong desire to throw my arms around him.  He took a friend to the airport and came back to spend two hours talking to me. The next night we spent several more talking at my birthday dinner. (I'd booked a spot at Frances, where I'd decided I could be on my own, which would have been lovely in any case.  Being with him, however, was much better.) 

A couple of weeks later, I'd head back to the city for a longer visit.  Now we've eaten well several times and have checked out Napa together.  We shall see what follows, but it's been a very nice time indeed, and I am grateful be in a personal place and to live in a time when that's all I must consider.  The only downside is that it gave my Thanksgiving weekend a very hard act to follow.

Helene's journey is also uncertain, and like me a few years ago, she has more to lose and the fear of hurting those she loves. All she knows is that she must forge ahead, and luckily she's got some support, though she is out of her depth and is old enough to know it. Like all wise adventurers, she is thrilled but scared to death.  As she leaves idyllic Corsica by ship in a final scene, the one she loves grows smaller and smaller, and she waves in a futile gesture.  She's on her own now.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hailing a Cab in Beijing

Coming off the adrenaline high that is my firm's annual meeting, I had a few extra hours on a Saturday morning in Beijing and decided to jump in a cab at my hotel and run up to T Square, as it's known among the well-traveled in Asia.  "Tiananmen Square," the cabbie sang, mocking my American accent, as we drove up the freeway to the infamous spot, across from the Forbidden City and smack in the middle of Beijing, a metropolis with a population of 23 million souls and almost 5 million cars.

I noticed him regarding me in his rearview mirror, seemingly interested in a woman, or at least a Western woman, in a taxi by herself. "Square, no stop," he said knowingly.  In fact the Forbidden City, which is immediately across the boulevard and almost eight million square feet in size, means that there are no cross streets for at least twenty blocks, so I ended up jumping out once we hit gridlock in front of the iconic portrait Mao had installed when he became the boss of everybody. 

People were out in droves, shopping and enjoying the weekend morning.  I'd been in the area the night before, after a group dinner, where I'd ended up with a few others led by a worldly colleague in a little bar owned by a German expat.  It had been dark and quiet and gated off for the most part, but now in daylight it was loud and filled with the smell of cigarettes and the frequent whiff of sewage, though the streets were quite clean.  I walked past the landmarks and into my previously unexplored territory. 

Even though I am a small person with straight dark hair, I still got plenty of stares.  People were buying roasted chestnuts and some sort of pastry.  Justin Bieber sang in a tinny voice over the din of the crowd and the hawkers of cheap silk scarves.  I felt completely, utterly foreign.  It wasn't like being in Paris or New York, where I'd felt a hick but had toyed, even on my first visits, with the idea of living there.  Not for a moment in China did I feel like I might belong.

The air quality in Beijing is appalling.  At one point shortly after my exit from the cab, I felt breathless and didn't know why, until I considered that the sun never really seemed to be properly out.  As I'd spend at least three hours walking that day--though I didn't know it yet--I wonder now what damage is done to the local citizens. 

I headed to the Forbidden City and was amazed at the quiet and the birdsong.  It was enormous, beautiful, and had the faded beauty of a national treasure built in 1420, not that I'd seen many of them. The spitting hoards (the Chinese do this almost constantly, perhaps because of the air quality or lack thereof) congregate near the main buildings, and the enormous pond and beautiful landscaping do not appear to be of interest to most.  I loved it and would have stayed all afternoon and looked at the beautiful gates and sat in the quiet, but had to get back to the meeting.

So back I headed to the Square, figuring I'd have the same ten-minute, 20-Yuan trip back.  I walked for about six blocks and found a bunch of cabs congregated on a side street.  I walked over to one, who looked at my taxi card with my hotel name on it, and typed 80 on his mobile screen.  How do you say go to hell in Chinese? I thought.  I've been around and refuse to get ripped off.

A good 45 minutes later I was on a side-street of questionable repute (to me) and asking a very young man in a valet uniform to hail me a car.  I'd waved at a number of drivers on a major throughfare and those few without occupants just shook their heads at me and I realized I wouldn't get anywhere on my own.  But this fellow flagged one down in less than two minutes.  With relief I got in the car and showed the cabbie my taxicard.  He looked at me helplessly and threw up his hands.  No idea.

We had not a word in common. I was in the middle of a city I knew not at all, and he was stuck with an idiot passenger who didn't know how to dial the hotel from her US phone. In silence, we sat for a minute, then he pointed at the hotel number again. Susan, I admonished my middle-aged self, you're not in Manhattan, sister.  And you may finally have bitten off more than you can chew.  I looked down at my ring with my children's names engraved on it and wondered what they'd make of my predicament. Luckily midday traffic had kicked in, so I had some time before he threw me back out on the street.

The freeway through the middle of Beijing, China

Once I remembered to breathe, it occurred to me I wasn't working without a net.  In a controlled state of panic, I pulled up my Blackberry and sent a colleague an email, to which she responded: "Don't freak out.  Standing next to someone who works with us and is Chinese." A call, with what felt like an endless ping across satellites from my Dallas number to her Chicago phone, finally hooked everyone up.  After the discussion, I looked at the man who held my immediate fate in his hands and asked if things were OK. He shrugged and nodded, then laughed with great relish at my obvious relief.  At some point during what turned out to be a 40-minute drive and 60 Yuan, he turned off the ignition in the midst of a complete and apparently common stop, and hurled a great spitball out the window. 

The world, as I have often commented, is not Disneyland. Maybe I wasn't in any real peril--the driver's laugh suggested hey, we would have found it eventually--but this experience gave me a jolt. In the middle of my fifth decade with not a little bit of travel behind me, I foolishly assumed I knew what I was doing, and might have found myself in a predicament had I not had someone to call. A little scary, to be sure.  But the worst trips make the best stories. Can't wait to get to Paris again.