Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

We have a larger-than-usual abundance of people and things to feel thankful for on this, our first Thanksgiving back in the U.S. in three years.
·         Our friends outside the U.S., especially in China, who laughed with us, cried with us, drank with us, and scolded cab drivers with us. We know what it’s like to be an American far from home on this most American of holidays. And we are so lucky to have met friends from nations on every spot of the globe.
·         Our family near and far. As I type, Daniel and Joanna are asleep in their childhood bedrooms. As we sat around the (small, temporary) dinner table last night, we reminisced about China. Add in my larger family, particularly my siblings who made it possible for me to live in China for three years without feeling too much guilt, and I know how lucky I am.
·         My mother’s good health. The fact that she threw together a couple of pies and home-made rolls for my brother’s Thanksgiving table, she goes to church every week, and golfs every summer is a sign of just how vital and lively she is still.
·         The incredible help we got in the last few years from friends and family here – giving us beds to sleep in, picking us up at the airport, taking us back to the airport, feeding us, collecting our mail, making time to see us on our whirlwind visits home, and welcoming us home.
·         Smudge’s safe return home. She understands she’s home, and while she’s not a well cat and I doubt I’ll have many more years with her, today she’s safely under the couch in the living room. The day before she actually sat on the window seat in the family room and chirped at the birds flying by.
·         Our house. It’s small and at the moment jammed packed with almost 30 years of accumulated stuff, all coated with a layer of dust, but it’s home.
·         Washington DC and America in general. The air is clean, the streets peaceful, the internet works like it should, and the press is free.
·         Clean food and water. I’m still getting used to drinking from the tap, buying whatever I want in the grocery store, and cooking it all with no worries.

We miss China and our friends there very much, but being home again is a comfort beyond words.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

How Not to Buy a Car

After an eventful moving-in day, we had a very productive Friday. I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and got my driver's license in 20 minutes, in and out. After that, we got a new toilet installed, and other repairs to the house took place without a hitch.

Then -- get this -- the cable guy came when he said he was coming and installed cable and wifi.

It was almost as if the mafan of the day before paved the way for a day of ease. Other than some mysterious rashes that Bob and I both developed (contact dermatitis? stress?) the day was great.

Too great, it turned out.

In what must be a cosmic recalibration, our Saturday went to hell. It started out in a promising way. Bob went to Enterprise and rented a car, which we drove to the first of three dealerships we were going to visit. After that, we thought we might hit Target and the grocery store and make good use of wheels.

We spent some time test-driving cars at Ourisman Honda in Bethesda. And had a nice long chat with the salesman, and then with his manager, a Chinese guy whose family was originally from Shanghai, after which we popped over to Bethesda Bagel to get some lunch, and then went back to the Honda dealership.

Except our rental car had disappeared. Enterprise came and took the car back. The Honda dealership was also a dropoff point for the rental agency, and some fellow, probably eager to get started on his Saturday night, grabbed our car and returned it to the Bethesda lot, after which he locked up and went home.

Following all this?

The valet at Ourisman informed us that we needed to go to Enterprise and get our car back. The salesman at Ourisman brought in his manager, and the two stormed through the office, trying to help us get a car and get out of the place.

"Wo bu zhi dao sheme shuo," the manager said. (I don't know what to say.)

Someone at Ourisman suggested we check and see if our contract was still in the rental car, so the salesman drove us to the Enterprise lot. There was our car, unlocked, with the contract in the glove compartment. Bob helped himself to his contract, checked unsuccessfully to see if there was a key (and yes, this is starting to feel illicit), took pictures of the car, license plate, and registration number, and left.

We're back home. No car, no groceries, no nothing. Bob is on hold with Enterprise, and "Ventura Highway" is playing on the hold music.

I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Moving Day Diary

5 a.m. I am awake. The jet lag has improved from the day before, when I was up for the day at 3 a.m., but it’s still so early. My mind races with everything that has to be done today.

7 a.m. At the breakfast buffet I order a giant spinach and cheese omelet, with home fries and an orange. My stomach feels a little full.

9 a.m. I check out of our hotel and walk over to Burlington Place to check on the cat, clear room for the movers, and get ready for what should be a smooth, uneventful process.

10 a.m. The movers drive up in a large white truck. Bob is nowhere to be found. One guy asks to use the bathroom and I direct him to an upstairs one, since Smudge is tucked away in the basement loo.

10:10 a.m. “Um, your toilet is overflowing,” one of the young movers says to me. I rush upstairs and water is pooling on the floor of the master bathroom. This is not the start to the day that I had envisioned. I mop up the wet with one of the few towels in the house and call our management company for thoughts on why the toilet has suddenly developed a mind of its own.

10:15 a.m. Water is flowing through a hanging light onto the kitchen counter. “Do you still want us to put things in the kitchen?” asks one mover. Since we have 300 boxes coming into a house that can probably hold 25 boxes, I tell him yes. The boxes start to pile up. Bob makes an appearance.

11 a.m. I stand in the frigid sunlight on the front porch, checking off boxes as they are unloaded and brought into the house. Since I’m moving furniture around (but already have it figured out in my head) I need the movers not only to call out the number but to describe how the box is marked. “Basement, decorative items” they call out. There’s a suspicious number of “decorative items.”
12 noon. “Are you taking a lunch break?” I ask the movers. They say no. I imagine that they want to work through lunch and finish early.

1 p.m. The boxes seem to come in no clear order, so I play moving-day bingo as the movers call out numbers. 125! 47! 88! they call. This is the moment when several neighbors, God love them, decide to engage me in conversation, which taxes my jet-lagged brain beyond the ability to be moderately civil.

1:30 p.m. My blood sugar is on the floor. I’d sent Bob off to buy sandwiches and he seems to have gotten lost. Finally he arrives and I sit on the curb wolfing down the best tuna on a baguette I’ve ever eaten in my life.

2 p.m. A plumber informs me that the toilet, not having been flushed for two months, has dry rot and that it would make more sense to replace it than to repair it. Okay, I say. We’re now down to two house toilets: the one in the upstairs hallway bathroom, popular with the seven moving fellows, and the one in the basement occupied by Smudge. My stomach decides this is a great time to digest my food quite efficiently. Actually, too efficiently.

3 p.m. Another problem arises. The sleeper sofa (“No, it’s not a sleeper sofa,” one of the movers informs me as if I don’t know the couch I’ve stuck guests on for 15 years. “Yes, it is,” I say) needs to go in the basement. It won’t fit around the tight turn in the center hall down the basement stairs, so it has to go through the back basement door. But the door is locked. The skeleton key doesn’t work. We now have a sleeper sofa standing like a massive terracotta warrior in the middle of the hall, possibly there for perpetuity.

4 p.m. We’ve called a locksmith, and the most handsome locksmith I’ve ever seen arrives. With a two-day beard and Antonio Banderas eyes, he says, “I’ve come to rescue you.” He has no idea.

5 p.m. The door is open, and the couch is squeezed, just barely into the basement. There’s a forest worth of wrapping paper piled up in a giant mountain next to the truck. I break out a Blue Moon beer, part of the care package that Rachel has so kindly delivered to our hotel.

5:30 p.m. I start looking at the items that are scattered, willy nilly, on every surface of the house. There’s a prescription for Claritin that expired in 2007. Cuban cigars. Ripped tee shirts. Wrapping paper. A bag of pine cones. Comic books. A straw hat. The poncho that Aunt Ro knitted for me when I was 13. An Australian outback hat. So. Much. Stuff. How did we accumulate so much?

5:45 p.m. The movers leave, driving off with what seems almost as much in their truck as when they arrived. We’ve convinced them to take some tables, a couch, and a really wrecked picnic table off our hands.

6:30 p.m. We meet friends for pizza. I take a bite of New Haven clam pizza, and I have a moment. It’s not a Handsome Locksmith moment, but it’s a close second. The day is over. And we only have 3,000 random “decorative” items to deal with. Tomorrow is another day.  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Month of Goodbyes

I've been thinking for a long time about how to write this post. It won't be easy.

We've spent the last month saying goodbye to our good friends here in Beijing, starting with a lovely dinner at Black Sesame Kitchen with our hao pengyoumen. Later when Rachel and Scott left and I watched their ayi say goodbye to Leah, I lost it.

Nora said, "You're going to see them in Washington soon. Why are YOU crying?" But the truth was that I was crying about the fact that the ayi probably wouldn't see Leah again, or not anytime soon.

And when I said goodbye to Sarah and Isabella, I was a mess, mainly because I know Isabella won't remember me. I was so overworked that I left my purse at their house and had to go back to retrieve it. Awkward.

In fact, I've just been bursting into tears randomly -- well, not so randomly -- as I say goodbye to friends, to ayi, to my wonderful teacher, to our neighborhood, to Beijing, to China.

The parties, lunches, dinners, and drinks have been great, too. (Hello, loose-fitting pants!)

My hiking pals threw a lovely, chilly, champagne-infused party in a pagoda park where we snacked on cheese and crackers, apple cake, brownies, and nuts, while a Chinese family came by and stared as if what we were doing was some kind of performance art. I gave a silly little speech.

Then there was the Wall Street Journal party on Friday night. I remember that Bob gave a great speech and that others did too, and that it was all wonderful. But I do regret the series of events that led me at one point to insisting that the entire staff toast Smudge with baijiu and that led to the whole pole dancing scenario. Thankfully there's no photographic evidence of that, but there is this.
Don't ask. I don't know what kind of dance move that was either.

And then last night was our friends' party at Big Smoke. At one point I looked around and realized we had a United Nations of guests -- Brazil, Germany, Holland, Australia, Israel, the Philippines, China, America, Singapore, South Africa -- all eating guacamole and chips, fries, and chorizo.

We'll miss the older friends, like Eleanor, the 95-year-old who took us around the city with the energy of a teenager. We'll miss the infants, especially the ones I saw born here, like Leah, Gianna, Naomi, Dou-Dou, and Julia. I'll miss being Auntie Debbie to all of them.
Pretty mama, pretty boy with face mask.
One more Marco. Fun in a cab!

Sweet Dou-Dou and his sweet parents.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

You Know Those Moving Checklists?

They don't work.

I have never read one that advised:
If you are moving a cat, make sure the movers don't pack the cat's regulation cat carrier.

Yes, this is an update in the trials and tribulations of Smudge.

It was Thursday night, and Bob and I were sitting on the couch, which would be taken the next day. The cat was cozy on my lap, but not much furniture or anything else was left in the house.

"Oh no," I said.

"What?" said Bob.

"Oh my God," I said.

"What is it?" said Bob.

"I forgot to set aside the cat carrier. It's been packed," I said.

Luckily, Smudge was oblivious to this trouble, but I felt as if I might be having a heart attack. How could I make such a lame-brained move? I looked into the closet to see if by some miracle the movers had set her carrier aside. No go. They came in like locusts, packed up everything that was not moving, and left in a couple of hours, all while I was going to the animal hospital to get Smudge's final papers.

I sent out an APB to anyone who had a cat or pet connection. And since I had to go back to the animal hospital the next day and since I remembered the hospital had a pet shop, I figured I had a least a start.

Sure enough, the next day I found a cute little Burberry-plaid carrier for Smudge, all for 150 RMB. "Will it meet airline regulations?" I asked.

"You'll need to check with the airlines," they said. Now that's reassuring.

I bought it anyway just to have something and was about to buy a backup one on Taobao, China's online shopping mecca, when another serendipitous thing happened.

A friend came to the apartment to take our orchid. I told her the whole saga. Turns out she just moved to China with a 20-year-old cat. She figures, realistically speaking, that cat is probably going to end her life in China. So she offered to trade with me -- her regulation Sherpa carrier for my Burberry-plaid item. She would still have something to take her old cat to the vet, but it wouldn't need to make airline regulations.

This should work. And how funny that the one person who got my orchid was the one person who just happened to have exactly the right kind of carrier.

And this is a long way of explaining how that night I ended up -- after too many shots of baijiu at our WSJ-sponsored going-away party -- in a Russian nightclub called Chocolate doing some pole dancing.

Sorry -- there is no photographic evidence of this. The Russian oligarchs who were shimmying next to me probably wouldn't care to have photos or video taken, said one of our friends.

I can say this, though. Move over, table dancing. For me there's a new game in town.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bed on a Bike

I have this sense that China is packing my last few days with only-in-China moments. Today, for instance.

We had sold the bed in the second bedroom, thanks to the wonderful Wendy and Lily, and a couple of guys finally showed up this afternoon to get the bed. It's a single size, but very heavy with a large headboard and a heavy bottom that holds storage, plus a great but heavy mattress.

"Where's the truck?" I ask Lily as one guy starts to dismantle the bed. She points out the window. All I see below is a bike with a platform on the back.

"Zhen de ma?" I say. Really? Yup. She and Mr. Shi the other agent who only seems to go by that name, assured me that they've moved much larger items. Let's review what the bed looked like in its original state.
But within minutes, the worker had dismantled the bed into multiple parts, a dragon slayed. And they all started carrying the parts to the elevator and downstairs. I was so stunned I'm not quite sure just how they got it all in the elevator, but they did.

Downstairs, they proceeded to pile the bed on the back of the bike.
That's the frame that separated the mattress from the storage below it.
The headboard
Okay, got the mattress.
And now we put the headboard on top.
I don't want anyone to think I'm taking credit for this masterpiece of moving.
Negotiating a few stairs and a turn.
And there he goes. Bye bye bed!
I told Bob the story and another colleague of his, Bill Kazer, an old China hand who has lived in Beijing for many years, told him that he was once commenting to a friend about the kinds of items they've seen loaded on the backs of bikes.

"Everything but the kitchen sink," the friend said. Just then a bike carrying -- you guessed it -- a kitchen sink rode by.

Bill says the friend swears he didn't see the approaching sink out of the corner of his eye. I want to believe that because I want to believe that these moments happen in China because, well, because it's China. I will miss it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

So, How's the Move Going, Debbie?

Hey, thanks for asking.

It's been interesting. In both good and bad ways.

The process got off to an ignoble start on Tuesday night when I walked into an unlit bedroom and did a face plant on some suitcases that Bob had packed earlier in the day. I thought maybe I'd broken my nose, but all was okay.

Earlier in the day I had brought long-suffering Smudge to the Guangshan animal hospital where she was examined and blood was drawn. Her little red book was taken, and I was told to come back Thursday. And Friday. Because government offices are mainly closed this week and we'd need those days to get her forms finished. But being told to come back was a good sign, said Mary Peng of the International Center for Veterinary Services, and I believed her.

On Thursday, I parked the cat -- along with a blanket, her new spiffy animal bed, her litter box, her food, and her water fountain -- inside the second bathroom. She meowed plaintively until the movers came, and then she got quiet.

Meanwhile I was rushing around to get back to the animal hospital and see if Smudge passed her exam. Bob had warned me that using a glass in the bathroom was dangerous. Until today he was wrong. And then suddenly he was right. I dropped the glass in the sink, and in trying to catch it gave myself a big gash on my little finger. Now I had to find band-aids before they were packed.

The movers arrived. "So, what do you need packed?" they asked as if this was an unusual concept. I left, with half-dry hair and blood dripping from my finger.

I rushed off to the hospital, trying to explain to the cab driver where it was. I mean, why would they know where anything at all is in this city? After all, they only drive people in cars around the city for a living. Anhuaqiao metro stop? Never heard of it. Line 4? Not ringing a bell.

I got to the hospital but not before fielding 12 phone calls from Bob. Didn't you want your hair brushes? What about those coats? Traffic was at a near-standstill in a post-APEC frenzy of renewed driving.

I got to the hospital. A young man smiled and had me fill out a form. 100 RMB, please, he said. I handed it over, and it was done. Smudge had passed.

Now we have to convince United that she does have a spot reserved on the plane. And then, you know, she has to survive that trip. We're not there yet, but we have gotten past a few big hurdles with only minor injuries and only 17 arguments.

Hey, there's our truck. Asian Tigers on the job.
The kitchen. Too bad -- no more cooking.
Hiker pals gave me (and Smudge) this little kitty bed. So sweet! More on that soon.
Sign on the bathroom door. Ask Lori how she translated my Chinese the drawing of a cat.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

This Old Friend

Yesterday was my last (or next-to-last, depending on next week) hike on the Great Wall. It couldn't have been a more spectacular day. Even though the air in the city began with a very unpromising AQI of over 200, it dropped off not long after we arrived at Gubeiko on the Great Wall. By the time we got up to the Wall, the sky had become blue and we were able to shed layers and jackets. I hiked in a tee-shirt for most of the November day. Even the wind, which can be fierce on the Wall, settled down and let us meander for the entire day.

In any event, this was my chance to say goodbye to my old friend, the one who doesn't talk back. I know many people have a sentimental attachment to the Great Wall of China. It's not hard to see why: It's one of the most beautiful sites I've ever seen and unlike anything else on this planet.

And one of the nice things about hiking in November is that as the sun settles behind the hills, the light hits the Wall in a slant that feels like illumination from the heavens, As we finished up the hike at Jinshanling, a round moon rose above the Wall in the distance. A creation of man and a creation of the heavens worked together to make the kind of vision that poets love and that makes you realize that this has been a pretty good gig after all.

For those of you who don't love looking at people's travel photos, spoiler alert. I have a few here.
I can't take credit for this shot. Or for the Wall for that matter.
Pensive, with hat.
Yet another selfie photo bomb. Or, as we call it on the Wall, wallfies.
This is what I mean about the angle of the sun.
Haze in the distance: more romantic.
The moon rises.
Look carefully here. It goes on and on.
I've taken so many of these shots, but I can't resist.
Notice some support here for crumbling walls.
The Wall makes me look so....small.