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Vacation in France (1)

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Notre Dame

The weeklong vacation in France passed too quickly!

I’ve been to Paris four or five times before, but never visited southern France. The three of us, Mary, a close friend, my husband Francis, and I walked over to Notre Dame near our hotel the day we arrived, and checked out the Latin Quarter. Whenever we felt thirsty or tired, we sat down at a corner café to relax and gaze at all these smart-looking people passing by in the street. The cafes, or brasseries, seemed to pop up at every street corner, and each of them has a line or two of small tables in the front, with all the chairs facing one direction: toward the street. No matter what time of the day, there are plenty of people sitting these places, chatting, reading, smoking, drinking a cup of coffee. Sitting among them, drinking a bottle of water (me) and sharing a pitcher of wine (Mary and Francis), we let the relaxed feeling wash over us.

Children racing in Luxembourg Garden

The following day, we walked all over Paris—we must have covered 8 or 10 miles. The interesting part, aside from the impressive churches, old statues and buildings, the beautiful Luxembourg garden, the lively Avenue des Champs-Elysees, was the first time experience of using an iPad or iPhone to guide us when we got lost in the maze of Paris streets that spread to all directions at all angles. It felt funny to hold an iPad and watch the small dot indicating our location moving in the right direction or off the high-lighted route, but it sure gave me a sense of comfort and relief that paper map never did. With my sense of direction, even when I stood in front of a large map that showed “You are here” with a red circle, I couldn’t figure out which direction I should turn. Fearful as it was realizing the “big brother” could locate my exact spot no matter where I was on this planet, I was glad to have this modern gadget to find our way whenever we needed it.

Mary and Francis navigating Paris with a map and an iPad

Paris was chilly when we got there, but we were grateful it didn’t rain as forecast. We spent a long time in Luxembourg Garden where tulips of various colors were still in full bloom, people were jogging or playing tennis or walking their dogs, children were playing, and at one corner, a few musicians and singers were giving a performance on a “stage”. A lovely sight every direction we turned.

Our two-day stay in Paris ended with a nice meal each day, accompanied with plenty of wine, which was cheaper than bottled water.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into a feature-length documentary film by Susan Morgan Cooper and narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.

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Stranded in New York City

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

by Jian Ping

Christmas Lights in NYC

I went to New York City (NYC) over the Christmas weekend with my husband Francis and daughter Lisa. I lived in NYC for five years in the late 80s and early ‘90s and have always cherished a special feeling for the Big Apple. Ever since I moved to Chicago in 1994, I have visited NYC two or three times a year.  

This time, we made our plans for a short excursion to NYC in early December, flying over on Friday, Christmas Eve, and returning on Sunday, right after Christmas. As time drew close, we heard the forecast of a snowstorm, but took off as scheduled nevertheless.

Snow Started to Fall on Broadway

Manhattan always generates a kind of unique buzz and vibration, one that always make me feel excited the moment I enter the city. The pace of people moving in streams, the noise of speeding cars, and the voices of different languages heard on the streets—nowhere else is as dynamic as NYC. For me, I also loved the sweet smell of roasted peanuts, chestnuts and almonds, permeating the air from street vendors’ wheeled carts.  

We set out to walk along Broadway right after checking into our hotel in midtown. The sky was blue and the sun casted a nice golden glow on the buildings. The Broadway theatres all went dark on Christmas Eve, so we had a casual meal at “Korea Town” on 33rd St, followed by a couple of rounds of bowling games at a midtown bowling alley, and finished the day by watching How Do You Know, a newly released film at the AMC Theater on 42nd St. The following day, the sun disappeared, but the day was pleasant. I jogged along Fifth Avenue early in the morning and checked out Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and ice skating ring and made a small loop in Central Park. We watched Brief Encounter, a Broadway play, in the afternoon and had a wonderful dinner at a French Bistro on

Korean BBQ

Spring St. in the evening. On Sunday morning, the clouds were low when I went out jogging. By the time we walked out of our hotel shortly after 10 am, flurries of snow began to dance in mid air, seemingly non threatening. With each passing hour, however, the snowfall intensified and the wind picked up speed. We enjoyed a wonderful Broadway Musical: Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, behind closed doors. At the time, I didn’t anticipate I would soon reach that point of near breakdown, albeit for totally different reasons. Several inches of snow covered the ground when we came out of the theatre. Before we finished our dinner that evening, we received United Airlines first notice of our flight cancellation. Lisa called United and after 40 minutes, rebooked our flight on Monday morning, which, before the end of the day, was cancelled again. Back at our hotel room, Lisa used two cell phones to call United, trying hard to reach a representative. 30 minutes later, she managed to book us on a 3 P.M. flight, also on Monday. The city was buried in snow the next morning when I went to an off-site gym to work out. Since moving around the city was difficult, we went to watch another movie, King’s Speech, during the day. However, soon after the movie started, I checked my vibrating BlackBerry. Sure enough, just as I feared, another notice came from United for our flight cancellation. When I finally got hold of a United representative over the phone two hours later, I was told we couldn’t get booked on any confirmed flight until Thursday, December 30th! No begging or plea or breakdown would get us anywhere. Since I had meetings lined up both for Tuesday and Wednesday in Chicago, we decided to take an Amtrak train to Washington D.C. and fly back to Chicago from there. Lisa decided to work out of her company’s New York office and stay with her friend until Thursday, so we took her and her friend Yeye to dinner at an Italian Restaurant before heading to the Penn Station.

Buried in Snow

Postings of delayed trains covered the board and the crowd in the train station made me feel as if I were in China. Our 8:05 P.M. train to Washington D.C. arrived after 10:30 P.M. and on our way to Washington D. C., it continued to get further delayed. By the time we arrived at the Capital, it was 3 o’clock in the morning. The line for taxi appeared to be half a mile long and there were not enough taxi available at the wee hour. I watched in disbelief as cab drivers picked customers, leaving behind those who were not going longer distance. We had to team up with two other passengers—also travelers stranded in NYC, and like us, took the detour to go to Chicago—to convince a driver to take us to the Reagan Airport. Eventually, after on the road for nearly 10 hours, we boarded the first flight to Chicago at 6 A.M.

Crowds at Penn Station

What was most unbelievable for the trip was not only the intensity of the blizzard, but also the inefficiency of the city government in dealing with it. 48 hours after the storm hit, I didn’t see a single snow removing vehicle on the streets in Manhattan. I’m not talking about side streets, but major avenues and squares such as Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Times Square! Everywhere I turned to, I saw cars spin or stuck on ice and snow, and pedestrians transverse over slush of icy water and compacted snow. Despite the warning, the city didn’t seem to have made any preparation. Two days after the storm, flights out of the three nearby airports continued to be cancelled. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he took responsibility of the city’s slow response and committed to remove snow from every street by Thursday. What was he doing earlier? I wondered.  

The experience made me appreciate the efficiency of snow removal in Chicago so much more!

by Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. visit www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

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Asian Trip (1)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

By Jian Ping

Beijing Airport

I went to mainland China, Vietnam and Hong Kong for nearly a month in October. Running most of the time from city to city, I neglected to post any blog! Finally back in Chicago and almost over my jet lag and a cold, I’m at my computer again, and glad to be!

This trip to Asia was quite eventful and emotional. I left on Sunday, October 3, from Chicago to Beijing, with injuries on my left knee and elbow from a bad bicycle accident, four days before my departure. Despite a close friend’s advice to see a doctor, I didn’t, believing that the scratch of a couple patches of skin should heal pretty soon. Unable to do regular workout, I even ventured to the elliptical machine in the fitness room of our condo, feeling reassured that I could still move around.

On the 13-hour flight to Beijing, I felt the intensified burning and pain of my left knee and watched with concern as the skin around the palm-sized wound turned red. As luck might have it, none of the lighting, audio or video system worked at my so called “Economy Plus” seat on United 851, leaving me with nothing for distraction. I sat in semi darkness, and from time to time, chatted with a Chinese woman by the window. She took pity on me and lifted the window shutter to let some natural lighting in. I twisted and turned in my seat and used the light the best way I could to read Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh. Loh was humorous, even hilarious at times. But under the circumstance, I found smiles hard to come by.

A flight attendant eventually came and gave me a voucher to file for “compensation.” I gave a hopeless sign. I’d prefer the equipments working. I was very much relieved when the plane finally touched down on the runway in Beijing.  

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com

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YELLOW-TAG DAY AT THE GOODWILL STORE

Friday, May 21st, 2010

by Nancy Werking Poling

author of OUT OF THE PUMPKIN SHELL

My husband and I were about to leave for our first trip to Italy. I’d purchased two of Rick Steves’ books and combed through numerous travel magazines. In one I read an article on sensible packing. Take clothes you don’t particularly like, the article recommended, then leave them in your hotel room. The maid will find a use for them, and on your return flight you’ll have suitcase space for all your purchases.

Looking through my closet, though, I found nothing I’d be willing to leave behind and practically no possibilities for mixing and matching, as several other magazines recommended. Hence an excursion to the Goodwill Store.

The warehouse-type building I entered reminded me of a cluttered attic. To my left pieces of furniture were tightly packed, with chairs on top of dressers, end tables turned upside down on sofas. Men’s clothing lay straight ahead, children’s wear in the very back of the store, women’s wear to my right.

On the women’s side, there was barely room to pass between the chrome racks jammed with hangers. I quickly began to sort through the skirts—ones made of polyester, wool, cotton, some fabrics plain, some with floral patterns. Short skirts, long ones, in-between lengths.

I paused to stare at an oversized polyester skirt with gold and rust leaves against a navy blue background. Maybe it had belonged to the woman I’d read about in the beauty salon a few days earlier, in the article titled, “I Lost a Hundred and Fifty Pounds.” This could be the before skirt, the one Sharon wore on that decisive day she walked her oldest son to school and heard his classmates snickering and whispering “fat” and “pig.” Coming home and facing herself in the mirror, she told herself, “I hate this skirt, I hate myself.”

Still fingering its hem, I considered Sharon’s later satisfaction as she dropped the skirt and others like it into the metal dumpster near her home, her triumph over being rid of the hundred and fifty pounds, rid of the extra person she’d come to despise. As she pulled back the handle of the drop box, she loved herself, took pride in her accomplishment. And according to the magazine article, her son was proud of her now. Her husband, too, looked at her with new affection.

Triumph for Sharon, defeat for the woman who would buy the skirt.

I rapidly pushed several more hangers along before stopping to consider a fashionable beige skirt of linen—much too small for me—that looked as if it had hardly been worn. Why would a woman get rid of it? Valerie was going to New Orleans to see her boyfriend, I decided. She found the skirt and a matching jacket, probably over on another rack, on sale at an upscale department store. But when she got home from her trip, she realized how pale she looked in beige and pushed the outfit to the back of her closet.

One day she read if you haven’t worn an article of clothing in a year, you should get rid of it. Recklessly she tore through her wardrobe, pulling pants and skirts and blouses off the hangers, heaping clothes on the bedroom floor. She paused when she came to the skirt and jacket. For a moment she contemplated returning it to the closet. She had such fond memories of the weekend in New Orleans; the boyfriend would soon become her husband. No, the outfit must go.

After trying on several articles in the cramped, curtained dressing room, I settled on several. As I headed toward the cash register, glistening gold flecks emanating from a piece of elegant brocade caught my eye. It was a floor length robe—no, a coat. Handmade in the Orient, I was sure; never worn, I was equally certain. Five dollars, the tag said.

Who could possibly have given up such a lovely garment? A woman I named Michelle. Searching for a gift to take home from China, her husband stepped into a small sewing shop, where an old man leaned over a treadle machine. After the husband selected fabric, the man inquired about the wife’s size. The husband put his hand to his chin, then with his arms formed a circle to demonstrate her girth.

When he arrived home with the gift, it was much too tight around the shoulders, but dutifully Michelle kept it packed away in a garment bag. Later, when they went through a painful divorce, she hated everything that reminded her of him. She gave the coat, along with souvenirs of India and Japan, to Goodwill.

By the time my expedition was over, my arms were overflowing with clothes: a skirt, three tops, two pairs of pants, the brocade coat, plus a light sweater I might need if Italian evenings were cool. I imagined myself sipping cappuccino in a Venetian restaurant, wearing the navy pants and simple white knit top, the sweater hanging down my back, its sleeves loosely tied across my chest. And there was a quick glimpse of myself at one of next year’s Christmas parties, wearing the brocade coat over black velvet pants and a black sweater.

As I dropped all of my selections on the counter by the cashier, she informed me that on Tuesdays everything with a yellow tag was fifty percent off. Each item I’d selected bore a yellow tag, which meant that the cost of two bags of clothes, including the Chinese coat, totaled less than fifteen dollars. I was beaming with satisfaction.

As I turned to leave the register, my arms wrapped around the bags of clothes, I nearly tripped. I looked down. A young woman with matted light brown hair, her pink blouse soiled and wrinkled, sat on the floor. Spread across one of her outstretched legs was a pale blue dress. Scattered in front of her were nickels, dimes, and quarters. As she pushed each coin to the side, one at a time, she counted aloud: “One dollar and ten cents, one dollar and fifteen cents, one dollar and…”

Memories of the trip to Italy have faded. Yet I clearly remember nearly tripping over the young woman on the floor of the Goodwill Store.

I think it’s because the brief encounter jolted my carefree attitude. While I was getting a kick out of finding clothes to leave behind on a European vacation, she barely had enough money to buy a single, previously owned dress. I could light-heartedly empathize with Sharon and Valerie and Michelle, who in my imagination were middle-class women like me, but when I looked down at this real woman on the floor I was startled. She wasn’t like me, and I didn’t consider the possibility that she had a name and a story too.

Years later I rewrite the script: When I see the young woman in my path, I recognize our connectedness and drop to the floor. A dirty floor, repugnant to middle-class sensitivities. I don’t care.

I sit down beside her. I ask her name.

But the truth is, I didn’t.

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Visiting New Zealand (Last installment)

Monday, January 4th, 2010

West Coast, Southern New Zealand

We returned to Chicago on New Year’s Eve. Due to the attempted bombing of the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit during Christmas, we received hand search to our bags and pat down to our bodies at Auckland Airport. But our flight departed for Los Angeles on time and we able to get upgraded on a United flight from LA to Chicago.

Over the last few days, we have looked at the photos we took in New Zealand several times. We continue to marvel at our experiences—the beautiful sceneries, our daily hiking, and the delicious food. It is fair to say this is the best, and the longest, vacation we have ever had.

My “record” experiences include the following:

  1. I have never seen so many sheep and cows in my life;
  2. I have never eaten so much lamb in such a short period of time and loved every bit of it;
  3. I have never gone through so many different climate and vegetation in a given day;
  4. I have never viewed so many waterfalls in a sound or mountain; and
  5. I have never witnessed so many creeks/rivers along a hiking trail.

Patio View from Te Puna Wai Lodge

A few observations/recommendations:

  1. Kiwi people are very friendly and patient;
  2. The water in the lakes, rivers, and ocean fronts is clearer and sky bluer in the Kiwi land;
  3. Abel Tasman, Routeburn Track and Milford Sound are places one must see in a lifetime;
  4. My highly recommended places include: the botanic garden in Christchurch, Te Puna Wai Lodge B&B in Nelson, Boat Shed Restaurant in Nelson (do the “trust the chef”menu), Hunters Wines in Benwick, Marlborough (wines and food), Franz Josef Glacier, Boardwalk Seafood Restaurant in Queenstown and Redcliff Restaurant and Bar in Te Anau.
  5. Make a trip to New Zealand when you can—it’s definitely worth it!    

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com.

Visiting New Zealand (1)

Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Cathedral Square

Cathedral Square

We (my husband Francis, my girlfriend Mary, and I) planned our vacation to New Zealand during the December holiday season several months before—a nice break from the winter in Chicago to the warm summer in New Zealand.

We left Chicago on Sunday, December 13th and had a bumpy start—our flight was delayed for nearly three hours due to some unspecified computer problems. We boarded the plane and left the gate on time, only to return and got off the plane as the technicians came on board to fix the problem and test  the engine by restarting it. We waited anxiously and worried that we’d miss our connection flight to Auckland, New Zealand. By the time we landed in Los Angeles, we had such a tight schedule that we rushed to walk across the two parking lots to reach Terminal 2 where the Air New Zealand flight would take off–we didn’t take the risk of waiting for the terminal bus to take us there. Fortunately, we made our connection.

We lost a day during our 13-hour flight. I heard many people rave about the good services of Air New Zealand, but was not impressed. The dinner and breakfast served on the plane were better, but between the two meals, no flight attendent served water for hours. At one point, I was so thirsty that I went to their workstation and requested for a cup of water. To pass time, I watched 3 movies on the way. By the time we landed in Auckland, it was early Tuesday morning. We made another transfer to Christchurch in southern island soon after and landed in our final destination as scheduled.

The crisp spring air greeted us, refreshing and comforting. And the first thing we noticed on our way to the city was the lustrous green leaves and colorful flowers on both sides of the streets and in the meticulously maintained gardens in the front yard of nearly every house. We were delighted. Less than an hour after checking into our centrally located hotel, we were out exploring the city. We stopped by a vegetarian café at Cathedral Square and enjoyed a healthy lunch and a variety of fruit and herbal tea—a lovely way to start our visit.

More to follow.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.mulberrychild.com, www.moraquest.com