Just because the Chinese ground control can, it had us sit on the tarmac four hours in Beijing. I sent a note to Amnesty International begging them to put pressure on the Chinese government to open the plane in seven days if we still haven’t shown up. Just to bury the desiccated bodies. It didn’t come to that, but we missed every connecting flight until the end of time.
I’ve had this recurring dream that I wander down endless high-rise hallways looking for a specific door. It was practice for the real thing. In Hong Kong, I searched for room 2694, which is room 94 of 100 on the 26thfloor of a 50-story hotel. I lived that dream in a hallucinatory state of fatigue, but the silver lining is that the dream has left me definitively. I ate all related and appropriate breakfasts: Indian curry and Chinese dumplings in Hong Kong, madeleines slathered in confiture and slices of Brie wrapped in croissant peel in Paris.
Stuck in a middle seat with the window blind down, I stayed in touch with the land below me because the airplane had a camera mounted to its belly. The camera’s imagery broadcast to my screen. We threaded our way over the clouds of China (between both deserts), Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, and France. When the skies cleared and the rolling green hills of northern Europe appeared, I sighed. This looks like Bavaria, like the Ardennes, like Champagne. With any luck, I am home.
I was thoroughly enjoying my body odor when I finally got to Milan, 3 days late. I’ve been in Italy two weeks and I’m still incredulous. We’re not done traveling. We retrace the steps of the 18thcentury romantics and 19thcentury nouvelle bourgeoisie to round out our education. The Grand Tour of Naples, Rome, Venice, and the Italian lakes is mythical. Centuries later, Rome still abides; Venice still spellbinds; Naples still enchants. Hills, volcano, catacombs, canals and biennales. But also heritage sites, festival organizers, art-activist friars, and ecumenical humanitarians: I am exhausted and annoyed at myself for not fitting in more.
First, I plug calories in their respective empty compartments. When we left NYC, I solemnly swore I wouldn’t eat pizza again until I reached Naples. With steely determination, I held out 11 months, until my first night in Naples, when I had the worst pizza of my life. That’ll teach me. Since then, risotto, pasta, gnocchi, pane pizza (which is neither calzone, bruschetta, nor tomato bread, but a moist, elastic pizza dough shaped as a baguette, split open with the pizza filling overflowing the center-part), burrata, nocciola, stracciatella gelato, salads, fennel, endives, broccoli rabe, melone, albicoche.
Food is my second signal that I’ve come home. It took me to an exalted state even before I realized where I was. Did I mention I’m also studying food as cultural heritage? Jin-Ya at Break Bread Break Borders in Dallas says food creates a zone of safety and comfort that is more basic than language and philosophy. It welcomes people in a new environment or in a familiar one. I was humbled to discover that for myself.
Back in 1982, our neighbor Mr Verly said that it took a decade to wrap up a deal in China. He usually didn’t expect a direct answer from his associates in Beijing. I got a glimpse of that. It’s not efficient, but it’s complex-system thinking: in a place as layered as China, all is relative. Yes and no don’t exist. I won’t earn an artist’s trust just because I flew 24 hours to get there. They’ve been doing their thing for thousands of years even with the speedbump of the Cultural Revolution, which looks horrific to me but they felt was necessary. I won’t change anything besides myself by being there, so let’s start with me.
Oops, we land at the wrong airport: Chengdu, Panda capital. After we sit 4 hours on the tarmac getting smelly in a closed plane, the skies clear enough in Beijing to finally get there. The storms have blown out the smog and we have cool blue days all week.
The city seems familiar: trees, lanes on the highway in which drivers stay, signs, sidewalks, building construction nearing completion. I step into another situation when I try to talk to people. The self-protective fear of getting involved with complicated foreigners is still there. English is rare, even and especially at the higher echelons. The voice-activated translation app on my phone is a magic wand. Suddenly, smiles and a moment of mutual recognition appear when I explain that I’m here to study arts advocacy.
To my dismay, people in Beijing don’t eat Indian food. Chinese food in Beijing is no more to my liking than the Chinese food I’ve had in the US. But there is more of it. It’s not appropriate to order a plate of food for oneself. The servings are too large. Everything is destined for the whole table. A long hunger begins. But with sweetened bubble milk tea, I stay hydrated and energized.
When our guide advises us to bring a picnic to the Great Wall because there are no lunch spots, I imagine we’ll get dropped off on the Mongolian border. How am I supposed to assemble a lunch from a grocery store where I don’t understand the labels? I pick up a package and I don’t know whether the contents are sweet, salty, vegetarian, eaten raw, boiled, or pickled, with fingers or chopsticks, and whether they need to be peeled or shredded. Instead, we pack 12 lbs of cheese popcorn, cucumber Pringles and Oreos. The Great Wall is an hour outside of Beijing. We’re now sitting on a two-week supply of junk food and we feel a little sick.
Photos of the Great Wall don't show how steep it is. I work my skirt up that thing just in time to attend the program director’s marriage proposal to his companion, in front of us kids. Sorry, those aren’t tears pouring down my face--it’s sweat. The next day, the massage therapist finds the great wall all up and down my thighs. Now I’m crying, in pain.
Cheesily, I also cry during our visit to the ballet theater. The photos of dancers taut in their expression, striving to negotiate gravity, bring me to tears. I’m homesick. Or I’ve realized that I’m still inspired by dance, even half-way around the world.
Most souvenirs look a lot like made-in-China plastic junk. But hey, I’m supporting the local economy. I get a teddy-Panda for Tibby, who will tear, gut, and dismember an iconic symbol of animal extinction. My apologies to the WWF. Belatedly, I find the Liulichang cultural district, and the stunning paintings strengthen my resolve to return one day to learn about scrolls and purchase a well-curated set. Surely, days spent staring at them will help me find inner tranquility. First, I need a home to hang all that stuff. No plan for that yet. Urgently paging Inner Tranquility.