Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

Do you have a Thanksgiving-day ritual? Watching the Macy’s parade, maybe, or fighting with your siblings over who gets to open the can and dump out the quivering cylinder of cranberry sauce? My traditions involve the ritual consumption of exactly one Brussels sprout, just to make sure I still don’t like them; taking a post-meal walk; and compelling everyone to read the story of my first Thanksgiving away from home.

A Tale of Two Turkeys

Even though it was speaking English, I wanted the voice in my head to go away.

“You’re forgetting something,” it murmured as I stepped off the train in Shijiazhuang, in China’s Hebei Province. “Didn’t you have another bag?” it asked, more insistently, as I dodged touts and money-changers on my way to the bus stop outside the station. By the time I was boarding the local bus that would take me to my friend Sarah’s apartment, the voice was bellowing like a Red Guard. “Hey, you left something on the train!”

Halfway to the teachers’ college where Sarah taught English, 175 miles southwest of Beijing, my day flashed before my eyes with sudden clarity. I remembered waking up in the women’s dorm room at the Qiao Yuan youth hostel in Beijing. The long room full of closely spaced cots had all the ambiance of an orphanage. The beds’ occupants weren’t real charity cases, though, just frugal European and American backpackers like myself, new university graduates taking a travel deferment on adulthood.

I remembered taking a bus to Tiananmen Square. The Beijing bus had been so packed that sardined riders in front passed their one-mao bills hand-over-hand to the fare collector perched in the back.

I remembered walking from the square to the friendship store on Jianguomenwai Boulevard. There had been crunching locust-tree leaves underfoot, and the crisp air smelled like coal dust and candied crab apples.

I remembered picking up a box of Australian chocolate cookies and an over-priced, under-fed frozen turkey from Hong Kong. I remembered tucking the bird under my arm like a clammy football and trotting off to the central station, where I just made my train.

I remembered getting on the local bus in Shijiazhuang, feeling strangely light in spite of the frame pack on my back and the daypack slung across my chest. It was then that I understood what the nagging voice in my head was talking about: Out there in the darkness, chugging through the Chinese countryside, nestled cozily in the overhead storage area where I’d stashed it so a conductor could sweep up sunflower-seed shells and cigarette butts, was my Thanksgiving dinner.

Brandishing the cookie box before me like a protective shield, I knocked on Sarah’s door. “Hi, I brought cookies!” I yelped, hoping this would make my friend forget our deal: Sarah had promised that if I found a turkey, she would find a way to cook it.

Sarah considered my maniacally proffered gift. She also eyed my suspiciously light baggage. “You forgot something, didn’t you?” she asked. I replied the way anyone who’d just ruined her first Thanksgiving away from home would have: I burst into tears. Sarah responded by doing the very last thing I expected: She laughed until she needed to sit down.

As soon as we both could speak, we agreed that it was too late to do anything that night. Sarah, in fact, seemed to feel that although we’d lost a turkey, we’d gained a great holiday-gone-wrong story that shouldn’t be spoiled with a happy ending. I however, tossed and turned on the couch for hours feeling like the world’s biggest turkey myself. I’d spoiled Thanksgiving. I’d wasted a piece of meat that had cost more than most backpackers spent in a month on food. If I ever returned home my mother and grandmother, who between them effortlessly orchestrated a 10-dish dinner every Thanksgiving, would undoubtedly disown me. And that’s assuming I was even allowed back into my home state of Massachusetts. I slept fitfully that night, haunted by visions of puritanical authorities in buckled shoes sentencing me to wear a scarlet letter for the sin of Absent-mindedness.

Early the next morning I set off on a borrowed bicycle, armed with directions to the train station and a command of Mandarin about as reliable as the local electricity: adequate as long as I didn’t ask too much of it, but flickery, and prone to abrupt shutdowns.

Conversational circuits blew almost immediately at the station information booth. “You left what on the train?” the attendant asked incredulously, “You’ll have to go talk to security,” she snapped, and slammed the window shut. The brownout continued at security. “Did anyone turn in a frozen turkey?” I asked the matron at the desk. She sighed and rummaged half-heartedly through a box of thermoses, ceramic mugs, and other train detritus. “No, no turkeys here,” she said. “Try the information booth.”

I pedaled dejectedly back to Sarah’s, trying to cheer myself up by imagining my dinner being discovered by one of the starving Chinese children American mothers like to invoke to make their kids eat, but it didn’t help.

Sarah seemed almost relieved that the bird had not come home to roost. But because I felt so terrible, she volunteered her semi-bilingual neighbor, Mr. Yan, to help me talk turkey with security.

Talking about turkeys, incidentally, has not always been possible in China. Mandarin has a well-established word for chicken: ji. But the more recent introduction of turkeys required a new word, and the neologism chosen was huo ji, meaning, literally, “fire chicken.”

My understanding is that the “fire” part is meant to convey something like the English prefix “mega,” or “deluxe.” All I have ever been able to picture, however, when I hear the phrase is a rocket-powered Henny Penny doing screaming barrel rolls over her henhouse, shooting flames from her tail like a MiG.

For this reason, the conversation with security quickly became one of the most surreal I’ve ever had in my life. “Can you describe the fire chicken?” asked the first security officer, who looked like he ate railroad stowaways for breakfast. “She says the fire chicken weighs about five kilos,” translated Mr. Yan. The corners of his mouth twitched, but he kept it together. “Where did you last see the fire chicken?” asked the second officer, almost completely successfully swallowing a smile. “She left it in an overhead rack in a hard-seat car on Tuesday night…right?” Mr. Yan said, glancing at me for confirmation. “Dui, yes” I nodded, as solemnly as I could, desperately fighting back an attack of the giggles.

The men soldiered through the rest of their discussion. I struggled to keep up, biting my tongue every time the words “fire chicken” jumped out at me. Afterward, Mr. Yan explained to me that he’d learned that the train I’d been on had changed course at Shijiazhuang and was now bound for the province of Inner Mongolia. My backward bird looked to be heading north for the winter. “I’m sorry,” Mr. Yan said as kindly as he could while trying not to laugh. “I don’t think they’re going to find your fire chicken.”

Thanksgiving day passed with no sign of the wayward bird. I moped through Friday and most of Saturday until finally the god of feathery edibles decided I’d suffered enough. Returning from an errand, Sarah and I skidded our bikes to a stop in the dusty, brick-strewn courtyard in front of her building and saw Mr. Yan beaming in the doorway. “Guess who called,” he said, trying to sound casual. “The train station. They found your fire chicken.”

An hour later I was holding my well-traveled turkey in my arms. It was still frozen. By the next morning, the prodigal little bird was thawed, stuffed, trussed, and wedged into a portable oven that Sarah had somehow gotten her hands on. The giant egg-shaped device looked more like a beauty-parlor hair drier than an oven, but it did the trick, and several hours later, Sarah and Mr. Yan and I sat down to an inexpertly carved but perfectly cooked Thanksgiving turkey. We served it doused in a lumpy giblet gravy, accompanied by powdery rolls, banana bread, gluey mashed potatoes, and litchi-fruit salad. We washed it down with Sprite. It was the most modest Thanksgiving I’d ever been part of, but I can’t think of a single meal I’ve ever been more purely thankful for.

A lot has changed since that Thanksgiving of 1992. Sarah got married and moved to New Zealand. (She also became a vegetarian--our ultra free-range turkey turned out to be the last one she ever tasted.) Sarah goes back to China periodically and reports that the Middle Kingdom we remember of bike lanes and old women tottering on bound feet has taken such a great leap forward that I wouldn’t recognize it. Certainly China wouldn’t recognize me, more amply padded than in my backpacking days, and showing some gray in the blond hair that Chinese children used to dare each other to touch.

Even our idea of Thanksgiving has changed. The cozy story I was raised with in Massachusetts, the one with the friendly natives and grateful pilgrims, has been supplanted-- in progressive circles, at least--by a more complicated tale of mutual distrust and limited contact. I accept this revised version, but it has always seemed to me a shame that that first Plymouth Thanksgiving didn’t work out better. Because as I learned in China, it could have. Every part of the story--the bumbling new arrivals, the face-saving locals, the improvised feast, the sharing of unfamiliar foods, the gratitude--it all could all have happened. I know because it all happened to me.

(Published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Dallas Morning News, and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2007.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Today I can say that I’ve finished walking the Trestle Glen neighborhood of Oakland. This is a nice central Oakland area that abuts Glenview on one side and the city of Piedmont on the other. It’s a fine neighborhood full of beautiful homes, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to. For some weird reason Trestle Glen is full of spiders. I think it is a spidery time of year, because right now I’m seeing more in my backyard than usual, but ours are fairly small. Trestle Glen spiders are big and they hang out in the middle of webs spun between landscape elements looking creepy. Did I mention I don’t like spiders? Well, I don’t. I almost think I’m ready for a more urban neighborhood, one without so much flora and fauna.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Strictly Related, But….

….Isn’t this guy pretty darned cute? He’s my parents’ new cat, Grissom. He’s five months old, and weighs about five pounds, which is pretty remarkable because he appears to be boneless.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another Thought on Cockpit Catastrophes

My understanding is that the crew of the Continental Airlines flight that lost its captain came under some criticism for not telling the passengers what was going on. But count me among those who would prefer to be blissfully unaware. I am of Pilot-American descent, but I did not inherit the unflappable gene. In a situation that sounds serious, but isn’t really, please, for the sake of everyone else in my row, just keep me in the dark.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Well Then, What Would be Dramatic?

In my last post, I mentioned that pilots tend to be pretty even-keeled people, not prone to exaggeration or hysteria. Here’s a good example of what I mean. The following quote is from an interview with an Air France co-pilot. The interview was conducted a few months ago, after an incident where a Continental Airlines captain dropped dead over the Atlantic Ocean and the rest of the crew continued the flight without mentioning the loss to the passengers.

This co-pilot was not on that particular flight, but he said that in training he had practiced similar situations where the captain is suddenly unavailable. Did this unnerve him? Not at all. Here’s his take on it:

"It's not a drama. If the captain is ill or incapacitated, you make sure he isn't blocking any controls or the wheel."

So there you have it. If you should lose a crewmember mid-flight, no worries. He or she will be safely stowed somewhere out of the way and everybody else will be just fine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Extra Miles

Another benefit to our unexpected visit to Denver: American Airlines awarded us 4,000 extra frequent-flier miles for our trouble. That’s quite a bonus, considering we only went about 100 miles out of our way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another Learning Experience

Having nearly missed our flight out of D.C., I hoped the rest of our trip home would go smoothly. As it turned out, the self-inflicted portion of the drama was over, but things would continue to be interesting.

The flight from Washington to Chicago was uneventful and got us there in plenty of time to make our connection to San Francisco. This flight, too, seemed routine at first. It took off on time, and was fairly crowded, but the only other person in our row was a tiny teenager in the window seat next to me, so it wasn’t so bad. She was a little chatty, but mostly sat quietly writing out answers to study questions about the French revolution in big round loopy cursive. I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions. It’s been a long time since I was her age.

About 100 miles west of Denver, the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that he had some “bad news.” This struck fear into my heart. If I tell you I’ve got bad news, it’s entirely possible that I will follow this statement with, “You’ll never guess who got voted off American Idol last night.” In my experience, though, pilots aren’t like this. If they say it’s bad, it really is bad.

This guy must be considered excitable by his peers, though, because the news wasn’t that bad. It turned out that he had detected a problem with the oxygen masks, and determined that they weren’t going to work if we lost pressure. There was no reason to think we were going to lose pressure, but this seems to be the kind of problem that requires a plane to land immediately, and so we turned back to Denver.

We landed safely, if a little anxiously. This was my first diversion ever caused by a mechanical problem. As we approached the terminal, the one with the weird white peaks on it, the girl in our row asked me if it were a Cirque du Soleil tent. I’ve always thought the Denver airport’s roof looks like angry icebergs bobbing around the ocean, and I’ve never found the sight the least bit reassuring. I liked her perspective.

The plane sat parked near the terminal for about two hours. We were initially told that mechanics would try to figure out quickly whether they could fix the problem that evening or if they would need to put us on another plane. By this time it was about 8pm locally, and I was starting to worry that we were going to spend the night in Denver.

I wouldn’t have minded that so much, except that I was afraid Pipi and I were going to have to baby-sit the fetal flyer. Surprisingly late into the ordeal, it was revealed that her father was in the first-class cabin, but for a while, it looked like Pipi and I were the only grown-ups she knew on board. Because I was immediately next to her, I got the bulk of the wide-eyed questions.

This was sort of annoying, but touching as well, because I realized she was ascribing magical adult powers to me. She had no idea how long we’d be on the ground, and I didn’t either, but she assumed I did, because I’m a grown-up, and grown-ups just know things that kids can’t guess at. When, for example, some of the maintenance crew went to talk to the pilots, she tugged my sleeve and asked how much longer this meant we’d be waiting. I had the impression she thought this was something I might have learned as part of some kind of adult rite of passage. I think she expected me to say, “Well, during freshman week in college, I learned that no means no, that you should never mix beer and hard liquor, and that when the guy in orange talks to the pilot, you’ll be on the ground another 45 minutes.”

I didn’t say this, of course. I told her the only thing I could, which was that I really had no better idea than she did. In doing so, I realize I gave her a piece of information that she’s too young to know what to do with just yet. Eventually, this and other data points will lead her to the inevitable realization that most grown-ups don’t have any idea what’s going on much of the time; that most of us, in fact, barely recognize ourselves as adults, and spend more time than we ever imagined we would at the mercy of big boys with official-looking caps and vests. This girl was a few years away from starting to suspect this, though. For now, she was just an unlucky kid with an absentee Dad and the most useless grown-ups ever for seat-mates. I think she was starting to worry.

Luckily, there was someone in charge, and they got the oxygen fixed and we were able to continue the trip using the original aircraft. We got to San Francisco about three hours late, an annoying delay that kept us all up way past our regular bedtimes, but which did at least put us all a little further down the path toward being grown-ups.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not So Fast

Our flight out of Washington was scheduled just late enough that Pipi and I had time for a quick lunch with my grandparents. I knew we were lingering a little too long over dessert, but it was mid-day, we had our boarding passes, and the airport wasn’t too far away, so what did we need extra time for?

Finally tearing ourselves away from the meal, we stopped a mile or two down the road to top off the gas in the rental car. I’m glad I stopped there and not someplace closer to the airport because as I tried to activate the pump, I realized I didn’t have my wallet with me.

I got that sick feeling that you get when you know you’ve messed up very badly. I was too worked up to think clearly, and it took me a long time to remember the last place I’d seen my wallet. Although checking for I.D. is normally a part of my packing-up routine coming and going, I wasn’t actually sure I’d seen the wallet since dinner the night before.

At first I thought I must have left it at Pipi’s aunt and uncle’s house. I knew we’d never make it back there in time to catch the flight, so I started formulating a plan to drop Pipi off at the airport, extend the rental car, and then spend the rest of the day driving around Virginia by myself trying to retrace my steps.

Suddenly, though, I realized what had probably happened: Just before lunch, which we’d eaten at the dining hall at my grandparent’s retirement community, Pipi and I had stopped by their condo to print our boarding passes. I must have taken my wallet out of my knapsack to retrieve my frequent-flyer card, and left it near the computer.

A quick call to my grandmother confirmed that this is exactly what I’d done. We made a rapid return, and my grandparents met us outside their building with the wallet. Then it was back to the gas station. I might not be able to avoid paying a rebooking fee for our missed flights, but at least I could head off the $8-per-gallon fee for bringing a car back empty at National Airport.

We filled up, got to the airport with the needle still indicating “Full,” and dropped off the car. Security wasn’t bad, and we got to our gate just as they were announcing that the last boarding group was free to get on the plane.

I’m not going to say that our making the flight was miraculous. It was very lucky, though. Let’s call it a happy ending to what could have been a painful lesson about the importance of allowing extra time when traveling and keeping track of your things.