Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Address My Needs, Now

There is a song on one of the Beastie Boys albums where they yell city names and apply reverb to the last syllable of each place name: “Lon Don, Don, Don, New York, York, York.  Bang Kok, Kok, Kok . . . And its funny.  (I’m not really sure about the first two cities, but Thailand’s capital is what’s memorable.)  I am now many mile up over Bengal en route to Bangkok.  And it’s not funny at all.

Getting from the hotel to airport was a solemn grey procession through the canals, across the lagoon, savouring the last glimpse at Venice.  Running; “Scuzzie Mr. Water taxi man, would you be willing to take this lovely key of theirs, back to the hotel for us?”  "Of course, Signore"  We killed an hour in the Marco Polo airport lounge where finally, we found some peach juice in fridge.  Take as much as you like.  How else are going to be able to illustrate Bellini making?   Soon we were once again soaring up over the Alps, considering snow capped peaks and preparing to reacquaint myself with the Vienna airport.  The juice, however, shall not pass!  Another lounge, another adaptor and this time a couple of hours to kill. 

At 5:00PM I first heard the dread phrase: “mechanical trouble.”   No.  We wouldn’t be boarding on time.  They’ll be another update in forty-five minutes, at which time we were told to move quickly to the service counter.  The flight was cancelled.  And just as jet lag’s cruel grasp began to tighten, entwined with the realization that I would not be going home tonight, a frothy bubble of hatred rose up cloud-like over my head.   

I took my place in the business class line.  This was regrettable.  It did not move for the first twenty-five minutes as a tall guy, fifteen people ahead of me, no doubt repeated many, many times: “No.  That won’t work either.”   I thought over and over in an interminable loop:  this Austrian kid handling the man must be incompetent and I glared at him and anyone else in a red Austrian Airlines uniform, as if it were a psychic lubricant that would somehow compel them to handle these cases quicker, dispose of them if necessary, so they could address my needs, now. 

An hour or later I came to learn that, no, I wouldn’t be able to spend the night in a hotel and take the Frankfurt flight on to Beijing in the morning, that was only for people with business class tickets.  You are welcome to use this line as a platinum member, of this you are correct, but no, that flight will not be available, rather we will fly you to Bangkok tonight, in about five hours and from there you will change planes and return to Beijing.  I pointed out that Bangkok was still ten thousand miles from my home.  “It only sounds close Madame.”  I had grown fond of the idea reclining horizontal, of sleeping in a bed.    In thirty minutes or so I will make my way to the third lounge of this journey.  The Bangkok international airport is enormous.  There are lovely pictures of Dusit Kingdom triumphs along the corridors and there will be an odd mix of humanity to consider, quite different from Vienna or Beijing or anywhere, I suppose.  This lounge will no doubt have spicy green curry in a big vat and my ear will attune itself for the first time in ten years or so to the Thai pronunciation of things, with the tongue in the back of the mouth.  But I really just want to be home.  And we still have many, many hours to go. 

Tuesday, 03/21/17

Softened and Accelerated

En route but stationary.  An Austrian Airlines jet is moving itself slowly into position on the run way down before me.  There are a dozen such planes out there.  I am on an Austrian plain, of flat ground here away from the peaks, not far from Vienna about to board a plane to take me back to Beijing.  The Austrian Airlines lady at the counter with flaming red hair to match her flaming red dress and tights and shoes has just confirmed.  The next announcement will come in 45 minutes.  (53 mins and counting she ain’t said a thing)  “There appears to be mechanical trouble.  Sorry.”  Oh.  That could be 45-minute problem or a 4 to 5 hour problem.  At least I’m here and I don’t have much of any connection to worry about.  

This lounge here, is quite pleasant   We have the view of the airport which I have suggested is broad an sweeping, full of red plane logos.  The vibe inside is quite.  Perhaps not unlike Japan.  I tried to wish my daughter good night about four hours ago and got a hairy Austrian eye-ball from a guy who looked severe.  I went out into the hallway where the Austrian Air ladies sat to welcome folks to the lounge.  They too clarified that this was not the right place to talk, audibly.  (How else does one talk?)  “There, sir, is our private room.”  Well, OK.  There was only myself and there was no one inside.  This actually worked. well.  

Later when I was inside being scrupulously quite the dude two chairs down picked up his phone and started yapping in German.  “Vell zen,” this was my chance to unveil my hirsute cornea.  “Yo man, why you be talkin?”  He didn’t seem especially impressed with my Flavor Flav sneer.  When he picked up his call a second time I picked up mine in unison and made up a conversation in perfect cadence with his, affirming, rejecting and generally mocking him to an imaginary friend.  He didn’t notice.  

It’s not exactly Italy, but the Austrians put on a nice little spread here in the lounge.  It is certainly better than what’s available at the Hong Qiao Airport.  Most assuredly better than any airport in the U.S.A.  There’s an unlimited supply of my favorite Austrian bev, Gruner Ventliner, which helps to make the delay and the down time and the people talking audibly even though you aren’t talking audibly, somewhat softened and accelerated.

On the flight up from Venice, we had a lady with a southern Chinese accent in front of us.  Aww man, but she was loud.  Yapping and yapping and it was worse as I could understand most of what she was saying.  She gave her kid her phone and let him play computer games, audibly for all to hear.  We were on our way in.  We’d be landing soon.  And this noise from his facile game was driving me bird shit. “I’ll let it ride.” I told myself as the plane’s deceleration accelerated.  I practiced my lines in my head.  I’d ask her to turn the volume down.  She’d say “Hey, you speak Chinese.  Hey cousin Fred, will you look at that? This foreigner speaks Chinese.  Ask him something.” and want to start a “Alvie-Singer-in-line-like conversation and I’d be pulled into a chat unwittingly.  I said nothing.  And stewed and tried to read and get over it.  To the virgin Chinese traveler considering my bitchy tale: please be mindful of volumes when you travel abroad.  It’s your right to behave, as you will, back home.  But noise pollution can be noxious overseas. 

Monday, 03/20/17

Concentrate on the Shaved Beets

At the other table, sat three women.  Within seconds it was clear they were from China.  We had chosen this place on a friend’s recommendation.  I’d dutifully made a reservation, a long distance call, I’d been warned I’d need to, but there weren’t many people inside for lunch.  Our waiter, Walter, was very attentive.  He had many things to share; about food, about wine and about his clientele.

My wife wanted a Bellini.  I had thought this was named after Vincenzo Bellini the early nineteenth century composer who died at the tender age of thirty-three.  And though he worked in Venice and had many works performed here he wasn’t Venetian.  He was Sicilian.  Rather, the painter Giovanni Bellini who was Venetian had painted a saint’s cloak in a similar hue of pink to the peach and Prosecco based aperitif is the b-boy whom the cocktail's named for.  And my wife caught Walter saying “Franciacorta” and reminded me that this was precisely the dry sparkling wine our gondola driver had raved about.  Walter insisted: “Prosecco” is like-a bronze-a. Franciacorta is like-a platinum”, he said, with his arm stretched nearly to the ceiling.  Right.  Bring us a cold glass then. 

As prophesied, our seafood risotto was outstanding.  At the other end of the room, Walter was making conversation with the ladies from China, who didn’t seem to relish chatting in English.  Walter however persisted.  Soon, it was clear that these gals hailed from Xiamen, even though Walter couldn’t place where that was.  I tried to concentrate on the shaved beets that blanked my meal and to resist the temptation to offer up unsolicited witticisms to their fledgling conversation.

Soon, another woman had joined our room.  She spoke, to my ears, quite confident Italian.  However Walter was keen to practice his Japanese once he had discerned where this lady was from.  She would speak Italian and he would reply in English and then say "Arigato!".  It all seemed rather familiar.  Watching our waiter I was struck by his uncanny resemblance to a wonderful student of mine from a few years back, who was from St. Petersburg.  I kept expecting Walter to code-switch into a flat Russian drawl. His pressed nose and broad face, to my eyes looked unmistakably Slavic.  But Walter was unerring in his Italian accented English. 

I returned from the bathroom to hear him sharing ideas about China with my wife. “Most a-people who come to the restaurant who are Chinese are actually from Taiwan.  90% or more are from Taiwan.  They dress nice they have good manners.  The other people who come are from-a Hong Kong or Shanghai.  And they are nice, cultured people too.  But when the people from the north come, like-a-Peking-a, oh, that is very different.  They are rude and they are loud and they go outside for cigarettes.  I find them very hard to be around.”

It occurred to me that my wife had yet to share the fact that we call Peking home.  Still, I later unpacked it all with my wife, we agreed that his ability to discern broad stereotypes within the breadth of Chinese civilization hinted at progress and volume and a slowly rising sense of nuance facing east.   

Sunday, 03/19/17  

They're Ours! Hah.

I don’t know that I’ve ever remember looking up at a building and laughing aloud in quie that way before.  It was third time in the day when I finally understood just how the gesture had been rendered.  Laughing, I was but shaking my head as well at the gesticulated audacity of what they’d done and how it had been displayed. 

In the morning we had our first walk through the Piazza San Marco but we were late, and in a rush and it wasn’t appropriate to do much more than gape and stare around and move on through.  When I returned later, I was tired.  I’d been walking for hours and it being Venice, I’d taken many, many wrong turns.  Fortuitously I stumbled upon the place where you leave your bags before entering St. Marks.  A far, far better thing for sure to notice this now then be told of it after walking through a thirty minute line. 

I was suitably bowled over by the interior of St. Marks.  Here was mosaic work to honor the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  Here where domes to speak to the Arab world.  This was a church without any seats.  At least there were none available.  Finally, I found a place to sit and rest off to the left, from an obscured entrance way.  That’s better. 

On the other side was the relics of St. Marks.  Stolen from Alexandria is 828 A.D. by two Venetian merchants.  One finds trade at every corner of this great city.  I probably shouldn’t say so but I found the fingers and bones and other body parts to be risible: preserving the body parts of Church figures, to imbue a spot with sanctity.  And on the way out there was a long queue up to see the museum.  I was just about out of time and so I opted not to head up but was determined to see the fabled horses which, were apparently up at the top.  There was a photo of them there, by the stairwell. 

Leaving the church, retrieving my bag I walked across the square and though pressed for time once again, I paused and looked back and there they were, the four Roman horses, staring down at the square.  So that’s where they have been placed.  And certainly it would be nice to head up and see them close, there they were, galloping up above the city.  I laughed audibly, uncontrollably, because it seemed such a remarkably defiant, arrogant, and dangerous gesture.  “They’re ours!  Hah.”  The modern mind would wonder at the legality and civility of looting for civic glory.  Not so our medieval Venetians.  "Deal with it!"

And one day, much later in the nineteenth century they were, of course, stolen once again, this time by Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about gesturing.  But they were returned, clearly, and here they are.   A middle finger in the face of Constantinople.  We are now on the scene.  The Adriatic is our lake and we'll take the Mediterranean while we're at it.  Doge Dandolo was blind but he knew all about symbolism, when he stole the Triumphal Quadriga and brought them home with him to the this courtyard here.  "We are the new empire on the scene.  Bring it on, if you dare."  What would the modern version of such behavior look like?  

Saturday, 03/18/17

Fledgling Airplane Manners

Happy St. Patricks Day.  My younger daughter told me I had better wear green.   I told her there was no need as I had green eyes and feted Ireland every time I blinked.  Unwittingly I had thrown a green shirt on today.  But parades and green Guiness aren’t on my mind just now.  Rather I’m flying over Russia somewhere en route to Zurich.  

I have never been to Switzerland and unfortunately I wont get to see much more than the airport.  We’ll be changing planes and making our way on to Venice.  Tomorrow is twenty years to the day since my wife and I were married.  Something grand was in order. 

The plane not surprisingly for a flight from Beijing, is full of Chinese people. Here back in row forty-two it would appear that there are a great number of Chinese septuagenarians off for a look at Europe.  Couldn’t tell you where there final destination will be.  My wife’s a bit annoyed by all the chatter and milling about and fledgling airplane manners.  But no one can talk on their cell phone at twenty thousand feet and somehow I’m happy for them all.  This is still only the earliest of days of the rising flood waters of Chinese international tourism.

Henry James Novella “The Aspern Papers” is set in Venice.  Then it was loud, brash Americans who set out to discover Europe and disrupted things with their easy money and sharp elbows and inattention to detail.  I liked the figure of Madame Bordereau as old as the Doge Donaldo, whose eyes flash out finally, unveiled, displaying their muse-like poignancy.  “Ah. You publishing scoundrel!”  I must bring that quote to the attention of my sister and my father who are guildsmen in the trade.  The narrator never deserved to secure these papers.  He feels very familiar throughout.  A real countryman of mine, certainly.

We’ll be having our Swiss Air dinner now.  The carts have just gone by.  Switzerland is always fabled to be one part French, one part Italian and one part German.  The breakfast was representative of the weak-leg of the culinary stool, with lots of cold cuts and, of course, Swiss cheese.  I’m hoping we veer towards the Mediterranean on this second pass through.  

Friday, 03/17/17

Pulling Little Toad Farts

Call at odd hours seem to be the new norm, or at least my willingness to consider them.  It wasn’t imperative that I be on this call at 4:30AM.  But it was probably for the best.  I opted to crash in the guest room, as I’d only be catching a few hours of rest.  I woke before the alarm though, wheezing.  Unlike our bedroom upstairs, this room is not a cat free environment and now a few hours on, I was feeling it.   

And if there is one thing you want when that loss of breath hits its a reprieve.  Where’s the inhaler?  It should be right on my desk.  It isn’t.  Is it in my bag?  No.  I really just want to go back to sleep but I will need to get dressed and check the car and then the upstairs bedroom.  Up in the room I found a used canister that had all but given up its last puff.  I sucked on it, pulling little toad farts of air out greedily, and began reexamining my desk for the new one I knew I had somewhere.

One memory fortunately started waving its hand and eventually punctured my consciousness with a clear vision.  I put it on the stair master when I used the adjacent machine yesterday at the gym.  I do that every day.  But I labored for a second to remember when else I had used the canister since then.  In a manner that that uncommon with age, I knew that energetic memory was the key.  I gave up searching suddenly, sufficiently convinced that I’d left it at the gym.  Fortunately my migration and my kitty free office and a few micro-sucks I’d able to extract were enough to stabilize things.

Later walking across the school campus towards the gym I explained to my younger one that I fully expected to find my inhaler inside.  She was skeptical.  I even knew where it would be.  Someone would have found it and put it on the counter where everyone throws there clothes while they work out.  I went in turned and scanned the shelf.   Deflated I quickly surmised that there was nothing there.  I looked again and resisted the urge to shake down the one coat that rested there, obviously the coat of the lady over there on the treadmill.  I walked reluctantly over to the place where I remembered laying it the day before.  It wasn’t there either.  What would anyone have wanted with my inhaler?  Is there some lost and found I need to visit?  

I went back to the shelf to look one last time.  My daughter called out to me then.  She was already bouncing up and down on the stair-master.  Someone had laid it there on the window sill.  And after a big gulp of whatever it is that inside these canisters, I began my morning routine with the vim that had been missing since I'd been up.

Thursday, 03/16/17