Monday, May 30, 2011

Stay-cation and other things...

My last vacation was in December and I spent it in Paris. Since then, I've contended with family illness, a major system rollout at work and various and sundry other life issues. I'm long overdue for a vacation, I feel. I demand the ability to recharge my batteries, clear my head and forget all the unpleasantness, stress and hassle of the last 6 months. I much prefer taking off to somewhere fun and exotic over staying home, but since I've opted to do a mega-vacation later this year (that would be China, in case you're just tuning in), I'm taking the four business days this week off (today is a national holiday, so I'm not burning a vacation day for this) just to "relax". If you could call it that. Already day 3 of 9 and I'm sort of stir crazy. Sure, I have a trip to the travel clinic for my pre-China vaccinations to look forward to, an early morning training session with my personal trainer, and all sorts of errands to do. You could even call me marginally productive because in addition to four hours at the gym and three at the beach over the weekend, I've already emptied the vacuum filter and cleaned out that junk cabinet in the kitchen that didn't close properly until now.

I hope to visit the MFA one day this week to finally see the new American Wing and the Chihuly exhibit. I'm hoping mid-week will be less crowded as kids are still in school.

Later this week I'm headed to DC for the day to meet the two litters of lion cubs that I have been raising virtually from my desk at work via Lion Cub Cam. For me, it's special because these little guys have kept me sane when I'm both bored and frazzled. They're fun to watch and I'm anxious to see them all together as a pride. I'll also see the National Zoo's pandas for the last time before I head to their homeland, which will be sort of exciting! I also want to try to get to the butterfly garden at the Natural History Museum (hot/humid weather permitting, I don't get overheated well!) and get to the National Gallery for the Gabriel Metsu exhibit. I'm following all that up with dinner at Cuba Libre; it's not often (ok, never) that I find Cuban food in Boston, and this restaurant is near the National Gallery where I'll end my day.

In terms of preparing for China, I've watched a bunch of travel shows I downloaded from iTunes: Anthony Bourdain's first China episode, and three by Samantha Brown. The last of her episodes was in Sichuan, and she visits the Chengdu panda center, where she gets to play with and hold baby pandas. I was surprisingly emotional watching that. I can't believe in 3 months, that will be me! Other than the obvious attachment to the pandas, I'm finding myself somewhat wary of the impending culture shock. I think I said this last year when learning about Russia, but China appears to be a whole nother ball of wax. It is overwhelming enough that the language is both unreadable and unspeakable. But the food is so drastically different, hell, even what they consider "food" is different enough...I wonder how I will rise up to the challenge. IF I will rise up to the challenge...but this is why I travel. I want my eyes widened, my mind opened and my beliefs questioned.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bringing China Back Into View

Having been sucked into the vortex of another seemingly never-ending system implementation at work, I seem to have lost sight of China. So as things have slowed down a bit, I've refocused. This purposeful refocus serves not only to distract me from the drudgery and stress of the current project, part of it is to actually start to prepare for the trip. If you remember how engrossed I was leading up to the Russia trip, you'll realize I have a lot of work to do.

One day this week, I added the week numbers to my calendar in Outlook. This week is week 20 of 2011. I leave on week 37. Damn, 17 weeks. I better get my act in gear!

With the gift card my firm gave out for Employee Appreciation Day, I bought four books off of my Amazon wishlist. I'm reading one now which is an account of an American who went to university in China in the early 80s. Granted, that was when the barriers to our being in China were newly removed, but I am noticing a painfully sharp strictness in how life was for the Chinese under post-Mao Communism as opposed to what I learned about Russian-brand Communism. This actually disturbs me more: not telling foreigners your birth date and not letting them throw you birthday parties; not being able to dance, work out or even do tai chi; suffering through a painfully high-carb diet; having to speak against their parents if they were determined to be enemies of the party -- whether true or not. It really is just unbelievable to me. And I mean "unbelievable" in its most literal sense. I just do not believe what I'm reading. Oppression just seems to me to be so extreme then. I hae to wonder how it has changed now. Surely eased up with more exposure to the west?

I've also given my Netflix queue a workout and have really enjoyed some wonderful movies set in China. Not One Less was a very touching, true story about a substitute school teacher in rural China who struggled to keep all the kids in class until the permanent teacher returned. It was fascinating, the conditions they teach in as well as how she motivated them to stay. Raise the Red Lantern tells the story of a woman who became the fourth concubine in a family and how she suffers under the stresses of that lifestyle. And at the suggestion of my fellow panda-fan Bev, I watched The Last Emperor, which amazingly I had never seen before but thoroughly enjoyed. Bev told me that it is fairly representative of how life was in the Forbidden City.

Today I killed some time before real work began plotting on maps where the Starbucks are located in the Chinese cities I'll be staying in. Looks as though I am well-looked after in Beijing and Chengdu. There are none in Ya'an, and none near my hotel in Shanghai. I'm unsure where my hotel in Xi'An is, so that's up in the air. It's just nice to know it's there...not that I'd necessarily have to go, other than to buy the requisite city-specific merchandise.

Somewhere in the fits and starts of my sleep patterns recently, I had another dream about being in China, but darned if I can remember it now. I'm hoping for a return to a more sane existance soon, one which will allow me to enjoy the next 17 weeks and get back to the real business of trip planning and watching Panda-Cam all day at work again!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Magic of Royal London

This past week, I took a lot of heat from people who thought I was crazy when they learned that I was staying home Friday to get up early and watch the Royal Wedding without having to get ready for work and leave home halfway through the ceremony. For me though, having visited London a couple times and also being keenly interested in the history behind most royal families, there was no way I was going to miss this.

I was only 11 years old when Charles and Diana got married, but I remember it vividly. My mom woke me up to watch the ceremony at an ungodly early hour, but it was the middle of the summer and easy to get up when it was light out anyway. We watched the whole thing beginning to end (this in the time before you could record anything!) and I guess like other girls around the world, I was captivated by the fairy tale of the whole thing. I remained interested in Diana over the years and followed with interest the many twists and turns of her life. I felt she'd just really found herself and was at peace with her life when it was tragically cut short. In Ireland and Scotland the week that the car crash took her life, I still regret that I didn't extend my stay for another day to see the funeral procession.

About a year after Diana's death, I visited London for the first time and visited all the Diana-related sites that I could: St. Paul's Cathedral where she was married, Buckingham Palace for a view of the famous balcony, Kensington Palace where she'd lived with her boys after the separation, and of course Westminster Abbey where her funeral service was held. I was especially taken by the contrast in size between St. Paul's, which was just shockingly massive compared to how "intimate" Westminster Abbey is. The area in the Abbey up near the altar past the choir screen feels as close and homey as a chapel. The verger giving me the tour of the Abbey on my first visit there sent chills up my spine when I asked where Diana's coffin laid during the service and he responded "right about where you're standing now, ma'am." Wow.

Even returning some 12 years later, I still found London magical. There is something alluring and mystical about the royals for me. By this visit, I had read up on Henry VIII and his many wives and of course his daughter Elizabeth I. I was captivated by the love story of Victoria and Albert. I spent an afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery looking at what these "characters" in the readings I'd done looked like. I was on their stomping ground, and it seemed like their reach was infinite. I noted with interest the spot in the Tower of London where Ann Boelyn lost her head. I admired the crown jewels. I enjoyed again the pomp, circumstance and reliability of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The most notable remnant of the royal past I think is the legacy left at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is one of the grandest, most exceptional, and most diverse, collections I've ever seen.

Watching the coverage Friday morning reminded me of all the things I loved about London. Seeing the military bands and horsemen as they marched through the streets, knowing exactly the streets the processions were taking, having just walked them myself not a couple years ago, seeing not one, but two kisses exchanged by the newly married couple reminded me of standing there at those very gates one morning having my own picture taken there. It was just incredibly impressive to see Big Ben and Parliament, the London Eye, the Mall and Buckingham Palace broadcast out over the airwaves, and witnessing the history that took place at that spot in front of the altar at the Abbey again, and remember that I'd been there.