Friday, August 31, 2007
Arrivederci Roma and the "Homecoming" (a.k.a. the "Beijing Fiasco")
All roads lead to Rome. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Veni, vidi, vici.

Nothing compared to the real thing. And hell yeah, I conquered.

I arrived in Rome mid-morning on the 2nd of August, and walked the ten minutes from the train station to my hostel, which at first appeared to be nothing more than a Laundromat/Internet shop. This laundry center/computer lab was actually just the “office” of the hostel. They handed me the key, led me to the (world’s most annoying) elevator, and brought me up to the top floor of the next building over. The hostel consisted of an apartment of four bedrooms with four beds in each (and no bunk beds either!) and one shared bathroom for all. Each room was equipped with only two oscillating fans to try and temper the oppressive heat of a Roman summer. Now I know why they wore togas. The “management” gifted me with a bottle of wine (which was put to good use, I promise you) and I settled into the room.

I made a plan for the afternoon and went to wait for the elevator. The apartment to the right of ours had a nameplate on the door that read, “E. Morricone.” I wandered off in my head, wondering if it was indeed THE Ennio Morricone who lived there. If he did, why would he announce it on his door? Gee, this elevator was taking an inordinately long time to arrive…and then I realized why. It was stuck on another floor. In order for this elevator to move, the outside AND inside doors had to be completely closed. A group of inept twenty-somethings living on the second floor never seemed to be able to close the doors properly. I gave up, took the stairs down, and opened the front door. There I was: in Rome!

I totally got Publius beat. In one day, and ON FOOT, I conquered the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona (where I had the world’s most picturesque lunch – and the best gnocchi I’ve had, EVER), the Castel St. Angelo, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Actually, three-quarters of a day, if you discount that morning’s travel time. AND I even had time for a haircut. I found a great salon in Piazza del Popolo that is run by a few Italian guys from California. I didn’t really need my hair cut since I had just recently gotten it done in Beijing, but I had to undo the mess made by the Chinese stylist who had hacked his way through it before my trip.

“You should give Chinese stylists a chance,” they said. Well, I did. And I’m pretty sure I looked like a cross between Diana Ross and Don King. THAT would make one ugly-looking child. The Italians fixed it up beautifully (though it is resultantly a bit shorter than I’d like, but thank goodness hair grows…unless you’re Rudy Giuliani) and I headed back to the hostel. I hopped on the underground from Popolo back to Stazione Termini (the train station) which was the closest stop to my hostel. As I was walking back, I suddenly did a double take. I stared and squinted a little. Walking forward hesitantly, I wanted to be sure my eyes were not deceiving me. They were not. It was Jess!

Jess was a good friend of mine from college that I hadn’t seen in over a year. And here, coincidentally, we had found each other on the streets of Rome. What were the odds?
(I’m not looking for actual numbers here. Geeks - put away your calculators!)

Jess had been living in a convent in Florence studying Italian. Rome was the first of several European cities she would be visiting now that her summer study program was over. Joined by her friend Tess, we went food shopping and made plans to meet up later that evening. The plans fell through and we didn’t get to meet up again since they were leaving the next morning. But it was fantastic if for no other reason than that it makes for a great anecdote.

Not going out was okay by me anyway since I had to get up SUPER early to do the Musei Vaticani the next morning. I was not about to sit out in the stifling summer heat for two and half hours because I was lazy and got there late and an early start wouldn’t kill me. I woke up around seven. My roommates, who originally said they would accompany me no matter the wake-up time lay fast asleep and so - as with the majority of my trip - I set off solo seeking adventure and a hearty dose of Papal infallibility. I got there fairly early, but found myself in the tour group line instead of the individual line. I had lost about ten minutes, but I was still pretty close to the front entrance. I had brought my iPod, a book, and a breakfast of rice cakes and apricot jam. Oh, and HUGE bottles of water. Those who had neglected this tiny thing had to pay 5 euro for a tiny little bottle of Italian-brand water. I had been there, done that, and not wasted money on the t-shirt.

I was leaning against the walls of the Vatican waiting on line when the guy standing in front of me tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and took the iPod buds out of my ears.

“[In a Spanish accent] Watch those people behind you, they’re trying to cut.”
“Excuse me?”
“See those women over there? They just got here and they are trying to cut the line.”
Behind us and just to the right of the line, three women were standing, looking like they were ready to play some line-cutting double-dutch.
“Has anyone told them?”
The girl he was with walked over to them and told them to go to the back of the line. They pretended not to speak English, even though we had clearly heard English coming from them just minutes before. So she switched into both Spanish and Italian, and the women got huffy.
“What are you going to do about it?” they spat.
Slighted, the girl came back to her boyfriend.
“Just tell the people behind you. Hopefully no one will let them in.”

I told the two girls behind me who, it turned out, were very nice girls from Indiana who were just as livid about the situation. The line was now around the block for probably about 100 meters. All these people waiting in the hot sun, and these two women thought they were Paris and Nicky Hilton at the velvet Ropes of Hyde. But thankfully, these women were fully dressed and under-garmented and being thoroughly ostracized by everyone we told about the cut-attempt. The girls from Indiana decided to take a picture of the women to show to the guards. The women did eventually cut in about ten or fifteen people behind us and the guards of course did nothing, but the situation was funny and it killed some time.

I spent the whole morning checking out the Vatican and the Basilica, and had a picnic lunch on the Spanish Steps. The whole experience was breathtaking, and cannot truly be described in words - you just have to go yourself.

Oh, and the Swiss Guard? Like elves taking a Mediterranean vacation from Santa’s Workshop. I know it’s a big honor and all, but:

Seriously? And that one on the left looks a bit mischievous. Maybe he’s got something on the Pope? Even the lollipop guild didn’t have quite so many colors. I love the preservation of “European tradition” - makes for truly memorable photo ops.

I spent the day, eventually retiring back to the hostel to pack and get a good night of sleep before the trek back to China. Rome was my last stop before returning to Beijing and I had a long day of flying ahead of me.

I asked one of the people at the hostel’s front desk about trains to the airport. She said that one left every half-hour on the hour and half-hour. Great. This would be easy. No stress…I knew exactly when I needed to be ready and when I needed to leave. My flight wasn’t until almost noon. I would take the ten A.M. train, arrive at the airport around ten-thirty and be there in plenty of time for my flight. I woke up the next morning bright and early. I got myself together, made sure I had all my things packed properly, attended to some last minute correspondence, and walked myself over to the train station, arriving about seven minutes before the train was to leave.

Of course the airport train line was the furthest one from the entrance, but I had plenty of time. I checked out the board to check out which number I needed to go to and it said the train was departing at 9:53. Two minutes ago. But that can’t be! I asked one of the conductors on the platform and, unfortunately for me, it WAS to be.

The next train didn’t leave until 10:23, putting me a little tighter than I would’ve liked. Had I known I would have been in this scenario, I would’ve gotten my airline boarding passes before I left to ensure I wouldn’t miss the cut-off for check-in (like I did in London that first week). Agitated and feeling rushed (exactly what I DIDN’T want), I got on the train and willed it with my mind to move faster. I found out that day that I indeed do NOT have telekinetic powers. Sitting on the train, I read the newspaper over another girls’ shoulder. It read something to the extent of: “Heathrow loses a hell of a lot of baggage, especially if you’re flying British Airways, and people aren’t really big fans of that.” I was flying through Heathrow. On British Airways. With the luck I was having today, that would surely be me.

At just before eleven, I arrived huffing and puffing - wanting to make sure I was checked in before the “forty-minutes prior” check-in window closed. I did make it, but there was a hitch. There always is. At least for me. Thanks, Murphy.

Going in and out of Heathrow, you’re only allowed ONE carry-on. This I already knew. So in the past, I had just carried on my computer in my hands (since you had to take it out of your carry-on to go through security anyway) and I would take that plus my gigantic monster of a purse on the plane. I had done it that way from Beijing to London and London to Amsterdam. But in Rome, they weren’t having it. I had a choice between carrying the things I needed from my purse and bringing my computer or packing my laptop and bringing my purse on intact. Since my passport, wallet, Bose headset, iPod, and all the other etc. were of much greater immediate need, I decided to pack in my laptop and hope for the best. If I didn’t hurry this up, I would miss my connecting flight in London going back to Beijing. I calmed myself down, took an easy flight from Rome to London and figured, “when I get to London and I have to recheck my bags through customs or what have you, I’ll just take out the laptop and give it another try. With the layover, I can always just buy a bigger backpack/suitcase to take on the plane.”

I got through the extra security check after getting off the plane. I walked up to the transfers and connections counter. Handing over my passport, I asked for my ticket for the connecting flight to Beijing.
“Luggage tags please.”
“Oh, okay. Here.”
“Thank you.”
The airline rep input the luggage tag numbers and handed them back to me.
“You’ll be able to pick your luggage up in Beijing.”
“It’s connecting through?”
“And you’re sure they’ll make the connection and get through to Beijing?”
Not wanting to be the pest who pisses off the airline personnel who are “just trying to do their job,” I decided to leave it at that. I was not going to get to see my luggage in London. No computer.

“And you’re sure they’ll make the connection and get through to Beijing?” Those final words…

By the time I got through all this and switched to the international terminal, I had only 45 minutes left of my originally three-hour layover. I grabbed a bite to eat and then boarded the flight, which proved to be uneventful. I tried to make myself sleep, but despite prodding with comfortable blankets and wine, my body was not having it. But soon, I’d be back in MY apartment. After five long weeks.

We touch down in Beijing. I, of course, end up on the world’s slowest customs line because some lady was having immigration issues. Finally, I get through to the conveyor belt to grab my bags. I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more. You know what’s coming.

The bags stopped coming off the belt and I didn’t see either of mine yet. But I wasn’t the only one, which was somewhat reassuring. Maybe one load of bags is just taking longer? Then I heard one of the airport workers on his radio: Mei le? Mei le?

My stomach dropped and I just KNEW. I walked over to him and told him my bags had still not arrived from the London flight.
“Just a moment…There are no more bags. Come to the baggage office and we will figure this out.”
I noticed there were other passengers looking around at each other, confused and anxious. I walked over to them and explained the situation. Despite exhaustion and frustration, my mad Chinese translation skills hadn’t skipped a beat. Thank goodness for small miracles.

I went to the office, produced my tickets, passport, and luggage tags and filled out some paperwork. The women in this office had already been yelled at enough. Yet another angry shouting match wasn’t going to do anything. Besides, it was Heathrow’s fault. I thanked the woman in Chinese, which relieved her, and I headed out to grab a cab.

I was worried about my laptop and my bags but, more than anything else, I was tired. I got in the cab line and told the line captain where I was going. He pointed out a cab and I went over, got in, and gave him my address.

“Tai jin le!” (It’s too close!)
“Shen me ya?! Tai jin le ma? Wo zenme yinggai hui jia? Zoulu ne?” (What?! It’s too close? How should I get home then? Walk?)
“Tai jin le!”

Tired and fed up, I got out - slamming the door behind me – got in the next cab in line, and gave him the address. He was just getting ready to start the meter when the taxi line captain came over and asked me why I hadn’t used the other taxi.

[translation:] “The other guy told me where I live is too close. He doesn’t want to take me, so I’ll just go with someone else!”
“No, no - you need to go with him. He will take you. I assure you he will take you”

He opened the door for me and I got out with my one giant purse and nothing else. Great. Now I had to sit and listen to this stupid cab driver guy be miserable for half an hour. I got into his taxi and we drove off. Without even a pause for breath, the guy starts yelling at me.

[translation:] “I have to wait in this line all day to get a fare and you tell the line captain you only want to go to Dongzhimen? I am only allowed to come once a day unless the fare is only to Wangjing (which is really close to the airport). Then, I’m allowed to come back again and wait on line again for another airport fare. You should have told him you were going to Wangjing!” From the way I’m writing it, it sounds like he was being fairly even tempered, but he was sneering at me the whole time. It’s all in the delivery.

Now let me ask two questions: 1) Am I supposed to lie to the taxi line captain about where I’m going? Isn’t this system in place for a reason? The Beijing government is always talking about treatment of foreigners when the Olympics come. Is this the image they’re going to present? What difference does it make that it’s still 2007 and not yet 2008? And, 2) How is it my responsibility to do this on his behalf? If he chooses to wait on line all day at the airport for fares and wants to come back again to get two major scores instead of just doing it once and then getting back out on the street and hustling like every other cab driver, what is that my concern? Especially after sitting through a fourteen hour plane flight and then not getting back my luggage. So, I ignored him. I noticed that he messed with the meter to make it charge me more per mile, but I was so tired that I let him get away with it. I yelled at him a bit before I got out of the cab for overcharging me, to at least let him know that I was aware he was a crooked jerk of a cab driver, slammed the door and got out. Beijing, you have some work to do.

But I was back.

I got in the elevator, a little worried. I hadn’t been home in a while and for sure there would be bills to catch up on. The gas and the internet, I had been told by my boss, could be paid upon my return. The internet they might turn off, but as soon as you paid, it would start up again. The gas, they wouldn’t - but since it works on a meter, you would just have to pay the extra months’ worth all at once. Fine. But when I got back to my door, there were no notices, no fliers, NOTHING. Good. Or so it would seem.

All the things that needed to be done, I would do the next day since it was Sunday anyway. I opened the outside iron security door, opened the small lock on the inside door, pushed and…nothing.

The door wouldn’t budge. You’ve GOT to be kidding me. To give you a bit of background, when I first moved in, there was a “top lock,” sort of like a bolt, that was broken. I had never used it, nor had I been given a key for it. Apparently, in my absence, the landlord had chosen to fix it. And he didn’t leave me a note or a key.

I called my leasing agent. No answer. I called someone from his office. They called the landlord’s assistant who then called me. This took an hour. It was definitely the most un-fun, draining game of phone tag I’d ever played. Finally, I got him to come over. He said, “so you lost your key inside.”

“NO! For the millionth time, SOMEONE changed the lock while I was away on vacation and I’ve never been given a key!”

The assistant tried his keys and realized that he also didn’t have the key needed to get in. (By this time another whole hour had passed.) Finally TRULY understanding my anger and frustration, he called the locksmith. It took the locksmith an hour and five “Kuai yidianr! (Hurry up!)” phone calls from the assistant to get to my building.

Picking the lock didn’t work. He had to break it. Finally, we got into the apartment, and I saw that someone (to this day, I still don’t know who…I assume the landlord) had reattached and fixed the broken bolt lock and repainted the aqua green door frame so that it was pristine, but could barely be budged. The thing was practically painted shut. The assistant and the locksmith put on two whole new locks (so officially I am the ONLY person able to get into my apartment) and, using a scissor and a knife, shaved off the freshly painted layer of green from the door’s edge so that I could actually close the thing.

In China, aesthetics often trump pragmatism. This was a perfect example. Yes, the door was mean, green, and perfectly clean. But it wouldn’t open or close because it had five layers of paint on it. Good going, guys…

I had to pay the locksmith 120 yuan, but it was worth it just to get back in my apartment and to get them out of it so I could sleep. And of course, whoever it was that changed the lock while I was gone was never held accountable. That always seems to be the way my life works in China: the person who causes me difficulty never has to take responsibility or own up to it and I end up losing cash.

To end this story on a bittersweet high note, eventually - after three days of hounding them on the phone and making such a nuisance of myself that I could not be ignored - the Beijing airport baggage people got me my luggage back, one piece at a time. My computer was still inside and completely intact, although my camera fell as a casualty of war somewhere along the way. I suppose it could’ve been worse. Although now that I’ve reread my whole post, I’m not sure it could have. What luck I have. (Or have not.)

P.S. Wikipedia is down again. And apparently, so is Blogger. Gotta love living here!
posted by Rachel @ 4:33 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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This is a satirical site intended for the entertainment of an online audience. None of the features on this site are real (except in my own distorted view of reality), nor are they intended to harm the subjects mentioned. This site uses fictional names in all its stories, except in cases when public figures are being satirized or when I choose to use this site as a platform for someone's public humiliation (usually my own). Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental (or purposeful, but with good reason).

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