One Year in Review

The LaBelleValise blog is now one year old.  This blog started as a travel log on all the places work, life, and wanderlust takes me and over the past year the adventure has been better than I hoped.

Here are a few of the highlightswpid-20141203_115451.jpg

Lunch with King Ding and Snotting Cat-Beef on a Shanghai Lazy Susan

When Kingful Ding of Shanghai, China (no, I am not making that name up) asked me to be the guest of honor at a lunch in his villa I accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. It’s not everyday I get asked to lunch at a villa in Shanghai, and there wasn’t really a polite way for me to get out of it anyway. So off I went, head full of optimism, suppressing that inner voice that nagged about this being CHINA, and my palate being about as refined as a four-year-old’s.

Throughout the meetings preceding this invitation I was suppressing a giggle every time I called him “Mr. Ding” with his bulbous face and puffy hair he looked a bit like a fat penis head, so I thought “Ding” was particularly fitting.

Yeah, about that palate … now would be a great time to mention that I don’t eat anything that lives in the water, and really prefer not to even look at the ugly little critters, especially shrimp, the cockroaches of the ocean.  I’ll make an exception for steamed crab legs on occasion, only as legs, but that’s really just a vehicle for melted butter.

I walked into the King’s “villa,” which was really just a private upstairs dining room at the clubhouse for his gated housing complex, and discovered a room full of dark heads – none of which were ever introduced to me.  I was the only woman in the place except for the lovely serving girls in their skin-tight cheongsam, but that comes up often enough as a woman doing business in Asia, so I was amused but not intimidated.

The table was pre-set in typical Chinese style with small plates on a Lazy Susan in the center and water goblets and wine glasses at every seat.  I was ushered to a seat next to my generous host Mr. Ding.

Now, I am traveled enough to know there are a lot of customs and expectations when dining in China (there are social mores for everything) but I am NOT traveled enough to know what those customs and expectations are … but I do know one thing: when the host is drinking, one is expected to drink as well.

But does this apply to women, at 11:30 in the afternoon?

Unsure of what would be required of me, I took my seat, set my napkin on my lap, and smiled and nodded through the first round of toasts, taking small sips between each speech that were translated for me to basically mean, “We’re excited to work together. Mr. Ding is basically awesome, and we like your yellow hair.”

All was going well until my host began the dining portion of the meal. The sheer number of plates sitting before us was a bit staggering, and the fish eye that was winking at me from across the table kept creeping precariously closer than I’d like him to be.

“Kindly” Ding picked a few morsels on the plates closest to us and placed them before me: vegetables, pickled cabbage of some sort, and a beef-ish looking thing, all fairly innocuous even for my childish finickiness. I somehow got the first bite to my mouth just as another toast started, took a sip of the worst red wine I’d ever tried, and looked down in horror just in time to see Ding place the fish head on my plate.

The King of Ding seemed a fairly traveled fellow, or at least his translator had told me that the big Ding had visited Hawaii a few times, so I had to wonder, “Is he having a laugh at my expense, surely he knows Americans don’t eat fish heads!”

The rest of the food on my plate was fairly inoffensive, so, undeterred by my American girl in the foreign city (pretending that everyone in the room wasn’t watching me) I dug in, “accidentally” moving my food around the plate to cover up my gill-breathing dining companion and contemplated spilling my wine on my plate.

Lunch continued for a few moments, and then another batch of serving plates came out, another round of toasts, and the small rice bowl beside me was filled with a gelatinous stew of hairy crab.

I resisted the urge to Snapchat a quick “Help!”  when I looked down at the ugly little fellas and was relieved that it was time for another toast, which by this point the translator had stopped explaining to me, having decided to fill his mouth with every manner of imperial cuisine presented.

I discovered a great benefit to chopsticks … dropping.  Anything I didn’t want to put in my mouth accidentally got “dropped” a little at a time, and my serving girl swept it away before Ding noticed I had disposed of it.

But, the wine was trickier.  The toasts and resulting gulps that followed them were getting more frequent, and lasted longer. We toasted the crab, we toasted the lunch, another toast to my yellow hair, if all this celebratory drinking didn’t stop soon I was at serious risk of falling off my chair – or taking off my top.

Then my sister’s wise counsel from a night of too many margaritas came to mind, “If you start feeling drunk, just go boot and then you’ll be ready to rally.” Sweet, solution found! But, I was not going to waste a trip to the ladies just to rid myself of too much wine, this was too great an opportunity.

I began taking lusty bites of the items on my plate then palming them into my napkin.  By the time I excused myself to the bathroom I’d nearly emptied my plate into my emerald-green cloth serviette, and I surreptitiously dropped it into my handbag.

In the bathroom (which thankfully was NOT a squat toilet) I purged like a sorority girl, then unloaded the contents of my napkin into the toilet, cleaned up, and sashayed back into the dining room, feeling rather proud of my quick thinking.

The Horror!

In my absence an entirely new round of toasting liquids had been brought forth, beer. Chinese beer. Served luke warm. Shit! And, another round of who-knows-what had been placed on the Lazy Susan – more food than thirty people could eat, and we were only ten.

More toasts, more helpful servings from Mr. Ding, and the greasiest soup known to man slithered down my throat: sautéed eel was swallowed without a bite, abalone was accidentally dropped onto the ground, followed by more beer, white fish, stewed spinach, more beer, until I looked over at the Big Dinger and saw that he was even more phallic now. His face had turned a bright red, and a glossy sheen of sweat was dribbling from his temples down his face, reminding me a bit of … sorry, I won’t go there, we’re eating here (though the gelatinous salty consistency of our lunch also reminded me of that a bit).

The lyrics to hotel California started to play on repeat in my head, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Here I was, surrounded by men who were not really speaking to me, all of them starting to look a little intoxicated, pretending to eat/drop ridiculous amounts of food I didn’t even want to look at, and there was no end in sight.  And then, the laughter could no longer be suppressed.  I put my napkin to my mouth and pretended to cough as I regained my composure, and focused my eyes completely on the Lazy Susan in front of me, did that fish eye just wink?

I reached out toward a plate of what in the U.S. I would call Beef with Broccoli and set it on my plate.  I took a bite and it was good!  Really! Tender, really, rich, deliciously good, what joy!

Then, from three seats down I heard it, “Meow.” quiet at first, so quietly I thought I must have mis-heard, so I took another bite, and now it was louder, “Meow!”

WTF!

I looked around and caught the eye of one of the nameless young men who had not been introduced to me and saw a twinkle in his eye, at which point the laughter could no longer be contained. I tried so hard to hold it back I snotted cat/beef up through my sinuses and a tiny little piece flew out, onto the Ding’s plate. Before I could say anything (what would I say?) he lifted the piece, along with the gelatinous detritus surrounding it, to his mouth and swallowed, impervious to what had transpired.

My second trip to the ladies for a boot and rally went down (or should I say “came up” much more smoothly having watched Ding swallow my eruption). Three hours later I made my way out of the villa and the young man who’d meowed at me rode back to the hotel with me, where he apologized in perfect English for teasing me, and explained that what I had eaten was “probably” not cat, but definitely not pork or beef.

Business travel is just so glamorous!

Delightfully Chaotic

“She is delightfully chaotic;
A beautiful mess.
Loving her is a splendid adventure.”

– Steve Maraboli

A colleague once introduced me as “the most fascinating whirling dirvish” she’d ever met.

It was one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.

Although, perhaps what she meant was, “She’s a chaotic mess, but at least she’s interesting.”

If I were a perfumer, Chaos would be my signature scent, wrapped in a cerulean paper of make-do, and tied with a ribbon of figure-it-out-as-we-go.

image

Chance and I are longtime friends. The abundance of the universe, combined with trusting my intuition, and a compulsive need to overachieve has never done me wrong, though it has lead to naive hubris a time or two … the limousine with the Irish beer execs, the spur of the moment trip to Calgary, a midnight stroll through Shanghai, even my 18th birthday impulse tattoo all turned out to be charming anecdotes rather than cautionary tales.

Your results may vary, read all labels before beginning any Irish Beer Drinking Tattoo Binges, and if it lasts longer than four hours, call your Doctor.

Gypsy Cabs and a Rape Whistle

I arrived in Qingdao, China at midnight on a half-full flight of sleepy business men who hadn’t checked luggage. I moseyed my way over to luggage pick up alone and registered the odd fact that the baggage carousel lights were out, but the slow whir produced my lonely green TravelPro and black crate full of marketing materials anyway and I grabbed them in the dark without much fuss … probably because I was the only passenger in the airport retrieving luggage.

I made my way through the dimmed terminal to the “Taxi” lane (出租车) only to discover that at 12:30 am on a weeknight, there are no taxis at the Qingdao airport. Shit!

Qingdao Airport

There are many places in the world where you can arrive at 12:30 and even without a taxi make your way to a nearby Novotel for a shower and a pillow. Not so in Qingdao.  When I say their airport is in the middle of nowhere I mean mountains, trees, industrial complex, NOWHERE! Hence the name, Qīng () in Chinese means “green” or “lush”, while dǎo () means “island”. I had arrived on the green island in the middle of the night, and Jeff Probst was not waiting there to help me find my tribe.

When traveling and something goes wrong, or could go wrong, I like to do what I call “sink the ship.”  I immediately imagine worst case scenario and work myself out from there.

In this instance, I had a Chinese cell phone and it was mid-day back home if I couldn’t get a hold of the hotel concierge, I knew I could call home and have someone contact my Qingdao hotel and ask them to send a car for me. I could also go back into the airport and camp out until taxis arrived in the morning. So, worst case scenario really wasn’t disastrous.  I was pulling out said cell phone when I was approached by a very average looking cluster of Chinese men in ubiquitous short sleeved dress shirts and slacks.

Taxi?” One of the men asked, using what I became confident was the only English world he knew.

Yes! To the Qingdao Shangri La.”  I replied, feeling relieved that my original assessment that no taxis were available proved incorrect. I pulled out my hotel reservation to show him the written characters for the address to where I was going.

He pulled out his cell phone, typed in 300 Reminibi (about $45 US) and I nodded in agreement.  Then he started to wheel my wobbly cart past the rental car stands, and past row after row of parked cars, and my Spidey “don’t-talk-to-strangers” Sense kicked into high alert.

“Taxi!” I said loudly, trying to communicate that I did not want to ride to my hotel in the vehicle of some random stranger.

“Taxi.”  He said, pointing to himself, and continuing to roll my luggage.

We arrived at a very average looking silver car, but definitely not a licensed taxi or private airport transport service and he popped the trunk. At this point, if this man’s goal was to kidnap me, he could easily have done it without continuing the pretense of loading my luggage, we were too far from the terminal for the nobody who was around to hear me scream, and although I like to think of myself as scrappy, at 108 pounds he could have easily overpowered me into his car.

So, I sank the ship again, worst case scenario he’s an opportunistic gypsy cab, would-be human trafficker and wants me to get in the car without alerting the security cameras, since cameras are everywhere in China. That in mind, I made a big show of taking a pretend picture of his car’s license plate (my Chinese burner phone was so antiquated it barely sent basic text messages, but he didn’t know) then pretended to text the photo to a friend.  I wanted him to believe that if he did abduct me into white slavery that he would at least have to do so with the hassle of the police knowing he was the last person I had been with.

We climbed into the cab and I immediately pretended to call my “friend” in China and speak to them in Chinglish, using the four Chinese words I know in order to make it seem as though I was meeting a Chinese-speaking friend at the hotel (and was apparently very mad at some old woman 老巫婆 “old hag” being the only insult I know).  Then, I hung up and called home and explained the situation in English, and talked my way through a thirty minute taxi ride over the river and through the woods to my hotel.

There are few times in my life I have been as relieved as I was when I saw the lights of Qingdao in the distance, and then even more so when I saw the neon lights of the Shangri La – once I can see the hotel I can walk there, worst case scenario I abandon my luggage and make a run for it.

Shangri-la_Qingdao

We pulled near the Shangri La, and then things got shady.  He turned around and began speaking with me in the Chinese I don’t know and then showed me his cell phone, with a new number on it – 500 Reminbi (80 USD) which from all my pre-trip internet research I knew was a complete rip off.  I probably would have let him jack the price up a few bucks, but doubling the price when the hotel was in sight, rookie mistake.

He pulled past the porte-cochère and picked up speed, continuing to speak in rapid Mandarin and pointing to his phone. At which point, I did what any innocent little Utah girl would do, unrolled my window, pulled out my rape whistle, and blew that thing with all my might.

The “taxi” slammed to a stop, and he began to back up, gesturing with his hand to keep it down, and pretending to laugh it off as if we’d just had a misunderstanding.  He delivered me to the door and sheepishly grabbed my luggage.

I handed him 300 Reminibi instead of the agreed upon amount, with a knowing look, and we both went our separate ways.

 

Qingdao

 

Now, when arriving in an unfamiliar city after standard hours, I always book a car and driver – though it didn’t work as well in Turkey at 4:00 in the morning, but that’s another story.

Airport Zen

Surviving An International Flight with Kids: Europe with Teenagers

Park and Ride drop offs; shoes-off-tech-out security screenings; gate change; screaming kids; and octogenarians who have never flown before all collide into one frenetic, frustrating, infuriating pulse during the experience that is airplane travel.

But, when you travel as frequently as I do (just got my Platinum Medallion welcome kit five years running, Damn Diamond always just out of reach!) if you let the airport get to you, you’ll start to look like your passport photo. So, I like to practice what I call, “Airport Zen.”

image

Airport Zen takes focus, and practice – much like any meditative practice. Finding it for the first time is a struggle, maintaining it is even harder, but when it’s there it offers a perfect little mental oasis inside the traveler’s hell known as the airport.

Finding Airport Zen in Lines

Lines? An opportunity to breathe in for three, hold for two, and release for six; during which time I zone in on someone or something pleasant to look at (advertisements for a juicy steak, a child behaving like children do, a couple in love) and observe the world around me.

Repeat: At Airports, Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Security? I move intentionally, not allowing myself to assume the anticipatory posture of “hurry up and wait”. I always wear slip on shoes and the same no-pockets-no-mistakes linens pants with no belt or jewelry when I fly, so I can skip the harried wardrobe change at screening and I have only to pick up a tray (at the exact moment it is needed) place my laptop and toiletries case inside, leave my passport and boarding pass on top, then breathe again and follow the person in front of me. All in a deliberate, intentionally relaxed fashion, forcing my shoulders not to clench and my teeth not to grind in annoyance at the cattle call around me.

Airport Zen in Flight

The Flight? When I board the plane I consider my seat a protective nest for the next 2-12 hours and I settle in, just like in yoga, and focus on finding my “posture” – the most comfortable way to sit in non-reclining 33B. I un-shoe down to my comfy travel socks (the kind I keep a ziplock bag for so I can wear them in airplane bathrooms and not care how dirty they get), request a blanket and pillow, then pull out a book for the rest of the take off process (the real kind, with pages, that turn off the electronic buzz and open my mind to a pretend world of interesting people.)

Once in air I order two glasses of water and a glass of wine, drink it slowly, and meditate on nothing.

This relaxed approach makes flying a “practice” rather than a burden, and helps me arrive at my final destination refreshed and ready to hit the ground running at a break-neck pace.

But, how does Airport Zen work with kids?

Airport Zen with Kids

To be honest, it kind of doesn’t – because kids are humans with their own needs, wants, and agenda. But, a few tips can increase the likelihood of success.

  • Airport Hack One: Buy your way out of inconvenience whenever you can possibly afford it – Uber, SkyCap, Upgrade to Priority Boarding, Pay for Clear if you fly more than three tines per year but don’t have status (Amex Card Holders get a discount).
  • Airport Hack Two: Don’t Bring “That”: Whatever annoying, bulky, awkward “want to, don’t need to” device you’re thinking of bringing – DON’T unless: you will have a dedicated hand that can carry it through the airport, it will be DEFINITELY used at least 50% of days, it would cost you more than $75 to buy it on your vacay if you decide you need it. See airport hack one. Thus includes ANY drinks or containers that carry drinks you might forget about (you can buy them on the other side).
  • Airport Hack Three: Consider shelling out the $$ to visit an airport lounge or at least a convenient restaurant; start your vacay the second you leave home to get everybody in a celebratory mood.
  • Airport Hack Four: Check in online, stalk seat assignments in the weeks leading up to your flight to get the best choice, and involve all fliers in the process. Everybody over age five should be personally responsible for getting their body on the plane – which means you should have age-appropriate conversations about what to expect at the airport, when, why, and how to respond.
  • Airport Hack Five: Screens, all the screens, pretty, pretty screens!

Related Articles:

 

Made in China

It begins, the trip that tests if I’m actually qualified for the job I have.

When Sheryl Sandberg told women to use our power to “Lean In” she didn’t address what happens next. How do I go from landing the dream job and impressing my colleagues to actually believing all the hype about myself? Does everyone secretly believe they’re a complete career fraud? And, does that nagging fear ever go away?

Stamp my passport, it’s proving time.

image