Friday, May 31, 2013

Existing the U.S. - Vacation in France - I

Hi guys, our family of 4 are now in France for 6 weeks.  Among a long list of things to do, I plan also to write few vacation-related posts here during this time.  Happy now?  Good and thank you for your visit.

I have decided to turn my private travel diary into a public one because I am fed up by going through my old files to find NONE of what I wrote in the past vacation trips.  It turns out it's safer to store what I wrote at those uncontrollable public sites such as here at the and than in my personal computers.  So, let's get started, shall we?  BTW, if you happen to know where I live in the U.S., please feel free to sit our house.  You are welcome to water our garden, harvest the peaches, salads, or my favorite Chinese long beans... But it is really not a good idea to get inside the house, unless you are interested in stripping the Chinese food smell off the wall.

On the evening of May 28, 2013, the journey began.  It did not have a great start because I left my sunglasses in the purse that I'd decided not to take with me on this trip in the last minute.  In a frantically rush minute, I transferred everything but this important item from the purse to a backpack when Fabrice was calling us out of the house.  We had exactly 2 hours and 20 minutes in hand and the drive from our home to airport usually takes 20 minutes.  Thus, the man has his reasons to rush us.  He respects international flight check-in policy and I respect him for sticking to his principles.

At precisely 1 minute after he pulled it out of the driveway, I discovered this vital mistake and guiltily asked the love of my life to turn back the car.  Fabrice usually would just simply shake his head but then grant me such request.  This time, however, he decided to follow his gut, "Well, in this case, we won't go to your office then."  He spitted out his impossible-to-lose negotiation.  Oh, right, he had to remind me that our budgeted 5-min detour to my office was for my retrieving another forgotten item, my digital camera charger.  I know I know, my memory loss has given us too much stress.  "You can always use my iPhone!"  He added.

"No, I prefer to use my camera."  I disagreed.  I know his iPhone would be fine, but can you imagine that having a 6-week trip to France without your own toy to play with, particularly it is the one that helps you to remember the special moment?  No?  Good and thank you for being on my side!  So he continued driving ahead and I continued to be mad at myself and him, a little bit, for being unsympathetic for my precipitated memory loss, for pretending not to know the fact that I have given all my precious neurons to our lovely kids!

Anyway, when we arrived the airport on time (!!!), Fabrice was unable to check us in.  This did not surprise me because I never had any luck with those machines on any of my/our prior international travels.  What surprised/worried me was the fact that the airline ticket counter agent couldn't locate our ticket information on her computer, either!

"What do you mean by being not able to find us in your system?"  I inquired aggressively.  Sorry, Ma'am, I was not mad at you, I was mad at my husband for failing to confirm our tickets with AirFrance.  Now he had ruined our trip to France!

"Oh, the information in our system about your names and passport numbers are all wrong."  She answered.  She looked confused and anxious, but I was relieved.

"It's merely a system error, she will have it fixed, no worries."  Fabrice tried to calm me down.  He clearly misread me.

"You are the one who purchased tickets at the first place.  It must have been YOU who introduced this error to the system."  I finally got a chance to have my revenge!  Computer error, my ass.  They are just pieces of electronic machines made and operated by us intelligent people.  They don't rule us, we rule them, remember?!  We are not watching hollywood movies here.

"I am pretty sure that I'd double checked."  He was still in denial and I was still in a bad mood.

But I had no clue about what or who I was mad at the most: the stupid computer system that mismatched our info; my lost memory; or Fabrice's careless that ruined my chance to say to him "See we could have had plenty time to turn back the car for my sunglasses!"

"We have gotten some time until our departure.  Cheer up, we are on vacation!"  Oh yes, this guy is in a great mood, but he just pushed a wrong button.  Now, he gave me a reason to be really mad at him.

Although his tone was gentle, genuine, and caring, that, my friend, did not change the thought that he was responsible for wasting our time at the ticket counter.  Although I was questioning why the Delta Airline, the partner airline of AirFrance, had not had our passport information already since we traveled so often, I still decide not to let him off the hook,

"Why couldn't you be more careful!"  I threw this at him and then wisely excused myself from the unpleasant scene.

By this time our lovely kids had already turned into naughty monkeys: they were jumping up and down the luggage bags, chasing each others' tails, doing their cartwheels (Zhuzhu), shaking his butt (Niuniu), laughing so loudly that made echoes in a spacious and nearly empty airport.  They clearly needed some discipline from their tiger mother.  So, I took them to the airport waiting chairs on the opposite side of the ticket counter.  The 3 of us sat on the chairs.  Patiently, we waited.

10 minutes elapsed, the beloved daddy did not come to get us;
20 minutes passed, he was still standing beside the ticket counter, like moron, seemingly quite calm;
30 minutes, then
40 minutes...

Then I gave up counting.  By them I became fully engaged with my newly added Facebook friends.

It must have been another 20 min passed when Fabrice came to us later, because the boarding had already started when we reached our gate.  We have proved once again that the 2 h international flight check-in policy is necessary, except the one we were about to get on was not really an International flight.  It's a small domestic flight to transport us from our small home airport to Atlanta for the true intercontinental flight.

Needless to say, I cannot carrying my angers for too long.  Plus, I was quite sympathetic to Fabrice who had to stand beside the ticket counters, quietly and patiently, watching those agents to have the "system error" corrected.  How difficult could it be to match 4 names with corrected passport numbers in a computerized system, really?

It pains me too much to having to deal with incompetent people "trying their best yet their best was still inadequate" to solve my problems.  "I cannot believe how many incompetent people in the U.S. doing jobs without getting proper training."  I generalized thinking about the troubles that I had encountered in those past international trips.

Fabrice usually would disapprove me to make negative and generalized statements. He doesn't usually get irritated by people's inadequacy, either.  Well, let's say he does not usually show any signs of irritation in general.  It's not their fault, he says to me whenever I am annoyed by other people's incompetence.  He strongly believes that getting angry at incompetent people only shows your own inadequacy (just for the record, he was right.  I have recently learnt the true moral of the The Rabbit and The Turtle story that I told my students millions of times, but this is a post for another day).

But this time, he agreed, "It took 3 different agents to get things straightened out."  Ah ha, got you!

But you know what, he said nothing, showed nothing, and even felt nothing, the whole time.  He might have been helped by his iPhone over there.  I bet that he would have not said anything if it was not I who brought up the topic.

"Only you could deal with them."  I appreciated and spoke the obvious.

There is a major difference between him, the introverted Martian, and me, the extroverted Venusian.  Whenever I see people who are in need of hands, I would immediately show my willingness to get involved by either providing my helping hands or my helping minds.  He, on the other hand, would inevitably stand behind, waiting to be asked to lift a finger!  If I meet someone who is incapable and rude, I would make sure that he/she knows that she/he should not treat the next person in line the same way!  But he either leaves or sucks it up if leaving is not an option.  In China, my behaviors are kindly called professional sickness.  But in the industrious countries, such as the U.S., they are named "butting in other people's business".  "Don't be so hard on people."  My ex-boyfriend John once warned me when I described a situation where I pointed out some people's shortcomings.  "If people are not asking you for advice, they would not take what you say seriously anyways."  Fabrice says.

Before you hate me though, I have to clarify that I offer my sincere compliments generously whenever a job well done, regardless it is done by my own acquaintances or strangers.  I promote communications/connections among "strangers".  We only live in this society once, we need to take the opportunity to get to "know" as many people as possible, you see.

Where am I?  Sorry, I got side-tracked.

After a rough start, we were happy about that Fabrice was cleared as a non-terrorist, the kids were confirmed not to be our stolen goods, and I, of course, had always been the least of the agents' concerns.  So we said bye-bye to the princesses and toy story figures on Zhuzhu and Niuniu's suitcases while they were taken away by the luggage carousel.

Off we went to Paris!

Following a short and drink-free ride from our home airport, we got on a big 777 flight of AirFrance in Atlanta.  They put us in the last row in order for the 4 of us sitting together.  It was a full flight and the free wines were not worth our extra $$$ on the tickets.  Fabrice said the extra $$$ was for a better service.  He is right.  Few minutes after the monster took us up in the air, attendants brought kids' meals and toy bags.  They know how to attract family travelers.  After the meal, the kids were quietly watching their inflight cartoons so we parents enjoyed our meal without interruptions.  Soon after that, both Zhuzhu and Niuniu fell into a coma in the seats between Fabrice and I.  They did not even ask to open those toy bags, what a treat!  Then we took our beloved Bose noise cancellation headphones off their heads.  The Daddy used them to work on his slides - the poor man has 2 presentations to give in Paris the next day.  I, on the other hand, used my noise-free headphone to enjoy my inflight movies.  I had time for 3 action thrillers.

"Bienvenue à Paris!"  I read the sentence on the wall in Français, which impressed Fabrice.  I was in a high spirit, despite I have not slept a single minute the whole time.  

A vacation finally start for me and the kids!!!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Let's go skiing!

Alright, I know ski season is out for this year, but the following post took me a whole two month from the start to a working progress - yes, I do come back to edit my published posts often.  They are never good enough, you see. 
I was born a learner, as if I have not emphasized enough here already.  I mean I can acquire knowledge and skills pretty fast, especially when I have someone to show me how.  Unfortunately, I was born in China 50 years ago, at a time when our parents could hardly satisfy the fast growing physical body of their children with sufficient food, let alone meet the rapid developing innate curiosity of them with special provisional tools!  As a little girl, I had to teach myself how to dance, play Chinese violin (Er Hu 二胡), blow bamboo flute (Di Zi and Xiao), fondle ancient form of piano (Jiao ta qin, 脚踏琴), even sing Beijing opera.  I didn't want "missing out".  As you can imagine, my talent could only take me far enough to become an amateur for just about everything I tried to be.

I have suffered from under-developed syndrome (UDS).  What, you have not heard of UDS before?  I am not surprised because I've just coined it to describe us new Chinese immigrants.  Look around you, whenever you meet Chinese, ask them why they want to come to America?  I bet the answer is all the same: we did not have the opportunity to fully develop ourselves in China.

True, we Chinese come here to fulfill our childhood dreams, to explore, and to get ahead.

Believe or not, we Chinese and Americans even share the same dreams: we are all competitive and happy to get ahead.  But we are told to be modest by our Chinese parents and teachers - we can be bunch of tigers who sleep with an eye open and then eat you alive when your guard is down, ha ha ha -  joke aside, the truth is we grew up being taught that famous singers, movie stars, and athletes were not real people, they were icons who were born this way, which discouraged us to even try to become one of them early on.

Then I got lucky.  I came to the U.S. to make myself a perfect educator.  I have enjoyed having the land of opportunity so far and most importantly, I have learnt a saying "practice makes it perfect", which has shaken my self-image and the figure of my childhood heroes profoundly.  I now believe that I can learn just about anything and everything, even the seemingly impossible ski, without much of talent.  All I need is to keep on practicing.  So, when the first opportunity came along, I jumped into it.

In 2002, I was sent to a Keystone meeting.  Such meetings usually start at 7:30 am, stop at 9:30 am, then resume at 4 pm, and end at 9 pm each day for about a week long - totally are designed for ski lovers - that, my friend, provided me a golden opportunity to learn how to ski.

For about $100, I bought my first and only ski lesson pass on the first day of the meeting.  It went extremely well considering that my legs were still functioning after the lesson, which encouraged me to continue renting the ski boots and skis to get on the slope the next day and the day after.  After a few days of practice on my own, I learned how to turn, stop, and go downhill in a reasonable speed.

I was so excited that I could not wait to report to Fabrice on the phone to make him jealous of me for having fun outside the slave shop in which we were both working.  I totally bragged about my progress to trick him into believing that I had mastered those skills necessary to go ski with him - he'd started his first ski trip on the Alps as a teenager and not been too enthusiastic to take me to ski with him just yet.

And he ignored what I was reporting as he knew better me than himself, "Bend your knee, pressing the front of the boot so that you can put your body weight on the shin.  Face downhill, lean forward, put your skis parallel to each others..."  Fabrice was giving me instructions constantly over a cell phone that dropped signals frequently on the mountain.

I tried to transform his instructions into my actions except the "face downhill" - I rather skid with eyes closed!

He then sensed that I was unable to faithfully follow his instructions delivered in a cell phone.  On the 4th day, he joined me on the ski slope.  He had just stolen me from John at the time thus was quite eager to show me that he was worth of my love.  The price of a last minute plane ticket served the purpose just about right.  

When he found me on a slope where I had my ski lessons struggling with my turns and stops, he laughed his ass off.

"What, you spent all these days "skiing" on a bunny hill?!"  He made fun of me when he was catching his breath.

"Why not?  Look what I can do now?"  I was proudly showing him my beautiful "narrow" stance on the skis, I could feel that my feet in the boots directing where I was going, I could glide in a wedge by tilting my skis, I could easily stop with a wedge, I could even do the zig-zag... while I was showing off my newly acquired techniques, I heard,

"You are not skiing." he commented, "Let's go to the top of the mountain."

Completely ignored my fears, he went ahead to get us two lift tickets.  The whole time sitting beside Fabrice on a ski lift chair, I cursed to make sure that that man knew with whom he was dealing.  "I am afraid of heights and I cannot get up there!"  I screamed.  "Close your eyes, then."  He answered and then put down the metal bar in front of me to fool me into having some kind of protection.  In fact, I even need extra oxygen than many normal people to feel alive because I was anemic as a child and have grown to be extremely sensitive to high altitude where oxygen is scarce as an adult .  "I feel dizzy.  I have a severe motion sickness, you know?!"  He did not show me any sympathy at all at that time, maybe because he had never met anyone with this condition so severely - he then learned the lesson two years following our first ski trip in Hawaii watching me dying on the deck of our whale watching/snorkel ship later in 2004 during our honeymoon.

His confidence and easiness of sitting on the chair did calm me down a bit.  Seeing me quiet down, he started to go over the techniques to prepare me properly so that I could get off the lift.  I listened to him very carefully like a nervous school girl.  At the end of our ride, I did exactly as I was told: pointed the front end of the skis to the sky, let the snow/icy ground to touch the back end of the skis, which naturally put me standing straight on the skis.  A victory!  I was proud.

"Now follow me."  As soon as he got our boots tightened, he commanded, before I could properly respond, he skied down, way down.

If you skied once or twice in your life, you know that everyone is usually trying his/her best to get out of other skiers' way, particularly at the end of a lift.  I, like many beginners on their first try, could not abide by this common law.  I was busy to keep my balance in the mean time and to call the man, expecting him to walk back up to me.

What I did not know was that the area at very the top of the mountain is usually shared by skiers of all levels, thus, it is not too steep.  Fabrice failed to explain this simple fact to me, which resulted in his standing at the bottom of the slope, turning into a popsicle!  Had suspected my intention of staying at the top of the mountain for the rest of my life, he started to dance on his skis (yes, one can do that!) to seduce me to move on.  I watched him dance and felt tons of skiers flying by me, one after another, for a long while... Eventually, I had gathered all my courage, positioned my skis to form a upside down V, and skied straight down toward Fabrice.

As soon as I reached his location, he skied away from me.  What the hell, I was going to take a break!  "Stop, I could not move my legs!"  I yelled to the back of the man, but he was gone.  He could not hear me anymore.  Boy, this teacher of mine was pushy.  When I caught him again, he said seriously, "You have to move fast here.  It's too cold and you could catch cold."

Too cold, I was sweating, but why his lips were turning grey and body was shivering?!

What I did not know at that time also was that a green trail from the top of a mountain is usually the longest run because it surrounds those steeper and shorter blue and black runs.  "If we keep on stopping, we would need a whole day to finish a run!"  He said and asked me to ski on the long, narrow, and curvy tracks behind him.  What he did not know was that I needed a lot of energy to balance myself on those slippery skis and had no confidence nor ability to follow his marks precisely.  Plus, it was the first time in real life that I had someone "belonging to me" who could ski so effortlessly.  I was charmed by his elegant ski posture.  I was lost in awe watching his "performance" ahead...

... "So, move!"  He would command annoyingly.  But when he was not looking, I would just skip the curves to avoid being left too far behind, and try to ignore his urges on bending my knees, FACING DOWN HILL - I constantly leaned backward, as directed by my instincts.  When he told me to make turns with the leading ski tip pointing downhill, I would point it to the side to turn my body with my butt... Eventually though, he understood to give the old dog more time to learn new skills, so he went ahead to ski away from me at those divergent runs and then met me at the next convergent points to show me few more tricks.  Often he would find me on the same spot of the slope at this next run.  Whenever he skied close to me, he would slow down to demonstrate how to easily zig zag to get downhill.  This technique could change a steep run into a green slope.  He would also show me how to shift body weight from the center to one leg so that the other leg could move the ski close and parallel to the weight bearing one.  Finally, he tirelessly emphasized not to face sideways, even though when I was skiing in a zig zag pattern.  "Look downhill and face the bottom of the slope." he says this each and every time I am starting my runs!

(In a retrospect, I now cannot understand why I needed any of those breaks in the middle of a green run.)

After few green runs, Fabrice optimistically took me to blue slopes.  "You can ski anywhere since you can make turns and stops now."  Seeing me still in doubt, he insisted, "You have to have some speed to turn.  Green slopes do not help you with that."  He was trying to get me out of my comfort zone.  

Having witnessed how natural and easy that he conquered those scary snow bumps, I became a bit confident myself.  So, I sucked it up.

Guess what happened next?

I completely lost control.  The blue trails were much narrower than those green ones and the skis just took my body straight down.  "Control your speed, slow down, make a turn, turn, turn now.  No no no, don't go toward the tree, not the tree..."  Fabrice was shouting beside and then behind me, bang!!!  I fell right onto a tree.  

It did not take long for me to remove my skis.  Down I walked in my boots!  

Then I spent the rest of my first blue run watching Fabrice who disappeared into and then reappeared out of woods.  He loves to get in between trees himself, but tells others not to do the same, what kind of example that he gives to his students!  

With the help of my personal coach and continued practice, my ski skill has improved over the years, but not at the same level as his though - we late starters can never catch up with those early ones, but as my skill improves, he now at least is willing to take me with him everywhere on high mountains.  We now often take lifts together up to the top and ski a few easy runs together at beginning of each day and then we move on to our separate lives - he challenges himself with black diamond and bumpy slopes whereas I enjoy myself on blue/red even green zones.  We meet at our common zones for lunch and at the end of the day.  It is in this manner that he and I have explored the following ski resorts so far:

Whistler (Fabrice went by himself because my visa to Canada did not arrive on time!)
Taos (Fabrice went alone)
Silverton (Fabrice went alone)
Davos (Fabrice went alone)
Santa Fe (I went alone)
... (I know that I have left out of a few hard-to-access but great resorts in both Utah and CO - couldn't remember their names.)

Here is how I skied in March 2005 (I now ski way faster and more elegant than then.  But I have nothing to show you here because my movie maker now gets his hands full with his new students.  Our 6 year old Zhuzhu and 4 year old Niuniu are catching up their Mommy in a light speed!  Since you have read this far, you are rewarded for your patience with a family ski video that I took in the end of this post).

But I must admit that it has become unaffordable for our expanding family of 4 to ski everywhere in the world now.  So, we are practically Colorado residents.  We have been to Denver airport so often that the kids truly believe that Santa lives in Colorado instead of the North Pole!

This is a long introduction to tell you stories of our trip to CO in the week of Zhuzhu's Spring Break.  We stayed in a "historical" town Carbondale, skied on the Snowmass in the day, and soaked ourselves in the Glenwood hot springs in the night.  The trip was sensational and the scenery of the alpine mountains was breathtaking (okay, it is not the Alps, but still!), which reminded me some of those sweet moments that Fabrice and I shared years ago*.  We had so much fun together as a family.  I am afraid now that this first official spring break has raised the bar for their future ones!  Zhuzhu has already become a skillful skier.  She ditched her little brother in the last 2 days to follow her amateur mommy everywhere in high mountains.  Niuniu is still at his weaning days with the daddy, although I must say that the boy learns so fast that I can see that his day of surpassing his sister is now countable with fingers.  Look what he can do already now!
* Fabrice and I both skied in Snowmass mountain in 2004 at our annual conference.  That was a highly productive meeting both professionally and personally.  We both received some prestigious awards in our fields and few job interview invitations.  We both also took home an Alpine ski racing trophies.  Ironically, he and I both won the third place.  How did I pull that off, you say?  If I tell you, you must die.  Nay, the truth is that there were exactly a total of 3 women participated in the "intermediate woman skiers" race.  But hey a trophy is a trophy!  In this male-dominated scientific community, Fabrice competed with a bunch of young Europeans and he mistakenly identified himself as "advanced skier" thus...the well-deserved third place!!!