Don’t come to the podium!

Flying for twelve hours in a packed plane, with the seat of the person in front of me crushing my knees and the toddler in the seat behind me kicking my back has become the norm of my trips to Italy. (And this only gets me to Amsterdam or Munich, from which another packed flight has to be taken to make it to Rome.)

For my twelve hours trip to Beijing I was hoping that at least the plane would not be full. When I reach the gate, a person is giving orders in the loudspeaker: “if you want to change your seat, don’t come to the podium: the flight is full and we cannot do any seat change.” Poor me, I think, and then she adds, for good measure: If you do not have a seat, then do not come to the podium either, wait for us to call your name.”

Oh well, I think, I cried because I had no shoes… and while I am lost in such consoling thoughts my name is called. I show the person my boarding pass, “see I have a seat already,” she tears my boarding pass to pieces and then … she hands me a differently colored boarding pass. “We moved you to a business class seat.”

And not just that, an exit row business class seat, an aisle, exit row business class seat. So much space all around me, my eyes can barely take it all in.

And off we go with a glass of champagne. For lunch, an appetizer of smoked salmon and grilled portobello mushrooms and a filet mignon wrapped in bacon. And all around me, United flight attendants who smile. You have got to see it to believe it.

In Beijing, a driver is at the airport to pick me up and to drive me to campus. He speaks no English, but this is no problem. His driving style is unique. He has the smoothness of the American limo driver, avoiding sudden acceleration and decelerations, and at the same time he drives like an Italian, continuously changing lanes, driving for a while on the emergency lane, cutting in front of cars, squeezing between two other cars by imagining that there is a lane in between, almost running over pedestrians and bikes, and so on. (And all at constant speed!)

The accomodation is unbelievable. A three bedroom/two bathroom apartment with hardwood floors, a giant flat-screen tv in the living room, a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, and a shower cabin in the second bathroom that is about the size of a New York hotel room. A staff of four mans the front desk. Currently there are two guests, professor N. and I. Soon it will be just me. The staff is very excited to see me and to have something to do.

A delicious dinner of cold salad of potatoes and mushrooms, spicy whole braised fish, and hot pot with potatoes and frogs follows, and then drinks at a bar where I am the only one who does not score a phone number. Thus ends my day of being treated famously.

Update 4/3/06: Pictures of the Tsinghua visiting faculty residence.

The living room with the large screen, flat panel, tv.

The well-equipped kitchen

The dining room seats six

The study

The guest bedroom

The master bedroom

The shower cabin that can fit a small crowd

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