QUOTE OF THE DAY (OR MORE): "No, no. You don't understand. This is an '89 Calico. I'm pretty sure that exceeds the Kelly Blue Book value. The cat's totaled." --A comedian whose name I forget talking about a vet who presents a $3,000 bill for a 12-year-old cat

Monday, February 9, 2009

Airport HE double hockey sticks

First...yes - that is, indeed, a bonafide photo of a Starbucks Coffee inside the Forbidden City in Beijing... Now on to my story:

While my friends and family in the U.S. slept, I was in the Beijing International Airport being tested by God (and failing). In the midst of a business trip to China, I had changed my intra China flight from Beijing to Shanghai from one evening to next morning, at the request of my colleague, through our fabulously efficient (note due sarcasm) corporate travel agent. The agent to whom I spoke on the phone told me no problem- get to the airport early, go to the US Air ticket counter, and they will issue me a paper ticket for a 12:00 noon flight on China Eastern airlines.
Delighted and na├»ve with the apparent ease of the situation, I checked out of the hotel and got a taxi to the airport. Being a bit short on Chinese Yuan, I paid in U.S. dollars after trying to bridge the communication gap as best as possible... i.e. – literally opening my purse and demonstrating the lack of sufficient yuan in my wallet. The taxi driver frowned, not happy with me and seemingly unaware of the power of the almighty dollar (ha).
The unhappy taxi driver had dropped me off in the China domestic flights area because I'm flying to Shanghai- he didn’t understand what I was talking about when I said “U.S. Air.” I get into the airport - schlep myself to the other side of the big terminal through masses of people with little or no idea of personal space - to find the U.S. Air counter. Guess what? No U.S. Air counter. Not in this terminal or any terminal in Beijing, China. All other airlines, check. U.S. Air... absent. Note to self... no more U.S. Air for Asia. United only.
Ok- so what to do now? I ponder for a moment, considering my options and summarizing the situation to myself. I need a paper ticket, I remind myself, from an airlines that has no desk at this airport. Hmmm. I decided to ask at the information counter, traditionally known for providing information (after making my way clumsily through a very loud, disorganized, chaotic line full of rude people who respect neither the concept of turn-taking nor personal space (both problems of my children, but understandable in their situations...). (Just a bit of an aside… it’s important to remember, at this point and throughout my little narrative, that I have, as a delightful accompaniment, my extremely large and heavy suitcase made necessary by my extremely long business trip). Sigh. I digress. I ask at info counter what to do? I try to explain my situation (which is that I have a reserved, paid seat on a flight but no way to get a ticket). They send me expeditiously (let’s get rid of these crazy lady who doesn’t speak our language) up to "airport offices". Explanation is made difficult by virtue of their not speaking English and my not speaking Chinese.
I proceed upstairs with my stuff. Up elevator. Follow signs to airport office.. arrive at "airport office," which is, in stark actuality, hundreds of offices tucked into a labyrinth of white-washed hospital-style hallways. Ah... a sign... a large sign with airline names on it accompanied by a handy numeric reference, which I assume to be an office number. Time to think... No U.S. Air on sign with hundreds of airlines... but I do see United/Lufthansa (which are part of the Star Alliance, which, from what I've learned during this experience, has a different connotation than I thought – alliance. I’ll get to that) and China Eastern Airlines. I decide to try the Star "alliance..." They're allied with U.S. Air, after all, yeah? I then find myself in an area in which two hallways cross.. 4 different hallways, no numbers above. I beseechingly look at a nearby janitorial lady who merely shakes her head at me. I can hear her thoughts, though: “for crying out loud. Another lost American trying to find U.S. Airways. When will these silly, helpless Americans learn?” Rocks, paper, scissors… I boldly strike down one hallway, then another... joy! I see a United Airlines sign with an arrow... I do my best to follow like a rat in a maze. Where is that cheese?!!
Now enter into my adventure a Chinese young man who discerns a "young" woman in a plight: indeed, a young woman with a large and heavy suitcase. He seems eager to help me... even though I don't want or need his help, as he is neither a United Employee nor a speaker of the English language. These are the two things I need. Alas. He is keen to carry my suitcase, though, which I decline for fear that I shall never see it again... At this point, let's call the young Chinese man who wants to help me "Frank" because he's now a part of my epic saga and I can't possibly continue to refer to him repeatedly as "the Chinese young man who seems eager to help me." Frank is now on my trail... panting to carry my suitcase while I try to negotiate the maze. He tirelessly pursues the damsel in distress and, despite the language barrier, his intent is quite clear. This guy wants to help me. Failing judgment at what I then foolishly thought was wit’s end, I finally give in and hand over the suitcase to Frank, being careful to stay with him. Quite comically, Frank has no clue where I'm going....but, with my help, "helps" me to the Star Alliance offices.
It's my lucky day, as there is only one lady in line ahead of me, and even luckier because she's waiting for the Lufthansa rep whereas I'm looking for a United gal. I walk over to the United counter and plead my case in English. Wow- the pretty Chinese woman behind the counter can say about five English words... I’m making big progress here.. feeling good…getting my hopes sky high. She does, though, have a perplexed look on her face. I show her the airline and flight number on which I am a reserved passenger and try to get across that I have a reservation (flash back to Seinfeld rent-a-car episode). She tells me to go to China Eastern. Star uh-lie-nce. Hmmm.. Okay.. It’s ineffective to plead my case without a common language, so I exit the "Star Alliance" office and pursue a route to the China Eastern Airlines offices, which I remember passing hot on the trail from Frank.
Speaking of Frank, there he is! Frank appears out of nowhere to "help" me. I already know where I'm going... have seen the offices.. but Frank, who has my suitcase, stops repeatedly to ask others where I'm going. I finally make it to China Eastern Airlines office: five people doing nothing. One who is sitting quietly behind the desk is identified as the one who perhaps speaks English. She has drawn the proverbial short straw. Very grumpy lassie if I did observe so myself. Again... I try to explain.. learning that simpler and simpler explanation is necessary. Point to my flight #, point to airline, word "reservation", words "no ticket", passport for my name. Long, pregnant pause. Looks of bewilderment. Frown from the quiet grumpy gal. "Downstairs" she points. Everyone wants me to go away. No; I try to explain that downstairs sent me upstairs. Bigger frown. "Downstairs," she insists. Ok. Downstairs. Not making progress.
Frank eagerly shows up out of thin air again, but this time I insist on schlepping my own suitcase. My new mission, should I choose to accept it (and I must if I ever want to get to Shanghai, which is getting more and more dubious)... is to locate the ticket counter downstairs for China Eastern Airlines so that they can hopefully find my name reserved on the flight and issue me a ticket and send me on my way. No problem! Frank is more than happy to show me where China Eastern Airlines is. Points downstairs. Thanks a lot, Frank. You’ve been invaluable. I start to walk toward the elevator, and Frank stops me. “Tweep,” he says. Huh? “Yuan.” No, I say... a few times. And really I want to flatten Frank. And honestly, Frank is really very lucky to still be alive. I walk away... Frank is pissed, but that's not my problem.
Okay... down the elevator to locate China Eastern Airlines. I find it... still trailing a heavy purse that I'm having difficulty closing, a briefcase, another carry-on, and my friend the large and heavy suitcase. Long lines... surprise! Chaotic lines. Every counter person has a "closed" sign in front of them, so people are undiplomatically jockeying to find the right place to queue up. I choose a line, which just happens to be behind six Greeks trying to ship something very unusually large and heavy. This process takes an inordinate amount of time, myriad brain cells by China Eastern Airlines employees, and effort by all. I am sooo happy I chose this excellent, multi-cultural line. Again, many people who never learned how to be nice in Kindergarten.
Finally it’s my turn to talk with the girl at the ticket counter who had to take care of the Greeks, and I must say I'm feeling some camaraderie with this poor girl, because we've both apparently had really lousy mornings. I say: "bad morning, huh?" But she doesn't understand English – perceptively, I’m starting to see a pattern here. Explanation # 4... reservation, no ticket, blah blah blah. She asks me if I have a suitcase to check and my heart leaps with joy… Good feeling's gone. Alas... apparently she doesn't see my name in the computer. She and a few other colleagues diligently and intensely discuss the situation. No one knows what to do. Into my life quite suddenly comes a nice girl who's also had a lousy day but speaks no English (let's call her Daisy, shall we? Since, again, might be tedious to refer to her repeatedly as "nice girl who's also had a lousy day but speaks no English). "Forrow me," says Daisy. There is some question as to whether I should leave my suitcase or schlep it along, mostly on my part. Daisy is waiting for me patiently. I follow Daisy, who takes off at lightning speed across the terminal, expertly negotiating the mass of humanity, while I clumsily struggle with my purse, 2 carry-ons, and large heavy suitcase. Weaving in and out of people as if she had NASCAR experience, Daisy on the autobahn. I'm doing my best to keep her in my sight... finally I catch up with her as she tries to explain my situation to the "no-baggage ticket counter" at China Eastern Airlines. Hmmm... sucks for me, seems to be the attitude. They take my paperwork showing my original itinerary, which I really want back because it's my way home.... look at my passport, and scratch their heads. Literally. Scratched their heads. Let me not mislead you... this process was time consuming. I stood with growing dread at the no-baggage ticket counter while employees scratched their heads for a good 20 minutes. I think I passed the part where I called the wonderful corporate travel agency to ask for help...They’re on the other side of the world, in the middle of the night, but at least they can understand the language in which I explain my situation. They will call me back in 5 minutes, they said. Hmmm. No return call. No name in the computer... no ticket.
I’m starting to wonder if I will ever see my friends and family again. Hmm.. the running is good in Beijing- nice and flat, and lots of friendly people, some of whom even wave and say: “herro!”; perhaps I could learn to like it here. Finally, the no-baggage ticket counter man (not necessary to create a name for him... small role) says to me: "you go upstairs to airport office." He discerns emotion on my face and frowns. Upstairs sent me downstairs, I say, but he doesn't understand what I'm saying. It may surprise you to learn that he didn't speak English. Sigh again. Maybe I can just go home from here? Change my flight and fly home to my own country where everyone speaks English except in New York? Why didn't I take Chinese in middle school instead of French? What was I thinking?
Okay. Time to think again (what I want to do is collapse in a puddle of tears in the middle of the floor and start wailing. It works for 3 year olds, doesn’t it?). At a loss, I call the corporate travel agency back... they're trying to get hold of China Eastern Air to get a reference number that corresponds to the US Air reference number. Hah hah. Even in my distraught state I can see the humor: a reference number for a reference number- this is kind of getting funny! But they've been working on cracking the reference number code there at the corporate travel agency and, in the meantime, my "flight" leaves in one hour. Okay, I say to Daisy... I'm just going to buy a new ticket. BUY ticket? “oh,”she says... She understands this word. Okay- leads me over to a different ticket counter which seems like a mile...(again on the autobahn), where there is a .... (guess...) chaotic line.. full of pleasant people.. .just kidding! Same kindergarten-deprived folks. Daisy waits with me patiently until I reach the front of the line... at which time the clerk promptly puts a "closed" sign in the window. Okay... that part was a lie, but it sounded good, didn't it? No – I reach the front of the line and trying to reach the corporate travel agency again... if there is a reference number yet? I hand my phone through the window to the clerk so that Expedia can talk to the clerk...but ... hmm. no English. (Wow- weird! ) The clerk tries to hand off my phone to a colleague, who pretty vehemently refuses. No one wants my phone :(. I try checking again to see whether they have my name in the computer showing that I have a reservation on the flight... but pigs aren't yet flying, and hell still seems to be nice and warm. So I tell the Expedia gal I'm going simply to buy a ticket. Okay, she concedes, and tries to figure out how she'll refund the other part of it and what would happen if they suddenly discovered my reservation? Hmmm... frank ly (pun intended), I’m not too concerned about that at this point. Daisy helps me convey that I'd like to buy a ticket and, God Bless her, Daisy is also aware now that time is becoming precious. Okay... 1240, the clerk writes down on a piece of paper. 12:40 flight? okay, I say. Pay, she says. Oh... ok. I put my American express card in the little slider that passes under the clerk's window. How much? I ask. “Cash,” she says. All sorts of words come to mind at this point, none of which do I utter, because what fun is swearing when nobody understands the French you're speaking? My heart sinks. Daisy to the rescue. Lightning speed on the autobahn over to another ticket counter. (Where there is a ... line!). But, good old Daisy, realizing we are short on time, politely (I think) explains to some of the folks in line that I need to catch a flight and can we please go in front of them? Atta girl, Daisy. Despite her best efforts, we are besieged by a rude man who butts in front of us and gets served first. I buy a ticket to the same flight with my credit card (Daisy, at this point, is helping me expedite the process quite valiantly). Daisy takes my ticket, mumbles something unintelligible to me, and takes off, faster than a jet plane, faster than I've ever seen her go, across the terminal at a dead sprint. Hmmmm. Back to the China Eastern check-in counter I go, wondering where she went and hoping that she said "go to the China Eastern check-in counter". Finally, after some uncomfortable minutes wondering whether Daisy took my flight herself, she re-appears (joy!). She hurries me to the check-in area, checks my bag (wonder whether I'll ever see it or its contents again? I've become so close to it here in the airport) and ushers me to gate 47-68. Not sure which one, she says. Tells me to hurry. I hug Daisy... (really, I did). She laughs. lol. Security is blissfully relatively easy. Wow. Am I back in God's good graces? Security only takes 20 minutes... and it is now 11:55. I am running through the airport trying to make the flight. The gates are not well marked (no numbers), but I do see a pile of folks waiting in a (say it with me) chaotic, disorganized line apparently trying to board. When I ask someone in the line whether this is flight #271 to Shanghai I get a nod. Wow. I'm really going to get on this flight. Note to self... resign from job when arrive home.
While waiting, I call my poor husband at midnight his time to vent. “Oh, man, hon; that sucks,” he says in a tired voice. “Oh it SO much more than sucks…” I start. But how could he possibly understand?
Now here I am on an Eastern China Airlines flight to Shanghai with the fondest memories of my time at the Beijing airport, my friends Frank and Daisy, and in need of a martini. Reminds me of the time I was alone in Disney for 2 straight days with my 5 and 7 year old boys; at the end of a very long second day I sat down at a pizza place in the Magic Kingdom, desperately in need of a relaxing drink. I promptly ordered a cold beer when the waiter appeared, my mouth watering at the prospect and my mind ready to be eased. “Oh, I’m sooo sorry,” the waiter said. “There’s no alcohol in the Magic Kingdom.” But that’s a story for another day…


  1. Hilarious! Congrats on your new blog! I'm very excited for new installments.
    from... a friend who likes a few beers, (bottled not tap.)

  2. that was one of the best stories ive heard in months. im gonna read all your stuff.

  3. Thanks so much! Pressure! (unfortunately, that story is absolutely true, beginning to end). lol.

  4. What a trip (pun intended). Glad to read you managed to escape.


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