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The China Rowing Trip: Part 3

In the morning we were greeted by the usual Chinese breakfast... indistinguishable from dinner. But, lo and behold! An effort had been made to calm the morning tummies of the guests and so brioches, bread and even peanut butter had been set out for us. Coffee is non-existent but we were prepared for that and served up hot espresso from our room for all the caffeine-deprived adults.

That morning our hosts took us up to a beautiful lookout spot over the picturesque Qian Dao Hu. After taking the requisite group pictures we came across a school outing and dove into the melée…our smaller rowers within minutes were getting offered Chinese snacks and were on the picnic blankets playing Monopoly. The English teacher of the school was prodded forward to talk to us and some of her students helped her, especially when Marcello is nominated as our envoy. The kids offered us their Green Tea potato chips and we all wholeheartedly agreed with Elaine that those are “two different systems”.

I of course am used to the impact my sons can have on total strangers within minutes of meeting them.  I smiled with probably-not-very-well-hidden pride as they navigated the group of students and wore their cheeks out smiling for photos with Chinese kids. So the best part for me was seeing the other Italians kids mingle and share snacks, and try out their few English words with the Chinese kids’ equally few words. In Italy this would never happen: the Chinese community in Italy is that of the recent immigrants to settle an area - they’re seen as invasive and unclean, zealous and untrustworthy. Expecting stand-offishness, they do not make an effort to mingle with the Italians.

The weather, by the way, was absolutely splendid. It was warm and sunny, the sky was completely blue and the flowers were out. It was almost too hot and already I was thinking of which jeans would get sacrificed and made into shorts. The views truly were beautiful and the greenness of the national park was very restorative after all that travel. Afterwards I asked Elaine if we could make a quick stop…my eye had caught the unmistakable signs of a market on the way to the lookout: people heading out of a piazza with plastic bags full of purchases. It turned out to be a green tea market, with 20 local tea sellers drying out and selling the famous long tea leaves of Zhejiang.

Back to the canteen, and then naps all around…then appointment at the boathouse! Enzo was finally in HIS element and needed no help from me pointing to rowers and boats and oars. Francesco Wang, our rower, was now called into service to translate the details. The coach assigned to help us was handsome and friendly, and even spoke some English.  After much time deciding which boats to use and how to mix up the Italians and Chinese, everyone was out on the pristine lake, with the low sun highlighting the shapes of the surrounding hills.

A long negotiation was required to get the little kids out on the water…the age 12 had been previously decided upon as the cut-off for lifejackets but the vests provided were so huge that the kids couldn’t sit in them and breathe at the same time. A compromise was finally agreed upon and the 4 littlest rowers went out on a quad escorted by no less than two powerboats flanking them, one of which is filled with delighted female rowers who’ve never been invited on a launch before.  Cell phones pointed at the quad, the Chinese were having fits of cuteness overload at the sight of these little guys rowing: most of them started as teenagers or even later. As the coach realized the quad was in no danger of flipping, the big Zodiac zoomed off down the lake, putting the big outboard to work on an illicit joyride.

After this outing on the water, everyone was more comfortable and relaxed. A moment had been shared and the power of sports had been confirmed. Rowing the same boat, pulling the same strokes, had worked its magic once again. Smiles were shared between boatmates and the two coaches were now long-lost friends.

The next day was spent entirely on the water, getting blissfully sunburned, sharing boats, racing against each other. The quad was deemed antisocial as it was only staffed by our little Italians and so mixed doubles were put together: a big Italian taking the responsibility of a little Italian in a double. Amedeo was assigned to Matteo Stefanini and his heart and smile almost exploded. He heroed up and rowed better than he ever had, showing technique and strength that we didn’t know were in him.  Meanwhile, Marcello was already halfway down the lake with HIS big person, Andrea, showing remarkable affinity despite a two-foot difference in height.  When the moment of this race came along the bigs and littles both put 110% effort into their rowing, with the competiveness of Matteo coming out of the closet and blasting away the competition. Amedeo could not contain his happiness! The Chinese athletes back out on the big Zodiac snapped pictures of all this cuteness …and in their hurry to photograph my kids completely waked our catamaran and drenched us from top to bottom!

The mess hall waited for us to get changed and then a moment of ceremony and medals wrapped up the day. We headed off to bed, sunburnt and sleepy.

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