The China Rowing Trip: Part 5
Didn't start from the beginning? Go back here to Part One.
When we woke up, a shift in the rotation of the Earth was suddenly apparent. Messages on WeChat* must have been flying all night long between the officials expecting us at the Sports College, Elaine, the group of passionate rowers and our delegated sports agency chaperone/photographer. What had been a small opening in a somewhat rigid and busy schedule of hospitality and official moments had been blown open by our friends who wanted to ensure we had the best possible stay in China. The official visit was neatly circumvented, the College placated with promises of our club banner to hang in their office, and the now-free schedule was packed to the gills with adventures.
* (China's Instagram, Facebook, Google Translate, Blogspot, ApplePay and Messenger all wrapped up in one, needed on every phone to stay connected in The Middle Kingdom, and outside said Realm if one works with China.)
We had the illusion of a calm day at least until a leisurely 9 AM breakfast was over...then with a glint of excitement in their eyes, our friends pointed towards the bus and on we boarded.
First stop: the Jianlan Middle School that had hosted the picnic and rowing the previous day. They especially were delighted that we now had time to visit the school and had found the time to prepare a welcome sign for us at the school on their gigantic LCD screen.
It was much appreciated by all!
After the round of the requisite group photos taken by Lucy...who now resembled much more a partner-in-crime rather than an appointed chaperone..we were shown around the school with Marcello bursting with pride as the translator between the English-speaking student and our group of Italians.
This school was a beautiful hall of learning, with 9th-graders greeting us in fluid English. Ping-pong class was interrupted and an impromptu match started between us and them…let’s just say they were kind enough not to blast our shorts off. Antonio was awestruck by the koi pond and sat mesmerized by the fishies for a long time, planning in his mind how he would draw them.
While he gazed we were brought to a café inside the school, lined with books for perusing and purchase, like a mini Barnes & Noble. We were finally able to hand out our delicate chocolate boxes prepared by a renowned San Miniato confectioner and were relieved to see the heat and air travel had had no effect on them. Now nursing cappucini, we were in no hurry to move on.
But lingering apparently wasn’t on the schedule and in a heartbeat we were back on the bus, going to the quaint shopping street where a tastefully-done Ye Olde Hangzhou has been recreated. Enzo and I love this street but even more we love the hidden market just next to it: five floors of puppies, kittens, orchids, teapots, carved jade and herbal supplements. The kittens were a new addition to the puppies and as we admired the selection of Persians, English Shorthairs, and more, we both felt it was a sign of increasing leisure and prosperity for the Chinese.
After we were all back together with gift boxes of tea, Chinese flutes, calligraphy brushes and weird snacks to bring back home, the next stop was the Hangzhou government building where Enzo and I and two others had to bring official gifts from the Region of Tuscany, San Miniato and Pisa to the Foreign Affairs Office. (This last one was very anxious for the meeting to take place: a Sister City of Hangzhou, they had been put in the diplomatic dog house for hosting the Dalai Lama the year before. An alabaster tower was ordered and wrapped up and our job was to deliver it. After receiving this gift, the usually friendly and cheerful Vice Director of Foreign Affairs told us a little parable about how China had cut off all relations with the UK for five years after THEY had a meeting with the Dalai Lama.) While we got that done, our team got to see Elaine’s domain: the magnificent Hangzhou Public library, a truly awe-inspiring hall of books, learning, music, and culture. To see teenagers snapping pictures at rows of books made me hopeful for our future!
Done for the day, we headed back to the hotel….ha! Hardly! Our old colleague from the original Hangzhou Rowing Club was waiting for us in the middle of the West Lake gardens, where he had chartered a boat to take us all around West Lake! New rules in fact forbade us from rowing together like Enzo had done back in 2004 and so to make up for it, we were his personal guests on a passenger cruise boat. Cameras pointed out, we relaxed, admired pagodas and temples, and tried to remember everything we had done so far.
Now, it was time to head back to the hotel…and how happy we were not be in a new dormitory outside of town! Our rooms were there, waiting for us, with glorious showers: the stickiness of being a tourist in a big, humid city just itched to be washed off. The college however, had communicated to Elaine: if you are not interested in our dorm rooms than we are not interested in offering you dinner in town. Elaine’s aunt, a delightful woman who had just arrived in town to see us all (by all I mean the triplets...), thought this was an unacceptable way to treat foreign guests and decided to help us get some simple food ordered that wouldn’t break our budget.
Well, that was the plan anyways…but as dish after dish of delicious, not-too-scary food was brought out and the teenagers and triplets all scarfed it down, it became more and more evident that we were being hosted in style. A speech therefore was made, with Enzo thanking this awesome Aunty for her hospitality. As Elaine later said… “Enzo can make any situation become an Occasion.”
Stuffed beyond measure Enzo and I would have gladly been rolled to bed by the hotel staff…but instead we were plopped into a taxi and driven off to an appointment with Mama Zhao at a “private club” for drinks.
We imagined a sort of night club by invitation, and as Enzo asked me again how we had gotten roped into the umpteenth activity for that day, I simply said, “Elaine knows how tired everyone is. If she insists it’s important, we go.” There was no argument to that: Elaine has always been a true friend and incredible translator for us.
The taxi driver seemed confused and dropped us at a nondescript ground-floor doorway. But Mama Zhao was waiting for us and as the door opened, we were transported into a European apartment or evolved Man Cave, complete with espresso bar, dining room, and bookshelves filled with books about rowing. This was not a private nightclub…this was like HQ for a secret rowing sect! Tea and beer and espresso were all put in front of us, and somehow we found room for all three. A deep conversation ensued regarding our future rowing exchanges, and it was unanimously decided to open it up to the private sector, with these “captains” acting as our reference points. This was an enormous relief for me…the previous months spent trying to get answers from the government sports agency had drained me of any hopes…or desires…of repeating the experience.
Now instead...the horizon opened before me! Similar groups of passionate rowers apparently lurked in other spots, too: like Shanghai and Suzhou! In my tired and fuzzy brain, feeling the effects of too much food, beer, tea, and kumquats, I was already planning our next trip to China. And the promised visit of these amazing friends to Italy!