After a week at Easter Camp, Taïga and her class get back to Vulturu just in time for the annual Spring Fest. The schoolyard is bustling with activity, carpenters are making the finishing touches to a wooden dancefloor and the high school students are helping with the decorations. There’s even a game area with a horse shoe court and a kissing booth.
Mitchell has asked Taïga if he could talk to her about something important, so they’ve taken a seat on one of the benches. He has told her he’s interested in someone, and now he is fishing for information.
‘But Mitch! You have to ask her! You’ll never know if she likes you if you don’t ask.’
‘But if I ask her out, and, you know, she says no.’
Taïga ponders the question. ‘Well… That’s a risk I guess you’ll have to take…’
‘Ahem… And how do you… Err… Kiss?’
Taïga smiles at him. ‘Easy! Just close your eyes and pucker your mouth, like this…’ Taïga mimes the action.
‘Wow, I could do that… But what if she doesn’t want to kiss me?’
Taïga thinks about it. ‘Well… I guess you just feel it if she wants to. Or not.’
They are silent for a while, lost in thoughts.
Suddenly Mitchell blurts out. ‘Have you ever kissed a boy?’
‘Yes, I have… I mean NO! He kind of kissed me, and…’
Taïga smiles at the memory and Mitchell feels his heart sink… Hmm… must be that guy from Bigwood Falls she’s always rambling about…
‘Taïga! Mitch! C’mon, let’s try the dance floor!’
The carpenters have finished and are laughing at Jen and Leann who happily bounce about on the nicely smelling wooden planks.
Taïga and Mitchell join them, dancing and just having fun. They know they’re not supposed to play here, with the opening of the festivities only a couple of hours away, but the empty floor is so tempting!
A well-dressed man stops for a little while. Silently he watches the children play, then he leaves without drawing attention to himself. He glances over his shoulder a last time and takes in Taïga doing a perfect pirouette in her rubber boots before he enters the school building.
Toma is one of the teens helping out with the decorations and stuff. He fastens some balloons and walks over to the dancefloor.
‘Hey! Show me, Taïga!’
Taïga stops dancing and a little out of breath she asks, ‘Show you what?’
Toma looks at her from under his bangs. ‘How you just did that dancing thing!’
‘No, the hip-hop thing. I want to impress the girls tonight!’
Taïga spins round, moving her hips and Toma tries his best to do the same.
Taïga can’t help but laugh at him. He’s so… stiff. ‘Yeah! You’ve got it!’
‘Toma! Can you give us a hand over here?’
‘Sure, comin!’ With a wave he hurries over to his friends by the horseshoe court.
‘GET OFF THE DANCE FLOOR, OR I’LL GIVE YOU ALL DETENTION!!!’
Miss Hasdeu has stepped outside and is outraged to see the brand new dance floor getting soiled. The children quickly obey their angry teacher. Leaving the dancefloor they set off to explore the rest of the activities.
‘C’mon, let’s try out the game area!’ Jen grabs Mitchell’s hand and drags him off.
Taïga trails after them, but stops at the horse shoe court. Toma and his friends are trying it out, arguing about the distance that should be marked out on the ground. A tall dark boy with glasses thinks their marking is too far away, not letting the public a chance to win anything.
‘There are rules, you know. Look,’ a burly girl waves a piece of paper under his nose, ‘it says 8 meters or 27 feet.’
‘Easy!’ Toma boasts, ‘You can’t miss the target from that distance.’
‘Oh, yeah? I’m not so sure…’
‘Give me a horseshoe. I’ll show you.’ He picks up a couple of the heavy U-shaped objects and weighing them in his hands he walks over to the line they’ve just etched out. ‘I’ll just try to hit the target – like this…’ Toma pitches the first horseshoe, but misses. He aims… throws… ‘Darn it! I missed again!’
‘Easy? Yeah. Sure…’
‘I told you it’s too far. C’mon, Leta, lets retrace the distance.’
‘Wait a second… I’ll just try again.’ Toma picks up the horseshoes and shakes the iron stake to confirm it’s secured.
‘Why are you doing that? You won’t get anywhere near it anyway,’ the dark boy sneers, glancing at the burly girl for approval.
Toma doesn’t answer, just pitches and the horseshoe sails through the air, hitting the iron stake with a loud clink and bouncing off.
Taïga has been watching, feeling sorry for him. She thinks she’ll better help him a little before he loses his face in front of his friends…
As Toma aims carefully and throws his last horseshoe, Taïga concentrates on the flying object, guiding it with her hands…
The ring of metal hitting metal resonates and the horseshoe lays perfectly still in a cloud of dust.
‘YAY! Did you see that!?!’
‘Wow, Toma! A perfect ringer.’
‘You’re the best!’
Taïga tries her best to look innocent.
‘I’ll catch up with you guys later, I have to take this.’ He fishes out his cell and ambles off to get some privacy.
Taïga smiles to herself and whistling a happy tune she goes in search for her friends.
It’s already dusk and Taïga is on her way to her bike when Toma comes looking for her with a cuddly, pink teddy bear in his arms.
‘Here you are, Taïga. I picked a pink one, thought you would like it.’
‘Is it for me? Thanks! Geez, it’s so smooth…’ Taïga holds the teddy bear against her.
‘You have a cell, don’t you? Let me show you something. But you mustn’t tell anyone, OK?’
Taïga nods solemnly and follows Toma to the far side of the schoolyard where the fence is broken, but the access to – or from – the forest is effectively hindered by some thorn bushes.
‘This is the only place at school where you can access the web on your cell,’ he confides. ‘Promise you won’t tell.’
‘I promise. Can I send my mom a mail?’
‘Sure. I’ll wait for you; I have something to check on the web anyway.’
‘Why does it take so long? Are you writing a book!?!’
‘Just a minute…’
‘Well, hurry up. We can’t stand around here for too long – if someone finds out about this, the place will be crowded and impossible to access.’
Taïga clicks the send button and slides her cell into her back pocket. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘I could give you a ride home, BTW.’
Taïga lights up. ‘On your scooter?’
‘Yeah, I answered your Aunt’s ad in the grocery about a job. I haven’t heard anything yet, but maybe she can see me tonight?’
‘Probably. Is that why you’ve been so nice to me?’
‘Err… no. Maybe a little,’ he teases, pushing her playfully and giggling Taïga pushes back running to the scooter.
It’s the first time Taïga rides a scooter, and she loves it. Toma lends her his helmet and takes a detour to please the young girl, enjoying her laugh happily behind him. She would have loved to spend hours just riding around the neighborhood, but finally Toma drives up in front of her Aunt’s house and cuts the engine.
Missy is eager to find someone to help her out with the jumble in her garden and agrees to see him immediately. They vanish into the sitting room while Taïga settles in front of her homework. A few minutes later he stops by the dining room, knocking on the doorjamb.
‘Wanna hear a secret?’
‘You got the job!’
‘Yeah.’ Toma grins. ‘But I’ve got another one.’
Taïga blushes when he leans in close and whispers to her, ‘I think Mitchell would like you to be his girlfriend.’
After putting off the decision for far too long, Granny has finally made up her mind about Taïga’s education – her granddaughter will start boarding school next fall. But to choose which school will suit her granddaughter best, she’ll have to visit them in person. So while Taïga is at school, watching the preparations for the Spring Fest, Granny calls to book her flight.
‘Yes, please. … Err… Is it because I’m flying with Aeroflot that there’s a stopover in Moskow? Because-’ … Hmpff. Well. I’d like to sit alone… What do you mean by window or aisle? I’d like window and aisle, if possible. … Nono. … Alone. What? Do I have to pay for the seat next to mine to make sure to be seated alone? … Well, then. Window. … I’d prefer midweek. … Yes, Wednesday will be fine. … I already told you – one way. … No luggage, just a little suitcase I’ll keep in the cabin. I won’t have to pay extra for it, I hope. …. Nonono, I’m not done yet. I also need a one way flight from Beijing to Cairo on Friday. … Oh, so I will arrive the day after, on Saturday morning. Early, I hope, because I’m actually going to a private school not far from Isna- … Yes, the Pyramids. … Oh. So you think Luxor will be better? Closer you say? … Uh-huh… Saturday. … Yes, that will be perfect. … Wait a minute. I will go to Paris, too. Monday will be impeccable. … Just one more thing, I have to go back to Bucharest next Wednesday. … Yes. … Yes. … Well, no I don’t. Is it stipulated somewhere that you must have the Internet? … Well, I thought so. … I don’t care what most people do. I’ll just pick up the tickets at the airport counter. … What? … But that’s certainly not my problem, Miss. I told you my circuit and you are the one who booked me on Aeroflot, Air France, Egypt Air, Nile Air and China Eastern whatnot. I’m certainly not going around to each and every counter to pick up my tickets. Do you know how to put them in an envelope? … Well then. Just do it. Thank you, goodbye.’
She hangs up, irritated at the stubborn woman. Better go and check her passport, maybe she’ll need visas and stuff…
As soon as the door closes on Toma, she intercepts her granddaughter on her way upstairs. She quickly recapitulates in her no-nonsense way, ‘… and so I’m leaving next Thursday. What do you think, Taïga?’ she asks, but does not expect to hear any objections. ‘You are unusually silent.’
Taïga holds on to Buddy, hard. ‘Granny… I don’t think I want to go to boarding school anymore.’
‘That’s not for you to decide, darling child. The school here has got a reputation, and not a good one. I just want you to get a good -no, perfect- start in life. You see, good school equals good marks.’
‘But I’m an A student, Granny! And I want to stay with you,’ she adds in a whisper.
‘I’ve already made up my mind, young lady. End of discussion.’ Granny softens a little when she sees Taïga’s expression. ‘Come here, let’s have a look on that Internet of yours…’ She steers Taïga into the living room.
Taïga quickly gets her iPad and sitting close to Granny on the couch, she turns it on and hands it to her grandmother.
Granny fumbles a little with the device. ‘Can you get a map on it? A world map?’
‘Sure.’ Taïga is happy to show how it works, and deftly she pulls up a map.
Granny takes the tablet and points to where they live, ‘This is Transylvania.’ She squints a little, ‘Vulturu is so small you can’t see it, but it’s here… Somewhere… Well, China is far, far away from Romania. As I’m flying with Aeroflot, it will take me about 15 hours to get there, with a 4 hour stop in Moscow.’ She shows Moscow in Russia on the map.
‘Will you take pictures, Granny?’
‘Of course I will. Lots of pictures. Now, let’s see… I will then fly to Egypt, to Luxor…’
When Granny opens her eyes after sleeping the whole way from Moscow, she gets but a quick glimpse of the Forbidden City before the plane slowly circles and prepares for landing at Beijing Capital International Airport.
After taking a crowded train and a cycle rickshaw from the station and into the countryside, she is dropped off at the famous private school.
‘Kao-Lin Academy of Martial Arts.’ The driver gestures towards a cluster of brown traditional buildings high up on the mountainside, the sweeping gabled roofs hidden in the mist from a nearby waterfall. Or could it be clouds? Granny hopes not. From the look of it, there’s no lift or mechanical aid whatsoever to get up there. Just her old legs.
Granny opens her little Chinese travel guide and pronounces painstakingly the Chinese words for “How much”, ‘Dor sheow chen?’
The driver looks at her with a blank stare. He reaches out his hand, repeating ‘Sìbǎi. Sìbǎi.’
‘I don’t understand.’ She leafs through the little book. ‘Wore ting boo dong.’
‘Four hundred Chinese Yuan. Four Hundred.’ He accentuates what he’s saying, waving four fingers under her nose.
She fumbles through the multicolored banknotes, fishing up four pink ones with the round face of Mao solemnly staring and hands them over. She watches the rickshaw rapidly descend the steep hill with the whooping driver. She has a slight feeling she paid him too much… Frowning, she takes her little suitcase and starts on the long winding trek up to the school.
Out of breath she reaches the base of the stairs. An information board is displaying different activities and rules. Granny approaches, letting out a sigh of relief when she finds everything is translated. She chuckles at some rather peculiar sentences, thinking it must be Google traduction that Taïga talked about the other day…
Let’s take a look at the timetable : Mental discipline… martial arts… mental discipline… jiu-jitsu… mental discipline… tae-kwando… mental discipline… judo… mental discipline… karate… mental discipline… sumo… mental dis -hang on!?! Sumo? SUMO!?! No way will I let my granddaughter study “sumo”… Hmpff… Sumo…
She struggles up the many stairs, pausing ever so often to catch her breath and admire the view of the Chinese countryside. She turns a corner and catches her breath at the sight of the Forbidden City in the pristine morning air. She decides that she absolutely must visit, even if it implies she has to walk, no climb, back up here again.
She slumps down on a bench at the top of the stairs, gasping for breath. She has lost the extra weight by dieting, but she seems to have lost her physical condition as well. She opens her eyes and looks around her. Even up close the school is magnificent, pure lines and a garden that inspires both spiritual peace and discipline. And the silence is… is… good for meditating.
Her stomach grumbles, and she digs for her last Mars bar in her purse. The platform vendors at the train station had bombarded her with cries selling their local specialties which had seemed to consist of various bugs, scorpions and larvae cooked or barbecued. She asked for the famous duck’s neck that her travel guide warmly recommended as painstakingly cooked and extremely tasty, but when she examined the dish, she wasn’t sure if it were duck’s necks or some unknown animal’s private parts. Hence the Mars bars.
She wonders if there was sumo on the schedule when Missy studied here, evilly adding that it was probably the only subject her sister excelled in. She chuckles under her breath, ‘Hehehe…’
‘Honorable Madam Grey?’
Granny stops guffawing and startled she looks up at a young Chinese woman in traditional clothing.
‘Yes. Err…?’ She stumbles to her feet and reaches out her hand, but the woman just bows deeply, so Granny does the same.
‘I am the humble school secretary, Hui Young Kim.’ She bows again, and so does Granny. ‘Follow me, please.’ She adds in a melodious voice, with hardly any accent, ‘We were expecting you one hour ago, Honorable visitor.’
‘Yes. The journey here took longer than I expected. Especially the last kilometer or so…’ She follows the young woman to her office which opens up towards the mountainside. She can hear water pouring in the background, but it’s difficult to know exactly the source.
Granny has brought all the paperwork, but the young official just shakes her head, turning her laptop slightly towards the old lady so she can see the screen. ‘Everything is already in here, Honorable Madam Grey…’
An hour later, Granny has all the information needed – on paper.
‘We always have room for an A-student, Honorable Visitor Grey… Now let me show you the installations and your room. Our humble school has wonderful accommodations – identical to the room your granddaughter will have,’ she adds efficiently.
Granny pushes back her chair, but remembers something and sits down again. ‘I’ll be delighted to visit your, err… humble school, Miss Young Kim. But could I ask you if there’s a way to visit the Forbidden City?’
‘There are sightseeing tours leaving every hour from the market place. I can reserve tickets, and tonight there is also a special performance of “The Old 12 Girls Band”.’ She smiles encouragingly at Granny, who fumbles for her purse.
Absentmindedly she listens to the young woman enthusiastically shower her in information.
‘Zijin Cheng -The Forbidden City- was home to the Celestial Emperor from the Ming Dynasty to…’
‘… gilded lions guard the entrance…’
‘… political and ceremonial center of China for 500 years…’
‘… the Palace Museum with famous artifacts such as the masks from the Sanxingdui civilization…‘
‘… 14 million visitors every year…’
Hui Young Kim hands Granny a map, where she has deftly marked the different interesting places with a cross while she continued her descriptions.
‘You can also take a rickshaw, maybe it’s better than trekking or pedaling…’ She looks Granny over, deciding she’s too old to go all the way up to the Temple of Heaven by her own means.
‘Shing Hong is an honest man, and his cycle rickshaw is very modern. He will take you on the most picturesque sightseeing tour, all the way to the Dragon Springs. His father Chen will then take you back to the Forbidden City on his traditional “hongtou” sampan.’ She nods encouragingly. ‘It will be memorable! Only 400 Chinese Yuans-’
‘400 Chinese Yuans!?!’
‘Yes, it might seem expensive, but you will see – Shing Hong will give you the worth of your money. It would be good to add 50 for the boat ride and a little tip for the Hong’s. Shing Hong will even take you to the Great Wall of China. You will see, it is magnificent! May I suggest you bring an umbrella, we are expecting rain.’
Granny nods. 400 Yuans. If she sets eyes on the thief of a rickshaw driver again she will definitely transform him into something unpleasant…
‘Honorable Madam Grey?’
‘Err… Yes. It seems perfect. I’ll let you make the arrangements… Will I be back in time to change before the show?’
‘Oh, yes. It will not start until sunset. My sister Sun and I will sing and play the erhu.’
Granny pays and pushes back her chair. ‘You’ve been most helpful, Miss Young Kim. It will be a pleasure to listen to you and your sister tonight.’
It’s an exhausted Granny who stumbles to bed late that night after day filled with emotions. She pushes at the thick but firm mattress with her hand, thinking that it feels like it’s stuffed with stones. She chuckles. It’s probably part of some asceticism leading you to higher enlightenment or something else in line with the teachings of the Academy.
The journey to Egypt will be quite strenuous. She has to get to Beijing to take her flight, but has decided against using the same transportation as to get here. She’ll splurge on a taxi the whole way, even if she has to conjure up money that will disappear after a few hours. She mustn’t feel guilty, the taxi driver is probably some cousin to the rickshaw driver who cheated her upon arrival anyway. And you can’t really expect someone to start on a twenty hour flight, with two stop-overs after sharing their seat with a goat or something just as smelly, can you? No. Thought so.
She sets the alarm clock even though she thinks that she probably won’t be able to get much sleep on the hard mattress. If ever Taïga will boarder at the Kao-Lin Academy, she will shake up the extra funds so she won’t have to make the strenuous journey out to the country-side again. Taïga will spend the holidays with her in Beijing…
When the plane takes off in the afternoon the day after, Granny watches in wonder how tiny the Temple of Heaven seems from above. Satisfied that she took so many pictures, she unfastens her seatbelt and reclines her seat, making the people behind her pester. She doesn’t care. She has paid good money for her seat and she’s tired after tossing and turning the whole night. She’ll arrive in Guangzhou in about three hours for a two hour stop and change from China Eastern Airlines to Egypt Air. She wonders if she’ll have the time to buy some tax free tea…
She catches a last glimpse of the Great Wall of China before the view is hidden by the clouds, and she drifts off to sleep, ignoring the “fasten seatbelts sign” blinking above and the angry couple behind…
Part I – End of Chapter 25