John, Joe and Margot Rheinberger in San Francisco's Chinatown during its Lunar New Year Celebration.jpg

John, Joe and Margot Rheinberger in San Francisco's Chinatown during its Lunar New Year Celebration. (Submitted photo)

My brother, Joe Rheinberger, turned 60 last December. As I had done with my older brother, John Rheinberger, who turned 70 last March, I decided that a mystery birthday trip gift for Joe was in order. I chose San Francisco as the destination, as I knew the city’s Chinatown would be in the midst of its very colorful Lunar New Year celebration and Joe loves visiting that city anytime of the year.

When we can’t go to Asia for whatever reason, it is always fun to visit Chinatowns in various cities throughout the United States and Canada, especially for dim sum and the feel, look and sound of being there without the hours of travel involved in getting there.

This year, I feared making the trip as I had come down with a very bad cold during the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. I was sure my long, daily coughing fits would understandably freak people out and I envisioned myself being quarantined at the airport, here or in San Francisco. I even asked my doctor for “clearance” papers of some sort. He kindly responded by offering me a face mask to wear on the plane to soothe my fear of “the look” I was certain I would get from others.

When we got to the MSP airport, I handed the check-in agent Joe’s license and half jokingly - in my laryngitic voice - told him that there was no human trafficking involved with Joe who was standing about 10-feet behind me but that Joe didn’t want to know where we were going until we arrived at the departure gate. The agent played right along.

Luckily during the flight to San Francisco, Joe and I had three seats to spread out on and the plane engine noise drowned out the minimal coughing I incurred.

My brother, John, at my invitation, was flying out two days later and he too did not want to know the destination as if he were reliving his birthday mystery trip from last year. I told him that was problematic because the agent at check-in almost always asks where a passenger is flying. So, to appease him and to alleviate my fear of the airline detaining him for acting out-to-lunch, I wrote a letter to him with strict instructions beforehand to open it when he arrived at MSP but before check-in. Ignoring that instruction, John arrived at check-in and told the agent the destination was a surprise while handing the agent his passport for purposes of identification. Obviously John was an optimist bringing along his passport thinking he was meeting up with Joe and me in some faraway, exotic destination. The agent eventually asked him if he wanted the destination revealed. John agreed. The letter wasn’t even opened until he arrived at the airport in California. I can only do so much . . .

While these two brothers are game for surprise mystery trips marking special birthdays, I don’t think I could travel and celebrate at ease with so many unknowns (where I am going; where I stay; what I am going to do; where I will be eat, etc.). It requires so much trust and a sense of unfettered adventure.

Before John arrived, Joe and I stayed the first few nights at my sister’s house on the Bay. She, unlike Joe, knew we were coming. In Chris-Harrison-style fashion (as seen on the The Bachelor/Bachelorette television series), I greeted Joe one morning with, “Pack your bags, say your goodbyes. You won’t be returning to the house!”

We then took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to downtown San Francisco where Joe relished staying in a 32nd-floor presidential suite with multiple sweeping views of the city and the bay. He did a lot during his week-long mystery trip, including playing golf on a very challenging course; dining on the bay; watching a top-rated mentalist/magician; eating a lot of dim sum; and visiting Fisherman’s Wharf.

We got reserved seating for the nighttime parade that is held at the close of the two-week long Lunar New Year celebration. It is the largest parade of its kind outside of Asia. The marathon parade was full of music, loud fireworks, colorful floats, dancing, cable cars, and of course, politicians, many of whom were of Chinese descent. Several parade participants dressed up like dragons or rats, the latter representing the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar. We even ran into a longtime Stillwater friend who was also enjoying the parade pageantry.

The day after, we took in the well-attended street fair in Chinatown. Joe commented that the overall atmosphere in Chinatown felt like being back in Beijing where he had visited this past September.

We saw very few face masks being worn in Chinatown during any of our time there but more masks were seen at the San Francisco airport during both our arrival and departure. Yet, many of us not wearing them were still on high alert: At one point at the airport, someone in close proximity sneezed out loud without covering his mouth and at least ten of us jumped, quickly moving away from that person, with some, including me, shaking our heads in disgust.

On the way back to Minnesota, I was called to the desk where the airline agent said she had three seats next to each other so we could sit together. I told her that the current spacing of our seats was intentionally done; otherwise, we would be enthusiastically and no doubt loudly discussing the political climate the entire way home. It was then that I realized that I could talk for long periods about my favorite topic without the fear of coughing.

I traveled far but along the way I finally got my voice back. What a great place for Joe to celebrate his 60th birthday and for us to begin the Lunar New Year!

Marguerite “Margot” Rheinberger is a Stillwater native and a friend of the Gazette.

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