Monday, October 22, 2012

Travel & Friendship

 [latest column for Paper Sky]

IN a JFK airport lounge after midnight last month, one voice stood out. It was throaty, raspy at times, and female.  Julie Kavner in a Woody Allen movie, Marge Simpson with less phlegm and pitched slightly lower: a vintage Brooklyn yawp over an otherwise placid airport sanctuary.  

The lounge was filled with Asian and American businessmen quietly clicking laptops or fingering Blackberry keys and iPad screens, sipping wine or whiskey and tossing their heads back to down salty snacks.

“I don’t mind the presentations and stuff,” the voice said.  “That’s fine.  What I hate are the lunches and dinners, you know?  Where you have to talk to these people and you don’t know what to say to them.”

I was there on an unusual mission. Several months earlier, I’d been invited by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to participate in their annual event in Asia, an adjunct to their more famous gathering in Davos, Switzerland, and one focused more on media and culture than pure economics. I accepted, though it was so far away on my calendar that I couldn’t have anticipated the various distractions to come, including my father’s open heart surgery this past spring.

Acceptance always means obligation, and soon the WEF people were asking me for drafts of what I’d say and show. They had every right to do so. They were flying me to China business class from New York and had taken care of all hotel, dining and transport specs. 

So in the JFK lounge, the woman who yawped, dressed in black, caught my attention. She was clearly on the same itinerary, flying to the same event.

On the connecting flight to Tianjin from Seoul, I was seated across the aisle, so I introduced myself.  Were we attending the same event together, and if so, any tips?

Her name is Barbara Pollack, an artist, writer and critic I have read for years in the New York Times and The Village Voice.  She told me what to expect and what to avoid, and more importantly, accepted my invitation to companionship.

Sometimes travel is best engaged alone. As Thomas Mann notes in Death in Venice, solitude gives birth to originality. Impressions sink silently in.

But sometimes travel is enhanced by a companion—especially one from your hometown.

We landed in Tianjin.  Instantly, I felt I’d know Barbara for years, though without rationale.  The chaos of modern China met us at the gate: Like Americans in New York and Los Angeles, Chinese seem to create chaos out of order, mixing signals and disrupting taxi lines with glee, as if it were a sport.

But with Barbara, the chaos was manageable, even entertaining.  “Let’s register as soon as we get to the hotel,” she told me amid our shouting hosts.  “After that, things get crazy.”

We rode into downtown Tianjin in a WEF-sponsored van.  The city looked ugly and vast, like Los Angeles on a bad day, faceless projects with little concern for aesthetics.

Yet Barbara was relentless in her knowledge of Chinese artists.  They were extraordinary, she said, but stifled by a system that stifled itself.

I met some equally extraordinary individuals at the WEF event—Chinese, Korean, Japanese, American and European, but it was Barbara who made it all worthwhile.

One night we dined in an elegant restaurant outlet called South Beauty in downtown Tianjin.  My bank card had been consumed earlier by the ATM at our hotel, and she kept calling the concierge to get it back.

“Don’t worry,” she kept telling me.  “It will happen.”

Around us, the anti-Japanese/anti-US protests over disputed islands were brewing. The hotel staff said that they were sorry, but they’d find my card the following day.

They did. Barbara and I ate, sipped beers before bed, and said good night.  Sometimes, having a friend on the road, loud and raspy, beats the impressions of solitude, especially when you're lonely.

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