Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Travels With You

Ridin' Kiev's Underworld (Photo by Sanskrity Sinha)
One of my earliest (and few) possessions is a travel certificate that a now defunct airline gave me when I was six months old. Let me pre-empt my wiseass friends here and say that, no, it wasn't aboard the Wright Flyer I. It was a big 'ol jet airliner, equipped with four jet engines and six miniskirted "stewardesses". Barely a jet, according to the Smithsonian museum, but I'll take it. I probably smoked an entire pack of Marlboros on that trip, as this was even before the days of "smoking sections". Oh, but the miniskirts more than made up for it... six months old or not, Mad Men world here I come.

When you travel long distances frequently from an early age, your view of the world is going to be different from that of a normal person. Just a few short years after my flight debut, I found myself in Bogota, Colombia. "They speak your language, you'll be fine." So they sent me to a British school, for good measure I suppose.

They speak your language… of course they do. It finally hit me 40 years and many kilometers later, as I was wandering the streets of Kiev, Ukraine. It's not the language, stupid. First of all, let me get this off my chest: the Beatles were spot on about the Ukrainian girls… my sweet lord. But I digress. Within living generations, the people of Kiev have been pissed off first by Hitler, then by  Stalin, and now... by Stalin's Mini-Me, apparently. You would think that by now they would have a right to be fairly angry, and you would be right. But something amazing happens when you figure out how to transcend differences. Here's a short story of how I learned this lesson from a Ukrainian bartender named Alexander the Great.

So there I was, not a word of Ukrainian, never mind Russian. I finished my meetings, most of them with an interpreter, and I needed a drink badly. No interpreter, just me, the underworld of Kiev's metro, and the first bar I happened to come across. Before my interpreter left me to fend for myself, I asked him how to say the one phrase with which I arm myself whenever I happen to experience radio silence from Houston: "I am sorry, I don't speak (fill in your language)". He told me, I memorized it, good enough. Vodka & tonic, here I come. I looked around the smoky bar as I walked in, and I observed what the first guy to walk in the place did. Body language, eye contact, speak. My turn: same body language, same eye contact, speak: ya pereproshuyu, ya ne hovoryu po- ukrayinsÊıky. Bartender looks at me for a second, then all of a sudden smiles and says "It's OK, I don't speak much fucking English!" We both laughed, and I decided I was going to try a universal language: I stretched my hand out to him, smiled, and said, "I'm Joe."

Two hours, three tonics, and four vodkas later, we knew this much about each other: he knew that I ("Joe Cocker" is what he decided he was going to call me) was born in Argentina, had lived in the jungles of Colombia (couldn't talk him out of that one, "jungles" it was), grew up in Rome, and currently lived in New York City (close enough, Cincinnati doesn't register on the world radar). I knew his name was Alexander the Great (Alex, but he said I could call him the long version of his name), couldn't decide between two girlfriends, was an engineer (he pointed at the lights, but I'm pretty sure he meant electrical, not a lighting engineer), and that his uncle had been executed by the Nazis after an infamous World War II incident called the "Death Match". I had actually heard about that story during one of my meetings in Kiev. My client drove me around the city for about a half hour before dropping me off at my hotel, and pointed out the stadium where the match between the Nazis and the Ukrainian team had taken place. The Nazis had challenged the Ukrainians to a football match, but after the Ukrainians beat them, there were rumors that some of the players had later been arrested, and some were even executed.

The story had made an impact on me, and when I heard that his uncle was a part of it, I was moved. I asked him to share a shot of vodka with me in honor of his uncle. I raised my glass towards the photo of Alex's uncle in uniform and said “sapsybi”, and we downed our shots. We exchanged contact information, I gave him one of my cards and left a big tip. He looked at the tip, picked it up, and gave it right back to me. I stretched out my hand to say goodbye, but he hugged me instead. In just two hours, Alexander the Great and I had managed to connect, with about 10 words of Ukrainian and 50 words of English.

Almost ten years have passed since I met Alexander the Great. Neither of us kept in touch, though I always hope he remembers the time Joe Cocker stopped by his bar. He might even tell the story that way, because our communication was actually more about the music than it was about the vodka. After much prodding, I did sing the first few lines of "With a Little Help From My Friends". For his part, he gave "You Are So Beautiful" a try, and I have to say, he almost nailed it. Cocker convulsions and all. But as far as connecting with another fellow human being goes, it doesn't get any better than having a bartender in Kiev look at you across the bar, and pour his heart out by telling you that, well, you are so fucking beautiful. To him.

It is right there and then that I began to realize, not only is communicating hardly about knowing a language, knowing the world is hardly about traveling. People are not small-minded because they have not travelled: they are small minded because unchallenged fear is dominant in their lives. I have met many self-professed road warriors who carry themselves around with self-importance and arrogance. And I have met people like Alexander the Great, the real road warriors in my eyes. The ones who have never travelled far by common standards, yet whose priority to connect are flying them across the universe and leaving many road warriors in the dust.

Here's where the great lesson I learned gets astrophysical, so fasten your seat belts: last I calculated, I have broken the million kilometers of travel mark a while ago. Let's say I travel another million or two before I die. So what. Approximately two million kilometers is what the likes of Alexander the Great travel every hour. Well, technically, we all are traveling that much, but not everyone is paying attention: six-hundred kilometers per second (just over two million km/hr) is the resulting speed that our spaceship Milky Way is zipping towards the Great Attractor (a brilliant name if you ask me, a high-five to the scientist who came up with that one).  I have come to a conviction that guys like Alex are intuitively aware of this universal law of gravitation. 

So travel away, by all means, our world is indeed a wonderful place. But if you don't work hard to connect with people around you, wherever you or they happen to be, then let me respectfully submit the following for your consideration: getting on an airplane and traveling thousands of kilometers away is not going to magically make you capable of connecting with the world. As the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote in “Contact”:

You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” (Constellation Vega Alien to Dr. Ellie Harroway)

Scene From "Contact" (1997)

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