I'm a thoroughly mediocre-looking white American, a type not generally known for its perceptive interest in other cultures, so I get a kick out of meeting people from other, distant countries where I have gained some kind of spiritual or intellectual foothold.
There was the time my little family was following me across the state of Washington to research a travel story on its wine country. I clicked with the owner of one of the wineries in the Red Mountain region. He snapped up and said, "Take your family back to the hotel and come back for dinner. I have a huge contingent of ambassadors to the U.S. coming in for dinner and a presentation on Washington state wines. I'll find a way to fit you in."
Getting high on some fine syrah at the reception, I fell in with a fellow wearing a photojournalist's flack jacket. Turns out he had been a photo-j in Poland before entering the foreign service. Fascinating guy. We became inseparable. I had once written a world music column and contributed to the massive, definitive reference guide on the subject, and I know enough about Polish music to be dangerous at a wine party on Red Mountain.
The Polish ambassador to the U.S. stopped me, at one point, and said, "You must sit with my wife and myself and dinner, and you must tell her some of these stories. She comes from the same part of Poland as this music you know. Most Poles don't even know it. You must tell her."
So, at dinner, I picked my moment. I explained how I received a review copy of a CD by a band called Chudoba and wrote a glowing review. The bandleader found me, somehow (this was before email became ubiquitous), and asked if he could translate my review into Polish and republish it over there. I said by all means, and asked him to send me the next Chudoba record. He said, unfortunately, Chudoba was defunct, but he had a new band now, could he send me that music? I said, by all means. So, I said, now I am hoping I can do something good for this new band, Buraky.
It was after she had me repeat the band name, and made sure she had heard right, that the wife of the Polish ambassador to the U.S. physically plummeted to the floor!
For the rest of the meal, she was very quiet but kept mumbling to herself in Polish. Periodically the ambassador would lean over to me and say, "My wife keeps saying to herself, 'To be in a place like this and meet an American like him and he knows of Buraky!'" I still have the tiny Polish flag replica from the ambassador's place setting.
"Buraky," by the way, means "beets." It's interesting to note, given the red coloring of beets, that "buraky" also can connote "redneck, hoosier, uncouth person." The band plays the wild music from the mountains of Poland, more mystical gypsy in character than beerhouse polka.
Yesterday in San Diego, we met people from my other two favorite parts of the world - or, at least, the two places where I have vivid connections that are most likely to send someone plummeting out of their chair in amazement.
We took a brunch cruise of San Diego Bay. They put a bottle of California sparkling wine on our table, and before long I was feeling pretty sparkly myself. There was a huge group of black folks at three long tables next to us. My wife had them spec'd out as Nigerians, but I was not so sure. We were both right. One of the couples moved over, midway in the cruise, to visit with us. He was Nigerian, and she was from Panama.
I have some whopper stories about doing support work for the Ogoni people in their resistance to Shell Oil and the Nigerian military dictatorship and producing rebel radio for the struggle, but this Yoruba man had been in the U.S. for 30 years. He specializes in high-risk pregnancies, and my wife has survived one. Anthony practices in inner-city Los Angeles, and I know the reporter (Charlie Ornstein) who led the L.A. Times team that exposed the terrible scandals in care at the King/Drew medical center formed in the wake of the Watts riots (and won a Pulitzer for it). High-risk pregnancy and urban health care were much more fertile grounds of conversation for us. We hit it off. We took pictures of each other's kids and traded contact information and should be on our way toward a family frienship.
Sometimes, however, the confluence is just not meant to be.
We knew our daughter would be wide-eyed at the idea of having someone pedal her down the street on a bicycle. The pedicab thing is a bit too feudal for my taste, it has the whiff of the coolie about it, but I wanted to please my child and these workers do get paid for their efforts. So, coming off the brunch cruise, we hopped onto the back bench of someone's pedicab, and he began to pedal us back to the hotel as Leyla chattered in delight.
My wife tried to start up a conversation with our driver. It didn't seem very promising, but she did manage to pry loose that he is from Turkey.
Turkey! I launched right into my whole Turkish thing, how I lucked into friendship with Defne Halman, the daughter of Turkey's first minister of culture, how we translated Orhan Veli together, how I scored a long Turkish poem, Blind Cat Black, and then made a silent movie to the score. I can really rattle on with the obscure Turkish cultural connections.
The young man I was talking to, of course, had sweat streaking down his back as he pedaled my 410-pound family down the embarcadero. The quirks of Turkish poetry in translation were not speaking to him. At all.
My wife is sensitive to my tendency to come on a little too strong. She ratcheted the topic all the way down to his day job. She said she hoped he made good money.
"No," he said. He quoted his profits from the day before, a Friday. I thought he said $15o, Karley heard $50. It was clear there was a language disconnect.
"But at least you get some little exercise," Karley suggested.
He pedaled us up an incline to the hotel. The twin towers of the Hyatt loomed above him as he ducked his head down to grind us up the hill.
"It's tiring," he said. "That's all."