There’s nothing like a good 11-hour flight for someone who hates to fly
Our travel from Prague to Shanghai, China was long and smooth. There’s nothing like a good 11-hour flight for someone who hates to fly. And nothing like a stressful, uncomfortable environment to inspire wholesale concentration on some tedious detail-congested work. I started working on my Blues Symphony score that I tinker with every summer as a hobby, but little did I know that the presence of this score would have benefits far beyond its contents. For about nine strong hours, it helped me to forget that we were on an airplane.
When we arrived in Shanghai, I asked Boss Murphy what was next, and he said for my further enjoyment, “Another two-hour flight to Zhengzhou. It was to happen in about an hour and a half. This good news was soon superseded by an even more celebratory realization that we were not in transit, but getting our bags to go through international customs before boarding the domestic flight. Hmmmm….two hours flying can’t be that long of a train ride.
In one call, Murphy had reached our promoter Weimin Huang, who responded to his inquiry with, “The train station in Hongqiao is maybe more than one hour by taxi. It is not a good idea.” Once Weimin understood that it is was matter of life or death, I suddenly had a four and half hour train to catch that was an hour or so drive from the airport.
In the next moment, the orchestra and everyone I knew was gone, and I began walking to the taxi stand with two (large) packed suitcases, a trumpet and a score bag. You know how you can sometimes dream that you are in a world that you never knew existed and the only thing out of place in it is you? In that moment you understand that foreign is the root meaning of foreigner. I asked the taxi driver, “Could you take me to Hongqiao Central Railway Station?” His unflinching look belied an unresolvable puzzlement bordering on irritation that said, “Man even if I could understand what you were saying, I wouldn’t understand the WAY you are saying it.” I tried again and his continued investment in the same posture told me to divest in mine.
I went back inside the airport and found a lady wearing a black jacket with an official airport badge on it and she directed me to a car service. After ascertaining where I was going and when I needed to get there, she called someone and reported that they could take me IF I paid right there (and a credit card would be fine). I don’t even like to take car services in New York, so you know I wasn’t feeling this. But necessity made me feel it.
We went to some place on the second floor of the airport and the driver came with a car that had been recently used in a 70s detective TV show, complete with a rear window that you have to raise from the bottom while simultaneously pushing the ‘up’ lever. After we worked together to get that window up without losing any fingers, there was enough solidarity to inspire communications (though through sign language). His name sounded like Zhe Zhou and when I said mine he nodded and declined to mutilate it as I had done his.
As soon as we got onto the morning traffic-congested highway, Zhe got on his cell phone (on speaker phone no less) and went to town in a most animated and musical way with a string of people, each one in possession of some type of raspy and nefarious sounding male voice. Chinese is truly a musical language I thought if these guys can sound good speaking it. I pulled my score out and started working on it. When he turned around and saw the big paper. He said in English “Music?” I nodded a most hospitable yes. A few minutes later, he gestured, “Would you like to eat?” I pointed to my watch and he indicated that time was not a problem. I pulled out some Polish money and indicated that was all I had. He looked at it and gestured, “Now that’s a problem, brother.” Ten minutes later, we pull up to this place and he gets me some congee with dim sum and pays for it himself. When I tried to decline it, he looked at me as if to say, “Man, are your manners actually this bad?” As I was starving, I couldn’t help but thank him and that score.
When we get to the train station it is absolute pandemonium. I stumble towards the ticket booth and after fighting through everyone cutting into the line as a matter of course, get to the window. I call Weimin, but it’s actually his 19-year old son Ye, alumni of the JALC youth orchestra, who gets on and translates with the ticket agent. Ye tells me, “I don’t think you’re going to make it.” I said, “Man, I’m making it.” Looking at the ticket the only thing I understand is numbers. It seems like this is the gate and train. Absolutely luckily, I get on the right train with a minute to spare but am four cars away from where I should be.
The train pulls off and there I am with four bags and four cars of cramped aisles to go with a load that has to be carried sideways just to settle on merely banging into people. A conductor comes by and helps me carry them, and sticks with it, even though it was much more work than he initially envisioned. He told me something I didn’t understand. It seemed to be, “Damn! I wanted to be a Good Samaritan—not a martyr.” But he remained very friendly throughout.
Once in my seat and soaked in sweat, I started to look at the countryside. Everywhere was vast and beautiful. I was doubly glad to not fly. After a short time, out came that score. Not five minutes passed until the lady bringing food around started looking at it and commenting. For the rest of the ride, she plied me with special snacks and Chinese treats to see which ones I liked. I was treated like a favored relative from afar. It was all because of that score.
A guy came on the train and I moved over to my aisle seat. He kept staring at the score as if reading it. The next stop he said in very labored but kind English, “You sit here. All seats are open.” And I returned to that great view. This score was speaking the international language. Probably if they could hear what it really sounded like, I’d still be in the Shanghai airport looking for the next flight.