An art adventure: NYC to Philadelphia

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.

It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.

But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.

Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.

I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.

One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.

This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.

We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.

My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.

The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.

It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.

I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.

I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.

On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.

I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.

I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.

images

A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.

I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.

You Won’t Believe Who Sat Next To Me On The Plane!

Departing Toronto Pearson
You never know....Image via Wikipedia

I received an email last week from my very distant past.

A young girl was traveling from a Canadian city to a European one with her Dad while he was to speak at a conference. We were airplane seatmates with an ocean to cross and many hours to fill.

It was March 1980, and I know the exact date because I was 20 and about to begin a life-changing four-month solo trip through Portugal, Italy, France and Spain.

This week, she wrote to me — having seen my New York Times wedding announcement, thanks to her Dad — despite her current job in a dangerous Mideastern location. How cool to be remembered, and fondly, and to re-establish a connection. For I remembered her also very well.

My mom met the King of Belgium on one of her flights and I shared one journey with Canadian celebrity Rick Mercer, although not sitting beside him.

Her email made me remember a few other intriguing in-flight seatmates:

An assistant coach for the Toronto Argonauts and a team member, his thighs as thick and solid as tree trunks, on an Air Canada flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver. I was as intrigued about life in the major leagues as the coach was about the life of a writer.

A devastatingly handsome Welsh engineer, azure-eyed, deeply-tanned, living in Khartoum, flying from Dublin to Bristol on Christmas Eve to visit his Mom as I was flying there to visit mine. Instead, smitten, we ran off together for a few days driving the foggy hills and valleys of Wales.

The gentle physician on my flight from Newark to Vancouver last year as I faced the hideous task, without any family help, of putting my mother into a nursing home once I arrived. The man, who turned out to know a colleague of mine, trains other doctors in how to care for the dying. He offered powerful words of advice as we began our descent.

On a flight from Minneapolis to New York, my seatmate was a senior executive for a television network. I mentioned an idea to him that I had for a show — and he liked it enough to give me his card and ask me to pitch him. I’ve since assembled some of the necessary pieces, so we’ll see what happens.

Who has been your most interesting airplane seatmate?

When and where did you meet? Did you stay in touch?

Sitting At The Bar

great dive bar in lower garden district, New O...
Image via Wikipedia

I usually have such good luck.

Not tonight. It was the end of the fireworks — 200,000 happy Vancouverites having thronged the beaches to watch them from a barge in the harbor. I sidled up to my hotel bar and found myself next to the most boring person I have ever met.

Ever.

“I can’t believe how hot it is here,” he said; he being a contractor from a suburb of San Francisco. “I thought Canada had perpetual winter.”

Normally, I smile indulgently. Not this time.

“You’re kidding, right?”

He went on to rave about the novels of James Michener and how great they are, like “Hawaii.”

And, sue me, I hate it when men ask your name right away. Lively conversation first, ask name later. It’s the price of admission.

I make it a point to sit at the bar most of the time, especially when eating alone. It’s usually a lot more fun than reading or watching people read (please) their emails.

Earlier this week I met Homa and Babak, an Iranian couple, and had a great conversation — I had no idea Tehran has a ski hill. (Homa showed me a photo on her Iphone.) Then chatted with a young Australian girl who’s just moved here.

In Atlanta last fall, I sat in a great old dive bar and had an hour-long chat with a terrific local guy, so when it works, it works well.

Do you sit at the bar and talk to strangers?

How (not) to network: Smile, listen, less small talk!

Name Tags!
Image by freakapotimus via Flickr

I’ve just registered for the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, April 24-25, on whose board I serve; if you’re an ambitious writer, it’s well worth the effort and cost to get to Manhattan for it.

I’m looking forward to catching up with dear friends: Greg from Minnesota, Lisa from Maryland and Randy from San Diego, who found me the best researcher to help me with my book. I’ll also meet many new-to-me people.

They’re great places to make a ton of new and incredibly useful contacts, but a conference can make your stomach hurt with social anxiety: all those people you don’t know, some of them terrible blowhards, some at a totally different level professionally, some vampires.

How to sort them all out?

From Bnet.com, a British business-focused website:

  • Question 1: “What do you do?” This is a neutral start. It allows people to talk about their favourite subject: themselves. The pompous types tend to give the game away immediately. They do not tell me what they do: they tell me how important they are by saying that they are a Senior/Executive Vice President or Director at MegaBucks. Interesting people tell me what they actually do. Whatever people actually do, be it cleaning toilets, pawn broking or exploring the Antarctic, they have interesting stories to tell.  The more they talk, the more I learn.
  • Question 2 — For the pompous types who failed Question 1: “So what is it you actually do in that role?” Some people make a miraculous recovery and become interesting again. Many others tell me more about how important they are. They meet important people (name drop), travel (place drop) and have big budgets and, by implication, big d***ks. For these people, I have to resort to the killer question.
  • Question 3: “So do you enjoy your job?” Anyone who has answered question 1 well, will already be exuding enthusiasm and passion for what they do. There is no need to ask them this question. The pompous types have never even thought of this question. They are so focused on being important, that nothing else matters. If question 2 makes them stop and think, question 3 creates total mental meltdown. It is a joy to watch.
  • From The New York Times:

    It may sound counterintuitive, but people who spend more of their day having deep discussions and less time engaging in small talk seem to be happier, said Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona who published a study on the subject.

    “We found this so interesting, because it could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ — as long as you surf on the shallow level of life you’re happy, and if you go into the existential depths you’ll be unhappy,” Dr. Mehl said.

    But, he proposed, substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

    I recently attended an event in Manhattan for writers held by mediabistro.com, and met three people I found fun, interesting and potentially helpful future contacts: a fellow memoirist, someone writing a lot for on-line sites and an author with a book whose subject I found fascinating. I was surprised the author didn’t bother to follow up — I offered to write about her here (hello, free publicity!) — but it happens.

    If you do meet someone you enjoy, don’t lose touch. My trick is writing down, right away, when and where I met that person on the business card they give me. I used to wear myself out saying hello to so many people. Now I try to have a few, deeper conversations. I enjoy it much more and come away less exhausted.

    The worst, exemplified in this funny video, also British, (who love to skewer the pompous), from YouTube:

    S/he looks constantly over your shoulder looking for next, better blood supply; can’t be bothered remembering your name; talks only about himself and peels away at the first opportunity to the Much More Important contact across the room. Don’t be that person!

    Do conferences work well for you? Any tips on how to make the best use of our time there?