Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Manila girl in Manhattan, year 2

[WARNING: long blog post ahead]

My dad and I are back from our whirlwind business trip to New York, where we attended the 2nd Arrow Global Licensing Meeting under our new US principal. Like our first trip to NY together, it was definitely memorable, but for pretty different reasons...

Stressful start

We were scheduled to leave Manila on October 10, but on the morning of the 9th, thanks to a fateful phone call from the Arrow licensee in China, I realized with cold shock that I had booked our flight one day too late. If we wanted to arrive in New York on the morning of the 10th (NY time), we should have been catching the flight to Los Angeles on the evening of the 9th (Manila time). Naturally, my dad was livid with me and my catastrophic oversight, and in sheer panic and terror I hastened to revise our booking at the (very) last minute. Mercifully, there were still seats on the PAL flight to LA, as well as the American Airlines connecting flight from LA to NY, and thankfully, I have a wonderfully patient and indulgent sister who helped her snitty atsi pack in a mad rush. By the time my dad and I reached the airport, we had both calmed down somewhat.

Chance passenger encounter

While cooling our heels (and heads) in the PAL first/business class lounge, I ran into my high school classmate Irwin, his wife Jen and their adorable 1-year-old son Kaizer (on whom I have a shameless cradle-snatcher crush). It turned out they were taking the same flight to LA that night, and they were traveling business class as well. We ended up seated a few rows apart in the upper deck of the plane, and Irwin's apprehensions that his hyperactive toddler might disturb everyone on the 12-hour flight went unfounded. My dad even remarked on how well-behaved Kaizer was. Too bad I forgot to take a photo with the little cutie before we parted ways with the Sees in LAX.

Another roadblock

However, the spell cast by Kaizer's charms seemed to dissipate almost immediately, because upon checking in at the LAX AA counter for our flight to NY, we were informed that there were no more available seats in business class. Apparently, our travel agent had neglected to cancel our previous booking for the 10th, resulting in a double booking which in turn led to our losing our reserved seats for the 9th. After several irate, futile, and expensive long-distance phone calls to our travel agent, we were forced to fly coach despite having paid for business class tickets. My dad was furious all over again, but at least this time he seemed more PO'd at our travel agent rather than me (after all, one could argue that this was all my fault, really).

Lukso ng dugo

While we were in LAX trying to sort out our problem with AA, a wheelchair attendant passing by me paused and asked with a smile, "Pilipino po kayo?" Startled, I broke out into a smile of my own (in spite of the mess we were currently in), and responded, "Opo", wondering how he had recognized chinky-eyed me as a kababayan, as if there were some indelible mark on my person visible only to Filipino eyes. There was something comforting about that, kind of like a feeling that no matter where in the world I end up, I'd never be lost.

If we can make it there...

Perhaps out of pity, the AA ticketing agent assigned us seats in the very first row of the main cabin, so we had a bit more leg room than other economy class passengers. I still didn't manage to get a lot of sleep though (and since no food was served, Pa kept bitching about how hungry he was), and after 5 uncomfortable hours, we landed in JFK on the morning of the 10th, disgruntled, jetlagged, and thoroughly worn out. From the airport, we took a cab to Manhattan and got to our hotel, the W New York, a few hours ahead of check-in time. We left our baggage with the concierge, and I whipped out my Mapquest printouts and dragged my dad (who was still whining about being hungry) several blocks to the August Wilson theater to see if the box office still had tickets for Jersey Boys... and they did! Hurrah! We managed to grab the last 2 seats together, and although they were
partial view, in the first row way over to the side, I was ecstatic because the musical's fairly new and still features the original cast. Our luck seemed to be turning again.

American dining (and a celeb sighting)

To my dad's relief, it was time to eat, and I led him to Brooklyn Diner USA, home to one of New York's best burgers, according to New York Magazine. However, since it was only 11AM, they were still serving breakfast, and to tide us over Pa and I split a "The Mixed Marriage of Irving and Gina", a plate of sausages, polenta, and 2 eggs on toast covered with onions, bell peppers and marinara sauce. This turned out to be my favorite dish of our entire stay. The Cheeseburger Deluxe followed, which Pa and I also shared. It came with a huge mound of Irish mashed potatoes, which was actually better than the burger itself. I ordered a chocolate egg cream to wash it all down, and needless to say I was stuffed by the end of the meal. Good thing we were walking more than 10 blocks back to our hotel to check in.

Shortly before paying the bill, Pa noticed that 1 of the 2 guys who had just sat down at the table next to ours was vaguely familiar. When we stood up to leave, the guy raised his head and flashed a smile at my staring father, and whaddaya know, it was Jerry Seinfeld! He seemed engrossed in serious conversation with the guy he was with though, so we couldn't build up the nerve to ask for a photo op. It was still pretty cool though, running into him in such a Seinfeldish setting.

Taking it to the streets

One of the things I love most about New York, and why it ranks 2nd on my list of favorite cities in the world (Hong Kong being the 1st) is that it's a walking city. In Manhattan, not only are all the streets conducive to pedestrian traffic (wide sidewalks, pedestrian traffic lights at every corner), but they're laid out in such an organized way that even an idiot or someone with no sense of direction whatsoever (I plead guilty to the latter) could navigate them with little difficulty. There's also a lot to keep the eyes engaged while going down any street, from the big stores lining 5th Avenue to the theaters along Broadway to the clunky hot dog carts on every other corner.

W is for... wee?

The Arrow Global Meeting was being held at the W New York on Lexington Avenue, and that was also where most of the licensees were billeted. I had high expectations of our hotel (especially given the astronomical rates we would be paying for our room), so it came as a big letdown. The lobby was promising enough-- small, but with sleek interiors and cute touches like free donuts and iced tea set on a table by the elevators (later that night it would be replaced with an old-fashioned typewriter and a writing tablet for guest comments or random thoughts), plus a lounge full of people milling about or chatting in small groups. We took an elevator (also rather small) to the 8th floor, and we discovered that unfortunately, our room was also small, almost claustrophobically so. The minuscule bathroom was barely maneuverable; sitting on the toilet, my knees were about 5 inches from the door. The beds were unusually high, but at least quite comfortable. In fact, I can say that the only good things about staying at the W are the beds and pillows, the fluffy towels, and the Bliss bath products (I loved the Lemon+Sage Conditioning Rinse). Other than those, there was nothing sensational about the W, and for more than $450 a night, I expected nothing less than sensational.

Eye candy

Whereas I was sorely disappointed that hot men were nowhere to be seen during our vacation in Europe, there appeared to be a lot of hotties inhabiting New York. Or perhaps we had simply gone to the wrong European countries, because 2 of the cutest guys who attended the Arrow Global Meeting this year were both Portuguese:
the export manager of the Arrow eyewear licensee in France (born in France but of Portuguese descent), and the Portugal licensee president's son, whom I had met (and who had already caught my eye) at the previous conference in 2005. This time he had come without his father, hence I got more chances to chat him up, especially since we were seated alphabetically according to country at the conference, and "Philippines" immediately preceded "Portugal". Also, after cocktails and dinner that evening, we walked back to our hotel together in the same group. He fell into step beside me, we talked with each other the whole way, and I got the distinct feeling it would have been a far more interesting conference if I too had shown up without my father.

Asian alliance

Whenever the Asian licensees get into any sort of discussion, I've observed that it's always easy to find points of agreement, particularly when it comes to "the American way" of doing things. Over breakfast on the 2nd day of the conference, we were conversing with the licensees from China and India, and both were echoing my dad's opinion that Arrow's latest marketing campaign doesn't suit our region nor address our needs. They also broached the topic of how American hospitality (accommodating but not attentive, professional but not personal) varies from Asian hospitality ("It starts at the airport and ends at the airport!"), and how that difference reflects the disparity in our cultural mindsets, which affect the manner in which we do business. If the licensee from Thailand had been there that morning, I'm sure he would have chimed in as well. The day before, their vice president had given a presentation that highlighted their country's unique culture and how they've tailored their marketing efforts for the Thai customer base. Moreover, he ended on what for me would be the most memorable line of the whole conference and the most meaningful concept I picked up: "The key to our success is we treat this brand like our own brand, not a licensed one." Amen, brother!

This accent is brought to you by the letter S

An effusive Gap store clerk engaged me in small talk as I was paying for my purchases ((Product) Red tees for my sibs), and in the middle of our exchange, he suddenly asked, "Does everyone in the Philippines speak English? Your English is terrific! But you probably studied in the US right? Because you don't have an accent." It wouldn't be the only time someone asked me if I had studied in the US. On the night we had cocktails with the Arrow people, one of our licensor's sweater designers, a delightful cross between Anthony Federov from American Idol and Carson Kressley from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, gushed, "Did you study in the US? You speak English so well! I know it's not PC to say that, but you do!" And Portugal boy also presumed I had studied in the US, and when I told him I had studied in Manila all my life, he asked how my English had gotten so good. I gave him the answer I always laughingly offer: "I grew up watching a lot of American TV." I was rewarded with a broad grin accompanied by an amused twinkle in his gorgeous gray eyes. Thanks, Sesame Street.

Singles and the City

It was fortuitous timing that 1 of my SATC girls, Ria, had just moved with her brother from Delaware to New Jersey (en route to their ultimate destination, Chicago) the same week I was in NY. Maff took a bus over to Manhattan and we had lunch with my dad at an Italian place called Carmine's (the stuffed mushrooms were good, and I liked the pasta alla vodka). We then spent the afternoon walking down 5th Avenue and going into shops Pa wanted to check out (both for business and personal purposes), which gave Maff and me time to catch up on each other's lives as we puttered along after my dad. Admittedly I hogged most of the conversation updating Ria on the sordid state of my barely-breathing love life, but I suspect like most of my friends she gets a kick out of my blind date horror stories anyway. I wish we could have spent more time together, but an entire afternoon in New York is not something all friends get to share, and I'm glad I got to share it with Maff.

Teacher troubles

Sadly, my "twin" Tangsoc, who now also resides in NJ with hubby Harold, wasn't able to come see me because she wasn't feeling well (and I insisted she not attempt to make the long drive or commute what with the rainy weather and her peaky condition). I did get to talk to her over the phone a couple of times, and hearing her voice (though raspier than usual) was wonderful. I really hope
we can actually get together the next time I find myself in NY (since it might be a long while before she returns to Manila).

During one of our phone conversations, I asked Tangsoc about how her new job is going, and she began bemoaning the horrors of teaching in an American public school (a prerequisite for obtaining her teaching license). The kids are the main problem, since they're drastically different from the kind of students here in the Philippines; in short, Tangsoc's current students make all ICAns look like blessed angels. She told me about 1 kid who set his notebook on fire in the corridor, forcing the whole school to evacuate the premises, and another boy who assaulted and severely injured a teacher with a chair. Tangsoc's accounts were even more disturbing in light of the school shooting that had recently taken place in Ohio and had been hogging the headlines of all local news channels. I told Tangsoc to be extra careful and just hang in there until she finally gets her license, after which she can apply to a private school where the kids may not be as crazy (never mind if, as my dad pointed out, a lot of American teens are ticking time bombs anyway, whether or not they can afford to attend private schools).

Oh what a night!

For the past 2 years, I had thought the musical Wicked would definitely be part of the itinerary for my next trip to New York. Then I found out Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner were starring in a new Broadway adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac... but I decided to forgo that too because it's performed in verse, and I was afraid it would put Pa to sleep, star power notwithstanding. So I went with my third choice, Jersey Boys, the biographical musical of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, thinking Pa would certainly be able to appreciate the songs since they were from "his time". And I was right (after the show we were both relentlessly humming the tunes on our walk back to our hotel, infected with major cases of LSS).

Even though our front-row, way-off-to-the-side seats were pretty bad (they weren't kidding about partial view-- we had to crane our necks not just to see above the stage, but to see past a spiral staircase on the stage), we still managed to enjoy the show tremendously. It helped that the songs are popular to begin with ("Big Girls Don't Cry", "Walk Like a Man", "Oh What a Night", among others), but the way they were incorporated into the story was brilliant. The script was smart, fast and funny, entertaining in a Hollywood movie way, and a refreshing departure from "heavier" or fancier Broadway acts. I could see why John Lloyd Young, the actor who plays Frankie Valli (and incidentally 1 of the celebrity endorsers for Arrow's Save Ellis Island campaign) and Christian Hoff, the guy who plays Four Seasons member Tommy DeVito, both won Tonys for their performances. Young does an amazing Frankie Valli falsetto, and his solo "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is 1 of the highlights of the show. Getting to watch him in this role, along with the rest of the original cast, was definitely worth our crappy seats.

The sets and backdrops were nothing spectacular, but 1 scene in particular wowed me: an ingenious backstage view of the Four Seasons in concert, with the 4 lead actors' backs to us in the real audience, performing with microphone stands in front of them, facing a black backdrop dotted with flashing lights that stood for the camera flashes from their imagined audience. For me, that scene alone validated the Tony Jersey Boys won for Best Musical, and validated my choice of Broadway show to watch this time around. Wicked will just have to wait another year or 2.


Our return flights were not plagued with the same kind of problems we encountered traveling from LA to NY, and I enjoyed flying business class on American Airlines (the food was good-- they actually served hot fudge sundaes for dessert!). In LA, Ahia Herson, one of Pa's former table tennis players (my dad used to coach the national team), picked us up from the airport and took us to dinner at PF Chang's with his family, and brought us back to LAX in time to catch our flight back to Manila. I was infinitely relieved to put our travel troubles behind us.

The PAL flight from LA arrives in Manila around 5AM, and this being already October, it was still dark out when our plane started its descent. I love arriving on flights this early in the morning, especially when the lights of the city are all on. I always feel a warmth seep over me, knowing that somewhere amid the field of bright dots is our house, holding the most important people in my life. Surveying the lay of the land and the unusual calm that blankets it at dawn, I think of the hustle and bustle of New York, its cosmopolitan glamour, its fast-paced lifestyle, its urbane power, and everything that draws me to it... yet none of it can ever really tear me away from the kind of chaotic charm that is familiarly Filipino. I will always be allured by the city that never sleeps, but in my heart, Manila will forever be top of the heap.


At Thursday, October 18, 2007, Blogger Sean said...

Oooo... Seinfeld. :)

I'm surprised at the tiny hotel room, though. One would think that, given the size of the meals there, you'd find their living accommodations to be a lot... roomier.

At Friday, October 19, 2007, Blogger Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I guess since space is such a prime commodity in a crowded city like New York, every square inch costs an arm and a leg. Even the elevators and revolving doors of our hotel were pretty compact. Then again, given the good address along Lexington Avenue, I suppose we were paying for the location more than anything else.

But bottled water from Norway at $6 a pop? That's just criminal.

At Saturday, October 20, 2007, Blogger Sean said...

I've got a colleague who ran into water at Php200 a bottle back in Warsaw... the strange thing was that this was hotel bottled water, the stuff with the hotel's logo plastered on the front that you normally expect to get for free.

Why is it that hotel drinks are always far more expensive than normal? I mean, the stuff comes in the same cans, bottles and glasses that you get at the local supermarket. I've always thought of it as a funny way to welcome guests.


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