The Brancatelli File



October 12, 2006 -- The mechanics of life on the road, as we can all attest, aren't much to E-mail home about these days. The flights stink. The hotels get old. The food is forgettable. The schedules are awful. The security is annoying.

But the one thing that makes business travel worth it is the opportunity to be somewhere in the world when something interesting is happening there. Business travel, if we do it right, forces us out of our cubicles and into the lives and times of people and places that we'd otherwise never experience.

For every rotten flight I've had, there's been a remarkable experience in a new place. Every mediocre hotel has been offset by a chance meeting with a fascinating person. Every smelly rental car has been balanced by a dazzling day poking around a town I never thought I'd visit. Every dinner of a Payday bar and a Diet Coke from the vending machine has been matched by a culinary treat somewhere in the world.

I was on business in Australia in 1983 when the Aussie yacht beat the American boat for the America's Cup. I didn't know anything about yachting. I didn't know the Americans had never lost an America's Cup before. But I'll never forget the celebration in Sydney. I was there because I was a business traveler.

I was working on a project in Atlanta in January, 1986, when the first Martin Luther King Day was observed. I've never felt anything quite so exhilarating. I was also in Los Angeles six years later when four cops were acquitted for the Rodney King beating. The fear and the frustration were bewildering.

I was in Hong Kong once during a typhoon. I've talked chemistry with a Nobel Laureate at an airport lounge. I've discussed Pushkin with a Moscow cab driver--while we were driving past the Pushkin Statue in Pushkin Square. I met my wife on a business trip to Hawaii.

I have heard the call to prayers in Abu Dhabi and the church bells peel in the Marienplatz in Munich. I was in Rome when an Italian government fell--Who hasn't?--and London when a Prime Minister drove down the Mall to meet the Queen. I've been in Los Angeles on Oscar night. I've been to Paris in April. (Aznavour was right, Paris is better in August.) I've seen hyperinflation at work in São Paulo.

I have often thought that the brilliant singer/songwriter Melanie said it best. "Hearing the news," she sang, "ain't like being there. Nothing's like feeling it when it's happening to you. Nothing is real unless it's happening to you."

I have found that business travel, even when it's awful, is a wonderful antidote to hearing the news.

I'm a kid from Brooklyn and had never been more than 250 miles from my house until I became a business traveler. I have now seen the Eternal Flame of the 1956 revolt in front of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest. I have walked through the street markets of Seoul and Cracow and Mexico City. Speaking of London, I've read the Forsyte Saga cover to cover about ten times in my life. But business travel allowed me to prowl the streets of London until I found Stanhope Gate, the Bayswater Road, St. John's Wood and all those other places I thought John Galsworthy had invented. What the hell did I know about Mobile, Alabama, or Billings, Montana, before I became a business traveler?

How many kids from Brooklyn, New York, get to see the Brooklyns in Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Maryland or Michigan? Or Brooklyn, Nova Scotia? Or the suburbs of Sydney and Cape Town named Brooklyn? Business travel has taken me to all those Brooklyns. They are all a long, long way from the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. And it doesn't matter that those Brooklyns didn't have bagels or Nathan's hot dogs. Each and every one of them had something good to eat--and something I could learn.

I was on a business trip in Tokyo 20 years ago when I somehow ended up playing second base in a pick-up game in a Shinjuku park. I learned more about the Japanese people that day than I had from all the books that I ever read about Japanese culture. I spent three years studying German in college, but I picked up more tips about the language over a few beers in a Hamburg hotel. I like to think I'm a relatively smart guy. Yet I learned a lot about America I should have already known when I got stuck overnight in Cincinnati a couple of summers ago and found myself talking to a guy running a soul-food booth at Chilifest.

This is the one true thing about business travel. Nothing's like being there. Frequent flyers feel it. And everything's real because it's happening to us.

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.