Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009: Nothing much happened (XVII) in Munich today

Japan,Geisha, Christmas, Korea,  Leo Burnett, Wild Wild East, Christianity, Germany, Ask anyone what is their ideal Christmas and you will get a hundred different ideas. That's certainly what I found when I moved to Korea in 1995. There, even with Christianity being the predominant religion, you were not to have found even the commercialism of the event to have been even remotely close to anything one would have understood from America. The photo to the left is of course not Korea, but Japan, but to me at the time they were both just as foreign. It's just not jolly olde St. Nick or even an image of a baby being born in a manger. It's another world entirely.

And strangely you might think, exactly how I have felt this year spending my first Christmas in Germany. Foreign. Isolated by language and culture, but most of all, without family or friends. I had felt this my first year in Asia as well, but hadn't felt that for the succeeding 14 years. Even in Vietnam there was always the expats get together at an Irish pub of some sort for a big Holiday feed. But here in Germany, the expat community is largely families and the town, at least Munich from what I've seen, just rolls itself up for the holiday. Rows and rows of darkened shop windows roll by as I take the tram home from my holiday food shopping, midday on Christmas Eve. There wasn't going to be even any 'go to the pub and hoist a few brews with your other single mates' on the night before. The Catholicism here is awfully serious. Too serious for me - and I'm Catholic - but maybe not a very good one. This was going to be a solitary Christmas with me and my friendly TV. CNN, BBC, Bloomberg and CNBC only in English. You can forget the traditional holiday films as well. If anything is on, it's in German.

The following story comes from my book Wild Wild East. What I know now is that it was the beginning of the end for my marriage at the time. You find out maybe something you never knew before about a person when they see a holiday differently than you.

Excerpt from Wild Wild East:

By December of 2005 I was not of the opinion that Korea nor my transferring company had been particularly kind to me. Real estate shown to my wife and I was substandard by any estimation and Korea was not exactly a developing country at that point (#18 on the global GDP list as I recall) but it was being sold as such. Wondering why the other two managing partners were driving brand new cars while I was being offered the company president's six year old black sedan never produced any meaningful answers until I queried them on Korean terms. "Who's the president of this company?", I inquired. "Well, Mr. Kwon is of course", replied the company accountant. "And what kind of car does he get?" I queried again. "Well, a Grandeur of course", was the response. Grandeur was the top of the line Hyundai at the time. "And who is the Vice President of this company", I then asked. "You are, sir", said he. "And what kind of car do I get?" "A Grandeur sir, but not as good a one as Mr. Kwon's." And that was it. Battle won. I got a new car. But rather than approach it on logical western terms I had to take it to Korean level. In Korea, your car says who you are and what level you are. I knew that. I just needed to let them know that I knew that. Their insistance that I take a pretty beat 6 year old car wasn't about the money at all. It was about them trying to put me in a lower position than they would have put a countryman. The silly games people play.

After nearly 5 months of bowing at meetings and wrangling over the smallest of details, like the extra $15 a month it cost to put another phone line in for my Internet connection I had about had it with the cultural niceties I was expected to extend to these people. They had been fucking me around entirely and it took a day on a street corner to get my head around that and decide I was mad as hell and just wasn't going to take it any more. I got tired of being the new guy. The new American guy. Now was time to get even. And a little cowboy spirit is just what I needed.

Standing at a large boulevard corner on my walk home from work one day, I found my 5'10.5" frame towering over a throng of black haired, oriental rice-bowl coiffed individuals waiting for the light to change when I had my epihany. "I'ma Merican goddammit! And I want my Budweiser Beer, a Chevy truck and my friggin' home on the friggin' range goddammit!", I bellowed to the inside of my own cranium. Kicking my shoulders back and deciding not to take any shit anymore from these yokels who had so obviously been running me around the cultural Maypole, I found my real self. Tomorrow would be a different day I vowed. Tomorrow I would start to drive the bus the way I wanted to drive it. Straight and with the pedal to the metal.

Christmas was just around the corner and I had done my best to make arrangements with my wife back in the States via email but in 1995 the concept of email was still relatively new even in America and she was not entirely comfortable with using it at all. In fact, she almost never used it. I had asked via mail that she work with our building staff to get a Christmas tree delivered to the house and told her I would be home on Christmas Eve exactly. On the evening of Christmas Eve exactly. We had been involved in getting a McDonald's commercial off the boards and into production at the agency in Seoul and my Christmas preparations, save for buying presents, had been next to nil and I was so looking forward to going back home and dealing with things familiar, even if just for a week, to chill the sounds of chopsticks clacking and the smell of kimchi in office elevators after lunch on a normal day in Korea. I needed Frank Sinatra, the smell of a pine tree and a pot of potpourri simmering on the stove - and to just sit on my own sofa and see the walls of my own house with my own art. I had been living in the Westin Chosun hotel in Seoul for the past five months and whilst a 5-star affair had about zero charm after too many months on the company tab.

Home was needed. Home was missed. Home was where I needed to be for the holidays, in preparation for what would certainly be the next Korean war when I returned to Seoul in the new year and attempted to get a relatively simple storyboard on film without most of the agency or the client screwing it up.

The flight to Chicago from Seoul was never a pleasant one. 11 hours to LA or San Francisco and then the jaunt to Chi Town, or if I was extremely lucky, a nonstop on United directly to the windy city. I don't remember exactly what I got on this trip but what I do remember was that I was very tired when I arrived. My life had become a twenty-four-hour marathon of communication from the home office when I was in Korea and the reverse from Korea when I was in Chicago. Basically, I never knew when to sleep.

Arriving at 2300 Lincoln Park West was never much of a homecoming affair - what with my global traveling schedule becoming a routine thing, my wife and I had given up airport meetings years ago. If she had to come to the airport everytime I had a flight arriving she'd never have had much time at home. We had adopted the roles of respectable D.I.N.K.S. with both of our professional schedules taking up all the time that we would allow. Little did I know that my wife was to have allowed more time for her professional endeavors that year than even I had and I was just about to find out exactly how much that was, and what impact it would have on my perception of Christmas in 1995.

A hello to our top-hatted doorman at The Belden Stratford, a waltz past the never-played Steinway grand and it was up to 801 for my now ubiquitous international Hi-hon
ey-I'm-home! "Hi honey, I'm home!" I chimed as I opened the front door to a house that looked suspiciously just like the one I had visited just months before. No tree. Not a Christmas decoration to be seen. No music and certainly no potpourri simmering on our stove. Oh, simmering is just what I was beginning to experience.

A hug and a kiss on the cheek from my seemingly preoccupied wife, she explained to me that she was working on the computer crunching out some design for the public relations firm she was working for. Burson Marsteller it was. Weren't we the successful couple? Me a globetrotting Vice President at Leo Burnett and she a senior designer with the largest PR firm in town. Fucking perfect we were. Fucking perfect yuppies we were. Disgustingly perfect. And that would turn out to be precisely the problem this Eve of Christmas.

"Honey, where's the Christmas tree?" I inquired. A stream of I've-been-so-busy-at-work drivel hit the air and I was like, "huh?". Did I just get off a plane from the other side of the world and was I being told that she didn't have the time to get a Christmas tree up here by a few minutes at the front desk of our more than tenant friendly apartment building? Fuck that. Complete crap. I couldn't believe it. Didn't she have any idea just how cold and foreign my surroundings had been for the past few months and how much it meant for me to be welcomed home with at least what I thought was the familiar and traditional feeling of Christmas during the holiday? Apparently not.

"What was she thinking?", I was thinking. And the answer to that was simple. She was not thinking. At least not of the value of our holiday in relation to whatever corporate assignment had been keeping her busy. Bollocks.

I dropped my gear, donned a pair of jeans and stormed out the front door in a huff. Jezziz. I have to travel half way around the friggin' globe just to get a Christmas tree in this joint? Yes, I did. And so I did. I was down to the corner lot and after shelling out a pack of twenties , dragging my own Christmas tree back to my needing to be, happier home. This was not James Stewart going home to Donna Reed. This was no Wonderful Life. I was pretty pissed off, but dragging a Christmas tree home will help you burn off quite a bit of steam and I know I was fine by the time I returned. We decorated the tree that night but that was to be the beginning of the end of that marriage. Conflicting priorities. Dual working couple pressures and international timezone mismatches would take their toll in the months to follow, but what had become abundantly clear by this time is that I had been growing a different skin while in Korea and she had kept the same old one. I had been taking in massive amounts of new information and she had simply stayed in the same place and was doing more and more of the same thing. Instead of growing together, we were growing apart and in the end, that's what will inevitably write an end for itself. You don't even need to do the writing. It's on the wall after awhile. All you need to do is read it.

This year in Germany had a similar flavor to that past time but in this case the reason's and personal circumstances were completely different. What began as two of us working towards a common goal in our travels away from Vietnam, has become two people working Christianity, Christmas, Germany, Korea, Lamb Chops,  Leo Burnett, Wild Wild Easton their individual pursuits with little or no accommodation for the other in daily life. I would very much like to see that be different again but my partner of past has a lot of understanding of her own about her own self to accomplish before she can allow much thinking for another in her life. At one point she complained that I complained about not being able to spend Christmas together. "You know, I hardly ever had a Christmas where I got to spend it with my mom and dad", she said, "and I never complained". How do you teach a person about a warm Christmas together with the people close to you, if they've never experienced one? The only thing one can wish for is a chance to do it someday. That one will have to be left in God's hands this year - as well it should. That's what Christmas is really all about. The hand of God.

Today's solo meal of Braised Lamb Chops with Balsamic Reduction was complimented by Grilled Eggplant topped with a Spicy Avocado Relish Coulis that was slightly chunky and crunchy as opposed to pureed. Yummy. The only thing that would have made it better would have been sharing it. Merry Christmas all. Bon appetite. Time for me to do the dishes.

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