A Korean salesman carried two suitcases full of radio samples from company to company, from Munich
to Milan. He represented a radio manufacturer in Seoul, and was trying to convince buyers to bulk-order
his company's cheap but reliable radio clocks.
This was not what he had imagined his life to be when he studied at the university. But there was no
living to be made with literary skills in a country ravaged by a bloody war. With no particular
passion for radios, he was hired for his supposed fluency in English, though he would later realize
his Spencerian vocabulary could not help him climb the food pyramid of third world manufacturers and
first world businesses.
Nonetheless, he could not complain about his job when he was sent on a two-week trip through Eruope, a
continent he had always regarded as the shining beacon of human civilization. While the plane jetted
west in a perpetual sunset he thought of the epics he had read in his university days. Though he knew
his torso would be saddled down by the weight of radios instead of classical armors, he could still
close his eyes and imagine himself as a hero on a legendary mission.
His trip was, however, neither perilous nor glorious. There were funny glances from bypassers here
and there. But an office building was an office building, and a flourescent-lit convention center
looked just the same in a different continent. He charged on with his radio samples, and somewhere
between Stuttgart and Zurich he stopped dreaming of the Greek gods and medival knights.
On the last leg of his journey in Milan, when he was met with an unexpected snowstorm, he bought
himself a black overcoat from La Rinascente. It was beautifully tailored in a luxurious texture
unknown in the developing country from where he came. He paid an absurd amount of money for it,
and thought it justified because it would last for generations. The thought of his grandson wearing
the coat made his heart ache with pride.
For two weeks he had sustained himself on quick meals that required no utensils. He felt he
deserved a nice meal the night before his flight to celebrate his trip well done. After all,
his extravagant coat was not a gift for himself, but for his unborn son and grandson.
He had noticed the starched tablecloths and mahogany booths in the restaurant across the street
from his two-star hotel. Judging his new overcoat too delicate for the offensive garlic smell
it might soak up, he locked his coat safely in his hotel room and entered the restaurant in
his modest suit from home. Bow-tied waiters turned up their noses.
"Buongiorno," said the salesman.
"Buena sera," one of the waiters with a nasal voice corrected him. "Uno?"
The salesman nodded. He was led to the corner table, though it was well before the sophisticated
Milanese dinner hours, and the ristorante was completely empty. The waiter dropped a menu on the table.
The salesman skimmed through the leather-bound book. It was only in Italian, a language he did
not comprehend. He decided to ask for the waiter's recommendation. But the waiters never returned.
In the empty ristorante he sat for a good half an hour before the next diners, an old Italian couple
wearing impeccable shoes, arrived. The waiters resppeared and exchanged cheerful buena seras. The
couple ordered apperitifs, which was served right away.
The salesman understood the hints. He neatly folded the napkin and left the place. He would not taste
Italian food until he immigrated to America years later.
That is the story I heard in bits and pieces as my father passed down his coat to me in the year
he retired. The coat fit me impeccably, and needed no taloring for today's retro-loving generation.
The story was, of course, much shorter when he told it. Always reserved, my father spent his life
in his own serene bubble amongst the cacophony of this world. His story was perhaps a line or two
about rude waiters he had encountered in Milan back in the days when he still had hair and passionately
consumed old literature. I did not particularly care, for the story concerned a person far removed from
my affluent daily life. Along with other mundane tales from his past, I shelved the story in the back
of my mind and let more urgent impressions cake over it, layer by layer.
Forty years since my father's first trip here I have come to Milan, also on business, though I
work in a much more white-collared field. I watch sophisticated European cinema and buy the rights
to show them in art houses across America. Film producers go at lengths to please me, seating me
in luxruious leather seats and making small pleasantries that hardly affect me.
On the last day of the International Film Market I come back to the hotel
and take off the overcoat. Loosening my tie, I sit on a high stool in the lobby bar, and soon find myself
discussing economy and other vague notions of adulthood with a fellow American who seems afraid to return
to his room alone.
At 2 o'clock the bartender of the tiny lobby bar shuts down the lights. He bids the businessman good
night with an unctuous smile. I, too, am about to nod my head, when my eyes catch his icy glare. Instead
of "Buena noce" he cocks his chin up, refuses to acknowledge my presence. And like that, the bartender walks away.
Without warning, in three dimensions before my eyes, the dormant story of my father erupts from its place
in the corner of my consciousness. Suddenly I see a small-framed man seated in the corner of a deserted
ristorante, patiently waiting for something that would never come. The absurd muzak in the lobby transforms
into an unsuppressable concerto in my mind, and in the mirrored 70s décor I see my father's veined visage
in place of my reflection. I stumble off the stool, grab the Italian coat and make my way through the
potted plants that suddenly seem as daunting as a lush jungle. Behind me the American shouts something
about wanting to buy me another drink somewhere.