29 June 2011

My Dinner With Salim

When Melissa casually mentioned to a friend that I was going to Jakarta for business, her offhand comment drew a surprisingly excited response. Turns out that her friend's specialty luggage business sources its product from a manufacturer in Jakarta, and my visit was the perfect opportunity to act as a goodwill ambassador for the growing business.

Hey, I'm spending three weeks alone in this city - I'm willing to talk to pretty much anyone, simply to break the tedium of my own company. So I was happy to arrange a meeting. We agreed via email to meet on Tuesday evening, and although the evening traffic was even worse than usual due to a late afternoon rainstorm, Mr. Salim called my Indonesian cell phone promptly at 8 PM - the appointed time - to announce his arrival at my hotel.

I wandered around the large lobby until he spotted me and approached: a smiling, middle-aged man with his arm extended for a friendly handshake. Salim introduced himself and immediately (and enthusiastically) invited me to dinner in the hotel's Italian restaurant, where - he claimed - he knew the chef and had several favorite dishes.

Sure enough, once we were seated, the chef his own bad self came out, greeted Salim warmly, and made several menu recommendations. While we waited for our meals, we got acquainted. Salim manages an operation of 1500 employees who make bags for a variety of customers around the world. Mercurial, ebullient, and opinionated, he was an entertaining dinner companion and made what might have been an awkward meal quite entertaining.

Although I attempted several times to steer the conversation toward the particulars of his business relationship with our friend, Salim was clearly in charge and interested more in socializing than specifics. Our conversation covered an astonishing range, from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia to the merits of the German university system to ice wine...

Salim's physical appetite was as enthusiastic as his conversation. Without faltering, he devoured an appetizer, an enormous ribeye steak, and a hellishly rich dessert, all the while talking, gesticulating, laughing, and making occasional pop-eyed pauses for dramatic effect. It was an impressive performance.

Mid-dessert, I capitulated. The meal was delicious, but way too much for me. Salim immediately sensed the shift and quickly finished his meal. With the same ease with which we began our conversation, Salim ended it, thanking me effusively for the pleasure of my company, and with promises to visit the US.

So many business relationships are full of empty gestures, false bonhomie, and insincere promises. Ironically, although this wasn't my meeting at all, I find myself sincerely hoping that Salim fulfills his promise to visit - I'd enjoy another whirlwind hour or two in his presence.

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