Saturday, 14 November 2009:
I heard him even as I was looking for my assigned seat. In heavy German accent, he was explaining to the cabin stewards what he’d like them to do – to move other passengers around so that couples in his tour group could sit together. They must have checked in late and many couples were split up.
The stewards said it was a bad idea at that point in time. Let people find their assigned seats first and see what else can be done. In the end, not much, because the flight was almost full. I was one of the few who had a vacant seat next to me, which made me a target.
The German came to me in a cloud of bad breath and asked if I would give up my aisle seat and move to a seat sandwiched between two persons near a window. That way a couple from his group could sit together – my seat and the vacant seat next to mine.
“I asked specifically for an aisle seat, and I checked in early to get one,” I said.
“So, you don’t want to help the couple?” he asked.
“I like this seat,” I said, making myself quite clear. I didn’t think it was necessary to tell him to his face that it was absurd to expect me to help his couple when I neither knew them nor considered having to sit apart such a pitiful thing.
He moved off grumpily.
The middle-aged woman across the aisle smiled at me. “Good for you,” she said encouragingly.
Why is it so important that couples should sit together? It’s more a habit of thought than any great functional value. Lots of women travel independently, sitting alone. So what if a married woman sits alone? I’ve travelled with friends, and if we checked in later than others and got split seats, we take our lumps with it.
Before and after take-off, the German continued to aggravate one passenger after another, suggesting increasingly complex rearrangements. He didn’t get much help from the cabin crew. Nor much success. Most people, I believe, thought like I did: Respect the seating arrangement that arose from check-in order.
* * * * *
Except for a number of architectural masterpieces, downtown New York’s buildings are mostly drab brick and concrete things. A typical downtown street would have 20 tenement-type buildings to one with some artistic merit.
Yet the streets and shopfronts have a vitality that says: This is a great city. The sheer variety of shops, each differentiated from all others, make for countless points of interest. Here is one selling Moroccan lampshades and only Moroccan lampshades. Another has handmade shoes. A third has antiquarian books. I’m told there’s a cinema that screens only political films; maybe I should check it out. Specialisation means that there is depth in their merchandise. The cheese shop has hundreds of cheese varieties. The shop selling spices and condiments sells anything from almond paste to cinnamon sticks to squid ink, in S, M and L bottle sizes.
Even when shops are in the same line, they look and feel different, for the simple reason that they are either owned or branded differently. In Singapore, shopping mall after shopping mall, street after street have similar mixes of just a few brandnames. We have chains gone mad. Even when a shop is independently owned, there is seldom any attempt to establish a unique selling proposition. Instead, it tries to ape an established chain. For example, just look at the mom-and-pop bread shops in our neighbourhoods. They rarely have any products not copied from BreadTalk.
What are the social and cultural conditions that support such an exuberance as New York’s? Immigration? A culture of valuing the experimental, or of valuing individualism? Is there a greater respect for quality, and by quality, I mean not just the robustness or fineness of the products, but the quality of the shopping experience provided. You’re not a self-respecting ice-cream shop unless you have 40 flavours – that kind of attitude.
Is Singapore’s problem one of settling for mediocrity?