Small Business

Two for the Road


By Lisa Bergson I plan to drive. "Oh, no," I murmur after settling into the small gray car at the Hertz office in a far corner of Brussels. "It's stick shift!"

"You don't know?" asks Wen-Bin, my lead scientist, originally from China.

"No. Do you?" I ask, more than half-hoping he doesn't. We exchange seats. Now serving as navigator, I pick up the map with our route delineated by the Hertz clerk's blue ballpoint. Leave it to Wen-Bin. So frugal, he rented the cheapest car with no air conditioning, no radio, and no automatic transmission. If it had been up to me, I would have hired a car and driver to take us around Belgium. But, I didn't want to appear like a spendthrift when cash is tight. I sigh.

I laugh to myself when I read about corporations sending managers to boot camp to bond and learn to be resourceful. Believe me, time together on the road is enough. In one week in Europe, Wen-Bin gets accosted by a pickpocket while we wait on a train platform, and I throw a complete fit at the Munich Airport when he absent-mindedly checks my computer in its lightweight bag with our luggage. This, after I tell him that I always, always, always, always carry it on. Not that it matters -- a day later, the darn thing gets stolen, along with his laptop, passport, and briefcase. Very quickly, you learn to compromise. You learn to accept.

NOD IS MY CO-PILOT. It's already tense as we go right and right, the way the Hertz guy directed, and wind up on a wide boulevard. Curiously, Wen-Bin heads into the local lane, a slow-moving path separated by a cement divider planted with trees and obstructed by trucks making morning deliveries and taxis dropping off their fares.

"Wen-Bin, we need to be over there in the express lane," I say. "We're not turning off for a long time." He hesitates, and I hold up the map, using my finger to trace the sweep of the ballpoint marking.

"O.K."

"Did you have any breakfast?" I know I sound like a wife. But, the last time I drove with Wen-Bin was a couple months back, when we were headed from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, a straight shot on a clear, sunny afternoon. I wanted my hands free to take notes while using the cell phone. As I was chatting away with the plant, we suddenly swerved off the road. Wen-Bin snapped forward and slammed the brakes. I looked around. Thank God, there were no cars in either direction.

"What happened?"

"I fell asleep," he explains. "Sometimes I do that." On the return leg of that trip, I took over.

We wend our way out of Brussels. "No, nothing," he replies to my query about his eating habits. "I slept as long as I could." We're both tired, but I'm annoyed that he doesn't take better care of himself. Scientists!

I notice his driving is hesitant and jerky. A couple years younger than me, Wen-Bin has a sweet, open face and winsome, engaging manner. He can also be quite stubborn when he thinks he's right. Generally, though, I find him a considerate, easy-going companion. We often travel together, but with someone else -- a local sales rep or colleague -- doing the driving. Distracted and bored with day-to-day details, it's a responsibility we gladly cede. Today, we have no such option.

ROAD TO RUIN? At last, we make it to the highway. It's rush hour, and there's no relief. Belgians seem to smash into each other with alarming frequency. "It's like China," Wen-Bin says. "Nobody stops at the lights. Nobody uses turn signals." Somehow, I don't find this insight into his heritage at all reassuring. Wen-Bin's head swerves as he tries to read the foreign signs.

"Look out!" I shout as he nearly slams into the car in front of us. Small cars whip in and out, criss-crossing lanes around us, like water bugs on speed.

"Please, Wen-Bin, you must keep your eyes on the road."

"O.K., sorry."

I reflect that if we had an accident, at least I'd get some rest. But, the idea of being laid up in a Belgian hospital has little appeal. At last, the traffic thins and we're in farmland.

"Pretty," I say.

"Yes."

TURN FOR THE WORSE. The road is straight like the one in New Mexico, and I strive to engage him in case he dozes off. At the same time, I don't want to divert him getting us to Leuven safely and on time. (Engrossed in conversation, my colleagues and I have often gone astray. While chatting at the gate, one poor fellow watched his plane depart without him, too distracted to notice.) Finally, we are close, according to the map. "You need to turn off here," I say, pointing to the sign.

"No."

"Wen-Bin, this is where we turn. It says so on the map."

"No, not yet." Why is he being so obstructive?

"Look, I'm the navigator. You want to be the navigator..." I shove the map at him. "You stop and pull over, and look at the goddamn map."

"O.K., I will turn," he says, without stopping. We head up the off-ramp and bear right.

"You need to go left," I chide. "There's a little sign back there." Wen-Bin pulls onto the dirt shoulder and waits until all the cars pass before making a U-turn. We're going my way, but, with chagrin, I realize we're not seeing the landmarks our host indicated. It's quiet in the car. I'm not liking this.

"O.K." I breathe. "Let's turn back and go your way."

We do, and he is right.

"I'm sorry," I say.

"It's O.K." he replies. Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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