The QVB in Sydney, Australia

They say that music is the universal language.  It taps into the deepest recesses of the brain.

While my wife, Meryl, and I were traveling in Australia, we stopped in the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), an elaborately renovated marketplace in the Sydney Central Business District.   Originally designed at the end of the 19th century, it was constructed in the Romanesque style popular at that time, with a central dome consisting of an interior glass dome and a copper-sheathed exterior.    Resembling a cathedral with its stained-glass windows and smaller domes on the corners of the building, the grandeur of this renovated building is impressive.  Its uppermost third floor is bathed in a rosy glow as light pours through the colored glass. 

The interior of the QVB

As we approached the third floor, I could hear someone playing a grand piano.  It was a young German man who had been teaching English in China for years.  He explained that he was a “regular” at the QVB public piano, stopping by frequently at the shopping center whenever he was in Australia.  A crowd of listeners had gathered, some of whom were waiting their turn to play.

A public piano in another city (That’s not me!)

I felt comfortable talking to the fellow music lovers and found out that there were people from Sydney who came here often to hear these spontaneous concerts.  Several families from Hong Kong and China who had been shopping in the upscale stores heard the live music and were drawn to the source. There were also some European tourists who had learned about the QVB piano on its Facebook page.

When it was my turn to play, I chose a few show tunes in contrast to the classical pieces that the young German man had played.  Since we were planning to see “My Fair Lady” at the Sydney Opera House the next day, my choices included “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”   As I finished playing the second song, the crowd had grown to more than 20 people, and many were singing along with the show’s well-known lyrics. 

I enjoyed seeing how much pleasure my music brought to this very diverse audience.  It wasn’t just the popularity of this classic musical; it was the sense of connection that familiar music brings to its listeners, myself included.   

As the next pianist took his turn, an Asian family approached me.  Their two teen-aged sons spoke English perfectly.  They told me that they were originally from Hong Kong and had moved permanently to Australia some years back. The boys were attending high school in Sydney. 

The older boy, William, loved to play piano and brought his family to the QVB piano every time they were in the downtown area.  He often came just to meet   people from all over the world.  Like me, he had stumbled on the piano by chance.

Coincidentally, we were planning on visiting Hong Kong a few months later as we were making our way back to the United States.  William happened to be traveling there at the same time to visit some relatives at the end of his high school year. 

My wife loves to say that I never like to pass up an opportunity while we’re traveling, so I suggested that we meet up with William while we were in Hong Kong before returning to the US.

A typical Hong Kong street scene

While there, William met us at our hotel and took us to see some of his favorite places.  We spent the whole day with him, using public transportation, visiting markets frequented only by native-born residents, eating in restaurants without an English-translated menu and going to places where tour buses never ventured.  It was as if we were visiting an old friend, all due to our love of playing the piano.

For my entire life, playing the piano has been a source of enjoyment and relaxation. When I am given a unique chance to share this pleasure with others, especially in a foreign country, it adds to my thrill of interacting with new people, which happens to be the major reason why I love to travel.

Music for me is truly the international language of friendship. 

Piano Power

While walking down a desolate dirt road from our hotel to Old Town Shaxi, we were asking ourselves if we had made the best decision to stay three nights in this rural community on our trip through China’s Yunnan province. After passing through bright fields of wheat and yellow canola for at least 45 minutes, we finally reached the famous Old Town. It looked even more foreign to us since there was almost no signage in English. 

Walking down a dirt road through the fields of wheat and canola

Then, out of the blue on a little side street, we heard the sound of a piano from inside of what appeared to be either a hotel or a restaurant.  We weren’t sure which since the name on front was written only in Chinese characters. 

Never afraid of a new adventure, we entered and saw a young Chinese man playing an electric piano.  

The electric piano that we heard from the street

Not even knowing if he spoke any English, we introduced ourselves.  He responded in English that his name was Tony and that he was the manager of the hotel.  It was a two-story boutique hotel with a large beautiful inner courtyard immediately behind the lobby where he was seated at the piano. 

With the help of a Chinese guidebook,  Tony was just beginning to teach himself how to play the piano.  He invited me to try it out and I played a few songs including “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music.” 

I chose that song since I knew it was from one of the only Western movies that the Chinese censors allowed during the 1960s.  I had learned this fact at our previous stop in the town of Dali where I also had the opportunity to play a piano.

Our new friend invited us to sit down with him for tea in the adjacent restaurant and told us that he had been living in Shaxi for about a year. He was managing the hotel because he claimed that the ethnic Bai people who represent the majority of the local population didn’t know how to deal with the visiting Chinese tourists, let alone foreign tourists.  

Tony told us that he had made a considerable fortune in a business in his home city, Hangzhou, in the eastern part of the country.   For five years, he spent his time traveling all over the world visiting over 60 countries including Iran, Syria and Israel. 

For five years, he traveled around the world, visiting more than 60 countries

He is 33 years old and speaks English quite well.  He has been to the United States several times but only to the West Coast.  He hopes to come back to the United States to pursue a Master’s Degree in business.  He is interested in opening a business exporting baijiu, a Chinese whiskey, which we had never heard about, but he explained it to us in detail.

Tony is a big fan of Mah Jongg.

He moved to Shaxi in the western part of the country because the Chinese government is trying to develop this area as an authentic town with clean air.  After traveling so much, he was looking forward to having a chance to rest and possibly write his memoirs. 

Tony offered us a ride back to our hotel which was greatly appreciated. We had been dreading having to walk back to our hotel along the dirt road beside the river as it was getting dark.  We also accepted his invitation to spend the next day with him and he promised to show us his favorite spots in the city and to meet some of his friends.  As we walked outside, I realized that the electric car that he had mentioned was really an electric cart (which was essentially a modified motorcycle).  It belonged to the hotel and is used to carry customers’ luggage from the parking area.  Previously, I had imagined that he had a Prius or some other type of electric or hybrid vehicle. 

And we thought it was going to be a Prius!

He helped us into the back of the cart and transported Meryl and me back to the Old Theatre Inn which was about 15 minutes away.  You should have seen us riding through the city!  Several residents seeing Westerners bouncing in the back of the cart laughed and yelled out “Hello!” in their finest English.

The lesson we learned from this experience was that the love of piano can be shared by people from all over the world.  Music in general and especially playing the piano forms an immediate connection.  It also showed us that if you are willing to suspend your fears and pre-conceived notions about people, you can enjoy the opportunity to make friends almost anywhere you go. 

Tony, Meryl, me and the hotel receptionist