In 1978, just five years into my budding career buying menswear, I was headed out on a second foreign trip that turned out to be my longest trip both in time and actual distance. My company had booked me on a "round the world" fare, allowing me to switch from airline to airline or change dates and times of departure, and all with no added fees. The one catch was I always needed be headed west...no back tracking. For the one and only time in my life, I was flying around the world. The trip entailed 17 days of business with four days tacked on at the end for my then wife and I to make quick stops in Brussels and Amsterdam. The trip started out with five days in Hong Kong, a weekend in Rome, followed by a week in Florence, and lastly a three day stay in Paris to attend the Sehme Fashion Show. At times it was grueling, but I was in my twenties and having the time of my life. The Hong Kong meetings were delayed due to a massive blizzard in New York, allowing those of us in the Western contingent three days to be tourists. We became familiar with a few Hong Kong night spots which gave us time to develop some new friendships. The seventy and eighties optimized the old expression "work hard... play hard". Every day marathon meetings started at eight and ran through at least five. I'd get to my room..take a short nap... then shower and meet up with the contingent for another night of drinks, dinner, and then more drinks. To this day, I'd not change a thing. I met people during that Hong Kong week who became life long friends.
For this current entry, I have focused on one extremely long day further along in our trip. We had just spent a week in Florence. My then wife had met me in Rome upon my arrival from Hong Kong the weekend before and had been with my boss and I in Florence. Our schedule was busy but we managed to squeeze in some wonderful meals and sightseeing. On Friday February third, we traveled via rail from Florence to Rome where we were to catch a non stop flight to Paris at 6 PM. Rail travel back then was a wonderful experience and afforded us time to wind down on the way. The trip was about one an a half hours and I quickly drifted off as the beautiful Italian hills rolled by. After arriving in the Rome train station, we managed to get through the fray of travelers and found our bags. My boss was a seasoned traveler and quickly had a luggage man in a white coat throwing our luggage, including the shiny brass pot he'd acquired in Turkey, on to a cart that appeared to be vintage 40's. We jumped in a cab and made it to the Leonardo Fiumicino Airport quite smoothly. Things always seemed more complicated when dealing with a different language, but we worked through luggage check in and proceeded to the gate. Just as on our last trip through Rome, I noticed the airport security guards armed with long guns, which we had yet to experience in the the States. Europe had been amping up their security ever since the Munich massacres at the Olympics. It was now 4 PM and our Air France flight departure wasn't until 6 PM. We decided to grab some food and found a restaurant. The food finally arrived and we ate and chatted leisurely, reliving highlights from our week in Florence. At some point I looked at my watch. It was 5:30 and I suggested we move hastily to the gate. My boss, the world traveler, said "We'll be fine" but I was concerned in this airport run by Italians. My experience the last week was fun, but I'd discovered these Italian folks seemed to get off track very easily.
As we turned the corner and our boarding gate came into view, there appeared to be near chaos in two different crowds. One of them seemed to be in queue. The other not quite! The three of us, with brass pot in tow, made our way towards the boarding door. There were no seat assignments so a man was checking folks through quickly. Uh that is until we hit the door. The man motioned with his hands and said :See the man over there..At the ticket counter" My boss was a man who would argue in the extreme...never giving in... never backing down. I was usually a little more tactful, but we did have boarding passes and as I looked at my watch we arrived right as the boarding process had begun. It became quickly clear that they'd given our seats up to standby passengers! I was upset and laid in to the guy behind the ticket counter. I could here my boss yelling loudly with hands waving and just caught a glimpse of him toe to toe with some guy in a coat. I assumed he was management of some sort. I argued vehemently for another 10 minutes or so but realized it was a lost cause. The bad news was that there was only 1 additional flight Friday night leaving at 9 PM and it was oversold. I was now holding 3 standby tickets for the 9 PM. It was looking like we might be staying over in Rome. What a mess. After expending all that energy, I was totally drained. We'd left the Lungarno Hotel in Florence at 8:30 this morning. I looked over at my wife and with a shoulder shrug and gave her the latest details. She looked up and asked "What happened to Dan (my boss)?" It was now about 6:40 and we started walking around the airport searching for our travel mate. But we had no luck. We finally sat down near our departure gate and waited and occasionally I'd head out on another reconnaissance mission. I was getting worried. The airport wasn't that big and I'd looked everywhere. It was 8:00 and our last flight option for the evening would begin boarding in a half an hour, My wife got up and walked with me, making sure he wasn't down some hallway. Then in the distance I spotted him walking between two security guards (security back then was handled by the Italian National Police). The sight of Dan framed by two uniformed guards carrying automatic weapons gave me pause. About that time they broke off from him and we met him halfway. "What happened? Are you OK?" "Yea" Dan barked. "I was just arguing with that guy and these guards whisked me away" They had me in some room with an interpreter asking me questions." I must have been in there for over an hour!"
I explained to Dan about the standby status and we were off to the gate. I suggested we sit very near the ticket counter. I didn't want to run the chance of missing the last flight to Paris.
We waited for general boarding to start but at some point we realized this flight was boarding down on the tarmac. The Air France staff appeared to be holding confirmed passengers until they assigned standbys. Finally they began calling standbys. The wait was especially worrisome knowing that if we weren't cleared we'd be spending the night in Rome. Added to the Friday night clatter were a non stop string of loud announcements being made in different languages. We waited as patiently as we could and then alas! I recognized "SULLIVAN!" pronounced with an Italian accent. Ahh..progress and a sense of relief! Our trip was moving on.
We realized there were no assigned seats. The Rome-Paris flights were handled like the DC Shuttle out of LaGuardia. We were all herded downstairs to a small landing area that faced a wide doorway. Sitting in sight was our aircraft! The momentum of our long day appeared to be taking a turn!
Dan came up with a plan to grab seats. My then wife was quite a looker. "Let Liz go first. All these European men will allow the pretty girl through". "Liz you just push ahead and save us a row!". It all sounded good but when the attendant pulled the rope back, Liz was nearly knocked down by this mostly male group that started walking quickly and then transitioned into a full run. Dan and I were bringing up the rear. As we stepped down the aisle, we were surprised to see Liz sitting in a row all be herself. Don took the center seat, squeezing his brass pot under his feet. We settled in and I began to get that calm feeling you get after a long week knowing that rest is on the way. It's as if your body knows you've made it and your brain begins to unplug. I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. Paris in two hours and then a good night's rest.
I couldn't really fall asleep as so many boarding passengers were struggling with their bags and in some cases their large derriere's brushing me as they waddled down the aisles of this small commuter jet. Then, just as everyone was settled, an announcement was made in French... and all the French passengers groaned. I looked at Dan.."Flight must be delayed?". Then the announcement was made again in Italian. All the Italians began waving their hands and sounded nearly frantic. Dan looked back at me. "Mechanical problems?". Finally we got the English version. Well hell's bells. I couldn't believe what the attractive attendant just said. There was one passenger who'd checked luggage, but had never boarded the plane. The Europeans were very concerned about hijackings and bombings. The "Italian" solution was to remove all luggage from the belly of the plane and line it up up in rows on the tarmac. Passengers would be escorted off the plane one row at a time. We then had to walk around on the dimly lit concrete until we found our bags. It felt like a strange version of a cake walk. There were armed personnel surrounding us and when you found your bag this little man would run up and mark your bag with a giant white "X". Gee I wonder if that'll ever come out. This whole process dragged on and on. When we were finally cleared for takeoff it was after 9:30. Once again my body began to shut down, and I slept through the takeoff.... something I could do without trying.
We arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport after 12:30. One more battle to grab our luggage, get through customs, and file out to the cab line. The cool evening air was refreshing, but the occasional gusts of wind were now chilling me to the bone. As we jumped in to our Peugeot taxi, Dan blurted out "1 Place Vendome!" and we were on our last leg. We zipped along. Traffic was light and a light fog softened the glowing headlamps of the occasional truck. Dan actually fell asleep and my wife leaned her head over on my shoulder. We were three very tired travelers a long way from Arizona.
Finally we pulled up to our hotel. The Hotel de Vendome.. Seeing no staff at this late hour we grabbed our luggage and walked in to a mostly dark lobby. At first we saw no one.. But a rather chubby man stepped out of the back rubbing his eyes. As he put on his tiny wire glasses he greeted us. His white shirt was quite rumpled and was so stressed at the waistline that his hairy belly button was peeking through. Dan announced our arrival and handed the man some papers. This guy spoke little and when he did I struggled to understand his heavy accent. As he looked at our passports he looked concerned. Finally he peered over his glasses. "I am sorry..but I have no record of reservations for you". At that point in this very long day, I could no longer muster a challenge. I was spent. But Dan, ever the fighter, just erupted. I thought he would pull this big Frenchman right over the counter. He kept waving our printed reservations as he yelled and the Frenchman was yelling back. My wife went and sat down on a nearby couch. She like me, was exhausted. There was a short respite in the shouting. I stepped in front of Dan and in my kindest Texas voice asked. "Do you have have at least three rooms for tonight?" He glanced at this book and looked up. My recollection is he slowly responded. "Yes..we have rooms.. but you have no reservations!" At that point I pulled out my credit card, smiled, and said "Then may we please have the rooms?". And so we finally walked in our room after 2 am. Looking at the beautiful brocaded gold comforter I thought my boss and I had continued to build the image of the rude American. But at that moment we just needed rest.
All was better the next morning as we sat together in the lobby eating croissants and sipping cafe au lait. We were reliving the crazy night we'd been through when our waiter walked out with a Coke for my wife. "And for madame? Beaujolais American?" We all laughed.