My London Calling (Finally!)

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Heading to London has been what feels like a lifelong dream for me. And it finally came true this week! Woo hoo!

As frequently as I travel for work (and it’s really not much compared to road-warrior standards), I never have to travel internationally. In fact the last time – and only time! – I traveled internationally was about 14 years ago when I went to Italy. At the time I worked as a creative project manager for the now defunct sporting goods arm of a fashion brand that was popular in the 80s. I was sent to headquarters to meet my colleague in Italy to plan international product photo shoots for the upcoming season. (You should interpret this as way too fancy for my mid-20s self. Because it was. I still look back on that job and can’t believe it was mine. Haha.) The office was located just outside of a small town that was within driving distance to Venice.

I have to say my first international travel experience was kind of crazy:

  • First of all, I had to book all of my business travel on my own credit card – say whaaaaaat? Can you imagine having to do that at 24? Frankly, I am still shocked I had a balance limit high enough to foot that bill. To put this into better perspective, I was engaged to be married and still living at home with my parents. As in sleeping in the same bed I slept in when Debbie Gibson was all the rage. Think white paneled walls, white glossy furniture with gold trim, teal rugs and a sweet white metal frame daybed. Pretty sure I had a Kirk Cameron poster hanging on my closet door. Growing Pains Kirk Cameron, not reborn Kirk Cameron. (Yes, I picked it all out by my 12-year-old self. In case that wasn’t obvious by the description.) All this sandwiched between my brothers’ room and my parents’ room. Not exactly a jet setter, you see.
  • Second of all, I would be traveling with two VPs  who were going to R&D and product development meetings. (I was going to design meetings.) I barely knew them outside of their sheer giddiness that the three of us were going to corporate headquarters. As I was basically a baby with a job at this stage, the significance of being sent to HQ for meetings was completely lost on me. I was, frankly, scared about traveling internationally as I’d never done it before. Despite not knowing my travel companions well, I took some comfort in the fact that I, at least, HAD travel companions. Which takes us to my next point….
  • …Since we were all going on our trip together, and we all booked our trip together, I figured we’d all be sitting together on the plane. Ah, so young, naive and the apparent proud owner of a utopian view of this particular work place. We weren’t sitting together. So on top of being scared to travel to Italy alone with two practical strangers, I now got to wave to them as they were nestled in their giant leather First Class seats as I trotted my way through to coach. Although, if I am honest, waving was actually more of a greeting than we usually exchanged in the office – hahaha. A few observations at this stage of my adventure:
    • Odd that they were booked in First and I was in coach, yea? I mean, there’s no difference in flight length for any of us. Maybe their legs need to stretch more because they are VPs? Made tons of sense and was not at all hierarchical. It also made me super happy.
    • They didn’t even have to pay for their own ticket! Suckers. Everyone knows your business trips are way more enjoyable when you get to pay for them yourselves. Haha.
    • I later checked with a friendly face in HR and they told me policy was that employees in my level could only fly in coach. I was welcome to upgrade, but I would only be reimbursed for coach. Well, that’s a kick in the pants, eh? Now I was struggling with inequality / fairness issues.
  • Finally, I felt scared. Very scared. It was literally only like my third business trip (one was to New York and the other was to Chicago, both exciting cities, but neither terribly far from home) and now, here I was about to fly halfway around the world with two guys I barely knew to a country where English wasn’t the first language. (If it was France, I definitely wouldn’t have been scared – I had two solid years of high school French classes under my belt – at the very least, I could introduce myself to people and ask how their day was. Italian? No shot.) (That was a joke. I probably would have been scared to go to France at that point of my career, too.)

I can still, to this day, picture Kenny’s face as I walked away in the terminal. Not being super-adventerous, but determined with a slight flair for selected over-dramatics when I feel I’ve been wronged , I spent the entire car ride from Philadelphia to Newark Airport talking myself out of this trip to the point where I felt my best option was to just quit this job so I wouldn’t have to go. This was after a month-long build up where I repeatedly played Jekyll and Hyde – vacillating between being excited and being scared – particularly when we realized I didn’t have a passport and had to rush one through – at my own expense, of course. I honestly could not wrap my head around why I had to spend my own money to do all these things for work / for an international company that definitely had enough money to fund this trip.  During this car ride, I realized I had no idea if I would ever get my money back for the plane ticket if I just didn’t get on the plane. With a wedding to plan, and a pricy plane ticket in hand, not getting reimbursed seemed like a bad idea. It also seemed like a bad move career-wise, but my 24-year-old self found this whole thing to be so egregious that I was completely disengaged.  Needless to say, I was so upset that I ended up making him upset for me. (Not really my best moments, to be honest.)

I met up with my colleagues in the terminal and said goodbye to Kenny and started walking away. At this point, we had our very own Hollywood moment: I was crying to myself as I walked down the terminal only to turn and see his face wrought with worry and his hands waving me back to him. Seeing that I was still crying, he called out that I should just come back home with him and we’d figure it all out. Sweet, right? For some reason, this gave me courage and the push I needed to get on the plane. (After I ran back to hug him one last time, of course.) Thinking back, I realize I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me for not taking the opportunity. I made it to Italy.

It was gorgeous, and generally, the trip was good while I was there. Yes, it was weird to take a day trip to Venice with travel companions who were practically strangers and have a lazy afternoon touring St. Mark’s Square and drinking prosecco. After realizing this was my first trip overseas, they took kindly to me – which I appreciated.  During the course of the week, I met many new colleagues and all seemed to settle into place, and I ended up enjoying my time there. (Read: I pretty much freaked myself out for no reason. Except that I still had to pay for everything myself! And had to fly coach because I was too far down the ladder. There was still that.)

One of my colleagues, who was based in Italy, thought it would be a good idea for me to spend an afternoon seeing the small town near the HQ office. So, she drove me there in her car after our meetings. I assumed she would be staying with me, but I was wrong. She pulled into the center of town and she told me she was going back to the office, but when I was ready to come back to take a taxi. I asked her how I would ask for one since…uh….everyone speaks Italian and I do not. She laughed me off and reassured me that someone in the shops will speak English and be able to help me. Was I being punked? I mean, I think her intentions were good, but when you boil it down – a stranger dropped me off in a strange town in the middle of a foreign country with no way for me to get back to where I was staying. Maybe I wasn’t being punked. As it turned out, it was more like a tourist version of Survivor: Small Town Italy.

Of course, my naive 24-year-old self thought her idea sounded reasonable, so I spent an hour or so walking in and out of shops in the center of town. I have to say, with the benefit of hindsight: cars seemed pretty absent from this whole scene and I hadn’t seen a taxi the whole time I was there. Hmmmm. I was soon ready to head back to the hotel, so I asked someone how I could get a taxi.

Picture a male Italian citizen of your choosing shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head “no”.

I repeated myself.

Now picture that same Italian citizen cocking his head to one side, smiling, holding his hand up (palms up – you know the pose) and still shaking his head “no”. He then said stuff in Italian to me. I thanked him and walked away. (Yes, I still thanked him. In English. Which he clearly doesn’t understand.)

So, you can repeat this scenario like four or five more times. I was kind of panicked after the first three folks couldn’t help me. I popped into a shop – same deal. Went next door – same deal again.  Finally, I spotted a public phone. YES! This was going to be my saving grace. I would simply call my colleague and have her come get me. But – I had no coins and no idea how to use the phone. And since no one I encountered by this point spoke English, I couldn’t change in some bills for coins. Or ask for help using the phone.

I was pretty scared at this point. The sun was getting lower in the sky and I knew this small town would be closing up for the night very soon. I regrouped and made a plan. I would simply go into each and every shop and ask each and every person I encountered for help.

I hit five or six more stores. Still nothing.

Finally – I saw it. A store for the parent company for which I worked! YESSSSSS! I went in and asked if they spoke English. “No, sorry, no English,” I imagine they said in Italian. The only word I was close to understanding was what seemed to be “English”.  I then handed them my business card. This immediately changed the tone – and they went into the back to get one of their male colleagues. He came out and I asked him if he spoke English. He smiled and told me “Not too much.” I simply stated, “Taxi?” in my most hopeful tone of voice. He shook his head and said, “Sorry?” and raised his hands. I mimicked driving while I said, “Taxi?” Still no.

Hot tears sprang into my eyes. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Pity filled his face. I just stood there because, really, where else did I have to go? Then I had an idea – I did a gesture to signal pen and paper. “Ah, si, si!” he said and grabbed both from the drawer.

Oh yea, I did it. I started a crazy game of Pictionary to get myself home.

I drew a picture of a good old fashioned taxi – complete with a checkerboard stripe because I figured that would be a distinguishing feature.

I drew a road leading to a building. I added some details to make the building seem hotel-ish.

I added the name of the hotel above my lovely primitive blueprint.

I handed it to him and repeated, “Taxi? Drive? Hotel?” and willed him to understand one of those words.

He looked at the drawing and raised his eyes. Then he smiled and said, “Si! Si! Si! Otel!” (I took “otel” to be his version of “hotel”.) I said yes and pointed to my drawing of the taxi, pointed to the phone, held a pretend phone up to my ear, then pointed to myself.

He finally understood. Finally!

I wanted to cry tears of happiness.

He picked up the phone and ordered me a taxi. And I was finally on my way back to the hotel a few minutes later.

The rest of the trip involved nothing quite as exciting as that adventure – you know the drill, lots of meetings, a tour of HQ and the campus, some dinners with senior-level US ex-pats and their families, dinner and a visit with some of our international sales  leaders, etc. While I wouldn’t say I was the winner of Survivor: Small Town Italy, I did, at least, survive my first international business trip, and I was proud of that.

But, you’ll notice, I hadn’t done it again. Until this week – 14 years later. I’ve traveled a lot between then and now, so I am more experienced. I am used to traveling solo. Still not 100% in love with the solo travel scene, but I am always meeting colleagues at my destinations, so I have some friendly faces to look forward to when I get there. However, this time, I wasn’t meeting them until Monday, so I had a whole afternoon to fill when I arrived. So I grabbed my camera and went out and walked around town for 3 and a half hours by myself – and I wasn’t scared at all. It was actually quite fun!

London is fantastic – it’s everything I always imagined it to be, and I can’t wait to come back. But it will definitely be a vacation next time.

 

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