The LegendayThe Legendary, Issue 30

“Sir, I think you’re telling me a porky.” The dour UK Customs agent said this with the same accusatory tone that Sister Mary Celeste had so witheringly adopted whenever it was apparent that I had not completed my fourth grade homework assignments.

“Excuse me?” I responded, feigning confusion over his meaning.

“A story, sir. Something that is not exactly the truth.”

It was late on the Friday night ending my third week of London residence. I had just flown into Heathrow Airport from Rome, having spent the past two days visiting with an important business partner in Italy. Tired and still trying to get my bearings in my new role as the ad agency’s international pooh-bah, all I wanted was to get back to my hovel at “Laverne & Shirley’s” (my self-dubbed, below-ground service apartment in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge) for some rest and situational reassessment. So when the Customs man asked me if I was working in the UK, I said no. As he persisted with his questions, I persisted with the porky. It was not going well.

In order to reside and work in the UK, a foreigner’s passport must contain a Resident Alien stamp issued by the Home Office Secretary of State, as well as a Certificate of Registration issued by the Metropolitan Police. Obtaining these documents is not simple, requiring proof that the foreigner’s UK residence is tied to a position of employment that cannot be performed by a British citizen. With a passport that was already heavily pocked with two years worth of UK entry and exit stamps, thanks largely to my multitude of “client development” visits, I knew I was overdue to get my paperwork in order. So did the Customs agent, who refused to grant me entry to the UK and immediately escorted me to one of Heathrow’s interrogation rooms to be “queried as to my situation.” Why couldn’t I produce a return ticket to America? Why so many trips in and out of London? Why no hotel reservation? What was the nature of my business? What promotional materials were in my briefcase? Why was I sweating?

You’d be sweating too if you found yourself in a windowless deportation cell, decorated in the spirit of The Inquisition—a heavy metal table bolted to the floor, a straight-backed metal chair similarly anchored, both set starkly beneath glaringly unfriendly overhead lighting. An agent will be here shortly, I was told, as the door was closed and audibly locked. Nearly an hour passed before anyone returned, followed by another hour in isolation as my “story” was checked and verified—no small challenge, given the lateness of the hour and my inability to provide home phone numbers for those who could confirm that, indeed, I was not a threat to the UK’s national security apparatus. Not that I didn’t make them think twice about that.

Sitting in the interrogation room all those hours, with nothing to read, no cell phone, and an uncertain future, I was suddenly captivated by a line of plastic tubing, about the size of a telephone cord, that ran inconspicuously around the entire room, about two-thirds of the way up the walls. Looking more closely, I saw that it had a gelatin-like appearance that begged to be touched, and so I did. Coincidentally, high-decibel sirens sounded and Customs agents rushed into the room to see me standing there like a guilty child. All that was missing was a cookie jar. Turns out the tubing I found so irresistible is actually an alarm system agents deploy when they are in a dicey situation with unruly “aliens”—apparently a not-uncommon occurrence at Heathrow. Needless to say, the Customs boys were not humored that I was playing with their toys.

It was almost one in the morning when I was finally granted entry to the UK (having established little more than my credentials as a porky-telling pain-in-the-ass) and well past two when I arrived back to my service flat. “Laverne & Shirley’s” never looked better. Next stop: Zwijndrecht, a tiny village in southeast Holland whose name brought back fond memories of my youth and whose corporate residents would further my education in the ways of Europe.

The name Zwijndrecht loosely translates to Pigtown, which happens to be the name of the Baltimore neighborhood where I was born—a blue-collar community with a slaughterhouse heritage and a heavy dose of German immigrants who prided themselves on the well-scrubbed brilliance of the marble front stoops leading into their simple row homes. Notwithstanding its lack of marble stoops, Zwijndrecht was equally well scrubbed and simple. And, thanks to its proximity to the busy port city of Rotterdam, it was home to the European headquarters of one of my company’s most important international clients, Chiquita Brands.

Zwijndrecht is essentially a suburb of Rotterdam—a city all but obliterated by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in 1940 and subsequently rebuilt with architectural designs some might call daring, others bizarre or soulless. To me the city’s buildings and bridges conjured the futuristic world of the Jetsons; I half expected to see George and Elroy flying overhead in the Jetpod. Particularly striking were the cube houses—residential apartment buildings that appeared to be constructed out of giant, multi-colored children’s building blocks. Jutting out in every conceivable direction, the apartment blocks looked like they might topple at any moment…suggestive of life in some sort of cockeyed fairy tale. Then again, perhaps I had simply consumed too much wine.

Fresh from my temporary detention in Heathrow Airport’s mini-gulag the week before, I had arrived in Rotterdam on a beautiful summer’s Sunday afternoon in preparation for a Monday morning meeting with my new client counterpart—a Belgian named Jean Paul, who headed up Chiquita’s pan-European marketing out of the Zwijndrecht headquarters. It would be my opportunity to establish myself as Jean Paul’s man, harking back to a bonding concept I had adopted many years earlier in my New York ad agency days. On this particular Sunday evening, however, I was on my own to explore the wonders of Rotterdam.

I executed what would become my signature strategy for inaugural visits to foreign lands…walk aimlessly, observe thoroughly, absorb culturally, discover busy people-watching venues (ideally outdoors, weather permitting, and with music), order a carafe (or several) of white wine and perhaps a small pizza (items that required minimal linguistic aptitude), and get lost in the moment. Given that, on this particular summer night, the busy people-watching venue I discovered was directly alongside one of the cube houses, and that Rotterdam’s summer sunsets generally hold off until after 10 p.m., it is conceivable that my perspective on the precariousness of life in a cube house was somewhat affected by my consumption of more than a few carafes of white wine.

The next morning it was off to Zwijndrecht to meet Jean Paul. Fifty-something, with short, bristled hair, a perfectly symmetrical potbelly, outsized spectacles, and a penchant for bowties, Jean Paul was a man who did precisely what he had to and nothing more. I would meet a lot of Jean Pauls in my European travels over the next eight years—individuals whose work ethic was a world apart from the aggressive, get-ahead-at-all-costs competitiveness of my American experience. But, perhaps not surprisingly, I came to enjoy many of them, and few more than Jean Paul. At the start of every meeting, he would bemoan the length of our agenda, then at its conclusion (regardless of how much time might be left in the business day), he would triumphantly announce that “our work here is done” and express his intention to return home to sit in his garden and contemplate the meaning of life.

The one chink in Jean Paul’s sedentary nature was evidenced when he got behind the wheel of his BMW E34 M5. Jean Paul loved to drive…fast—very, very fast! “Now, vee fly low, Mr. America,” he said to me as we drove to Antwerp after one of our first Zwijndrecht sessions for a dinner meeting with several of his northern European country managers. In less time than it took the Beemer’s engine to turn over, Jean Paul morphed from Mister Peabody’s pet boy, Sherman, into a veritable Mario Andretti. It was a fun ride to Antwerp…a little hairy, but fun. Besides, what’s not to like about being called “Mr. America”—a term of endearment by which I was introduced to a half-dozen of JP’s country managers that evening over a meal that was noteworthy not only for the impressive amount of beer and red meat consumed but also for the medieval heartiness of its consumption. Dinner for these guys was to be approached with gusto. The big German sitting beside me actually worked up a mild sweat just scanning the menu.

The vagaries of cuisine were but one of the many culture shocks I would absorb as I made my way around the world over the coming years. Considering how business meals had evolved in the States—from the infamously languid “three-martini lunches” that were still in vogue as I entered the New York ad world in the late ’60s to the hurry-up “spinach salad and a Perrier” that was de rigueur twenty years later—Europe’s modus operandi would require me to reawaken the culinary spirits of days gone by. In London, for example, a business lunch of less than two hours and without multiple bottles of fine wine would suggest a relationship that was not likely to produce much business. On the Continent, of course, each country had its own nuances but, generally speaking, dinner was the “business meal,” and it was a long, glacially paced affair. Belgium was the worst. Don’t even think about having a quick bite in a fine Belgian restaurant unless you intend to piss off your host big time. And don’t mistake being with business associates to mean you will be doing business in any but the most circuitous way over dinner. The meal is about the meal.

This would not be the case as my job took me beyond Europe to the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and the African subcontinent, but all that was still ahead. For now I just had to adjust to the UK’s stiffness and Europe’s schizophrenic oddities; one highlight of the latter being Chiquita’s weekly price-setting lunch. Each Tuesday, over lunch in the Zwijndrecht HQ’s large meeting room, the head of Chiquita’s European operations, an enormous man named Teun, who looked like he should be playing offensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, would gather his senior staff and, via conference phone, each of his European country managers to set banana prices for the coming week. Jean Paul rarely attended but he recommended that I do so, once, for perspective on the unique nature of the “branded commodities” business. On entering the meeting room, I immediately noticed that lunch had been served—one very large platter stacked high with plain cheese sandwiches (and I do mean plain—two pieces of white bread, one piece of cheese, no condiments), flanked by two large pitchers of milk…one of which, I was informed, was pasteurized and the other raw. I had been in some odd lunch meetings in my day, but seeing a bunch of burly men (many the same ones I had recently watched consume dinner with medieval abandon) holding a glass of milk in one hand and a sandwich that looked like their mothers had made it in the other, haggling over banana pricing, was pretty strange. As for the milk, now I know why they pasteurize it!

And so “Mr. America” had arrived in Europe. Over the next eight years, I would straddle the gap between coming off like a holier-than-thou American who arrives to straighten out provincial Europe’s wrong-headed views that one size (ad campaign, for example) cannot possibly fit all, and a flirtatiously ambassadorial Ben Franklin American who gets so far into the pants of his European associates that he becomes part of the fabric. Of course in the UK, I didn’t have to deal with this dichotomy, having established myself early on (at least with Customs) as a porky-telling American.




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