Dean Barber

Idiots Abroad: My Entirely Too Long European Vacation with A Few Business Meetings Thrown In

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on June 18, 2017 at 3:16 pm

A lot can happen in three weeks. And a lot did happen in the three weeks that my wife and I were rumbling, bumbling and stumbling through Europe.

President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord when we were in Paris. In more Trump news, the president announced travel and business restrictions toward Cuba, while fired FBI Director James Comey accused the Trump administration of telling “lies” in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

A gunman fired at Republican members of Congress as they held a baseball practice, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others. General Electric announced that CEO Jeff Immelt would step down after nearly 16 years on the job, and Amazon said that it would be buying Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, I was getting telephone calls and emails relating to my business/economic development consultancy back home. While I had others working on my behalf while I was gone, I still felt untethered and isolated.

Lucky For Me

Amplifying this feeling was the fact that doing relatively simple things, like driving, buying gas, parking, really making any sort of purchase, could be challenging if not completely perplexing in the countries that we were visiting. Indeed, there were times when I felt like a complete idiot, which lucky for me is “idiot” in French, “idiota” in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Mind you, I have been to Europe many times on business trips. However, those trips were mostly in places where English is more widely spoken, and where there was a buttoned-down itinerary that never left me truly out of my element.

This trip was different. Most of it, not all, was in southern Europe where outside of the confines of our hotel, “bonjour” or “buenos dias” or “bom dia’ or “buongiorno,” followed by “do you understand the words coming out of my mouth?” were met mostly with quizzical looks. (I think one fellow thought I was asking him where I could buy a giraffe.)

We in turn responded with our own dog-like quizzical looks when people would speak to us in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Playing the Part

But the language barrier, while real, is really not so bad and could be viewed as a plus. Being an idiot abroad should, if you have any smarts about you, cut down your ego, which in turn should make you more humble and polite. Being a polite if not somewhat clueless tourist can have its perks if you play your cards right.

We played the part of touristes to the hilt in Versailles and Paris and Geneva; turistas in Barcelona and Lisbon (Lisboa); and turisti in Milan (Milano), Florence (Firenze), Venice (Venezia) and Rome (Roma), and were treated quite nicely in all these great cities.

Most if not all date back to the days of the Roman Empire, and all exemplify incredibly beautiful art and architecture, good food, and the wealth and power of the Catholic Church.

I Shall Dream of It

I cannot tell you with certainty how many grand cathedrals I entered (probably a dozen), or how many grandiose paintings and sculptures that I saw of figures from the Bible, saints, popes and martys, sometimes naked or nearly naked, sometimes not.

The one that left the biggest impression on me was St. Bartholomew Flayed (1562) in the Milan Cathedral. It is a gruesomely realistic, sculptured figure of a stoic, skinless young man.

During a tour of the Milan Cathedral in 1867, Mark Twain found the statue by Marco d’Agrate repulsive. “I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes.”

My Consternation

Also in Milan, I got to see one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. It sits inside the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The painting depicts the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.

After viewing the painting, I experienced a bit of my own consternation when I entered the restroom at the convent. Rather than a toilet, there was a hole in the tiled floor with designated places to put your feet before essentially squatting. I chose not to.

Among the Herd

In Vatican City, which is a separate country within the confines of Rome, we were able to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, a cornerstone work of High Renaissance art.

Central to the ceiling painting are nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, which I did not get to fully fathom, because I was stuck in the midst of a tightly bunched, moving herd of tourists that was being shunted in and out of the chapel.

Indeed, in many of the places that we visited, there were entirely too many tourists present. American journalist Russell Baker said, “The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.”

As I did not wear a ball cap, or shorts, or athletic shoes in my travels, I tried not to look the part of a tourist, although I am sure that I mostly failed in that regard.

At times we were able to successfully bust out of the herd, only to be caught up in it again. It was frustrating.

Looking the Part

Businessmen truly look the part in northern Italy, particularly in Milan. They invariably wore wonderfully tailored suits and almost all carried fine leather briefcases.

I had several productive business meetings, and while I was always treated with great reverence and respect, I left the meetings feeling that I was under dressed. I won’t make that mistake again, even if I am on vacation.

One meeting in particular reminded me of the importance of establishing trust and relationships in business and this holds particularly true for European, family-owned companies.

Phase Zero

When I was an economic developer some years back, I noticed that few of my colleagues would help foreign companies set up meetings in the United States. I did just the opposite. I actively set up meetings for them, knowing full well that I could win their favor by doing so and thereby win their business.

Phase Zero is how a knowledgeable businessman in Milan explained it to me. The idea is to be willing to work on behalf of these mostly family-owned companies at no cost before a project even becomes a project.

In short, they are cautious and want to put a toe in the water to see if the U.S. makes sense for them. If you can assist in that process by setting up meetings for them, you will be remembered and stand a better chance of being hired or rewarded in some capacity.

I assured my contact in Milan that I was perfectly comfortable doing Phase Zero work with Italian companies. Indeed, that I had a history of doing such work (within reason) to prove myself to be loyal, competent and trustworthy.

Down Went Barber

I’m convinced that Europe has it all over the U.S. when it comes to healthcare. I speak from experience, as I took a face dive in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Paris. I busted a big gash over my right eyebrow, and found myself bleeding like a stuck pig.

The hotel manager was Johnny on the Spot and paramedics were called. They put me in an ambulance and hauled me to a hospital where they sewed me up. I got three stitches and a bill. Total cost, including the ambulance: 90 Euros, about $100.

Had that have happened to me in the U.S., the ambulance ride alone would have been $500. Total cost would likely have been more than a $1,000, maybe $2,000.

I believe healthcare in America remains one of our biggest problems and will remain so as long as the insurance and pharmaceutical industries essentially dictate terms. We could use another Teddy Roosevelt about now.

From Lion to Lamb

With stitches over my eye and a bruised cheek, I arrived in Barcelona looking like I had been in a bar fight, which was fine by me. Better to look like a lion than a lamb.

My brave exterior would soon fall away when my wife rented a scooter for us to travel about the city. Please understand that I have driven thousands upon thousands of miles on motorcycle in the United States, from coast to coast.

But put me on a scooter in five lanes of traffic in a roundabout in Barcelona (actually there were no discernible lanes or rules to go by), which is exactly what happened more times than I would like to remember, and you might have heard me cry out like a little lamb.

But somehow, someway, we survived our three weeks in Europe relatively unscathed. Well, I have one scar. We got home to Dallas late, about midnight. I was out the moment my head hit the pillow and I slept about 10 hours.

The next morning, I couldn’t help but notice that the coffee I was drinking tasted really bad. But it was good to be home.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com

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  1. Ha…fun blog this week. Well, maybe not so funny for your face. Hope you aren’t too bruised. Very interesting with the cost….crazy in fact.

  2. “…Versailles and Paris and Geneva, …the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo,…the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Disciples when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him” Fascinating, but how was the beer ? Hope you are healing well friend !

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