Archive for June 2011

Dining Out on Business Travel – Part 6

Politics and dinner can be an indigestible combination, especially in some African countries. Even more so if there is a virtual state of emergency in place. It was like this during my last year in Zambia caused by poverty, disappointment and insurgency in that order. Rightly or wrongly many of the people felt let down by what they received after’ Independence’ and there were rumours of insurrection in some quarters.

Me and my colleagues, whilst cautious, were not overly concerned as if one kept ones head down and were careful we felt there was little to fear. A friend (an expat doctor) forgot this rule and parked directly outside a public building. He was seen as a possible terrorist and spent a month in jail trying to explain that he was only calling in to pick up a permit.

I would never make such a mistake I thought and went about my business without drawing unwanted attention to myself. Then the dinner invitation came. It was from the top man in a major global conglomerate and it was an unexpected honour. We had never been invited to his house before as this was reserved mainly for close friends and business leaders not a lowly airline sales manager like me.

The day before the meal he actually rang me personally to check we were still going and to tell me that there would be just us, him, his wife and another husband and wife guest. He then rather embarrassingly told me the other guest was black and a senior Zambian government minister and would I still come as others had declined. That is why you asked me I mused as I put the phone down, nobody else would go because his main guest was black! I was appalled and even more determined to go.

We arrived and were warmly greeted by our host. His other two guests had already arrived as I saw his government car with two giant bodyguards leaning on the bonnet parked at the end of the driveway in case of emergency. We started to get a little edgy but it turned out to be one of the best informal dinners I have ever enjoyed then or since. The government minister was amusingly clever, his wife was even smarter and our hostess spent the whole evening teasing her doting husband.

Afterwards we sat outside listening to the night sounds and watching the constellations. We relaxed drinking the best of his brandy while shooting stars darted across the heavens and the moon rose full. We talked about how the world in general and Zambia in particular could be made a better place and collectively agreed it had been an evening we would all remember. After what, on reflection, must have looked to an observer as a group hug we parted our own ways into the early dawn.

Nothing happened for a few weeks until I heard that my host had been taken to the police station for questioning. What about I thought? I found out when I had a visit later that evening. The secret police (SITET) had come to pay me a visit. They did not want to have dinner but they sure wanted to talk about one. Both officers were white and both had spent most of their careers in the British Special Branch. I was told later that nobody would trust a local to do such a ‘sensitive’ job so they brought in foreigners instead.

The conversation started by them telling me I was a ‘bloody idiot’. ‘Why’ I asked?
One looked at the other in a resigned way muttering ‘he still doesn’t get it’. They then explained I was a bloody idiot for sitting up half the night eating, drinking and cuddling senior politicians in a volatile country where the president is almost paranoid about the possibility of a coup. I was stunned as I realised why everybody else had declined the date. It was not skin colour, it was the risk of being seen in such potentially dangerous company.

‘I hardly knew the man’ I pleaded until they showed me a clear photograph of him and me embracing at the evening’s end. Where had the photographer hidden I thought as I realised we had been under surveillance all the time. ‘A lot of people wouldn’t believe that’, one replied in the full knowledge he was scaring me big time.

I told them everything, even some of the jokes which they seemed to like. It was clear that there had been no subversive discussion however they said that just by saying that Zambia could be a better place could be seen as such. After playing around with me a bit they finally relented. ‘Look’, they concluded ‘it is clear that the dinner was innocent but for heavens sake watch out who you eat with in future’. They left as quietly as they arrived and I never saw them again. ‘No harm done’ I thought.

Three weeks later I read in the Zambian Nation newspaper that my fellow dinner guest was under house arrest. I never heard about him again. It can sometimes be a terrible cruel world I thought. But who knows what the truth is and what is not? Rather like eating food slightly over its ‘sell by’ date. It tastes OK but will you have cause to regret it afterwards?

Dining Out on Business Travel – Part 5

Over the years I have come to a conclusion that there is a definite link between food and sex. OK, the alcohol served along with the food makes a major contribution but the ambiance brought about by close proximity, relaxation, liberated discussion and sharing taste sensations with each other aids in the dropping of inhibitions.

Maybe sharing a hot curry and lots of lager is an exception but the act of say feeding each other oysters and champagne is clearly a good illustration of this phenomena. All those who have seen that old ‘bawdy romp’ of a film Tom Jones can bear witness to the old oysters and booze syndrome. However, don’t try the same effect with Guinness as it plays havoc on the stomach at the most inopportune moments which is a real passion killer.

So what has this to do with business travel dinners? A great deal in my experience. Despite being relatively naïve with regard to what goes on around me at dinners and banquets I have seen and experienced much that could turn me into a successful blackmailer if I had carried a camera and tape recorder with me. Maybe I could hire a small person with a camcorder to sit under the tables of the high and mighty and record the goings on under tablecloth.

Under table groping is rife at many major business dinners which may explain why most banquet table fronts have a cloth that extends to the floor. The omission of such ‘modesty cloth’ can provide much hilarity as I discovered one night in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh. We had taken over the whole place and the tables were laid out in a large square. Our then very high profile leader was sat in the place of honour and beside him, by chance I am sure, was our most eligible and eager lady sales representative.

It all kicked off by the middle of the antipasto. Unfortunately they were not aware that everybody the other end of the square could see every move. It started with warm patting of knees that progressed to thighs and I leave the rest to your imagination. By then my end of the table was spellbound. What was fascinating was that their faces and upper bodies showed no sign of the wild activity below, except that they were eating one handed.

The show ended when they noticed me grabbing a passing colleague and saying ‘hey look at that’ whilst pointing an indiscrete finger. Well I was young at the time and had yet to learn about discretion. After an icy stare in my direction that would have frozen hell all ‘down below’ activity ceased. The big chief left for his room soon after and, strangely, the whole experience must have brought on a headache in our young lady as she left soon after. In the same direction!

I have been on the receiving end of such overtures twice both directly and indirectly and neither was enjoyable in the least. Once in a banqueting suite in a Dubai hotel when a dinner guest’s wife started grappling me under the cloth. I think she was doing it more for fun (like a cat playing with a mouse) than intent but when you are sitting next to a husband that has no idea what is going on and is in the middle of discussing his business travel needs it isn’t easy. Also you could end up in jail for less in Dubai.
Fortunately she stopped before being discovered although she did give me a broad laughing wink as she departed hand-in-hand with her clearly doting husband.

My indirect experience was even more unpleasant in that it involved my then partner not me. My boss decided to take all his sales team to dinner as thanks for a great result that year. It was Christmas and everyone was looking forward to a big celebration made more enjoyable as spouses and partners were invited too. It was a Chinese feast where everybody could share dishes although I did not realise that my boss considered my partner to be ‘dishy’. He cut a strange figure. He arrived dressed in a Caftan (it was not fancy dress) and with a newly trimmed goatee beard. All this topped with a paper hat three sizes too small and a leer that would make a maiden scream.

He plonked himself down between the two of us and entered what he thought was a subtle and suave conversation about ‘sharing’ experience other than food. Alarm bells rang in my head but, he was my boss, I liked my job and hey, he was only joking, wasn’t he? The answer to that question was almost immediate when he shrieked and leaped backwards, made his excuses and left.

‘What the hell happened’ I asked of my partner. He squeezed and pinched me under the table she demurred. ‘Oh no’ I replied ‘but why did he yell’? ‘’ I pinched him back’ she explained, ‘very, very, hard and he will have great difficult explaining that bruise to his wife’. Not a woman to be crossed I mused as my eyes started to water at the thought. Not a man to continue going out with she must have been thinking as she dumped me soon after.

More to follow on this subject in part 6 so stay tuned!