Travelling from London to Minneapolis St Paul on a Sunday late afternoon flight I got into conversation with my neighbour, an American returning home. We talked about our respective jobs, families, interests in common, etc. and at some point I must have revealed that this was my first business trip to the US.
“Ah” he said, “let me give you some advice. When the time comes for you to leave your hosts and return to the airport, make sure you leave plenty of time”. I thought about this for a moment and asked him why that particular piece of advice. “Because” he explained, “your hosts won’t have a plane to catch and have no incentive in ending your meeting promptly so you can depart on time”. I thought this was a bit strange but thanked him anyway and after discussing other things for a while settled into the flight. Reading, a movie, etc.
The leg of the journey after landing in New York was a little more intense: I had to change flights, make my way through queues in the low ceilinged immigration hall to the transit lounge, then connect with the flight to Minneapolis St Paul, hire a car on arrival, find the hotel, navigate myself the next morning to the factory of my employer’s US subsidiary to meet Tom the engineer, and later drive back to MSP airport to collect colleague Phil (the company MD) who’d flown out the day after me, return us both to the factory, do some more work, etc. etc.
We were there 4 days in all, during which we punctuated work with further exploration of Minneapolis, eating most meals out, hydrating during the day (and years before Starbucks) on the weak coffee kept warm in the Cona machines, and in the evenings on the not quite so weak beer. When not on the beer I managed to do the driving, navigating their grid system via the wrong side of the road, working out where best to U-turn when I was 180 degrees off target, which I was, often. I remember experiencing helicopter flight for the first time in an IMAX cinema, and trying all sorts of new foods whilst enjoying the hospitality of our hosts who were only too pleased to show us round their twin cities. It was a productive trip.
On the Thursday, our return flight to London (non-stop this time, over the pole) departed 6.30 pm local time. Around 4.30 pm we were still at the factory with our hosts. That’s when I remembered the American on the flight over and his strange advice. Except now it didn’t seem strange any more. It took 20 minutes to wind up the meeting and get Phil into the car; we left at 4.50 and drove back to the hotel to collect the luggage. It was rush hour. I had to bang on Phil’s door to get him out of the shower so I could take his room keys and check us both out. We left the hotel for the airport at 5.20. It was still rush hour. I set him and the luggage down at the high-level terminal entrance at 5.50, drove to the low-level car hire return area, flung the keys at the man in the kiosk and ran back to the upper terminal. It was 6.05 pm and Phil had found a trolley for all the luggage. We pushed it at speed to the gate, arriving 6.15. All the other passengers were there, now on the point of boarding.
By this time our seats had been released to standby passengers and we had neither checked the luggage in nor collected our boarding cards. And obviously we’d both become somewhat anxious.
But we made a fuss, explained our situation and guess what? We were the first to board the plane. When we sat down we laughed for a long time and agreed we’d cut things quite fine.
Some hours later in the dimmed night lighting I wondered whether the American on Sunday’s flight over had only got to his seat by the skin of his teeth thanks to the enduring hospitality of his British hosts, and whether the advice he'd given me was raw from his own experience on that very day, not from years of transatlantic travel. That would explain quite a lot…
And ever since, I’ve found myself able to listen to the advice of strangers without thinking any of it strange (even if really, it is).