Two Speeches: Good Enough to Steal?
Times have changed for international business travelers.
In China, oldies like me recall the days of China’s one-airline policy. CAAC’s services, on the ground and in the air, were so bad that they offered passengers small trinkets as gifts — key chains, fans, etc. — as well as free packets of Double Happiness cigarettes (perhaps something to do with spreading the joy of second-hand smoke during the flight?). Making a reservation and buying a ticket required a personal appearance by the traveler at one of their offices, where airline personnel seemed perennially in a bad mood.
Today in China, air travel is a vastly improved story. At least inflight food service and baggage check-in are still free, unlike on many domestic flights in the U.S. where such luxuries are now subject to extra charges.
Nowadays, the international traveler faces new and different challenges than in that by-gone era when airlines were generally profitable, flights were often half-empty, and queues at airports were much shorter.
Why is it, I wonder, that when we head for the airport, there seems to be a higher than usual risk that Murphy’s Law is ready to pounce on us? One way or the other, if something can go wrong, it seems to go wrong more often when we’re traveling. Bags get lost or stolen, weather and mechanical problems cause delays — the list of possible foul-ups is long and varied.
One especially dreaded risk is having something stolen while you’re on the road, such as wallets, laptops, cash, or bags.
As far as I know, however, I am the only unfortunate traveler who has had his speeches stolen.
I flew from Hong Kong to London at the beginning of a three-week European business trip, which involved a series of speaking engagements on the then emerging China market. It was 1981, long before China was widely recognized as a “must do” market for international business. The Open Door and Reform. Policy was in place, but it was far from widely known or understood around the world.
In those days, any chimpanzee with a pair of chopsticks could be passed off as an authority on China, which explains all the speaking invitations I got at the time.
This was long before portable computers, so my typical speech was typed, double-spaced, in standard 9-point type on A4 sized white paper. (Today it would more likely be triple-spaced, 18-point, bold face, and all capital letters — more suitable for the eyesight requirements of my advancing years.)
After arriving at London’s Heathrow airport, I checked into a downtown London hotel and was assigned a room on the top floor. Like so many London hotels, it was a little bit quaint and a whole lot expensive.
It was a Sunday afternoon in spring. Since the room was not only quaint but stuffy, I opened the wooden-framed window to let some air in. I unpacked my things and got ready to meet friends for dinner and a show. Off I went.
After a most enjoyable evening, I went to sleep early. The following day, Monday, I had two speaking engagements — over lunch and dinner. Both were on various aspects of doing business with China, but to very different audiences; so I had prepared two quite different speech texts.
I got up the next morning, shaved and dressed, and then went to take my attaché case from the closet before leaving the room for my first meeting.
Shock and awe: the attaché case wasn’t there.
I searched the room, to no avail, and realized my room had been burgled while I’d been out. The thieves had most likely used the window to gain access, which I had carelessly left open while out for dinner and the show.
Among the other valuables in the missing case were the only copies of both speeches I was to deliver that day. There was also my only copy of a collection of favorite anecdotes and trip notes, which was of sentimental and practical value.
I called the London Police, who arrived promptly and were very helpful, but not very reassuring about the prospects of getting my belongings back. They noted the contents of the case, as well as my contact information in Hong Kong.
Apart from the practical challenges involved in delivering two speeches that day without any notes or text, I was especially saddened by the loss of my sole copy of those travel notes and anecdotes. Other missing items included my airline ticket, various credit cards, etc.–a hassle to replace, but at least replaceable.
Somehow I managed to deliver both speeches off-the-cuff without boos, guffaws or rotten fruit hurled at the podium. I later scurried around and dealt with the air ticket, onward reservations, and credit card issues, and the trip went forward without any further snafus.
That was 1981.
Three years later I flew from Hong Kong into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Chicago is my home town, and I was met at the airport by my late Father. As we drove home, he mentioned that the London Police had kindly copied him on a recent letter they had written to me.
They copied him for safety’s sake because they had found his address on a letter among my personal papers.
Their letter explained that my some of my personal papers had been recovered in Paris during a raid on a burglary ring which had been operating between London and Paris.
They offered to mail the papers to me if I would kindly remit the funds required to cover the postage.
I was flabbergasted, having long since given up hope that anything in the stolen attaché case would ever be recovered. I was also very impressed that the constables had gone to such great effort after such a long time on behalf of someone living so far away.
I remitted the necessary funds, and received the long lost stolen speeches and other papers, including the travel notes and set of anecdotes.
Although I haven’t admitted it to anyone until now, I was secretly flattered by the notion that an international ring of thieves had seen such value in my speeches and notes as to hoard them in their lair. And in Paris yet, far from the scene of the crime. There was a faint air of romance about that, somehow.
This was a fleeting fantasy, however, which I laid to rest after re-reading the speeches and promptly tossing them into the garbage. A three-year old speech on the China market was stale even then, due to the speed with which the place had changed (and continues to change).
I have never again made the mistake of leaving my hotel room window open.
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