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The Princess and I

To my recollection, it was about 22 years ago that I had an experience I infrequently relive. It wasn’t pleasant for sure and was a product of a chance meeting between myself and a person I can best describe now as a former celebrity.

That day, which I remember vividly, was the culmination of almost a month worth of travel for myself in Africa. I was supervising two of my World Bank projects and had spent the previous weeks in Kenya and now it was time to go home. For a person like myself who spent a quarter of a century in the development business home had become a relative term. Home became where I was spending the largest amount of time of the year and that was in Washington. At that stage of my life, I was traveling over two hundred days a year and having done that for most of the past 26 years, crossing the Atlantic over 500 times, I have just come to the realization that I have spent close to a year of my life on airplanes. And, some of those experience weren’t pretty.

This day I was destined to be on two flights, from Nairobi to London, and then London to Washington. The World Bank had booked me on British Airways as they always did. During that decade, we always flew first class, a perk eliminated long ago. The airport in Kenya wasn’t anything like it is today, the lounge was a bit dingy, but I was, I am, in the development business so perks by no means were ever a given.

The flight from Kenya to the UK was a late night flight as most flights are from Africa to Europe. The best are at 10:00 PM or so and that allows you to sleep it out until you get to your destination in Europe. The worst will depart at 3:00 or 4:00 AM and getting to the airport on badly lit African roads at excessive speeds is something you learn to live with.

I arrived at Nairobi airport on time, and my intent was to take a day’s rest in London. Arriving at the airport at check in, the agent wanted to see my passport. At the time, I traveled with two passports, my national Egyptian passport, and a United Nations passport that gave me more freedom of movement. The UN passport didn’t require the visas that my Egyptian passport did and liberated me to travel in ways that otherwise would not have been possible.

The agent looked at both passports, and as often happened in Africa, asked where my visa to the UK was since I was overnighting. I said I have a United Nations passport and that no visa to the UK was required. She seemed skeptical and brought over her supervisor. He seemed rather inexperienced and picked up a book to check. Upon looking over what seemed to be a book on visa rules, this Kenyan gentleman approached me and said that the UN passport does not allow me entry into the UK without a visa. I then went on to show him all the UK entry and exit stamps in the UN passport, but this seemed to confuse him even more.

The supervisor insisted that I had to fly straight through to the US where I held a valid visa, and that I could sort out my UN passport UK entry issue at arrival in Heathrow. I put up a spirited argument, but he was not budging. In the end, I agreed to be rebooked straight to Washington with no stop over and figured I could always change my flight the next day when I got to London.

The flight from Nairobi to Kenya was uneventful. I remember sleeping through most of it, if not all of it, and this was a 10 hour flight. We arrived in London in the early morning and I proceeded to passport control to head off to the Grosvenor House hotel in Park lane where I always stayed. But, the immigration line was enormous. I realized it would take me hours to pass through immigration and I reached into my vest pocket and took out my connecting flight boarding pass the Kenyan supervisor had given me the night before. The choice was clear, two hours to wait time in immigration and spend a night in London, or 50 minutes to board the flight to Washington and go back to my little apartment that at the time I called home. I had been away a month so I opted for home.

I went through security quickly and straight to the gate where the flight was about to board. I went through fast track and was among the first on board. My seat was 1A if I recall correctly, a preferred seat our travel agent usually booked for me. I received the same pleasantries on entering the plane first class passengers get and the stewardess escorted me to my seat. As I approached my seat, I looked over to the other isle and there was a curtain fully surrounding the two adjacent first class seats. This curtain was from floor to ceiling completely obscuring what was behind it. I had never seen that before and didn’t know what to make of it. I was very tired and paid little attention.

A few minutes later the airplane doors were closed and the plane began to pull away from the terminal. As we began to taxi, the Cabin Service Director (CSD), who had introduced himself to me earlier, and a stewardess ran over to the curtain and very carefully pulled it down. Behind that curtain was Princess Diana. She didn’t particularly flinch when the curtain was removed and seemed to be reading something at the time.

In the first class cabin there were only about four people. Princess Diana, a couple behind me, and myself. I could hear the woman sitting behind me saying to her partner “it’s Princess Diana” with a clear sound of excitement. I didn’t follow the royals, didn’t really much care, and paid no further attention.

This flight too was pretty uneventful reflecting an era where turbulence across the Atlantic was much less pervasive as it is now. Yes, Donald climate change is real, man-made, and when you cross the Atlantic now you’ll feel turbulence, violent turbulence, you didn’t feel as much twenty years ago.

All I remember of that flight was watching a movie, having lunch, and mostly sleeping again. The flight left on time and arrived on time. What I knew of Princess Diana was she was now divorced, and the lady behind me whispering to her partner said something to the effect of “Diana’s probably going to Washington to visit her best friend who’s the wife of some ambassador”. Again, boohoo.

When we arrived in Dulles airport, the pilot came on the intercom and said “Ladies and Gentleman welcome to Washington, we have a celebrity on board and I ask you to wait for the first people mover to escort her first and then yours will follow”. This I remember quite well. Washington Dulles, for those of you that haven’t been, requires you to board a transport bus from the plane to immigration. That bus rises from the ground to airplane door level and this is how passengers disembark. There is usually one or two buses for economy, and a bus shared by business and first class passengers.

When the plane stopped, and the fasten seat belt sign went off, the business class passengers approached the exit door between the first and business class cabins. Princess Diana was escorted to the same door and the other three first class passengers, one of them being myself, stood behind her. I was the passenger directly behind her. When the business class passengers saw Princess Diana there was a wave of excitement. Repeatedly you could hear people saying to each other “look it’s Princess Diana” with a kind of awe I did not expect. Remember, this was twenty two years ago, so there were no smart phones, no built in cameras in the few cell phones that existed at the time, and very few passengers had cameras at the ready to catch the moment.

I remember succinctly that both the CSD and stewardess were in front of Diana waiting for the bus to elevate to the airplane door. I could see it beginning to elevate from the window to my right as well. This would be her ride, and the next bus would be ours. The awe continued, and I then remembered that my sister was big on the royals. So, I figured she might get a real kick out of getting Princess Diana’s autograph.

I proceeded to nudge a little closer to Diana, who I had been sitting across the aisle from for seven hours, smiled and very politely said “Princess Diana, may I have your autograph?”

What happened next took my breath away literally. Diana turned directly towards me and screamed, and by no means is this an exaggeration. Diana screamed at me at the top of her voice and said “how many times do we have to tell you people we don’t give autographs”. Then she abruptly turned away. I was shocked, said nothing, and just stood there. I was thoroughly and totally embarrassed in front of maybe fifty passengers.

The business class cabin, now full of passengers saw it all, and the few people in first just froze. You could hear a pin drop. There wasn’t a sound in either cabin until the airplane door opened and Diana was escorted on to the bus. As Diana boarded the bus, I could see there were people, maybe protocol and security, waiting for her. The door to the bus quickly closed and Diana was whisked away.

As we waited for our bus to follow, I remember the lady behind me saying to her partner “did you see what she did to him?”, the same comment followed in the form of a whisper from another couple in front of me in business class.

The CSD standing right in front of me whispered something to the stewardess and she ran off to the front of the plane. I remember thinking am I in trouble or what? Was security going to appear because I somehow offended the Princess? But, very quickly the stewardess reappeared with a bottle of champagne and she approached me with the CSD in tow.

The stewardess said something to the effect of “sir, we’re so sorry, she was so nice to us on the plane. We don’t know how to apologize so please accept this bottle of champagne as our way of expressing our sincere regrets”. I remember saying that this wasn’t necessary, and that they didn’t do anything wrong. The stewardess and CSD continued to insist, explaining that it was the best champagne they carried, with me explaining that I didn’t drink, but they were so persuasive that I took it anyway. This exchange was being followed avidly by all around me.

A few minutes later, I was on the bus with what felt like everyone pointing at me and whispering. The damn fool who asked for the autograph with the huge champagne bottle in his hand. The bus got to immigration and as the door opened I really wasn’t sure that this was over. I was pretty much ready to explain to security that all I did was ask for her autograph, no I did not tap her on the shoulder, and I absolutely did not encroach on her personal space. With an Egyptian passport you always have to fear the worst.

But, no security wasn’t waiting and I proceeded to find transportation home me and my champagne.

It has been twenty two years since this happened and given that today was the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s passing I felt compelled to relive this story in words. My TV screen yesterday was full of tributes to the People’s Princess and all she had done. But for me, this meant nothing. The People’ Princess referred to me as “you people” and over the years I’ve tried to understand what that actually meant. Who exactly are “you people?” And, given that Diana went on to date an Egyptian, Dodi Fayed, whose half-sister is a very good friend of my sister made the whole event even more perplexing. I remember thinking once that if Diana had married Dodi would my sister and I have eventually met Diana through our mutual family friends? And, if I had met Diana again as Mrs. Fayed, would I have reminded her that I was the “you people” guy she screamed at in front of a plane full of passengers? Oh, I would have had something to say that’s for sure.

The People’s Princess, yeah right.

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