Impossible until it’s done


It was Saturday morning and again a departure was looming. This time I was to fly to London for discussions with counterparts at EBRD. I was agitated, somewhat anxious the way I always am before I travel. Shaving cream, check. Eye drops, check. Noise cancelling headphones, charged. Don’t forget the Advil, I always get a headache when I fly. The trick, take the Ibuprofen before you board and again at the end of the flight, experience is the mother of all rookie mistakes.

Agitated I remained because the office wouldn’t let me fly Air France. Brussels airlines it was going to be. Too much of a price difference they said. Lead by example, I have to, I’m the boss, even if every other person traveling with me seemed to manage to get on Air France. That is except for one person. A dear colleague of many years prior. He, like me, didn’t put up too much of a fight. At least he’d keep me company in what would be a two stop trip.

From Abidjan, Air Brussels would go to Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) to pick up more passengers and off to Belgium thereafter. Three hours in Brussels and off to London for that short hop over the channel. And, I love London. The best Middle Eastern food isn’t in the Middle East, it’s actually in London. Go figure. I could already feel the Baba Ghanoush on the tip of my tongue.

My colleague and I would leave Abidjan together and meet at the Sofitel where I live. A small furnished apartment that I’ve called home for a year and a half now. Watching the time fly by, it’s time to take my bag and head to the lobby. There my colleague was and the driver just outside. Everything like clockwork all the time knowing that I’d be looking at a 2 to 3 hour delay. It always happens.

We arrive at the airport, a one hour delay already announced. The plane was late coming in from Ouaga. What a surprise. Sitting in the lounge, my colleague and I start talking about all the travel and how it’s wearing us down. But, we had a free afternoon on Sunday and I planned to take full advantage of it. On my last trip to Tunisia, two of my suits were ruined. I asked that they be dry cleaned, instead they were washed and ironed. The label said clearly dry clean only and so did I. Go figure. I guess Sunday would be for buying new traveler suits, same brand, same color, same vendor. Can’t go wrong with dark blue and charcoal gray suits.

Finally time to bored, or is the proper spelling board. I’ve lost track. I show my colleague the watch I’m wearing and ask him if it’s time for an upgrade. The watch I was wearing had been knocked around a lot from all my travels. I told him I could sell my watch, an IWC, on Bond Street, and pay the difference and buy a new one. That seemed to interest him and quickly he said he wanted in. Most guys are into watches, the only real man jewelry, so Sunday would be two new suits, and likely a new watch. High street here we come.

We slept through the flight to Brussels having departed just before midnight. We didn’t talk much in our layover, I was half asleep and my colleague partly hung over. We both dragged ourselves to our connecting flight, me on my iPhone, him doing the same. He’d booked a car to pick us up at Heathrow and the immigration line was long as usual. Short for EU passport holders, long for aliens like me. Very long.

The car was where it should be even though we were late. Good man, he waited. A solid tip was in order. In the cab, we both made the same point simultaneously looking out the window, it was cold, gray and rainy. Yup, this was London and it couldn’t be more beautiful. Passing by the British museum, yup I’ve been. Lots of stolen stuff from my country, Egypt, kind of ridiculous that we don’t get part of the proceeds. Ridiculous that so many people go to London to see a mummy. Same thing will happen to you at the Vatican too. Go figure.

We arrive at the hotel. Always the same hotel, always. The Grosvenor House on Park Lane right across from Hyde Park. Now it’s a Marriot, the name has changed three times in 25 years, but the beauty of the place remains the same.

No line for check in, great. My colleague and I approach the receptionist. A dark haired woman whose features were very recognizable to me. My colleague looks at me and says “Romanian”? I said yes. On her name tag was “Doina”, another sure give away. My colleague and I had worked on Romania for close to seven years, and it had become like a second home to us. Amazing country, amazing people.

Doina says “welcome to the Grosvenor House” with a heavy Romanian accent. I said “thank you, Doina”. She seemed surprised and said “you know my name”? Actually, I explained it was on her name tag. She laughed. My colleague tells Doina we’ve been to Romania many times. She seemed surprised. He tells her how beautiful her country is. Doina seemed happy to hear that and proud, very proud. Romanians are very nationalistic with a love of country unparalleled.

The rooms aren’t ready and Doina explains we need to wait until noon. That’s only in an hour. She gives us breakfast vouchers and we agree to go shopping after we put our things in the room and shower. At breakfast, it happened.

My colleague reminded me of the work we had done in Romania from 1997 onwards when we were at the World Bank. How our budget support loan saved Romania from default. How integral we were to their privatization program, and how Romania became the fastest growing economy in Europe thereafter.

But, there was more. My colleague asked me “weren’t you the person working with Government to draft Romania’s EU integration strategy”? I was, and he knew it. His next deduction kind of blew me away. He said “then you’re responsible for Doina”. Me, responsible for Doina? Which Doina, I asked. We’d worked with so many. He said “the receptionist, Khaled, the receptionist”.

He went on to say “wasn’t the EU accession plan for Romania the reason Romanians were allowed to travel and work freely across Europe? Then you’re responsible for Doina, the receptionist, she’s here working at this hotel partly because of you”.

Yes, maybe, but I reminded him it wasn’t just me. I was only one member of a team that had worked very hard on this and no more. He went on to remind me that I was one of the principal drafters of the Romanian EU integration plan which he asked me to reaffirm was true. It was. Then he said it again, “Doina, she’s your responsibility”.

A few minutes later Doina approached our breakfast table to give us our keys. My friend asked her if she liked working at the hotel, if she liked London. Doina said “it’s a great opportunity and I’m learning a lot”. My friend retorted and said to Doina “do you know that you being here has something to do with him”, as he pointed towards me. Doina seemed confused and she smiled and walked away with no further explanation.

My colleague said to me “you should be proud, just imagine how many Romanian’s are better off because of you. Imagine the opportunities you’ve created for so many”. I reminded him again it wasn’t just me, it was principally a government with vision and I was just the World Bank guy who they knew and trusted to be part of a broader team. He went on to say that I needed to stop being so humble, but I’m not humble. I take credit only when it’s due.

He was also talking about something I worked on so long ago. I was a much younger man when I worked on Romania’s EU integration plan and so many years had gone by. I guess I’d forgotten a lot of the things my colleague was reminding me of. And, when the Romanian government asked for my assistance on their EU integration strategy, I’d never done anything like this before, so I guess it holds that every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.

After breakfast, going to the elevator right in front of the reception, Doina saw us again and gave us a big smile. It was then I felt a sense of pride. Yes, maybe I had some small role in her being able to work here, and in helping other Romanians like her. As I looked at Doina from a distance I started to feel that I was looking at the fruits of my labor, the possible results of so many years of hard work. And, Brexit would destroy it all I thought. How unfortunate.

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t shake that sense of pride. I owed myself some new suits then, a new watch too, the fruits of my labor. Nelson Mandela once said “It always seems impossible until it’s done”. I guess with Brexit this needs to be paraphrased to “It always seems impossible until it’s undone”.

When I got to my room, I sat on my bed and pondered again. Was Doina’s opportunity really a small part of something I was involved in creating? It seemed so, and as tired as I was from my travels, I became re-energized. It was amazing to feel that I was part of something that had done so much good for so many. It turns out that comfort is the friend of achievement and maybe dreams of people like Doina don’t work unless a whole bunch of other people do work. If comfort is truly the friend of achievement, then it follows that achievement is the mother of pride. And, what a great feeling it is to feel proud. What a great feeling it is to get reinforcement that you didn’t live a wasted life. Go figure.

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