You Don’t Want It, Monsieur; It Wants You.

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

No longer permitted business-class air travel, even to Australia, India or a morning client meeting after an overnight flight to Europe. Since the 2008 financial crisis, employees have had to absorb ever more of our own business-related expenses. We pay for our own Internet access from home; our mobile phone allowances are capped. The company suspended the Thanks Award program where an employee could grant a nominally valued gift to a fellow employee. Instead, we can send e-cards.

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I had a premonition of what would be because I played tennis in 2002-2004 with a veteran employee. He began in the heyday of the mainframe when Miss Connecticut, the beauty pageant winner, was automatically offered the receptionist job at the branch office in Hartford. This afforded last year’s Pageant winner a promotion to Assistant Marketing Manager. Don Draper would understand. As my tennis pal plotted carefully his retirement, “seven years and counting” (at that time, I wondered who worked anywhere for 7 years), he offered me some poignant career advice: “I never argue with women managers; I never argue with accountants; and I never, ever argue with a female accountant.”

Early in 2008, I travelled to Belgium to meet with the executives of a Brussels-based bank who wanted to spread the aura of innovation from their personal offices down the halls and around the building to those eager to think for themselves. I visited in June for two workshops. My first meeting was in their executive building, 11th floor, manned by two women attired in the blue company uniforms complete with Hermes scarves. The walls hung recognizable art; it was the largest office space I’d ever seen for so few occupants. I learned that these guys were the bank of record for a European government agency. After the bust later that October, the government rescued the bank, sold the art work and co-located all of the employees, except for these executives as they were no longer employees.

June weather in Belgium can be warm; absent air-conditioning, it can be hot. After the bank briefings and before spending the next week in London, I toured Brussels. The food is delicious, the architecture is interesting and there are battlefield monuments nearby ranging from Waterloo to Bastogne.

On a Sunday, I meandered about the the Grand Place in search of simple souvenirs that I could afford. At the chocolate boutique, I asked if the milk chocolate pralines would travel well. “Of course, sir” was the reply. “If you will keep them in the packaging on the floor of your car, they should be fine when you arrive at your hotel.” I asked, “how about the flight back to America?” Heathen-alert! I received the retail store version of the Terminator’s stare whenever they conclude that you don’t have what it takes to either appreciate or afford their goods. “Non, Monsieur.” End of pitch, conversation, dialogue and meeting. Au Revoir, Monsieur Mars Bar.

I am compelled to return with souvenirs when I am away from home for more than a few days. I feel that this helps to include the family in the journey and procures a measure of good will for the next extended trip. Although I do notice that the days of my departures are met with upbeat, hearty well-wishes from my son and wife as they make a list of places where they plan to eat-out in my absence.

Amidst the stone buildings and sea of outdoor cafes in the Old Town, I spotted a jewelry shop on a rounded corner of sturdy fortress-like building. I’m willing to buy dishes, linen, coats and even shoes for my wife. Jewelry is out of my comfort zone as I’m not confident that I understand the relationship between price and quality. I fall prey to the shiny object syndrome and am unsure of neck length, ear lobe size, width of brow, subtle eye color when queried by the sales clerk. I usually say, “she likes blue and green. Gold is good, too.” Then I ask for directions to the shoe department.

The windows of this particular jewerly shop, aka boutique, were decorated, as these upscale sort all are with the the tasteful, overt message that EU Ministers, Foxcom Moguls and Kim Kardashian welcomed.

The door was ajar. I peeked in to see a handsome woman; a small, rotating fan; and a bottle of champagne. Immediately, she beckoned me with a sincere wave and an entreaty to enter. “Entrez Vous, Monsieur, Entrez Vous.” As I ventured across the threshold, she switched to English because she recognized immediately Mr. Hershey Kisses.

She apologized for the warm air in the shop explaining that the air conditioning unit was ‘out of function.’ “Please join me in a glass of champagne” – the bottle in silver bucket on the counter. I guess that she was in her mid-50s, dressed as someone who not only purveys jewelry but also knows how to wear the rocks too. I am not sure about other men on the road, but I’m easy prey when afar for a glass of champagne, decolletage with a french accent, in a spot where Lady Gaga might stop-by.

One has to pass the time when sipping fine wine. Madame showed me a few baubles, asked me a few questions, slid open a couple of concealed drawers, re-filled my glass. She introduced me to her friend of the same profile who dropped-by to complain of the heat – maybe she was summoned by a we’ve-got-one-on-the-hook button beneath the counter. They asked about my wife’s interests and qualities. Is she tall? Does she have fair skin? How does she dress?

The more they spoke, the more I realized that women have many facets. Or it could have been the 2:30 pm champagne buzz. At any rate, it was revealed to me by my new BFFs (Belgium Friends Forever) that the purchase of a bracelet designed in Austria would restore to my marriage an element of joy and mystery that I did not even realize was either relevant or missing.

I felt like a Beaux-Arts dandy amidst their well wishes of Au Revoir, Bon Voyage, Merci with hands waving their golden bracelets. Yep, got the cheek kisses before I left, too.

The lacquered, outsized shopping bag with the gold threaded, blue crinoline ribbons was probably worth more than most of the other downmarket souvenirs that I’d purchased on prior adventures. I still have the branded, telescopic pen that Madame gave to me after I signed the credit card statement impressing my investment with the gravity of an international treaty ceremony.

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There are ways to save money and there are ways to make money. What Madame understood is that the best way to turn a few Euros is to have the customer feel as though he is part of a singular, lifetime achievement. I didn’t buy an expensive bracelet in Brussels; my wife possesses a souvenir of an experience that I never want to forgot. A Votre Sante’.