Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Goldring Travel's Sardinian Experence at the FIAVET Conference: "When in Sardinia..."

As I sit at Hotel Forty Seven in Rome, Italy, I am still trying to figure out the best way to describe my time at the FIAVET (the Federation of Italian Tourism) Conference? Not surprisingly, all I can think of is it was “a very Italian…not touristic Italian…experience”. It has was filled with hospitality, lack of hospitality, poor planning, decent to excellent food (and lots of it), free-flowing Sardinian wine, frustration and, in the end, I met some of the nicest people, may well gain some significant business, and learned to “travel” just that much better.

As you read this you must understand (gee, I think I am writing in “Italian”) that Italians truly have a “Live in the moment” lifestyle or, as Alfred E. Newman (of Madd Magazine fame) would say, “What? Me worry?” As such, there is a definite period of adjustment: American to Italian lifestyle and Italian to an American who is not insisting on being American. You will see what I mean.

I arrived in Cagliari, Sardinia on Friday because I was to speak at a major roundtable discussion of how to be competitive in today’s Italian travel market the next day. Because of flight schedules I arrived late in the Sardinian morning and was promptly greeted by a driver in a new Chrysler 300M sedan; not the Italian welcome I had expected for a truly Italian – not a tourist - event. I ask the driver how long to the Chia Laguna Resort where I will be staying. He says 15 minutes, but after 10 minutes I see a sign that says, “Chia Laguna 45 km”, so he obviously meant 50 minutes.

During my drive I quickly drove past Cagliari which, to be honest, was not very impressive, but appeared to be a city in decline. It was not in terrible shape, but rather just ordinary and empty. The scenery on my right was very pretty with mountains, wildflowers and dozens of pink flamingos (that weren’t very pink due to their diet obviously lacking carotene). On my left: the sea and oil refineries, cheap “hotels” and dozens of “ristorante tipico”.

I eventually arrive at the Chia Laguna Resort…and was left to carry my bags up the stairs into the lobby. I was told I was not staying there, but rather at the “5 Star” Hotel and the porter would take my bags. I was also given a telephone number to call if I needed anything. Off I went…walking up the hill to the Hotel…where my room was not ready, though the hotel was anything but crowded. I am told it will be ready “soon” which turns into a 2.5 hour wait.

In the meantime I ask if my lunch was included and where do I eat. I am directed to a restaurant; a buffet style with large tables; some of which have signs “FIAVET” with complimentary wine. I go to the buffet and see they have two beautiful, large, groupers covered in cherry tomatoes (a specialty of Sardinia I learn) and oils with a wonderful Sardinian olive oil-based sauce. I am happy…right up until a child bumps into me and the fishy-oily sauce goes all over my pants.

I re-group(er)...sorry…and as pretty much the only person who speaks English that I have found…enjoyed my meal taking as much time as possible in the hopes that my room will be ready so I can have a lie-down after my long flights. It worked. Only a “mere” 30 minutes after I finished lunch my room is ready…and I am now compliantly working on an Italian schedule. My room is actually quite large, nicely appointed with a large bathroom (Acqua di Parma toiletries), seating area and a huge balcony filled with flowers a table and chairs, sofa and loungers. BUT…and it is that kind of trip…the air conditioning is broken, there is only internet in the lobby (“But it is free!!) and a single English speaking television station (BBCW).

I venture down for a glass of wine and some internet before dinner. When I arrive at what I still do not know is the only restaurant I hear a Scottish voice. It is John Downes, a fellow member of IFTTA (International Forum of Travel and Tourism Advocates). He is sitting with Michael Tanti-Dougall, a third attorney, from Malta. They are old friends and warmly greet me and make me feel welcome. For the next days it is “us”.

Lunch was a feast of pork products (typical, as they say, of Sardinia): sausages, chops, hams, etc. followed by some wonderful grilled whole sea bass. And, of course, there was the pasta station. Two types of pasta at every meal; made in huge batches as you waited. (Note: Spaghetti in tomato sauce was by far the favorite over my time here, so don’t think it is an American thing and you need to order esoteric menu items to be truly Italian.)

During lunch – not being Italian! - we immediately jump into what we are going to specifically speak about, what order we should go in, how we will address the language barrier (Michael is the only one of us fluent in Italian) and then quickly start a friendly legal debate on various issues ranging from John’s work drafting tourism legislation in Zanzibar to whether my selling to European Union clients creates legal issues, to developing the superyacht refit business in Malta, to let’s have another bottle of wine…OK, just one more bottle.

That evening we met a few nice couples… which we determined after one husband and one girlfriend in the group acted as our interpreters. As the evening went on the Italian became as prevalent as the wine and the English became a tri-country debate (Scotland, Malta and U.S.) about everything from IFTTA gaining United Nations recognition to marrying the concept of effective legislation in Africa to the known existence of “TIA” (This is Africa…so whatever happens happens), to why the heck isn’t there anything to do here other than eat and go to the beach/pool.

As our talk is not until 3:00 p.m. the next day we meet for breakfast, have a nice chat, do some work, have a nice lunch (huge grilled prawns), have a chat…and then are told the conference is running behind schedule so we will convene at 3:30 p.m. No problem. It is not like we are going anywhere…because there is nowhere to go! (Fortunately, my air conditioning is now working.)

Michael takes the time to arrange a tour for the two of us the next day, as John was flying out in the morning.

We arrive at the Congress at 3:15 p.m. in suit and tie, well prepared and ready to go. The room, rather than having a table for us to sit behind has a number of chairs in a semi-circle...We are not the only ones speaking any more, so they had to make room. John gets ready to present and just before he does we are told they don’t have his PowerPoint presentation and because they combined presentations we have only 10 minutes each to give our presentations. But, we are promised, there will be plenty of time for questions and debate.

My presentation, PowerPoint included, went really well and afterwards I received quite a few compliments…But there was no time for questions or debate. Huh? But what was important for me is that my message did come across and my “American” approach was both eye-opening and well received. Sometimes less is more.

Yet, the three of us were “What the heck just happened?” What happened was that we were really in Italy. Italian Italy. A schedule is a general concept. A plan is a mere thought. I mean, seriously, what was really the difference? We made our points. The attendees like what they heard. Basta. (Enough. Finished.) (And we three said, “The European Union just paid this guy Eric Goldring’s airfare plus hotel and food to give a 10 minute presentation. Either he is really good or…”

Afterwards we had a drink and caught upon emails before attending a typical Sardinian dinner. It was a port-fest with literally dozens of piglets cooked over an open flame. I am very confident that my pork fat intake was at an all time high…but it was sooooo good.

As we ate dinner and into the night we had a great laugh looking at the various older Italian men with their younger (sometimes Russian, sometimes not so attractive) girlfriends. In Italy it is very “normal”, but to us it all seems so ridiculous and unseemly that we were very happy to be in good relationships and not be one of “those guys”…even if that Russian girl had fantastic 6 foot legs, she ate without much elegance.

The next morning John had left for Scotland and Michael and I were up, had breakfast and were ready for our tour. You remember: The one that he arranged with the Conference organizers. Well, it seems, the tour is “impossible” as it is Sunday. But we could for 100€ each way take a taxi to Cagliari to visit the Sunday market (everything else would be closed). So we asked what else we could do and were told: beach or pool. That’s it…so we got a couple of bottles of wine and discussed the superyacht business issues for Malta and, of course, drank the wine!

By the afternoon Chia Laguna Lodge became, to us, “a prison”: Absolutely nothing to do other than go to the beach and we were many miles from anywhere. So we had lunch, did some work and then met for dinner. Black ink risotto was good, but the Sardinian wines are really starting to wreak havoc with my palate.

After dinner we go to this large open area where we hear music, but it was a lone girl singing 1960’s American songs with a bad accent. Our prison now has become – jovially said - corporeal punishment. But, alas, there was some good entertainment…for me at least. At the table next to us is an elderly Italian man having an argument with his younger (and not terribly good looking) “girlfriend” who is begging him for more of a relationship. After a few minutes, it was time to extract ourselves from that train wreck and adjourn to our balconies for a last glass of marginal wine since Michael had an early departure.

I awoke on my final day to a totally different world. Apparently, a busload of British package tour families had arrived for their holiday. I was very tempted to take the one tour offered just to get away, but when I found out it was a 2 ½ hour bus ride each way just to see some ruins I gave it a miss. It was, for me, off to the beach because, alas, the beach is truly the only thing (other than pork) that Sardinia is famous for. I see two people that I had eaten with, had been very nice and, since she speaks some English, we chat as we go to the beach and I am made to feel welcome.

But, and isn’t there always one, the “train” (resort shuttle) to the beach is broken! So we are told to get in a van…but that is broken too. Third time lucky, the next van works and we are off to the beach across the road.

The water and rocky outcrops are pretty, but are obscured by the rows and rows of umbrellas and loungers and the sound of the waves lapping on the shoreline is drowned out by some of the most obnoxious English children whose parents could care less that there is an entire beach for them to play on, but they chose to do so right amongst all the adults trying to relax. After an hour and a half I gave up and went back to the hotel; truly fed up.

So I went to lunch and my “friends” and their friends (who have also been very nice to me – though not so fluent in English) sit with me. But then something happens: Everyone starts to try and speak English with me! It seems that as I become more of a friend, they become less shy about trying out the English they haven’t used in years. One man, an attorney named Antonio, really opens up and we have a wonderful discussion. He “arranges” for the others to take care of me that evening as he is flying back to Rome for a trial, but promises to be in touch.

That evening was the Gala Dinner. At this point I am waffling as to go or not. I decide to go. I sit with my friends and discover that they are the most important people at the Conference! The quiet, extremely well dressed, and extraordinarily polite gentleman is the President of FIAVET! We eventually wander off a bit ourselves and his English is getting better and better and business ideas, differences in approach, and opportunities are discussed. His partner was the woman who spoke English with me as I went to the beach. I discover she has a fascinating history and she and I discuss different views on expanding tourism into and out of China. Others at the table were also the ones to know. It was a lovely evening and by itself made my trip to Sardinia worth it.

How was it worth it? In the past I have been the one making things happen; be it the refitting of a superyacht or organizing a tour. I dealt with the frustrations of being an American in Italy “needing” to get things done. In the present, I was “forced” to do things the Italian way and, in the end, I found my frustrations were a waste of time. By quietly doing it the Italian way I was welcomed, I accomplished more than I had anticipated, and I was the recipient of true, not packaged, Italian hospitality.

I flew to Rome in the morning and by the time I reach Hotel Forty Seven there is an email from Antonio making good on his offer to be available if I need anything…but not just in case of an emergency. His trial went well and, with true Italian hospitality, he emails me the name of a wine bar nearby (and some suggested wines) as well as some places I should visit.

It is, alas, just a bit more growth in my philosophy that travel is not about seeing things, but of appreciating the culture and people of where you visit. My 2.5 hour wait for my room, my 10 minute presentation and my “prison” not only seem just so irrelevant now, my frustration/disappointment seems like such a waste of time.

Possibly the next time you spend hours complaining at the front desk you might want to consider what you might be missing in the present because you are spending so much time concerned over the past. It is not a matter of making lemonade out of lemons, but not worrying about the lemons as you find that you just might be standing in a strawberry field and not realize it! Note: I do not suggest that you or I should take on the Italian way of life, but rather – as they do say – “When in Rome…”