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Here’s a tale from nearly 40 years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties. As well as being younger, I was also quite a bit slimmer, but apart from that I was more or less as I am now. One thing that was different though, was I was nowhere near as worldly wise as I am today. The tale is about my first foreign business trip, and whilst it was only to northern Italy, it still turned out to be quite an adventure.

The company I worked for at the time, specialised in water treatment equipment. It was based in Tonbridge and there were two different sides to the business; both involving water treatment. Effectively these two sides were different divisions because whilst the firm had been formed by the merger of two different companies, the powers that be never really got around to properly integrating the two businesses.

One half of the company was very much engineering based and manufactured chlorination equipment for both water treatment works and swimming pools. The other more industrial, but less glamorous division produced ceramic water filters. These were primarily sold in emerging markets, because they provided a cheap but effective way of removing bacteria from drinking water.

It was rather like the early days at British Airways which, after being formed by a merger of BEA (British European Airways) and BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), still had employees identifying with whichever of the two constituent companies they had originated from.

I was employed as Company Chemist and worked primarily on a lucrative seawater desalination kit which we produced on behalf of the MOD, but on occasion my knowledge and expertise, were sometimes called on by one or both of the two main divisions.

This was how I ended up being asked to accompany the filter division’s Head of Sales on a trip to Italy, to conduct some field tests on a recently installed water filter unit. The latter had been fitted at a railway crossing keeper’s hut in a remote location. The Italian State Railways were keen to install such units at other isolated parts of the network, in order to ensure a safe supply of potable water for their employees, but they wanted some form of reassurance that the filters were effective in the field, and that is where I stepped in.

I was quite excited, but also a little nervous, as the trip to Milan involved my first ever commercial flight. I’d been up in a couple of light aircraft, prior to this, but the world of airports and jet airliners was a new one to me.

I left the company to make all the arrangements, there were secretaries who organised those sort of things back in the mid-80’s, so apart from packing my suitcase and making sure my passport was up to date, all I had to do was turn up and present myself at Heathrow Airport, on the allotted day.

I’ve a strong feeling it was a Sunday, and I’d arranged to meet my colleague in the departure lounge at Heathrow. We’d be leaving from one of the older terminals, 2 or possibly 3, so after a journey to the far end of the Piccadilly Line, I arrived at the airport in plenty of time.

Source: McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Before going further, a word or two about my travelling companion. He was at least twice my age, and a real “old school” salesman. Because of this age difference, he’s almost certainly no longer with us, but even so I won’t use his real name. I instead we’ll call him Ed. He was a real genuine nice guy, and a proper gentleman as well.

I’m also sure that because of the age difference he adopted a fatherly attitude to me. Because of the age difference he might not have been someone I would normally have spent much time with, but he certainly had a good collection of traveller’s tales to tell of his experiences as a salesman in many different parts of the world.

These attributes aside, when I spotted him that afternoon at the airport, I nearly died of embarrassment. Ed was dressed in a safari suit (remember them?), but thankfully minus the shorts. Even so I found it hard to believe, especially as we were going to northern Italy, rather than darkest Africa! What's even more disconcerting, is the fact that Milan is one of the world's top centres of the fashion industry.

What I did next, was rather childish, but as I said I was only in my mid-twenties. I’d spotted Ed from an upper floor balcony, where I’d been enjoying a cup of coffee. He was standing there on the lower floor looking around and obviously trying to spot me. I decided to remain out of sight and let him sweat a bit. I left things almost until the last moment, when I could see my travelling companion looking anxiously at this watch.

Eventually I decided I’d better show my face, so I descended the stairs and nonchalantly approached my colleague. I made up a story about a delay on the Underground, before we marched off to check in our bags and board the plane. There was little in the way of security back then, but I do remember the seat allocation process. My colleague was a smoker, and a heavy one at that, and back in the day they amazingly allowed nicotine addicts to smoke on aircraft.

He was on his own there, as I had no desire to sit next to a heavy smoker or even in a section of the aircraft that was full of the fug of cigarette smoke. My companion seemed disappointed, but tough. We boarded, the aircraft and found our respective seats. The plane taxied to the end of the runway ready for take-off, and a short while later we were airborne.

Some sort of a meal was served on the plane along with a drink. We were flying BA, so I was rather annoyed to be offered a can of Heineken. Surely British Airways should be offering something more local? British Rail at the time, served Ruddles County in their buffet cars , so why couldn’t the national carrier do something similar?

The flight was smooth and uneventful until we crossed the Alps, and it was then that we ran into a thunderstorm. Things got a bit bumpy after that as the aircraft was buffeted by the storm. It was getting dark as we began our descent, and periodic flashes of lightning were lighting up the cabin, when the captain’s voice came over the tannoy. He announced that due to the adverse weather conditions, we would be diverting to Milan Linate, rather than the much larger Malpensa, which is the main airportMilan.

Despite this drama, we landed without incident, but than came the fun bit of finding our way into the centre of Milan and locating our hotel. Because of the diversion to our flight, the airport authorities had laid on coaches to transport the diverted flights into the city but being Italy, this was not without its share of chaos and confusion.

I allowed my seasoned traveling companion to sort out which coach we needed to board, and from memory we were dropped off at Milan’s main bus station, where we were able to take a taxi to our hotel.There’s not much to say about the latter. It was pleasant enough and served a decent continental breakfast, but there was one drawback which was Ed and I had to share a room!

This was because a large trade fair was taking place in Milan at the time of our visit, one of several that occur throughout the year, and consequently, hotel rooms were at a premium. It wasn’t quite as easy to check this sort of thing in pre-internet days, but our locally based sales agent, who would be looking after us for the duration of our stay, should have known. But perhaps not, given the laid-back, easy going nature of this sharply dressed, smooth talking Italian gentleman.

We’ll be meeting him in the next installment, so I’ll end the narrative here for the time being, and then continue next time.

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