Monday, March 12, 2007

Planes, a train, and a caravan of automobiles

So while I was steaming in the ticket line wondering if I'd get on the plane, my fellow travelers were queueing up to check in. See that: queueing. I've been in Europe three days and I'm already picking up lingo. ;-)

That's Carrie from Chicago in the pink coat. It took me another day to get all 16 names locked in. But the women's were easy: there are only six of us. From there, we all reconvened at the wine bar where a flight delay gave us more time to get acquainted.

That's Kwanza, a city councilmember/business development director from Atlanta, and Tracy, an attorney from Cleveland, plus me in the background.

I didn't get a picture, but minutes later, I had the first of many interesting conversations on this trip with a man from Belgium with whom I shared a table. He asked about out talkative bunch and I told him about the program. His bio is a perfect example of how globalization works and the lessons we'll be learning on this trip about Europe, the U.S. and their complex and intertwined roles in the world. I learned my tablemate is in sales for a company that makes polymers and resins used in manufacturing and mining processes, so he travels all over the world meeting with clients. He was headed home from Singapore for a short break before heading back out to Australia and Hong Kong. But the company he works for is not based in some exotic or European locale - it's in Ohio!

He graciously answered my questions and discussed the European Union, its changing demographics, the questions from existing EU countries about expansion to other far Eastern European nations and what that can mean for the European economy and labor market (and eventually the U.S. economy), the upcoming French elections, European attitudes towards the U.S. (more anger towards Bush and his administration's policies and isolationist approach on the world stage than any bad feelings towards Americans themselves, a response we would hear repeated in the days to come), and several other riveting topics.

It was so refreshing to discuss actual ideas and issues that will likely affect U.S. and European relations and lives in the coming months and years! And guess what? Not once did Anna Nicole or Paris Hilton come up. Try that litmus test with 20 minutes of local or national news. :-)

At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his time and he gave me a card and said I could call when we returned to Belgium at the end of our trip and if we were interested and he was not traveling, he could take our group on a tour of Brussels. How nice is that?! I'm not sure our schedule will allow time, but I will at least e-mail him when we pass through and thank him again for starting my trip off on an informative and thought-provoking note.

Nine or so hours later, we landed in Brussels and met Daniela, our GMF contact (that's her standing up), who helped us hop a bullet train to Paris, about an hour and 15 minutes away, followed by the caravan of taxis to our hotel, as mentioned in the title of this post.

What you can't tell from the jet lagged, smiling faces is how fun, smart, and accomplished all these folks are. Next to me in that picture is Ellen from NYC who does affordable home lending for a major bank. On the right is Hussein from Minneapolis, who is the founder and executive director of the African Development Center, a non-profit agency there that helps recent immigrants establish businesses.

Behind him is Chad from D.C. who is a VP for an innovation think tank. In the other picture next to Chad is Shyam, a corporate attorney from Atlanta who ran for State Secretary last year. Across the aisle is Tom, a state legislator from South Dakota, who's next to Sam, a North Carolinian who handles new media for a broadcaster there. He's blogging about the trip too. You can read his posts on the WRAL website.

I'll post more later, but we are off on a great journey that is already expanding my mind and exposing me to new ideas - some from residents of our host country, others from fellow travelers. I'll post more next time about the fascinating discussions at our lunch and dinner meetings. The eye-openers just keep on coming. :-) More later!