Back in the days when dinosaurs weren’t invented, I did a fair bit of organising scientific and medical conferences. They’re dammed hard work, because keeping a load of boffins and quacks under control is a bit like herding cats. They’re worse than children, honestly they are.
The most taxing was one I had to organise at arm’s length. Arms’ width, actually. My client was in New York, and the venue was in Florence.
Firstly there was the problem of time differences. New York is five hours behind London (chronologically but a lot more culturally) and Florence is one hour ahead. Six hours in all, with bollockbrain me in the middle. NY typically starts work at 7:00 AM, which is 1:00 PM in Firenze. Thus the client began work while the venue was in the middle of the mandatory three hour lunch.
Secondly, and I mean this with no real disrespect, the Italians do not excel at early starts. I’d come on stream at 9:00 AM my time, 10:00 AM their time, and nobody, but nobody was in the office in Italy until at least half an hour later, say 10:30. This gave a window of opportunity of about 1½ hours before the lunch break. When the Italians finally meandered back from lunch, it was 5:00 PM in London, and in theory time for me to knock off. I couldn’t of course, since the New Yorkers were in a state of near apoplexy because they were ready to rock and roll, there was no way of raising the Italians, and it was all my fault. Clearly it was my fault. No doubt about it. All my clients sounded as if they had been brought up in the mean streets of Brooklyn. Getting a bollocking off them was like copping a rocket off Sonny Corleone or one of the Sopranos.
Thirdly, even when you could get hold of the Florence Connection, things didn’t happen very fast at all. The Italian pace of life, even in the big cities, is more akin to that of a glacier than the frenetic Big Apple way of doing things. It takes forever and a day to order a bunch of flowers, nine years or so to get signs printed with a dozen speakers’ names on them. As for arranging a PA system, I’d been reincarnated by the time I got that sorted out.
I do not mean to imply that the Italians are lackadaisical, or lazy. They aren’t. They are fatalistic. Since the end of WWII they have had more governments than years. You can’t blame them for thinking, ‘Oh well. That’s what they want today. Tomorrow? Who knows?’ This laissez faire attitude infuriates Americans.
One of the problems is that to get to speak to anyone in a position of power in Italy you need to go through several layers of bureaucratic lackeys. This in itself isn’t all a bad thing, because every head honcho has a final guardian at the gates who is his secretary, and this being Italy, he has chosen a woman as his helpmeet.
On the phone, all Italian women sound as if they’re lounging about in bed in a state of tousle-haired post-coital shock. Here’s how it goes when you try to call somebody important.
Brrr. Brrr. Brr. Brr. Brr. Click.
‘Prrrrrooooontoooo?’ they drawl.
‘Buongiorno Gabriella. Signor Calzone, per favore.’
‘Aaaaaahhhh. Signor Dooonnnncccaaannn. Buongiiiiiornoooo. Siiiiiii. He issa no heeeeere. Heee issat luunnnccchhh. Scusi. Aaaaahhhh.’
‘Grazie, Gabriella. Tante grazie.’
‘Prrreeeeeggggoooo…… an yooooorrr Eeeengliiiish voyusssss. Issaa bellllaaaa Aaaaahhh’
There is no point at all in leaving a message. Bloody hopeless.
Just to complicate matters, I had to organise a hospitality suite for the client. All the big pharma companies would be doing the same, so we had to think of something to draw the punters, and for reasons I can’t remember we decided it would be a really f***** good idea to have a robot that would move around the room and chat up the women medicos. I am serious. We decided it would be a good idea. A robot chatting up women.
I know, I know, but this was Italy in the early 1980s. Needless to say, it wasn’t a true robot. It was controlled remotely by a geezer behind some screens. The way it ‘talked’ was that in the crowd near the haplessly delighted female was a guy with an earpiece and a mike in the cuff of his shirt. At the time, the Red Brigades or some other bunch of swivel-eyed loonies were very active, so nobody batted an eyelid at someone looking like a security guard whispering into his sleeve. Even though security guards do not in general go in much for lines such as ‘Ti amo, cara mia,’ when acting as a voice for a completely fake robot that has just spotted a hot woman brain surgeon who worryingly fell for the whole ruse hook, line, and sinker.
Oh, and if she was totally smoking hot, the robot would ask her to dance. Highly intelligent grown up women were more than willing to stand on a robot’s feet (which concealed powered rollers for movement), clasp said robot with Italianate fervour, and be waltzed around the room.
Believe it or not the robot was very popular, though getting that project off the ground was a logistical nightmare, as you may well imagine.
I mentioned the date, the early 1980s. Well guess what? There was no email in those days. Since I could never get hold of the Italians at the same time I could speak to the Yanks, I did nearly all the organisation by telex. You may need to ask your grandparents what a telex was. It’s not the fastest means of communication. More delays. I aged about 100 years in three months.
I’ll just mention the post-conference banquet at the Villa Antinori. I may come back to it at some point. Right now the memory is too painful.