Wherever you go, there you are. It doesn't matter how far you fly, how many time zones you traverse, how odd the stated agenda or proposed workflow, the land of business is the same the world over.
The same gentlemen strutting around in suits whose quality bespeaks their level of power. The same little shoulder bags filled with orientation material. The same attempt to wring joy from the everyday work that must be done. The same white wine. The same canapes -- although in this case I will say that the pistachio puffs were a new experience. The same jitters around speech time. The same bonhomie afterwards. The same feeling that rises in a room where alcohol and long associations mix. The same sense of content being stuffed into a carapace of form. The same business life, in short.
After a period of ice cold shivering that always attends a plunge into a new pool, you warm up almost immediately. Ah, you think. This is just swimming again. I know how to do this.
I will report to you that I believe it is FAR more pleasant to have visited Europe after the election of Barack Obama than it is before. There are two headlines that leapt out at me from the vast newstands covered with Obamamania of one sort or another. One was from a British paper, and simply said: "THANKS, YANKS." The other was also in English, but looked local. It said: "Welcome back, America." During the conference, at which there were but two other Americans among a crowd of some 1,500, a number of folks came up to me and congratulated me on our new president. The only one who expressed serious reservations, quite interestingly, I think, was a pleasant, very thin, very gray Russian fellow. Shades of the Cold War. I don't think they like us very much. Again.
The picture you see at the top of this little report is the hall in which I gave my speech. It's called the
Palazzo Dei Congressi
and it was built by Benito Mussolini in the mid-1930s as part of a great exposition he wanted to hold in 1942 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of fascism. The area is called E.U.R., and it's a little distance outside of Rome proper and a world away.
Wherever else you walk in the Eternal City, the architecture makes you feel more human, more in touch with other people, their appetites, desires, enthusiasms and beliefs. Even when you are dwarfed by a size of things, as one is at St. Peter's, for instance, you are seized by an admiration for the things humanity can accomplish over time, and the power of beauty to last beyond the petty cruelties, fads and idiocies of any given era.
In Mussolini's E.U.R., you feel precisely the opposite. The buildings rear up, huge, white, implacable, and each person scuttling beneath and between them seems meek, tiny, insignificant in the shadow of the State. The plazas stretch out, unarticulated blank spaces spread between gigantic avenues impassable to any pedestrian who dares to disobey the precisely-timed traffic lights. There are enormous museums there that nobody attends, they are simply in too inhospitable and cold a setting. There is something they call "the square Coliseum" and many other government buildings dedicated to Labor, Health, Public Safety.
The night after I spoke, as we walked to the cab stand through the weird, glowing landscape, a small group of merry Romans found their way into a corner restaurant that was tucked into the ground floor of a towering edifice near the main drag. It had the red checked tablecloths, the mandatory bottles of red wine on every table ... but it had all the authenticity of a Bennigan's stuffed into the anchor store of your local super mall.
And then it hit me. This was what the architects who served Il Duce had done, and it was no mean feat. They had created the first urban mall, and pointed the way to a future that is far more representative of the world we know today than the all alleys, byways, cathedrals and bistros of the ancient city that gave it birth.
My speech went very well, by the way. I got a bunch of business cards afterwards and intend to stay in touch with quite a few of the nice people I met there. On the way out of town to the airport, we did get into a traffic jam -- the first I had experienced since arriving in Rome. It was about a mile of tiny cars lined up impatiently, each filled with a business person or two waiting to get to the office in the area most congenial to what we do -- E.U.R.
To read more from Fortune's Stanley Bing, please click here.