Unlike in a more traditional restaurant setting where you have only a few returning customers to establish a relationship with, my hotel this summer catered to a more corporate crowd – the sort of business travelers who are here to stay for weeks at a time. Thus, three breakfasts into the first week and you already know who eats the Denver omelet, who opts for the cold breakfast option, and who’s most likely to crack a corny joke (“Good morning, Miss America!” etc). Whether it was the group of forty military men from Florida I got to know my first two weeks on the job or the individual travelers who returned throughout the summer, I loved feeling my familiarity with the hotel’s key client base grow.
What also grew steadily throughout the summer was my collection of business cards I’ve held onto since the Italian restaurant in Wellington, little squares of paper that represent a larger web of connection. It’s the funniest thing when one minute, you’re both laughing about the spot of bolognese on their suit jacket and the next minute they’re handing you a card that reads CEO or president or director – certainly a humbling moment. Cards from this summer were again diverse – from the president of a technology company from Kentucky (“Land Between the Lakes, KY Lake and Lake Barkley – Please write about us!” reads a note on the back of the card), a PhD-holding research member from a Pentagon-based institute in northern Virginia, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force nicknamed “Sparky” who did his very best to recruit me, and – my favorite – a French Canadian couple who owns a McDonald’s in Montreal. And yes, the business card is an enticing picture of a BigMac that just so happens to entitle me to savourez gratuitement (“enjoy free”).
But none can compare to the group of about ten or twelve men who arrived at the end of July on behalf of a large government contracting company. With a five-week stay ahead of them, I got to know them better than any other – if not their names, at least their personalities and breakfast preferences. The second week in, they all came down for breakfast early Monday morning wearing the same royal blue shirt, the logo of the company they represent embroidered over the front pocket. They’d be heading over to JFCOM that day – the US military’s Joint Forces Command Center – and apparently, they needed to look the part. We had a good laugh about their new resemblance to the Blue Man Group, although I thought they seemed more like a flock of school children on a field trip, sitting there eating their yogurts and bacon in matching blue. “How’d I miss the memo?” I lamented laughably, “I feel so left out in my black.” They assured me there were extras in the car.
I got used to seeing their contingent of blue in the dining room every morning, but soon enough five weeks had come and gone and it was time to wish them farewell. At the end of the fifth week, I was to have the weekend off so I made a point of thanking several of them for a great few weeks, making a fuss over their looming departure. A few minutes later, two of my favorites walked back into the hotel, carrying a plastic-wrapped folded blue shirt, no less.
“For me?” I asked.
“You are now an honorary member of our company,” a man named Rick said, handing me the shirt. “You have to wear this with pride, you know. It’s not the kind of thing you do the laundry in.”
“Take it to London with you,” the other man instructed.
Of course, I assured them. Part of me was exaggerating, but part of me was incredibly touched. I’ll never see them again, that much is for sure, but I was struck again by the power of connection, no matter how temporary.
I walked home that day – all seven minutes of it – feeling like all is right in the world, like every stage of my life matters, whether I’m roadtripping around New Zealand or staying put in my own backyard for the summer. That afternoon I started to pack for London, dragging out my old duffel bag and oversized backpack, laying out twice the amount of clothes I actually have room for. Space is limited and there’s much that won’t make the cut, but I’m tempted to tuck that bright blue shirt in there somewhere as a reminder of all those wishing me well.
After all, you never know when you’ll need an oversized button-down the color of a blueberry.