Thursday, March 26, 2009

Barefoot Ambassadors -- Keepin' It Real (Spring Break '09)

My son and I found ourselves barefoot and looking for some free WiFi in our DC hotel last week. We landed in the business center, located in the lower lobby, a full floor beneath the elegant and crowded main lobby, where people wore shoes and chatted and conducted business and were all D.C.-like.

Our entire family had walked no fewer than 14 miles that day. Some of those miles formed a complete circle around a city block that, some of us knew, was leading us nowhere, but one of us wouldn't admit that it might be time to ask for directions before we all got so dizzy from going 'round and 'round.

When we returned to the hotel after what is now known as The Hard Rock Walk-a-thon, we limped off the elevator and down the hallway toward our room. "I feel like Michelle Trachtenberg in Ice Princess after Kim Cattrall gave her those faulty ice skates and her feet were mangled and bleeding everywhere."

"That's not funny, Mama." Two of the kids were crying. D.C. can do a number on a person's feet.

It was nearing 9 p.m. when we walked into our room. "I need some WiFi," I said.

"I'm going with you, but I'm not wearing shoes." He's 13. I would expect no less. Or no more.

"OK by me. I'm not either."

"I'm not even going to wear socks." I had the decency to wear socks.

And neither of these decisions should have been a big deal, as we were going to bypass the lobby and head straight for the basement--the quiet, empty basement area where nobody will be because who wants to spend St. Patrick's Day night in the business center of a D.C. hotel?

I'll tell you who: a mother-son pair from Alabama checking e-mail and a high-powered Irish businesswoman with strong government ties who was trying to get a little work done ... until the mother-son pair from Alabama walked in.

"Don't mind us. We'll stay out of your way."

And in the most Irish of accents, Aileen talked with us for at least 45 minutes about the economy in Ireland, her grassroots effort to repair it, her fascinating itinerary while in the States and how we really should make plans to be in the lobby within the next hour so that we can get a glimpse of the Prime Minister of Ireland. "He'll be returning from the White House dinner shortly, and we're all going to be gathering in the lobby and bar."

And all I could think was, "Wait, Ireland has a Prime Minister?" Instead, I said, "The Prime Minister of Ireland is here?" (Good save.)

"Yes, he's staying in this hotel. Have you not seen him?"

"I have no idea," I thought. "I may have even been on the elevator with him." (Americans can be so insulated.)

So our conversation wrapped up, we exchanged e-mail addresses, handshakes and pleasantries, and we were sad to see our new friend go. Fortunately, my astute son had the foresight to Google "Brian Cowen." And I never had to tell him to.

An hour later, we left the business center and all of its glorious free internet and headed to our fifth-floor hotel room via the elevator, which was already being held by an Irishman (well-dressed and wearing shoes). We looked at the floor the entire time, hoping he would think we were street people and not hotel guests who didn't know any better. While we were looking at the floor and not the elevator buttons, the doors opened to ... the main lobby. And there stood Aileen, who was waving her hands in the air and shouting our names. "Come with me! I've told the prime minister all about you!"

Nothing about this could be good. What had she told him? Everything you've ever heard about Alabamians is true? This mother and son have broken into the hotel business center so they can check e-mail? You're not going to believe the accents from these people? The Clampetts are in this very hotel?

I think she pulled me by the arm. And there we stood, in the crowded lobby of people in formal wear and shiny shoes. "He's in the bar. He's waiting for you."

"But WHY? And NO. We cannot go past the Secret Service and into the hotel bar like this."

"Oh, don't be silly."

My son grabbed my other arm and said, "We have to do this. It will never happen again."

"Oh, I hope you're right." And I looked at him at the very moment that he licked his hand, then smoothed his hair. We're nothing if not classy.

And the next thing we knew, we were led past Secret Service and were standing at the edge of a circle of important Irish men and women, looking the way we did. Brian Cowen stood, extended his hand, addressed both of us by name, and somebody took our picture.

I wanted to tell Aileen, the Prime Minister and everyone seated in that arrangement of chairs in that dimly lit bar that despite our dress and general lack of grooming, we can be very gracious people. We don't always look like this. Sometimes it's worse.

More than two hours had passed since we had left our hotel room for the business center. I opened the door to our hotel room, not to a hearty "WELCOME BACK!," but to a "Where in the world have you been? I've looked all over this place!" My husband then rattled off the many areas of the hotel where he searched high and low before returning to the room and assuming we had been kidnapped or forever lost in the nation's capital. "But the cool thing is," he said, "on my way back to the room, I was on the elevator with a Congressman from New York and an Irish guy, and they ..."

"You can just stop right there with your little story."

"Wait, there's more! They were talking about ..."

"No, really, you can just stop right there. We are so going to trump your story." And we did.

The next morning, we were in the White House, standing in the East Room, where the Irish had only 12 hours earlier enjoyed a St. Patrick's Day celebration with the Obamas. We knew this because we had the inside track from Aileen -- and The Today Show. And standing in the East Room, right beside us, was a Secret Service agent who told us about the party from the night before and all the food, and it was in this room, and blah, blah, blah. And the Prime Minister of Ireland was here."

"Oh, we know. His friends told us ALL about it."

In the days that followed, the entire event played over in my mind with a bunch of if-onlys. If only we had changed clothes. If only I had brushed my hair. If only the rest of the family could have been there. If only my son didn't spit-shine his hair. If only we had worn shoes. But it played out the way it played out.

Earlier this week, now back in Alabama, I received an e-mail from Aileen, who is now back in Dublin. A portion follows:

... I have relayed the story several times (especially how you were reluctant to come into the bar because you were both in your stocking feet). That was a fun thing to do – my kids enjoyed the story, so did the various other politicians and political advisers who came into the bar later that night. The Irish are known to be impulsive – and you saw this at first hand. We are also quite casual (a few of us kicked off our high heels that evening and were walking around in our stocking feet, so you weren’t alone) ...

A show of solidarity from the Irish and a new trend in hotel protocol and dress code.

You're welcome, D.C.