Escape from New York?

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

I’m dreamin’ tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it’s a long road back
I promise you

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me

The Moodie Report may, just may, be about to relocate its New York Bureau to the other side of the Atlantic.

Things change fast in a volcano ash crisis. Yesterday began with our travel agent Phil (of Flight Centre, Clapham Junction, London, who has been an absolute star), ringing to advise that there was cause for optimism. He could get my colleague Dermot Davitt and me on a flight into Athens, then after a four hour wait, a flight to Paris. Then next day back to London by Eurostar. Two economy tickets – price £4,400, plus the hotel…

The problem with a situation like this is that you struggle to think straight in your obsession to get home. I even studied the Cunard cruise itinerary this week. There was a sailing from New York on the 23rd. It would only take me nine days to get to Cardiff…

Dermot and I have become modern day reincarnations of Steve Martin and John Candy in the classic 80s film comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles – in which a businessman (Steve Martin) struggles to travel home across America for Thanksgiving amid a total airline shutdown, with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

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Naturally we argued who should play who, but I won as my three tufts of hair are the same silver as Steve Martin’s and anyway I share his name. Watch out for Dermot next time you see him if he tries to sell you a shower ring…

But at least unlike the original heroes we have not had to share a bed (giving rise to the film’s immortal line, “Pillows? Those aren’t pillows!”) and have been well looked after by the kind folks at the Four Points by Sheraton in Hell’s Kitchen.

We had minutes to make the Athens/Paris/Eurostar decision. Did we risk holding on for our original direct flights a day later (at that point UK and Irish airspace was as black as a pint of Guinness) or take the Planes, Trains and Automobiles (from Waterloo Station, London) route?

“I’m sticking,” said Dermot, a braver soul than I. “Ok, me too,” I replied. New York would be our home away from home for a little while yet…

As always it’s a matter of maximising your time in a situation like this. Yesterday morning I had a hugely enjoyable and enlightening interview with Simon and Leon Falic, two of the three brothers who run Duty Free Americas.

Simon, MM, Leon_Small

[Simon (left) and Leon Falic with Martin Moodie]

The current volcano ash crisis must seem like small beer to the Falic family. Last year their group had to survive an appalling chain of adverse events, ranging from the collapse of the Peso (hitting the southern border trade), the global economic crisis, the soft British Pound Sterling (which hurt East Coast airport sales), and a well-documented falling out with their major supplier Diageo (now truly repaired).

Somehow they weathered the storm and with hindsight one of the most impressive stories of the 2009 industry troubles is the bounce back of Duty Free Americas.

Today, Simon and Leon told me, their debt level has been radically reduced; they are investing heavily in some of North America’s best-looking airport stores, such as those at Miami International; and they are even actively seeking acquisitions.

I also, for the first time, learned a lot about the Falic family. I met Simon and Leon’s delightful father (whose life story would make a great book) and mother. This Jewish family of great faith has an inner steel forged through a family history of escape from the atrocities committed in the appalling name of anti-semitism.   It’s some story and they’re some family.

From a highly enjoyable meeting at the Four Seasons, my next stop was famous New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky, where Dermot and I met up with the long-time ‘silver fox’ of duty free, Dan Daly, former travel retail boss of Seagram (RIP) and now an industry consultant.

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Returning to our Planes, Trains and Automobiles theme, Dan has always looked a bit like Steve Martin I think, so he took over the role during lunch, though the new slim-line Dermot Davitt needs to put on some pounds to play John Candy.

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[Steve Martin (left), Martin Moodie and John Candy]

We sure found the right place to do that. Anyone who’s seen the Flintstones movie would recognise what appeared to be Brontosaurus steaks at Smith & Wollensky. I swear I’ve seen smaller cows than the two steaks being devoured by a pair of businessmen at the next table.

Had those cattle been affected by some form of radioactive fallout from the Icelandic volcano cloud, causing them to mutate into over-sized giants? Would the two diners be able to make it away from the table after lunch unassisted? Had they really also both taken starters (answer, yes)? All these and other deeply philosophical questions raced through my mind as I contemplated whether to choose a steak myself. What if a flight home tonight suddenly became available? I’d be still eating…

Later I looked over and both gentlemen had what looked like beautiful Smith and Wollensky gift boxes on the table.

“Do they sell merchandise here?” I asked Steve Martin, I mean Dan Daly.

“No, they’re doggie bags,” he replied.

“What? Newfoundlands?”

This could prompt a Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2. In the sequel Steve Martin finally arrives home to his loving wife and kids. “Darling,” he says handing her a gift box. “I brought you something.”

“Oh Darling, you shouldn’t have,” she says, peaking inside. Her smile fades, “Oh… a half-eaten T-Bone…”

None of my dietary volume worries had the slightest impact on Candy or Martin. They duly made short work of two Signature Sirloins and a salad that would be called a greengrocer’s shop where I come from, while I rather pathetically munched on my modestly proportioned soft shell crab. Candy, sorry Dermot, may now need to book two seats home on that long-awaited Aer Lingus flight to Ireland…

And then a series of breakthroughs.  First my trusty travel agent Phil called to say he could get me on a Jet Airways flight to Brussels on Wednesday night, followed by an eight-hour wait in the Belgium capital and then a guaranteed Eurostar ticket home. For the first time in his life, I suspect, a male client told Phil he loved him. There was hope…

And later there was more. Airspace had dramatically opened up over the UK and Ireland. British Airways flights were in the air! So were those of Aer Lingus. In the words of the old song, I’ll be home for Christmas. There’s nothing like a Bing Crosby, Stills and Nash song to cheer you up…

And so, that evening, John Candy and I did what all responsible stranded travellers pining for their loved ones, and watching costs, do. We went out for a night on the town.

Given it was possibly and wholly unexpectedly our last night, we headed not for a famous New York eatery but for our adopted Italian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, Trattoria Casa di Isacco.

There to greet us like long-lost sons was our extraordinary host, the man from Tenerife and Elvis look-alike Isacco.

“Buona sera!” he boomed, even merrier than usual due to what we later learned had been an extended wine tasting that afternoon.

What ensued will go down as one of the more extraordinary evenings of my life. Firstly there was the sight of  Candy, sorry Davitt, demolishing yet another giant steak. He really will need to study the Aer Lingus excess baggage rules before he checks in.

Then Isacco told us he wanted to sing. Urged on by his beautiful Korean friend Jennifer (pictured) who sells Prosecco to the on-trade, Isacco launched into a number of hits by his idols, Elvis (“all-a-aways the number one, all-a-ways”). Tom Jones and even Matt Munro, who only I among the clientele was old enough to remember.

Isacco_Small

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. I felt I was passing through a giant volcano cloud but it was only the effect of all that red wine (including a free bottle from our host), dessert wine and Isacco’s home-made grappa infused with apricots, figs and pineapples.

As we stumbled down the stairs to meet the day (as it now was) in the words of the Kristofferson song (Sunday morning coming down), the Candy man among us spotted a bar. Then followed the most terrifying three words in the English language if you’re accompanied by an Irishman.

“Fancy a nightcap?”

The man’s unstoppable. First two giant steaks and now this. It was time to pull rank and act responsibly.

“Ok, why not?”

The bar was a Hell’s Kitchen special, rough and ready, blaring with music, and staffed by a feisty bartender (“don’t call me a barmaid”) called Val who had more tattoos than the entire Samoan population.

Earlier in the evening Jennifer had been the star. Now it was Juniper as Dermot Candy hit the gin and I, in order to keep him under control, paced him sensibly with Stolis and tonic.

I woke up this morning not only thinking about the ash cloud but believing that my head had actually turned into a volcano.

First stop was the BBC News. ‘Europe’s skies reopen for business’ ran the headline. Hooray. We were heading for the airport. I now even have two tickets, one to London, one to Brussels.

Wish us well. Steve Martin and John Candy are coming home.

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  • Ed insisted I read this one out loud….he was laughing so hard I had to scream it…you are a master…we are only sorry we weren’t there to see you act like a volcano! Welcome home!