One of the privileges of being an INSEAD alumni, so I was told, would consist of being a member of a truly international and loyal network of colleagues and friends, the privilege to rely on help, advice and assistance, no matter when, what and where.
In 1978 I frequently had to travel to Brussels to attend the regular meetings of the European Association of my industry. Our classmate Liska Prochotska was living there at the time, working for the State of Michigan Trades Delegation. “Don’t book a hotel”, she said on the phone when I called her from Vienna, ”I have an apartment for you for free, a friend from the 76 promotion, Philip C. Percival, is out of town and gave me the keys”.
Although my company would have paid my lodging anyhow, I was pleased to notify the accountant that we would save the expenses of two nights in a hotel because I had been invited to stay with friends. International network, you understand.
Liska met me at the airport. Her FIAT sports car had diplomatic license plates, facilitating parking in the city considerably. We had dinner “Au Petites Pères” in Uccle, coffee and dessert later on the Petite Sablon, when midnight eventually drew closer. Quite tired already, I gratefully accepted her offer to drive me to the famous Percival apartment.
Yet, we could not find the house! The noble and quiet street was only scarcely lit. The houses in this remote residential area – was it the right street? – looked all alike, more or less. Meanwhile it was already quarter past one in the morning. While I myself was absolutely worn-out and already a little desperate, Liska was still in great form and never had more fun. Finally she recognised the house. Took her only half an hour. Fine! Damn it, but where was the silly apartment? First floor? Second? Left, right? Never mind, the key would tell. Fiddle, fiddle oops, wrong door! The inhabitants inside quite understandable presumed, burglars were trying to intrude, jumped out of bed in terror and yelled through the closed door. We hurried down, tiptoed towards the darkest niche of the staircase and kept quiet for another ten minutes. Liska almost exploding with laughter, me, more faint-hearted, pictured myself in police detention. If only that would have happened!
Unfortunately, the police did not show up and I was not arrested. Even more unfortunately, Liska identified the proper door, in fact just opposite our hiding place in the parterre. Without switching on the staircase lighting and very quietly she turned the key, opened the apartment, good night, sleep well, see you tomorrow, off she was. I sneaked in, extremely relieved – for five seconds.
I’d bet anything that none of us has never ever seen a place more empty than Philip Percival’s apartment! There was absolutely nothing in it. Nothing at all. No bed, no chair, not even a telephone book, a scruffy broom, a dead mouse or the odd faded newspaper from last Easter.
In the cold damp of Belgium’s mid-November, the heating had been cut off so I spent the most uncomfortable night of my life on the hard wooden floor, huddled in my raincoat, pondering over the joys of belonging to a truly international network, that in any case helped considerably in cutting travel expenses for my employer.
I never found out whether it was Liska or Philip who forgot to mention that apartment was cold and empty. Liska almost collapsed with laughter the next day and I must confess, my grin looked a bit artificial.