|'Let's stick together' - even the clocks are hot!|
The heat!!Where I live in Britain has pretty miserable summers, consisting of an unseasonably hot day in March, another one in April, a week of sunshine in May or June...and maybe July, if you are very lucky - then it's all downhill till Christmas. So one of the things I was looking forward to in this month of travel was some therms. How true it is that you should be careful what you wish for! For on three of the four trips there were temperatures in excess of 30C, which may be merely balmy to anyone living in Florida - or even Vienna! - but which was unbearable to me. Or rather, I could have coped with the constant rivulets of sweat trickling simultaneously down my front and back, with the tendrils of lank hair clinging to the nape of my neck and the gleaming complexion, had I not been trying to look cool and professional, rather than like a crumpled, sticky dishrag.
And so it was that the fifteen minutes before a meeting often found me in the toilets of the company I was visiting, changing anything from tights to a complete outfit. One particularly hot day I even dared to apply deodorant in a corporate luggage room where I had been instructed to deposit my case, with just a frosted glass door (and no lock!) separating me from the queue of crisp-suited businessmen being issued with lanyards, any one of whom might have had a bag they also wanted to drop off during that crucial window when I had my arms flagrantly - and now fragrantly ;) - aloft, in mid-roll on action! But in all cases I got away with it, and at no point did a receptionist think I looked sufficiently different on emerging from the toilets etc to warrant a second, corroborative glance at my ID...
While on the subject of summer clothes, I feel moved to vent about linen jackets. Okay, the sort of linen jacket you buy from a chain like the erstwhile Principles Petite, which is of course a linen viscose mix. It still feels cool and lightweight to the touch, however the whole effect is ruined by the 100% synthetic lining - probably viscose again, on account of its very passing resemblance to silk. Oh my, how I sweated in that jacket!, and longed to be clad instead in a wispy sarong of pure cotton.
Then one day I fell into conversation with two ladies on the platform of Stuttgart station. They were fanning themselves with online ticket printouts and prising the fronts of their blouses away from their glazed décolletés in a bid to waft some air in that general direction. It was easy to gatecrash their hot and bothered banter, and in no time we were all three of us joking about the impossibility of looking presentable in these temperatures. One lady had imaginatively aligned herself with a premium tin of peaches: 'I just tell people that I am "in my own juice"'.
Another point of contention wherever I went that month is the fact that hotels had zero awareness of the seasons, or the concept of 'summer' and 'winter' bedding. I consistently encountered fat slugs of duvets that I spent all night tossing off and yanking back on again. The only place to have understood the need for versatile layers in summer was (somewhat ironically!) a Premier Inn on Teesside, in which I stayed in one of the intervening weekends - where it wasn't even particularly warm, haha - see photo below.
Max Rat, who as readers may recall came prefitted with accents of ermine, was none too struck on the hot weather either, and towards the end of the month didn't even get out of the case...
Now the heat had other unexpected ramifications: try getting a bowl of soup on a hot summer's night in Ulm, for example. I asked for tomato soup in a branch of Subway, and after drawing a blank there, attempted to order lentil soup in the kebab shop next door. Soup was a staple menu item in both eateries, yet their proprietors looked at me as though I had landed from space.
And then there was the G & T I foolishly ordered on an Easyjet flight to Geneva, in which the ice cubes had dwindled to the size of my little fingernail before the flight attendant had finished apologising for the lack of lemon - as well she might. For that and the tonic water travesty that is Britvic's slimline version, with its nasty aspartame? tang. Oh look, I have found an entertaining blog post featuring a 'titanic tiff of the tonics', in which Britvic is described as 'heinous' and a 'saccharine blagger'. I completely concur.
I also had a 'lost in translation' food fail in Zurich that same week, when I ordered Flammkuchen, presuming them to be a Swiss take on a crepe, only to be served a large landing strip smothered in creme fraiche and piquant flecks of chives.
The worst was yet to come, however, for in Belgium I had trouble buying any food at all. By the time I arrived in Charleroi at 11pm the station was closed, driving me in search of a restaurant in the shadowy hinterland behind the hotel, with its vague - make that pointed! - air of menace. The lone Italian had stopped serving, and everywhere else that might have sold food or drink on any footing whatsoever was either shut, blocked off by building works, or a massage parlour. So I ended up back at the hotel, dining on a Magnum from the freezer cabinet bizarrely stationed in the middle of the foyer.
This nascent fat and carb-loading theme continued the next day, when I grabbed a croissant at the station cafe before hopping on a train to my destination half an hour away. There was no time to refuel before my meeting, and by the time I got back the restaurants had all closed till 7pm. No chance of what the Germans invitingly refer to as 'durchgehend warme Küche' ('hot food served all day'), then. In the end, I foraged in a newsagent for a packet of crisps and a bag of M & Ms, the latter chosen largely for their 'no melt' properties. Oh, and I was given a receipt that was larger than any hotel receipt I have ever seen, as well as being considerably bigger than the collective footprint of the items purchased.
But there was the odd 'food success'. It's only taken 20 odd years, but I have managed at last to train the Germans to give me a jug of real milk instead of Kaffeesahne. So much in fact, that I was worried it might curdle in the heat, and was quick to return it to the waitress after use.
There's no 'bus' in 'business people'
This is not the first time I have touched on the subject of the preferred modes of transport of the business community. I used to have a regular column in a regional magazine called 'Profit', and wrote a piece on this very topic called: 'Better dead than Midland Red'; years later I find the subject still has legs. Like business people themselves, indeed, though some of them would have to be dragged kicking and screaming before they would use them for anything so pedestrian as walking.
On half a dozen occasions in July I arrived at the company I was visiting by bus, much to the surprise of the staff on reception. Even where there were bus stops right outside the main entrance - named after the company in question, no less - it was invariably assumed I had come in a hire car or by taxi. But having made my way to companies at least partly on foot, my commitment to self-propulsion (where practicable) could still be thwarted by a requirement that visitors use the dedicated shuttle service inside their sites. Once I had to wait a good 15 minutes for a quorum of people to turn up at the mustering point before a vehicle was despatched, when in fairness I could have walked the short distance in a fraction of that time.
And it isn't just large corporations - the airlines are equally imbued with this mindset of 'move everyone around en masse in case they go astray'. On arriving into
Birmingham from Germany, the captain announced that he had been wrongly assigned a domestic stand, and would have to lay on transport to take us to correct entrance. It took a while to rustle up the bus, and after a journey of a couple of hundred yards we were kept on board for ages before they opened the doors. Meanwhile, the sight of a disabled lady - who had been the very last person to disembark the plane - now gliding through the doors to Passport Control prompted complete uproar on the bus. One man voiced the unspoken thoughts of the whole plane: 'Noooo, look, there's that lady in a wheelchair - she has only gone and beaten us to it and she was bloody pushed!'
But to counteract all of the above, I spied a businessman and his luggage on a tram in
Zurich, and got ridiculously excited, as if I had spotted a hoopoe or something. Vero Kern explained to me on Facebook that this is a perfectly common occurrence, owing to the seamless and efficient nature of Swiss transport. So yes, there are exceptions to the rule - London would be another one, I sense - but out in the provinces...bus taking? Not going to happen...unless you're Bonkers, and I am.
Much has been written about the fact that we are tending to walk around glued to tablets and smartphones these days. The corollary of that - at least for anyone like me who owns an older model with derisory battery life - is that some of us are also constantly on the look out for a socket, and our next fix of power. The Swiss rail company, SBB, gets top marks for having sockets thoughtfully located over every window of its carriages. Okay, not quite top marks, as the high up socket location resulted in a bit of a tricky dangling situation - and me worrying that the sheer weight of my phone would break the connection to its power lead - so I rigged up an elaborate edifice of pencil case on top of handbag on top of seat arm for the phone to rest on.
After the SBB, Stuttgart airport came up trumps, with a number of usable sockets at floor level, one or two positioned remotely near chairs, no less! For so often you see people squatting on their own luggage or directly on the floor - and you know that far from being down and outs or that person who spent 17 years living at Charles de Gaulle airport, they are in fact merely refuelling their devices.
Then at Le Havre station there was a most ingenious contraption laid on for people to charge their phones - a static bicycle rigged up to a battery charger. Sounds great in theory, but was moderately sadistic in practice, for after 10 minutes of frantic cycling I had only nudged my phone's charge up by 1% - and went in search of a conventional 'no strings' socket in a wall.
I don't think this habit of mine quite amounts to a mental tick, but when I check into a hotel room, I often find fault with it and ask to be moved. This is usually because the room is a) a single and b) bagged for a bargain rate on Booking.com. Single, 'special rate' rooms are like tables for one in a restaurant - while the latter are invariably by the kitchen door or a hatch or the toilets, the former will have views of claustrophobic courtyards occupied by bins or unexplained humpbacked tubing. Or be characterised by bizarre geometry / general minuteness / intolerable levels of heat/noise.
DIY airport procedures
As a frequent flyer, I pride myself on being up to speed with the latest technology to do with checking in procedures. Yet in Paris this time I ended up being completely floored by the scan gun that is supposed to read the barcode on the boarding pass I had just printed myself on another self-service machine. In desperation, I summoned help from a member of the Air France ground staff, who in the old days would have been sat at a desk processing my boarding card herself, but who was now hovering nearby to help frustrated passengers on a minimally ad hoc basis. She promptly showed me how to press the trigger on the scanner while holding it over the barcode, causing it to emit a startling beep. 'It's just like in the supermarket!' she exclaimed in the tone of a weary cheerleader. 'Don't you scan your items as you go round the store?' 'Er...no?', I replied peevishly, 'that's what the check outs are for.'
On another trip, I was amused to hear the security staff at the X-ray machine calling out to the waiting queues as they prepared to doff sundry items of clothing: 'Any heels today?', for all the world like a market trader touting his wares. As luck would have it, I didn't have heels that day, or any other day, though I often had a belt or a jacket that had to be removed. And famously once, a small bottle of Merlot I naively thought I could sneak through security if I wrapped it in two plastic bags and a sock, and jammed it in a shoe.
And finally, my gloomy take on the Belgian town of
Charleroi would not be complete without a brief mention of an incident in a Berlin hotel some years ago now involving me and a professional footballer, who played for Sporting Charleroi. He knocked on my door and tried to get me to let him stay in my room, pleading an overflowing toilet cistern. I offered him a set of ear plugs, which curved ball response he hadn't anticipated. He replied that he couldn't wear ear plugs. I offered to swap rooms with him and wear ear plugs myself. As the overflowing cistern had been a ruse all along, the game was up at this point, and he proceeded to pin me against the wall of the corridor - and a bit of a scuffle ensued. I managed to break away and scoot back into my room, locking the door behind me. So yes, I shan't rush back to Charleroi. No wonder the flight only cost £39.98 return.