Wednesday, 19 August 2015

My bonkers month of extreme Euro-hoppery: a thematic travelogue - Part 2

'Let's stick together' - even the clocks are hot!
So as I mentioned in Part 1, four overseas trips in as many weeks have spawned fodder for several posts, this being the second of the pure travelogues. Anyone who is hanging on for the scented aspects of my travels should check back in with the next episode. And I shall also carry on with the thematic approach, starting with...

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...

Food failures

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.

Socket hunts

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.

Musical rooms

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 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. 

On my trips I didn't always manage to move rooms - being dead set on doing so at no extra cost, you see - but when I did it felt like a real coup! On one such occasion, the manoeuvre slightly backfired though, for having transferred my belongings from 'tiny, triangular, stiflingly hot room A on a major road junction with wraparound traffic noise' and deposited the key back at reception, I realised I had left a jacket in the wardrobe. When I went back down again, a woman was being checked in at that very moment to my rejected room. I ended up escorting her to her quarters, deftly extracted the offending garment from her wardrobe and scuttled off to 'quiet, spacious, conventionally shaped Room B' before she could pop the inevitable question as to what on earth it was doing there in the first place.

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?' '', 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. 

Unsporting Charleroi

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.


  1. Loved the opening conversaton with the ladies who had "glazed décolletés", but then got worried about you turning feral again, foraging for food in massage parlours - well the foyer freezer cabinet anyway.

    Too funny about cycling to recharge your phone. As if you're not hot and bothered enough!

    Good on you for asking to change rooms. I'd have a tough time working up the courage, especially being on my own.

    1. Hi Tara,

      That's a good point about the cycling - I was plenty hot enough! Adding insult to injury for sure. ;)

      Changing rooms is my stock-in-trade, haha. I should have been on the TV programme - well, a new one about this other form of 'change'.

  2. Woo hoo -- your blog is accessible again. For two days all I would get was the Google One account page. I don't have a Google Account, nor do I want one. Can't have Google running my entire world. Was worried I would miss your entertaining travelogues and the comments of others.
    Hope the mountain of ironing is shrinking.

    -- Lindaloo

    1. Hi Lindaloo,

      I am so sorry about the confusion - it was a coding cock up of the first water - all my own silly fault. The blog became 'scrambled' as it were, and undisplayable. It's pretty much as it was now, barring a few things in the sidebar, like my blog list which I will reconstruct when I get the chance.

      The ironing mountain was actually a good distraction while all this blog bother was raging. It's not gone, but it's had a bit lopped off the top, say.

  3. Goodness me - we really need to organise Food Parcels for you in the locations you visit. And maybe a Taser, although that would possibly give you yet another electrical gadget that needs recharging at oddly-placed power sockets!

    Making a mental note that no-one I know should stay at Charleroi too, so thank you for the health and safety tips.

    Look after yourself, please, and eat well while you're at home:-)

    cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

    1. Hi Anna,

      LOL at the Taser idea - oh yes, no more charging issues, please!

      You will be pleased to hear that I am eating loads now I am back, and thanks for your concern. ;)

  4. Your blog is accessible again, nice! I must say I don't know how you avoid headaches if you don't get proper food at normal times during the day on business trips. I have had the same problem a time or two, so now I usually carry some unsalted nuts or energy bars with me when travelling.

    Having had to make use of the PRM service at some eight or nine airports the last three years, I had to smile when reading you story about the bus in the airport and how the disabled lady actually came quickly through the airport. I can just assure anyone reading here that that is not always the case, EU regulations or not. When the assistance service works, it is very good and a way to keep up with travel for business or leisure for disabled people. Getting it to a set European level really is a help and it is particularly good to be able to get to the plane without getting all hot and bothered walking the long corridors.

    On a similar note: That Swiss tram looks so nice, If only we had the same kind here! We have modern trams from Italy and those are not made for our winter, plus they are noisy.

    Hope you are having a nice week-end!

    1. Hi Ingeborg,

      Yes, it is good to be up and running again, with the correct fonts and everything! I do usually carry water around with me at least, especially when it is warm, but am not always sufficiently organised on the food front. Well, I also don't feel like eating when I am nervous / fired up about my meetings, then emerge ravenous, as was the case here. And I do get headaches sometimes, it must be said because I have gone too long between meals.

      I was interested to hear about your varied experience of the PRM services at airports. I can imagine it is a real help - when it works, as you say - as the distance involved to walk between terminals can be significant.

      I think Swiss transport generally is most superior!

      Had a great weekend, thanks - Tara and Sabine came to visit. ;)

  5. Food, at 11 p.m.? You're an optimist! Once we were trying to find anything to drink (as in non-alcoholic beverage) at 9:30 p.m. in the downtown of Frankfurt (including the hotel where we were staying!). It wasn't the easiest task, I must say. I don't ever remember being so happy from finding finally a Burger King and buying a huge cup of Fanta (which I never drink under regular circumstances).

    Loved your post and learned three new words :)

    Charger stations/outlets/etc. are essential for my trips since usually I have to be careful with using up the my phone's battery since on arrival to wherever we're flying to we usually use it as a GPS device. I think those bicycle chargers are more for the feel good purpose than for actually charging anything. But it's a cute idea.

    1. Hi Undina,

      Am surprised you had trouble finding a drink in a major city like Frankfurt. Fast food joints are a good standby though - I was once glad to find a chicken wrap very late one night in a Burger King in Vienna! I suppose it depends on the particular district where you happen to be at the time as to what options are open, but in big cities I have quite high expectations anywhere. Charleroi may be smaller than I imagined - after all the whole of Belgium isn't that big....

      Oh, you must tell me what words those were. ;)

      And re the charger outlets, the need to fall back on one's phone as GPS was also one of my reasons for wanting to keep the battery topped up. And yes, the bicycle variety was more of a fun novelty that reminded you to keep fit, I would say.

    2. Three words: derisory, edifice and doff. Well, while I was looking through this post again, I found one more: sundry. Interestingly, they all have quite different US/UK pronunciation.

    3. Oh fun! And I say, 'sundry' is a staple of mine - I used it only last night in an email in the phrase 'sundry scuffling noises'. ;)

      Also, I had no idea those words would have different pronunciation across the pond. I am forever learning more examples like that though.

  6. Ha! Chortling at your capers (have I spelt that correctly, I'm sure it can't be the same as the little green bits of salad loveliness), I'll say 'japes' instead.

    Is Max Rat still with you? I thought he was taken from you on a train...

    1. Hi Odiferess,

      'Capers' is right. Argh - the Max Rat saga is coming up in Part 3...spoiler alert! ;) ;) Any references to him in these posts were before the terrible ratnapping incident...

    2. Boo... I hope you got him back. Hurry up and post again!

    3. Ah no, sadly. But have almost finished my next post! Should be up in the next day or so.

  7. Hey V!
    So many places in the world had hotter weather than we did, which is really saying something!
    "That's what the check outs are for" ! Hahahaa, love it! I refuse to use the self-serve check outs in stores - unless they offer a discount for using them.
    And that soccer player - yikes! I hope he's no longer playing. I met a soccer player from Scotland once (not sure if he was a pro player though) - back in the late 70s - he had turquoise eyes. He was a gentleman (I was so young I had no idea what to do and as I mentioned he was quite a gentleman,,,,)

    1. Hey Carol!

      Well, well, I am surprised that your weather was not as hot as is usual for the time of year - I certainly remember sweltering in Ohio in the summer when I have been out there for work.

      I sometimes use the self-service check outs if the main ones have big queues and I only have a few items that are quite straightforward to scan myself. I see no point in scanning items as I walk round the store to see what the running total is. That seems like too much work frankly!

      The footballer in question has popped up in the USA coaching a children's football team. I am not sure if that is better or worse than if he had been playing.... Your footballer encounter sounds altogether more congenial. ;)