Sunday, 16 September 2012

Welcome to Nowhere: Paris, May 2007


It's not just a size of thing (Werther's Originals, Connect Four). No, in fact, as well as being everyone's favourite type of ator, ogue and odge, it's also a rather popular hobby, beloved of loved-up young couples, retirees and pretentious backpacking arsewipes the world over.

Some pretentious backpacking arsewipes. I mean, what in god's name are they actually doing?

And why wouldn't it be? The opportunity to visit new places, meet new people, order a slightly different McChicken Sandwich in a different silly accent... what could be finer? And if you're really lucky, you might even get someone to pay for you to do it all.

I've been lucky enough over the past 5 years to have been sent to some pretty cool places in the name of "work" - delivering informative and hilarious presentations on 4 different continents (if I do say so myself), drinking several petrol tankers full of various local beers and taking nearly a terrabyte's worth of photos of zoo animals and castles.

This blog will be my attempt to capture some of the interesting (but mostly ridiculous) things that happen to me along the way before I completely forget them all - it is not my intention to brag about how great my life is. (Although you may have to remind yourself of that at times).

I am NOT going to be this guy.

In many ways my first ever business trip is a perfect example of how adept I am at turning everything surrounding a quite mundane journey into something resembling John Cleese in the film Clockwise (an absolute classic, if you haven't seen it.)

It's 2007, and for many reasons which are far too dull and depressing to go into here, my life is in something of a rut, and moreover the closest I've come to leaving the UK in 6 years is CenterParcs Longleat, with its crazy sub-tropical swimming dome and rakishly American disregard for spelling. Then, out of the blue, my manager at the time calls me in to say that there's an important taskforce/brainstorming/<insert other bollocks here> meeting coming up in Paris at which she'd like me to represent our department.

Important. Meeting. Paris. OUR!! Someone actually thinks I'm enough of a big shot to pay a lot of money for me to go to a different country, just so that I can be in the same room as other important people and impart my life-changing knowledge about how to process administrative documents from health authorities in Europe. (Hey, I never said my job at the time was exciting.)

Immediately my brain floods with exciting imagery - I'll probably have to fly, of course (something I find simultaneously shit scary and rather exciting), then there'll be a hotel stay, obviously involving a view of the Eiffel Tower, as any idiot knows from watching any film ever made.

Yep, I'm pretty sure that the Eiffel Tower follows you around Paris, peeking in your window  when you're asleep.

Then of course, there'll be food, so much wonderful food - probably steaks dripping with blood, garlic-drenched snails, and gallons of wine. And naturally I assume we'll finish up the evening in suitably debauched fashion at the Moulin Rouge.

"Yeah, so you'll be getting the Eurostar at 6am from Ashford International, the meeting's from 9-5, and then you can make it back for the 6.30 train home, is that ok?"

YES! Yes, it's bally well ok, I'm going to Paris!

A couple of weeks pass (as they so often do, I find) and I find myself 5 days before the trip. It's at this point that I think it might be about time to dig out my passport- and given that I distinctly remember getting it to go on a Year 12 French exchange, I have a sudden gut wrenching feeling that it may not actually be of much use to me even if I do find it; a feeling which proves to be spookily accurate when I discover that it's expired some months previously.

"Not to worry", says my manager, "you can go up to London and get it renewed on a fast track service. You can even travel first class on the train, if you like." This is working out rather nicely - not only am I going to Paris, but I'm also going to London for the day (yes, believe it or not this is cause for serious excitement at the time), AND my company will pay for my new passport. Jackanackanory.

As if to set the theme for much of my travelling career, the trip to London proves much less exciting than I anticipate, as for some unknown reason I don't find sitting at the Passport office in a queue for 3 hours as much fun as I'd thought. Coupled with this, I fail to take advantage of my one and only opportunity to travel First Class on a regular train and join the ranks of those people I'd always secretly admired whilst simultaneously wondering who the heck they are, and why they have money to spend on padded armrests and different coloured carpet.

Purple seats! PURPLE!!!!!

Still, at least I have a passport now, with a photo where I'm not a child. Ahhh, yes, the photo. I think Chuck Norris' third law of Passport photos states that you will always have to have them done at a time where there is something about your appearance that you will regret as long as you live - and sure enough, I'm going through a phase where I'm trying to grow my hair out a bit. And when I say a bit, I mean I'm attempting to grow a kind of Rock Star mane that I can toss about moodily. Unfortunately, to get there, it means going through the phases of "Crikey, James, you need a haircut", "HA! are you going back to University?" and "Mullet".

We're pretty much at "Mullet" when I sit down in the photo booth and attempt to stare into the bright white glare of the inquisitive lens, without blinking, smiling, or showing any other form of human emotion. Tears start to roll down my cheeks as the flash blasts into my retinae, simultaneously blinding me and washing out my entire face with a ghostly pallor. Yes, essentially I look like a terminally ill redneck.

Anyone who's actually seen my passport will probably nod at this point and go. "yeah, good likeness."

The afternoon before I'm due to set off, I have a sudden crisis. I'm a serious business person now, I am going to have to put on a suit and tie and everything for this trip - and somehow the long-haired look doesn't really go with this new persona I need to try to convince the international delegates is the real me. A pleading phone call to the hairdressers secures a poor student to stay on late just to sort me out - and at least when I walk in she appears to immediately realise why it's been her destiny to be on call tonight. Locks shorn, I check myself out in the mirror (more than is probably healthy, but dear god do I look more human), and head off home for an early night.

Ah yes, the second problem with this trip is the ungodly hour at which I have to get up to travel to Ashford - admittedly it's the closest major transport hub to my house at the time, but given that I need to check in 30 minutes before my train, I find myself setting off from home at 4.30a.m.

A classic car, I'm sure you'll agree. As fine as... any other French car.

Aside from my appearance (which is now fixed - within the bounds of medical possibility anyway), there's another serious problem with my professional image which also impacts on my ability to get there. My car, an elderly Renault Clio handed down from my mother at a time of financial crisis, is in a bit of a state due to a sheep incident some weeks previously. Yes, I got distracted by some particularly lovely ewes in a field by the side of the road, failed to notice that the car in front had stopped, and ploughed right into the back of it. (Naturally I told everyone I was ogling some leggy females to avoid embarrassment - not entirely untrue.)

With the front of the car caved in as if I've driven directly into a bollard at high speed, I set off into the Kentish spring morning air, which, just to make the picture as perfect as can be, is absolutely thick with morning mist rolling in off the sea. Imagine, if you will, what happens to the direction of your headlights when the middle of your bonnet folds in on itself like a Motorola Razr, and you may have some idea of why I end up bombing along the country lanes, staring intensely into the dark, foggy abyss, whilst lighting up the sky above me like the 20th Century Fox searchlights.

Still, I get a nice view of the verges either side of the road - which is something, I suppose.

A brief respite is afforded my frazzled nerves when I pull up to a set of traffic lights along the way. It's one of those where you can't see the other end of the lights, so even though we are about 5 miles from any sort of habitation and there's not a car to be seen, I sit at the red light, waiting patiently and watching the time ticking ever closer to train missing time, wondering what's taking so blooming long. 5 minutes pass as I sit there swearing like a Tourette's victim and cursing my law abiding nature, before I realise that I really am going to miss the train if I don't take some action.

It's therefore a white knuckle ride on a par with the Looping Star at Dreamland as I stick my foot to the floor in the Clio and motor on through the red light at a brisk 28 miles per hour, completely unable to see whether anything is coming towards me unless it's a owl in the sky by the roadside. The fact that I'm writing this probably tells you how this part of the story ends, although of course I have to have a quick look behind me when reaching the other light, to verify that it is indeed also stuck on red. It's a good job I have nerves of steel or I'd probably still be sitting there now.

Eventually I make it to the impossibly glamorous locale of Ashford International Railway station. I dump my car in the first available slot (not in the nearest river, tempting though it is), grab my laptop and leg it as fast as I possibly can. Final check-in time is actually 5 minutes ago but luckily the check-in lady finds my new haircut impossibly sexy and lets me through anyway. Either that, or I have the look of a man who might go on a rampage through the streets of East Kent if not allowed on the train.

There's the first of many, many (I can't *tell* you how many) double takes and quiet smirks as the customs guy checks my passport photo - this trip more than any, since the passport is only 4 days old and yet I look like I've been on Extreme Makeover in the intervening period - and then I'm finally allowed down to the platform to jump onto the train.

Arriving, panting, down by the tracks, I scan the platform for my colleague. Much of the fun I will have on future business trips revolves around the great people I get to share them with, and the first recipient of my sparkling company is a guy who's several levels senior to me, someone I secretly look up to rather a lot in my young and impressionable state. I've been looking forward to the two of us shooting the breeze in business class on the way over, quaffing champagne and breakfasting on roast swan while we discuss how my career is about to go stratospheric now I've made the 'Business Traveller' league.

As he finally twigs who the heck it is that's walked up to him, he glances at my business class ticket with scarcely concealed disdain. "Ah, right, well I'm down the other end- I guess I'll see you in Paris," and with that he saunters off down to economy class with his packed breakfast. What a rookie mistake I've made, getting carried away with the company's money and making myself look like a greedy fat cat simpleton.

You win this time, Mr. Swan..

I make my way dejectedly to my Business Class seat, very quickly realise what a total rip-off business class is on trains, and settle in for the trip over. There are 2 and a half hours to ponder how nervous I am about the meeting, something which makes me feel physically ill but at least it does prompt me to actually start preparing for it - a theme which will become apparent over the years.

People often ask me 'How was X,Y,Z glamorous foreign city?' - and sometimes I'm able to explain to them how fantastic it was, how happy I am to have been there and to show them pictures of my hotel toilet paper folded into triangles. As often as not, though, the answer is that I have absolutely no idea. My first business trip is one of those.

Arriving at Gare Du Nord, there's a little frisson of excitement as I step out into the unmistakeable sights, sounds and smells of the SNCF, and make my way in the direction of the taxi rank in the hopes of seeing a few sights from a car window. Of course, this is soon scuppered again by my colleague, Scrooge McThrifty, who points us in the direction of the Métro . If I'm honest, even the little Carnet of green tickets, the ear-destroying 'doors closing' horns and the tramps on green plastic seats on the platforms bring back enough warm and fuzzy memories of my time spent living here to make the journey worthwhile.

Even the tramps wear formal jackets in Paris, you know.

Which is just as well, since the office is basically next to the Métro, meaning that the next time we see daylight, we barely have time to get a lungful of Périphérique air before we step into the soulless concrete edifice of Global Pharma, Paris division - where we remain for the entire day, in a windowless, airless box, before doing the whole thing in reverse (and still no swans or champers.)

I eventually return to my mundane life sometime after 8 o'clock. Today's been extremely stressful, it's been very tiring, and it's been massively dull.

But I can't wait to do it all over again.

Next time: I travel to India, where I ruin a perfectly good shirt, pet an elephant, ride the world's most pointless Metro, and get abducted by an auto-rickshaw driver.

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