Sunday, 28 June 2015

Round Europe with a Laptop: Madrid 18th-19th June 2008

Photo: Wikipedia / Antti Havukainen (probably the most Finnish name of all time.) 

18th June, 2008 - Helsinki, Heathrow and Madrid

It's 4:30am in Helsinki, and I've got to get up, which isn't as hard as you might think, since it's broad daylight already - the sun having officially gone down at about 11pm and come back up again at 4. In reality, there are only actually 2 and a half hours of darkness, which must be great fun for any Finnish parents who were hoping for a lie-in.

Still, get up I do, and slowly cover the 200-odd metres down to Helsinki-Vantaa Terminal 2 to check in for my 7:25 flight on Finnair back to Heathrow - flight number AY0831, for all those plane-spotters in the audience. The same plane-spotters might be wondering why I'm travelling to Madrid via Heathrow, and so am I, now that I see that Finnair do in fact have a direct service. (I'd like to assume that this service doesn't exist in 2008, otherwise what happens later is even more annoying and I'll have to have a stern word with whoever was booking my travel at the time...)

"I'll check your bag all the way to Madrid, shall I sir?", says the nice Finnish check-in gentleman, who I won't give a comedy name because it's not his fault.

"Eeeerrrrrrm, I don't know..." - the opening chaos at Heathrow Terminal 5, which is barely 3 months ago, is weighing heavily on my mind. "Is that a good idea?"

"Of course, sir, there's no problem - it'll just come straight off the plane in London, and get transferred directly to the Madrid flight."

"Um.... I'm really not sure, is it definitely going to get there ok?"

"Absolutely. Look, I'll even put a priority tag and a "Short Connection" tag on it."  

"Ok then. I hope you're right, all my clothes and training materials are in there!"

"No problem, have a nice flight, sir!"

All checked in, it's still too early for breakfast so I spend some time looking at some overpriced electronics that I'm never going to buy in a million years, acquaint myself with what's big in Finnish music these days, (Nightwish, mostly) and then, well, spend ages looking at Moomins, to be honest. I'm kind of fascinated by the fact that there's a Moomin shop here, and it makes me ponder whether there's a Paddington shop somewhere at Heathrow, an Asterix shop at Charles de Gaulle, or a Mayor Rob Ford shop at Toronto Pearson. I don't buy anything, though, obviously.

The flight takes off and lands nicely on time back into Terminal 1 at Heathrow, and as my bag makes its way through the mysterious maze of tunnels that I like to imagine exists under the airport to Terminal 3, caressed as it goes by Starlight Pixies and guided by Rainbow Unicorns, I do the same thing in a crappy bus.


It's the first time I've been to Heathrow Terminal 3 and I rather hope it'll be the last, as it's a bit like being buried alive in an underground tanning salon, with its claustrophobically low ceilings and garish fluorescent lighting. It's basically like a rubbish shopping mall, with a lot of chairs in the middle - I spend a little bit of time in Borders (RIP), wondering whether to buy a Madrid guide book, but settle instead for heading somewhere upstairs to eat something grossly unhealthy for breakfast - something which becomes an unfortunate theme over the next few weeks.

I can't tell you which Iberia flight I take to Madrid, because I no longer have my boarding pass for reasons which I think I can guess, but we'll skip to the part where I get off the plane, and step into what is still probably the most awesome looking airport terminal I've ever been to - Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas. Let's just take a moment for some airport porn, shall we?


Oooh, yeah.

That's probably enough now.

The excitement of arriving in such a well-designed hellhole (Richard Rogers, don't you know?) gradually fades, as I stand waiting for my bag for an annoyingly long time. At first, it's the same bag-waiting ritual that anyone who's ever flown knows only too well.

1. The usual scrum while everyone mills around waiting for the cases to start coming down
2. The rising annoyance as you realise that everyone else's bag is coming out before yours
3. The panicky "ok, as long as there are still a couple of people who were on my flight standing around here, it's probably going to be alright" phase, as you gradually watch person by person that you recognise get their case and bugger off to somewhere much more fun.

So far, so typical of every flight. But then there's just me and one other guy from the plane left, and with a silent shrug to each other, we accept that our cases are probably still at Heathrow (not sure what we've done to anger the pixies) and make our way over to the luggage desk.

With my 17 words of Spanish, and the desk staff's not-exactly stellar English, the next 15 minutes don't go too well, but then what is there to say? My bag is obviously not here, and no amount of conversation is going to make it appear. A form is duly (and dully) filled in, with a description of the bag (Black, fabric suitcase on wheels - OH! THAT ONE! Why didn't you say?) and my address for the next few days so they can return it to my hotel.

"Yeah, I'm only here for about 24 hours, and I need all the things in there tomorrow morning at 9am...," I say, not entirely sure of what use I expect this information to be.

"Ok, well you will have to collect it from here when you come back tomorrow, then," says the desk attendant, and I shuffle away in disbelief, starting to run through everything that's in that case. Clothes, obviously. Work and casual. Toiletries, thankfully. Smart shoes, oh great. Printed out training folders for all the people attending the training tomorrow - well, ok they can reprint those in the office - actually why on earth didn't they do that in the first place? Training notes... TRAINING NOTES! My teacher's crutch - looks like I'll be winging it tomorrow then.

There's nothing anyone can do about the notes, but clothes and toiletries are eminently replaceable, so I get out my work mobile, which is an even crappier Nokia than my own, and call back to the office to speak to the amazing Caroline, our chief departmental co-ordinator and arse-wiper to project managers and deployment interns throughout the land.

"Ok," she says, after she's finished taking the piss out of me with her astoundingly dirty but infectious laugh. "Get yourself some replacement clothes and toiletries then, keep the receipts, and put them through on expenses." She's awesome anyway, having already coped with managing all sorts of annoying requests from me, and even been on call when I crashed a hire car on the M2 one evening - but at this point she's my favourite person in the whole entire world, so with spirits slightly raised again I decide it's time to get out of here to the hotel.

Evidently I learned something from my frugal colleague on my first ever business trip, because ever since then, I've tried to avoid taxis wherever possible (my phobia of speaking to strange people any more than necessary and experiences with taxi drivers and credit card machines are also mildly contributing factors) - and for that reason I'm only too happy to find that Madrid has a nice, clean, efficient Metro system which will take me directly from the airport to my hotel, with only two changes to negotiate by using the slightly less than helpful map provided (Harry Beck, Madrid needs you...)

Still, I manage to get to Sol station without too much hassle - not having any luggage probably helps- and am soon out and finding my way across Plaza Santa Ana, to the ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel.

(I note that as of June 2015, Sol station appears to have been renamed 'Vodafone Sol', leading me to ponder the uproar if London ended up getting Gregg's the Bakers Street , Smith's Leicester Square Crisps or Emirates Greenwich Peninsu... oh, that one's real.)

My hotel - the ME Madrid Reina Victoria, in Plaza Santa Ana. Gorgeous.
I've chosen this hotel from a list of preferred hotels that my company offers me in Madrid, largely because it has the highest ranking on Tripadvisor, which is a new website I've just discovered and become obsessed with, feeling aggrieved if I'm only allowed to stay in the 7th finest hotel in the city when there are 6 more which would clearly suit my needs much better in every possible way.

The ME Madrid Reina Victoria is totally different to anywhere else I've stayed before, though, being modern without being bland, and being plush without being horrifically chintzy (Rome's Hotel Eden, I'm looking at you now...) -it's actually got some artistic flair and I immediately love it. Even the bathroom mirror has a David Bowie quote on it, which is fabulously hipster, before hipster is even a thing. I'm less impressed by the smell of stale cigarette smoke, though, which pervades the whole room and causes me to go back down to reception and get my room changed, which they gladly do.

It's at this point that I realise that the David Bowie quotes on the mirror are the same in every room, which is disappointing - I was rather hoping that my new room would have "Ground control to Major Tom" on it, or "We could be heroes, just for one day..." or even "The power of the voodoo, WHO DO? You do! DO WHAT? Remind me of the babe...."

You're going to have to get used to seeing me in hotel mirrors...
There's just time to take my by-now-customary hotel room pre-unpacking photos, which on this occasion are fairly pointless since there's nothing to unpack...

What on earth am I watching?

Funky art and purple bedspreads, this is how jetsetters live, people.
... and then there's the small matter of my entire suitcase contents to replace, so off I go for a wander, in typical me-style (i.e. without a map and with no idea what I'm looking at...)

Yep, here I am, just wandering along with my Nokia 6550 Slide... Overexposing the pictures like a boss.

What's that across the Plaza Puerta de Sol? - why, it looks like a rather large shop! Could be useful...

Indeed, I don't have to go too far before I come across Spain's largest department store (or at least their biggest chain) - El Corte Inglés, which means "The English Cut" (as in a Tailor's cut, not a reference to our government's austerity measures as far as I know...)

They've got everything a suitcase-less Brit could want but, frankly, I really can't be bothered to go full-on clothes shopping in such a massive place, so I stock up on all my toiletries (literally replacing everything that was in my sponge bag, whatever the cost), and make my way out as quickly as I can. Wandering through more streets outside, I find a small branch of Celio, a French clothing chain which I remember fondly from my time spent living in Paris, and in no time at all, I've managed to find myself a classic "Englishman on holiday" outfit of white linen shirt and beige slacks. Let's face it, this outfit is scarcely more office-appropriate than the jeans and jumper that I'm wearing, but it seems appropriate for the lovely summer weather, and at least I stop short of buying open-toed sandals and a straw boater.

In fact, I don't buy any new shoes at all, which I think shows admirable restraint: an opinion apparently not shared by whoever makes the company's travel expenses policy, which in its next revision a few months later, includes a clause expressly forbidding employees from expensing any items bought as a result of lost or delayed baggage - surely my lovely afternoon's shopping expedition isn't solely responsible for this... is it?

Where am I? Who knows...
All shopped-out, I'm free to roam the streets a little more, but I haven't gone far when my phone rings, and this time it's the personal one;  flashing up with the name of my estranged wife, making my heart pound as I contemplate what this conversation is going to bring.

This time it's a very matter of fact conversation, telling me that after 8 months of trying, we've got an offer on our house - the first house we bought together, the house with the cat-piss carpets that we had to totally strip to the bare bones and start all over again (twice), the house where we bought a paddling pool that filled the entire garden and sat in it in the sunshine, blasting out Robbie Williams songs. The house where we brought home our puppy and took several days' "paternity leave", the house that got us nearly £30,000 in debt on top of our mortgage, the house where we ate 5p packet noodles from Lidl to avoid going bankrupt. The house where we realised we were growing apart, where I sat on the kitchen counter top as we decided we should probably go our separate ways while "Rule the World" by Take That played on the radio, and where we tried to live in separate rooms for a few weeks until I came home from a work trip and started counting the dirty plates on the side, going through the bins looking for evidence of who knows what, and realised for the sake of my mental well-being that it was time to move back to my parents.

That house - gone. It's a great moment, but it's just one step on a very long journey to my new life, whatever that will look like, and it's tinged with both sadness and an innate disbelief that the offer will actually ever lead to a final sale considering that we're in the middle of the worst property crash in my lifetime.

Anyhoo, I carry on wandering with just the tiniest hint of a spring in my step now, on down the Calle de Alcalá, until I get to Plaza Cibeles, an enormous road junction with stunning architecture seemingly on every corner - Banco de España (The National Bank of Spain),  Palacio de Linares (The Palace of, um, Linares...) - and most strikingly, Palacio de Communicaciones (Palace of Communications) which started life as the headquarters of Spain's mail service, and is now used as Madrid's City Hall.

Palacio de Communicaciones - it's a bit nicer than Mount Pleasant sorting office.

It's while I'm taking the picture above that two 20-something Spanish girls come up to me, and in great English (how on earth they can tell I'm not Spanish, I have no idea...), ask me if I will take their picture in front of the Palacio, which I gladly do. They smile and thank me profusely, and then we all linger slightly awkwardly before I say "Bye!" and toddle off along the street, for an evening of thinking over and over again,  "I wonder what would have happened if I'd stopped to chat to them?"

A nice chat in the street, followed by an offer to go to a really cool bar where the locals hang out? Dinner at someone's friend's restaurant? A cheeky snog outside the hotel?  Being drugged and robbed and left for dead in Plaza de Vodafone? We may never know... The truth is, at this point, the idea of striking up a conversation with two random ladies in the street is, if not terrifying, then at least unthinkable. What would I say? How would I hold their interest? It's not like I'm Brad Pitt, or some other really hot person that's not from the 90's.

From Plaza Cibeles, I decide to head on South down Paseo del Prado, largely because I can see some green stuff in that direction, and who doesn't enjoy strolling through a nice park in the middle of a major city? Strolling down the greenery in-between the carriageways of the street is rather pleasant, and there's also plenty to look at:

Fuente De Apolo
Fuente de Neptuno
Fuente de... oh, actually there's no fountain in this picture, just some dodgy characters on a park bench...

Shortly after taking this picture, the two gentlemen above, pictured hanging around in the park at dusk, drinking something strongly alcoholic, take offence to me and my photography and come up and start harassing me for taking their picture (or at least I assume that's what they're saying, it's possible they're just welcoming me to their fine country), so I beat a hasty retreat back through some pretty, narrow streets towards the hotel.

Whoomp, there it is...

In any case, it's nearly dinner time, so I pop back up to my room, get changed into my work-funded new wardrobe, and head down to the restaurant.

"¿Tiene una mesa para uno?", I try (and probably fail) to say to the Maitre D', who smirks and ushers me into the completely empty restaurant. Do they have a table for one? It's probably fair to say that they do. It's 9pm and evidently not time for Spaniards to dine yet.

Dinner for one. Same procedure as every trip, James!
It's so embarrassing that I can only manage one, surreptitious, blurry photo, largely because the waiting staff have all come out in a big group to stand around staring at this complete lunatic who thinks 9pm is a sensible time to have dinner. Still, the food is extremely good. (Although sadly, I have no recollection of what I ate, try as I might to rack my brains. See, there's a reason I always take pictures of my dinner these days...)

Back up to the room, and it's time to sleep, ahead of my training session tomorrow - however it's most assuredly not time for the two people in the room next door to sleep, in fact it seems to be time for them to start holding some kind of painfully extended flirting marathon, as through the incredibly thin adjoining door I can sort-of-but-not-quite hear:

Man: Blah blah blah BLAH blah blah don't you know? At least, that's what I blah blah!
Woman: Teehehehehehehehehee! 
Man: Of course, when I was blah blah blah BLAH blah-blah in nineteen-ninety blah, you couldn't get blah for blah nor blah!
Woman: A-hahahahaha! Oh, tell me more...
Man: Well, obviously I had to blah my blah into the blah to even stand a hope in hell of blah-ing the blah as the youngest blah in all of the BLAH blah
Woman: Wow, oh my god, that's so amazing...
Man: What about you, tell me how you came to be blah blah blaaaahhhh
Woman: Oh, tee-hee, it's quite boring really...
Man: Well in that case, I'll talk about ME some more... here, have another glass of wine in this obnoxiously loudly chinking glass...

I feel like shouting through the door, "Can you two please just get on with it and BLAH each other's BLAHs out, for the love of BLAH?" 

Instead I jam my earphones into my ears as far as they will go and put on "Chilled: 1991-2008" - a Ministry of Sound "Chillout" compilation, which I've bought the previous week after seeing it advertised on the TV (rock and roll.) I find their definition of "Chilled" to be in some cases a little different to mine, but it's jam full of great tunes and opens my ears to a whole new genre of music, as well as becoming my default go-to album whenever I'm stressed and need to feel like I'm floating in a giant underground swimming pool in the dark.

It's 3 entire CDs long, and by the time it's finished, either my neighbours have done it and are now smoking themselves silly, one of them's got bored and left, or they've passed out from the industrial quantities of alcohol consumed - but either way, it's now silent and I'm able to lie down properly for a few hours without bits of plastic wedged into my ear canals, being driven into my eardrums by the pillow.

19th June 2008: Madrid and Heathrow

You may be relieved to hear that my memories of this day are pretty darned sketchy. I can remember nothing about getting to the office, about the office itself, or, shamefully, any of the people I train or even my "host" - which probably means that nobody in my class is either disruptive or a complete teacher's pet: there will be plenty of both on future trips...

The one thing I can distinctly recall is standing up in front of a room full of people in my "Brit abroad" outfit, finished off beautifully with some white Adidas trainers, explaining in my best "speaking to non-native English speakers" voice the whole sorry saga of losing my bag; going on to request forgiveness for dressing like I'm just getting off a cruise ship to go and walk around some ancient ruins, and for not remembering what on earth it is I'm meant to teach them.

It's a gamble, but it pays off, as they seem to find the whole thing very funny, and even oddly charming - and it's at this point that I discover that the whole "bumbling Englishman" routine, channelling a persona that lives somewhere between Hugh Grant and Mr. Bean, works rather well at getting people on your side, wherever you are in the world. (If you're reading this and you've ever seen me give a presentation or training session somewhere in the world, you'll probably understand now why I ALWAYS start by making some terrible joke or "amusing" comment about the city I'm in, and never ever turn up in a sharp suit, or clean-shaven...)

Somehow, I make it through the day without my notes, which is a huge confidence boost, as I realise that I actually do know something about the topic I'm being sent around Europe to teach people about, and what's more, the students even appear to have gained a rudimentary grasp of the topic by the time I'm done, too.

So now, it's time to head back to the airport, to get ushered through a secret door directly into the baggage reclaim area (Mind. Blown.) to pick up, hug, caress and lovingly stroke my suitcase, promising never to let it go ever again, and then to go straight back through to departures and check it in again for my flight back to Heathrow with a lump in my throat and icy dread in my heart.

Did I mention that this airport is just stunning? This is looking one way from my gate...

... and this is looking the other way.  I think it's several km long.

Luckily, this time, the rainbow unicorns are smiling on me, so I manage to get my bag back nice and quickly and head outside, where a young chap called Ben in a chauffeur's outfit is waiting for me with a placard with my name on it - such glitz and glamour! One advantage of completely totalling hire cars on work trips is that you're considered such a liability to the company's corporate insurance that they lay on a chauffeur car for you when you return home late at night, and this is the first such occasion for me.

Ben starts making polite conversation at first, and then upon finding that I'm not some corporate stiff (aren't I? RESULT!), but am "proper alright" (not my words, Lynn, the words of a 20-year old chauffeur driver) - starts telling me all about himself, asking me about my job and my life; and we get on so well that time flies, and the 103 mile journey from Heathrow back to Ramsgate only seems to take just over an hour. Or it could be that being "proper alright" means that Ben judges that it's ok to drive like an absolute maniac down the completely empty motorways - and to be fair, I don't exactly do anything to discourage this since I'd rather like my bed, please, if it's all the same to you.

We make it back in one piece, I tell Ben I'll see him in a couple of weeks, and I go in and lie to my parents about what time I landed before heading upstairs to crash out after my crazy few days. I've got a week off travelling next, but there's Vienna and Rome to visit the week after, and I need a bit of a rest.

"Proper alright". Maybe I am interesting enough to chat up Spanish tourists, after all.

Oh, alright then... just one more.

Next time: A wasted trip to Vienna and a wonderful revisit to Rome.

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