Meeting in Milan

Business travel is much less romantic than is often imagined by those bound to these shores by their employ.  One sees little of foreign lands: except for their airports, dual carriageways, international hotels and office blocks – most of which lack much in the way of local flavour or charm.

Earlier this month, business took me to Milan for a couple of days.  The trip had a poor start, as freezing fog cancelled all flights (including mine) from London and I had to wait nearly nine hours before I could head to Lombardy.  Such a hefty delay meant I could return home – despite a two hour journey each way – which seemed preferable to spending the whole time at the airport.  I’m slightly surprised with all of our technology that fog is sufficient to stop all flights (it is hardly a volcano – or even rare) but in partial compensation, the countryside on my return home through Essex looked magical as the sun came out and the thickest, whitest rime I have ever seen bedizening every twig and branch.

Eventually, I did reach Milan and was able to enjoy their efficient and astoundingly cheap metro (less than a third of the price of its London counterpart for the casual user) to trundle around the city.  Still, it wasn’t entirely unlike home as there were huge problems on the mainline trains while I was there (though luckily, this didn’t affect me).

Lunch was in the staff canteen of the organisation I was visiting, but this being Italy coffee was an important epilogue to lunch.  For this we all went to a small, apparently unremarkable, little coffee shop around the corner.  In this country, coffee is now a much more involved process than it was when I was young – much banging, hissing and frothing accompanies the production and it all takes quite a while.  Much the same is true in Italy (though they did some rather quicker and more efficient) but the attention to detail goes one step further than it does at home.  If your chosen beverage includes whipped cream this is produced from an aerosol can in the UK, even in relatively upmarket venues, whereas my modest Italian venue used fresh whipped cream piped using a bag onto your drink.  Here is something we could definitely learn from our Italian cousins!  Sadly, I don’t drink coffee (which marks me out as much more abnormal than was once the case.  Coffee shops fill our high street and shopping centres in the way that Douglas Adams once imagined shoe shops would) – and even I am not yet decadent enough to have whipped cream on my tea.

National stereotyping would suggest that the Italians are more passionate than they are efficient.  Added to which, they do keep re-electing Silvio Berlusconi to the amusement and exasperation of much of Europe (and, I suspect, Italy) which doesn’t do much for their reputation overseas.  My, admittedly limited, experience suggests that they are in fact a fair bit more efficient than we are.  When I woke on my final morning in Milan, a good foot or so of snow had fallen – and more was continuing to fall.  A week or so earlier, half-an-inch fell in East Anglia: so little that I could still cycle quite easily and safely but still enough to close Stansted Airport for some time.  So, I feared my return journey would be even worse delayed than the outbound leg,  but the people of Lombardy are made of sterner stuff than those of Essex and I needn’t have worried.  Despite being dusted in fresh snow as I walked across the tarmac at Linate to reach my plane, the only delay my return flight experienced was caused by a problem at snow-free Heathrow.

There has been much debate about the desperate need for an extra runway at Heathrow (or, indeed, a whole new airport in the Thames Estuary) if this country is to escape from recession.  I find this very puzzling – are there great queues of foreigners keen to spend money in the UK, but unable to land?  Surely, people leaving the country to spend their money abroad can’t be doing much for UK plc?  Or is the idea to pack the recession onto fleets of aircraft and deport it?

As a man of business (a sort of sub-lieutenant of industry), lack of runways at Heathrow has never been an issue.  An inability to keep them open certainly has been an issue as has the excessive cost of reaching the airport and the huge amount of time wasted both when departing and arriving.  Perhaps these issues could be prioritised first: I reckon they’d be cheaper and could be delivered before 2020 (unlike a new runway).  What we do already have at Heathrow is a computerised border – where a computer reads your passport and looks at your face and (eventually) decides to let you in.  I’m sure this is the future and demonstrates the marvels of modern technology.  The one caveat with this system is that it is appreciably slower than a human being carrying out the same process and can’t partake in even brief conversation.  I also fear the cost of each machine would pay a human salary for many, many years – still, that’s progress I suppose,

While the trip was tiring, it had its moments of fun and showed there is much we can still learn from the Italians.  I have been to Italy several times now, but always for business, and I think its time I visited for pleasure:: but perhaps I’ll wait until the weather is a tad warmer!  It might also be a good plan to refresh my rusty schoolboy Latin with something a little more current…

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Be careful what you write…

In my recent outing as an (unqualified) economist, I came to the conclusion that Amazon was not a good corporate citizen and that to drag this country kicking and screaming out of its n-dip (where n=2 at the time of writing) recession we should be spending our money elsewhere.  This conclusion was by no means a foregone one – when I started writing I had no idea what the conclusion would turn out to be.

It struck me that if I was going to “talk the talk” then I had better “walk the walk”, as our American friends would say (well, the more clichéd among them).  Some readers of this blog have ditched Amazon, so I could scarcely do less.  This has meant Amazon and its ilk have not been a part of this year’s Christmas shopping.  So I have sought out UK tax paying alternatives – looking for smaller companies and those without major operations abroad.

For many of my online needs, it was reasonably straightforward to find more exchequer-friendly alternatives to Amazon, and even ones that use the Post Office for deliveries (though this latter may not entirely have pleased my postman!).  (Oh yes, for me shopping involves both economic and social policy considerations).  However, in a few key areas I was forced to bite a rather unpalatable bullet and actually visit a real shop.  Not just a shop, but a shop during the month of December – which I’m sure must be somewhere in Dante Alighieri’s masterwork (though, I’ll admit I haven’t actually checked the Inferno).

So, last Sunday I girded my loins and headed into Cambridge on my bike. Having cleared the gauntlet of cars waiting to enter the Grand Arcade car park (a queue which I think runs continuously from late November until Christmas day and fills several nearby streets) it was surprisingly easy to find a space to park my bike.  John Lewis was busy, but still readily navigable and the staff were astonishingly cheery.  Buying stuff was a breeze and queues were relatively short and moved quickly.  I may have to do this whole “shopping” thing again.  As an added bonus, shopping in the real (as opposed to the virtual) world also provides an excellent excuse to partake of a little fortifying cake (these loins don’t just gird themselves you know!).

Whilst in John Lewis, I noticed that they were stocking formal shirts made in England – rather in the land of our soon-to-be economic masters – and felt I might partake.  I need some new work shirts as my current stock are rather too voluminous for my svelte frame so that I tend to feel like I’m wearing a kaftan or small marquee beneath my suit.  I’m also finding myself making rather more use of shirts at work given my sudden rash of both client contact and international travel, and so the lack of fit is more often brought to my attention.  At this stage, I would like to make clear that even when working from home, I do dress fully – if informally.  No working in either the buff or PJs for me!

With a little help from a sales assistant, one reason why I was drowning in my shirts became apparent – my current shirts are all 17.5″ in the neck, whereas my actual neck is only 15.5″.  It would seem that my neck was much fatter the last time I bought shirts or very poorly measured (or both).  Is this (the shrinking neck) one of the infamous seven signs of ageing?  Still, whatever the cause, I can now dress formally in a little more style (once – but more may follow), rather than giving the impression of waiting for a friend to join me in my chemise.  Again, a benefit of the real over the virtual.

Another side-effect of my blog post is that I now feel the need to support real bookshops (as well as Greenmetropolis).  My favourite London restaurant is only a stone’s throw from Foyles (and we are talking my stone throwing ability here, so that means pretty close).  Despite some modernisation over the years, Foyles remains delightfully quirky and it is still quite possible to get lost when trying to find the exit (I can tell you this from recent personal experience).  I’ve been to 10 Greek Street twice since that fateful post and so have bought two books.  At this rate, I’m going to need a new bookcase worryingly soon.

So, the moral of this post is to be careful of what you write:  the need to maintain a modicum of internal consistency can have unintended consequence for one’s life.

100% wrong

We have reached that time of the year when even I, a lover of black and white striped mint sweets for sheep (baa humbugs), must admit that Christmas may not only be coming (which is always the case) but is sufficiently close that I may have to do something about it.

Yesterday, whilst wandering the aisles of a local supermarket,I noticed a packet of tasty Xmas treats labelled “100% butter mince pies”.  Surely the only thing which is 100% butter is butter – and unsalted butter at that.  Now, I like butter as much as the next man – but expect my mince pies to have some other ingredients: mincemeat, flour, sugar and perhaps an egg and a dash of milk.  I know footballers and other mathematically challenged individuals have been giving 110% for many years, but these mince pies would have to be giving well over 200% to be even remotely satisfying.

Talking of the mathematically-challenged, I notice that the Chancellor justified his plans to reduce the highest tax rate using reasoning thoroughly debunked as complete nonsense on More or Less more than a week earlier (by those well-known left-wing subversives: Tim Harford and a senior tax planner to the wealthy).  I have no idea whether the change is a good idea or not – but judging by his explanation, it is an even worse thought out change than the rest of government policy (and that can’t have been easy given the amazingly “high” standard of the competition).  Perhaps it’s time that More or Less became required listening for all government ministers – it is less than 30 minutes per week and at least while listening they should be unable to implement innumerate new policies.