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…