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…

Hold the Mayo

After an efflorescence of posts over the weekend, there has been rather a dearth of new content this week.    The author has  suffered a lot of early mornings and late nights, coupled with the horrors of air travel, during the week – all in the name of work.  Yes, hard though it is to believe, this blog does not yet provide sufficient (or, to be brutally frank, any) income to allow me to give up working for “the man”.

I am not a big fan of air travel – especially when it involves me.  This is partly because I am not keen on either heights or enclosed spaces – which are delivered in a rather unhappy conjunction by the modern aeroplane – but also because airlines and airports seem to have gone to some trouble to deliver a deeply unpleasant travelling experience.  I firmly believe that if the Good Lord had meant us to fly, he wouldn’t have given us the railways.

My travel was in the hands of the OneWorld Alliance which is not, as it might sound, a fascist military faction from a science-fiction novel but is a group of airlines including British Airways and Finnair among numerous others.  My tour took in Terminal 3 of London Heathrow (LHR), where they seem to have removed most of the chairs from the terminal (for reasons unknown) and replaced then with what looks like a private roller rink, Vienna (also, rather short on terminal chairs – but with particularly good systems surrounding the issuance and checking of boarding passes) and Helsinki.

Several years ago, when I moved to South Cambridgeshire, I thought that one of the potential benefits of living in the area was its proximity to Stansted Airport and the consequent easing of the pain of international business travel.  However, whenever a business trip abroad comes around it inevitably seems to involve a destination which cannot be reached directly from Stansted (or even the wonderful London City Airport) but only from LHR (my least favourite of London’s airports, with the possible exception of Luton).  From home, it is around three hours on various rail-based transport systems to LHR (which usually exceeds the airborne component of the journey by some margin).

One thing I learnt from this most recent trip is that there seems to have been a major diplomatic incident between the UK and Finland.  At both ends of my journey (and indeed on my previous trip to Finland), we passengers were not delivered to (or from) our transport from (or to) the terminal by a short walk along a pier but had to walk to the far end of the terminal building where a bus gave us a tour of the airport tarmac on our way to find our plane.  I have flown with both “flag” carriers – but this seems to make no difference, I still get the bus ride at each end of the journey.  What has William Hague said to (or about) the Finns?  I am forced to wonder if a Yorkshireman is perhaps a little too blunt to be foreign secretary?

One of the many mysteries of air travel is the terrible food on offer both on the ground and in the air.  At most UK airports, one is offered the choice of seafood washed down with champagne (why?) or Starbucks (or some clone thereof) – and other European airports seem little better (and some even worse).   Contrast this with St Pancras International railway station where Le Pain Quotidien offers the traveller delicious French (or perhaps Wallonian – but still Francophone) bakery, patisserie and salads.

In the air, you often get little more than a packet of mini-pretzels (possible the least edible of all the snack foods) or a filled roll if the airline is pushing the boat out.  On my return journey I was furnished with a prawn mayo and rocket roll – which I imagine BA thought was a luxury offering, but which I worried represented a dangerous risk of food poisoning.  As this was a UK-sourced item, it provided details of its nutritional content – including the somewhat shocking fact that it provided nearly half of my RDA of salt for the day.  This was not a huge roll, and as a bread-maker myself I know bread requires only very modest amounts of salt – added to which I’m pretty sure that rocket is also salt-free.  I will admit that prawns, whilst alive, do prefer a somewhat saline environment (well some do, including those which end up in commercially-produced rolls) – but, once dead and imprisoned within a bakery product, there seems no obvious requirement to maintain this habitat.  I am forced to assume that the mayonnaise was comprised almost exclusively of salt (though, as the sandwich also contained an alarming proportion of my saturated fat allowance for the day, I assume this salt was blended with neat lard).  Y-O-Y-O-Y?

Expanding on this rant, why do so many sandwich makers feel the urge to place mayonnaise in almost every sandwich or roll anyway?  I have made bread-based meals at home for decades, and have yet to feel the need to put mayo in any of them.  Does this explain my relatively sylph-like figure, modest blood pressure and the fact that a packet of salt lasts me from one decade to the next (I ignore the use-by date as salt is a preservative)?  If this country is serious about tackling the obesity epidemic and rising rates of hypertension, surely the easiest option would be to ban mayonnaise in pre-made sandwiches?  It would also help reduce the incidence of post-consumption greasy fingers and so, perhaps, reduce serviette usage with a consequent saving in trees.  It should also make for cheaper sandwiches (fewer ingredients) which would be much appreciated in these times of rapidly rising food prices and shrinking incomes.

I think I may have found the single-issue party I need to launch my political ambitions onto the national stage.  Remember, cast your vote for “Hold the Mayo” the next time you find yourself in a hardboard booth with a pencil in hand!  Fish for PM!  (And no, I’m not looking to replace Eddie Mair).