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…

Not a flyer in sight

No, I am not reporting live from Heathrow but remain in Auld Reekie. For the first time in several years, I am visiting Edinburgh away from its famous Festival and Fringe.  As a result, the streets are strangely empty of tourists, performers and their provisional, marketing wing: no-one has tried to hand me a flyer all week!

Despite the apparent entertainment vacuum, there is still plenty for a chap to do.  For a start, it has been great to catch up with old friends (by which I mean long-standing, rather than antique – though at my age, the two are becoming synonymous concepts) and their new arrivals.  And what a charming new arrival… just don’t show her a hat! (I was unable to test her opinion on the fascinator issue – jumped-up alice band or mini hat?).

For the first time ever, I saw the Forth Rail (and road) Bridge: up close and personal. There is always a risk with such an iconic star of page and screen that reality will disappoint – but not in this case.  Its sheer physical presence just can’t be captured by an image (though I, in common with many before me, have attempted to do so) – and, for the first time in many years, it is not being painted at the moment and so is scaffold-free.

In the glorious afternoon weather yesterday, I ascended to the summit of Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the stunning views (and obtain a little exercise).   As a result, I would like to suggest to Arthur that his seat could do with some work in the upholstery department – even the odd scatter cushion (normally anathema to our hero) would provide a more comfortable sitting experience.

Prior to my ascent in search of a sit-down, I visited Earthy – a splendid eatery in Causewayside – where I was furnished with the finest example of the quiche-maker’s art that has ever passed my lips: aubergine, chilli and feta were the headline ingredients, but I suspect the secret was in the fluffiness of the underlying egg-based substrate.  Possibly even more excitingly, I sampled a new vegetable – new not only to me, but also to the world (having been first reported only one year ago – almost to the day!).  This was the flower sprout the bastard love-child of kale and the brussel sprout.  Apparently, this off-spring was achieved without genetic modification – so I can only assume the “process” required huge patience, subdued lighting and a Barry White CD.  Luckily, their efforts were not wasted and the child takes after its father in taste (assuming kale was the daddy) – and is delicious served  cold with chilli and sesame seeds (and probably in many other ways too!).

There has been culture too – with the visual arts being complemented by a stunning performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Queen’s Hall last night.  Not many laughs compared to my traditional Edinburgh cultural fare perhaps, but some of the finest live music it has ever been my pleasure to enjoy (and at a very recession-friendly price too!).

So, if you are looking to escape the depressing winter weather of the home counties, I can thoroughly recommend a mini-break to Scotland!

Traveller’s Tales

I type this post, not slumped on my couch in Sawston but sitting up straight on a couch provided by the Radisson Blu hotel in Espoo in Finland.  Beyond my screen I can see the early evening sunlight dancing on the calm waters of the Gulf of Finland – yes, this is the first GofaDM post from abroad (i.e. overseas, I have not been tempted by gender re-assignment).

It’s a long old trek from Sawston to Helsinki – though to be honest most of that is getting to Heathrow, which was pretty trouble free today (and I even saw some rain at Paddington – who’d have thought that would have novelty value for a Brit?).  Terminal 3 is definitely not one of the highlights of LHR (though the ceilings are not quite as oppressively low as I remember), as whilst very efficient at getting me through security, the seating, flooring, shopping and dining options on the other side were less than thrilling.

Whilst trudging off to my gate, I passed several ads proudly claiming some bottled source of (mostly) H2O as the official water of the 2012 Olympics.  I thought to myself that it would be rather nice if “tap” could be the official water of the 2012 Olympics – the water, even in East London, is quite potable and involves the generation of far less plastic waste.

On the plane, I found myself seated two rows behind a man who was the very image of Simon Russell Beale.  If it were not the fine actor himself, the chap could surely have obtained a rather modest income as a look-a-like – though I fear a doppelgänger for a fine Shakespearean actor probably commands a rather smaller fee than one with a passing resemblance to a minor soap star or reality show contestant.

Finland – or at least the road from airport to hotel – seems lovely.  Lots of trees and lakes and, despite the Cassandra-like forebodings of the MetOffice, warm and sunny.  The locals seem a very friendly bunch (and given my total absence of Finnish – not even in my dishwasher – they fortunately speak very good English).  On the cab ride over I learned more than I could ever have imagined about the business of installing posters at bus stops in the greater Helsinki area.  This business seems to hold out the offer of a job for life – if I could handle the Sunday working (outdoors in all seasons) and the rather long commute.

As I’m writing this from the future (2 hours ahead of old Blighty), I ought to hit the hay so that I can attack my work-based duties tomorrow morning with renewed vigour (as opposed to a similar sounding unclothed prelate) – or, to put it more succinctly (and appropriately) I need to fin(n)ish this post.

If you like, you can think of this as post 99A (rather than 100) – but it seemed a pity to turn down the chance to blog from across the Baltic.  Fear not, my brain is fizzing with bad ideas for a video post – it will come…