Once upon a time…

A Business Trip to the UK With Sales

In April 2009 (a long, long time ago), I took a trip to England and Scotland with one of the IBM sales managers. As a sales trip, it was mostly customer meetings. The trip was designed for me to go over and teach the UK sales and technical sales team about one of our products. As internal travel was banned but the sales manager really wanted the UK team trained, it became an IBM sales trip. This was an old trick. If you needed to visit an IBM site somewhere, you find a couple of customers nearby, and call and ask if you can come visit. You spend an hour with them, exchange business cards, spend three days on site at IBM with your colleagues and it’s still a customer trip.

As an IBM sales trip designed by an insane person, this one meant one meeting in Birmingham, one in Glasgow and two in London over five days. With sales planning the trip, that meant two hotels, a one-day trip to Scotland (outbound flight 6:55 am, inbound flight 7:30 pm) and skipping Birmingham completely because the customer was actually in London.

Sales saw the trip as a great gift to me, because I got to go overseas. As part of the worldwide technical sales team, I was in Europe at least twice a year. When I had vacation and no idea what to do, I went to London. I had been in London for Y2K. I had my own local pubs in London. I had been to Scotland on a package tour. This was not an unusual or exciting trip for me.

It was probably the only business trip I ever did with someone from sales. Some of this may explain why.

It was one of the few business presentations I did for a hostile crowd – the IBM UK team hated the product I was demonstrating. It was an anti-spam product and I used to install it inline with the customer’s existing spam product as a demo to show what we would filter out that their existing setup wouldn’t. I would either add a hidden tag to the mail so we could find it, or create a log of all the mail that was declared spam so we read the log. The UK team was freaked out about installing anything in a live environment, even if it was in passthrough mode and didn’t actually filter anything. I said you could copy any spam to a log and let it get delivered. I said nobody knew you were there, unless they knew where to look. The UK team wouldn’t buy it. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. How do we indemnify ourselves? Finally, one asked what the US team (i.e. me) did to not get sued by a customer. I said, “Don’t fuck it up.” One of the few four-letter words I ever uttered in a meeting (well, an international meeting with people other than my team), and one that did not endear me to the locals. So it goes. They weren’t going to support it anyway.

I had managed to suppress most of the memories of this trip (except “Don’t fuck it up” because I was a bit proud of that moment), but my Facebook notes all showed up in my digital Memories this week, so I pulled them out and cleaned them up. For some reason, the Facebook versions had HTML tags all through them, and it was hard to read. (Without the HTML, it may not be that much easier.) I didn’t edit, just cleaned them up. Apparently, you can’t do notes on Facebook any longer, but the old ones are still on your timeline. I loved notes, because it meant I didn’t have to write a blog post. Ironic, no?

I just found my Tripit log from the trip. I flew out of Dallas (nonstop Heathrow) on Saturday, April 18, 2009, arriving on Sunday the 19th. Two internal meetings at IBM on the 20th. Flew up to Glasgow for two meetings on the 21st, and returned that evening. Day off Wednesday. Two customer meetings in London on Thursday. Flew home Friday. Seven days, two hotels (bad planning), six meetings, , four hours of customer work, two countries. Sometimes, I am glad we do everything with Zoom meetings now.

Random Thoughts on my Trip To England (so far)

(April 19, 2009) These are some random notes I scribbled in the lobby of the hotel while I was desperately trying to stay awake since they didn’t have a room available and I really didn’t think I should sleep on the couch. It started out as good points and bad points, so far. 

Good points

Free upgrade. Comfortable seats. Free booze. Taxi queue manager had actually heard of “Staines.” Taxi quote wasn’t as  bad as I feared. Guinness on tap at the hotel. Hotel has a restaurant and room service. Can hear trains rumble by while watching rowers on the Thames.

Bad points

Seat-mate forgot to lock toilet door on the plane, so almost walked in on him. Express immigration line was full of problem visitors (many long discussions.) Pre-booked taxi didn’t show after almost two hours and a page (so £31 for a ten-minute ride.) Mobile phone doesn’t work in Europe, so couldn’t call (and probably didn’t have number anyway.) Driver didn’t know where hotel was, so had to turn on laptop to get address (told him the street, and when he was going to turn onto it, the hotel was right in front of us.) Room isn’t ready (maybe by noon), so no nap. (Considering stretching out on the couches in the lobby.) No idea when (if?) the sales lead is showing up. It’s chilly – that crisp London breeze, and the doors to the patio are open.  

Why are so many people in shorts?

Would get laptop back from storage and check WiFi but clerk may have a nervous breakdown – he seems stressed.

Breakfast buffet is open but can’t deal with food right now. May just sit at bar until someone brings coffee.

After seeing some of the creatures wandering through the lobby, am beginning to think this is not a business hotel. Let’s just say one guy walked by in shorts and a shirt with patterns that clashed so badly, I said “Wow. Those don’t go together.”

My room has a view of the Thames River. It actually has a patio. I know this because the doors to the patio were open when I got into the room. Hey, just because it’s April doesn’t mean it’s warm enough for open windows!

Random UK Thoughts (Continued)

(April 20, 2009) Overslept – no wake-up call. Awakened by fire alarm test blasting at 8:45am. Supposed to meet colleague at 8:30am. Threw on t-shirt, ran downstairs to restaurant, no colleague. Was asked “Table for one?”

Arrived at 10:00am for a 9:15am presentation. (Wrong turn on walk over.) Colleague went first. Good job. Many questions. Left 10 minutes for my demo. My last technical presentation took an hour and a half. Actually finished early. Could see eyes glaze over – sales people not that much into technical information.

Going to another site to repeat the session this afternoon. Hopefully, I will get more than ten minutes.

Booked the Scotland trip – up and back tomorrow on British Midlands (bmi). Had to book over the phone – can’t book online within 24 hours of travel. Need to extend hotel tonight, so we don’t have to schlep our luggage around. Hopefully, they won’t forget the wake-up call tomorrow.

Presented to my internal team – the ones I support from worldwide. Bloodied but not scarred. Took almost an hour and a half. Mostly sales questions.

Can’t get the hotel extended – so moving tomorrow – before, during or after the Scotland day trip.

Birmingham meeting is actually in London on Thursday. This is a shame, as I’ve never been to Birmingham. On the other hand, I’ll be in London.
 
Let’s see – tomorrow’s flight is at 7am. Need to be at Heathrow by 6am. Need to take suitcases to new hotel first. So, need to leave hotel by 5:30am. Need to pack, shower and shave. Hmm. Need to be up about 4:45am. Ouch. Probably should have less pints than I’m planning to have.

In The George pub, Staines. Hand-pumped Courage bitter. There is a God, and when He doesn’t drink Guinness, He drinks hand-pumped bitter.

In the Boundary pub, Staines. Marston’s Smooth is very tasty. I think it’s better than Courage. Watching the cricket match. Life is good for now.

My colleague asked the bartender where to get good fish and chips and without hesitation, he said “The Swan.” Is it just the US where the automatic answer is invariably “Here.”?

At the Swan Hotel, Staines. Fuller ales. Specifically, Fuller ESB. Can I move here?

Dinner at the Swan. Salmon followed by fish and chips. Is that redundant?

(Note to Spousal Unit: no, I am not smootchy yet.)

Holiday Inn on Bath Road will be my home the rest of the week, as soon as I can book it.

Fish and chips were excellent. Cheese platter for dessert was good, as well.

Starting to worry about the time I have to get up.

Double-shot of Jameson’s to close the night. Time to go pack.

Mentioned to front desk that I didn’t get my wake up call. Reminded him we pay corporate rates and we drink. Still no room available tomorrow night.

Setting cell phone alarm “just in case” per Lucas.

Meeting at 5:30am to head out in the taxi. If I were ever to die in my sleep, this would be a good night.

A Day in Scotland

(April 21, 2009) Woke at 3:30am. Abandoned hope of sleep. Checked email, packed. Since I was awake, naturally I got my wake up call. Had time for one coffee after checking out. Taxi was almost on time. Driver was slow and deliberate – not a good quality when trying to make time to catch a plane. Made it to new hotel to drop bags. Discovered there are two Holiday Inns on Bath Road. Miraculously, I think we both picked the same one. Woman at desk was helpful, slow and deliberate. Almost had to kill her.  

Made it to Heathrow with a couple of minutes to spare. Had to take belt off to go through x-ray machine – did not lose pants, but close. Jogged to gate to catch colleague who had disappeared into the mist. Went through second security check – no disrobing required. Ticket class allows lounge access. Too bad I can’t drink my breakfast. It’s 6:30am.

Learned on the plane that bmi charge for all drinks in economy – even coffee. Business class seats have yellow towels – otherwise the seats are identical. I should have stolen one of the yellow towels to get free drinks.

Just found a £5 note I’ve had in my wallet for years. Coffee, please. (I knew it would come in handy someday.)

Four flight attendants on an hour-long flight. Impressive.

I was served tea instead of coffee. Not so impressive. Nice cup of tea, though – for £1.80. Pocket now full of heavy British change.

Brilliant concept: bmi hands you milk and sugar packets in a baggie so you have a trash bag for empty packets, stir-sticks and used tea bags. All airlines should do this.

Ears just popped – almost in Scotland.

Glasgow. 8:20am. Need a nap. Yet another airport with no ride apparent. This is not a good trend.

Wearing my suit – no wedding, no funeral. A new concept.

Found our contact, and he was on time. Also, a new concept. So far, so good. Brief meeting at Starbucks (oy vey) and we’re off to the customer site.

It’s Scotland, therefore it’s raining. Umbrella safe in suitcase at Holiday Inn Heathrow, so it won’t get wet.

Following the River Clyde out of Glasgow up to meeting. It’s a beautiful river.

Just passed IBM Greenock. Another site I’d heard about but never expected to see.

Just passed an Italian bistro on the Scottish coast.

Bridge is out (construction) on way to customer – will now probably be late two days in a row. Looking for Diversion signs, since they don’t have detours here.

Right on time, actually.

An hour and a half – good meeting. Now, off to lunch and then another customer.

Just ordered my first dish of haggis. This should be interesting.

Haggis rocks. That was very tasty. It’s really just like sausage, or ground meat, it’s just mystery meat.

Haggis, Neeps and Tatties is not a Scottish law firm. (It’s haggis, turnips and potatoes.)

Time to head to the airport, then back to the new hotel. We’re there the rest of the week, so I can actually unpack my suitcase.

bmi wanted a £66 fee to change to an earlier flight, as opposed to the £30 I was told when I booked. Decided I didn’t want to explain that high a charge to my manager or eat it myself. I guess we will kill an hour in the bar (we’re flying in the wrong ticket class for lounge access – flew up on fully-changeable ticket, flying back on cheap ticket – why is it never the other way around?)

Successfully “dropped trou” in security line. It was only a matter of time. 

Oy vey.

No response from anyone behind me in the line. Didn’t notice stiff upper lip or actually stiff anything – which is  good.

Ordered first Guinness of the week to help forget “the flashing of the guard.”

I guess I need to start busking to get change to have a Coke on the flight home.

Switched back to hand pumped ale. I can get a proper Guinness at home.

Goal for this evening’s surfing – find a quick way to IBM South Bank for Thursday’s meetings. Also, find my old home pub (can’t remember the Tube stop near the White House Hotel, but it is one stop from Baker Street) and how to get to Porter’s. I need a copy of the Tube map.

On the plane back to the pub. I mean London.

I asked the flight attendant if I was on the right flight since they recheck ticket class stubs at the door. She said, “You are going to Barbados?” She belongs on Southwest.

My colleague has been drinking Strongbow which looked like light beer, but is actually apple cider – hard cider. Just bought a can on the plane – now I see why he drinks it. (Since it’s made from apples, it must be packed with vitamins.) I will have to see if they have it at the Tipp at home – I know they have cider, but I don’t know the brand.

By the way, our host in Staines yesterday drinks Dr Pepper. They had it at Sainsbury’s. I missed it, so I had Coke Zero.

Almost back to London and it looks like tomorrow is an open day. I think we have two meetings on Thursday and Friday I head home.

I want to go to Porter’s for dinner tomorrow, in fact, I just got an email from them today to remind me that they are still alive and kicking. Traditional British food at fairly reasonable prices – a bit touristy, but good. It was the place I first had Spotted Dick, which is not as dirty as it sounds.

I should have had more haggis at the airport pub.

How much is 440ML in American? This is a large (hic!) can of (hic!) cider. Strongbow is my new favorite drink.

I am really digging bmi. They’re now selling train tickets for the Heathrow Express on the plane.

My ears are popping – we must be almost to Heathrow. It’s been a long day. I need dinner, maybe a round or two in the pub, and sleep. The pub comes first because I can sleep at home.

Checked into the Holiday Inn – one of two on Bath Road and one of at least three at Heathrow. It doesn’t suck. Wired and WiFi access.

Considering going to Stonehenge tomorrow if no meetings planned. Need to do train routing to Salisbury. First, dinner.

What’s the British version of “Peace, Out”?

The Irritating Day

(April 22, 2009) I abandoned my Stonehenge plans – there’s really not enough time, especially since I was just told tomorrow’s meetings are on Domino and not Protector. It’s research time – I have to become a DAOS expert overnight. (Here’s what I know so far: DAOS strips and stores attachments from Domino databases. If you send 37 people a copy of your great presentation, only one copy gets stored on disk. This is much less costly in disk space. Cool.)

Somehow, my colleague is on the “bed and breakfast” plan and I’m not – which probably means I picked the wrong column when I booked the room. His breakfast is included, mine would be £17.50. I’m not spending that much of my meal allowance on a meal I usually skip. (It did look pretty good – a traditional British breakfast.) I had coffee which was better than the instant coffee in the room.)

Saw second Microsoft “Windows … Life without walls” billboard. If there are no walls, what’s holding the windows in place?

On the Piccadilly line, bound for Piccadilly Circus and the Bakerloo line. I love the tube.

Almost an hour on the tube. Heathrow is a long way out. We will need to take the Heathrow Express train tomorrow to make better time into the city.

It’s really too warm for a long-sleeve shirt.

Walked through St James Park to Buckingham Palace. Was not invited into the palace. Watched many tourists walking into each other’s photos (bad) or into traffic (very bad.) My feet are starting to hurt.

Walked back across the park in search of sustenance.

Stopped for a pint at The Chequers. Sitting near Bullshit Corner. I want this sign. Pub grub for lunch – sausage and onion baguette with chips.

I didn’t see a tube map at the station and I need one.

Just passed a store that has pre-owned Patek Philippe watches. How freakin’ expensive are they new if there’s a used market?

You can see a lot of London while looking for an AmEx ATM. This is unfortunate, as my feet are killing me and I have money.

Stopped at The King’s Head to rest foot. There seem to be quite a few pubs here. Seeing if Fuller’s London Pride ale cures blisters.(It does not.)

No matter what time you enter a pub, you will not be the only customer.

Now, for the dramatic (and bitchy) conclusion to the day. To my colleagues that know who’s with me, just pretend you don’t.

After wandering around with no real plan, it was time to head back to the hotel on the tube. Found the Piccadilly line, and dozed all the way back to the Terminal station.

We took a bus from Heathrow to the hotel since you have to pre-book a cab, and we hadn’t. I would have just gone to the terminal to get a regular cab, but colleague seemed to be in a huge hurry. He tried to call the hotel, but couldn’t get connected. I remembered the front desk told me this morning the U3 bus went from the hotel to the airport, so we got on it when it pulled in. I never saw the hotel, and pretty soon we seemed to be going into the neighborhoods. Colleague asked driver where the Holiday Inn was. Driver said the second stop. We were at the twelfth stop. Oops. So, we got off, walked across the street, and waited for the bus going the other way. I considered it an interesting tour. Colleague was not enjoying the ride. Apparently, it’s my fault, as much bitching ensued, directed at no-one, but aimed at me, and yes, I am sensitive about this.

Colleague now in charge of navigation since I am obviously a dumb-ass. He gets off the return bus three stops early and then walks two and a half blocks in the wrong direction to the Sheraton. Unfortunately, we’re in the Holiday Inn. He looks at me and says “Now, what?” So, now it’s my problem? I thought I was a dumb-ass. Why are you putting a dumb-ass in charge? I mentioned he might have gotten off too early, and he looked at me like I had two heads. Back-tracked. Went into a Chinese restaurant to ask directions. The Holiday Inn is a “ten-minute” walk in the other direction. Oops. I think that means I was right. We walked back to our hotel. I lost him near the end since I couldn’t keep up. My feet are killing me. I may be a dumb-ass, but when I was lost, I was riding in air-conditioned comfort.

So, lesson confirmed today: when on a sales project, when it goes south, you were in charge (whether you knew it or not). You will be berated when the mistake is discovered. If they screw up, it’s never mentioned, you’ll just get put in charge again. When you’re right, you’re ignored and they’ll abandon you in the end.  

You can also blog whatever you want about it because none of them understand blogs or Facebook.

I’m ready to go home. I never thought I would say that I was ready to leave London,  but I’m done. I was not meant to be in sales. Fire, Aim, Ready just makes no sense to me, and I can’t get any of them to Aim, anyway.

The Final Day

(April 23, 2009) The Holiday Inn has no soap in the bath. It has a squeeze bottle of hand soap by the sink and a squeeze bottle of shampoo in the shower (both wall-mounted) but I really don’t think you’re supposed to carry a handful of soap into the shower with you and I hope you’re not supposed to drip across the bathroom to get soap in the middle of your shower. I just used shampoo for soap, since I have normal hair pretty much everywhere.

Feet still throbbing. Changed shoes. Now ready for the last day of the UK tour, as feet are throbbing in different way than previously. I am beginning to see why one musician said he isn’t paid to perform, he’s paid to travel.

We’re going into the city, method unknown at this point. Taxi, Tube or Train + Tube are all options – and all have their good and bad points. I will have no opinion – I’m not falling for that again.

8:48am. Taking the tube. Train arriving in six minutes and only 19 stops to go.

Have a Zone 2-6 ticket, per colleague. Going to Zone 1. Exiting the station may be interesting. I was trying to get a Zone 1-6 ticket when he told me what he had. Figured we should argue with the transit police together.

9:23am. We’re at Barons Court, still in the ‘burbs, basically. Colleague on the phone – sounds like we may be late. Train is going underground, so it was a short call.

9:52am. Waiting outside Waterloo for our host. That was actually a quicker trip than I thought.

Turnstiles at Waterloo locked on my colleague’s tube pass. “Seek Assistance.” Bored guard let us through. It looked like she was considering explaining that we had the wrong pass, and decided against the bother.

Made the meeting on time. An hour-long discussion – I think it went well.

Had a ham, cheese and tomato panini, a bag of cheese and  onion crisps and a metric Dr Pepper for lunch in the IBM cafeteria – in other words, a traditional British lunch. Added a Mars bar since sweets seem to be mandatory.

The IBM South Bank cafeteria doesn’t take cash, only smartcards (or IBM badges.) We had to each get a temp badge to buy lunch. We also have to remember to cash it back in before we leave – or have to eat more since there is still money on the card. Wondering if IBM thinks many guests will forfeit the £2 deposit to keep such a magical card as a souvenir. Me? Notsomuch. (IBM Hursley had them at one point, but on my next trip were taking cash, as well. It’s great if you have a badge, but a pain otherwise. My US badge didn’t work in Hursley, so I had to get a temp card, anyway.)

Some of the trash bins are color-coded. This is very useful unless you don’t know the code (or are color-blind, I suppose.) Left all my crap on the tray – let the professionals sort it out. (I was not alone in this.)

The smartcard machine only takes bills, but it only returns coins. Fifteen pounds in coins can be heavy.  

One more meeting to go. Pre-meeting at 1pm, real meeting at 2pm. This was a long way to travel for an hour to ninety minutes each.

Never try to help two salespeople meet. It is more effort than you would expect, since neither is on time or paying attention. Stick to herding cats.

Meeting was actually at 2:30pm. Very interesting customer. I think we were learning from him. 

Done with meetings – off for my own personal adventures in London. I managed to find Porter’s English Restaurant by going to Covent Garden on the tube and walking in larger circles until I saw the TGI Fridays, which is hideous but right down the street from Porter’s. (When traveling, I always think I should just stand outside random TGI Fridays and Starbucks and apologize to any natives that go by.) I get lost so often trying to find the same places, that I have landmarks.

I was going to go back to the hotel and change, but decided I didn’t have that much time to waste. Besides, rush hour was starting and I would have been standing most of the way. Best to have a couple of pints down first to prepare.

Just hit with an amazing feeling of relief that the week is done. It may have been the bitter. (Note to Spousal Unit: you are no longer the only one who can drive me to drink.)

Steak and Cheddar pie with chips. Tremendous. Porter’s has amazing puff pastry for their pies. However, chips of the week goes to The Chequers whose chips tasted like battered mashed potatoes. Double-amazing.

So, I started the week with haggis, and ended with Spotted Dick. I noticed that pie, pudding, cappuccino and a bottle of bitter I ordered was four pounds cheaper ala carte than the fixed-price pie, pudding, coffee and half-bottle of wine.

Suddenly wondering if I can find a cricket bat.

Two words I never thought thought I’d say to a taxi driver (or anyone) without the Spousal Unit in tow: “Harrods, please.” Where else would you go for a cricket bat on a Thursday evening? Harrods not only had cricket bats, they also had green Harrods bags shaped like a cricket bat to carry it home. (Note to Spousal Unit: I did not choose the £189 professional model.)

Harrods can also charge you in US dollars so they can give you a bad exchange rate instead of having to wait for the bank to give you a bad rate. (They also had a £12,000 foosball table but that made my head hurt.)

Now, back to the hotel to see if it fits in my suitcase, since cricket bats are on the “specifically forbidden carry-on items” list. How many cricket bats are being carried around the US, anyway?

An older couple standing by me on the train is getting frisky. Smooch, smooch. Ick. If a couple publicly kissing is younger than I, I think “Get a room!” If they’re older, I think “Viagra commercial?”

I took the infamous bus from Heathrow to the hotel – and found the proper stop, just outside the airport. It’s not a short walk, but it’s shorter than yesterday’s.

The cricket bat fits in my suitcase. Hurrah! Thank you, Harrods! 

Someone from the hotel read this before it was published, because there is now a bar of soap in my bathroom.  

It’s time to go home.

Bonus: The Kumars run a bar

(April 23, 2009) I went down to the hotel bar for a quick adult beverage and to see if my colleague had returned from the city yet. He had not, but I had a most amusing time.

First of all, if Ashwin Kumar had ever just opened a bar instead of letting his son run a TV show, I’ve found the bar. (If you’ve never seen The Kumars at No. 42, you owe yourself.) He would almost be Basil Fawlty on an incompetence scale, but he is exceedingly polite, as most Indians I have met are (a positive stereotype for a people scarred by doing too much remote tech support.) The head bartender (and I believe bar manager) is a completely overworked, almost elegant Indian gentleman trying to keep order, instruct the (incompetent in his eyes) staff and serve drinks to his customers, and between his running around and the customers either confused, annoyed or bemused by the service (depending on the number of drinks they’ve consumed), it is quite a show.

One gentleman ordered two pints to go before paying his tab and mentioned that the beer was preventing him from killing someone. I didn’t think the service was quite that bad, but we all have our tolerance levels. This gentleman is also dear to me because he had a sneezing fit that was comparable to (if not greater than) one of mine, and he said “I must be allergic to beer.” (I would never think such a thing. I would blame it on the glass.) I told him he needed to drink faster or slower, but I wasn’t sure which. He said faster was always better, so I deferred to experience. I also told him if the top of a beer made him sneeze, he should just send it back and start over.

I ordered a Scotch and Coke, because the Beatles used to drink it a lot (according to many quotes in various books), and I’ve simply never had the nerve to order it in the States because the bartenders there generally know me, and they don’t like ruining good Scotch. I told “Ashwin” to use the house Scotch so nothing of much value would be harmed. (It was Bell’s, which is probably just above rotgut.) Scotch and Coke with cheap Scotch and Pepsi (curse hotel tie-ups with the wrong brand) is actually not bad. The Coke (Pepsi) takes the edge off the Scotch, so if you don’t like Scotch, it would probably make it palatable. It’s not like Boone Farms wine, and it shouldn’t have an umbrella, but if you don’t like the taste of Scotch, this would help. Personally, I like Scotch, so while it was an amusing little drink, it’s not going to make my usual rotation. “Ashwin” asked if I was going to pay cash or charge it to my room. I said “room”, he rang it up, I said “Can you just keep it open?” and he said “No, your room number goes there, and sign it please.” So I did.

I ordered a refill (eventually.) Same procedure. That’s when I began to notice everyone around me was running a tab. Considering I’ve had bartenders start tabs for me when I walk in off the street into a bar I’ve never visited (even when the locals have to pay cash per round), I found this strange. Bartenders usually look at me and think “He’s good for it and he’s going to need more than one.” So it goes. Maybe “keep it open” is not English, but American.

After that, I decided to apologize to the gods of single malt, so I ordered Glenfiddich, one of the few single malt Scotch whiskies I can pronounce sober. (Did I do that joke already?)

Actually, I decided to see how long it would take to have him ask me if I wanted another drink. After serving at least four people and having a discussion with one about how to mix his tomato juice (the guy also asked for his bill, but that part was missed), and then spending five minutes actually mixing the tomato juice (with a splash of Tabasco and something from the seltzer gun), he finally asked if I would like something else. That’s when I asked for Glenfiddich. They were out. Well, he couldn’t find the bottle, so he announced they were out. There were two different vintages of Glenfiddich on the menu, so that’s out of a lot. I asked what single malts they had and when he got to Laphroaig, I said that was fine. I said “straight up, with just a couple of rocks.” To my horror, he put Coke in it. So, I sent it back. He looked pained as seven pounds fifty went down the drain, but nobody said anything about Coke. I had planned to tell him I was done with kids’ drinks and wanted a real one, but I didn’t think he would necessarily understand. Maybe that would have helped. Coke and single malt? Shudder.

After that drink order, I was awarded a small bowl of crisps. They were a bit stale, but it’s the thought that counts. I’ve been in this bar every night since I’ve been here, and he’s the only one who’s ever gotten me a drink, so I really thought I would be a regular by now.

I may have to go back later this evening, since one of the goals was to meet my colleague, since I left him in the city hours ago and he does like a Scotch to finish the evening. I would really like to know if he gets less manic as the place clears out (I doubt it.) I would also like to know if I go and say “I’d like to run a tab” first, if that would help. I’ve been tipping them on each round, and that didn’t seem normal with the crankier customers that were leaving. One of the other staff told me they’re open until 1am. I don’t have a plane until 2:30pm tomorrow afternoon. This could be a fun night. (Note to Spousal Unit: it’s called research.)

Travel Day 

(April 24, 2009) I wasted as much time as I could in the hotel but finally had to head to Heathrow. I counted £20 in change to exchange at the front desk for bills (“unchange” in the Urban Dictionary – accepted for publication last night.) Desk clerk just applied it to my bill. Brilliant.

Taxi ride was five minutes, eight pounds and worth it. Driver refused my tattered £20 note that has been in my wallet for ten years or so. He told me to change it at the bank.

Managed to hit a lull at all the lines at the airport which is a bit miraculous. I would rather have the miracle of an upgrade, but there’s still time. Was one pound something over in suitcase weight (damn you, extra PC and topcoat) but was let off with a warning. [Editor’s Note: What was that about a cricket bat?] New security question: “Have you had a laptop or any electronics repaired while you were here?” Is there a master list of repair shops likely to put bombs in broken electronics? If you have a receipt from Terrorist Electronics Repair, do they confiscate your laptop?

Made it through boarding pass checkpoint and prepared for the X-Ray walk of potential exposure. Security did not make me remove my belt (whew!) or shoes. Sailed through. Passport Control found the stamp from Sunday and decided to let me leave. Next was shoe security – your shoes are scanned while you walk by with your carry-ons. I wonder if the Shoe Bomber is pleased with all the stupid security procedures he caused.

Considered a day pass to the Admirals Club since I had two hours to kill but decided I couldn’t drink or steal enough bitter lemon to make it worthwhile.

There is a Krispy Kreme in the terminal. My head almost exploded.

Decided to get lunch at the fake Irish pub. Cappuccino was very good. Ham and cheese sandwich was a panini, like yesterday, but an Irish panini rather than British. Chips were really good, but The Chequers chips are still the best. When you want it done right, go to the pub. Eight pounds, which was not bad for airport food. It all seemed cheaper this trip.

Decision point: More cappuccino? I could see how high my heart rate would go. Last pint? Alcohol before a flight, yadda yadda yadda. Go to Harrods? Wandered through on the way to the pub, nothing jumped out at me except really high points food. So it goes. I guess I should buy duty-free booze on principle. I may try to find a book. I may even go to Krispy Kreme. Who am I kidding? One last pint, it is.

The barmaid just winked at me when I approached the bar. Now, that’s what I expect in a pub. Maybe she should give “Ashwin” customer service lessons. Maybe the Irish are just more friendly.

Gave her the ancient £20 note for a pint of Guinness. She accepted it happily and gave me an ever more tattered £5 in change. She then asked for it back and gave me a newer one. I need to start mystery shopping pubs. It’s where customer service excels.

Forty-five minutes or so until gate assignment. Time to wander, although I will miss the barmaid of the year.

Forty minutes and £70 cash. If I had ovaries, this wouldn’t even be a challenge.

Harrods knick-knacks purchased. Decided against trying to find toast to sample  marmalade. Would probably be overkill to spread marmalade on a Krispy Kreme.  

Waiting for a gate assignment – an interesting concept. You can’t just get to  the airport early and crash at the gate because they don’t tell you which gate it is until an hour or so before takeoff. It’s the gate where the plane from DFW landed this morning.  

Gate is now “Please wait” which is a bit ominous. The plane should be here – it arrived this morning as the matching flight inbound.

Switching back to Dallas time on PDA. It’s now 7am. Suddenly sleepy.

Gate 36. Time to go.

Find sign for gates 23-50. Staring down hallway to infinity. Sudden flashback to long walk in from gate on Sunday. Starting to regret heavier purchases.  

Old fart reunion in front of me. Old guy describing plane seating layout and facilities, then realized he was remembering a Continental 777 and we’re on an American 767. Thanks for the loud, booming lesson anyway, plane expert. Beginning to think this is an AARP package tour flight. I may need to put the iPod on in self-defense. Blue hairs now discussing coffee drinks. Apparently, cappuccino is bad.  

Next year, this could be me. Cyanide, anyone?

Older guy is getting frisked by security. Hopefully, not a Viagra commercial.

Kids and grandkids inventory discussion commences. Where is the plane expert when you need him?

Holy crap, this is a small seat. It feels like an MD-80 seat from the “pack ’em in” era. On the bright side, there isn’t much of a view, although I can see business class. If you ever meet someone from the IBM internal finance team, kill him. As usual, I think I got the upgrade on the wrong leg of the trip.  

Managed to use the toilet while the AARP brigade was still tramping onboard. That will save one trip climbing over whomever is next to me.

Seatmate seems reasonable and about twenty-five years below the average age in the gate area. This is a blessing. Younger guys don’t talk about their grandkids. Break out the iPods and let’s get out of here.

I miss the 777 that brought me over. This plane blows chunks.

Powering down for takeoff. The next time we land, I can turn the phone on again.

8:52am Dallas time – takeoff, twenty-two minutes late. After initial climb completed, flight attendants played security video. Oops.

A brief prayer of thanks – just prior to taxi, a flight attendant told me seatmate there were open seats. He left and never came back. Now, I have room to spread out. Thank you, Lord. It’s not business class, but I will gladly accept it.

Crew is very chatty, but only among themselves. Wondering how much we will see them in the next nine hours.

My next steps will be in America. My phone will work and some people will speak with a drawl. Plus, it’s the start of the weekend.

Stroganoff or tortellini? Gas chamber or firing squad?

Delta gives you one free drink with dinner. American, notsomuch.

The stroganoff was not bad. Even if it had been, it wasn’t that much. On the plus side, the sauce blended well into my shirt.

You know you have left Europe when asking for coffee just instantly gets you a cup of brown liquid instead of “Cappuccino? Espresso?”

Idly wondering (again) what would happen if I started singing along with my iPod. As Oasis is playing currently, I would expect my fellow passengers’ probably loud protests. Maybe if I had champagne music instead of Champagne Supernova. I always thought an interesting music video premise would be some poor bastard in coach starting to sing a song, randomly people join in, and then they find the band is in First Class, with their instruments. Just a thought. (“Don’t Look Back In Anger” is playing, and that’s a bizarre but guaranteed audience participation song for Oasis, so I just had a vision of someone in the back of the plane starting with the chorus, only to have Noel Gallagher wander back with his drink to pick up at the start of the verse. Of course, the flight attendants would probably just chase him back to his ticketed cabin.)

Wouldn’t it be interesting if your iPod could tell you if anyone else on the plane was listening to the same music? You could find a kindred spirit.

Dear Noel Gallagher – What is a freakin’ Wonderwall, anyway?

Seven and a half hours (or therabouts) to go. It may be time for some sleep, although I am a bit afraid of what I may dream.

Not even Oasis can drown out the toilet flushing right behind your seat.

Listened to Bob Newhart, Jay Mohr and Gordon Ramsey read their books; so not much sleep.

Turning off electronics. I’m home.

INS needs more people – six lines for 280+ people coming in is not enough. Luggage was actually coming off the carousel as we arrived from passport control. Limo driver was actually in the lobby with a sign.  

Half-hour down LBJ and Central, and I’m home.  

The Man Trying to Kill You May Not Be

So, it’s O’Dark-Thirty, and I’m trying to find the rental car return in Peoria International Airport.

I’m poking along, trying not to miss the Avis sign, when a Parking Shuttle bus comes roaring up behind me. Good Lord, man, can’t you see I’m lost?

I realize I’m in the Hertz return area, and it looks like real parking after that, so it’s time to turn around. This is why I leave early for the airport.

I’m slowly making my way down the lot when the insane shuttle bus comes roaring up behind me, again. WTF? I’m lost. Go pick up someone who knows where they are.

One more U-Turn, and the shuttle is behind me again. Seriously?

Now, he’s honking his horn.

That’s it. I’m going to die.

So, I pull over and roll down the window.

He says, “Need help?”

Wait. What? He’s not a murderer?

“I’m trying to find Avis.”

“Follow me.”

The van roars off at quite an inappropriate speed for a parking lot, but it’s not like anybody else is here.

He leads me to Avis (in my defense, it was out of the way.)

I parked and he said, “Want a ride over?”

Now, I can see the terminal, and my FitBit thinks I need the steps, but I’ve got two computers and two suitcases, and he seems friendly, for a murderer.

“Sure.”

“I’ll take you to drop your bags first, because the rental counters aren’t open yet. It’s easier to drop the bags, then drop the keys.

I was trying to get you to stop, because you looked lost, and you kept going. I was just following you, because I figured you needed help.”

So, trying to get me to stop so you can render aid just looks like stalking. Good to know.

So, a quick ride to the terminal, quick instructions on where everything is, and I’m good to go.

I’m back to being early, which is much better than being lost.

So, thank you, early morning shuttle driver, for taking pity on me, driving me around, and explaining the lay of the land.

Oh, and for not murdering me.

Lowered Expectations

I’m in Peoria, Illinois on business for three weeks, and two-thirds of the trip is now behind me. So, I will update this as required for the last week. I had quite a head of steam up the first week, writing everything down, but after that, I either got complacent or I managed to lower my expectations to where they were being met.

Somewhere along the line, it became too long and bitchy for a Yelp review, so it was graduated to a blog post.

I had some trepidation about staying at a Quality Inn, but this is my first contracting assignment with this company and nobody told me the hotel limits, and I was originally told the travel desk didn’t do hotels. (Had I been more in practice, I would have stayed at a really expensive place and said, “Nobody said there were limits”, but I really need to be reimbursed, and I’d like to keep the job, if nothing else for my resume.) If you put “quality” in the name, you’re probably concerned about being considered low quality. I can never remember where on the food chain Quality is, I think it’s actually below Comfort. However, I think it’s above Sleep.

I checked in on Sunday, May 20th, after my flight to Peoria got canceled and I got rerouted to Bloomington, instead. So, that was an extra hour’s drive. At that point, any room would be good. I hoped.

The room is not bad. It’s not a suite, but it’s designed for long-term stays (I think.) There’s a dishwasher, a refrigerator and a microwave. There are (some) plates and glasses. Well, one less, because I dropped one. There are pots and pans – but nowhere to use them. There is a minimal amount of silverware.

All I really needed was a fridge, a decent-sized glass and an ice bucket. I drink soda in the room. I don’t cook.

I filled my ice bucket Sunday night. By Monday morning, I had a bag of water. I went to Walmart that evening to get some other stuff, and got myself a big-ass glass. So, I didn’t really use the ice bucket after that, which was good, since when I got back to the room, I still had a bag of water. On Saturday, I still had a bag of water. I began wondering how long this would go on. I will be impressed if it is still there after three weeks. (The bag was replaced either Monday or Tuesday of my second week. By that time, I had stopped looking – but I caught it in the corner of my eye as I was making coffee Wednesday morning.)

When I got back from work on Monday, I had a hand-written note from the maid on the bed. She hadn’t made the bed because I had left my gym shorts and t-shirt on it, and she can’t touch my stuff. Ma’am, if you’ve cleaned any lonely businessmen’s towels and sheets, you should not be afraid of shorts and a t-shirt.

My wife hates that I leave my t-shirt and shorts on the bed, but it’s an interesting test for me. I’ve had some maids fold them, some drape them on a chair, some toss them on a chair, and one folded them and put them on the pillow. One folded them and put them under the pillow. And then, one wrote me a note.

Tuesday evening, I realized I had a laundry order form but no laundry bag. I needed to send some shirts out since I refuse to iron, and I’m allergic to doing laundry. So, I went down to the front desk and got a laundry bag. It tore when I filled it, but I can’t pack like my wife.

Wednesday morning, I staggered down to the front desk first thing, before I forgot about it, since it was in by 9, back by 6. So, I arrive in shorts and a t-shirt, with a laundry bag in hand. The clerk said, “Checking Out?” Quite the leap. I guess hobos stay here. 

After he took the laundry, I decided to grab some breakfast. The woman restocking the spread said I couldn’t be in there because I didn’t have shoes on. So, hobos can sleep here, they just can’t eat.

That night when I got back from work, no laundry. This did not really surprise me. At a hotel, it would surprise me. Here, not so much.

Thursday night, when there was no laundry and also no emergency medical shipment from my doctor, I went to the front desk. Since my room is at the very end of the hallway, this is an excellent way for me to get my steps in. 

Now, I admit, I am having a senior moment on my room number – I’m off by 2 constantly. I didn’t know that was the issue, but I considered it. 

The front desk guy recognized me – in fact, when I got two sodas from the little shop and told him the wrong number, I went back to correct it, and he already had.

“Did I get a package? And, have you seen my laundry?”

His manager asked my name. “Oh, I saw that. Just a minute.”

My friend said, “It had the wrong room, but we fixed it.” – uh, if you fixed it, why am I at the front desk asking for my stuff? The manager came back with a package and laundry. She then showed my friend how to charge the laundry to my room. I hope I am not the first customer to send out laundry. Given some of the outfits I’ve seen walking in the hall, I might be. 

Saturday – a day to laze around a bit, after five days of being in the office by 8:30am or earlier. I went and got some breakfast (with my flip-flops on), went back, put up the Do Not Disturb sign, read all my email and took a shower.

I got out of the shower, and there was a letter under the door. “We respected your Do Not Disturb and won’t do your room.” The note was dated 10am. I found it at 9:45am. The letter said to contact the front desk for anything I needed. Uh, I need my room cleaned. Back to the front desk. There was an employee standing there, talking to the clerk, so I figured fast service, because guests outrank employees, right? So, after I heard the front desk clerk discussing the employee’s lack of a paycheck with her (well, maybe that’s why they take off early), I asked to have my room done. No problem. Just go find one of the maids and ask her. Hmm. The note said “front desk”, not “self-service”. So, I wandered the hall, found a cart, looked for an open door, and asked a maid. She looked down my end of the hall, saw no cart, got a pained look, and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll have it done.” Amazingly, when I got home later that day, the room was done. I guess they’re expecting everyone to go to early Mass tomorrow. I’d better be out of the room early.

Saturday afternoon, there was some loud noise outside my window, and I’m by a parking lot (a lovely view, by the way.) I thought I had caught an illicit pool party – pool parties are verboten (in writing.) No, it was a tailgate party – with multiple tents and people in those fold-up chairs and everything. Well, at least it wasn’t a pool party.

The pool party (it’s not a pool party!) went on until just after 11:30pm when I heard a baby start crying. I guess if I would have smacked the kid sooner, it would have quieted down.

Second Week.

Monday was Memorial Day, so I was actually off work. I still got up early, so I wouldn’t block the maids’ progress. I had breakfast and went back to the room. No maid. I went out to Walmart for sodas, stopped for lunch and went back to the room. No maid. I went to Best Buy, bought an Amazon Fire stick, came back to the room about 12:30pm and was in the middle of installing and configuring it on their TV, when … a knock at the door. “Would you like your room cleaned?” Sure. Ten minutes in the lobby, clean room. Five minutes later, I don’t have to watch cable any more.

I finally decided to do my laundry, even though I’m allergic since there was a bunch of stuff I hadn’t sent out. Everyplace fun I would have gone to visit was closed for Memorial Day and the minor league team is on the road on the weekends the entire time I’m here, so I might as well do chores. The machines in the hotel are $1.75 each which seemed reasonable, so I went to the front desk for some change, since I didn’t see a change machine. One of my well-known clerks was there, so this should be easy – “Hi! How can I help you?” “Hi. I need some quarters for laundry.” Some rummaging around and, “We don’t have any quarters.” How is this possible?

So, off to find a laundromat, since I didn’t see the point of going out and getting change and coming back. Of course, it was almost 4pm, so everyone was closed or closing. All except one laundry about four miles away. I didn’t have the heart to ask the front desk for a laundry bag, so I just put everything in my small suitcase. The machines were more expensive, but they had quarters and a change machine.

Tuesday or Wednesday, one of the maids actually replaced my ice bucket. I didn’t notice which day, since I just load the ice directly into my big-ass cup. I was making coffee on Thursday morning, and I noticed a nicely folded, dry bag hanging out of the ice bucket.

Thursday evening, I realized that I had to send some shirts out again to get me through until I go home. So, I asked at the front desk for a laundry bag, since there was none in the room. (Dear hotel people, if you have a guest dumb enough to pay your laundry prices once, he will do it again. Give him another bag!) The woman at the front desk happily gave me a laundry bag, and as I walked off, I noticed there was no order form in the bag. So, I asked for an order form. (How can you use one without the other?) She was on the phone, and said, “Just a second, I have to print one out.” WTF? Don’t you have forms with the bags? The forms don’t come from the laundry? Apparently not. So, she printed me a form while she dealt with the call, and now she has an extra form, since the template they use prints two on a page and she had to cut them in half. I packed up my shirts, filled in the form, and double-checked I got the room number right.

Friday morning, I dropped them off at the front desk on my way to the office. I had to wait for the clerk to finish some very important task before I could drop them off, so I waited. Most places, I would just put the bag on the counter and wave on my way out the door. A lot of places, I would have just left the damn shirts on my bed, but here I probably would have had dirty shirts and another note on an unmade bed when I got home. So, I waited. He finally said, ‘Dropping off laundry?” No, I’m a hobo, and I’m checking out. I got home from work, and no laundry. This did not surprise me. I went out to dinner, and on the way past the desk coming back, asked if my shirts were back. “Oh, yes.” Shirts handed over. I guess nobody at the desk has a key to my room.

Saturday morning, I got up late (for me) but early enough to be out of the room before the maids rejected me again. I went to the buffet for breakfast, and decided to have a waffle. They have one of those cool “fill, flip” waffle makers. So, I get the cup of batter, open the machine, pour in the batter, close it and give it a spin. That’s when the hostess (an older maid promoted to buffet duty) informed me that the machine was being used. Excuse me? She said a young girl was using it. Hmm. Then, why was it empty? “I’m so sorry. It’s just the machine was empty.” “Well, she was using it. She only wanted 3/4 of a waffle, so she only filled three corners.” How was she using it? Telepathically? 3/4 of a waffle still requires batter and there was no batter. I apologized another three or four times, because it takes two minutes to make a waffle.

I got my (now tainted) waffle out of the formerly empty (yes, I’m bitter about this) machine and put it on a table, so I could go get some coffee. I came back, and some guy was putting his stuff on my table. Our eyes met, and we both looked confused. He finally said, “Is this your table?” I said yes, and he apologized profusely. He thought my waffle was his daughter’s waffle. Uh, Sparky, your daughter only eats 3/4 waffles. This is a full one. Get with the program.

I feel bad for stealing the waffle iron. The empty waffle iron. He feels bad for stealing my table. The table with food on it. Eventually, I said we should all just go back to our beds and start over. His daughter, the one with no damn batter in the damn machine, is still pouting.

I got back to my room. No maid. There is some altercation outside my window, though. Lots of loud voices, and what sounded like arguing. I looked through the curtains, and there were all the maids. It must be break time.

I decided to take a drive down the World’s Most Beautiful Drive, which is about ten minutes from the hotel. It is very nice, and the river views are impressive. On the way back, I stopped at Hardee’s for a snack (really, for the bathroom, but I’m polite enough to buy something.) I managed to get to Hardee’s just as they were changing from breakfast to lunch, so five chicken strips took almost fifteen minutes to make. I should have had biscuits. Got back to the hotel. No maid.

Started writing a note to answer one last question from work, since my boss will be out next week. 12:45pm, bright and early, a knock at the door. “Would you like your room cleaned?” I managed to not say, “No, ma’am, I prefer filth.” So, I went out to the lobby, and ten minutes later, I had a clean room. There was even blue water in the toilet, but I think she just did that out of spite.

Why did I get up early? Oh, yes, so I would be out of the maid’s way.

Maybe my expectations are too great. Maybe I’m just out of practice on business travel. This place actually has some good Yelp reviews. I now assume those writers are comparing it to boondocking  or boot camp.

Week three begins.

Sunday, I got up early. I didn’t mean to do so, I just woke up at 7:30am and couldn’t go back to sleep. So, then was the question – throw a t-shirt and shorts (and flip-flops! don’t forget the flip-flops!) on, and grab something from the free buffet, or shower, dress, and go out.

I’m not saying I’m tired of the gravy from a huge can or still traumatized by Le Incident De Waffle, but I decided to go out. I had laundry to do, so instead of discovering the front desk was still out of quarters, I figured I would get breakfast and hit the laundromat.

So, I went out, had breakfast, went down the street, did the load of laundry, came back, spent an hour and a half on the phone with my wife, booked a cruise for this evening, checked my work email, looked at the time, and it was ten to two. You know who hasn’t come into my life today? The maid. I just checked and she’s six doors down the hall, at least.

This means the first week was an anomaly – or all the maids that liked to work early didn’t get paid and quit.

So, when I was leaving for dinner and had heard most of the maids leaving (and having another loud discussion in the hallway), I saw what looked like a supervisor, and mentioned my room had not been done. She asked one of the other staff who had my hallway, and I just wandered off, as I had a cruise to catch.

I spent the evening on the Spirit of Peoria, with a buffet dinner and the music of Kenny Rogers. It was great fun.

When I got back, lo and behold, my room had been cleaned. My assumption is twofold, one, that a supervisor did it and two, there will be hell to pay tomorrow.

Travel Bag

My travel bag used to be pretty simple. Laptop, charger. Done. If I was going overseas, I needed a wall adapter. Lately, the list has started growing. What’s interesting is how much of the technology is duplicated – laptops and phones have cameras and GPS units, for example. This current trip has added a number of things out of boredom, but if you’re going to travel on business, boredom is a good possibility.

Now, we have:

Technology

  • iPhone
    • Wall adapter and USB cable
  • iPad
    • Wall adapter and USB cable
  • Macbook Air
    • Power cord
  • Work Dell laptop (actually, in its own bag)
    • Power cord

Photography (mainly because my backpack is also my camera bag)

  • Nikon D5300 camera
    • Fisheye lens
    • 50mm fixed lens (added this trip)
    • 18-140mm zoom lens
    • 55-300mm zoom lens

Medical Equipment

  • USB charger for Garmin vivosmart3 (“Fitbit”)
  • CPAP (actually in suitcase)
  • Glucose Meter
    • Lancets
    • Blood Testing Strips
    • Alcohol wipes

Navigation

  • Garmin Etrex 10 GPS
  • Bushnell Backtrack GPS
  • Bad Elf GPS adapter for iPad

Miscellaneous

  • Power strip (for CPAP or other needs)
  • Amazon Fire Stick (added this trip)
    • USB cord and wall adapter
  • Bracketron Window Mount (for iPhone camera & GPS use) (added this trip)

I really need an additional USB cable to leave in the car. Next trip.

What have I learned from this?

  • My back hurts. I may know why.
  • Don’t get a GPS from the car rental company when you can use a Bracketron and your own phone, especially if you have a long USB cable for charging. Plus, when you buy the mount, you get the opportunity to sign up as a Uber driver!
  • You can never have too many GPS units.
  • You can never have too many lenses.
  • You can never have too many USB cables.
  • A Fire Stick, Chromecast or Roku is pretty useful now because almost all hotel TVs have HDMI adapters, even the hotels (<cough>Quality Inn<cough>) with crappy cable packages.
  • Best Buy is a bad place to be when you’re bored.

You Can’t Go Home Again

Reliving old memories is a bad idea.

So, I’m in Peoria, Illinois for three weeks on a work project and I’ve been up here before, so rather than travel back and forth on the weekends, I decided to just stay up here the whole time.

Flights to Peoria from DFW can be painful – you can connect through O’Hare (no, thank you!) or to fly back and forth non-stop on a commuter plane, you would lose half of Friday, which as a contractor is a very bad idea ($$$) and you would have to lose half of Sunday coming back. So, what’s the point?

(My flight up here was canceled, so I had to fly to Bloomington-Normal instead, change my rental car, and drive an extra hour to get to the hotel. I was not the only one on the plane who had done so. This may have been a warning.)

Besides, I was up here 20+ years ago on another project and had a good time with happy memories, so what’s not to like in Peoria?

As I sit in my hotel room, waiting for the maids to arrive, so I can vacate and then come back to binge-watch Netflix, I realize how much has changed in the 20+ years.

  • I was single back then, so it really didn’t matter where I was at any given time. I had visitation with my son on first, third and fifth weekends, but that was easy to arrange. I’m married now, so now I actually have a reason to be in Dallas – my dogs and my perpetually injured wife (just kidding, my love!)
  • I was home on the weekends back then. I really never stayed in Peoria over the weekend, so I didn’t have to find something to do. I did go on a river cruise yesterday, which was fabulous, and I might go again today, because everything else is closed.
  • I had someone from Caterpillar to hang out with last time. Mike was always happy to hang in the evenings and there may have been drinking involved. (The drinking may be why I am still blanking on his last name.) I’ve had two drinks this week, and one of them was on the airplane up here.
  • I was staying in a really nice hotel in the middle of downtown that was walking distance from my office. Now, I’m working at a plant so far out of town it doesn’t have an address, just an intersection. I’m in a Quality Inn & Suites (more later) on the outskirts of town which let’s just say is not the level of service to which I have become accustomed on business trips.
  • I was working for a really small company that tended to turn a blind eye to “interesting” expenses (until someone rented a U-Haul to help his girlfriend move.) Now, I’m really concerned about reimbursement and toeing the line (which in many cases has not been defined), which tends to put a damper on fun.
  • I’m older. Let’s just say I’m not as adventurous as I used to be. Back then, I had any number of co-workers to call to help me get out of jail. Now, I would have to call my wife, and she would probably just hang up on me, so she could call her sisters.
  • I picked a very bad weekend to start trying to hang out in Peoria – it’s Memorial Day. You would think that would mean more things to do, but the Peoria Chiefs minor league baseball team is out of town until Tuesday (and out of town next weekend!) and the Caterpillar Museum is closed on Sundays and holidays. There is nothing scheduled at the Civic Center – and that’s 3/4ths of the TripAdvisor top four things to do. The other is a scenic drive, part of which I saw from the boat yesterday.
  • The one great memory I had of Peoria was surviving the Flood of ’93 and flying in from Dallas on a Super-80 that had about eight other people on it. I realized this week that during the Flood of ’93, I was actually in Des Moines.

Voltaire and the Dog Whistle

I’m flying home. 

One random note, before my actual notes on the flight – we were served pasta with a lot of garlic for lunch and a black bean empanada for a snack. Someone at American Airlines hates U. S. Customs & Border Protection.

As some already know, flying over to France, I had the incredible sleeping woman sitting between me and the aisle  – and therefore, between me and the lavatories. I was determined to prevent 3000 miles on a full bladder this time.

So, I did some research on SeatGuru. I like SeatGuru, it’s a very interesting site. Check it before you fly. Trust me.

As an aside, I still maintain the idiots that outlawed our business class travel should be forced to have monthly team meetings in Kuala Lumpur, and fly home via Madrid and JFK, but that’s just me.

The American Arlines 777 has multiple models. The one that does the Dallas to Madrid run is the 777-200, also known as the “crappy” one. I’m pretty sure the pilots complain about their seats on this cattle car. If you read SeatGuru, there are complaints about the First Class seats on is aircraft. Ouch. That, my friends, is a bad plane. Plus, there’s no WiFi. Joy.

All of the recommended seats that I would consider were taken, but after checking at random times through the week, I finally found 31J – which should be a window seat, but there’s no window. It’s an emergency exit row, so you have to self-certify for the exit, but I sit in exit rows all the time. Come to think of it, the flight crew never even asked if I was willing to open the exit, in the case of an emergency. Hmmm.

SeatGuru mentioned that the slide compartment takes away some legroom, but I have pretty short legs, so that didn’t frighten me. It should have, a little bit – I can sit and point my legs sideways, but it’s annoying. I can’t imagine if I had long legs, especially since American advertises the seat as “extra legroom.” The “offset” window – there’s a window in the door which is in front of the seat doesn’t bother me too much, as in, I’ll tolerate it. I can’t see out of it without leaving my seat.

Another comment was that it is right by the lavatories and people tend to congregate here. So far, this has been true. There have been any number of lines.

Also, people keep missing the lavatory door. The gentleman sitting next to me has become the Potty Director. So, it occurred to me – on every flight tells you where the exits are, and there’s escape path lighting to lead the way. This is for emergencies, which by definition will not happen that often. Why don’t they light a path to the nearest potty? People need those all the time. 

In fact, I would say, based on the number of visitors, this particular group of passengers has produced so much waste, that I hope the cargo bays are in the front and back of the plane to balance the weight. If we dump the poop, we’re covering a small city or fertilizing most of Arkansas.

Now, my assumption on actual groups (people not hopping up and down, just waiting to pee) was that if you get the usual older, bitchy international flight attendants (“Where did I go wrong? Why aren’t I working First Class by now? What am I still doing in steerage?“), they tend to break up groups, because they can, so that didn’t scare me.

Oops.

I actually slept a bit on this flight. I managed to turn sideways, point my legs out, and approximate curling up. I woke to the low-pitched drone of a French lecturer – I’m assuming French, because every third sentence or so ended with “uuuuhhhh” – or as Basil Fawlty once said about his wife Sybil’s laughing, “It sounds like someone machine-gunning a seal.” 

“Uuuuhhhh” is French for “Uh”, because much as every dinner there takes at least three hours, everything takes longer in French. (This is not a bad thing.)

I opened one eye, and there were three skinny-jeans EuroTrash gentlemen in a circle, stationed (unfortunately) blocking my view of the actual speaker.

I’ve just spent a week with the French, and they are lovely people, and most are not what I would consider boring. Most are quite delightful, as long as they remember to speak English for me. However, this guy was droning on and on, except for the “uuuuhhhh”‘s and none of the others were saying anything.

What was this? A philosophy class?  

Hey! Voltaire! Find another potty to hold your lectures!

I’m saying lecture because the others never said anything. If he was talking about cars,  sports (the Rugby World Cup just started – what could be more important than that?), or carnal conquests (that would be more important than rugby), then guys being guys, there would be laughter and the others interrupting to one-up him. So, he wasn’t talking about anything interesting or important. Maybe he was their manager.

They finally just left – all as a group. I guess classes are still forty-five minutes, just like when I was in college.

This meant I never had to implement Plan B, which was putting my feet up on the exit, kicking the handle, and “accidentally” blowing them into space. This was good, since I never would have gotten another drink, and I wouldn’t be able to visit the potty without holding on to someone.

So, now I’m awake. However, I can’t really blame Team Lead Voltaire completely, because the one noise that will always keep people awake on a plane is the high-pitched, almost dog-whistle constant exclamations of a very small child. (The usual English version is “Dad! Dad! DAD! Mom! MOM! Look!”) These noises can only be tuned out when the child is in your direct lineage, say a grandchild. Then, it is somewhat cute. Somewhat. If it is your child, you learn to tune it out or you will lose your mind. The rest of the time, it tends to cause anyone within earshot to consider strangling both the child and his parents – which, I believe, is the real reason that the airlines tell you to stay seated and keep your seat belts fastened all the time.

This is why I say, “Children should be in the overhead bin, and not heard.”

Luckily, this child was in my row, on the other side of the aisle, although he could have been within a 42-row radius, and I would have heard him. People on cruise ships below can probably hear him.

So, before my next long-haul flight, I am going to put my excess weight to work. I have finally found a use for my beer belly. 

I’m going to grow a beard, dye it white and get myself a red cap.

If one of those little bastards starts chanting, I’m going over, and I will just say, “Hi! I’m Santa. I’m on vacation, and you just woke me up. Four times. You are never getting anything for Christmas again. I will have Rudolph crap on your house as we fly by. I hate you.”

I can sleep through crying.

Off The Grid

I’m flying home from a week in Nice, France for a bunch of meetings – actually, some successful meetings for once – and I just realized I am off the grid. Since I finally had a data plan in Europe this week, it’s quite disconcerting.

I can’t get online.

I’m on one of American’s rather tired 777s – basically, a cattle car with wings. I did score a bulkhead seat, so even though I have a slide sticking out of the door in front of me, I don’t have someone reclining into my lap, and I can go pee any time I want, even with someone sitting next to me. All I’m missing is a window.

Here’s the issue – there’s no Internet access on the plane. So, that’s 10.5 hours across the Atlantic without email, Facebook or Google. Email doesn’t bother me too much – I checked it before I left Nice and there’s one work crisis that’s going to have to wait until Monday anyway. Facebook can wait.

Looking up stuff is problematic.

I just noticed on the TV screen that it’s -52 degrees outside. I was wondering why American thought anyone would care – it’s not like you can go out on the wing for a smoke, and you can’t open the windows. So, I assume it’s a measurement they take, and they share it because they have it. I wondered how they measure it, and “pitot tube” popped into my head. I know a pitot tube is used to measure something on aircraft during flight, but what? I’ll Google it. Oops.

I’m off the grid.

I would rather use my maps than the maps that scroll in English and Spanish, Imperial and metric. I have a GPS adapter for my iPad, but I need WiFi to load the maps. Oops.

At least, I can write this and sync it for publishing later.

It is interesting to me how many applications now just assume there is a network available. Most applications require it – as opposed to years ago, when apps were written defensively, to recover if there was no connection and restore or update when it came back.

Having a data plan in Europe meant my phone worked all the time, not just at the office and the hotel, where I had WiFi. Suddenly, it was more than a clock!

I could use Maps to find the restaurant, even while walking down the promenade.

I could use Uber to get a better car at half the price of a cab – Uber in Nice is impressive, as in three days, I rode in a Mercedes van, a BMW and a Jaguar. Also, the driver knew where I was and where he was going without requiring my fractured French.

I got text messages about flight delays before I got to my destination, which was a pleasant change.

So, after a week of discussing cloud solutions with colleagues, it’s painful not to have a network connection.

I may be going through withdrawals, but I can’t check my symptoms until I get back online.

Current Events

I think I recreated a famous Spousal Unit moment last night. At least, I have a horrible feeling I did. I will deny all knowledge if asked.

Years ago, my wife was traveling with her sister and niece through Italy, and managed to black out an entire hotel just by plugging in her curling iron. Voltage matters, people.

However, that was years ago, when the most complex equipment somebody had was probably a curling iron, or perhaps an cassette player. One of the joys of traveling with entirely too much electronic gear (iPad, iPhone, MacBook, digital camera, CPAP) is that there is no hotel room in Europe that will have enough plugs to charge all of them at once. Plus, all of the plugs over here are different, and the voltage is different, so you need adapters, and if your device is old enough, you need current converters. (Just plug it in. If smoke comes out, you needed a current converter.)

Luckily, all my devices are dual-voltage, so I just need an adapter. Well, one adapter for each device. I solved that problem by bringing a small extension cord with multiple outlets. Plug the devices into the extension cord, and you only need one adapter.

I’m in the South of France, so I was actually surprised to find two outlets available in the bedroom. One was actually by the bed above the bedside table, so that was perfect for the CPAP so I don’t die in my sleep. Everything else I have can share the “other” outlet.

My first night, I had left my laptop in the bag, and was just using my phone and my iPad. So, before I went to bed, I plugged the extension cord into the adapter and stuck it in the wall. Then, I plugged in the iPhone and the iPad. Both showed “charging”, so I went to sleep.

In the morning, I swapped them out for my laptop so I could get some work done. Then, I went to the office and tried to stay awake all day (including having someone schedule a 4pm – 5pm meeting with me.)

So, last night, feeling lucky, since the extension cord had an extra outlet I hadn’t used yet, I plugged in my MacBook. So, I had an all-Apple extension cord. All I needed was a AppleTV, which would have been nice, since almost everything on the hotel TV is in French.

I got ready to go to bed. Then, the lights went out. Oops. It’s dark in here.

So, I panicked. I had a flashback to my wife blowing out a hotel with her curling iron even though I wasn’t there – I’ve just hear the story enough to feel like I was. I wondered how to repair the damage. What would the Spousal Unit do?

First, hide the evidence. The computer and its cords go back in the bag. Next, check around the room for any fuses, using my phone as a flashlight. I couldn’t find any.

So, the next step is to ‘fess up. I called the front desk, and said, “Uh, I may have blown a fuse.”

The clerk said, “No, it is a general failure. We are trying to find the problem.” (See? Good thing I hid the computer!) “We should have everything back in ten minutes or so.”

About five minutes later, the lights came back on. So, I turned them off, since I was trying to go to bed.

I didn’t charge my MacBook last night after all. I’ll survive.

Deep Sleep (or, The Princess and the Pee)

So, I’m flying over water again, this time, it’s the Arlantic, and I’ve found something even more challenging than smelly baby poop. It’s having a window seat, with a seat partner that refuses to awaken.

We’re three hours from Madrid, and the sodas I had with dinner finally need to cone out. So, it’s time to find a lavatory. Actually, there’s one located one row behind me, because I’ve been hearing it flush all night. Easy-peasy.

Except for one thing – I’m in a window seat. I like window seats. You can see where you’re going. You have something to lean on while you sleep. You don’t get slammed with carry-ons and drink carts. The only problem is getting up.

So, all I have to do is find a way past my seat mate. In almost all of today’s aircraft, this requires moving my seat mate. 

Usually, this is easy because I’m traveling with someone I work with or live with. So, a couple of good pokes, they’re awake, they get up, I get up. No worries. Most of the time, if I’m traveling with the Spousal Unit, she has to go way before me, so I just get out of my seat while she’s gone. Efficient.

However, this is a business trip, so I’m on my own. While I feared sitting next to the other large guy all the way across the Atlantic, fate has given me a young, pouty, possibly anorexic generic European woman. She’s probably in her late twenties. Her girl friend/traveling companion is across the aisle. They chattered quite a bit at the beginning of the flight, ate, and passed out. 

So, she has been asleep since just after dinner with her sleeping mask on. We’re five hours or so into the flight. I envy her, actually, I’ve slept some, but mostly just read. I don’t sleep well in planes anymore.

So, how hard can it be to awaken a possibly anorexic generic pouty European? 

I grabbed her shoulder. Gently. “Excuse me.” Nothing.

I squeezed her shoulder. Nothing,

I shook her shoulder. Nothing.

I squeezed her arm. Nothing.

I’m out of ideas at this point.

I could grab something else, but there may be Sky Marshals onboard, and I would not want to explain that particular arrest to the Spousal Unit.

I could just kiss her, but I’m pretty sure at least one porno movie started that way – and if not, there should be one – “Sky Booty”, maybe.

I could get her friend to help, but she’s asleep with her sleep mask.

You know, if I had offered to switch seats to put them together, I’d be on an aisle right now. So, it’s my fault.

I’ll just read another chapter. She’s bound to wake up. She had as much to drink as I did, and women have smaller bladders. Right?

She’s still asleep.

Commence grabbing and shaking (gently) again.

Nothing.

Try to figure out how many languages I can say “Excuse me” in, since maybe she just doesn’t speak English.

Well, that was an entertaining exercise (“Excuse me”, “Con Permiso”, “Pardon moi”, “Pardon me”, “Yo, Adrian!”), but I still have to pee.

I could call the flight attendant. If I get lucky and get the old, bitchy one, she’ll wake her up. She may even dump water on her. Revenge!

Maybe I could dip her fingers in water to make her need to pee. I still have a water bottle from dinner. I could just flick some in her face. That may be cruel, though. Also, I’m thinking I’m glad I didn’t drink the water bottle.

Horrible thought: Maybe she’s dead. Who could tell with the mask? We’re already delayed, if they have to take a corpse off, and do paperwork, I’m going to miss my connection to Nice.

If she’s dead, I’m glad I didn’t kiss her. That would be icky.

Can you ask a flight attendant to check if your seat mate is dead? What part of the manual is that in?

Wait. When will the crew wake her up for something, so I don’t have to be the bad guy? Hey, whatever happened to the duty free cart, anyway?

When’s breakfast?

She moved! Frantic rubbing of arm. “Excuse me!”

Nothing. However, she’s crossed her legs, so there is no way I’m climbing over her without hitting something that could cause an incident. Not that I could have before, but I was considering it.

This must be what it’s like to live in a Tiny House.

I’ll just read another chapter. I’m pretty sure it’s at least ten hours until a human bladder bursts, so I can always crawl into Madrid. Also, I’m reflecting on how glad I am the flight attendants didn’t offer coffee after dinner.

I remind myself again of my rule to never take my Furosemide unless in an aisle seat, even though it will make you walk the cabin.

She moved! Now, both her legs are in her seat. She still won’t answer my “Excuse me”, of course. So, I could squeeze past, except for the people in front of me who seats are all the way reclined. And they are occasionally smooching.

Luckily, American 777s still have barf bags. I may need one from having to watch the kissing. Hey, can you pee in a barf bag? Is there a pee bag? Why didn’t I keep my Coke can?

However, if that couple is talking and kissing, they’re awake. So, I ask if he could move his seat forward for a moment, so I can try to get out.

He finds this humorous. Just move the seat, Loverboy.

Now, today’s airplanes are designed to have less space between rows than buses or cornfields, so, it can be a bit tricky for a “person of size” (say, anyone larger than a six-year old) to squeeze out, even with the seat in front all the way forward, and your seat mate’s legs crossed poutily onto her seat. This is why I usually try to sit in the bulkhead row – which is where I was for the hunger strike and poop from hell flight.

I stealthily slide past my sleeping seat mate and immediately step on all the crap she has on the floor (not under the seat in front of her.)

I’m wondering if I can move another two feet while off-balance when she finally wakes up, raises her mask, and looks at me. She curls up even tighter on her seat, which does not help move the piles of floor crap, but apparently is her way of being helpful. Gracias, bitch. At least, she’s awake. No, she’s back asleep. 

I feel badly I awoke her.

Wait. What?

In the bathroom, it occurs to me she might have been just faking sleep all along because she thought I was hitting on her. I’m strangely flattered, yet insulted she would think I would try to pick up a woman on an airplane by squeezing her arm repeatedly, and saying “Excuse me.” I’m old and married and not European, but I’d like to think I would have better opening lines. Besides, that would make me a male cougar. What do you call a male cougar? A guy.

I used the lavatory and headed back to my seat. She was asleep. I climbed over her and she didn’t even budge. She didn’t even raise her mask. That’s faster than in most of my relationships.

I don’t think I’m drinking anything else on this flight.

I hope she’s awake in Madrid. I have a connection to make.

Stuttgart, 2000

For those who would like to see if I’ve gotten crankier over the years (that would be affirmative), here’s some notes I found from a trip to Stuttgart in September of 2000. This was not my first trip, since I was staying in the wrong city (and knew it), but I was going over every few months for a couple of years. Some of this is dated (the furnace was replaced, Rose is gone, and missed), but I probably still have a lot of the same opinions. I wish I could remember the hotel’s name – I remember I had dinner from the vending machine most evenings. 

Stuttgart – September 30, 2000

I’m back from Germany. I really don’t like surviving for a week in a country that doesn’t speak English, even though I knew going into this week, that was going to be a challenge. (Aside: What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Tri-lingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.)

All the bloody hotels in Stuttgart were booked, so I ended up in Boeblingen (which I can’t spell correctly here, since you need one of those umlautty things over the “o”), in a nice little place in the middle of an industrial park. Oh, joy. A twin bed, no room service, no restaurant, and three channels of English on the cable: CNN (“blah, blah, blah”), UK SkyNews (“blah, blah, blah” with a British accent) and SkySports (24-hour Olympic coverage.) So, I watched the Olympics.

I’ve always been rather prejudiced against the Olympics, especially the summer games – most of the events seem pretty pointless (if you can’t do dire bodily harm to yourself, is it really a sport?), and everyone knows that all those “amateurs” aren’t. Still, it beats watching “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or “Married… With Children” dubbed into German (but not by much.)

Some of the highlights:

Diving: It takes a UK announcer to say what others only think – there was one of the women’s entrants and when she first walked to the platform, I thought “She’s a bit heavy for this.” My Politically Correct genes then kicked in, and said “A) Who am I to talk? and B) How hard is bloody diving?” Then, the announcer mentioned that she really was too heavy to be diving and really should lose some weight to get her scores up. Amazing.

Synchronized diving: What co-dependent idiot came up with this concept? One anorexic body flipping into a pool isn’t enough? Now, I need two of them?? If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do they all have to?

Diving: Here’s the only reason I can watch diving (besides the ever-present nipple scans during the women’s event) – I am always hoping against hope one of the divers who is hopelessly behind in the last round will climb to the platform, run off screaming “CANNONBAAAAAALLLLLL!” and drench the judges’ table. Is that too much to ask? Sure, the degree of difficulty isn’t much, but how can you screw up a cannonball?

Race walking: One of the race walkers was thrown out of the race. Disqualified as she approached the finish line. For jogging. I never thought I would see the day that jogging was going too fast. But really, now. Race walking? Can’t you just make the bit of extra effort and run?

Gymnastics: “I’m dancing to the music. Now, I’m going to stop for no reason, run across the mat and throw myself into the air. Now, I’m dancing again.”

Coxless rowing: Shouldn’t that be women only? Eunuchs, perhaps?

I think the high point of the week was seeing Yanina Korolchik win the women’s shot put. First, she was the most decent looking of the bunch(she reminded me of Ms. Lewinsky for some reason (did the President offer to give her the medal?)) Second, she beat the Russian. By a lot. That was pretty funny.

You know, that’s one of the major problems with the Olympics today. With the end of the Cold War, there aren’t any bad guys anymore. When Team USA beat the Russians in hockey in 1984, that was a defining moment. When you beat the Russians now, you just feel sorry for them. The Olympics need the bloodlust returned. Sports needs bad guys.

How do you make the French runners perform better? Park a Panzer tank at the starting line.

Oh, yes. While I was gone, Rose blew up the furnace in the house (“It’s not my fault!”). We’re now in day three of the installation, and the inspector should be here next week, so we can turn it on. I need a pint. (At least the soda machine in the hotel had beer in it.)