D-day. The twenty-seventh of February dawned like any other Monday, in a cacophony of shrill electronic warble, muttered enquiries from my wife and slightly louder curses from me. Six a.m. should really be relegated to a couple of hours later. But today was the day, when I ventured as far as I ever had: Seattle.
Well, not Seattle per se. Seattle-ish. Bellevue to be precise, but before then, I had trains to catch, the Tube to endure and planes to ride. But before even then, I had to drive into Maidstone, some six miles from my home. Why? I shall tell you.
Microsoft have an honour they bestow: Most Valued Professional. (Be patient, I’m getting there) I am but a lowly foot soldier, not worthy of such a distinction, but I have friends who are. I was off to Seattle to be trained in SQL Server 2012, but that’s an exciting topic for another time. However, at the same time I was to be there, the MVPs were having their annual bash. On Thursday they have this huge party, because they are most valued. In comparison, I had been offered a slice of pizza on the Wednesday. So my friend, Paul, an MVP and Internet sparring partner, would be in Bellevue at the same time as me. He was allowed to bring a partner to the party, and for the purpose of gaining entry, I was to be Mrs Paul for the evening.
I’ve never actually met Paul. We are E-friends. It’s like pen-pals, only more immediate. However, I do know what he looks like. In fact, he looks a little like a Canadian me. I was excited to meet him, and touched that he should invite me to his party. So what to do to repay him? I could immortalise him in words, turn him into a latter-day hero, a giant among men, but in that I have a handicap. He knows and admires me for my acid sarcasm. Mere words would not do. So I turned my hand to another talent. I drew his portrait, a masterpiece in charcoal. But on Sunday, hunt as I might, I could not find any fixer spray, and without a fixative it would smudge and smear, a strange reversal of Dorian Grey’s portrait.
So you see, I had to race into Maidstone as the sparrows coughed the dawn in. It was the only place I knew that sold the fixer spray. I was there, poised, as the doors opened. By nine-thirty I was back home and the portrait had been fixed to within an inch of its life. I sat amongst my bags and smiled at my wife, while the clock ticked the seconds away.
“Are you nervous?” she asked, and I had to admit, I was. I don’t know why. Perhaps there were so many things that could go wrong on my journey. Perhaps it was the prospect of sojourning in a strange land, for make no mistake, England and America are as foreign as any two countries; it’s only the language that shares a passing resemblance. Or maybe it was the reheated pizza the night before. Whatever the reason, I was glad when she suggested we drive down to the station early, to collect the train tickets that would start my odyssey.
I stood on the platform of Chatham station twenty minutes before the train was due. I was cold, and my throat dry. I stepped into the cafe, Brief Encounter dancing behind my eyes, and ordered a hot chocolate.
“Can I press you to a bacon roll?” asked the assistant.
“No, but I’ll have a ‘Ravishing Raspberry Muffin”, I said, reading the board behind her. This passes for flirting in Chatham on Monday mornings.
“Going anywhere nice?” she asked.
“Ooh, that is nice,” she said, eyebrows raised. I nodded in agreement. She was obviously a SQL Server fan.
The High Speed Link whisked me to St. Pancras, and then I caught the Tube. It’s called the Tube because you are treated like toothpaste. I loathe the Tube with a passion, but the walk across London would have taken me at least two hours. The Heathrow Express was experiencing industrial action by the train drivers, but if that was what a one-day strike did, they should have it every day. The express shot me to the airport terminal in record time, in a near-empty carriage with free wi-fi. Nirvana.
My first rule of trouble-free flying: cabin bags. Coupled with Internet check-in it allows lightning administration. BA allow a small bag and a laptop. Combine that with a bulky coat and a liberal interpretation of smart-casual, and I could survive for a week with carry-on. At Heathrow I was tagged, scanned, frisked and X-Rayed, then ejected into the departure lounge with hardly a pause. I kicked my heels for an hour, and then the gate was called. En masse we trudged to the lift, dropped two floors, queued for ten minutes for the transit train, travelled all of a hundred yards before spewing out onto the concourse, up two escalators, and finally collapsed at the gate. After an eternity we were called to board and we gave up any pretence of civilisation and scrummed at the desk.
I had worked a deal with my company. BA charged £265 To fly to Seattle on Monday. They charged £1450 to return on Friday, after my course. But on Sunday they charged £265. So if I agreed to give up my weekend, I could travel economy plus (extra room, better food, wider choice if films), stay an extra two nights at the hotel and still save my company money. I am such a hero.
I settled back in my seat and we took off on schedule. I kicked off my boots, checked with the person behind me if it was okay to recline my seat, tuned the personal entertainment system to Radio Four (the best radio station in the world), and closed my eyes.
At some point I felt a sharp impact on my legs. I opened my eyes again, while Jack Dee tried to keep order over the I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue team on the radio. My entertainment system, built into the back of the seat in front, lay in my lap, still functioning, but detached.
“It wasn’t my fault,” I told the cabin crew person, as she stood over me, hands on hips. “It just sort of broke. And look.” I showed her the cable that hang from the back, still able to convey the signal to my earphones. It kinked, and in the crook of the plastic bare metal winked back.
“I’ll deal with it immediately,” she said, backing away. “But in the mean time, don’t electrocute yourself.” I must admit, until she put the idea in my mind, it have never occurred to me.
Moments later she returned, the first aid box in her hand. Not the most reassuring sight, I must admit. She removed a sticking plaster and wrapped it around the bare wires.
“There,” she said. “Nothing else I can do. Are you okay with that?” She looked at the display in my lap. “You can pretend it’s an iPad. Do you want a Mars bar?” She offered me a box of chocolates.
“A Mars bar? When the TV has fallen in my lap? I expected at least an upgrade to Club.”
“We’ve got Twix instead,” she countered. I looked at the chocolate, and after a moment’s thought, took the Twix. Don’t judge me. Chocolate is chocolate.
We landed, about four p.m. local time, or midnight in old money.
“Please remain in your seats until the plane has come to a complete stop and the captain has switched off the seatbelt sign,” said a member of the cabin crew, which was the cue for half the passengers to stand and open the overhead lockers.
We passed through corridors, tunnels and slopes to queue at immigration. There were two queues for non-nationals, and four immigration officials. We snaked through a Disneyesque system, shuffling along one body at a time as each traveller was fingerprinted, photographed, questioned and otherwise welcomed. Then one of the officials that had been processing our line started waving on passengers from the other line, so our rate of progress suddenly halved. It was about four p.m. local time, and America wasn’t going anywhere. I shuffled along, pulling faces at the little girl behind me. A passenger on the final leg of the zigzag waved at the immigration officer.
“Excuse me, but I think you’re meant to be dealing with this queue,” he said, in an embarrassingly English accent.
“Actually, I can deal with any line I want,” the officer replied. “But thank you for letting me know you’re in charge.” He waved on the next person from the neighbouring queue.
Good job, I thought, because there’s nothing that will make our queue go faster than to tell the public official who can do something about it how to do his job.
I was eventually processed, then trudged through a variety of corridors, escalators and shuttle trains to the airport concourse, passing the amateurs who had hold baggage to reclaim. I had planned ahead, courtesy of the magic Interweb. A cab to my hotel would cost about $45, but an express bus ran within minutes of my hotel. Clever me. I walked out into the last of the afternoon sunshine and walked in the direction of the bus arrow. And walked, past the setting down and picking up points, past the taxis, past even the airport building itself. Had I missed the bus stop? What did an American bus stop look like anyway? Eventually I found it, tucked away under an overpass. Less than fifteen minutes to wait. Good job me.
I climbed aboard the 560 express to Bellevue. An Englishman and a couple of Germans also boarded, chatting to themselves in techno babble. One slid a twenty dollar bill into the slot, much to the driver’s amusement.
“Are you MVPs here for the summit?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied the Englishman. I kowtowed in reverence. “Are you?”
“No,” I replied. “I am a mere certified trainer.”
“Hey, that’s cool. You have to pass more qualifications than us, right?”
Right. Though we don’t get huge parties thrown for us. Thanks for that.
I tried to keep track of where we were on the map I had downloaded onto my phone. I’m sure calling all the streets names like 102 East Street makes for simpler navigation, but I found it confusing. Eventually the driver called out my stop. I and two other nerds tumbled out into the evening. They turned north, towing bags like reluctant dogs. I turned south. I was sure my hotel was south half a block, then east one block. See how easily I assimilate the local culture? I can even navigate like a native.
The Residence Inn was exactly where I thought it to be (shame on you for assuming I would get lost). I checked in. The receptionist informed me I had two bookings for parallel times. I assured her I was unique. My company had failed to provide card details, so I registered mine, hoping the company would supply their details when they read my email in the morning. She gave me my key card and told me there was a complimentary barbecue with beer and wine until seven-thirty. It was now just after six, and the temperature five degrees C and dropping. A barbecue? Really? The lounge areas were already full of nerds, and even a generous sprinkling of nerdettes. This was obviously a preferred hotel by Microsoft. They even had a Microsoft recreation area, with free X-Boxes.
I dumped my kit in my suite and descended to the lounge again, laptop under my arm. I chose an armchair and fired up my email. The irresistible lure of Facebook called to me.
“Do you want a beer?” called a woman behind a counter.
“I’d best cope with my email sober first,” I replied. Beyond her lay the barbecue, which was thankfully just dogs and burgers, served inside.
The temptation proved too much, and after a decent period I succumbed to the temptation of food and drink as I browsed the Interweb. I tried to identify fellow SQL nerds, but failed. At seven-thirty the free bar closed. The server came up to me, glass of wine in her hand, and placed it beside the two empty glasses on my table.
“You want this?” she said.
“Are you trying to get me drunk?” I asked in my most playful tone.
“No. Otherwise I have to throw it away.”
My charms, like my hair, were of another day. I took the wine.
The best way to deal with jet lag is to immediately adopt the local patterns. It was eight p.m. local time, or four a.m. back home. I had been awake twenty-two hours, I was just on the pleasant side of tipsy and the weight of the world rested on my eyelids. I returned to my suite, set my phone and the bedside alarm clock both to wake me at seven a.m.. I was bushed, and I didn’t want to sleep through the alarm. I hit the pillow and lost consciousness before I stopped bouncing.