Journey to the Mothership – Monday

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.

Paul

Paul'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.

“Seattle.”

“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.

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And The Rest

“Good evening, sir. Checking in?”

The smile was friendly and the greeting sounded sincere, even if it was the fiftieth time she’d said it that day.

“Yes. The name’s Butler.”

“Gosh, you look hot. Is it that warm out?” Her hands flew over the keyboard.

I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, ignoring the stinging and praising the gods of air conditioning.

“It is when you have to walk a mile from the station. Where are all the taxis?”

“Oh, Digby’s tiny. They’ll all be in Exeter. Is that B-U-T-L-E-R?”

“Yes.” Was there another way to spell it?

“I’m afraid we don’t have a booking in that name. When was it made?”

“I don’t know. Last week sometime. The company made it. Is it under RB Limited?”

Her manicured fingers click-clacked on the keyboard. How did women type with nails?

“Sorry. Do you have a confirmation letter?”

I fished into my bag and pulled out the print-off of the confirmation email. I’d been here too many times before, stranded at hotels that had not heard of me, or that wouldn’t let me put food and drink on the room without a credit card.

“Oh, I’m ever so sorry. I know what’s happened. This was last Monday, and we had a power cut. The computer must have lost it.” She seemed genuinely sorry, so sorry I felt sorry on her behalf.

“So, does this mean you’re going to throw me out into the blistering heat, devoid of room and board?”

“Oh no. No, now I’ve got the confirmation I can enter it all in, and we’ve got plenty of rooms. Do you mind if I take a photocopy of this?”

“No, feel free. That’s the main reason I always print a copy out.”

“A seasoned traveller, eh?” she said with a smile, and I suddenly wished I was single and twenty years younger. She turned and disappeared into the back office. Make that thirty years younger.

A five hour train ride in unseasonably warm weather on a Sunday, no taxi at the end, no hotel booking. What a wonderful end to the weekend. Still, I wouldn’t want to be bored. Bored. I tried to remember what that was like. The receptionist bounced back behind the counter and handed my sheet of paper back.

“No problem, Mr Butler. Just bear with me while I just enter that into the system.” She stared at her photocopy as she rattled the keys in front of her. “Three nights, yes? There we go.” She turned to her printer as it chattered out a room card for me. “Room fifty-nine. That’s on the ground floor over there. Oh, and to make up for the muddle, here’s a ten percent discount card on drinks in the bar.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I’m not that upset.”

She leant forward conspiratorially. “Actually, we’re giving all residents the discount today. I just thought you’d feel better if you thought I was treating you as special.”

She giggled, and I couldn’t help chuckling back.

“Thanks. I’ll try to feel special. What time does the restaurant close?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, the kitchen’s closed on Sundays. We can do you a sandwich. Well, normally we can do you lots of sandwiches, but we’re waiting for a delivery. I’m afraid we’ve only got cheese or cheese and onion. Sorry.”

I wondered how many times she’d said sorry that day.

“I’ll go freshen up,” I said, “then I’ll decide on how to satisfy my epicurean appetite.”

“Um, yes, okay.”

I turned and made my way towards my room, cursing myself. ‘Satisfy my epicurean appetite?’ What sort of sentence was that? Could I make myself sound any more creepy? Idiot!

I phoned home, reassuring my wife I hadn’t been kidnapped and sold into slavery or succumbed to any of her other fears. I sniffed at my T-shirt and winced. I stank. I stripped off and ran the shower. The hotel had fixed a liquid soap dispenser to the wall and I soaped myself, adding the inventor of the hot shower to the pantheon of gods that contained the air-con deities.

Afterwards I stared at my god-like image in the mirror. Well, my glasses were in the bedroom and the mirror steamed up, but I was pretty sure it was god-like. I thought of some of the peculiar gods worshipped in far-flung rain forests. Best not to be too particular about exactly which god.

Yes, I deserved a ninety percent beer, even if the best accompaniment was a cheese and onion sandwich. Besides, I needed to dazzle the receptionist with my rapier-like wit to make up for ‘satisfying my appetite’ disaster. I grimaced into the mirror and squinted. No spinach on my teeth. Not surprising, as I’d last eaten spinach perhaps six months earlier. Maybe a dab of after-shave behind my ears.

With wet hands I picked up the bottle by the damp lid. It slipped, bounced off the edge of the hand basin and crashed onto the tiled floor. I looked down at the shards of green glass though the fug of chemical attraction. Other gods played chess with my life, and they weren’t all as benevolent as the air-con and shower gods.

Gingerly I binned the shards I could see. I took a giant step and placed my bare foot safely on the carpet in the bedroom. There would be other shards, I knew, too small for the naked eye, but too big for the naked sole. I dried myself off and dressed.

Approaching the reception desk I smiled apologetically.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“Sir?”

“I dropped a bottle of after-shave on the bathroom floor. I’ve got the worst of it up, but there are little splinters of glass on the floor. Do you have a vacuum cleaner or something I can borrow?”

“No problem, sir. I’ll get my colleague to clean it up. Room fifty-nine?”

“Yes. I’m so sorry.” I wondered if I could match her tally of apologies.

“No problem. Is there anything else?”

“Yes. A cheese and onion sandwich and a pint of beer, please.”

“Certainly. I can’t leave the counter to make the sandwich until my colleague, um…”

“Comes back from clearing up my mess?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Where are you sitting?”

I pointed out the table I’d occupy. She looked at my old and feeble hands.

“I’ll tell you what, sir. Why don’t you take a seat, and I’ll bring your beer over to you.”

I slunk over to the table. Thirty years younger? And the rest.

The loveliness of Paris…

…Seems somehow sad and grey.

For our 25th I booked a surprise weekend to Paris.  When we got to Ashford She was surprised by the Cooler bag.  "It’s for breakfast, of course."

On the Eurostar I started to unpack.  First the tuppaware cup half full of water with the two roses I had picked at dawn.  Then the pan au chocolat.  "Do you feel like a fruity tart?  I know I do."  Two fresh fruit patisseries.  Two cut glasses, for the chilled bottle of Bucks Fizz, of course.  Double bonus points for making the women opposite jealous of such a romantic.  No matter what I do for the rest of the day, I will be on top of the high score table for this.

We drop the suitcases off at the hotel.  The fittings are tatty and the room tiny.  I wonder if we got a discount for renting by the day rather than the hour.  But the place is clean and the staff very friendly.  Then we hit the Isle de la cite – Notre Dame, imposing and huge – Sainte Chappelle, an amazing church whose roof appears to be supported purely by stained glass – The Conciergerie, a bit of a dissappointment, really.  Then back to the hotel for a quick change and off to dinner.

I had booked dinner on a boat.  Very nice food and wine, and all the time we were going up and down the Seine, seeing Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, The Statue of Liberte, and all the magnificent buildings.  At some point my score hit all the 9’s, a max score for the first time in my life, and still the bell keeps chiming.

As we sit outside a cafe sipping beer, watching the evening sun on the towers of Notre Dame I go for it.  "As I have made such an effort, and seeing it is 25 years, and you love me so much, can I ask you to do something special for me when we get back to out room?"

"What?"

"Massage my feet.  My plates are killing me."

Saturday we do the Louvre.  It is big.  I mean, big.  B – I – G.  If you jogged around it it would take 4 days to see every painting.

From the Louvre you can see the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs Elysee.  So we walk there.  And walk.  And walk.  We stop off at a cafe a couple of times.  We grab a bite to eat.  It is pigging miles.  Worth it though.  We climb to the top of the arch and there is Paris spread below us.

Afterwards we walk down to the river, sip another beer at a cafe, then start to walk along the river.

My feet are screaming at me.  We decide to catch the metro back.  She is tired, as the constant police sirens in our part of Paris kept Her awake last night.  As I step off the metro I realise my phone has been stolen.  I can pinpoint the exact moment it happened, the technique they used.

She finds it funny.  It’s only a cheap phone with all of 11 pence credit on it.

But it’s not the phone.  I feel sick inside, violated, angry that someone could just take what they wanted from me and I could do nothing about it. 

That evening we decided to go for a walk near the hotel.  After five minutes She wants to go back.  This part of Paris is not meant for romantic walks.  We find a cafe to have a small meal in.  Back at the hotel it is full of American kids.  They shout and call to each other till gone midnight.  The rooms are sound-proof, but apparantly not American Youth proof.  They leave at 7:30.  We know this because of the noise from 6:30 till 7:30.

Sunday morning we go for a last walk through the gardens at the Louvre, and then by the Seine to la cite.  We spoil ourselves with a genuine Parisienne patiserrie.  Home to find the house hasn’t burnt down in our absence.

Would I go back?  It’s good to have the tick in the box, been there, done that.  Parisiennes were not at all surly as their reputation suggests.  But Paris is expensive, there is dog crap everywhere and the theft of my phone has dampened it somewhat.  So probably not.  But I am looking forward to Montpellier next week.  All the good bits of France combined with Mediterranian lifestyle.

Friday afternoon blues

Bloody Ryan Bloody Air!  I get to the airport through the horrendus Dublin traffic with over two hours to spare.  When the check-in opens I am near the front of one of the two queues.  Yes, of course I am behind a party of six who move with all the urgency and speed of continental drift.  Why is this an issue?  Seats are not allocated.  They ask the passengers with the lowest number boarding cards on first, and I am going to have to sprint off the plane at Gatwick to catch the train.  I want a seat with rapid access to the exit.

I get to the checkin and hand over my passport.  They needed my reservation number.  The nice girl at Gatwick had told me that I wouldn’t need that.  Ah yes, but at Gatwick they have these things called computers.  At Dublin they have a sheet of paper that has the reservation number, but not the passenger name.  I have to go to the ticket counter for my reservation number.

OK, I nip over to the ticket office.  No queue.  She scribbles the number on a scrap of paper one inch square.  I turn back to the checkin.  There is now a Disneyesque queue.  Eventually I get my boarding card.  To the Departure Lounge, Robin!

A few weeks ago there was a security audit at Dublin Airport.  It was apparrantly awful.  So now there is a queue bigger than the queue for Space Mountain, but no jugglers or clowns.  When I eventually get close to the bleep-bleep machine I have to take off my jacket, shoes and belt.  Standard procedure, apparrantly, but not for any of the other airports I’ve been to in the last two months.

My carry-on bag goes through.  The security man asks me to take my laptop out of the bag.  Bag and laptop have to go through again.  Standard procedure sir.  Well, no, it makes no difference to security, but it makes the queue nice and long, so it looks good.

And now the rassin frassin flight is delayed.  Sprint?  I’m not sure Linford Christie could make it to the train now.

And I am wearing my happy tie.  It has lots of big yellow smiley faces on it.  Spot the difference.

Oh great, now it’s been delayed again.  Now only Dr Who will be able to catch the train.

Turning a frown upside down

Today’s class was due to start at 09:30.  At 09:45 I found Cameron.  "No-one’s turned up."  I eventually started at 10:05.  My class consisted of one student.

Before I even started he was asking "Why should I learn this product when there are so many other better products out there?  Why can it not do this or that?  I can do so-and-so with these tools, why would I need MOM as well?"

OK, I thought.  This is going to be a fun day.  Think of it as a challenge.

For the next hour I averaged about two sentences before he would ask another question.

Then suddenly I got it.  He was actually trying to find the answers to the questions his customers would ask him, or formulating strategies as to how to sell this to his management.  This turned the day around.  Normally I prefer larger classes to one-on-ones, something to do with the performer in me.  But this constant questioning and interaction was actually quite fun.  He turned out to be an enthusiastic student, so much better to the classes where you feel you are talking just to fill the vacuum.

Last day tomorrow, then on hols for a week and a half.  Champion.

Old is as old does

I was tucking into lunch in the Dell canteen, chatting to Cameron, the in-house trainer, when Scott kicked my foot by way of greeting.  He invited me to look him up after I had finished training.  Scott, you will recall, dear reader, was the Scot in Sweden who worked in Ireland.

So this evening we arranged that tomorrow we would have a bevy or two after work.  He needed to fortify himself for Thursday, when he reaches the sad old age of thirty.  Crivens (as they say in Scotland) (or at least, as Oor Wullie says in Scotland), if that’s old, what does that make me?  I may have to go down to the bar and have a wee practice this evening to acclimatise myself.

RyanAir

Gatwick to Dublin via Ryan Air, budget airline.  I was expecting no frills.  What a surprise to meet my brother at the gate.  He and his wife Rosa both work at Gatwick.  He works for a company that. amongst other things, deals with check-ins for Ryan Air.

He opened the barrier for me and the pair of us chatted in the staff only area.  He and Rosa are going to see Ben’s exhibition in Brick Lane.  We arranged to have a Ruby Murray afterwards.

I was first on the plane, front seat, more leg room than I could take up.  First out of the plane, waved through passport control, catch the Leopardstown town bus one minute before it leaves.