High speed fake luxury

I had tortellini with gorgonzola and walnut sauce last night.

As I get older I get more appreciative of good food and less appreciative of business travel. I never used to look forward to a meal with such naked relish as I do these days, yet never did my heart sink so low upon entering yet another hotel room as it has done lately.

I used to love travel, every little bit of it.

I used to love the buzz of it, the excitement you feel in airports and train stations.

My heart used to beat faster as I walked through Victoria Station and saw giggly backpackers preparing to cross the channel. I envied their freedom.

I used to love the journey, the space of travel, the discovery of arrival of a new place with its bizarre little differences – at first perplexing – even insurmountable – but soon thrillingly familiar, but still excitingly foreign. I was amused by the meagre luxury of hotels, the silly little chocolates placed on the pillow to fool you into thinking that this was the high life, the faux quality of the accessories, like we wouldn’t notice it was all barely skin deep, a veneer no thicker than the toilet paper folded unnecessarily into a posh and pointy triangle.

Now I see airports as systems to generate queues and obstacles.

Air travel – and more specifically airports – have turned travel from what was once a romantic and exciting experience into a series of waits broken up with tiresome and pedantic procedures.

Hotels have turned what was once a rare and cheeky taste of luxury-living into identikit tedium.

What could be a shining example of comfort and convenience becomes just a place to shove your clothes and rest your head. Hotels should be excited about the challenge of creating spaces that work for middle-aged business travellers who need to work but really want some peace and quiet and good food that won’t lead directly to a heart attack.

They seem more excited about cutting costs and over-complicating the humdrum act of serving coffee at breakfast.

Most hotels can’t even provide a functional wardrobe and seem unaware of where to buy coathangers.

Fortunately, just as airports, airlines and hotels focus on becoming worse and more alike, restaurants are moving in the opposite direction.  They are not only focussed on creativity in the food-sense, but also at creating great environments and experiences for the diner.

There’s still a long way to go, the Spanish specialise in waiters who are trained to ignore their customers, getting served can be a challenge difficult to overcome for polite people who don’t like hollering “oiga” across the room.

The service can be good when you eventually get their attention, so it’s not a lost cause.

They also don’t seem to have yet cottoned on to the importance of drinks, in particular beer: a decent wine list is as old as the hills, whereas offering a decent range of interesting beers seems to be a trick oft missed. It is shocking how often I am forced to drink pedestrian mass-produced lager with my gourmet pizza or chef’s special curry – meals I much prefer with chilled beer rather than red wine.

Last bit.  Stay with me.

I came home on the train.

Spain’s dead quick and swanky high-speed AVE service – cutting the journey time between the country’s two biggest cities to just under 3 hours. I cleverly got a bargain ticket that meant I could travel in posh class for less than the tourists in the cattle trucks behind.

This is a great example of fake luxury.

The posh luxury lounge in Barcelona’s unpleasant Sants station looks grand and mysterious behind coloured glass walls and fancy big automatic doors which sneakily reveal nothing when they swish open.

The poor and under-privileged people outside must feel sick with envy as those of us with the right ticket being ushered into the posh poshness of the top-secret super-posh lounge for posh people.

Once inside the windowless bleak interior, scattered with soft furnishings, everything is free. Everything. Bottles of water, coffee, packets of wafer biscuits. The list just goes on. And then stops. The list stops at wafer biscuits. The untold posh poshness and luxurious luxury comes to an end with a swift swiftness.

Once you’ve had a coffee and a biscuit and a tepid bottle of peach juice, you’ve pretty much exhausted the decadent luxury on offer.

The train is similar. The luxury free meal is half a diagonal sandwich and a chocolate bun. The train moves just as quickly at the posh end as it does in steerage. There is free wine and coffee, but no one thought of adding WiFi. The woman behind me doesn’t stop her mobile phone jibber-jabber until we pull into Atocha, so even that little saving grace of first class travel – that of separating the traveller from the unwashed masses – is lost in my case.

Thankfully, the tortellini with gorgonzola and walnut sauce made the trip worthwhile.


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