The romance of travel … (not a thing)

The romance was beaten out of travel many years ago.

I am not so naïve as to expect tearful relatives waving me off with their handkerchiefs every time I jump on a train, but nor am I ever quite prepared for just how functional the experience has become.

To make matters worse, my journey began on a bus.

Don’t judge me. This was because the train journey from Ferrol to A Coruña takes nearly two hours (the bus is 40 minutes), and the timetable was constructed by people who don’t understand the need for sleep or sleek connections. I would have had to get up absurdly early and be left with a good couple of hours of dawdling in A Coruña station, two things I didn’t want to happen to me …  so I got the bus.

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I walked through the Ferrol Bus Station concourse, past the closed ticket offices, and past the closed shops and down the steps to the platforms.

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Airline personality disorder

Is it anthropomorphism when we relate to a branded organization as if it were human?

An airline is not an inanimate object or an animal, it’s a human construct, branded like crazy to spark our emotional brain – to make us feel loyalty and affection – so we are less rational when making purchasing decisions. So it is human, in a sense.

Some airlines do this brilliantly, notably Southwest (who I’ve never flown with), Virgin Atlantic, and Norwegian who are doing this brilliantly at the low-cost end of the market – and, although controversial, I think Iberia are getting much better that this.

TAP

The idea of making your brand mean something as a way to increase customer loyalty is not a groundbreaking game-changing disruptive idea. It is a trusty rock-solid foundation stone in the building of a service organization, yet so many airlines seem to aspire to have all the personality of the local bus service, thinking that having a plane and a bag of nuts is enough.

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Amtrak v Greyhound: an experiential study

We got on the train, right at the very back.

Everyone else travelling south from New York’s Penn Station seemed to know exactly which track the train was going to arrive on. By the time they announced it would be Track 14, the queues for the escalators were already long and wide; one heading south, the other north, the two meeting in a ragged mess in the middle of the station concourse.

We took advantage of the disorder to gently merge into the line, and ended up taking the north escalator down to the platform, hence ending up at the back of the south-bound train.

We lumbered our cases on board, and started looking for seats. Our tickets said we had reserved seats, but when I had questioned which seats they might be, I had been told it was a free-for-all.

This is a very loose way of using the word “reserved”.

The train had arrived about 30 minutes late from Boston, and by the time it jerked its way out of Penn Station, it was still 30 minutes late.

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The importance of knowing where the brakes are

I took a bike from my hotel in Stockholm ride to the office.

This was chiefly because I have an injured foot and the 20-minute walk wasn’t going to help it any, but also because I am envious of people who get to commute by bicycle, so I thought I’d pretend to be one of those people.

I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1997 when a friend bought a new bike and gave me his rusty old one. I rode it back to my flat, struggling along, the warped frame trapping the wheels so the stupid thing slowed to a halt even going down hills. I propped it up by the steps next to my house, and ran upstairs to get something: that was the last I saw of it.

The ride to work was uneventful. I didn’t feel comfortable going too fast, it was an old clanger of a contraption, and I was wearing a suit and was without a helmet, so I took it slow; I was not keen to arrive at work with torn clothing and visible bruising.

Stockholm

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If you’ve missed a flight recently, you’re not spending enough time in airports

In this post I tackle three big issues facing the frequent flyer.

A lot of the advice for the business traveller is based on three assumptions: speed is king, you need to keep working all the time, and you don’t need clean pyjamas.

I disagree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

We work incredibly hard most of the time, have lengthy commutes, and often return to a busy house with a long list of responsibilities. Travel is an opportunity to take care of ourselves, to have some peace and quiet, to meditate, to escape the hurly-burly senseless busy-ness of most of our working days.

So don’t feel the need to spend every waking second of travel on your laptop working at breakneck speed, use the peace and solitude to reflect and take a step back.

Early or late?

If you haven’t missed a flight recently, you’re spending too much time in airports

(Dr Jordan Ellenberg)

I don’t agree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

Ellenberg says that I could be doing something better with my time rather than idling it away in an airport terminal, that the “opportunity cost” of my arriving early is subtracting from all this productive stuff I would have been doing otherwise.

Well, Dr E, there are some mighty big assumptions in there.

If I waited until the last minute to get to the airport I wouldn’t be doing anything productive, I’d be standing around, glancing at my watch, and anxiously thinking about needing to get to the airport. At least if I’m already there I can relax and read and drink coffee, which is all I really want to do anyway.

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Travel broadens the waistline

It’s a fairly long way to Vilnius from Spain.

You have to go via Warsaw or Helsinki or even Moscow, but Moscow involves a transit visa, and it means flying over Vilnius in order to come right back again, several hours later. Such graceless inefficiency offends me.

And … if there is one cast-iron rule of travel it is this: never take a route that requires a visa unless you have absolutely no choice.

I could have gone via London or Amsterdam. These options were somewhere north of 27 hours each way. My computer presented them anyway, with a straight face, as if I might seriously consider them.

No sense of the ridiculous – one of the many problems with Windows 10.

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Heading to the beach … year two in Spain

I walked down Calle de la Magdalena in Oviedo, feeling stupid and alone. What was I doing back here on my own when all my friends had moved on?

I was trying to recreate something that had gone. The party was over, and I was the only one who hadn’t gone home.

I felt so lonely I wanted to cry.

At least I had a job this time. I’d come to Oviedo the previous December and just managed to survive on the meagre scraps of work I could scramble together here and there, but now I had the promise of a 25-hour-a-week job which would pay a decent monthly wage.

My new boss was Mr A. He was a slick type who insisted on the formal Usted rather than the more usual . I didn’t trust him one bit. He had the strut of someone whose most important objective was that other people saw him as important. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to communicate properly and so we never got to establish much of a relationship, and I think he never saw me as anything other than a potentially useful pushover.

He was right, I was a pushover.

The previous year the secretary had asked me how I was and I muttered a non-committal “meh” and she said “so so?” and I nodded, “yes, so so” and Mr A laughed, repeating the phrase “so so” as he threw his head back and guffawed … except he wasn’t really saying “so so”, he was laughing because they were calling me “soso” (insipid, boring) and I nodded along, unaware of the joke.

He was right about that too, I was soso.

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Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo

Spain started in Oviedo.

Or, to be a bit more precise, the local Visigothic ruler, Don Pelayo (later King Pelayo), defeated the Moors at the battle of Covadonga around 718, establishing a Christian kingdom in Asturias, and so began the reconquest of Spain that wasn’t completed until 1492.

Like King Pelayo before me, I too started my Spanish life in Asturias.

Pelayo made Cangas de Onis his capital before shifting his court to Oviedo. I took a more direct approach and went straight to the Asturian capital, no messing about.

Day one

I took an early bus from Madrid* and had no real idea where I was going or just how big and empty Spain was. I stared at the endless flat plains of León as we drove on and on, nothing to see for miles. Hours later we climbed up into the Cantabrian mountains and eventually emerged into the driving rain of Asturias. I understood that Spain was not just hot and sunny beaches, but there was not a single time that I came out of that mountain pass and it wasn’t raining cats and dogs.

Oviedo didn’t look great from the bus. It looked drab and shoddy, but then very few cities look nice from the point of view of their bus stations. Oviedo’s bus station was surrounded by apartments that hung their washing out on spiderweb carousels overhanging the central courtyard where the buses parked. I wouldn’t like to dry my pants in full view of the city’s travellers, and would fear that they could easily become dislodged and fall, ending up on the roof of a bus, never to be seen again.

I walked out, suddenly realising that my happy-go-lucky lack of planning had a negative side. I had no idea where to go, what to do or how to speak the language. I felt lonely but not lost. It was an exciting and exhilarating – if a little daunting – feeling of freedom and opportunity; it was like I was actually living my life at last, and that anything could happen.

This feeling waned slightly as I checked into a hostel and was shown to my room.

It was small with an uncomfortable bed and a postage-stamp-sized window in the top corner of the far wall. Stig of the Dump would have felt at home in that room, although he may have complained about the lack of natural light. Desperate to recapture the feeling of youthful adventure, I went to enjoy a beer, a smoke and my Jack Kerouac book.

I didn’t particularly want a beer, or a smoke, or indeed to read the Kerouac book, but I thought it was best to try to live up to the idea of who I was supposed to be.

When I’d left University earlier that same year, I’d decided that it wasn’t cricket for an educated fellow to be monolingual. Having enjoyed a holiday in Spain the year before, travelling around the Basque Country and the Ebro valley, I’d seen a side of Spain that I really liked. It was both lively and easy-going, relaxing but energetic. And had great food, cheap booze and pretty girls. Even the language didn’t seem like such an impenetrable impossible mouthful as French or German, the two European languages I had tried (and failed) to wrestle with previously. Spanish seemed to flow better, it was difficult and often maddening, but at least it went with the grain, not against it.

That first day in Oviedo I realised that I didn’t know a thing. The few phrases of this bizarre foreign tongue† I’d picked up on previous trips were better than nothing, but only in the same way as a grain of salt is better than no salt in a scenario where you need loads of salt.

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Red rain and blue eyes

I slept well last night.

After 24 hours on buses, planes and taxis, and spending countless hours waiting around in airports, I got home and, despite the 7-hour timezone difference, managed to stay awake long enough to go to bed at the reasonably legal hour of 21:45

The next thing I knew it was morning, my trip to the Pearl River Delta already fading into the hazy distance.

It was a good trip. Fortunately my dry sarcastic wit was understood and appreciated by the people of Hong Kong. This was especially important to me as I hadn’t got anything else prepared.

In fact I don’t know how to operate in a world devoid of sarcasm, I simply don’t have the tools to survive in such a hostile environment.

I wonder if sarcasm is as human as laughter and other sorts of humour. Is it hard-wired into human DNA?

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First time on the rock

Last week I went to Gibraltar.

This was my first ever visit to the rock, and I was quite excited to see what it was like.

As a British resident of Spain I am often challenged as to when I might return Gibraltar to the Spanish crown. I usually patiently explain that that’s beyond the scope of my role, but also, quite aside from the legal status of the territory, I question why it is such a big deal anyway – there are anomalies all over the place for crying out loud: Ceuta and Melilla being two obvious ones.

Rock of Gibraltar

Having had these discussions (and plenty more) for many years, I was intrigued to see what the place was really like, and was interested to know if I was going to have to hide my Spain links and play up the Yorkshireman card just to get through the week unscathed!

I could not have been more wrong.

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The first time I’ve been tear-gassed … but worse than that, a smelly man with wayward elbows

I am flying high over north-left Turkey.

We took off about half-an-hour ago and we’re still over land, I’d expected to be over the sea by now. Countries are rarely the size you expect them to be, they’re almost always much bigger.

Istanbul was bigger than I’d expected too.

View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn
View of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn

Hang on, the pilot has just spelt out the route: Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, France, then Spain.

No self-respecting crow would fly such a circuitous route, but then routes on flat maps always look absurdly circular until you map them to a globe.

This is why ships from Southampton to New York bump into icebergs. On the flat page of an atlas, you’d expect them to be much further south, but the great circle from northern Europe has ships (and now planes) approaching the Big Apple from the north – down the Newfoundland coast. I once flew into New York from behind, we flew down the Hudson with Manhattan on the left. I longed to see a map to understand how this could be, but I was stuck on a plane and not even I am so geeky as to travel with a globe.

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Obsessive compulsive annoyingly getting old disorder

I am getting ready to go to Istanbul.

I’m speaking at the eCommerce Expo there on Friday (I have the 9:30 to 10:15 slot).

In case you’re in the area, it’s at the Halic Congress Center Pera Building on Friday (31st May).

I’m starting to get nervous.

There’s a scene in The Godfather when Michael stands outside the hospital and lights the cigarette of a nervous henchman. The henchman’s hands are shaking, but Michael’s are rock solid. This is when the young Corleone realises that he can handle the pressure of being a big time gangster.

That’s what I used to be like before I’d step on stage to speak, hands steady with confidence … but now, as I get older, and as I get better, I find myself getting as nervous as hell.

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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.

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It’s called having high standards

I have just torn a hot floury chapatti in two.

I am in London and I always try to eat Indian food when I’m back in the UK.

I have a thing about restaurants though, I don’t like places that are too crowded. Or too empty. Or grotty. Or too posh. Nothing dirty and cramped. I hate canteens and plastic furniture.

Yes, I am a little fussy when picking a place to eat, I like the clean and contemporary feel, classy but not silly, spacious but charming; the sort of place that cleans the table between customers.

I am fussy about hotels too.

As I age, I am less willing to sleep on a bench covered in sackcloth and urine.

Yesterday I insisted my pillow was changed to feather and down, rather than the gravel initially supplied. I can be quite demanding when pushed.

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Very expensive post

I am in Madrid now.  Tired.  Sitting at a hotel Internet point, watching the money ticking up on my credit card in the bar at the bottom of the screen.

It’s €5.25 now.

That’s a lot of Euros.

I could go to my room and watch Sky News or Spanish TV or read my book, but I need to remain more vertical than horizontal to ensure my dinner goes down.

The bed in my room is on casters on a wooden floor, so if I sit there propped up on pillows, I slowly edge the bed away from the headboard and skid across the room.  I go to sleep in one place, and awake with the bed lodged in the opposite corner.  It’s a nice room otherwise, it’s just they didn’t think it through.

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