Monday, 7 March 2016

The Crystal Maze - Live Experience Review, London 6th March 2016

Doesn't look like much, this building, does it? Certainly doesn't look like you could fit a full-sized Crystal Maze replica inside it. But that's pretty much what those crazy people at The Crystal Maze have done. "How?", is a mystery worthy of a 3-minute automatic-lock-in game. Cross my palm with silver and ask Mumsey nicely if you want to know more... Or, you know, just carry on reading.

It's a cold and gloomy Sunday afternoon as I head up from a London zone 1 tube station and make the short walk to the top secret address I've been given for today's mission: to be a "Crystal Tester", a perk of the crowdfunding campaign that basically means I get to go in and play a week before the place officially opens. They've been running tests for a week now, so I'm hopeful they'll have got it somewhat right by now.

What I'm less hopeful about is my ability to  perform under pressure - what if I end up being the person that shouts "I'm coming out!" with 30 seconds still to go, with everyone around screaming at me to just slide that last puzzle piece to the left and grab the damn crystal? I'm doubly worried about this because this new iteration of The Crystal Maze is a game for teams of 8 people, and I'm here on my own, so will be paired up with strangers, some of whom already know each other. And nobody wants to be "that random guy who messes everything up" under those circumstances.

Luckily, my team mates are all very nice, and just as excited as I am - something that comes across quite strongly as we all stand about chatting in the locker room, donning our green boiler jackets with Crystal Maze logos on the breast and excitedly waiting for our 4pm slot. We are a varied bunch - two Irish people, an American who's never seen the show ("It's just like Fort Boyard, right?" Yeah, without the dwarves...), two ladies originally from Hong Kong, a lady from Stratford-Upon-Avon, one from Canterbury/Halifax, who seems to be the biggest Crystal Maze geek of the lot, and little old me.

I've decided before I arrive that I'll leave the physical challenges to the others, not exactly being at peak physical fitness, and preferring to show off my superior intellect. It's therefore a bit disconcerting to find that all my team mates have the same idea- and I suddenly imagine myself being forced to swing across bars with only my upper body strength to rely on, falling in a big pile of sand and getting locked in on the very first game.

Perhaps obviously, we're not allowed any cameras inside, so this entire review will be accompanied by pictures stolen from the internet. Sorry about that.

Anyway, it's time to go in- and being Team Green, we enter via the Medieval zone. This is make or break time - will we be able to shake that "corporate training centre" ambiance from the locker room area, or will it be quite obvious that we're still running around in an office building?

In through the door, to a chamber where stone walls, plush velvet rugs and a chilly breeze signal our trip back in time - and the goosebumps and inane giggling from the entire team begins... We're in the Crystal Maze. A brief video intro from TV host Richard O'Brien (and I do mean brief, really don't come just to see it) hands custody of the maze over to our new dungeon keeper, and then he arrives, a kind of Gaul-ish warrior guy who does an amusing monologue about his character, gets us all to introduce ourselves to each other (yeah ok, a bit more corporate team build but it helps), and teaches us all our new team victory move: the double skull-crush. You probably had to be there, but it was pretty legendary and we all looked WAY COOL.

One more piece of business to take care of: "Who's going to be your team captain?", asks the Dungeon Keeper. The other 7 people, as one, all immediately turn and look at me and say: "Him!" Alrighty then.

None of us are quite rocking the hairstyles or glasses of the original series. Probably just as well.

As team captain, it's my job to decide which type of games we will play (Skill, Mental, Physical or Mystery), and who will play them; so as we head on into the Medieval zone proper and towards the banqueting table in the main hall, I'm immediately forced to make a choice. We go first for a mental game in which one of our crew has to assemble a sundial on top of a large plinth made of puzzle pieces that only fit together one way, and whilst she tries her best to do this, the rest of us watch through windows all around the cell and yell out helpful advice. "That one! No, that one! Other way! Come out!"

We narrowly miss out on this first crystal, but not to worry, there's a physical game coming up and since I know nobody else wants to do it, I bravely put myself in to bat, don the crash helmet of doom, and step into my cell.

What follows is two and a half minutes of me rolling myself up and down the length of the cell inside a giant plastic tube on a track, using only my body weight for leverage - picking up three "cannon balls" at one end and throwing them into a receptacle at the other end which then releases the crystal to roll back down a pipe to the entrance. With 30 seconds to go, I need to roll myself back to the entrance one more time and pick up the crystal, but I'm struggling to get the tube to budge. I like to think I'm fairly dignified most of the time, but as I grunt and moan my way back down the track towards the exit, this goes completely out of the window. "HUUUUURRGGHHH", I gasp. "How long have I got?", I pant between every breath... With about 7 seconds left on the clock I fall out of my tube onto the exit platform only to find that the crystal's fallen off its perch and is somewhere under a piece of hessian sack or something else equally medieval. "I CAN'T SEE THE CRYSTAL", I yell as many times as physically possible in the remaining 5 seconds, thereby using up my second classic game catchphrase. Eventually, as the dungeon master opens the door, my fingers find that glorious piece of glass that I've dreamed of winning since I was 11, and I launch myself back out of the cell as the timer ticks down to zero.

(Or that's what I tell myself, anyway. I actually suspect that as we're in testing phase, our fearless leader is being a little lenient on timings to account for things like crystals falling off their perches, or maybe just for the sake of us having a good time...)

I'm not quite this epic, but obviously not far off. 

Sheer elation overtakes me as I rejoin my team for another mighty skull crush manoeuvre and we put the Irish lady in to do a Mystery game with pub signs while I catch my breath (which takes a surprisingly long time.) As I watch our team guide our intrepid volunteer to a very narrow defeat, it strikes me that this, as an experience, is exactly what I wanted. I'm sure if I cast a more cynical eye over the whole thing, started looking a bit more closely at things, started comparing the exact layout of the TV set to the exact layout of this place, I could find some fault with what they've done here, but to do so would be to miss the point.

The fun of watching The Crystal Maze, and the things that made me want to be on it more than anything in the whole world when I was a teenager were the sheer variety in the games; the way the people worked together as a team to crack the puzzles, to pick each other up when they failed, to celebrate together when they won; the way the dungeon master and the team bantered together to the extent that you could never tell whose side he was on; and most of all, the feeling of being in a mysterious place removed from the everyday world while yelling instructions at total strangers. And this new version has got all of that spot on.

Is it an exact recreation of the original TV set, with the exact same cells in the exact same layout, and the exact same styrofoam Aztec bricks in the exact same sand? No. Did they say it was going to be? Um, they might have hinted at that right back at the beginning of the funding campaign, yeah, but even then I thought that was extremely unrealistic on a budget of a million quid, especially if they wanted a venue that people could easily get to. Does it capture the feeling of the original whilst being a bit new and interesting? Yes. Is it fun? HELL YES. Does it feel like you've stepped inside the TV show? Yes. Does it feel like you're in an office block in Zone 1? HELL NO.

Back to the game, then, and following our single-crystal start in the Medieval zone, we climb up the wall into the Aztec zone and down into the sand. The Aztec zone was always my favourite, and this version does not disappoint, with its real sand and familiar fake iconography.

The Original.

The Computer generated "artist's impression" of the London version. It looks a lot better in real life.

With the step into this warmer clime comes new fortune for our fearless warriors, as we make our way through 4 more games and bring home 2 more crystals, with much whooping and high-fiving... The industrial zone is next, with its drab grey interior and utilitarian pipes (how they got this one so spot on in a mundane office block in London, I'll never know...) - and we manage another 3 victories.

One of these is my second attempt at glory - playing one of the classic games from the series where I have to wire up a giant doorbell to a giant battery with giant cables (making sure not to get my + and - mixed up), by means of standing on a giant matchbox and using a giant spanner to turn giant nuts. It's not very hard, really, but as a demonstration of how much like the TV show this feels, it's great - I'm really there, locked in a cell, playing this game I've seen on TV. The scale feels right and there's nothing cheap feeling about it at all (well no more than the '90s original; and let's face it - that was a lot of its charm.)

An easy but exceedingly fun second victory - and much more easily won than when one of the ladies from Hong Kong has to climb up a room full of giant spider's webs to retrieve the crystal without ringing the attached bells and risking automatic lock-in. We manage to send her completely the wrong way to start with but eventually realise our mistake (thanks to helpful hints from our dungeon guide) and have her start all over again; and yet somehow she still wins it.

A bit like this, only better actually!

Last up - the Futuristic zone, which does quite a nice job of recreating the 90's idea of a really modern spaceship, with lots of white plastic and bleeping noises. There are physical games with fricking laser beams, and a mystery one with a problem to solve in a lab, which due to us not being able to see much to help doesn't go very well. But never mind that: because we're running so ahead of schedule, we have time for a bonus game, where we're challenged to see how quickly we can do the laser beam game again- so we send our smallest player in and she romps home victorious in 22 seconds with yet another crystal by means of doing a snake-like shimmy along the floor back and forth.

Our final, wonderful total: 10 crystals, which will get us 50 seconds of time inside the Crystal Dome - so off we go, running back through all the zones just like on TV, and thence to the majestic structure which may or may not be in the middle of all the zones like on TV, but let's not get too hung up about that really...

Here is where we meet up with the other 3 teams who've been playing at the same time as us, and we realise just what a marvel of logistics this whole thing is - we've somehow managed to play the right number of games through the whole maze, without ever bumping into the other teams. Hats off to our Dungeon Masters, of which there are 4, all playing different characters depending on the team, and filling that Richard O'Brien shaped void in suitably OTT fashion.

We get to hear "WILL YOU START THE FANS PLEASE!" 4 different times, in 4 different ways, too, which is never a bad thing.

Because we're all here at the same time, we get to watch each other in the dome, and pick up some tactics tips - the "open up jacket and wait for tokens to accumulate" one seemingly quite popular. The dome's as big as you expect, but there's no jumping about (something which, according to legend, was only ever filmed in post-production to make it more interesting to watch anyway); instead we run around trying to catch the tiny floating bits of cellophane, and failing miserably, or stand guard by the letterbox and shovel in anything that comes along.

In this version of the game, there actually aren't any gold and silver tokens to sort through, so it's simply about getting as many as you can into the box - to be honest, although it's fun and the dome itself is impressive, this finale is actually my least favourite bit. It could be because this was always the least interesting bit for me in the TV show, or it could be because the tokens are a bit small and hard to catch, but whatever, it's an amusing ending. And the fans and flashing lights inside the dome are pretty awesome.

When all 4 teams are done, we have a count up and find out which of the 4 teams have won - although of course it's not the winning that matters, it's the taking part, and I obviously say that because we come 3rd. At this point, we salute the winners and pose for our victory photos in front of the dome before sitting down to fill out some feedback forms (I'm assuming this won't be part of the final experience...)

First question: "What's your main emotion, having just completed the Crystal Maze?" - answer: EXHILARATION! If you couldn't tell from what I've already written, I quite enjoyed this. Ok, I enjoyed it a lot. OK, OK, it was one of the best things I've ever done in my entire life (a definite step up from Go-Karting, Laser Tag or strippers as an "awesome thing to do on a Stag Do".)

Do I have any gripes? No, not really. I might suggest that perhaps some of the games were a little bit easier than they needed to be, but then some of them were bloody impossible, so all in all the balance was probably about right.

Again, it's not an exact replica of the original TV set. The zones are, I think, in a different order, and the transition tunnels and walkways aren't exactly the same, though they're still great fun (sliding into our escape pods to get into Futuristic Zone being a particular highlight). There's no water anywhere to fall in, but really, bearing in mind the health and safety aspect of making this suitable for the general public, that's not really surprising. Plus, they really struggled with the weight of the water in the aircraft hangar of the original TV set, so goodness knows how they'd have managed that in this disused training centre. I'll let them off this one thing.

I'll tell you one thing - it's a LOT better than this artist's impression made me suspect. I had this horrible feeling it was a literal drawing of what things would look like -mind you, at least then they could have just fit it inside a disused Blockbuster or something.

Oh, one thing that really needs sorting is the "windows" into the futuristic zone games, which being made of tinted plastic and immediately getting covered with fingerprints and face marks are pretty hard to see through. Might be better to make them lift-up flaps like in the other zones, although I can see that some of the games rely on lighting effects inside the cell so perhaps not.

And perhaps, in this selfie and social media-obsessed world in which we live in, once the place is up and running a bit better, there should be more photo opportunities and the ability to spend extortionate amounts of money on taking said photos home with you immediately. Instead of a promise to put the team shot on Facebook, which so far hasn't come through. It's 24 goddamn hours ago, people, I need my bragging fix!

All in all, though, I came prepared for bitter disappointment, and I didn't get that - I got the closest thing to being on the original TV show that I ever could have hoped for. Plus, we didn't have to go back and film ourselves messing up the same games again over and over, nobody yelled "cut" just as I was getting going, I didn't fall in any water, and I didn't get locked in anywhere. So in a very real and important way, I'm actually calling this as better than the real thing.

As I step sadly back into reality, shake the Aztec sand out of my shoes, and bid a fond farewell to my new team buddies, I'm a little sad that my adventure is over, but there's a warm glow inside just knowing that I've cracked the Crystal Maze. Two crystals to my name, lots of "helpful" advice shouted out, nobody punched me in the face, and what's more I got to be team captain.

Surely my life is all all downhill from here?

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Round Europe with a Laptop: Madrid 18th-19th June 2008

Photo: Wikipedia / Antti Havukainen (probably the most Finnish name of all time.) 

18th June, 2008 - Helsinki, Heathrow and Madrid

It's 4:30am in Helsinki, and I've got to get up, which isn't as hard as you might think, since it's broad daylight already - the sun having officially gone down at about 11pm and come back up again at 4. In reality, there are only actually 2 and a half hours of darkness, which must be great fun for any Finnish parents who were hoping for a lie-in.

Still, get up I do, and slowly cover the 200-odd metres down to Helsinki-Vantaa Terminal 2 to check in for my 7:25 flight on Finnair back to Heathrow - flight number AY0831, for all those plane-spotters in the audience. The same plane-spotters might be wondering why I'm travelling to Madrid via Heathrow, and so am I, now that I see that Finnair do in fact have a direct service. (I'd like to assume that this service doesn't exist in 2008, otherwise what happens later is even more annoying and I'll have to have a stern word with whoever was booking my travel at the time...)

"I'll check your bag all the way to Madrid, shall I sir?", says the nice Finnish check-in gentleman, who I won't give a comedy name because it's not his fault.

"Eeeerrrrrrm, I don't know..." - the opening chaos at Heathrow Terminal 5, which is barely 3 months ago, is weighing heavily on my mind. "Is that a good idea?"

"Of course, sir, there's no problem - it'll just come straight off the plane in London, and get transferred directly to the Madrid flight."

"Um.... I'm really not sure, is it definitely going to get there ok?"

"Absolutely. Look, I'll even put a priority tag and a "Short Connection" tag on it."  

"Ok then. I hope you're right, all my clothes and training materials are in there!"

"No problem, have a nice flight, sir!"

All checked in, it's still too early for breakfast so I spend some time looking at some overpriced electronics that I'm never going to buy in a million years, acquaint myself with what's big in Finnish music these days, (Nightwish, mostly) and then, well, spend ages looking at Moomins, to be honest. I'm kind of fascinated by the fact that there's a Moomin shop here, and it makes me ponder whether there's a Paddington shop somewhere at Heathrow, an Asterix shop at Charles de Gaulle, or a Mayor Rob Ford shop at Toronto Pearson. I don't buy anything, though, obviously.

The flight takes off and lands nicely on time back into Terminal 1 at Heathrow, and as my bag makes its way through the mysterious maze of tunnels that I like to imagine exists under the airport to Terminal 3, caressed as it goes by Starlight Pixies and guided by Rainbow Unicorns, I do the same thing in a crappy bus.


It's the first time I've been to Heathrow Terminal 3 and I rather hope it'll be the last, as it's a bit like being buried alive in an underground tanning salon, with its claustrophobically low ceilings and garish fluorescent lighting. It's basically like a rubbish shopping mall, with a lot of chairs in the middle - I spend a little bit of time in Borders (RIP), wondering whether to buy a Madrid guide book, but settle instead for heading somewhere upstairs to eat something grossly unhealthy for breakfast - something which becomes an unfortunate theme over the next few weeks.

I can't tell you which Iberia flight I take to Madrid, because I no longer have my boarding pass for reasons which I think I can guess, but we'll skip to the part where I get off the plane, and step into what is still probably the most awesome looking airport terminal I've ever been to - Terminal 4 at Madrid Barajas. Let's just take a moment for some airport porn, shall we?


Oooh, yeah.

That's probably enough now.

The excitement of arriving in such a well-designed hellhole (Richard Rogers, don't you know?) gradually fades, as I stand waiting for my bag for an annoyingly long time. At first, it's the same bag-waiting ritual that anyone who's ever flown knows only too well.

1. The usual scrum while everyone mills around waiting for the cases to start coming down
2. The rising annoyance as you realise that everyone else's bag is coming out before yours
3. The panicky "ok, as long as there are still a couple of people who were on my flight standing around here, it's probably going to be alright" phase, as you gradually watch person by person that you recognise get their case and bugger off to somewhere much more fun.

So far, so typical of every flight. But then there's just me and one other guy from the plane left, and with a silent shrug to each other, we accept that our cases are probably still at Heathrow (not sure what we've done to anger the pixies) and make our way over to the luggage desk.

With my 17 words of Spanish, and the desk staff's not-exactly stellar English, the next 15 minutes don't go too well, but then what is there to say? My bag is obviously not here, and no amount of conversation is going to make it appear. A form is duly (and dully) filled in, with a description of the bag (Black, fabric suitcase on wheels - OH! THAT ONE! Why didn't you say?) and my address for the next few days so they can return it to my hotel.

"Yeah, I'm only here for about 24 hours, and I need all the things in there tomorrow morning at 9am...," I say, not entirely sure of what use I expect this information to be.

"Ok, well you will have to collect it from here when you come back tomorrow, then," says the desk attendant, and I shuffle away in disbelief, starting to run through everything that's in that case. Clothes, obviously. Work and casual. Toiletries, thankfully. Smart shoes, oh great. Printed out training folders for all the people attending the training tomorrow - well, ok they can reprint those in the office - actually why on earth didn't they do that in the first place? Training notes... TRAINING NOTES! My teacher's crutch - looks like I'll be winging it tomorrow then.

There's nothing anyone can do about the notes, but clothes and toiletries are eminently replaceable, so I get out my work mobile, which is an even crappier Nokia than my own, and call back to the office to speak to the amazing Caroline, our chief departmental co-ordinator and arse-wiper to project managers and deployment interns throughout the land.

"Ok," she says, after she's finished taking the piss out of me with her astoundingly dirty but infectious laugh. "Get yourself some replacement clothes and toiletries then, keep the receipts, and put them through on expenses." She's awesome anyway, having already coped with managing all sorts of annoying requests from me, and even been on call when I crashed a hire car on the M2 one evening - but at this point she's my favourite person in the whole entire world, so with spirits slightly raised again I decide it's time to get out of here to the hotel.

Evidently I learned something from my frugal colleague on my first ever business trip, because ever since then, I've tried to avoid taxis wherever possible (my phobia of speaking to strange people any more than necessary and experiences with taxi drivers and credit card machines are also mildly contributing factors) - and for that reason I'm only too happy to find that Madrid has a nice, clean, efficient Metro system which will take me directly from the airport to my hotel, with only two changes to negotiate by using the slightly less than helpful map provided (Harry Beck, Madrid needs you...)

Still, I manage to get to Sol station without too much hassle - not having any luggage probably helps- and am soon out and finding my way across Plaza Santa Ana, to the ME Madrid Reina Victoria hotel.

(I note that as of June 2015, Sol station appears to have been renamed 'Vodafone Sol', leading me to ponder the uproar if London ended up getting Gregg's the Bakers Street , Smith's Leicester Square Crisps or Emirates Greenwich Peninsu... oh, that one's real.)

My hotel - the ME Madrid Reina Victoria, in Plaza Santa Ana. Gorgeous.
I've chosen this hotel from a list of preferred hotels that my company offers me in Madrid, largely because it has the highest ranking on Tripadvisor, which is a new website I've just discovered and become obsessed with, feeling aggrieved if I'm only allowed to stay in the 7th finest hotel in the city when there are 6 more which would clearly suit my needs much better in every possible way.

The ME Madrid Reina Victoria is totally different to anywhere else I've stayed before, though, being modern without being bland, and being plush without being horrifically chintzy (Rome's Hotel Eden, I'm looking at you now...) -it's actually got some artistic flair and I immediately love it. Even the bathroom mirror has a David Bowie quote on it, which is fabulously hipster, before hipster is even a thing. I'm less impressed by the smell of stale cigarette smoke, though, which pervades the whole room and causes me to go back down to reception and get my room changed, which they gladly do.

It's at this point that I realise that the David Bowie quotes on the mirror are the same in every room, which is disappointing - I was rather hoping that my new room would have "Ground control to Major Tom" on it, or "We could be heroes, just for one day..." or even "The power of the voodoo, WHO DO? You do! DO WHAT? Remind me of the babe...."

You're going to have to get used to seeing me in hotel mirrors...
There's just time to take my by-now-customary hotel room pre-unpacking photos, which on this occasion are fairly pointless since there's nothing to unpack...

What on earth am I watching?

Funky art and purple bedspreads, this is how jetsetters live, people.
... and then there's the small matter of my entire suitcase contents to replace, so off I go for a wander, in typical me-style (i.e. without a map and with no idea what I'm looking at...)

Yep, here I am, just wandering along with my Nokia 6550 Slide... Overexposing the pictures like a boss.

What's that across the Plaza Puerta de Sol? - why, it looks like a rather large shop! Could be useful...

Indeed, I don't have to go too far before I come across Spain's largest department store (or at least their biggest chain) - El Corte Inglés, which means "The English Cut" (as in a Tailor's cut, not a reference to our government's austerity measures as far as I know...)

They've got everything a suitcase-less Brit could want but, frankly, I really can't be bothered to go full-on clothes shopping in such a massive place, so I stock up on all my toiletries (literally replacing everything that was in my sponge bag, whatever the cost), and make my way out as quickly as I can. Wandering through more streets outside, I find a small branch of Celio, a French clothing chain which I remember fondly from my time spent living in Paris, and in no time at all, I've managed to find myself a classic "Englishman on holiday" outfit of white linen shirt and beige slacks. Let's face it, this outfit is scarcely more office-appropriate than the jeans and jumper that I'm wearing, but it seems appropriate for the lovely summer weather, and at least I stop short of buying open-toed sandals and a straw boater.

In fact, I don't buy any new shoes at all, which I think shows admirable restraint: an opinion apparently not shared by whoever makes the company's travel expenses policy, which in its next revision a few months later, includes a clause expressly forbidding employees from expensing any items bought as a result of lost or delayed baggage - surely my lovely afternoon's shopping expedition isn't solely responsible for this... is it?

Where am I? Who knows...
All shopped-out, I'm free to roam the streets a little more, but I haven't gone far when my phone rings, and this time it's the personal one;  flashing up with the name of my estranged wife, making my heart pound as I contemplate what this conversation is going to bring.

This time it's a very matter of fact conversation, telling me that after 8 months of trying, we've got an offer on our house - the first house we bought together, the house with the cat-piss carpets that we had to totally strip to the bare bones and start all over again (twice), the house where we bought a paddling pool that filled the entire garden and sat in it in the sunshine, blasting out Robbie Williams songs. The house where we brought home our puppy and took several days' "paternity leave", the house that got us nearly £30,000 in debt on top of our mortgage, the house where we ate 5p packet noodles from Lidl to avoid going bankrupt. The house where we realised we were growing apart, where I sat on the kitchen counter top as we decided we should probably go our separate ways while "Rule the World" by Take That played on the radio, and where we tried to live in separate rooms for a few weeks until I came home from a work trip and started counting the dirty plates on the side, going through the bins looking for evidence of who knows what, and realised for the sake of my mental well-being that it was time to move back to my parents.

That house - gone. It's a great moment, but it's just one step on a very long journey to my new life, whatever that will look like, and it's tinged with both sadness and an innate disbelief that the offer will actually ever lead to a final sale considering that we're in the middle of the worst property crash in my lifetime.

Anyhoo, I carry on wandering with just the tiniest hint of a spring in my step now, on down the Calle de Alcalá, until I get to Plaza Cibeles, an enormous road junction with stunning architecture seemingly on every corner - Banco de España (The National Bank of Spain),  Palacio de Linares (The Palace of, um, Linares...) - and most strikingly, Palacio de Communicaciones (Palace of Communications) which started life as the headquarters of Spain's mail service, and is now used as Madrid's City Hall.

Palacio de Communicaciones - it's a bit nicer than Mount Pleasant sorting office.

It's while I'm taking the picture above that two 20-something Spanish girls come up to me, and in great English (how on earth they can tell I'm not Spanish, I have no idea...), ask me if I will take their picture in front of the Palacio, which I gladly do. They smile and thank me profusely, and then we all linger slightly awkwardly before I say "Bye!" and toddle off along the street, for an evening of thinking over and over again,  "I wonder what would have happened if I'd stopped to chat to them?"

A nice chat in the street, followed by an offer to go to a really cool bar where the locals hang out? Dinner at someone's friend's restaurant? A cheeky snog outside the hotel?  Being drugged and robbed and left for dead in Plaza de Vodafone? We may never know... The truth is, at this point, the idea of striking up a conversation with two random ladies in the street is, if not terrifying, then at least unthinkable. What would I say? How would I hold their interest? It's not like I'm Brad Pitt, or some other really hot person that's not from the 90's.

From Plaza Cibeles, I decide to head on South down Paseo del Prado, largely because I can see some green stuff in that direction, and who doesn't enjoy strolling through a nice park in the middle of a major city? Strolling down the greenery in-between the carriageways of the street is rather pleasant, and there's also plenty to look at:

Fuente De Apolo
Fuente de Neptuno
Fuente de... oh, actually there's no fountain in this picture, just some dodgy characters on a park bench...

Shortly after taking this picture, the two gentlemen above, pictured hanging around in the park at dusk, drinking something strongly alcoholic, take offence to me and my photography and come up and start harassing me for taking their picture (or at least I assume that's what they're saying, it's possible they're just welcoming me to their fine country), so I beat a hasty retreat back through some pretty, narrow streets towards the hotel.

Whoomp, there it is...

In any case, it's nearly dinner time, so I pop back up to my room, get changed into my work-funded new wardrobe, and head down to the restaurant.

"¿Tiene una mesa para uno?", I try (and probably fail) to say to the Maitre D', who smirks and ushers me into the completely empty restaurant. Do they have a table for one? It's probably fair to say that they do. It's 9pm and evidently not time for Spaniards to dine yet.

Dinner for one. Same procedure as every trip, James!
It's so embarrassing that I can only manage one, surreptitious, blurry photo, largely because the waiting staff have all come out in a big group to stand around staring at this complete lunatic who thinks 9pm is a sensible time to have dinner. Still, the food is extremely good. (Although sadly, I have no recollection of what I ate, try as I might to rack my brains. See, there's a reason I always take pictures of my dinner these days...)

Back up to the room, and it's time to sleep, ahead of my training session tomorrow - however it's most assuredly not time for the two people in the room next door to sleep, in fact it seems to be time for them to start holding some kind of painfully extended flirting marathon, as through the incredibly thin adjoining door I can sort-of-but-not-quite hear:

Man: Blah blah blah BLAH blah blah don't you know? At least, that's what I blah blah!
Woman: Teehehehehehehehehee! 
Man: Of course, when I was blah blah blah BLAH blah-blah in nineteen-ninety blah, you couldn't get blah for blah nor blah!
Woman: A-hahahahaha! Oh, tell me more...
Man: Well, obviously I had to blah my blah into the blah to even stand a hope in hell of blah-ing the blah as the youngest blah in all of the BLAH blah
Woman: Wow, oh my god, that's so amazing...
Man: What about you, tell me how you came to be blah blah blaaaahhhh
Woman: Oh, tee-hee, it's quite boring really...
Man: Well in that case, I'll talk about ME some more... here, have another glass of wine in this obnoxiously loudly chinking glass...

I feel like shouting through the door, "Can you two please just get on with it and BLAH each other's BLAHs out, for the love of BLAH?" 

Instead I jam my earphones into my ears as far as they will go and put on "Chilled: 1991-2008" - a Ministry of Sound "Chillout" compilation, which I've bought the previous week after seeing it advertised on the TV (rock and roll.) I find their definition of "Chilled" to be in some cases a little different to mine, but it's jam full of great tunes and opens my ears to a whole new genre of music, as well as becoming my default go-to album whenever I'm stressed and need to feel like I'm floating in a giant underground swimming pool in the dark.

It's 3 entire CDs long, and by the time it's finished, either my neighbours have done it and are now smoking themselves silly, one of them's got bored and left, or they've passed out from the industrial quantities of alcohol consumed - but either way, it's now silent and I'm able to lie down properly for a few hours without bits of plastic wedged into my ear canals, being driven into my eardrums by the pillow.

19th June 2008: Madrid and Heathrow

You may be relieved to hear that my memories of this day are pretty darned sketchy. I can remember nothing about getting to the office, about the office itself, or, shamefully, any of the people I train or even my "host" - which probably means that nobody in my class is either disruptive or a complete teacher's pet: there will be plenty of both on future trips...

The one thing I can distinctly recall is standing up in front of a room full of people in my "Brit abroad" outfit, finished off beautifully with some white Adidas trainers, explaining in my best "speaking to non-native English speakers" voice the whole sorry saga of losing my bag; going on to request forgiveness for dressing like I'm just getting off a cruise ship to go and walk around some ancient ruins, and for not remembering what on earth it is I'm meant to teach them.

It's a gamble, but it pays off, as they seem to find the whole thing very funny, and even oddly charming - and it's at this point that I discover that the whole "bumbling Englishman" routine, channelling a persona that lives somewhere between Hugh Grant and Mr. Bean, works rather well at getting people on your side, wherever you are in the world. (If you're reading this and you've ever seen me give a presentation or training session somewhere in the world, you'll probably understand now why I ALWAYS start by making some terrible joke or "amusing" comment about the city I'm in, and never ever turn up in a sharp suit, or clean-shaven...)

Somehow, I make it through the day without my notes, which is a huge confidence boost, as I realise that I actually do know something about the topic I'm being sent around Europe to teach people about, and what's more, the students even appear to have gained a rudimentary grasp of the topic by the time I'm done, too.

So now, it's time to head back to the airport, to get ushered through a secret door directly into the baggage reclaim area (Mind. Blown.) to pick up, hug, caress and lovingly stroke my suitcase, promising never to let it go ever again, and then to go straight back through to departures and check it in again for my flight back to Heathrow with a lump in my throat and icy dread in my heart.

Did I mention that this airport is just stunning? This is looking one way from my gate...

... and this is looking the other way.  I think it's several km long.

Luckily, this time, the rainbow unicorns are smiling on me, so I manage to get my bag back nice and quickly and head outside, where a young chap called Ben in a chauffeur's outfit is waiting for me with a placard with my name on it - such glitz and glamour! One advantage of completely totalling hire cars on work trips is that you're considered such a liability to the company's corporate insurance that they lay on a chauffeur car for you when you return home late at night, and this is the first such occasion for me.

Ben starts making polite conversation at first, and then upon finding that I'm not some corporate stiff (aren't I? RESULT!), but am "proper alright" (not my words, Lynn, the words of a 20-year old chauffeur driver) - starts telling me all about himself, asking me about my job and my life; and we get on so well that time flies, and the 103 mile journey from Heathrow back to Ramsgate only seems to take just over an hour. Or it could be that being "proper alright" means that Ben judges that it's ok to drive like an absolute maniac down the completely empty motorways - and to be fair, I don't exactly do anything to discourage this since I'd rather like my bed, please, if it's all the same to you.

We make it back in one piece, I tell Ben I'll see him in a couple of weeks, and I go in and lie to my parents about what time I landed before heading upstairs to crash out after my crazy few days. I've got a week off travelling next, but there's Vienna and Rome to visit the week after, and I need a bit of a rest.

"Proper alright". Maybe I am interesting enough to chat up Spanish tourists, after all.

Oh, alright then... just one more.

Next time: A wasted trip to Vienna and a wonderful revisit to Rome.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Round Europe with a Laptop: Helsinki 16th-17th June 2008

Round Europe with a Laptop

Facebook's annoying, isn't it? When you don't want people to see what you're up to, it pushes your every move to everyone's newsfeed, like when you comment on a post about which member of Girls Aloud is your favourite - and then, when you'd actually quite like people to read something you've spent hours writing, it has a strop and decides it isn't showing it to anyone until someone likes it first.

However, just recently they've made a change I genuinely like - the "On This Day" feature, which sends you a notification every morning with a link to a page showing you what you posted on that day every year since records began (all the way to 2007, in my case.) It's a lovely way to start each day, with a warm glow reminiscent of opening your Christmas presents with your family around you; if the Christmas presents largely consisted of photos of foreign chocolate bars with funny names and rants about your co-workers.

But it has flagged up some genuinely happy memories - for instance, during this week in 2011, I was just coming back from my first trip to Philadelphia, all full of cheesesteak, decked out in my Phillies shirt and moaning about being stuck in the middle seat all the way home (rookie mistake!) And then in 2013, my partner Karin and I were having an absolute moose of a time in Montreal at the Formula 1 Grand Prix and making new lifelong friends in Vermont.

But the most interesting thing it reminded me about, largely because it was so flipping long ago I'd almost forgotten,was the crazy summer of 2008, where I decided it was a good idea to visit 11 countries in a couple of months.

"This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere..."
Actually, it is Rotterdam. Pre-trip number 1.

Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey thing...

It's October 2007, and I'm sitting in an interview, opposite a fearsome-looking Scottish lady who I've never met before, but her reputation is for being pretty no nonsense. We're getting on like a house on fire, though, and it's looking like I might be lucky enough to get picked for this secondment opportunity after all, having walked into the room as the rank outsider.

"Now," she says. "There might be a fair bit of travel involved in this project, will that be a problem?"

I pause for a moment, thinking about all the work social events I've ducked out of to avoid arguments at home, and how I've lived in fear of being asked to go anywhere or do anything outside of the office by my previous boss in case it involves an out-of-the-question overnight stay.

"It would have been", I say, "... up to a few weeks ago. But now... not so much."

And with this answer, I seal my entry into the "IFS Deployment Team", joining a team of two other recent divorcees in a little club of workaholics looking to move onwards and upwards by finding something to take their minds off everything else that's going on in their world.

"When in Rome... stand in front of the Colosseum", as the famous saying goes.
Pre-trip number 2.

The Helsinki trip (which I promise we will come to soon, honest) wasn't quite my first solo business trip - several pleasant but mostly uneventful trips to Rotterdam, Paris and Rome had kicked off the project, but it certainly began my first prolonged period of travelling around from place to place and was easily the most ambitious task I'd ever set myself. It was almost like I had something to prove...

So what led me to embark upon the mammoth travel splurge that I'm now writing about? Well, as usual, it was mostly down to thinking I knew better than anyone else.

On my first trip to Rotterdam, I'd witnessed an external consultant delivering a system training session, decided that I could only do a worse job of it myself if I first removed my tongue with a jagged clam shell, and then I'd rewritten the entire project plan to make sure I had to be responsible for all the training sessions, testing the very limits of my mind and body at the same time. (I'm still not sure my inner ears have properly recovered from all the flying...)

I'd tell people "Oh, I have to go here and there and then fly straight on to this place", with a weary sigh, and they'd say "Oh, that's crazy, poor you", and I'd agree and lap up the sympathy, but really this was my second shot at having a fun career, and even at life itself, having turned down opportunities left, right and centre for the previous 7 years in favour of being prematurely middle aged (aka married at 22). Now, as a free agent for the first time ever as a fully-fledged adult, it was time to get out there and grab life, and a proper career, by the horns.

Also it made me look really cool with my peers when I seemingly swanned in and out of the office as I wished, and I assumed that one way or another this project would definitely get me laid - which had obviously suddenly become an important consideration again. (It didn't.)

I gave my training skills a first workout in Paris, with my Project Leader and mentor Liz to back me up in case it all went horribly wrong - and when that seemed to work out ok (despite nearly demolishing a taxi on the Champs Elysees by opening its door directly into the pavement), I then found myself booked in for a whole summer of fun driving up and down the M20 in a hire car and hanging about at Heathrow with no lounge access.

16th June, 2008 - Heathrow and Helsinki

Heathrow Terminal 1 in 2007 - Photo
I bet nobody's won that luxury car yet...

It's the 16th of June, and I'm heading off to Heathrow Airport for one of the first times ever, arriving at Terminal 1 - which even in 2008 looks like the ugly stepchild of the airport world, and getting on Finnair flight AY840 to Helsinki at 16:10 - scheduled to land at 21:00 on the dot, with me safely tucked up in bed by 22:30, ready for an early start to training the next day.

Of course, as with any time when I plan to arrive late and start early, my flight is delayed - neither the record books nor my memory recall why, or what I do to pass the time, but still, it's not really important - what's most important is that the plane I'm on has a camera on the bottom which films the ground as we take off and land, relaying the pictures to the little screens above our seats - a slightly odd and mildly motion-sickness inducing experience, but one that just emphasises to me that I've arrived in the world - this is going to be my life now, as an international (mostly European) jetsetting hot-shot.

I arrive at the Helsinki Airport Hilton at around midnight, just as the last of the evening's light is fading from the sky (for all of about 2 hours), look around, pinch myself at how plush it is and just how hard I'm living that dream, and crash down on one of the two luxury beds in my room.

TWO BEDS! Such decadence.

17th June, 2008 - Helsinki

I'll wager that the view from this hotel room doesn't look quite like this any more... apart from the drizzle.

The morning begins with the first of my many lonesome hotel breakfasts (goodness knows what I did on these solitary occasions before the advent of the smartphone), and an awkward taxi ride to an office on an industrial estate that no taxi driver has ever heard of. And of course, let's not forget the traditional taxi driver exchange.

Me: Can I pay by credit card, please?
Taxi Driver, who we'll call Kimi for no particular reason: *massive sigh* Ugghhhhhhhhmmmmpppphhhh. Don't you have cash?
Me: Um, no, I just arrived, haven't made it to the bank yet...
Kimi: Well, I will try, but the credit card machine is not working... hhhhhuuuuuuurrrrrmmmppphhhh
*Retrieves CC machine from glove box, plugs it into lighter socket and jabs at buttons*
Kimi: See, not working?
Me: Ok, well I really don't have any cash...
Kimi: Mmmmmffffffttttttt, give me card, I will try...
*Credit Card machine springs into life and processes payment, albeit slowly*
Kimi: Sign!
Me: Ok, there you go, thanks very much, bye...
Kimi: Hhmm.

I arrive at the office, where my host, a jolly chap called Pasi who's positively outgoing compared to most Finns, welcomes me and sits me down in the meeting room that they've called "Sandwich", which he finds absolutely hilarious because that's the name of the town where I'm based. It's almost like he booked us in there on purpose.

Gradually the rest of the department (about 6 people in total) join the meeting, looking sceptical at the idea of spending a whole day listening to what some not-quite-30-year-old Englishman has to say about a system that nobody wants to use, but, I like to think, eventually being won over by my boyish charms and innate teaching ability (it's in the genes...)

Lunch takes place in their canteen, which seems impossibly glamorous to me, being in a kind of open foyer with classic Nordic style decor, with lots of white, clean lines and furniture which was possibly once in bits in in a cardboard box. Better than this, there's tons of fish and really good bread, and nobody pays for anything - they get a monthly subsidy taken out of their wages and then get free lunches forever more. I guess that stops those "Can I be arsed to make my lunch and take it today?" guilt pangs on a Monday morning.

The training session finishes (FINNISH-es - ha!) without too much incident, and I thank my lucky stars that I've made it through, as I hand out my feedback forms and brace myself for what they might say when they get handed back to me. While we wait, Pasi asks me what I'm doing this evening and whether I'd like a lift into the city centre, which I gratefully accept, as I explain that I'm desperate to see some of Helsinki.

"Have you got a jacket?", he says?

"Um, no, actually I haven't, it was really warm back in the UK..."

"Hmm, one moment..."

He comes back brandishing a plastic-wrapped fabric package, which upon closer inspection turns out to be a very nice grey sweater with a zipped collar, perfect for Midsummer in Finland. On even closer inspection, it turns out to be lovingly embroidered with the logo of our company on the breast, but that doesn't stop me wearing it around Helsinki, or indeed various other places for the next 3 years like a massive sad case.

And here I model said sweater in a kind of rudimentary pre-selfie selfie.

Suitably attired, I grab the feedback forms and we head down to the underground parking, to get into Pasi's car.

"Try not to take it personally...", he says. "It's not your fault."

Oh great, now I'm really looking forward to reading those forms. Still, he tries to take my mind off things as we drive into town by telling me a little about Helsinki, and Finland in general, including their various struggles keeping the USSR at bay. (Unfortunately I can't remember anything in any detail right now, except for the one thing I found most interesting at the time - that Helsinki is the only European City still to retain its trams. A fascinating fact which I remember for years and tell people all the time - until it's later proved by trips to Zagreb, Norrköping, Antwerp, Croydon and goodness knows where else to be completely untrue. Wikipedia does say that Helsinki has "one of the oldest electric tram systems in the world", though, so I'll let him off.)

He drops me off in the drizzle outside Helsinki cathedral, we bid a very Finnish farewell and, desperate to read those forms, I make my way up the steps, Rocky-style, and in out of the rain.

Note the Soviet style Tsar statue - according to Pasi, Finland very nearly became part of the Soviet Union in the 1910s.
But then, do we trust anything he says...?

Once inside, I plonk myself down in a pew and open my bag, my hands fumbling with the zips and literally shaking as I grab the forms and start reading.... Luckily everything that I have any control over comes back very positively, the comments about my teaching are good, and all the more negative stuff is how useless the system itself is, the organisation of the project and how overworked they are (so that's clearly fine - not my problem!)

With that over, I can focus on an evening of sightseeing, so I take a quick look around the cathedral, which isn't that big, but is very impressive and ornate, built in a Lutheran style and finished in 1852. It's also very white and stands majestic on top of a little hill, which is nice.

With the cathedral exhausted, it's time to take a little tour on foot, where I come across such delights as Stockmann - one of the few things that the Finnish colleagues told me to go and see, but turns out on arrival to be a bloody shop. If only I'd known. Still, since I've walked here I take a couple of photos of what is actually the largest department store in the Nordic region, even managing to get one of those ultra-rare trams in shot, and then I stick my head inside to see whether department stores are any more fun in Finland. They aren't - and they don't even have an affordable rain jacket to replace my by now increasingly damp work-branded sweater.

With my two recommendations exhausted, and no map or tourist info in sight, I decide to just wander through the streets a bit in the rain, enjoying:



This... (Some kind of closed art museum?)

Live music! Part of the Metrolive festival, apparently...
It looks like great fun, doesn't it? That's the entire audience, but at least the band are having fun.

Eventually, my wandering brings me to Esplanadi, or the Esplanade Park, where this year's Espafolk festival is going on - a celebration of Midsummer, it features all kinds of folk dance, most of which I suspect actually have nothing to do with Finland but it's a bit hard to tell since people keep talking Finnish, which bears very little relation to English and is famously one of the world's hardest languages to learn. 

I don't even speak any Swedish at this point, which would be equally helpful, since Finland is officially a bi-lingual country due to the number of Finlandssvenskar (Finland Swedes) still living in the town (known as Helsingfors in Swedish), for various reasons having mostly to do with wars.

I actually think these people may have been from Estonia, or maybe Serbia. Or anywhere, really...

The dancing is nice to watch, and all, but it's still raining and not exactly warm, so I go for another wander around the park, which is actually very pretty...

And then, deciding I've exhausted everything that 7pm Helsinki in the rain has to offer, I head back to Helsingin päärautatieasema, aka the railway station - I told you Finnish had nothing to do with English - and hop on a train back to the airport. (Looking back, I'm flabbergasted that I didn't take 13 pictures of the train and platform from different angles, but then the storage on my Nokia 6500 wasn't quite up to the iPhone 6.)

Back at the hotel, it's time for another staple of business trips, the lonesome dinner at the hotel restaurant. Still, it's nice and warm and expensive-looking in there, there are burgers on the menu, and I have "High Roller Casino" on my phone to pass the time, so it's all good.

Besides, I don't have time to socialise, tomorrow I need to get up at 4:30 a.m. and fly to Madrid.

Next time: I get up at 4:30 a.m. and fly to Madrid.