A friend of mine was forced to resign from his job as a researcher on Holiday Which? Because he could no longer stand people at parties saying “Oh you poor thing, that must be really hard work, lying around on a beach all day”. Regular business travellers undero a similar torment. “Oh, you poor thing, all those evenings whooping it up in Parisian wine bars.”
Excuse me: Whooping it up? The only thing I whoop up when I’m travelling is catarrh from the hotel air conditioning system. I swear, no business traveller I know has been within singing distance of a karaoke bar (although if you find yourself sitting on a plane behind a group of accountants testing each other on the words to Rebel Yell, please let me know). Take it from me, entertaining yourself for an evening in your average European city is tougher than any client assignment.
In general, there are three basic choices of evening activity for the discerning business traveller:
1) Watch TV;
2) Go out for something to eat;
3) Drink the entire contents of the minibar.
Being a creative kind of individual, I have shunned these for a fourth choice. What I generally do is watch TV, then go out for something to eat, before returning to drink the entire contents of the minibar. Even this integrated option, though, is fraught with difficulty
It starts with the TV. In most hotels, you will be delighted to find you have a choice of 36 television channels – until you discover that of these, 20 are showing chat shows, 10 are showing game shows, and 4 are showing the same football match between teams called things like AB Groningen and Dynamo Uzgorod, but with commentaries in different languages. Of the remaining two, one is usually showing reruns of Upstairs Downstairs, while the other is showing a film you’ve always wanted to see, overdubbed in Romanian.
I find flicking endlessly through the channels produces a rather relaxing hypnotic effect, but beware. I was once doing this very thing in a hotel in Antwerp when I went one channel too far and found myself watching a hard-core porn movie. Within a nanosecond my TV-numbed brain registered that this was not a game show (at least I don’t think it was). Within another nanosecond I noticed the words ‘PAY MOVIE’ were emblazoned in a corner of the screen. I broke out in a cold sweat. My life flashed before me. I would have to join the long queue of men you see every morning at reception insisting “I wasn’t watching it – honestly – I was just flicking through the channels”. It would appear on my bill. I would lose my job. My marriage would break up. (Happily, I came through unscathed, but I now flick through channels at half speed).
After all that button pushing, you’ll doubtless have worked up enough of an appetite to find something to eat. I always start out in a kind of pioneering spirit, feeling that this is my chance to get under the skin of another culture. However, by the time I’m seated in a soulless bistro decorated in ‘contemporary’ style (contemporary if you’re in Uzbekistan), surrounded by besuited widget salesman celebrating the premium margin they’ve just obtained on a lorryload of Italian ball bearings, with nothing to read but the copy of Wood-based Panelling International I picked up in reception, my enthusiasm has waned somewhat.
And if you don’t speak the local language, the meal descends into a deeper level of Dantean nightmare. I recently had a surreal experience in a restaurant in Zurich. Initially I was congratulating myself as I read through the menu and was able to decipher many of the items – Schwein for pig, Lamm for, er, Lamb, and so on. Then I came across what was clearly a house speciality: Straussenfilet. What on earth could this be? It was apparently a fillet of something. My pioneering spirit returned.
I summoned the waiter and in my best pidgin German asked: “Wass ist Straussenfilet?” “Ah,” he replied, “Ist ein grossen beseichstandingerwerspulung” (That’s not actually what he said, but you get the gist). Seeing that my assertive “I speak German fluently” expression had been replaced by a look of blind panic, he became more helpful and attempted to mime the animal in question. I was seated at a pavement table, so passers by were treated to the sight of my waiter crouching with his arms extended on either side of his head. I came to a decision. Since it was clearly either a moose or an eagle, straussenfilet would be a good cultural experience for me. (I found out the next day it was ostrich – if only the waiter had stuck his head in the fire bucket I might have stood more of a chance.)
So, if you find yourself envying your jet-setting colleagues, please understand that business travel is one of the more mundane occupations known to mankind. Oh, and once you do understand, could you please tell my family? Because they don’t believe me either.
(c) Phil Lowe, 2004. All rights reserved.