Posts Tagged ‘eurostar’

Another journey on Eurostar and another chance to catch up on some of my blog writing, which I never seem to have enough time for these days.

They are currently remodelling Gare du Nord, which meant that my outbound journey was absolutely chaos. They did not open check-in for the 08h07 train until about 07h45 – and with only five passport inspectors. I did a quick calculation, and figured that they were trying to process nearly 1,200 passengers in 20 minutes – the 08h07 train is nearly always full. Needless to say, it all ended in tears. My train pulled out ten minutes late, with hundreds of passengers failing to make it due to the huge delays at customs and security. Others have pointed out that I am anal to the point of being compulsive about arriving ahead of time for trains and planes – but I made my train, unlike the many stranded behind.

Had a good set of meetings in London. It was a good chance to catch up with old friends and colleagues, plus a chance to meet all of the new people they have brought on board while I was away in Singapore and subsequently in Paris. After our meetings (marred only by the fact that one of our guys had his laptop stolen – gallingly, from inside a church) we headed out to the pub for a few pints – a tradition that I really miss about the UK.

My office mate in Paris overhead me talking to a colleague about going out for a few beers, and he practically begged me to invite him along next time. So I will. Never let it be said I am not importing British best practice!

They have just completed the new Eurostar terminal in St Pancras. While it is lovely, I don’t find it terribly user friendly, and the location is very inconvenient for most of the places I need to go. I really miss the convenience of Waterloo.

Most annoying, though, are the new lifts they have installed. These are modern times. Most people are used to lifts, and how they work. A single “ding” to indicate the arrival of the lift is normally all the prompt we need, plus a flashing light if they are feeling really generous.

But not the new lifts in the Eurostar lounge. No, these are lifts with Tourette’s.

“Lift has been called. Please wait.”
“Lift arriving soon.”
“Lift has arrived. Doors opening.”
“Doors closing. Please stand clear.”
“First floor. Doors opening.”
“Doors closing. Please stand clear.”
“Lift has been called. Please wait.”

Bear in mind that this lift only travels between the ground floor and the first floor, a total journey of about 4 meters. It hardly requires the entire commentary included above. I’m surprised they didn’t insist on all the announcements being in French and English, just for the sake of completeness.

Jerome will be here for the weekend – in fact, I understand he is in the Eurostar just behind me. If I had known, we could have travelled together.

There is a family of American tourists sitting head of me. They are reading their guide book to Paris out loud. It makes me smile that the biggest concern they have about coming to Paris is stepping in poo. According to their book, it’s everywhere.

From my experience, I think the book is spot-on. Now please excuse me while I find someplace to scrape my shoe.

It’s another Monday morning and I’m whizzing across the French countryside at 260km/h on my way to Zurich, courtesy of the TGV. I’m nibbling on a lovely pain au chocolate and a hot espresso and thinking to myself what a civilised way this is to travel. Breakfast in Paris, lunch in Zurich, and none of the associated aggravation that comes from having to deal with security at the airport. My only complaint is some slightly misleading advertising – my “window” seat isn’t a window at all, but the pillar between two windows. I can just about see out the window if I lean back far enough. Maybe this is my company’s way of encouraging me to work on the journey.

It’s been a busy week. I started off in the Paris office on Monday, the last time I’ll be in before Easter. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were spent in Blois, in the Loire Valley, holding a series of meetings with my client’s finance team. Our accommodation was less than glamorous, even making allowances for the fact that it was the middle of the off-season and we were the only ones in town. The hotel was right out of the 1960s (which was probably the last time it was renovated, or the duvet changed) and was only just clinging on to its three-star rating.

The factory was interesting – as factories always are. I was busy with a workshop when everyone else got a factory tour, which was a little bit disappointing – I was expecting something very much out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, right down to the Oompa Loompas, but it turned out that most of the factory was staffed with normal-sized men and women wearing green boiler suits. My colleague was a little too interested in the rejection chute of one of the production lines – he got such a fright when one of the chocolate bars shot out that he jumped back and landed on one of the other machines, setting off the alarm. Way to keep a low profile, fella.

As promised, the entire site smells of cocoa, which they bring in by the truckloads and load into enormous silos. One of these days, someone is going to drive in with a truckload of milk…

I’d barely unpacked on Thursday night when I had to head to London on Friday morning for another workshop. I’m earning Eurostar points at an alarming rate and can now recite most of the timetable off by heart, and I find myself wishing they would change their menu more frequently as you can only eat the same meal so many times before you become desperate for a change.

London was a day trip – I caught the evening train home, which ended up being part of the “Snow Train” service (which carries British skiers down to the French ski resorts) and was loaded with noisy Brits carrying cases of beer and doing their best to get in the spirit. Not exactly the relaxing end to the day I was hoping for. I slumped down in my seat next to a similarly-dismayed investment banker about my age, and we both did what anyone would do to remain sane – we pulled out our Blackberries and started a game of Brickbreaker.

I got home about 10pm and headed straight for bed, shattered from a long week.

After a sedate start to Saturday, we went out exploring, me with camera in hand. We had lunch at our local (a nice steak), then headed down towards Notre Dame to explore some of the bookshops. I ended up with a few French textbooks to improve my business French (which currently consists mostly of me pointing and asking whether “I can do the stuff with the thing, or whether it would be better to use the other thing instead? In England, we used another thing to do the thing.”). I continued my walk up the Seine while Aude headed back towards home for a haircut. Saturday night was dinner in and a movie (Juno) – in “V.O.” because 1) I hate dubbing and 2) I wouldn’t understand the dubbed French, anyhow.

Another sedate start on Sunday, then off towards Chinatown for a big bowl of Pho at a restaurant called (wait for it…) Pho. It was pretty miserable outside, so we headed back home for a leisurely afternoon and evening. And like that – it’s Monday again.

I’m officially a convert to rail travel. This week, I’ve done Paris-London by Eurostar, London-Birmingham by Virgin Trains, and Zurich-Paris on TGV. Without exception, the trains have been quick, reliable, comfortable and clean. Yes, I’ve heard all the horror stories about what happens when trains go wrong. But door-to-door, I think they’re just as quick as taking the plane and far less hassle, as I can work the entire journey.

As I type this, I’m enjoying a lovely glass of Riesling and a scallop and saffron risotto as I watch the Swiss countryside go by. It’s much more agreeable than the cold cheese sandwich and lousy cup of tea I had on my flight from Birmingham to Zurich last night. I paid more than €560 for my economy class flight ticket. My first class train ticket cost me €132. I can’t understand why anyone chooses to fly in Europe.

On Monday, our meetings were held on an active production site with a chocolate factory just outside the meeting room we were working in. Everywhere you went, there was an overwhelming smell of cocoa – I felt like any minute Willy Wonka was going to pop out and say hello. It was really bizarre. I raided the factory shop after our meetings and have come home with a suitcase full of chocolates – I figured they’d make good conversation-starters at the office.

I stayed in the Radisson SAS hotel on Monday night. Those crazy Scandinavians have their own unique sense of design. The room looked like a cross between a Bang & Olufsen stereo and a TV test pattern, all the carpets and soft furnishings a rainbow of reds, pinks and purples.

After my short flight to Zurich, I managed to arrive in Zug around 11pm, only to discover that the hotel had managed to give away my room (and, this being Switzerland, they’d given it away with remarkable efficiency – it had been resold by 7pm apparently). They finally managed to find me another hotel room at the motorway hotel – the very last one, a handicapped room and very noisy at the top of the stairs. It certainly wasn’t the Ritz.

It’s nearly impossible to find a hotel room in Zug (note to investors: building a hotel in Zug is a sure-fire winner) so I’m back in the same motorway hotel next week. Hopefully they’ll put me in a nicer room next time as a “regular”.

I’m back in Paris today and for the weekend, a chance to catch up on a load of admin at work and unpacking at home.

5am always comes early. We went out for dinner last night with my new French partner and his wife, to a nice place just off the Champs Elysee. Despite a fairly Anglo-Saxon on-time start at 8pm, it was a lengthy affair that meant we didn’t get home until after midnight. Which made dragging myself out of bed even more difficult. Aude, on the other hand, remained fast asleep, preparing herself mentally to tackle the sales in Paris.

I learned a few things this morning:

1. The RER may be the quickest way across Paris, but at 5:30am, you can get a cab from one side of Paris to the other for under €10. At this price, it’s hardly worth the hassle of lugging your bags around.

2. Paris is really a very small city. Denfert-Rochereau to Gare du Nord, basically one side of Paris to the other, only takes 15 minutes by car when there’s no traffic. And that’s with a normal, sane, calm driver. Put a typical Parisian behind the wheel and you’d shave three minutes off, at least.

3. When Eurostar insists that you check in an hour before your train, they’re not really serious. I arrived at the station at 5:50am to discover that check-in for my 6:43 train didn’t open until 6am. And, this being France, 6am actually meant 6:10.

4. They’re delightfully apologetic when Eurostar is delayed. Actually, I knew this already, but it’s always a pleasant surprise. We were about ten minutes late leaving Paris this morning because they had to change engines on our train. With the way the conductor apologised, you’d have thought this was pretty much the gravest sin you could commit, so humble was the apology.

When I can be bothered to get out of bed early (or when I’m jetlagged and stuck in a foreign city), one of my favourite things to do is to watch a city wake up – and Paris is a wonderful city to watch come to life.

5am is an interesting time. The last of the drinkers are heading home, in time to grab a quick shower and make a haggard start to their day. The dustbin men are walking through the street, clearing the rubbish. Bakers are hard at work in their bakeries, getting ready for the morning’s first customers, and the odd greengrocer is cleaning his stoop and beginning to arrange his vegetables.

When I arrived at the station, it was deserted. The odd businessmen walked purposefully to catch the 5:58 train to somewhere, but mostly there were just a few bums keeping warm for the night. A few minutes later, the police were moving the bums along, and 15 minutes after that, the station was full of people, catching their trains. Shutters were raised on shops, cafes started serving coffees, and Paris was awake.

A sad sight at Ashford International station. In a case of a sad self-perpetuating cycle, reduced train services at Ashford mean lower passenger volumes at Ashford – leading to fewer services at Ashford. The station was a ghost town. The newsagent was shut, the business class lounge was shut, and the security screeners had to be dragged away from their evening activity of “watching the city lights come on” to run our bags through the x-ray machine. In total, there were about 12 passengers who boarded the train at Ashford.

The deserted Eurostar terminal at Ashford International

The deserted Eurostar terminal at Ashford International

It’s not as bad as the new station at Ebbsfleet, though. What idiot designs a world-class international station, then neglects to open the domestic capacity for more than a year? That’s right – you can catch the fastest train to Paris from Ebbsfleet, but there’s absolutely no way to get to the station by rail until 2009. Only in Britain.

I set up this blog ages ago when I thought I was off to Malaysia for six months, but since then the answer to “Where’s Matthew” seems to have been “he’s at home” or “he’s someplace nice on vacation.” One by one, I’m having to hand back my airline platinum cards, exchanging them for gold, silver, and eventually, blue. I was beginning to enjoy the quiet life, the regular hours, and even the quiet time on my commute.

Now it seems that there’s been a real shift, driven by the increasingly global nature of the projects we’re taking on at work. Three weeks ago, I was in Paris meeting with a number of the partners there – any easy trip, via the Channel Tunnel, that had me home in time for dinner.

Two weeks ago it was a quick stop in Washington to spend the weekend visiting with my parents, then on to Chicago for a week-long training course – great fun, but I never even got to see the outside of the hotel.

Now it looks like I’m about to head off onto a project in Singapore, directly after the wedding. Just what every bride wants to hear – you return from honeymoon with your new husband, only to be told that he’ll be halfway around the world until Christmas.

After Christmas, it looks like I’m likely (as likely as it ever looks, this far from the date) to be working on a project with a hotel group across Europe, so I will be spending both my days and nights in hotels, and presumably, a lot of time on trains. Still – it stops me from getting bored, and there are still plenty of duty free opportunities worth having.

One by one, I’m building a new arsenal of premium metal cards, too – AA platinum here, UA gold there. I’m even making good progress on my Eurostar “Carte Blanche”…