Yessir! I did it, I finally managed to persuade my client to send me off on another trip, this time to Houston and once again, I have to say thanks to Arnaud for the trip!
Contrary to my trip to Shanghai back in 2007 - essentially to do an internal group presentation of the team I'm operations manager for - this trip was very much “End-client” orientated, and it took more than just grit and natural charisma to convince my client - and the client's client - that the reason for my going really was valid. Anyway, after some unnecessary stress, a show of character, lots of reworking, revision and vetting of the agenda plus discussions on the price of the ticket and choice of hotels there I was, at 2.30 AM Monday morning, January 18th, on the verge of setting out on another Homeric adventure.
This time it wasn't a reluctant Bilbo Baggins who finished packing his bag, downed his coffee, kissed the wife goodbye and set out in the cold and frosty night for an hour’s drive to Lyon airport in a car I had some doubts about.
The car trip was, so to speak, the only part of an 8000 Kilometre long journey to Houston that I had doubts about. I'd calculated the cost of a taxi and a hire car, from home to the airport but finally opted to use my own car in spite of the fact that I was running on a spare tyre, the catalytic converter was on the blink and the weather uncertain… I just was praying that the car got me just far enough to claim on the insurance if the car broke down, I missed the flight and was obliged to cancel the trip.
But no! Being sufficiently far-sighted, I had the checked the car the day before and had planned for a good 2.5 hours spare time before the flight. I finally got to the airport, parked the car in the “Long Stay” parking, cuaght a shuttle bus immediately, checked in electronically and waited, satisfied that I had fulfilled the riskiest part of the journey. I could now relax and let others, infinitely better organized, get me to my destination, safe and sound.
It’s funny how you only realize that progress is underway when you stop, think and realize that the amenities and facilities you are using, such as electronic check-ins, customs facilities, etc, weren’t there last time you flew! It’s hardly noticeable and often taken for granted by the majority or travelers but they're there and you have to admit that it does make things easier.
Status, What Status?
It's frustrating but regardless of the miles travelled I never seem to reach the required level of points to make the grade that grants access to the private salons, advanced boarding or even the chance to upgrade from economy. The only time I almost reached the required number of points was in 2007 when I travelled to Shanghai, London, Munich and Kyrgyzstan in the space of 5 months but I'm an eternal optimist and tenacious to boot so no doubt I'll get there one day.
It with some excitement that I took my seat in the Fokker 100 sandwiched between predominiantly male business travellers for the first leg of my trip from Lyon to Amsterdam, the plane being nothing more than a shuttle service for business travellers where utility and functionality prime over any feeling of excitement that invades the traveller when finally they board the 747, their environment for the following 8 or 9 hours. But I gladly accepted the black coffee and cheese sandwich from the flight attendant and settled back to read a copy of the now traditional National Geographic magazine (traditional because I buy a copy every time I fly!) before arriving some 90 munutes later at Amsterdam Schipol airport for the next leg of my journey, aboard a 747, code name “Beijing”.
Amsterdam Schipol airport is like Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow or Frankfurt, in so far it has miles of corridors and walkways and hundreds of shops and fast foods. But what really differentiates Schipol from its sister airports are the “grab a bite”, no waiting, snack stands where you can pick up a sandwich and water and down them as you cover the 17 minutes separating you from your boarding gate. What also distinguishes Schipol from the others are the shops and stands selling… tulips and Dutch cheese! First time I saw that I chuckled but, sign of the times, I now pass by without chuckling…. as I attempt to cover the 17 minutes separating me from my boarding gate.
The thing I realized about the flights out to the States is that the planes are different going and coming back. Going the 747 doesn’t have screens in the seats and no choice of films. It’s a small thing but it counts! Coming back they do and the choice of films is huge, with an archive collection to suit most tastes.
This time the film was an animation film about raining meatballs and hamburgers. OK, it's fine for the kids but they were few and fortunately dispersed…I didn’t relish spending eight hours in front of some kid kicking my seat, or behind one as it throws everything at me, including its dinner. Don't take me for Carl Fredricksen, the character out of the Pixar film “Up", I'm just someone wanting a nice peaceful flight. And guess what? In spite of the second-rate film, the flight was actually quite good! I even got offered a cognac with my after dinner coffee… that made the flight for me and soon I was dozing.
During the flight a flight attendant even asked me to fill out a questionnaire about the quality of the flight… one question asked “Did they, at any time, call me by my name? No, they did not! But then again amidst 400+ other passengers, I’d have been surprised if they did! Flying Blue member or not, I was economy class and below the radar… that’ll teach me not to fly more often!
The captain eventually announced that we were flying over Newfoundland and after waking a deeply sleeping, aisle seated neighbour, I was out of my seat and poking my mobile through the window. The captain later announced that we were flying over the great lakes and again I woke my neighbour to get out of the seat and rush to the window and the rear of the plane but to no avail. The thick cloud cover blocked any chance of seeing the great lakes, let alone getting a photo of them. Better luck next time.
NB. There's a lot of debate about the best seat to take when flying. Some like the window seat, some the middle and some the aisle seat. Personally, I prefer the aisle seat, mainly for two reasons, 1) I like to get up and stretch my legs and 2) use the bathroom when I want to so, when booking my ticket I also book my seat just to make sure.
And so I finally got to Houston, slightly ahead of time, with the captain announcing a reasonable 20°C outside, me remembering that when I left Lyon that morning it was -4° and I was all muffled up in an overcoat, scarf and gloves, not to mention pullover. While in Lyon I had packed away gloves and scarf, and when I got into the airport lounge at George Bush International the pullover was in my backpack.
Arriving at a new airport is always an experience and looking back on it, what I experienced at Houston's G.B. Intl airport was a foretaste of things to come. After looking in vain for the car hire desks I gave up and asked the information desk. After a 5-minute shuttle bus ride I arrived in a smaller terminal, totally reserved for car hire companies, and some 10 minutes later sitting in my GPS equipped compact hire car. Oh, jeepers! If ever I made a good decision that day it was to hire a car with GPS. To be honest it wasn’t total good judgment. I’d called a colleague I was meeting up with in Houston, hoping we would meet in the airport but the colleague was still at home in Austin, Texas, so I'd have to put my big boy pants on and brave the roads from the airport to the hotel, all alone.
Seated at last in the car, GPS calculating the route (pronounced “R-O-U-T” in US English), I was quite excited at the thought of driving all alone on the Freeway(s) to the hotel. It was my first time driving in the US, to boot in a Japanese automatic. Cool, I thought. After braking a bit too harshly once or twice and hitting my head on the sunshade I drove off down the road and onto the freeway system of the 04th biggest city in the USA, Yeehah!
Getting up at 2.30am was beginning to take its toll and in spite of the fact that I had punched in the wrong Sheraton hotel address I was enjoying the ride past Houston’s downtown skyscrapers, I would be back in a day or so to take some photos, I thought. And so after about 30 minutes I arrived at the Sheraton 4 points hotel I thought I had reserved into only to be told it wasn’t the right one. So, and in spite of a tempting offer to change hotels, I set off in my Nissan Versa in search of the right hotel.
The friendly receptionist at the wrong Sheraton explained how to get to the right Sheraton, via the tollway. Taking the tollway meant cash and I realized I hadn’t any cash but the good receptionist told me that if I got off at the right exit I wouldn’t have to pay. However, by now it was me who was running on GPS and sure as sure can be, and in spite of having punched in the new coordinates, I found myself driving up to a toll gate. I drew up I got out my Visa and was met with an “Uh, huh, cash only, ya’ll!’ the toll booth lady, a dancing, rap singing, youngish Afro-American, finally looked at the car and waved me on without breaking tempo! Cool I thought, it’s only a dollar but a dollar’s a dollar! I learnt later they systematically film all such incidents so as soon as the toll booth lady saw the hire car ID she was ok, so was I.
But me being me, and in the condition I was, I pulled the devil a bit too hard by the tail, did a next left U-turn and… found myself up at a toll booth on the other side of the tollway where this time, after listening to my hard luck story and checking the hire car ID, the toll booth guy pushed a receipt under my nose asked me to sign and told me I had a week to pay. I signed and drove off down the road, restraining myself from throwing the piece of paper out the window, it was after all only a dollar! I decided to keep it although the lady at the rental later told me it often happens and they simply bill the client afterwards, via credit card.
The day was drawing to a close and I realized I have driven for over 2 hours! When hiring the car the salesperson told me I had a 400-mile inclusive package… yeah right, as if I was going to drive 400 miles in 4 days! But it was getting dark and I couldn’t remember what time the hotel was expecting me for so I called and a southern drawl, the guy announced himself as Justin, thanked me for calling and informed me that everything was OK, ya’ll! So I arrived at the hotel, ever thankful for having the GPS, but utterly exhausted, a sign of the exhaustion was that I parked the car, put it in neutral, pulled the handbrake on and switched off the motor, opening the door with the left hand and trying to extract the key with the right…to no avail…
With an expletive deletive I got out of the car, leaving the door wide open, key in the motor, went into the hotel lobby and told my story. The security guard philosophically, almost head-shakingly, obliged and handed me back the key. That done I checked in, into the right hotel - I don’t think I would have refused the offer to move the reservation had it not been the right one – and looked forward to a cold beer and some fine Texan fare. As it turned out both were not long in coming and after a quick shower and change, I was sitting in front of a large plate of BBQ-ed beef ribs and a litre glass of draft Samuel Adams!
…And so ended my first day in Houston and the real reason for my trip there was about to begin. No sooner had I sunk into my King-size bed, yes it was big and soft, I fell asleep, A rare thing for me in a foreign bed because the 01st night is generally spent pillow punching, tossing and turning before eventually falling asleep an hour before the alarm goes off! Next day the alarm went off ok and after a shower and a cup of coffee from the room's coffee brewer, I set off in search of the legendary American breakfast and lots of American coffee.
In retrospect, if there was anything to complain about in the hotel where I was, it was the breakfast. I had seen bigger in London and better in Shanghai. Here there was the coffee and fried hash, bacon and very synthetic looking but all the same, eatable scrambled eggs and that was about it. The bread wasn't exceptional – No, I'm not biased because I live in France, it really wasn't great but what the heck, when in Rome… I tried the bagels!
Restored, I set off for work with the idea it would take me 10 minutes to get to HP as it does in Grenoble. Not so! I had been suitably warned and sure enough, roughly 40 minutes and some wrong turns later I arrived at the HP Compaq Campus site offices in Houston.
For the work?
The idea of the story is not to talk about the real reason I went to Houston for the work but what made the trip was all the rest! Yes, the work side of the visit was, on the whole, positive, constructive and experience I would like to replicate but the environment was new and being the eternal curious and opportunist that I am I believe you should make the most of an occasion when it presents itself. I wasn’t going to pass up on this one, which is why the story starts on leaving the house, not on arriving in Houston!
For the environment?
One of the things that struck me in Houston, more than in New Orleans, was the cordiality. I had been in New Orleans some years before and found that New Orleans had more a feeling of forced “bonhomie” about it, as if visitors thought the inhabitants partied 24/7/365, ok, so I was staying in the French quarter. In Houston, on the other hand was more relaxed, and as my colleague from Austin told me, after striking up a conversation with total strangers, Texans will talk to anyone. I suppose it's only to be expected, when you’re used to living in such wide open spaces and never seeing a soul for days on end. Perhaps, with Internet and Facebook, t’s not quite the case anymore at least not in Houston but old habits die hard.
Anyway, I was in Houston and there to make the most of the occasion. I won’t go so far as to say I was there to have fun, no time for that really, just a visit to a couple of restaurants, an Irish Pub (insert link) but no clubbing and no all-nighters, not when I had to get up at 5.30 AM, to write-up my notes, check my emails, call my beloved in France and go to bed 11ish after finishing work debriefings. I was determined to enjoy the trip and in spite of the tight agenda, I think I did.
The company offices and campus, situated in a wooded zone, and, with the exception of the electronically badge-controlled gates and turnstiles regulating the traffic around the site, actually blend into the surroundings. No high-rise skyline, just some six storied glass and metal buildings that blend into the wooded surrounding instead of standing out in them.
Once inside the buildings its hi-tech and multi-cultural, as everywhere in HP. I was, however, surprised to hear more people talking Spanish as much as English until I recalled the geographical situation…There are a lot of Asian and Indian people present, I suppose like me from other HP offices around the world. Diversity exists in HP Grenoble too but they seem to blend in as individuals within a bigger group whereas in Houston they appeared to me as individual groups within a bigger group, schools of fish is the image that comes to mind, as each group, speaking its respective language, goes about its occupation.
The HP office buildings all have their respective multi-story parking houses (7 or 8 in all) so no parking on the grass verges, like in Grenoble. It irks me that in HP Grenoble that, with so much parking space, they all want to park as close to the entrance as possible so much. The fact that, to do so, they double park and so reduce the width of the passage for the others is neither here nor there for them. There’s still enough space so why bitch and anyway, the security service doesn’t put warnings on the windshields anymore…do that in HP Houston and the car would be towed off in a flash. Point made, I’ll move on.
Too far to go to reach a restaurant, HP's Houston Campus has several snack points, even a Starbucks, but no cafeteria. That sort of suited me because the prospect of 2000+ people converging on the cafeteria in the space of an hour brings out the demophobia in me so while I was in the HP offices I relished trying some of the local Tex/Mex specialties
The Campus even has a shop full of rather expensive HP Brand products, but business is business, a buck's a buck and business was certainly flourishing with all the visitors there.
For the food!
Talking of food and “Tex/Mex” specialties, I must admit I prefer “Tex” to “Mex”. With so much wholesome food, in as big as quantity as you want, you are your own watchdog. I was on a fact finding trip and my wife would make darn sure I lose any surplus when I got back home. But the fact is, I just loved the Texan food and it slides down so nicely with a good, cool beer, no Bud, thanks - worse than lager - but some fine English Pale Ale if you please.
I can’t speak for the other 49 states butTexans pride themselves on being beer aficionados and believe it or not I drank my first draught Bass (ex Charrington) Pale ale in about 30 years while I was there.. There are pubs in Houston I haven’t seen the likes of outside of the UK for style and authenticity.
NB. The pubs can be authentic. While there, I learnt that acquirers buy the pubs, say in Ireland, and ship them back lock, stock and barrels to the States and rebuild them there.
Again on the subject of authenticity, I’d tried so-called Texan food in France, where there’s a group of restaurants called “Buffalo Grill” that sells Texan style food, spare ribs, grilled chicken and Chilli but it’s nothing compared to the States. I had never eaten grilled beef ribs before and what was only supposed to be a starter would qualify as a main dish in Europe.
The work side of the trip to Houston got wrapped up on Thursday and my Texan colleague had driven back to Austin the evening before (a 3 hour drive, with nap) leaving me with the Friday morning for shopping before heading back to the airport.
After breakfast and check-out I went to the shopping mail I had spotted the day before where the agenda was to spend a couple of hours at the mail before heading back to the car rental service at the airport. Having now understood this would take a certain time I headed for the mall around 9, intending to leave at 11 and drive leisurely back to the airport before 12, hand in the car, avoid having to pay an extra day’s rental. In reality it turned out that most of the shops opened at 10 which changed the agenda a bit so after a coffee and some photos, notably one of a Victoria’s Secret shop (!) I went souvenir shopping.
Shopping done I set out back to the airport thankful I had stuck to my plan because it took me 45 good minutes to circumnavigate Houston, one eye on the petrol gauge which was looking emptier than I would have liked. Objective achieved I reached the car rental service, handed in the car, headed back to the airport - 3 hours in advance - to do some shopping, only to find that all the shops are on the other side of customs! Making do with a Starbucks “Genuine American” coffee and a roast turkey sandwich I bided my time until check in time.
Once through customs, I set out for some Duty-Free shopping only to find that you can’t always get what you want!(reminds me of the song). The duty-free shop in front of International departure gate zone not having a specific liqueur my wife likes I set off in search of it and duly found it in the Internal/Domestic departure gates zone. “Uh, huh, sorry ya’ll going to Amsterdam. I ‘m afraid I can’t sell you this product here sir!” I was told! I think this was the only time in 5 days I had shown frustration. I went back to the duty-free shop in front of International departure gate zone and decided to buy something else only to be told “uh, huh, sorry you’re transiting at Amsterdam! I‘m afraid I can’t sell you this product, here!” “Why?” I asked. It transpires that Amsterdam customs don’t let you transit with alcohol bought outside the EU! I must admit I don’t see why! They let you buy the alcohol if your end destination is Amsterdam, but don’t if you fly onto to somewhere else!
By now my fatique, disquised as frustration was really beginning to show and it wasn’t until I was settled into the 747 and back up in the air that I started to relax. Needless to say the pre-dinner glass of white wine, the glass of red wine with the meal and the cognac with the coffee worked wonders to dispel my frustration and soon after watching Harry Potter numbers 4 & 5 I fell asleep!
And so it was, my trip to Houston drawing to a close, I arrived, in Amsterdam. Fresh, relaxed and raring to go. The appropriate analogy would be “to hit the ground running”… I had an hour before my flight to Lyon and 30 minutes of that was would be dedicated to finding the nearest Duty Free, buy my wife’s elixir, grab a bite and make my way to the departure gate (17 minutes distance from my then standing point), via the passport control and customs checkpoint…Customs? Oh no! I had visions of having to dump the dearly bought liqueur like I did once coming back from a visit to Central Asia via Frankfurt, so much so that when I got to the customs checkpoint I got the customs agent to promise me I wouldn’t have to dump the alcohol! To my great relief, the agent explained why and waved (waived) me through and on my way to the awaiting Fokker 100, Lyon and (eventually) home, wife, lunch and a nap.
© Nicholas Richards 2010