The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

May 13, 2008

A Business Trip

Ya Allah, what a trip. I woke up at four in the morning yesterday, and before I could put on my suit, le patron had rung me from his limo - waiting outside my house - urging me to have a coffee. Not that I am a coffee drinker. Barely three minutes later, I was sinking into the plush interior of a fancy-schmancy Mercedes Benz, speeding towards Stansted Airport, groggy and with gurgling stomach.

From where I live, Stansted is a real pig to get to, even that early in the morning. We have to cross the Thames, head through the Docklands and past some of the ugliest parts of London, before whipping out of Bow like a Bat out of Bedlam. Stansted, that benighted hub of such crass carriers as Ryanair, is also where the slightly less crass Easyjet flies from, and we were heading to Tallinn for a meeting with one of our favourite clients.

We found ourselves standing behind a line of several hundred sweaty Britons, all apoplectic with anxiety and anticipation, holidayers one and all. Considering that our flight would leave barely 45 minutes later, we huffed up to the Airport Duty counter and offered to pay a boarding priority fee if it would get us to the gate on time. The helpful woman heaved her chest Gina Lollobrigida-style to the left and said, "That a-way." Easyjet, in its everlasting wisdom, had opened up a counter for such yoicks as us: last minute checkins.

The flight was on time, took far too long (2.5 hours, if you must know), and we arrived at the Communist-chic-meets-IKEA-decor airport in Tallinn none the worse for the wear. Wielding my passport (opened helpfully at the page with my latest Schengen visa), I arrived panting at immigration.

Another woman with a pillowy chest greeted me in a perfunctory fashion. For the next ten minutes (while all the other passengers, smug bastards, flashed their EU passports and zipped past), I was subjected to close scrutiny and vague suspicion.

"Why does your passport not have an extension stamp?"

"Umm, because it's not an extension."

"Silence! It was issued 1999 and expires in 2019! How is this not an extension?"

"Umm, because it's a 20-year passport?"

"Nonsense! Such thing cannot be! An abomination!"

Meanwhile, le patron was impatiently urging me to tell them we were going to meet our favourite clients. The woman ignored me, called upon the Teutonic Knights to save her from the perfidious Indian, surrounded herself with other immigration officials and cast about for further questions.

"At which hotel are you staying in Tallinn?"

"I'm going back this afternoon."

Whereupon she became sunshine itself. Her brow cleared, she tossed her colleagues away. She stamped an entry stamp, simpered at me, and sussurated, "Welcome to Estonia."

By now we had barely half an hour to turn up at our clients', and the client relationship manager (who had already arrived from Helsinki on a fast boat) was skipping from foot to foot in a fit of nervous energy. Fortunately (and I am not revealing anything when I say that this was the last bit of fortune we were to have for next few hours), our cabbie was beastly nippy, and we were soon being welcomed by our counterparty.

The building occupied by the clients is a somewhat old one, as these things go, but with considerable modifications inside. The last time le patron visited them, he had been escorted to the grand board-room; this instance, they took us down a spiral stairs into a subterranean chamber that even they didn't use frequently. For one thing, they had no idea where the light switches were. For another, they appeared surprised to see that inside was an upright piano. There was also a stereo system, a projection screen, an oval table with some chairs, and windows screened by heavy metal shutters. And I mean heavy metal. They appeared laced with tungsten steel, bullet-proof and sound-insulated. If we screamed, nobody outside could hear us.

And on the wall across us was the high point of our visit.

There was a painting in the Communist heroic style. Four muscular young men with red bands around their chunky arms, wearing open shirts carried what appeared to be a hat of Uncle Sam atop a coffin. On the coffin appeared the word KAPITALISM.

We weren't sure if our clients intended this as a satiric comment on Estonia's history of Soviet occupation and its current espousal of the capitalist credo, or if they were closet socialists with a yen for the past, so we didn't ask them about it. Instead, during the presentation of the research we had conducted on their behalf, we took furtive looks at the art and chuckled to ourselves.

The meeting was originally expected to last about 90 minutes. The clients told us that Mondays were very busy days for them. I had every expectation, therefore, of getting up from the table at 2pm and flitting over to the Old Town for a brief look, before heading back to the airport for our flight home at 4:15pm. In the event, we kept yakking, they kept listening and asking penetrating questions, and before we knew it, it was 3pm.

(At this point, I found myself wondering how long the meeting would have gone on had it not been a busy day.)

Mild panic ensued after we said our goodbyes - no taxis would stop for us. They'd whizz by, the drivers looking at us in puzzlement while we danced up and down the sidewalk, waving our arms like windmills.

A suggestion from our colleague from Helsinki was to proceed to a nearby hotel (at one time, the haunt of KGB agents, I am informed) and take a cab from there. And again we hotfooted it to the airport, where we were met by a cheery check-in lady who told us that our flight was delayed to 6pm.

What to do? I considered heading back to the Old Town - after all, we had almost 3 hours to kill - but then we saw another notice contradicting the check-in woman's claim that the flight was delayed, and we decided to hang on in the terminal after all.

A brief lunch was gulped down and the notice now read that the flight would depart at 7pm. Le patron shrugged in a Gallic fashion, apologised for ruining the day and causing me to miss out on the World Heritage treasures of Tallinn town, and bought us coffee.

Fifteen minutes later, the notice read that the flight was delayed to 10:45pm.

Throughout all this, there was no public announcement on the loudspeakers.

I decided to call up the wife to let her know I'd be staggering in only around 1 in the morning. The phone at home was busy. She didn't answer her cell-phone either.

Mutter, mutter.

By now, the other travellers had accosted the one irritated and unfortunate member of Estonian Air who looked like she might answer their queries. Increasingly, as she parried demands for information and simultaneously yelled on the two-way radio for support, her voice grew louder and shriller.

"Non-Schengen security! Open the doors! Passengers want to get out of the departure lounge!" she yelled.

I asked her if we could transfer our tickets to flights via Frankfurt or Helsinki. She didn't know.

The last flight to Frankfurt departed as she professed her ignorance, and the final flight to Helsinki announced it was ready to be boarded.

"Is there any guarantee that the flight will depart today?" I asked.

"Yes," replied the strident woman. She paused, and we looked at each expectantly.

"And what is this guarantee?" I asked, eventually.

"Next!" she yelled, waving me away.

Meanwhile, le patron was on the phone to the group secretary in London. Could she investigate the possibility of our taking a helicopter shuttle to Helsinki and grabbing the next flight out of there?

A cold, cold feeling sank to the bottom of my stomach. Those shuttles were no ordinary helicopters. One winter night a couple of years ago, the boss had taken one from Helsinki to Tallinn. His hair turned gray during those twenty minutes.

The helicopters were cannibalised remnants from the Soviet Air Force. They had no doors and didn't exactly fly: they staggered into the air and galumphed sluggishly in a vaguely forward fashion. They rose a few feet over the Baltic Sea, the backwash from the rotors drenching the passengers inside. And all in the dark with less than sober pilots.

We had no reason to believe that the situation had improved even after a crash or two in the interim.

The strident lady let us out of the lounge. We ran towards immigration ("What! You again? I thought you said you were leaving today?"), towards the exit, towards the nearest taxi, and drove at high speed to the heliport.

Fifteen minutes later, just as we were pulling into the heliport, the secretary told us that the last flight from Helsinki to London would leave at 8pm. It was now 7pm. There was no way we could make it.

Le patron sighed and said we might as well accept defeat. It was a wonderfully sunny day, so why not take a walk around the Old Town?

We did. We also had a rather decent dinner, even if it was interrupted constantly by some awful yodelling music from the speakers above our heads.

When we got back to the airport, the flight had been delayed still further - to 11pm. But there was an air of finality at immigration when the woman stamped my passport for the fourth time that day.

"By thunder, if you show me your face again, I'll kill myself," she said.

Eventually, the flight took off at 11:30pm. Two and a half hours later, we descended at Gatwick. A limo was to be waiting for us. It wasn't. Fifteen minutes passed before the driver showed up, grinning from ear to ear. The grin vanished when he saw our faces.

"You are early," he gasped.

"And you'll soon be 'the late'," I said.

He drove maniacally but in a controlled fashion. When he stopped outside my house, I fell out of the BMW and rang the bell. No answer. I rang it again. No answer. I rang my home phone. Nobody. The baby downstairs woke up and started to wail. Strange Serbo-Turkish mutterings filled the night as her parents tried to coax her back in bed. I knocked on the door with my forehead, then my nose, then my knees. It opened and I fell in.

Home at last.

(And naturally I am in at the office bright and early today. And people wonder why I bemoan having to haul ass to work?)


Shefaly said...

My dear friend, I seriously think you should quit this job at Bishopsgate and start writing. One advantage is that you won't have to travel at odd hours for two reasons - without a proper job, nobody will give you a visa, and you won't have money to travel ;-)

Another piece of funny writing from our friend, who deserves an ovation now.

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: too kind, too kind! Another problem with quitting work is that along with no money, soon I'll have no house, and shortly after that, no family either :-)

Veena said...

This doesn't sound too bad.

My business trip involves waking up at 5 to catch a train to West Sussex (don't ask) for a 7 AM meeting, another train / tube at noon to Leadenhall Ct for a couple of long meetings and at about 7 PM the tube to Leicester Sq where I could be found until 1 AM. Atleast you get to go to exotic places. That counts for something.

Fëanor said...

Exotic? They don't come more exotic than Bognor Regis, surely? :-)

[I didn't know Alliance Assurance had interests in West Sussex! Heh.]

Veena said...

Hmm..Don't think Alliance Assurance has interests in W Sussex. But the actual owners of the building they are supposed to be in (but actually don't) do.

(And I thought these corporate broker types knew all about who occupies what in the City, and who has what interests where!)

Space Bar said...

Yikes and double yikes! *though I find myself wishing you had been able to take that chopper just for the post that would follow).

Don't suppose there was a way of taking a photograph of Soviet art in the space between two penetrating questions?

Shefaly said...

Feanor: Your Tallinn story came to mind as I read about this drinking contest of the Clinton-McCain kind:

Read on.

Fëanor said...

Veena: the way we corporate brokers ascertain who's dwelling in which building is by shrewdly asking leading questions - as I cunningly did with you, heheh. Although, of course, I'm no corporate broker.

Space Bar: We did think of pulling out our cameras to get a pic of that painting, but in the interests of maintaining our client as a favourite, we desisted. Maybe next time!

Shefaly: Thanks for that link. I'd love to say we drank a lot of vodka as well. But no. Not a drop of ethanol passed these lips that day.

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