Your correspondent has had the good fortune to spend part of this week in Paris, pretending to be important by attending a conference. The subject matter would have bored most people rigid, but in my little world was actually quite interesting. A few thoughts and observations.
1. I kept to the straight and narrow
One of the many blessings of my life is that I am responsible for a small team of extremely dedicated and hard-working people. When I say people, I mostly mean women, each one gorgeous in her own way. I really have tried to be less discriminating towards men, but every time we recruit, the stand-out candidate is a woman. So it is my very good fortune to have to go to work each day to be surrounded by these wonderful creatures. And here’s the really good bit – they have to be nice to me, and seek my approval. It’s not like being at home, where I have to earn it. Yes, I am the world’s shallowest man. But, let me tell you, that man is very happy in his work.
I’m also something of a world expert on managing multiple maternity leaves in a small and under-resourced team. This pregnancy thing has turned out to be the one flaw in my single-sex staffing strategy. You may think it’s obvious, but I didn’t see it coming. A word of advice though, the married ones seem especially prone to the baby event. But I have to say that the headaches and hassle of managing without them melt away to nothing when they bring their new off-spring in for show and tell. It’s not that I’m soppy about babies – I’m not. It’s the way each one of them has walked beaming towards me ignoring all their other friends and colleagues until they have presented to me for my approval the fruits of their labour. I don’t know why they do it, but it’s very touching.
This week I travelled with one of these lovelies. As you can imagine, The Beautiful Armenian was less than entirely impressed. Her killer point when we discuss anything like this (and I have learned long ago not to try to win the debate) is that I wouldn’t like it if it were the other way round. She’s also very sweet in that she seems to think that I am totally irresistible to any one in female form. Before you get any idea that I may be George Clooney in disguise, you need to know that this is the woman whose ideal man would be a cross between Michael Palin and Alan Titchmarsh.
But she really needn’t worry. Not these days. Let’s leave aside the fact that my travelling companion is a very happily married young mother who I am sure has no interest whatever in inappropriate behaviour with a man nearly twenty years her senior. Let’s also disregard the fact that my sexual and romantic ambitions begin and end with The Beautiful Armenian. I just have this feeling that if ever I were to get into any sort of compromising situation with a young and modern woman, I wouldn’t know what to do. Some of them intimidate the hell out me. I would be like my parents with something new and electrical – frightened I might break it, phoning my kids to ask for instructions, and bemoaning the fact that nothing comes with an instruction manual these days.
2. A tale of two cities
It’s been some time since I’ve been in Paris. It really is a beautiful city. We were lucky enough to be near the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees. Gorgeous at street level. But underground in the Metro it is as if you are suddenly somewhere else – dirty, shabby, dingy, edgy. So unpleasant that I found myself in wistful reminiscence about the tranquillity and aesthetic beauty of the London underground.
3. Man (or woman) cannot live on canapes alone.
For two days I ate nothing but freakin’ finger food. I had every manner of tiny delicacy brought to me on silver trays. Lunch at the conference would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so stressful. Hundreds of hungry delegates descending on a room in which there were a very limited number of exquisite prawn concoctions in tiny bowls and beautifully made, but miniscule, sandwiches. Such was the competition for this very limited sustenance that the UN were on standby with a peace-keeping force. But once the fighting had subsided the waiters reappeared with a selection of equally microscopic sweets (minced pineapple, for goodness sake). And then, just as everyone had given up and was heading back to the breakout sessions, they wheel in a cheeseboard.
In the evening there was more of the same. We were invited to “dinner” by a company who want our business. Now I really do not want to sound ungrateful. This was in an extremely upmarket hotel in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the world (if my overcoat had seen the look the doorman gave it when I handed it over on arrival, it would have been entirely within its rights immediately to have joined the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative party). I had a fond idea that I would save myself for the meal and go easy on the canapes, but there was something rather suspicious about the way the waiters pressed the larks-tongue profiteroles (or whatever they were) on us – these guys were simply not taking non pour un reponse. When “dinner” arrived it became clear why – it was wonderfully cooked and presented, it was a sublime combination of textures and flavours, it was entirely befitting for the establishment and the city in which it was served. But it was gone in two mouthfuls. I swear it was smaller than the some of the goujons of smoked stickleback we’d had earlier.
You can eat your body-weight in this sort of food and still feel hungry. Believe me, I’ve tried.
4. People in glass houses
Our flight back was clearly the Disneyland special. Completely full, and mainly of large family groups with children. Some of these “little” ones were obviously of school age, and I’m not aware of any local authorities who have half term in December. They were also, how shall we say, of a certain social type. They’d “Clearly Had A Very” good time – they were “Coming Home At Velocity.” I felt the snob within me rise.
However, I had to have a very quick and sharp word with myself. Whatever I might think, these families had at least managed to do one thing that had very nearly defeated yours truly and his highly educated travelling companion. They had managed to get on the flight.
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, but with an over-whelming desire to banish memories of buffet food and eat a proper meal. This being France, we did of course have to go through the full rigmarole of all those things we tend to consider unnecessary in the UK in these situations – waitress service, studying the wine list, having the food prepared properly. But still we had time. So some shopping took place. Then we approached the security clearance, with a sign saying very prominently and proudly that the waiting time was 3 minutes.
As they say, they must have missed off un zero. And then some. We inched forwards. Sorry, we were in France – we millimetred forwards. We were still putting laptops and belts in plastic trays when they announced our names over the tannoy for the second time. The conveyor belt stopped working. I set the alarm off and had to wait whilst two completely unoccupied guys with magic searchy things decided which one could be bothered to move three steps forward and wave it vaguely in my general direction. Then I was running through the terminal, clutching bag and jacket and coat and computer, trying to make sure my trousers didn’t fall down (no time to put the belt back on), spurred on only by the thought that if I didn’t get to the gate it could mean another 12 hours of finger food. There was a problem with my boarding pass. Then my colleague caught me up with her duty-free bag very visible.
Now this made the day of the woman from the airline. She must come to work each morning desperately hoping for moments like this. She looked at the bag and then with highly practised and supremely Gallic disdain, tossed back her head and sneered, no spat out, one word: “Shopping!”
But despite all these schoolboy errors we made it. Yes, we were surrounded by some of England’s finest. But they had managed to get on the plane with slightly less drama. And, as somebody I know has so memorably put it this week, there’s a little bit of chav in all of us.
5. Patience is a virtue
Well before the problems with security, the journey back had had its little ups and downs. We couldn’t find the Metro. We had ticketing issues. The trains were too full to get on. My colleague got caught the wrong side of a broken exit barrier.
But we didn’t let any of this ruffle us at all. There wasn’t a single sharp word. I pointed out to my companion that this would have been rather different if we had been married. There is no way that we would have been presented with these various minor challenges without one of us blaming the other for something, or getting rather too dramatic about a tiny little problem, or putting on our best martyred face as a response to insignificant irritation. This is so very odd. We behave worse when we are with the ones we love. I really am going to try to remember this, and try to do something about it, when next we are travelling en famille.
Anyway, back in Blighty now. I have colleagues who spend half their time away on business. Believe me, that’s not the life for me. But the occasional jaunt is undeniably a very pleasant distraction.