When I was first asked if I wanted to go to York, England for work I thought, “What a great chance to see a new, exciting place!” I happily booked my trip. Little did I know what hell awaited me…We all have hassles and inconveniences when we travel. But what happened on this trip was truly mind-blowing. Don’t get me wrong, there was no catastrophe on this trip. But what did occur was the single largest, most incessant string of bad luck ever to have occurred to simple business travelers; a never-ending poop parade of inconceivable irritation, idiocy and stress.
It all started bright and early at 7:30 AM MST on Monday December 2nd, 2002, the first Monday after Thanksgiving. If I had any sense at all I would’ve thought of this before booking a flight at that time. The line to go through security was a little, shall we say, long. For those familiar with the old Boise airport layout, I got in the back of the line… by the Delta check-in counter. Ouch. Any ticket counter would be bad enough, but Delta was the furthest away you could be at. Again, for those familiar with the old layout: the line went all the
way across the check-in area, snaked back and forth a couple of times in the little business cube areas, across the baggage claim area, around the far carousel, back in front of all the car rental desks, in front of the escalators, around and in front of the gift shop up a little winding staircase I never knew was there, into the upstairs business area, back behind the offices, down the back hall, turned right and went in front of Reflections and finally turned right and headed to the security area. This is not an exaggeration: I think there were 800 people in that line. Lucky thing I got there early!
Figure 1: The First Part of the Line
Figure 2: The Second Part of the Line
Things went more or less all right until I landed in Heathrow airport. I had over a two hour lay over until my flight from London to Leeds. Little did I know that I would need every minute of it. I had to get off the plane, get out of the terminal, take a bus to a different terminal, line up for security screening in a line almost as long as the one in Boise, then find the British Midlands Airline desk and this was just to learn what gate my plane was leaving from. Then I had to go through customs walk what seemed like a mile (the jet lag was already beginning, which didn’t help) to find my gate. When I did, I sat down for seven minutes, then they started boarding the airplane.
We landed at Leeds without incident at 9:30 AM UT on Tuesday the 3rd. I had been up for a good 20 hours at this point and now I had to get ready to take my first crack at driving in England. It took about ten minutes to figure out there was no bus to take me to Hertz, it was a counter in the airport. The Hertz desk had two people waiting in line. No problem, I thought. Fifteen minutes later, the first person was gone. Then a third person joined the line. Ten minutes later the second person left. Then the guy that got in line after me walked up to the desk. I was a little surprised and annoyed, but I was tired and disoriented and didn’t feel like arguing with someone. He said he was returning a car. I’m my experience the average time it takes to return a Hertz car is 60 seconds, so even less reason to argue. Ten minutes later I was starting to get quite a bit more irritated, but he left. For some reason it still took me ten minutes to get the paper work for my car (so much for “#1 Club Gold” at Leeds!). Yea! Now all I had to do was get my car. Of course the parking lot for rental cars was the most remote lot from the airport. And the stalls weren’t numbered. And there were three rental companies worth of cars in it. Oh, joy. All I had to go on was I was supposed to have a green Ford Mondeo – whatever that was. After a few minutes of searching, I found one. I put the key in and it unlocked the car, so I assumed it was mine. One of the few (and only) bits of good fortune on this trip happened at this point: the car was an automatic.
As I left the airport, I was faced with a right or left turn choice. I wanted to go to the M62, which runs east and west, south of Leeds. The only sign was pointing to the left and said “Leeds”. I didn’t really want to go into the city so I went right. It took about three minutes and I was lost on a country “B” road with no signs and no hint of a city (or even airport) in sight. Precisely 7.5 seconds later I had English Jag on my tail not content to do 50 on a road that was (what seemed at the time) very narrow and winding. I was now even more tired and disoriented and did not need an irate British motorist tailgating me. The oncoming traffic looked about to knock my side view mirrors off, so I was trying to hug the left side of the road while barely maintaining 50 mph and willing the oncoming motorists to keep on their own side of the road, which should have been a footpath. The road was lined by about six inches of very rocky ground followed by a three foot high stone fence that, most assuredly, would not be good to hit. As one particularly wide van came at me in a desperate attempt to knock off my right side-view mirror, I hugged to the left just a bit too much. I assume I ran over a fairly large and pointy rock (judging by the post-mortem analysis I performed on the tire rim). So now I was running on a very flat tire at 50 mph with irate people behind and crazed mirror-cidal people in the oncoming lane. Thankfully, a dirt farm road came up before too long. I peeled off the road, hoping there was a spare in the trunk. There was. So I unloaded my luggage in the cold rainy morning and dug out the tire a jack. As I was raising the car up I noticed I was on a fair incline with no tire blocks. Well the tire wouldn’t change itself, so I figured I would just change the tire and try to keep the jostling of the car to a minimum. When I got the tire off, here’s what it looked like. Notice the rim:
Figure 3: Fun with Rocks
I did get the tire changed without mishap other than being cold, wet, tired, disoriented, shaken and muddy. I decided I had just better take my time getting back to the airport, now that I was out of spares (and that was just within my first five minutes of driving!). I made it back to the airport, and decided to turn left. Much better choice. Before too long I saw a sign for the M62. Hope! After making it through a few roundabouts and what seemed like a few very small towns, there were no more signs. I stopped at a gas station and got some directions. I made it through a few more roundabouts and a few more “towns”. Every now and then I would see an M62 sign, then go that way and hope that more signs would tell me if I had to change direction. They must have been more or less correct because eventually I found myself in a giant roundabout that lead on to the M62. I was so happy! I zipped on the motorway and found myself going to Liverpool. Crapnuggets! That meant I was going west and I wanted to go east! It’s not exactly possible to take a U-turn on the M62 so I kept driving until there was another big junction. I followed it and managed to get going in the proper direction.
I actually made it to the office without any problems and only having two people honk at me in the roundabouts. When I got to my destination, the new Leeds GE office, I was shocked to learn it was 1:30 PM. I knew I had been driving for sometime, but between landing at the airport 25 miles away and getting to the office, four hours had disappeared. So, just a little after I showed up for work, I reached the “being awake for 24 hours” point. I worked for about two hours then I had to gear up for a 35 mile drive to the hotel, and a trek through another strange city, York. I actually found the hotel and got checked with no problems. Oddly, thought I, this hotel in downtown York had no restaurant and no room service. I had never stayed at a nice hotel in the downtown of a decent sized city and had that happen. I was too tired to thing about it too much. I managed to stay up until about 10 PM hitting a couple pubs to try the local grog and grub. The beer was fairly decent, but the food was underwhelming to say the least. Eventually I made it back to the hotel and I went to sleep having been up for around 32 hours, though it seemed much longer than that.
The next day, Wednesday (12/4), started out poorly because the breakfast wasn’t served until 7:15 AM, which put me behind schedule, on top of that it was rather, well, nasty. But at least things got worse when I got to work. I had to make sacrifices to come to England to perform some testing and, a couple of hours after I got in to the office, the customer postponed testing for a month because the project was in such bad shape. So I had been in England all of one lousy day before I learned there was no point in coming. I had two weeks and three days here and nothing to do that I couldn’t accomplish in Boise.
The day was finished on an upbeat note, with Albert, a coworker from the GE office in Boise, checking in to our hotel. At least I now had a commiserator, though he didn’t yet know what to expect. We decided to go find a good pub for dinner. If there are two things the English should be good at, it’s making ale and fish & chips. We went to a pub well reputed to excel at both and proceeded to have some of the most mediocre fish & chips and beer I’ve ever had. I can’t say they were bad, but they were definitely not good. Not the best way to kick off our stay.
The next day, Thursday (12/5), was kicked off with another nasty continental breakfast (you don’t wrap cool rasher bacon in a greasy pastry and call that “breakfast”). In the office Al was tasked with doing configuration work, which he could have done in Boise, and was told they weren’t ready for the testing he flew to England to perform. I was seeing a trend…
That night we found another pub to eat at. We had sausage, gravy and fries. Again, while not bad, it was nothing good, and the food situation began to depress us. It’s as if the food was tailored to match the weather. Not bad, but consistently dreary. Thus concluded another day.
Friday the 6th came with the promise of something good, actually. I had planned a trip to Scotland that I was really looking forward to. I have roots there, but have never been. Naturally, I wanted to go to a distillery – what else would one do in Scotland except perhaps toss the odd caber or two? The smallest legal distillery in Scotland, called Edradour, was supposed to be in one of the most picturesque areas of the country (around the town of Pitlochry in Perthshire). We planned to hit the road after work. Work was filled with the same drudgery and ironies that so perfectly trampled down our spirits. It started to look like there was not much chance for us to go home, even though there was no work for us here that couldn’t be done in the Boise office. I scheduled a meeting for Monday with my project manager and the office director to discuss this very thing. At least we made it through the day.
It was black outside when we hit the road (the sun was setting around 3:30 PM). We had two routes to choose from. One was direct, but hilly and a slow road. The other was considerably longer, but all on six-lane motorway. We opted for the easy driving on the motorway. Once we were on it, it took less than 20 minutes to run into about 15 miles of stop-and-go traffic. Of course we chose the large, easy road – which just happened to be under massive reconstruction. Why was this not surprising? We found the news radio station with the most traffic updates and listened in. We learned two things while sitting in traffic listening to the radio. One was that the 24 hour media in England is not unlike that in the States. Over the next 45 minutes or so they repeated the same broadcast (that some political entity had passed legislation that stated homosexual marriage has the same legal status as heterosexual marriage), conservatively, oh, 7590 times. So that’s what up-to-the-minute news is like when news isn’t actually happening. The other thing we learned was that our alternate route too Scotland (the A1) was clogged up with a nine-car pile up one way, and rubberneckers the other way. Fate was dead set against us!
While on the way there we stopped at a roadside cafe and proceeded to have the worst fish and chips I’ve ever had! The skin was still on it (as was getting typical) and it smelled terrible. And if that wasn’t bad enough, for two orders of truck-stop fish and chips and two coffees, the bill came to around $35. Worse food AND more expensive than Shari’s… I wouldn’t have thought it possible!
This seems a good time to talk about the car. Oh, the car. It was a true gutless wonder. The Mondeo has a 1.6 L four cylinder power plant that rivals the performance of most gas-powered yard equipment. It has a “power band” from about 4900 to 5100 RPM and was geared to cruise at 50. No one drives 50 in England. You’re either going 35 or 85. And the “power band” was anything but. On the way back we hit a strong head wind and the car would only do either 40 at 2500 rpm or 70 at 5500 rpm. What fun! We normally cruised at 80-85 so we opted to red line the thing. We’ve concluded that this car has been engineered to suck. You can’t screw up honest efforts that bad. Geared the way it was, it got about 24 mpg. When gas costs $5 a gallon, it becomes less economical than a car that gets less than 5 mpg in the States!! (Remember, in December of 2002 we were all complaining that gas prices in the US were floating around $1.50 per gallon). The car was called many things: stupid-car (for obvious reasons), go-car (because you always yelled “Go, car!!!” whenever you had it floored in ordered to pass or merge onto a motorway), The Blender (in keeping with the sound the “engine” made when you yelled “Go, car!”), sometimes a combination of these things (“Go, you stupid blender car!”), and sometimes a few colorful adjectives were thrown in for good measure. Now it’s often called Whiney Gonzales (it makes a lot of noise but doesn’t in fact pick up speed when you want it to) by me and “Microsoft” by Al. It gave us so many fond memories of amused frustration, that we took it upon ourselves to torture that car until we left.
Figure 4: The Blender/Whiney Gonzales/Microsoft at Fancy Scottish Travelodge
Back to the trip. As the pitch-black miles rolled by we passed Glasgow, and turned east for Edinburgh. We planned on staying around Edinburgh, thinking there would have to be a hotel just off the motorway since it’s such a popular destination. We were wrong. Oh Edinburgh, why did you mock us so? We left the office around 5:30 PM and got to the city around 11:30 PM. We couldn’t find any hotels outside the town so we went into Edinburgh and wound up smack in the middle of downtown. We managed to get thoroughly lost. As we ambled the streets in Whiney Gonzales we just happened upon a very nice looking Best Western. What luck! I went in… and waited for about 10 minutes for someone to show up at the front desk (apparently it would be too much to ask for a bell on the front desk). And, of course, after waiting I learned they had no rooms. Great. Back in the car we planned our attack on a Travelodge; the only other hotel we knew existed. Map in hand we trekked around and found the place. They wouldn’t even let me in the front door. Yikes. I hopped back in the car and we attempted to find our way out of town.
Eventually we got back on the motorway and headed north to Perth. It was almost 12:30. We had spent an hour in Edinburgh. Disappointed we kept going trying to figure out how we were going to get some sleep. It was only at that point that we noticed the “Service” exits off the motorways had motels more often then not. The first one we came to was 20 miles south of Perth, we rolled in about 1:30 AM. Thankfully they had a doorbell and two open rooms. We had come within 90 minutes of our final destination, Pitlochry. We wouldn’t have to make a super early start to our next day! Albert always got up early so I didn’t worry about the fact that the room didn’t have an alarm clock. It was about 11:30 AM when I was woken up by Albert beating on the door. Apparently he didn’t always wake up early.
We hit the road way behind schedule (Edradour distillery only gave tours until 4:00 PM) but managed to get into Pitlochry with me leading us on only one (though a rather large) wild goose chase through the city of Perth (hint: when driving north on the M9 and wanting to head north on the A9 around Perth, take the M9 “Stirling” exit even though Stirling is about 100 miles to the west and south). One of the first, and few, bits of good fortune in this trip was the hotel in Pitlochry: the Westlake. They let us check in early (thereby allowing us to dump our luggage) and it was only a few hundred feet from the hotel to the road that you took to the distillery some three miles away.
There were a total of four good, significant things that happened on this trip. One was getting to stay at the Westlake hotel in Pitlochry, one was getting to visit the distillery, one was getting to see the country side Scotland, and the last was sight-seeing in York. Three fourths of the good in this trip all happened in time between 11:00 AM Saturday and 11:00 AM Sunday.
The only bad thing at Westlake was breakfast on Sunday. It was basically nasty, though a couple steps above the “continental breakfast” we had been eating so far. Sunday morning we began our drive back to York. There were no real problems getting home. But once we got checked into the hotel the weirdness returned. Albert’s bed hadn’t been made. It had been torn apart, though. The blankets and new sheets were just piled on the couch. A nice way to make you feel welcome.
We pointed this out to the front desk, then headed out to dinner. We found a nice looking pub that had haddock fish and chips instead of cod. We figured it had to be better than what we’ve eaten so far. While not bad, there was not one part of the meal that made it “good”. It was simply the most “not bad” food I’d ever had. We went to a different pub after food to get some good beer or cider. We had found one that had two very promising choices. Unfortunately the great cider they had was all out. And the ale that came highly recommended to me was a huge disappointment. We decided to try one of the other four ciders they had. It tasted like mild grape juice. Not good. We tried another… it had a nasty funk to it. Resorting to samples (not wanting to waste even a half pint) I tried another. On the nasty-cider-funk scale (10 being capable of making you toss your biscuits) it was a 7.5 (the previous one was a 5). Choking back tears I asked for a sample of the last one. It ranked a whopping 11 out of 10 on the scale! I thought it had been aged in someone’s armpit! That’s about the time you need to head home. So we did. And on to the next wonderful day.
Monday morning (12/9) started as it always did, with a nasty, nasty, unfulfilling and generally depressing continental breakfast. And back off to work we went. Remember that meeting I scheduled with the project manager and office manager for Monday? The project manager called in sick and the office manager simply never showed up. I had no way of getting authorization to come home if the managers are never around! The day’s typical futility and drudgery continued until a stand-in for the office manager showed up. My hope for deportation dwindled as he seemed determined to give me any work to keep me in the UK office (though all of it could be done in Boise). It began to look like I was truly stuck in England. So I made a proposal with my boss in Boise. Since I knew the testing was cancelled, it would have to happen later. I told him that if they flew me home right away, I would come back (probably in January) to do the testing then. He said to wait one day while he conferred with the project managers.
When we got to the hotel, there were a couple of surprises for Albert. His bed had been made this time, but they never removed the sheets, blankets, comforter, etc that had been laid on his couch. The laundry he had left at reception that morning was not returned to his room, either.
It was about this time that we started thinking, if nothing else, there had to be a better hotel in town. Albert got his clothes from the front desk then proceeded to call another hotel we had seen on the way in. He explained how the hotel we were at had no restaurant and no room service (and almost no parking). The other hotel (called the Ambassador) said they most definitely had a restaurant, room service and a hot breakfast in the morning. We were so happy! We reserved rooms and only had to go looking for one last dinner.
The pubs had obviously not been working out for us, so we decided to eat at a restaurant. Chinese seemed a good choice: there was a fair amount of it around, and it’s usually not too hard to find pretty decent Chinese food. So we asked at the front desk where a good place was. They pointed us to the place that had the largest buffet in the city. I’m not too hot on buffet food, but I figured it couldn’t be that bad since it was recommended to us. So we tried it. Long story short, it was some of the worst Chinese food we’ve ever had and the buffet cost around $10. I guess $10 isn’t that much, but any monetary amount is too much for bad food. I’d rather keep the $10 and go hungry.
Wanting to get that out of our minds (and mouths) we headed for a pub that advertised a “selection of ciders”. It should have come as no surprise that the “selection” was a choice between the cider equivalent of Budweiser and another one I’d never heard of. So I tried the latter. Remember the No.11 armpit juice? It wasn’t that bad. It was merely a 9.5. One taste and my mouth was scarred. That was the first, and only, drink I tried that whole day. I wasn’t going to risk anything else! So we went home a looked forward to checking out tomorrow.
Tuesday (12/10) started the same as basically everyday before that. We pondered the sheer will-crushing nature of breakfast, then hurried to check out and headed to work. Work was the same, with one exception. Instead of feeling like I wasn’t getting out of here early, I was told I wouldn’t be. They flatly rejected my request to come home early (in which case I would have had to come back again later). Hooray for England! I told them if I couldn’t go home early I couldn’t return for the testing in January. Management didn’t say anything to that, probably thinking they could change my mind later. The rest of the day began the true descent into the pit of despair.
It was about this time that I started thinking this much bad luck is not natural. The sheer odds of so much crap occurring so consistently were quickly diminishing towards zero. I postulated that such bad luck wasn’t luck, but concerted effort from an outside force I dubbed The Ministry of Inducing Despondency in International Business Travelers. What else but a government entity could drive GE into more stupidity than GE is normally capable of, which is quite a lot, really?
That night we headed to the new hotel, excited about not having to go out to find something to eat. We parked and lugged all of our stuff quite a ways to the front entrance. The building was an old estate house, converted into a hotel. This brought about a problem I had never thought of. No elevators. So we packed all of our luggage (80 lb suitcase, electric bass airline case, laptop, etc, etc) up about 50 steps to get to the front door. Once we got checked in we learned this hotel had a few quirks. As I said before, it had no elevators, and poor Albert’s room was on the fourth floor. Also, you had to leave your room key with reception if you ever left the hotel presumably because they couldn’t be bothered to make duplicates or have someone at the front desk 24 hours a day. Not that you would want to take your room key with you anyway because it was chained to a key fob roughly the size of my cat.
Once we were settled in, we decided to look at the dinner menu and see what the restaurant had. All this time of eating pub food we were looking forward to a good steak, or a nice pasta dish. Or a hamburger, for crying out load. Then we saw that dinner was about $35 and you had your choice of about 5 entrees including easily-approachable dishes like goose liver pate, duck liver pate and beef liver pate. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was a terribly artsy-fartsy menu with nothing appealing. All we wanted was a plain, hearty meal THAT WASN’T FRIED! We were once again faced with going out for dinner in spite of changing hotels.
More and more it seemed the conspiring Ministry of Inducing Despondency in International Business Travelers was the only thing that could make a travel experience this miserable. I’ve traveled countless times for business all over the US and nothing even approaching the magnitude of this rotten experience had occurred. I had been vacationing in England a couple of times before this, too, and had not experienced anything like this. So it must be a phenomenon associated with business travel in England. Yes, the pieces were falling into place.
Back to dinner; we had to resort to looking in the phone book for “restaurant” and not “pub”, or “buffet”, etc. It was down to picking one at random. So we did. It ended up being a little too posh in its own right. It was very progressive, and by progressive I mean snobbish, insubstantial, vegetarian-slanted cuisine. Since I wanted more than a sprig of endive for an appetizer, I ordered a thing with chicken and pork they called a torrine. I ordered it primarily because it was the only appetizer that stated there was meat in it. Little did I know “torrine” was their snobbish word for “spam”. Nasty, nasty… the shave-your-tongue-after-eating-it-to- forget-the-experience kind of nasty… At least the pork roast I had for the main course was decent. The only really good thing we found was a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that Al, to this day, has not found an equal to. Too bad we couldn’t remember what it was called. The main problem with dinner was it took two and a half hours to get back to the hotel. That was the very thing we were trying to avoid. Nevertheless, dinner was done and it was time for bed.
Oh the beds… For starters they were roughly two feet wide. Sure I fit on it, but if I rolled too much in my sleep I would probably fall off! That wasn’t all. Have you ever had a hard time sleeping in a water bed because of the waves? Imagine sleeping on Jell-o. I swear that’s what my bed was made of. If I moved once I felt the bed jiggling for a good minute afterward. How was that even possible? This must have been some kind of advanced traveler torture technology. To say the least, it was a little hard to sleep. But fall asleep I did, eventually. In the middle of the night I woke up. My arm was freezing. It was so cold I woke up! I have no idea how cold it got in that room, but as I slept if any part of me fell out of the covers it wouldn’t take long to get so cold I woke up. I didn’t get a very good sleep that night.
Wednesday morning (12/11) started tired, but with the hope of a good, hot breakfast. We clamored down stairs and sat down. They brought us a “Traditional” breakfast. This, for some reason, includes both sautéed mushrooms and tomatoes. I wasn’t going to eat the mushrooms anyway, but they smelled bad enough to make me rue that I wasn’t asked if I wanted them on my plate (obviously, I would have said no). Oddly, thought I, the breakfast came with eggs but they never thought to ask how we would like them cooked. They came out fried. I hate fried eggs. They also served toast in a toast rack. What a stupid invention! Toast is good because it’s hot and can kind of melt the topping you put on it. Put it in a rack and in one minute and you all you have is a very cold, hard, pointy piece of bread. I fail to see what’s so appealing about that. To me it’s like spreading jam on a coaster and trying to eat it. The only less appealing form the bread took was fried. Pick a bit up and watch the oil drip out. It was practically clear! Oh, my cup runneth over. Lastly, the sausage was thoroughly burned on one side and the other side appeared to be made primarily of grease with a little meat merely thrown in for good measure. Needless to say, we were a bit disappointed.
And disappointed, we headed off for the only thing that could top a breakfast like that. Work! It was the same day I’d been having all along. Some things never change.
On the way home from work we finally decided to try checking into the only hotel ever recommended to us in York – the Marriott. We didn’t make reservations there originally because they were full every Saturday and we didn’t want to be forced to move around. However, the Ambassador was completely unacceptable. So we checked availability and we booked the Marriott for the rest of the stay (except for the coming Saturday).
To make a longer story yet even longerer, we checked into the Marriott and it was everything we had been looking for! It had a restaurant, a pub and room service! Amazing! So we checked in and went to our rooms to get ready for dinner. My elation didn’t last too long, though. The Ministry of IDIBT had been at work at this hotel, too. I had to lug my heavy bags through a couple sets of doors and down a couple flights of stairs to get to my room on the bottom floor. Why? The elevators, of course, couldn’t go to every floor in the hotel. Sigh.
There was a little compensation when I walked into my room. It was very nice! It was spacious and contained high-tech features, as hitherto unseen in any English hotels we visited, such as counters and shelves and closets! No more hanging my shirts on the walls! Yes, I had often been finding ways to hang my shirts on the walls. I was tired of literally living out of my suitcase. Deciding to test my new found good fortune I picked up the room service menu. They had a club sandwich! I had never seen any indication that the English even knew what a club sandwich was the whole time I had been there. Life was good! With this seeming increase in luck I was feeling rather excited we went to the restaurant for dinner. All we needed was good, plain-jane American hotel dinner (burger, club sandwich, chicken fettuccini, etc). When we sat down and opened the menu our hearts sank… Everything was either made from duck, had an unpronounceable French name or both. We gazed longingly across the hall into the pub.
That’s it! I was not taking this any more, especially when we were so close to, dare I say it, satisfaction! I politely told the waitress that we were not in the mood for exotic food and would prefer to head to the pub. She smiled and said that was all right, but as we were leaving she called out behind us “Enjoy your bahr snahcks” in that way that only the English can tell how much condescension was being delivered. We ignored her and moved to the pub.
Elated, we ordered something to drink and grabbed the food menu. The first thing I noticed was that that the club sandwich was not on there. When I queried the barman about it he said it was only available in room service. Figures. I opted for a burger and Al went for fish and chips (nutty guy, he still hadn’t learned). I’m convinced the Holy Grail was not in fact a cup that caught the blood of Jesus. It was a tray of excellent fish and chips. The fact that no people have pursued it more intensely, and with so little success, as the English goes to prove that. Anyway, the food met our expectations (on a scale of 10 ranking somewhere between a 4 and a 6), but at least we didn’t have to drive anywhere to be subjected to mediocrity. We could have it delivered!
All though things were not as good as we had hoped them to be, they could definitely be worse. Reflecting on The Ambassador, the breakfast we had to look forward to tomorrow couldn’t be that inedible. And on that note we headed to bed.
Thursday morning (12/12) started dark, wet and early because we were working in England. From what I had experienced there were no alarm clocks in English hotels. Alarms are all built into (and can turn on) the little TVs in each room. Every morning mine went off at 6:00 and turned the TV on. One little perk at this hotel was there was a channel that showed Start Trek: Deep Space Nine at 6:00AM. So a little routine developed for me on that first morning. What would become my daily dose of Deep Space Nine helped me get ready to face the day, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps just seeing even fictitious people daily in life-or-death struggles made me feel a little better about my own battle with the insanity of this trip. Time for breakfast! I headed out, dropped my laundry off at the front desk so it could be finished when I got back in from work, then I went on to the hotel restaurant.
I allowed myself to look forward to breakfast because of the promises made by the restaurant information found in my room: They would cook omelets! I got to the restaurant, got seated, got coffee, got a menu and met Al. I noticed they were laying a breakfast buffet (pronounce BOO-fay in York, by the way) across the restaurant. It was the same as all the other breakfasts we had seen, just self-serve. (Fried) Eggs, (fried) bread, burned/grease-soaked sausages, etc. I also notice after five minuets of us being the only customers in the restaurant and me NOT using the boofay that the waitress was not coming to take my omelet order. Bugger all! I went and found her. I managed to politely order the omelet, but not without receiving a look like I had a Welsh leek growing out of my head. There was a breakfast menu, but she seemed unable to grasp the idea that someone might actually want something in the menu that wasn’t in the boofay. At least I got my omelet, eventually, though it had that weird, chewy rasher bacon and English sharp white cheddar cheese (I like my cheddar mild and yellow). Close enough, I suppose, and off to work we went!
Work was another case of SSDD. Still no hope of going home early, so I was engaged in getting a test system up and running; the first real work I’d been given. In their warehouse I had to set up a redundant server PC system and set up SQL Server and Cimplicity to run between the servers and a couple client PCs. That would comprise the master control Graphical User Interface (GUI) of the system I was supposed to test. I’ve never really worked with computers in this manner, so I thought this would be fun and interesting. Or at least as fun as interesting as work could get while I was there.
The only down side was apparently radio stations around York are required by law to play the most irritating American pop song they can find at least once every fifteen minutes. Also, York businesses must be required by law to pipe those stations over a PA if you are working in a warehouse. I’d never heard of “Michelle Branch” before and, by the time lunch was over, I was hoping I’d never hear her again. Especially if Santana is playing with her. “The Game of Love”? After hearing that song even once I was wishing I’d lost the Game of Death.
As I unpacked all the equipment and started setting it out I noticed the servers had cool stacked, hot-swappable RAID hard drive bays. I also noted there were no actual hard drives in them. I’m no IT administrator, but I’m pretty sure it’s hard to get a computer running without a hard drive.
Naturally I looked through all the boxes in the shipment. Nothing. Where were the hard drives? I asked the project manager. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Where are the hard drives for the servers?”
PM: “The what?”
Me: “The hard drives- for the servers – I’ve looked through every box we received and I can find any. The packing list doesn’t list them either.”
PM: “Are they important?”
Me: “Important?!” [I pause to see if he’s trying to make a feeble joke, all I get is a blank stare.]
“Important? Well the OS does have to be loaded on them.”
PM: “The what?”
Let’s just say I had a difficult time retaining my composure. But I did. I managed to get a copy of the purchase order. It was quite descriptive. It gave pretty much all the hardware lowdown of the servers, but made no mention of hard drives. I did my best to give the PM all the details needed to order the right hard drives and the copies of the operating system. Yes, they had neglected to order operating systems for the servers as well. Thus I became a disgruntled computer tech for the remainder of my work there. At last the day came to an end.
On a more sinister note: I had come there to do testing. The testing had long since been delayed. That day official word came down: I was supposed to come back in January for three more weeks in spite of me telling them I would not be able to. It was a mandate. Reflecting on the England experience I had already gone through (and I wasn’t even back home yet), the idea of coming back was a little insurmountable. I stifled the heartfelt response of “f*** you!” and decided to deliberate for one day. Something else cheery to think about. And thus we headed home.
Once we were back in the hotel and settled in, I noticed my laundry hadn’t been delivered. This was a good opportunity to go to the front desk and leave an order for tomorrow’s lunch. I found a little form in my room that let you fill out a boxed lunch order, give it to the front desk and the following morning they would have a lunch ready for you. That seemed a great idea, since I was sick of the lunches at work.
I headed to the front desk with form in hand. First, I asked where my laundry was. Although I had distinctly filled the laundry form out correctly, I found only one pair of jeans (mine) hanging behind the front desk with my room number on it. Why hadn’t that been delivered? Who knows. The more pressing question was; where were the rest of my clothes?? The lady at the front desk then pulled out a bag of clean laundry and said, “Is this yours?” It was. It was conveniently labeled, in its entirety:
Wow. It’s a wonder anything ever gets done around there. Tucking clean undies under my arm I gave her the form for lunch. She asked when I wanted it ready to be picked up. We usually headed out for work at 7:30 AM. Knowing how this place goes, I wrote 7:00 AM. That way it should be ready by 7:30 when we leave. Another customer came up to the desk and started checking in. I tried to hand her the form, but she ignored me completely. Annoyed, I perched the form on the edge of the counter where it could easily be seen. I said, “I’ll just leave this right here” to illicit some response from her. She didn’t even look at me. Pondering how this could play out, I left for my room to get ready for dinner.
Always ones to press our luck, for some ungodly reason we decided to forgo room service and Al and I decided to head out to a restaurant that described itself as a “sports bar”. I think we were foolishly trying to find a decent burger and we knew what the Marriott could provide. So we headed to the lobby to ask for a taxi. I went up to the front desk to ask if they could call a taxi for us and saw my lunch form still perched on the edge of the counter where I had left it twenty minutes earlier. After she called the taxi and told us they’d be there in ten minutes, I asked if she had seen where I left the lunch order. She said she had and had already called it down to the kitchen. I didn’t believe her because she had never looked at it while I had been there earlier and it hadn’t been moved from its “easy to see – difficult to read” perched position. I let it slide.
Now we just had to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait. 20 minutes later there was still no taxi. The front desk lady had never looked at us the whole time we waited in plain view in the lobby (whether she was ignoring our plight on purpose or was just plain stupid is impossible to say). Rather than complain, we decided to at least waste someone else’s time. So we never told her to cancel the taxi. We just snuck out of the lobby hoping the idiot cabby would eventually show up and wait for a non-existent fare, not unlike how we waited for a non-existent taxi. We headed back to my room, since it was the largest.
We decided on room service so we could get a dinner before it was terribly late. I noticed the room service menu said “get it in 30 minutes, or it’s free”. Great! We ordered. Al got a burger, but I couldn’t take another one… I was so excited to get to try that club sandwich! So we turned on the TV, ordered our food and kicked back. 45 minutes later, although annoyed at not having food, I thought “at least it will be free!” So I called the front desk and explained how long we had been waiting and asked if they could clear the charge for this room service. She said she would, no problem. I thanked her. I then thought about asking about the lunch thing again, but held my tongue.
About five minutes later our food finally came! Al dug in, I whipped the top off my tray to reveal… a Marriott burger. WHAT! That was the last thing I wanted! I called room service, complained and they said they would fix it. 20 minutes later they showed up to exchange food. Almost too annoyed to enjoy the sandwich, I got ready to eat.
Let me make a side note here. Everyone knows a club sandwich can only take so many forms. It is often a two-level sandwich with a BLT over ham and turkey, or BLT & Turkey over ham and/or turkey and/or chicken. Sometimes there’s even roast beef in there somewhere. Sometime it’s one level… you get the idea. Although there are a few variations, it should fit in there somewhere.
I whipped off the food tray cover. I was looking at a two-level sandwich with a rasher-style (yuk!) BLT in the bottom and egg salad in the top! I HATE egg salad! In the name of all that is good and decent, what numbnuts came up with that idea? I was so hungry, though, I choked most of it down.
Trying not to dwell on the mounting forces of hotel-fate that seemed to be damning us, or the now near-certain existence and effort of the Ministry of IDIBT, we happily watched Thunderbirds, drank beer and wine and tried to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Such as drinking beer or wine, or watching Thunderbirds. Well maybe not Thunderbirds, but it was the best thing we could find. Which I guess is pretty sad, really. Before too long we retired wondering what the next day had in store for us.
Friday (12/13) started the same as all the rest, but soon took a disturbingly prophetic turn. On this particular morning I woke up to Star Trek DS9 only see that Miles O’Brien was captured by an alien race for some supposed crime, and thrown in prison. I don’t know for certain how long he was in there (I only get to see the first half of the show before breakfast) but it seemed to be about a couple of weeks. While imprisoned the aliens used memory implants and special mental torture devices to make his brain think he had been in prison (and terribly mistreated) for 20 years. It was compressed time torture! Now I knew what this trip had been! It was the same thing! I had only have been there 9 days, but at least the Ministry, and perhaps the entire country, employed the same devices, so that’s why it felt like I’d been there for three months! Little did I know that it was both explanative and prophetic. Though I was nearer the end of my trip, things would not change.
On that cheery note I headed down to breakfast. I irritated the waitress again by actually placing an order for an omelet (without rasher bacon) again. Although not really great (or even particularly good) it was edible and less greasy than practically all other non-bread fare. But it took a while to cook and we didn’t have that much time for breakfast. We finished up and got ready to go. Albert went out to get the car warmed up and moved while I headed to the front desk to pick up my lunch order. It was going on 7:30, so I figured they should just about have my order for 7:00 finished. I got to the front desk and asked the receptionist if she had a lunch waiting for me to pick up. She looked at me askance and said “Just one moment” and ducked into the back room. I assuming she was asking everyone else if there was a lunch order. After a couple of minutes she came back and said “It’s still in the kitchen, it’ll be done in a few moments.” I took that to mean “We just found your order and just called it into the kitchen for the first time, so they have to start making it for you before they can bring it down.”
My suspicions were confirmed when 17 minutes later a young cook came hustling in to the lobby with literally an armful of saran-wrapped items. The first words out of his mouth were “We’re out of bags.” I couldn’t help myself, I let out an exasperated sigh. He stood there for a moment and asked “should I take it back to the kitchen and get it all cling wrapped together?” I didn’t bother to point out if he thought that was the only solution that he should have done it before he came down. I replied “No, no. I’ll put it in my bag.” My laptop bag has very little free space when I’m traveling, especially for bulky items. Nevertheless I jammed in the sandwich, chips, juice box, banana, apple and candy bar into my case making it bulge out in a difficult manner. By this time the lunch was over 45 minutes late and I was late for work. Thank you, Marriott – York, you colossal jackasses! Albert marveled at the phenomenal consistency of service-incompetence this hotel displayed as we headed to work.
Work was the same. The servers were in sorry shape, but at least we got the parts ordered that we needed to get everything running. The workstations could be set up at least. That gave me something to do. After getting the workstations running it came time to discuss the prospects of my returning with the office back home. I had decided that nothing was worth this. On top of that I had many commitments outside of work each week. Delaying everything in my life for one week was hard enough, but three? Work is about number three or four on my list of life priorities. So I informed work that I would not be coming back to England and, no, I could not give them a legitimate business reason why. I would take what ever the consequences may be (though I didn’t say that). Soon the day was coming to an end, and I had a weekend to look forward to. Even if it was a weekend here.
Since we hadn’t had such good luck eating at the hotel, we decided to try for that “Sports Bar” again. Who knows, maybe we would actually get a taxi that evening? We got to the hotel, got ready for dinner and went to the front desk to ask for a taxi. I couldn’t help noticed there was a large bag of someone’s cleaned laundry lying behind the front desk. The only markings on the bag were:
Unbelievable. At least I wasn’t the only one having problems! We asked about a taxi and, in an unforeseen explosion of someone actually doing something for us, the bellhop offered to shuttle us into town. Wow!! I picked my jaw up off the floor and said that would be great! So, with the least trouble we had had that entire trip, off we went to dinner.
We wound up at “Henry J. Bean’s” and it actually looked like any generic sports bar you may have been to! It was amazing! It ended up being only about half as good as Chili’s (which makes it about 5 times better than any other place we had eaten at), but beggars can’t be choosers. We enjoyed are fairly decent American dinner! With our luck I was waiting for the food to be bad, late or, more likely, both. Or for the building to catch fire. Or for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to show up and ask of if we wanted dessert (Pestilence would probably be the one to ask). But nothing went wrong! Well about 100 loud drunk people who liked lousy techno music showed up just as we were finished and jammed the exit out of the place, but that was about it. I was so happy!
We headed for home marveling at our first evening where nothing had gone wrong and then proceeded to walk the four or so miles back to the hotel in the cold, the dark and the rain because we couldn’t find a single, lousy cab to hail. I guess there always has to be something. Well, considering everything else on the trip so far, the evening went quite well.
Saturday (12/14) came and I finally had a weekend to look forward to. I didn’t actually have to do anything. Except relocate hotels because the Marriott was full that night. Although annoying, I wasn’t worried because I made reservations at the Novatell without any troubles. Albert had to work that day so he checked out, took the car and would meet me at the new hotel later that day. Soon it was time for me to check out. The checkout went in keeping with our stay at the Marriott (and the rest of our trip). Remember that first night when we specifically didn’t eat in the restaurant (and were taunted by the waitress for doing so)? Well the first thing on the bill as I checked out was £120 (about $180) restaurant charge somehow misapplied to my bill. Nice. That wasn’t all. Remember that night when we couldn’t get a taxi and our room service dinner was late and messed up, so it should have been complimentary? Yep, charged fully for that one. Thank you again, Marriott. You suck. Everything else was in order except the phone bill was a tad higher than expected (more on that later). I managed to clear up the mischarged dinner, but I couldn’t do much about the rest. So I set off to the Novatell wondering what the rest of the stay at the Marriott would be like after we got back.
I took a taxi to the Novatell and checked in. The elevator ride up to my room ended in an interesting manner when it reached my floor then jerked to a stop with a loud BANG… I waited… and waited… then it went up a few more inches and slammed to a stop and the doors opened slowly. I exited… gratefully. On the way to the room I noticed how the whole hallway was bare, poorly lit and full of construction dust. There was no carpet, just that mottled looking foam carpet pad. This was cheery. I got into my room which had decor that reminded me of those little fenced-off children’s play areas you find in big one-stop-shopping stores. Odd…
Well, no reason to dwell on my unusual accommodations, I finally had a chance to get out and see the sites, with no other commitments or duties. I headed out to hit the streets. Even though I was just leaving, this place wasn’t done with me yet. I rode the second elevator down in lieu of the first elevator that gave me the bumpy ride. This time there was no banging. It reached the bottom and the doors opened to the site of the ground floor oscillating about a foot above and below the bottom of the elevator door for a few seconds. The oscillations slowed eventually and I got off. This wasn’t exactly filling me with confidence about hotel. I hurried and headed outside wondering if a wall might collapse on me as I left.
That weekend ended up being the only time I actually had a fair amount of fun apart from the trip to Scotland. I walked the city walls and visited the last remnant of the old castle – Clifford’s Tower. I ate lunch at a pub that had a good Yorkshire pudding, although they messed up my ale order and then wouldn’t let me pay for food and ale on the same check. Weirdoes. The Ministry is pervasive. Regardless, I was very glad I got to do something relaxing for a change.
I milled around the shopping district and bought something I had been long looking forward to: tobacco. I had always fancied the idea of going to an authentic English tobacconist and exploring the fine offering of English pipe tobacco. I envisioned a cozy shop where an older gentleman would offer all kinds of information about the various types of tobaccos.
The only shop I found was more like a 7-11 than a cozy tobacco shop. Oh well. Instead of the older gentleman, I was instead greeted by a younger girl, probably around 17 years old. I told her I was interested in learning about English pipe tobacco, to which she replied “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”. Not that I expected she did. I asked if anyone there did. She pointed to an older man who had just showed up behind one of the cigarette counters who promptly started selling boxes of cigarettes. Those transactions were quick and continual, about as charming as the exchanges between students and lunch ladies in a junior high school cafeteria lunch line. “He smokes cigarettes, but he doesn’t smoke a pipe.” she said. I resorted to reading the descriptions printed on the tobacco tins for guidance. So my romantic ideas of searching for fancy pipe tobacco wound up about as satisfying as a trip to Wal-Mart. Oh well, at least I had something to show for my efforts.
When I got back to the hotel, I decided to call to the front desk to leave a message for Al. I don’t think it’s asking too much for a hotel to provide common services, or uncommon services that they advertise (like the bag lunch at the Marriott). But leaving a message for Al at the front desk proved to be a most arduous task. What follows is a transcript of the phone conversation I had with the receptionist at the front desk.
Me: “Hello, I’d like to leave a message for my colleague who will be checking in later this afternoon.”
Recp (in a thick French accent): “Oh, yes?”
Me: “Yes. Please leave a message that says I am in room 204, and to call me after he checks in.”
Recp: “Who is this for?”
Me: “His name is ‘Pittman’ and he’ll check in later this afternoon.”
Recp: “What is his name?”
Me (slowly): “Pitt-man. P-I-T-T-M-A-N.”
Recp: “How do you spell that?”
Me (even slower): “P – I – T – T – M – A – N. Pitt – man.”
Me (even slower still): “No, ‘Pittman’ with a “P” as in Paul. P – I – T – T – M – A – N.”
Recp: “Can you spell it for me again? … I am only up to ‘T’.”
Me (eyes-wide and making violent strangling motions in the air with my hands): ” P – I – T – T – M – A – N. Pittman!”
Recp: “Uh, yes…. and … what do you want to say to him?”
Me (wild-eyed, cupping hand over phone’s mount piece, strangling phone with free hand while jumping up and down, foaming at the mouth and making noises that sound like one being strangled): “TELL HIM I AM IN ROOM 204 AND TO PLEASE CALL ME AFTER HE CHECKS IN.”
Recp: “All right. Is that all?”
Me: “Yes! Thank you!”
I then dropped the phone and let out a primal scream. It hardly seems possible…! Incidentally, Albert did call me later that afternoon after he’d checked in. Surprised, I asked if, against all odds, he had actually got my message from reception. His response – in full – was “What message?”. Figures. Just so you know, when we checked out the following morning I noticed a board with names on it behind the front desk. I noticed one name on that board was “Nr. Tittnan”. Almost not wanting to know, we enquired about it. Sure enough, it was a board listing guests’ names that has messages. We asked to see “Nr. Tittnan’s” message. You guessed it, that was my message for Albert. Will wonders never cease?
Our stay that night was actually uneventful. Nothing interesting of note, but, thankfully, nothing went drastically wrong, like a construction mishap that could have send the bed in the room above me crashing down on my head. For dinner, the mediocrity of Harry J. Bean’s was almost a comfort. It was nothing fantastic, but I felt safe there, as if no nasty surprises could find us there. And they didn’t!
We got up the next morning (Sunday the 15th), checked out, moved, and checked back in to the Marriott. That afternoon we visited the bars (gates in the castle walls) and the York Minster. The Minster was quite beautiful, really. And the only thing that went wrong that day was a local brewery we wanted to tour was closed on Sundays. Perhaps our luck had turned from “horrendous” to “indifferent”? All in all, a good day. Dinner was more somewhat-bland Marriott pub fare.
Monday (the 16th) promised another soul-crushing experience however, what with work and all. Not wanting to brave the Marriott bag lunch experience again, I managed to cram down the same lunch I had eaten almost every day so far: a chicken marsala sandwich. They really weren’t that bad except for being covered in onions strong enough to peel the paint off walls and contained what seemed like a 1/4 stick of butter slathered on the bread. Ugh… Do you butter the bread in your chicken salad sandwich? I didn’t think so. Another genius idea from the British Healthy Eating Advisory board.
The express-shipped hard drives and OS CDs came so at least I had something to distract my attention from the cuisine. I proceeded to set up a redundant SQL server system and LAN from scratch (though the whole project took a couple days). I’d never done anything like that before. So at least I wasn’t bored and nobody bothered be. If it wasn’t for the incessant din of astoundingly moronic pop music, it actually might have been approaching fun. But there was the music so there was no actual danger of having fun.
Figure 5: My First IT Project
That night we had room service again. We couldn’t get certain foods in the pub that you could get in room service. I still didn’t know why, but by this point I had stopped asking. Dinner came fine, but was interrupted by something unexpected: a power outage!
We were at the point where this kind of trouble was becoming a foregone conclusion. So what would have been annoying in normal circumstances turned out to be rather funny. In York during December the sun goes down between 3 and 4 PM. So it was very dark and difficult to eat. Eating by feel is not the most appealing of options so we turned on Al’s laptop for a light source. While eating by laptop light we were graced by the presence of the hotel staff about 20 minutes later. They apologized for the power outage and graciously made up for it by offering us a couple of tea lights.
Being bored, in a goofy mood and having fire present are not necessarily the best combination of things. The only thing I could think of was playing with the powdered non-dairy creamer sitting by the coffee maker. I asked Al if he knew that powdered non-dairy creamer was highly flammable. He said he didn’t so, of course, a demonstration was in order. We set up a candle and got a packet of creamer ready. I sprinkled the powder out a couple of feet over the candle and whooosh, it all went up it flames. What fun! Albert was keen to try it. Having never done it before, he repeated the process rather aggressively. The resulting conflagration was quite surprising and caused him to throw his arm back in an effort to retain his arm hair. This motion of follicular preservation unfortunately resulted in him dumping a good amount of non-dairy creamer right into his laptop keyboard. After that, I don’t think his keyboard ever stopped crunching when you typed on it.
And on that high note we retired to our separate rooms for our beauty sleep. A futile endeavor, I know.
Tuesday the 17th started much like the rest of the mornings: cold, dark, despondent. When watching 20 minuets of a Star Trek: DS9 rerun is one of the only high points of your day, you know things are bad.
While ‘working’ that day, my bosses from Boise called. They had one of the most generous and original propositions I had ever heard. Remember how, after being here just a few days, I requested to come home early, so I could more easily come back later? Remember how they shut me down? Well, they called and said they said he would fly me out on Thursday if it would “help me to come back” just after New Year’s… for another three weeks. Yes, deny me that very idea when it’s mine and I could make use of two more weeks at home. But when it’s their idea and they offer a whole two more days at home (at the cost of three more weeks in this hell hole) they expect me to humbly accept and then thank them for the gracious offer! Well, there was only one appropriate response.
Of course bosses don’t respond well if you vociferously cuss them out – even when their actions are just begging for it. So, through sheer willpower, I adopted a more gracious air when I responded. I tried to explain how difficult it was to clear three weeks of my life to make this first trip. I also said that if they had sent me home two weeks ago, I might have had time to re-shuffle my schedule to allow for a second trip. But as it stood there was no way I could make it back right after New Year’s Day. They weren’t happy.
Welcome to my world, butt-monkeys!
And what better way to top off a morning like that than with at least 100 playings of that aural turd “The Game of Love”. I swear, if I ever meet him, Santana’s going to get stabbed in the eye with a pen! After several hours of successfully resisting the urge to fill up my ear canals with hot-melt glue, it was time to go home.
That night something very unexpected happened. After having eaten Marriott food for many nights (and mornings) in a row, we wondered if it would be worth trying to find a different place to eat. The desire for variety overrode our common sense and we decided to search. There was a pub just across the street from the hotel. Our luck with pubs being what it was, we had never ventured over to it. That night we did. Upon entering we noticed: this place was pleasant! Nice pub atmosphere, but not smoky, not too dim, not too bright. Wonder of wonders, it was just right! They actually had a few good choices in ciders (the local beers were all these pubs had so far, and none of them matched my tastes). The ciders were ordered were pretty strong, but tasty! Imagine our surprise! Then Albert did the unthinkable. That half-mad, daffy bastard ordered the fish and chips! Hadn’t he been living in the same country I had? Hadn’t he noticed that our track record with English fish and chips had been about as successful at the Cubs’ World Series efforts? Nevertheless, he wanted to ‘try’ them. Not wanting to get my stomach pumped I opted for something else.
The meals arrived. The moment of fishy truth came I could only watch with bated breath….. crunch, crunch… …. “It’s good” he said. What??!!
Sure enough, the batter was golden, not that suspicious off-brown that you think comes from not changing the frying oil for a year. There was no fish skin in it. What a concept! No fishy smell; that was almost a first. And most of all, when you picked it up there wasn’t a puddle of grease left behind. Wow! He let me try a bite. Amazing! It was actually as good as what you can get at any decent restaurant back home! That is to say it was good, yet nowhere near approaching the best I’ve ever had.
But who cares! The “best” we’d had so far was simply “not bad“. So we considered that dinner quite a success. The fish and chips incident was so striking I no longer remember what I had. But I know it was good. We decided we would have to come back.
I headed back to my room and found a situation that explained the decent dinner in terms of “Lance’s Law of Conservation of Bad Luck in England”. It was December… in England… and my room’s air conditioning was stuck on. I called the front desk to tell them. They said they couldn’t have anyone look at it tonight, but they would be able to get someone to look at it tomorrow. Of course, they were at full occupancy so there were no other rooms for me to move to. I emotionally threw up my hands. The situation beat sleeping outside in the rain – granted, not by much – so I put up with it. I managed to get the fan set as low as it could go and the temperature as high as it could go, so it was, at least, only mild air conditioning in December in England.
Wednesday the 18th started the same, morning inspiration provided by Commander Cisco, mostly palatable breakfast ingested and off we went to work. The topic of choice, since it was now known that I wouldn’t come back was: who will come and do the testing in January? Who would want to come? Before I give the answer let me point out a few things about the project.
The project was for a Romanian power company. The project entailed developing, testing and installing a custom GE proprietary GUI for them to use to control their power system. Prior to this project I had never used our GUI development software. After the testing was done in England, the equipment needed to be shipped to their headquarters in Romania, installed and site tested. It was always thought that, ideally, the person who does the testing in England, would do the testing in Romania.
England was bad enough; I had absolutely no desire to go to Romania. But now, as I was stepping out of this project, they had to find a replacement. Who, oh who, could replace me? Well, as it happens, there was programmer at our head office in Calgary who (1) knew the GUI development software backwards and forwards (2) wanted to work on the project and (3) was Romanian. And why was I here? Because they forgot to ask him before they asked me. So now I not only had I endured the worst trip of my life, I endured it for no reason. Why was this not surprising?
We slogged our way through another day of soul-crushing drudgery: Al putting up with idiotic coworkers, me putting up with idiotic music. Somehow we found a way to make it through the day without killing ourselves or someone else. Thus, we returned to the hotel. The day looked significantly more “normal” when I returned to my room only to find that no one had looked at my air conditioning problem. I called the front desk and they gave the same answer as yesterday: “Sorry… no one tonight… someone tomorrow… no open rooms… good luck”. They didn’t even offer a space heater, extra blankets or anything that might have helped.
Oh, yeah? That’s it, I’d had enough of that sort of thing. So, á la Sgt. Slaughter in G.I. Joe’s “Arise, Serpentor, Arise” I took the HVAC unit and thermostat to task with fingernails and what ever else I could get my hands on. I tore that whole thing apart looking for something to mess with.
Figure 6: HVAC Battle – Scene 1
Figure 7: HVAC Battle – Scene 2
Unfortunately, I was powerless to fix anything. At least tearing the system apart, mostly with my bare hands, was a cathartic experience. I put it back together, lest they charge me money for trying to fix something they couldn’t even be bothered to look at. We didn’t feel like going out so I just ordered in again (yawn) but at least “For a Few Dollars More” was on the TV. That was enough distraction to help me forget about my worries for one evening and, with that, I headed to bed.
Thursday the 19th, thankfully, brought me one day closer to getting home. Another day, another Branch-Santana induced migraine. The highlight of this day was, in and of itself, a good one. I received word that my Romanian colleague had agreed to do the testing in January and any other testing, as required by the customer. All that was left to do now was chew my toenails and wait for the day to end.
That night we celebrated eeking through one more day by going back to the pub we had just two nights earlier for dinner. I ordered the fish and chips that night, too. A few ciders later and the evening was a success. We would actually pull this off at get home! Off to bed with the promise of only one last [insert favorite scatological phrase here] day before beginning the trek home.
Friday, December 20, started like all others. Spiritual fortification provided by Cisco/Odo/Bashir/O’Brien? Check. Surly waitress in the dining room during breakfast? Check. One difference, though? Today we got to checkout! Ready to bid this wonder of bizarre inhospitality known as the Marriott – York adieu, we went to the front desk. There was one fun thing about checking out. With glee, and ruminating on GE keeping us locked away in this asstacular situation, we reviewed the phone bills. Oh, the phone bills! GE refused to provide cell phones for us, so we used the hotel phones to call home each night. At £4.75 per minute (that was just under $8 per minute at the time) we racked up some pretty impressive charges. Al won the contest, hands down, for most spent on a single call ($450) and most spent on total phone charges ($1,600).
Take that, The Man!!
Work was pretty much a blur because I was focused solely on making it home. I got the system ready for testing, as much as I could, and left all the pertinent information to my replacement. At the end of the day, it was time to begin our trek home.
Not wanting a two hour drive from York to the Leeds airport before our Saturday morning flights at 7:00 AM, we decided to stay at a hotel in Leeds that night. We had made reservations a few days ago. With much gladness and bravado we headed out of that office – never to return – and made our way to Leeds.
Things, of course, couldn’t continue on a positive note. Again, as mandated by the Ministry, we couldn’t simply get to the hotel. The ministry had arranged for either 1.) the hotel advertisements and staff to deliberately provide incorrect driving directions, or 2.) the airlifting and relocation of the entire hotel that afternoon without the staff or guests being made aware of it.
I still can’t figure out which it was, but I’m sure it was one of those two. When we finally arrived and tried to check in they informed us they were temporarily not taking credit cards. Of course! Further mandates from the Ministry, no doubt. Well we didn’t have cash and, no, none of the staff knew where an ATM was. With much “I’m-fed-up-with-this-and-I’m-making-you-do-things-my-way- and-I-don’t-care-that-this-is-how-you-think-Americans-would-behave-anyway” insistence, we convinced them to record our credit card information and just charge us whatever they liked whenever they were processing credit cards again. With that we headed up to our rooms.
Thinking the worst was behind us (do we never learn?) we prepared to just relax for our final night there. We headed down to the pub for dinner. The Ministry had left no stone unturned in this hotel; therefore the beer selection was meager, nay – bad. A “pub” with only two paltry bitters on draught to choose from is not a pub! In addition, to put it kindly, the food was phenomenally bad. Perhaps not as bad as the truck-stop fish and chips, but close enough. What a fitting epitaph for a trip of this kind! But the end was in sight, so we didn’t have to dwell on this! All that remained was a good night’s sleep and a day of flying; then the sweet embrace of home would gather us in!
I retired for the evening, showered in a shower that I swear was a converted broom closet, only it was not as roomy as you would expect if you converted a broom closet into a shower, then I headed off to bed. I’m sure Al finished up his evening by racking up another $400 phone call home. Good man.
Just one last night of sleep… Sleep? Did I say sleep? The Ministry wouldn’t be doing their jobs if that happened! They carefully arranged 1.) a raging party in the hotel ballroom that was apparently a gathering of “Insomniacs-That-Wish-to-Go-Deaf-by- Listening-to-Pop-Hits-of-the-Late-80s-at-a-Level-of-at-Least-120dB Anonymous” 2.) That only one room in the entire hotel be built right over said ballroom 3.) That the bedroom floor be constructed of the most sound-permeable material known to man and 4.) That I be given that room to sleep in.
I swear the only reason my foot didn’t fall through the floor was the tensile strength of the carpet. The repeated playing of Billy Ocean’s “Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car” succeeded in crushing my will to where I couldn’t even complain anymore. And, as anyone who knows me can attest to, that’s saying a lot. Perhaps something akin to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or at least Concurrent Traumatic Stress Disorder, paralyzed me in bed like a catatonic zombie. I honestly wondered if death would be all that bad. Thankfully, eventually, my body did its best to approximate that condition and I didn’t so much drift asleep to the Fine Young Cannibals as pass out from sheer exhaustion in spite of them.
Regardless of much work done by humanity to the contrary, morning came. Groggily, I dragged myself out of bed not looking forward to navigating through some 20 hours of international travel on two hours of sleep with Bobby Brown songs stuck in my head. But I had no choice. I would either get home or die trying. And, at this point, that sounded like a win-win scenario.
We headed out to start the long trek home. We actually made it to the airport without incident. Hertz Rental Car was none-the-wiser to the blown out tire and trashed rim I left them in the trunk of that ridiculous Mondeo (see Figure 3). Huzzah! We got checked in and through security without any strip searches, either. How very uncharacteristic! Perhaps things were looking up?
We started making our way to the gates. It was an odd moment. Al and I had separate flight plans home, so we were not leaving Leeds on the same plane, or even the same concourse. So, after all we’d been through in the past few weeks, it was time to part ways. It was not fun suffering though the past few weeks, but the old adage “misery loves company” is quite right. The only reason I didn’t loose my mind on this trip was having someone like Al to share in the experience with. It didn’t seem right to brave the last legs of travel without him. But life does not work that way so it was time to each head in our own direction.
I’ll never forget the feeling of that parting. It should have been no big deal because we’d see each other back in the office in one or two days, but still, for some reason, it was poignant. At that moment I was leaving the only other human on the planet that had been through what I’d been through. This was the truly the only person who knew I was not insane and knew I did not imagine this trip where truth was stranger than fiction. …See you in Boise, man…
I got on the plane, which surprisingly left on time, for that sunny destination – that place everyone wants to go for layovers: Newark, NJ. Just because I set foot on US soil, the travel gods were not going to let me get off that easy. They took over once I was outside the jurisdiction of the Ministry. Somehow they managed to hide Customs in the Newark airport, then remove all the signs that guide you there, except for two. And those they placed to sadistically lead you in the wrong direction and out of the security area.
A few curt conversations with airport police and TSA personnel got me pointed in the right direction for Customs, if earning me some ire from those bastions of authority. At that point, as long as I didn’t get arrested I didn’t care what they thought of me. I was quite exhausted from lack of sleep and toting my heavy luggage approximately 17 miles further than was needed, but at least the music from last night had stopped rattling through my head. I found my way through Customs and on to the next domestic leg, to Denver, where I would connect to my last flight – to home.
The usual travel drudgery ensued, but thankfully no major incident marred the remainder of the trip. I arrived home, spirit crushed and dog-weary, very late on Saturday December 21, 2002. The weather was cold but I was greeted with by wife’s warm smile and hug.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I wanted to end this tale on a happy note, but the pain didn’t exactly stop once I exited the airport on that cold Boise night. The remaining nonsense was the result of GE being GE.
By now you already know, after a mere two days of being in England it was apparent I wasn’t needed and I asked to be sent home so I could return to do the tests later. If I couldn’t be sent home I couldn’t return later. They refused to send me home. You’ll then recall how, as the time to go home approached, they asked to send me home “early” (a whopping two days before my originally scheduled return trip) so that I could come back later for the test. I refused, reminding them of the first conversation. That refusal to return motivated them to find a Romanian GE GUI developer to test this GE GUI for a Romanian power company, whom they should have pursued in the first place. I’d say that was a win-win situation, but no. This is GE we’re talking about. Let me give you a little background about GE.
GE is Satan’s jockstrap. Really. They are the antithesis of anything good and holy. When my company was bought out by GE, they graced us with mandatory participation in a truly lousy GE Finance pension plan and pay cuts. Yes, pay cuts. Let me explain: The way our salaries were originally calculated, as they are at most places, is you were hired at so many dollars per year. A year is 52 weeks so dividing your salary by 52 can give you a weekly figure.
So GE bought our company and said: “Yes, you make X dollars a year, but a year is really 52.2 weeks, not 52 weeks”. So you divide X by 52.2, not 52 to get a weekly salary. Now granted this isn’t a huge amount of money (if you made $45k per year, which I didn’t, that would amount to them shorting you about $180 over the course of the year before taxes). But it’s the principle of the thing that demonstrates the true GE culture: Money is what matters and employees are an expendable resource to be used to earn that money.
Another great example of this mentality is their employee performance review system. They call it something euphemistic like “Benchmark Review”, but really it should be called “Process we can use to squeeze blood from stones”. It’s quite simple, really.
The annual reviews, which are the only way you can get raises, are conducted as follows: All employees are evaluated according to their peers in their department. Though it’s negotiable through management, it is very strongly encouraged, down to the lowest level of management, that all people in a team be evaluated and fit to a curve where 20% of those evaluated shall be top-rated (making them eligible for larger raises, and eligible for bonuses), 70% shall be middle-rated (making them eligible for smaller raises, and eligible for bonuses) and 10% shall be bottom-rated. The bottom-rated folks are disallowed from any bonuses or wage changes (even cost-of-living adjustments) until their next review. Incidentally the annual reviews are required by GE management to be done at least once every 18 months. Sound odd? Nomenclature aside, you can see by permitting annual reviews to occur within an 18 month window they can drag their feet about paying employees more.
This idiotic idea could only have been developed by a CEO and, surprise, surprise, that’s just where it came from. Remember how I said GE’s culture was “Money is what matters and employees are an expendable resource to be used to earn that money.” This proves it. No one who thinks of employees as fellow human beings could come up with this idea. Every year 20% of your team will get more money then the rest of the team and 10% (no matter how good, diligent or hardworking they are) will get no money if they fail to out perform their coworkers. If you manage to work hard and avoid falling into that 10% bottom-rated group, next year they expect you to work that much harder. If you beat your coworkers once you had better do it again (and they are probably trying to beat you).
That environment is not human. The only way to succeed is to work yourself to death or to smear or sabotage coworkers. It makes perfect sense, then, why a CEO came up with it. That is how he succeeded (most likely by the “work is your life” way, not the “sabotage” way), so he will impose it on everyone else regardless of their lives.
Needless to say my group was no different when it came to these evaluations. My group was small enough that only one person in it each year needed to be sacrificed to the GE Review gods. After the England incident, my refusal to accept that preposterous “come home early” offer bumped me right to the front of the bottom-rated queue. After enduring that Yorkshire hell, I was evaluated two weeks later as not being a team player; as someone who wouldn’t step up and take the initiative; as someone who refused to take on further project responsibilities. Thus, as a direct result of volunteering for this trip (and volunteering was a favor to management already) I was deemed the bottom-rated performer in my group.
I honestly didn’t mind too much. The dubious honor of bottom-rated performer was seen, by those of us who were still human, as refusal to kowtow to corporate greed and self-importance. And this dubious honor was normally bestowed on one guy in our group. He was smart. He was fun. He was also a smartass and stubborn to boot. You can guess most of us found him hilarious and he incurred the wrath of management regularly. He thought what we all thought but he was too stubborn to keep his mouth shut, which we loved him for – and not just because his visibility kept us off the bottom-performer list. So I took one for the team; one for him. I gave him one year in the four we had worked there together up to that point where he would get one lousy raise.
Though the pain of the trip and evaluation subsided, the pain from working for GE did not.
When I was hired I was hired at exactly the national average for newly-graduated engineers. After five and a half year of hard work, sweat and a lot of heart ache I managed to get three raises. At that point I was making $5000 per year less that the average engineering graduate getting his first job. I had increased my income by 10% in 5.5 years, which means, when you factor inflation in, I pretty much didn’t increase it at all.
After five and a half years, the ominous word came: they were going to shut the office down. “Due to lack of sales, the Boise office of GE will be shut down and all technical and administrative staff laid off”. It was GE right up until the end. They say they’re shutting the office down due to lack of sales, but who are the only people not getting laid off? Yes: the sales team. Go figure! Not that I wanted them laid off. It was just borderline “too much irony” – even for GE!
So I call my best friend, Ben, with the news. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Hey, it’s me. What’s up?”
Him: “Not much. Just working. What’s new with you?”
Me: “They just announced the office is being closed down. I’m getting laid off!”
Him: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!” [He laughed for quite a while.]
Eventually I made my way downtown to meet my wife as she left work (which I never do). She came out of the building sort of surprised to see me. Especially when I had a big grin on my face.
“Guess what?” I said with a smile.
“You got laid off?” she asked.
We both laughed for some time.