Essential Tips for the Business Traveller

It’s been over a year since I last earned a wage and started my new career as a stay at home dad. For reasons which I have detailed in previous blog posts, this transition has been mostly a positive one but there are definitely things I do miss about my time in financial services. Right near the top of the list is the frequent trips abroad and the opportunities to “see the world” that this brought with it. You see all of the customers / companies in my portfolio were international clients, so travelling was a large part of my job. Now this had its downsides, particularly when it came to early morning flights. I could never quite warm to setting my alarm at silly AM for a 6am take-off slot, but it also meant that I got to visit some pretty wonderful places. Without my job, I would never have gotten to discover a number of wonderful European cities e.g. Milan, Stockholm and Munich (a brief stopover in the hauptbahnhof while inter-railing as a student didn’t really count) and I never would have gotten to know London as a second home. So I have put together a few essential tips for the business traveller from my journeys on behalf of the banking sector.

When in Milan:

  • Do leave yourself enough time to visit the wonderful Duomo and the various 19th century shopping arcades / galleria in the nearby vicinity. Also get a window seat on the plane as the view over the alps is quite stunning.
  • Don’t assume that the airport from which you are departing (there are two in Milan) is nearby and doesn’t require any research beforehand! €180 for a taxi fare remains my all-time record and that was after the taxi driver gave me a €5 discount as I simply didn’t have any more cash. The train service is much more reasonably priced as I subsequently learned, a fact that was repeatedly mentioned by my boss upon submitting my expense claim.

When in Munich:

  • Do remember that Oktoberfest actually starts in September and therefore it is likely to take much longer to move around the place due to the excess of lederhosen and dirndl! Do sample some of the local pretzels while sauntering around the Town Hall and Marienplatz.
  • Don’t (once your meeting is over) decide that it would be a good idea to walk from the company premises (which happen to be in a business park on the outskirts of town) all the way into the city centre as you may end up walking through a red light district (although the offers of cheap oriental massages did seem tempting at the time). I have long had the tendency to travel on foot whenever possible (well before Greta Thunberg came along) as a I have always found it is the best way to get a sense of a place and Munich seemed be all about leather, latex and the aforementioned massages! Also don’t get into the wrong section of a train that divides into two and be left helpless as you watch the carriages bound for the airport disappear over the horizon. Plane home duly missed and night spent in cheap hotel at London Heathrow instead of cosy warm own bed!

When in Stockholm:

  • Do give yourself enough time to walk around the old city city down by the harbour which is simply stunning, particularly on a warm summer day. The combination of boats and the colourful buildings is a sight to behold.
  • Don’t check-in your suit along with your baggage so that British Airways can lose it somewhere around Heathrow and you have to turn up at a very formal business presentation in polo shirt and jeans. Then as you are the only person not in a suit, the CEO making the presentation quickly spots you and suddenly you become a topic (maybe even the topic) in the company’s presentation about information retrieval! Also don’t take a mouthful of pickled herring at the lunchtime buffet no matter how hungry you are, yuk! In my defence I thought it was some sort of chicken, must have had a blocked nose!

When in Madrid:

  • Do travel on the metro which is perhaps the cleanest underground rail service I have ever encountered.
  • Don’t assume that when you ask your taxi driver to bring you to the royal palace that you will be dropped somewhere near the residence of King Felipe. It turned out he thought that we said the Palace Hotel (so much for my Inter Cert Spanish) which is about 2km away and quite a trek in the Iberian sun.

When in Paris:

  • Do simply enjoy the fact that you are in the most beautiful city in the world, even if you are dealing with the potential liquidation of a company which has been in existence since the time of Louis XIV and the unions are about to kick off about the negative impact of foreign banks in a domestic French matter!
  • Don’t assume that the train journey from Charles de Gaulle airport to the city centre will be a pleasant experience. The RER line B is many things and goodness knows the traffic around Paris’ famed ring road makes it a necessary evil, but the Heathrow Express it is not. So be prepared for being crushed against fellow travellers, buskers singing La Vie En Rose very badly and the odd pick-pocket. I have known locals to splutter in astonishment when showing my return rail ticket to the airport!

When in London:

  • Do keep moving on the multitude of escalators and travellators around the place. I often think there are two types of people in the world (i) those who walk on travellators who I consider to be normal and sane humans and (ii) those who do not, for whom I believe there is a specific circle of hell set aside. Just keep walking for goodness sake.
  • Don’t become so familiar with the rail routes in from the various airports, be it the Heathrow Express or the Docklands Light Rail, that you come to regard fellow travellers as a nuisance who are stealing your rightful seat.

So I recognise this is probably not the most exhaustive of lists but I hope it gave you a flavour of how I viewed my travels and travails around Europe. Hopefully I’ll get to view these places in a more relaxed manner in the future!

Irish Theme Parks; Compare and Contrast

As the Summer holidays headed towards their conclusion I suddenly realised that the list of “must do” items which the boys had put together at the start of July was lacking a number of “ticks” in the completed column. That’s not to say we hadn’t been busy, hey every day with four kids is busy in my book, but we just hadn’t travelled far beyond a 500 metre radius from our house as often as the kids would have liked. Well I say if you can’t find joy in the Botanic gardens and Glasnevin cemetery, then there is no hope for you! The boys didn’t exactly agree and demanded trips to Clara Lara fun park and Tayto Park within the space of a week or they would be giving me (and my first summer as a stay at home Dad) a less than favourable review when they got back to school!

For those of you not familiar with Clara Lara and /or Tayto Park, I will give you a quick initial guide to each. Clara Lara is an Irish institution and has been around for more years than I care to remember. I can even recall going there on a primary school trip and falling off one of the numerous rope swings into one of the freezing cold pools / ponds / lakes that abound the “attraction”. Tayto Park on the other hand, is a more recent arrival on the scene and has morphed from a mini challenger to Dublin Zoo into an all singing all dancing american style theme park complete with roller coasters, high wire adventure zones and queues, lots and lots of queues.

Clara Lara was first up and the initial signs weren’t promising and by signs I mean the dirty big black cloud which hung in the sky as soon as we started our drive into the Wicklow mountains on the outskirts of Dublin where the park is located. Let me say that the inhabitants of the Wicklow mountains are renowned for a certain requirement for sanctuary, whether it be the holy men of Glendalough or criminals trying to evade the Guards! Thankfully Clara Lara seems to be quite aware that it is constantly running the gauntlet of the Irish weather for they have placed wooden huts (some are even raised off the slightly sodden ground) all around the park so that the paying customers can keep their stuff and most importantly their spare clothes dry. For Clara Lara you see is primarily about water, lots and lots of healthy Wicklow mountain water, sure there are a few other bits and pieces around like the crazy golf, a zip line, etc, but it is really all about splashing about whether it be on water slides, in kayaks, in row boats or the aforementioned rope swings (did I mention that there are a lot of them).

The weather was nicer for our trip to Tayto Park although this and the fact that we chose a UK bank holiday meant that the place was mobbed. There were so many Tyrone and Armagh jerseys around that you could have been forgiven for thinking that you had just arrived in Clones on Ulster Final day. To our credit we had anticipated crowds so we had made sure to be at the gates at the very second they opened. First we headed for the big attractions, Viking Voyage, a splash water coaster which had terrified Lochlan (8) on our previous visit (to his credit he went for it again this time round) and then onto the Cu Chulainn roller coaster which were both enjoyed (although the former did leave me with a wet bum for the rest of the morning which wasn’t great), while queues were less than half an hour. But then we made the fatal mistake of stopping at a playground (goddamn those pesky kids and their need for some unscripted fun) and we never really got back on top of the queuing situation.

In comparing the two I would say that the boys enjoyed both equally but for parents (we travelled with friends on both occasions albeit with a larger group in Clara Lara), or at least from my own point of view, Clara Lara was far more user friendly. In Clara Lara it was possible to set up a base and while the kids might wander off anywhere, they would always know where they could return to, this is simply not possible in the much larger and much more crowded Tayto Park. That’s not to say that Clara Lara wasn’t busy, including a very large hurling team from Kilkenny (how did we know they were a hurling team from Kilkenny, well because they kept their hurls with them at all times as if they were surgically attached!) and Oscar (6) did become slightly disorientated at one point but I quickly found him by one of the aforementioned rope swings. For clarification’s sake and before social services are called, Ella (2) remained with me at all times and was not given license to roam like the others. Clara Lara was also considerably cheaper and had the added bonus of not being absolutely jam-packed with high in salt and / or sugar food outlets which definitely couldn’t be said for Tayto Park. Last but not least, while Clara Lara did have its fair share of wasps it didn’t have anywhere near as many as Tayto Park (see the above comment re availability of sugar).

On a side note the availability of wet suits (God bless you Lidl and /or Aldi, we can’t remember which) was also key to the boys enjoyment of Clara Lara where the water temperature wasn’t quite the same as that which we had experienced in our Brittany camp-site pool earlier in the summer. I mean if I had a wet suit when I was younger maybe I wouldn’t have dreaded those trips to multiple west Kerry beaches.

As a closing comment in my opinion the best thing about Tayto Park is usually the World of Raptors show where you can get up close with stunning birds of prey such as eagles, owls and vultures. However this time the show was cut short when the Bald Eagle on display made a run / flight for it. He must have been getting fed up with the wasps and the queues also!!

 

Les Vacances part 2

Week 2 and the kids had started to call our 3 bedroom mobile home / cabin “home”! I think Ella (2) actually believed that we had permanently changed residence. When are we going home they cried as we visited another historic, well-kept and pretty Breton town. Mommy and Daddy had grown tired of sitting around by the pool and the waiting for the kids club to finish so in week 2, excursions became the norm rather than the exception.

Despite the fact that I had spent numerous holidays in this region as a kid, I have no recollection of the really picturesque towns in Morbihan such as Quiberon and Auray, although the numerous sailboats of La Trinite-sur-mer did induce a mini Proustian moment of recollection (definitely was bored there as a youth!). I do remember visiting Vannes and not being impressed by it, whereas this time around it appeared to be a nice mid sized town with an impressive pedestrianised old town, complete with medieval parade on the day we visited. We tried to convince the boys that the parade was just for us but they weren’t buying it.

I must say that Brittany seems to have really gotten behind tourism as a way to bring visitors and by extension cash into the region. Plenty of artisinale this and organic / bio that. Everything clean with tours (mostly in the form of road bound trains) and parks by the dozen. There is a great emphasis on local products and nowhere is this more visible than in the many La Trinitaine biscuiteries (fancy biscuit shops to you and me) around us. Now I had a vague idea that Breton biscuits were a thing, but not to the extent that La Trinitaine has turned into the French equivalent of Starbucks in expansion mode! Just to explain, La Trinitaine was founded in the 1950s in the aforementioned La Trinite-sur-mer. It become famous for its cigarette biscuits, you know the ones that look like a cross between a sea shell and a spliff, and commonly found stuck into the tops of ice creams. From there, it has morphed into an organisation with 46 shops that produces 11,500 tonnes of biscuit a year. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about La Trinitaine is that it has become a beacon for Breton produce so if you enter one of their stores, in addition to the multitude of biscuits, you’ll be confronted with Breton cider, Breton fish soup, Breton crepes, Breton, well you get the jist. Safe to say that it was a one stop shop for all our homecoming present needs!

On a more philosophical note, why is it that the first week of a fortnight’s holiday seems to last forever while the second week goes past in the blink of an eye? Is it because even I can become tired of going down a water slide at breakneck speeds everyday, like an aqua junkie, do I need a bigger kick, should it be longer, higher, faster? Is it because during the first week of the holiday you load up the fridge, while in the second week you become aware of the pressing and quite Irish requirement to eat everything in the fridge, hey there is nothing wrong with a Camembert and blue cheese sandwich covered in dijonnaise! Is it because you have exhausted your collection of €1 coins so the boys can only hover around other kids racing motorbikes in the camp-site arcade and look at you with downtrodden puppy dog eyes? Or is it simply because that phrase “this time next week we’ll be back in Dublin!” hangs over you like a cloud in the otherwise clear perfectly blue Breton skies.

I’m really going to miss Brittany. I did have some reservations about this trip and the prospect of the 6 of us being in such a confined space for a fortnight, but the weather has been excellent and camp-site holidaying is better than I remembered it. Even taking the boys for pony rides wasn’t the pain I had expected (I’m deeply distrustful of horses and also a bit allergic). In typical French manner, once we paid we were left to our own devices with the ponies. We were given a suggested route and told how to hold the bridle and then ushered on our way with a gallic wave. Being the dutiful sort, we followed the route to a T (well apart from the time Niki let the pony eat some grass “off track” and he quickly deduced that she was a pushover), but could have headed to Paris and enrolled in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for all the pony owner cared!! Most importantly the kids loved Brittany. Sure, they didn’t drink any milk because they didn’t like the taste and their diet consisted of more pizza and chips than it had in the previous 6 months, but they want to go back next year and suggested we book while we were on the ferry home.

I have previously written of my love for Paris but now I think that amour can be extended to France as a whole. The bread and pastries are great, the hypermarches are fantastic, the weather is for the most part a lot better than back home and the cheesy music is exceptional. Every evening the camp-site would host a mini-disco for kids which included not one, not two, not three, not four but five songs with intricate dance routines. I think I looked forward to that more than the boys did, “hurry up with your ice creams there lads or we’ll miss the start of Danse de la Pingu!”.

So it is definitely a case of merci and au revoir France.

Les Vacances Part 1

Ah the big family summer holiday. So much preparation, so much expectation, so much time with mommy around to help with the kids! This year, after a break of three years we had decided to return to France. I think the boys would have kept on going to Killarney indefinitely but Niki in particular wanted to improve the odds of seeing the sun so we had decided on a two week camp-site holiday in Brittany.

Our previous trips to France had involved less kids, longer journeys south (this being related to the first point) and holiday rentals with friends. They had also involved the ferry departing from Rosslare so it was a bit discombobulating to stare at the Bull Wall and Dollymount beach from the top deck of our ferry as we began our journey south, with Dublin being Irish Ferries new starting point. The crossing itself was a calm one although I (being a very bad sea traveller) kept on imagining the ship moving up and down even before we had left the port! The best that can be said for the sleeping arrangements was that we all got some level of sleep although I would never recommend the six in a cabin approach (I think we broke the world record for the number of times saying “be quiet” in an 8 hour period). Niki woke up early the next morning to say how badly she had slept but was quickly berated by four of us for her loud snoring during the night (Ella remained strategically quiet on the matter).

The first thing we noticed when we got to France was the heat. The car thermometer immediately headed towards 30 degrees and didn’t budge for the rest of the day. This was quite a relief for yours truly as I had pushed hard for Brittany despite having first hand knowledge of how erratic the weather can be from my own childhood holidays. A fortnight listening to rain on the metal roofed mobile home would not have been fun. The 4 hour drive to Carnac went smoothly with Niki taking up her customary role as driver and me as navigator (basically confirming that the sat nav was correct and handing out sweets to those in the back). We did switch for one hour of the drive but my slightly more gung-ho approach to the numerous French roundabouts had Niki quickly suggesting that we return to our original positions.

We made it to La Grande Métairie in Carnac just as “rush hour” traffic was kicking in i.e. plenty of campervans on a narrow road. I had been to La Grande Métairie twice as a youngster so it was with a fondness that I spotted the alignements again just outside the campsite. These standing stones or menhirs for Asterix and Obelix fans are the main tourist attraction in the Carnac area. Our three bed mobile was a bit cramped but we quickly realized that the covered decking outside would in fact become our most used “room” and added significantly to our space. We had planned an early night but the noise from the soirée in the camp bar (they still love their cheesy dance songs in France) kept us all up until close to midnight which the boys loved and the adults just about tolerated.

The next morning we were faced with the cool empty shelves of our new accommodation so there was only one thing for it, L’Hypermarché!! I love hypermarkets, I remember being astounded as a child that you could buy car tyres and bread in the same shop! I still have the same sense of wonder but now it is mainly focused on the cheeses, so many cheeses and only 2 weeks to eat them!! It’s also a good place to legitimately lose the family for five minutes of quiet time, oh a free crepe sample, merci beaucoup! We loaded up on €200 of top French produce (Niki had pillow cases on top of her list, Lochlan an inflatable stingray, Ella a pain au chocolat, Aaron & Oscar icecreams and I was only allowed 5 types of cheese) and made our way back to the camp site.

La Grande Métairie has been significantly upgraded since my last visit and in particular, the addition of water slides and a lazy river has been a real bonus. There are lifeguards near the water slide but let’s just say it’s no coincidence that laissez-faire is a French word. You’d want to be trying something pretty Evel Kneivel-esque for those boys (and girls) to get involved. At one point Lochlan was about to head down backwards on his back before I grabbed him. This level of enjoyment has meant daily visits to the pool are the very least of the boys’ requirements. While this is great on many levels, I had not been prepared for the amount of sun cream this would involve. Being married to a true Irish freckled cailín means that we are extra careful with the kids and we need a good half an hour each day set aside to it. Oscar seems particularly aggrieved at this, maybe because he senses that he wouldn’t look out of place in a Swedish travel brochure. I also grumble occasionally but honestly my skin has never been so moisturised in my life as a result of the sun factor regime!

Otherwise the week has flown by with the experience being generally positive. Although there have a few standout peculiarities along the way, such as why Aaron didn’t specify the difference between feeling sick and feeling like he was about to get sick (vomit in a mobile home is not pleasant), my puzzlement at what smurf flavor ice cream tastes like (in Quiberon the kids went with all the plain and normal flavors much to my dismay) and the look of disdain and disgust the creperie waiter gave us when we asked if his chocolate crepes contained Nutella! Ah France, never stop being French! Really looking forward to another week of it!

Paris Je T’Aime!

I have recently returned from a lovely long weekend in Paris with my wife and two year old daughter and it moved me to try and express my affinity for that great city. Having spent a year on Erasmus studying in Paris, it is the place on this planet, apart from my home town of Dublin, that I am most familiar with. Furthermore on the fateful night that I first met my beloved I had been struggling to find my mojo in the chat-up department when I mentioned the special place in my heart for Paris, suddenly her eyes lit up and the rest as they say is history.

Although I must say that Paris has not always been so good to me. My first trip there was as a teenager on a camping holiday with my parents (already I can hear warning bells). Camping in Paris is not something that has much of a following (unless you are down and out along the quays of the Seine) but I can confirm that there is a camp-site in Maisons Lafitte which is about six RER / train stops from the Arc de Triomphe. I can also confirm that there was a dog in the local camp-site bar who liked nothing more than to nip /bite Irish teenagers when a goal was scored during the Euro football tournament but the less said about that the better!

A more significant and entirely more satisfying trip to Paris occurred in the summer of 1994 when I travelled “sans parents” but “avec beaucoup d’amis” to the city of light in search of part-time work, adventure, enlightenment, and a certain je ne sais quoi! The stories from those six weeks could probably fill an entire novel (think of a coming of age tale involving the destruction of a pretty apartment with a lot of Bob Dylan vinyl LPs) so I will keep it to the bare bones. What impressed me first was the sheer scale of the place, from provincial Dublin I had arrived in a true capital of the world. Then there was the uniformity of everything, Baron Haussman did a great job when he designed all those boulevards back in the day and it is a great legacy. Into this grandeur and heat we arrived as doe-eyed innocents but left as hommes (or at least slightly wiser youths). Paris welcomed us with open arms and we consumed it all, from the noxious smells of Chatelet Les Halles on a sweltering summer day to the idyllic calm of the fountains in Palais Royal, from singing Beatles songs to an assorted crowd on the Champs de Mars to being maced by a vagrant on the Quai d’Orleans (even the vagrants in Paris have weaponry). We took in the full experience and lapped it up. Even when things were bad and they did occasionally get a bit too real like when a friend was questioned by the gendarmes for selling sandwiches without a license to taxi drivers (hey somebody had to pay our rent while the rest of us were having adventures, thanks Barry), or when the locals ran us off their territory for trying to sell water to the other tourists (that’s one cooler box we never got back). We just endured it because we were living life and besides, we were doing it in the most beautiful city in the world. Also we were at that stage of our life when sleep was an afterthought so quite often we would be found wandering the arrondissements in the early hours of the morning almost always with some cheap French wine or 1664 beer in our hands and almost always ending up at Pere Lachaise cemetery, which was right beside our accommodation (10 people in a one bed apartment). Exchanging tales near Moliere, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaff and Oscar Wilde, there’s your fantasy dinner party guests right there!

Two years later I returned to study, improve my French and re-acquaint myself with pastis du vin (think the French equivalent of Buckfast). While I wasn’t actually studying in the centre of Paris, every spare moment would be spent taking the half hour train ride into the Champs Elysees. I loved walking (and still do) or cycling along its entire length, from the majesty of the Arc at one end through the glitz of the high-end shopping and eateries (and the obligatory McDonalds), through the greener section by the Grand Palais down to the traffic chaos of the Place de la Concorde. In more recent times I was fortunate enough to visit Paris on the one day of the year when the Champs is pedestrianised and that was even more fun. This was a less intense time than my previous visit, mainly because I had more cash and therefore I didn’t have to deny myself food for a few days in order to afford a value meal in Quick! I also managed to find myself a girlfriend and really enjoyed walking hand in hand around the Quartier Latin or Place des Vosges (although not as much as I enjoyed doing it with my wife more recently!).

And what about the Parisians you may ask and their notorious arrogance. Well apart from the odd outburst on the metro or occasional incorrect directions, I have to say that Parisians are a pretty pleasant bunch (particularly once they realise you are not English). I have even found that this bonhommie has only increased on the more recent occasions when I have brought my kids with me. Indeed on my most recent trip, a Parisian gentleman at the table beside us in our restaurant made an elaborate crane (the bird not the building facilitator) for Ella (my two year old). It even flapped its wings when you pulled its tale.

Of course Paris has been further cemented in my good books by the fact that I witnessed both of Ireland’s recent rugby Grand Slams while in Paris purely by coincidence. This almost wipes from my memory the sad and sorry tale of the 2007 rugby world cup which I also took in at first hand at the Parc des Princes and Stade de France.

So now I try to get an excursion to Paris at least once a year whether it’s with kids (and the inevitable trip to EuroDisney) or just with Niki and the potential to experience Paris after dark (if you can live with the sky high price of drink in the bars).

There have been a few lowlights in Paris over the years but these mainly relate to work and trying to recover debts from French businesses with huge trade union involvement, as our legal advisor once said “This is the last communist country in Europe. If you insist on enforcing your rights the trade unions will hold a barbecue at your head office!!”

But overall I have to say that I will forever love Paris and I wholeheartedly endorse the words of Audrey Hepburn “Paris is always a good idea”.