Notes from Madrid

I’m finally coming to the close of my period of schedule insanity. I’m not entirely done – the next two weeks remain unusually busy – but at least today marks my last planned travel for… well, ok I have another fun family trip planned April, but I don’t have to fly anywhere for a while.

After eating the last of my lemon meringue pie last weekend, I immediately turned to packing my bags for Madrid. I’d never been to Spain before, and the work agenda left little time for sight-seeing, but being in a new country is always a mind-opening experiencing. I ended up having several extremely fine meals, met many of the locals, and snuck in two museums after work on Thursday. Here’s what I learned:

Weird Madrid art and architecture
Weird Madrid art and architecture

My Spanish is pretty decent, but very rusty
I spent years learning Spanish in school. I never have had the chance to live for even a few weeks in a Spanish-speaking country to move the “fundamentals are good, vocabulary is decent, overall not half-bad” level of fluency I’ve maintained for years to a real fluency. In the last six or so years, since I started really trying to improve my career, I haven’t really maintained my Spanish at all. I was wondering how it would work out in Spain. In most of the traveling I have done, English is more than sufficient to the needs of the day. It feels like everyone speaks some English. Even in Mexico, when I try to open a conversation in Spanish, they take one look at me and reply in English. (Sometimes I get a pat on the head for being an American who at least TRIES to speak another language.) But in Madrid, while most of the people speak some English, my Spanish was totally useful. The first night I went out with my colleagues, my Spanish was better than the waiter’s English, and I translated for the table back and forth. It felt amazing to have it be so useful! During our meetings, most of the folks I was working with were Spaniards. Periodically they’d lapse into discussions on some arcane point in Spanish. Because I shared domain knowledge, I could often follow along, and understand. The longer I stayed, the more of our conversations were happening in Spanish.

The Museums of Madrid
Last night my colleagues left and I was by myself, finally done. In the heart of the city, I headed to a park plaza Google maps had shown me, with some museums mapped. The public artwork of Madrid is odd – combinations of ultra-modern, near-soviet brutalism and baroque ornateness all intermixed in a way that says the city was once richer than it is now. The larger-than-life art deco statues stand above reflecting pools that have gone too long uncleaned. The museums were fun. I am no great fan of Chagall, but there was a retrospective of his and I spent an hour in a dark, cistern-like basement carefully studying his works. I think he might amount to something if he ever learns to draw. (I jest.) All the museum notes were given only in Spanish. But I read them, and I understood them. It was an odd moment – feeling almost Pentecostal to me in the unexpected understanding as the words unfolded themselves to me.

I also went to an exhibit celebrating Cleopatra. I’ve seen better exhibits of Egyptian artifacts in Boston, London and Istanbul. (For that matter, in Vienna as well.) My favorite part of the exhibit was the retrospective of Cleopatra in artwork. Half the time she looks like some silly ninny who just provides an excuse for the artist to show boobs. But some of the pictures of her were resplendent in meaning. My favorite showed her dead – her face lying in shadows – but the pose of her body speaking volumes of both pride and despair. Again, all the text was Spanish, and again I found myself understanding it.

So much delicious in one place
So much delicious in one place

I’m glad to be an adventurous eater
Traveling in Spain is not hard. It was not at all like traveling in Africa, where every night you wondered what was going to happen, and cockroaches were the least of it. But on several occasions I found myself faced with a menu I couldn’t parse. (Menus are actually just about the hardest, since they use such arcane vocabulary – especially in really good restaurants.) I would ask what the most “Madrilleno” dish was (of a companion or a waiter) and then eat whatever they put in front of me. This week I had pig’s cheeks (I think), squid in it’s own ink, grilled octopus (twice) and a couple dishes whose provenance I couldn’t guess. Some of it was exquisite, and some was not to my taste. But I thought about how much more fun my life is because I am not compelled to be picky. I didn’t have to worry whether there’d be anything I could eat. I didn’t even have to limit myself to foods I could recognize from where I’d been before. I could pick the strangest sounding thing on the menu and say “That.” I am not sure how much pickiness is a choice, vs how much it is an inherent value. I’m just rather glad that I somehow got the version that lets me experience new things.

Water and wine are practically interchangeable
The water was super expensive and the wine was super cheap. On several menus, set up “price fixe”, you had your choice either of water or wine. That blew the mind of this Boston-based girl!

I’m really bad at a 24 hour clock
I thought I had an hour more to get to my gate this afternoon than I actually had. Good thing I’m obsessively early, eh?

This set of jet lag was particularly devastating
Perhaps it was because I was still recovering from Piemas. Or I’d been knocked off an hour by daylight savings. Or I was still finding my footing again after 9 days on the West Coast. But this round of jet lag was BRUTAL. We took a redeye in from Boston to Madrid, but they turned the lights on for breakfast at what would’ve been my midnight and so I slept not a whit on the plane. When we got out of the airport, it was nearly 8 am local time, and we hadn’t closed our eyes for a minute. Then each night, between the end of the dinner and the beginning of the next days work there were not 8 hours to be had. Let’s just say that my phone wasn’t fully charged when I had to get up in the mornings. (Slow transformer, but still…) Madrid is a late-night city. The restaurants DO NOT OPEN for dinner until 8 or 8:30! The cafeterias didn’t open for lunch until 1 pm. So we had the worst of both worlds – a Madrid-centric evening commitment and an American-created morning agenda. (Ok, that was totally my fault.) There wasn’t really a siesta to make up for it, either. I wonder how long it will take me to get back to Eastern Time. Hopefully that’s a better transition.

Apparently the hot new sport in Spain is called Padel
I’m writing this sans internet on a flight (I KNOW! Can you believe they expect me to go SEVEN WHOLE HOURS without teh intarwebs?!) so I can’t provide links. But my sources inform me that a sport ‘Paddle’ is all the rage. It’s played on half a tennis court, with a net and a solid paddle. It has playable walls, like racquetball, but is played with a tennis ball and isn’t nearly as fast. And it’s so popular that the folks I was with had Paddle courts in their workplace. According to my reliable sources, it’s very fun but it’s not nearly as athletic and hard on the body as either tennis or racquetball, and you can have fun playing even when you’re older. You heard it here first, folks.

You can see the stadium on the right here
You can see the stadium on the right here

Speaking of Sports
It’s a small sample size, but I’d say the city is more into basketball than soccer (aka football). I was personally saddened by the fact that the Real Madrid playing on Thursday was the basketball team and not the famous football team. I would’ve risked life, limb and pocketbook to be in the stadium for a Real Madrid football game. I couldn’t even summon up an “eh” for basketball. Also, my cabbies upon learning I was from Boston kept going on about Larry Bird.

How many great cities have no great body of water?
As far as I could tell, Madrid has no major body of water in it. It was weird to be in a city where you couldn’t orient yourself to the water. Even humble Merced has Bear Creek. We were trying to figure out how many cities have a layout completely unaffected by a body of water. Las Vegas, perhaps? Santa Fe? Which cities can you name?

I’m not sure what Madrid is like
Sometimes I’d see a building of brutalist cinder blocks, ill-kept, and think of Athens. We’d pass a glorious baroque building (City Hall was particularly lovely) and I’d feel the ghosts of Vienna. The narrow cobblestoned alleyways reminded me of parts of London. But in parts of five days, I couldn’t really get a feeling for Madrid quo Madrid. All the people I met were imports from other regions of Spain. Around meal time glasses of vino, the unsuppressable longing for a home far away (far different) would start to echo across their voices. I still don’t have a feeling for the city, and I can’t tell if one will be granted to me retroactively or not.

Google Fi is awesome
This summer when we went camping in New Brunswick (or as I like to call it “The Trip Where Everything Got Mildew”) we more or less had to shut our phones off after we crossed the border. Verizon’s roaming rates were appalling, and without a do-or-die reason, we had to do without. But as I landed in Madrid and turned on my phone it politely informed me that except for some voice calling, all the rest of my data and text rates were identical to what I’d be paying at home. I did not have to figure out how to navigate a major modern city without a phone. I can never go back – it was so hassleless. I already loved Fi, but this really sealed the deal for me.

Thus the business is concluded. The meals are eaten. The journey home more than half-flown. I return to a more normal cadence and routine to my life (and not a moment too soon – this has been months worth of travel packed into only a few weeks!) I hope my family still recognizes me. I’ve missed them!

Five key tips to travel like a pro

The other day I went on a business trip with a young lady who didn’t – as part of her job – go on business trips all the time. She was super excited about the whole thing. The novelty of flying, the eating dinner with the client, the spending the night in a hotel all by herself. Her degree of enthusiasm shocked me regarding my degree of cynicism.

The author, in a random hotel room in…. Philadelphia I think.

Business travel has some similarities to backpacking. People who don’t do it are amazed by the concept. But when I’m actually on the trail (in the airport) I know that I’m still a rookie. Do I travel a lot for business? My “deal” with my husband is that I travel, on average, once a month. I’d say I might be traveling a little more than that these days. Once every three or four weeks I crawl on a plane and go somewhere for a day or two. When they posted a description for my job, it said 50% travel. I have worked with people, though, who spend 3 or more days a week, every week, on the road for work. (That might be listed as 80 – 100% travel – the folks who travel the most are project consultants who will spend ~5 days a week, every week, in a city which is not their own. That’s folks like Accenture & Deloitte. They also tend to work 90 hours in that week and have a massive burnout rate.)

I know I have a ton yet to learn about how travel best, but as I drove from the Richmond International Airport to the corporate business parks in Glen Allen, I thought that maybe you, dear reader, might benefit from what I have learned so far.

Rental Cars
This was probably my biggest rookie mistake. You might have rented a car at an airport once or twice. You take the shuttle to the rental car center, stand in line, answer mysterious questions about levels of insurance coverage and take a bet on whether you’ll have enough time between meeting and boarding to refill the tank. I once got into a situation in Los Angeles with Hertz where it took me almost 2 hours to finally get a car – and that was after a long transcontinental flight, with several hours of driving still in front of me.

But that’s how it works, right?

No. It is not. My dearest business partner, after he got done guffawing and making fun of me for such a rookie mistake, explained. Many rental car companies have a second method – a premier method. I now use National (I’m part of the Emerald Club). I make a reservation ahead of time. Then I walked directly out to a row of cars, decide which one I feel like today, climb in and drive off. I stop at the gate on my way out to give them my license. All the rest of that stuff: gas fillups, insurance etc… is just on record. It takes minutes.

The business partner who laughed at me has upped his game, though. Now he just takes Uber everywhere, and doesn’t bother with pickup or dropoff.

When I travel overnight, I have four things that go into the bins in security: my laptop, my toiletries, my shoes and my wallet. Here are some keys I’ve found to never being slower than the person in front of me:

  • Always, always wear slipoff shoes. Wearing boots or even tennis shoes is a mistake. I prefer to wear slacks with socks so I don’t end up standing barefoot in the security line, but flats will do in a pinch.
  • Don’t keep your toiletries in your Dopp Kit (what my family calls that back you keep your toothbrush and hairbrush in). Keep them in a ziplock bag in the outer zippered pocket of your carryon, so you can just slide it in and out.
  • Don’t bury your laptop under anything else.
  • Pay attention to whether you’re Pre. Increasingly, they’re putting more people through the lines where you don’t have take anything out or off. This only helps you if you’ve noticed in time to skip the long line.
  • No sequins. I have this shirt I like to wear with a peacock feather done in sequins. (Saying that it sounds appalling. I swear it’s not that appalling.) But when I go through the body scan with it, I light it up like Christmas. Patdown time! You need to build a travel wardrobe of clothes that are comfortable, washable, professional, good looking – and don’t have metallic bits. This isn’t as impossible as it sounds. I like Dressbarn for helping me find qualifying outfits.

    Points & Perks
    I avoided signing up for frequent anything miles because I know myself well enough to know that I’ll never get around to figuring out how to use them. The few times, in the past, I’ve tried, my one or two trips a year were laughably short of earning me anything, and definitely not worth the aggravation. But now that I’m travelling all the time, I think it might start to add up to something meaningful. The best programs are the ones that have both points for tomorrow and perks for today.

    In terms of perks, business travels are notoriously not price sensitive. My company pays for my travel, and doesn’t really case as long as I keep it within approved ranges. So offering me $10 off a rental car doesn’t actually encourage me to do much. But offering to make something simple, fast or comfortable counts for a tremendous amount.

    Hotel Loyalty
    There are two kinds of enterprise sales people at my company: Marriott people and Hilton people. (OK, they’re actually all Marriott, and fanatically loyal.) These companies make things better & better for you the more you stay with them. I have both sets of rewards (diluting the value of both – conveniently…) As an example, if you’re a Marriott Gold member, you get invited to the Concierge room. There’s late night snack food there, and a free breakfast in the morning. The non member people are downstairs paying $18 for their omelets. Way faster to zip through the buffet and grab a water on your way out, without having to pay. If you’re a platinum member – a coveted status – the hotel may be full for other people, but not for you.

    Also, just so you know, business travelers never, ever, ever check out of a hotel. (I apparently get laughed at a lot when I travel – this was another moment.) Just leave your key (and your tip!) on the table on the way out. Your receipt was likely under your door in the morning.

    The loyalty programs work together, so you are going to want to see if you can’t line them up. For example, as a Hilton person, I’d have a combo of Jetblue – > National -> Hilton family of hotels. This allows me to earn more points for the travel I’m already doing than if I just mixed and matched.

    I’ll let you know how to claim the points as soon as I figure that part out.

    Consistency & GPS
    If you’ve ever been in an airport and watched a business traveler, they often look extremely confident. They’re walking fast, roller bag trailing behind like a patient puppy, eyes on the horizon. “Wow, they really know this airport well!” you think. Ha. They’ve never been here before. But there are two things that make this possible: consistency & GPS.

    Every airport:

  • Has a bathroom right after you get through security and in baggage claim (business travelers never ever ever ever ever check a bag unless they’ll be gone more than a week)
  • Has ground transport next to baggage claim
  • Has a rental car facility where all the rental companies are (this may either be in the airport, or accessed via shuttles).

    When you get off the plane, you immediately walk in the direction of the sign that says “Baggage Claim”, stopping at the first bathroom you see. When you get closer, you start looking for rental car center. It’s always clearly marked. When you get to the rental car center, you follow the signs for your particular company. The closer you get, the more information on what you need. If you watched me landing in Richmond yesterday, you would have thought I knew exactly where the car was I was going to drive and had been there a thousand times before. It was the first time – I just knew what signs to look for.

    Once in the car, the hard part is trying to figure out how to drive it. (I drove a Prius this time. To my great surprise, I hated it. It beeps when you’re in reverse!) Plug in your phone, pull up the appointment for your meeting, and launch your GPS. I had no idea where I was or where I was going, but I got there in good time.

    So, does it sound glamorous and fun? Is there anything here you’re glad to know? Is there anything here I’m completely missing?