Sunday, April 11, 2010

What to Do on a Two Week Business Trip to England, Part 1

(that's totally not where I was working, but it was also in England, so it'll do)

Monday, March 1st (written weeks later)

Finally the reason I was in England - work.  We met the others down in the lobby of the Hanbury Manor at 7:30, piled into our two rentals, and made the ten minute drive to the GSK site in Ware, which means me probably got there around 7:45, which was unfortunate because A) the cafeteria didn't open until at least 8:15, and B) the meeting wasn't scheduled to start until 9 or 9:30.

About the cafeterias at GSK in England, they're run by Sodexo (the same folks that run the cafeteria at the kids' school) and they don't take cash or credit cards.  You have to buy a vending card (£2 deposit), the put money on it via a vending machine that seemed to have uptime issues.  What a pain in the ass!  I could see the vending cards in addition to cash & credit, but with a captive market, they have no incentive to innovate. Unfortunately, Sodexo will be running the US cafeterias as well pretty soon.

Back to the meetings.  We met the rest of the attendees, maybe 20 in total.  The sessions were divided into two streams, otherwise the workshop would've been four weeks instead of two (could you imagine?)  The meetings went all morning, with breaks, then lunch in the cafeteria, then afternoon meetings, usually finishing up after 5pm.

Back to the food: breakfast was usually a couple of steamed eggs, a nice roll, and English bacon, which is close to our country bacon (American bacon is called streaky bacon.)  They had the full complement of GSK-produced beverages: Lucozade and Ribena, but barely a low or no calorie option.  The subsidized prices on that stuff were pretty good though.  During the breaks we made avail of the interesting coffee vending in the break rooms.

A single machine dispensed everything from coffee, cappuccino, espresso, mocha, latte, hot chocolate, etc. into these small plastic cups, all free, fortunately.  When you finish with your wee plastic cup (hot drinks in a Dixie cup? Weird) you dumped the remnants in the center of a special trash can, and then deposited the cup into one of seven cup-sized sleeves in the same can, so the cups could be recycled.

That part sounds good, but with people using as many as a dozen of these cups a day, I can't imagine that bringing your own mug or water bottle (the filtered water machine dispensed the same cups) wouldn't have been a better option.

Lunch: Meh. The sandwich station was OK, mostly because the bread in the UK is far superior to NC.  They had pre-packaged sandwiches that really interested me because they were often very unfamiliar. I learned the difference between egg salad and egg mayonnaise (no pickles), and enjoyed things like prawn mayonnaise, roast beef and horseradish, BLT, and sandwiches with watercress.  For the most part, I kept my lunches light to save room for dinner in a proper restaurant.

After the meetings concluded, we'd head back to the hotel, our out to explore. Since I waited weeks to write this up, I'm a little fuzzy on each day's details, so I'll probably summarize, generalize, and possibly mix up a few of the days.

The first Monday night (01-March) we went to a pub in Hertford Heath called "The Goat."

This was a very typical English pub.  It was probably 200-300 years old, fairly small and cozy and wonderful.  To me, I think it felt so comfortable because it reminded me so much of my early childhood. Our house and the houses of some of our family were of the same style and time period as the pub.  They looked the same, and with the wood-burning fireplaces and coal stoves, they smelled the same.  It was like being in Coventryville (Pennsylvania) and felt like home, but with hand-pumped cask ales and better food.

I asked some young guys at a table what they'd recommend (gesturing at the hand pumps.)  They said "none of the above," and pointed to the "Ice Cold Fosters Lager" tap.  I guess England has its beer drinkers that don't really like beer either.  A pint of Abbot Ale it was!

I really wish my brother Andy could have been there with me at that bar, because I know he loves English pubs, and fine beer, and with a ceiling height of maybe 5 ½  feet, I had to duck a little, but he would have had to really bend over uncomfortably far, and that would have been funny. It's not often that my height is more advantageous than his.

About a dozen or so of us made the trip out that night, and after a few minutes with our first beers, we were seated in the dining area.  We shared some appetizers around the table, and for my entrée I got the ribeye and chips (fries).  It wasn’t very thick, but it was cooked perfectly.  For dessert I had a bread & butter pudding.  When the waitress, who claimed she liked our accents ( I think she was just sucking up, knowing that being Americans, we’d probably leave a tip) asked if I’d like custard on that, I asked her if she would like custard on that, since I had no idea if that was a good thing or not.  She said she would, so I said I would.  We were both right!  Somebody picked up the tab, and off to the hotel we went.

Tuesday 02-March

The day started the same, though I was growing weary of departing at 7:30 for a meeting that didn’t start for 1 ½ - 2 hours, but I kept my mouth shut.  The rest of the work day was the same.

After work, Tom, Pat (from PA), and I tried to find the Tesco Supermarket, but ended up several towns away at a Tesco Express convenience store.  I got the first of my strange-flavored potato crisps, sweet Thai chili, I think, and a pear cider.  We went back to the hotel.  I looked at the menu at the mid-level of the three hotel restaurants.  It was pretty unimpressive, but one thing did catch my eye, a cheeseburger, for £16. A $24 cheeseburger?  That is absolutely insane.  Who does that?

I went down to the lowest price restaurant, a golfer’s bar with a few menu items but none of the charm of a pub, called Vardon's.  It turns out this was a popular spot for several of my coworkers, who ate and drank there regularly.  With that cheeseburger on my mind, I ordered the Vardon's equivalent for a mere £11 ($16.50).  I suspect it was the exact same burger that was served upstairs.  I’d estimate its fair market value at £3 ($4.50).  But dinner was fun, several of my coworkers were pretty lubricated by this point, and someone had the idea that we’d do a bowling night and dinner in nearby Stevenage on Thursday.  Sounded good to me. So long as I didn’t have to eat at Vardon's again, a bowling alley sounded like an improvement.

Wednesday 03-March

Work was the same, though we did start leaving the hotel later and starting/finishing the meetings earlier.

After work, Tom and I went to “Sow and Pigs” another very traditional English pub that was located where the manor’s driveway met the public road, a mere 10-minute walk from my room.  I had a lovely (they say lovely a lot in England) Aspall draft cider and an English bacon-wrapped stuffed chicken breast, while Tom had a ham hock the size of a grown man’s thigh.  I exaggerate a little, but that thing was huge, and according to Tom, very tasty indeed (they say indeed a lot as well.)

From there it was back to the hotel, and typical hotel evening activities, which for me meant catching up on e-mail, a phone call home, and hand-washing clothing in the bathroom sink.  That last part can kind of be a pain in the ass sometimes, but it’s essential if you want to pack light.  Of all the clothing I brought in my single carry-on bag for my two-week business trip to England in the late winter, there were only three things that couldn’t be hand washed in the sink:  two cotton quarter-zip pullover sweaters, and one pair of jeans.  Everything else I could and did wash.  So by the end of the trip I didn’t have a large suitcase full of dirty clothes I had worn one time.  I am a big proponent of the One Bag school, but that's a blog post for another day.


Post a Comment

| Top ↑ |