Friday, 29 August 2008

No More Zoom

Some people who know me think that I bring chaos to wherever I travel. It's true I've flown in to areas of conflict, poverty and natural disasters before (China's recent earthquake is a prime example) but this time it's different. This time I'm involved in bringing down a business.

Zoom Airlines, the carrier that I flew with a few weeks back to Montreal has gone bust. It seems to be the latest business to get hit by the credit crunch. Blaming spiralling fuel costs and the downturn in the economy, the business folded yesterday afternoon. Hundreds of passengers on both sides of the Atlantic were left stranded, and thousands more, including friends planning on visiting me (!) are now needing to find alternative travel arrangements.

Zoom, like Oasis Hong Kong (another recent airline failure) were trying to extend the cheap no-frills model which works so successfully for the likes of Ryanair, to long haul travel. When I flew there was strict terms on check-in baggage, limited on board entertainment with a charge for using headphones and no alcohol served with the basic food provision. Having said that the staff were friendly and helpful, the flight took off and landed on schedule and the price in peak time August was about half that of BA or Air France. I'll skip over the annoying toddler that thought that my chair was a great activity play centre which worked if you kicked it repeatedly.

The airline managed to operate for 7 years in a time of great expansion in the skies, but now economic times are harder it is very difficult for smaller operators to compete. Also with the growth in eco-awareness, the tide is turning on travellers attitudes to cheap airline travel. This is sad news as the most memorable flights I've taken have been with the smaller regional airlines, not the mega-global brands. It looks like we're entering a period of consolidation, and the world of travel will be a duller place.

For info on how to get refunds when airlines go bust here's a handy guide.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

A run in the park

Maybe it was all the Olympic coverage, or the sunny weather here, but I've taken up running again. I say again, but it's been a long while since I've pulled on the trainers in anger. After working crazy hours in London it's been nice to be outside during the day and get a bit of exercise.

Running around the local park is a great way to observe Montreal people going about their lives. It's a popular park bordering the Latin Quarter and The Plateau areas of the city. It boasts a lovely lake with a fountain, sports pitches, tennis courts, kids play area and even a dog exercise zone. The park attracts a diverse range of people. Punks and Goths sit happily on the grass banks next to Grandparents and toddlers. Doctors from the adjacent Notre Dame Hospital eat lunch while rollerbladers whizz past. Then there are us joggers.

The joggers are easily to separate into two groups. The fitness fanatics and the rest of us. The rest of us are just wanting to feel a little slimmer and healthier as we shuffle around the perimeter of the park. The fitness fanatics can be summed up by "I-pod man". He is an annoyingly trim bloke who could be straight out of Men's Health magazine. To compound my own lack of fitness he always seems to be running through the park the same time as I'm dragging my weary bones around. I seem to be sweating buckets in the sun while he glides past.

The rest of us grab the nearest old band T-Shirt and not too smelly socks when we go jogging. Ipod Man dresses head to foot in sleek black running gear with a special MP3 holder strapped to his arm. The rest of us are content with listening to our own heart beats thumping in our chests. Ipod man is probably listening to Anthony Robbins podcasts.

But Ipod Man and the more down to earth joggers are typical of the large amount of health conscious folk who live in Montreal. It seems there is a conscious effort by a lot of the populace to be outside and active during the summer. There are special paths for cyclists and bladers which are always busy. All the major parks are accessible by public transport to avoid having to drive. Local markets are doing a great trade in fruit and vegetables. It seems that the whole of Montreal is making the most of the summer while it is still with us.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Montreal Snapshots

Here's a few choice moments from the last week in Montreal...

1) A guy on St Catherine Street running up to our cafe table and shouting "Hey it's Madonna's Birthday!" and then leaping away again. Well it was the night before gay pride..

2) A full on punk rocking the "I still believe it's 1976" look with a great pink 6" mohawk on the Metro.

3) CBC Television gamely looking for any good news from Canada's poor showing at the Olympic Games. "Look he got a personal best!" He also finished 7th...

4) The 17year old kid bag packer positively beaming when I produced my own rucsac to fill my groceries. Plastic bags are bad people!

5) The number 11 bus packed with people heading to Mont Royal park on Sunday. A collective agreement that the destination is worth the stifling journey. BTW it was, it's a lovely park with a lake, on a hill overlooking the city.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Bienvenue a Montreal

A cheery hello from Montreal, where I'm based for the rest of the year.

I arrived last weekend and I'm fast learning the dos and do nots of living in the world's third largest French speaking city. It's a fun and slightly daunting prospect but here's what I've gathered so far.

1) GCSE French won't get you that far, but locals will automatically switch to English when you can't work out how to say 23.75 dollars en francais. (ooh the shame!)

2) Sitting in the sunshine on a terrace of a cafe is always a good thing to do.

3) Being French, there's a plentiful supply of good cheese in all supermarkets.

4) It's 1997 so far as Banks and technology is concerned. People still use cheques! and faxes! and there's a new fangled thing you can do on your phone called text...

5) Cross the street when the light is green and hope that SUV stops in time. They don't believe in pedestrian signals or beeps for the deaf here - scary!

More soon, A bientot.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Welcome to the Future - China part 1

**Apologies for the lateness of this blog - I've only just figured out a work around so I can post while in mainland China**

"Welcome to the future" reads a massive billboard from a mobile phone company, on the road which leads from Shanghai's PuDong Airport into the city. Crossing the Lupu Bridge into the centre of the city, I stare at the 100's of skyscrapers lining each side of the Huangpo river, it's hard to disagree.

If Beijing is taking all the attention in 2008 for the once-a-four-year extended School games-athon, Shanghai is just busy getting on with the job of becoming the centre of the world. Every major business and finance organisation is setting up shop here. PuDong which was twenty years ago forgotten marsh land is now a real life version of Mega-City Four. Gleaming towers to capitalism push ever upwards into the sky. The biggest construction sites in the world are operated by an army of workers from China's rural heartland. They are relentlessly building more. Maps which are printed only a few years ago are almost redundant, such is the pace of change.

Walking around The Bund, you get a sense of how fast things are moving. The old, grand colonial buildings which once housed the banking houses are now swish restaurants and bars. A gawdy psychedelic 'tourist tunnel' now runs underneath the river to where the real action is in PuDong. Old versus new separated only by a muddy stretch of river.

The Bund's eight lanes of clogged traffic is a testament to Shanghai's new monied middle classes.They have long since flipped their bicycles for silver Diahatsu's. Fashionable teens parade up and down with mobile phones clamped to their ears, ignoring the mandolin player reciting old Chinese folk tunes. The street food stalls which mobbed the Shanghai of the 1930's have all but disappeared, to be replaced by fast food joints. McDonald's and Burger King are fighting it out with Sushi Now! and cheese cake vendors for custom.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The joys of Heathrow

Well it's five days until project China, and the last few weeks have been a heady whirl of getting everything in order, research and pfaffing about.

One of the main joys of being based in London is that I get to use Heathrow Airport far more than is healthy. Last week American Airlines exec, Don Langford called Heathrow "the worst of all the airports that my company flies to in Europe" and "a bit of a dump". Well Duh! Of course it is! Why give millions of visitors a false impression of London and the UK? Spend an hour trying to reclaim baggage at T5, and your expectations of our country will be so diminshed that even the slightest kindness will be welcome.

Even if T3 is falling apart, and T5 should never have been opened until properly tested, millions of passengers use Heathrow every year. It still is the busiest international airport in the world. The competion amongst airlines to gain landing slots is fierce. Just ask the residents under the flightpath.

Getting into the centre of London is still a pain though. Taxi's cost at least 50 GBP and the tube takes up to 1 hour. Heathrow Express at 15.50 GBP single trip is the most expensive per mile train service in the world.

For the frugal there is another option, Heathrow Connect. Using the same train track as the Heathrow Express, it takes 12 minutes longer as it stops en route to get into Paddington. The benefit is it only costs 6.90 GBP single fare and you are not stuck on a coach on the M4, or a tube signal fault on the Piccadilly line.

Either way I'll be there midday on Sunday queuing up under broken lightbulbs and torn lino. I think that for all it's faults Heathrow is a great place. It's a vibrant mini-city full of humanity, joy and tears. Shabby as it may be it's one of my favourite things about London. Now onwards to Shanghai!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Third time's the charm..

The ongoing China Visa story part 358

So, it's up and out of The Towers by 7am, to be down to the Chinese Embassy by 7:30. I'm all set with a vat of coffee, a George Saunders book and some music to keep me company. Hearteningly there's only about 20 people lined up at Portland Place when I arrive. The sun is shining and my hopes are up. Nothing is going to go wrong today!

Then something goes wrong. One of the guys at the front of the queue beckons me over to read a note posted on the outside of the Embassy door. From today, the People's Republic wants not only a lengthy two page form and a photo of you, but the details of your flight AND confirmation of what hotel you are staying at. My heart sinks. The details are kept on my webmail, and they need printed copies for their files. Going back to The Towers and getting the info would take over an hour, and the queue would lengthen considerably. I need this now!

Reluctantly I race towards Oxford Circus to try and find an internet cafe. I pass BBC Broadcasting House and wonder if there's anyone working early who I know to blag me in. Then I realise the people I know are over at White City. Damn! I spy two internet places nearby but they don't open for another hour or so.

Standing on Oxford Street I compose myself. Where can you get anything, day or night in London...? Answer: Soho! I barrel down Wardour Street to a 24 hour copy shop. The owner unlocks the door and lets me in. I manage to explain my predicament, while surrounded by dormant printers and copiers, waiting to spring into inky life. So will he help me?

"No, we don't offer that service, sir"

What?? You're a 24 hour print service! I NEED to print. Surely this is EXACTLY the service you should be offering! I even proffer a small bribe in his direction to help me out. Still the uptight jobsworth says no. I spy a PC behind his shoulder and wonder, as this is an emergency, if it would be ethical to throw him out of the way and commandeer his keyboard.

Luckily we don't come to blows as he mentions a 'net cafe close by. I turn and disappear out of the door. Success! Five minutes later I'm clutching my precious documents and running back down Oxford Street.

The queue hasn't grown too much in my 30 minute departure. The new scheme seems to have scared people away. The queue time passes and by 10am I've handed in my form. Time to celebrate this first triumph. I stride down to Market Place for a full english breakfast. There's no finer thing to lift the spirits. The folks at this brilliant blog on the great british brekkie have got it right.

After being suitably replenished, I then head back to the embassy. After another thirty minute queue, and handing over 50 GBP plus my sanity, I get the Visa. It's 11:58 am. The place shuts dead on midday.