I was more than happy to quit traveling after three back-to-back trips. I love to travel, but I also love sleeping in my own bed in the heart of winter. Most of the nomadic enthusiasm was in the hearts of middle managers, who seemed to delight in turning their direct reports’ lives upside-down for the first three months of each year. It was expensive, counter-productive, and it came at a terrible time of the year. Every traveler had to pay out of pocket for up-front travel expenses; company credit cards were available, but reimbursement usually lagged enough to require personal funds to cover the amount.
What’s more, three trips to Paris in the first quarter was murder on project planning and execution. A full schedule in the US is not helped by a week of trip prep, followed by week-long absences from the offices, followed by another week of jet-lag – for every trip you make. To top it all off, northeastern snowstorms had an uncanny ability to coincide with my travels abroad, which put me in deep debt to neighbors who repeatedly cleared 18-24” of snow from my driveway, so I could actually reach my house on my return. And to top it all off, being away from U.S. winters was no great relief; the weather was often just as crummy in France as it was in the northeastern United States.
I’d had some less-than-stellar visits, with gray skies and damp cold, in the past. But the 2013-2014 winter was one of the most challenging ones in recent memory – and that was on both sides of the Atlantic. Winter in Paris is seldom fun, with lots of rainy, gray days, and sometimes a bit of snow. But the weather had turned nasty in a big way, dumping more snow than the Paris municipality was prepared to clear out of the way, and screwing up the flow of their already cold and gray daily grind. Several times that winter, they’d gotten not one or two, but four inches of the stuff. And without proper plows, shovels, and ice melt, the city and its vicinity had skidded to a halt. Buses didn’t run. Drivers were told to stay off the roads. People were told to lay low. Many folks worked from home, but nobody went to the office. And from home, their connectivity wasn’t great, which made communication even more of a challenge. In short, that winter sucked.
By French business custom, the first meeting of the year was purely a getting-to-know-you affair, where little was accomplished other than learning your new team members’ names and personality quirks, letting them get to know yours, and mutually testing the political waters. The second trip of the year (usually in late February, early March) was when things actually started picking up speed, plans for the year were broached and debated, and tentative decisions started to form. And the third trip, customarily before March was up (and Corporate found out just how much the last two trips had cost them), was to reinforce your stated intentions, refresh memories on shared interests and promises made over dinners shared on your last visit, and to make sure people knew you were genuinely, deeply, unwaveringly serious about what you’d discussed, the last time you were there.
Then, around the end of March, the Accounting department would realize how much coin was flowing to the airlines, chain hotels, and restaurants in Paris, flaming red flags would go up, and all that travel would skid to a screeching halt. And for good reason. Travel to Paris got pricey – even on the most Spartan of trips. You wouldn’t think that staying at the company-mandated Holiday Inn… inhaling a quick complimentary hotel “breakfast” of espresso, chocolate croissants, and containers of cold cuts and fruit… lunching in the company cafeteria… with maybe a dinner or two out with colleagues… would cost all that much, but multiply that by all the Americans who were jockeying for position with colleagues in France, and it added up. Unfortunately, many of us weren’t placed high enough on the food chain to command a travel budget that included elaborate team-building dinners and accompanying entertainment, so we got the closest scrutiny. There was a fine line between expediency and perceived excess when traveling to France, and Accounts Payable only had eyes for what it considered excess.
It looks like — knock wood — the snow has stopped falling in my neck of the woods, and if I were to take off for Paris, I wouldn’t be leaving people in a lurch, putting them in charge of moving snow.
I’m seriously considering a trip in May, when my schedule looks like it’s opening up a bit, and I’ll be on my own while my better half is away on a business trip.
Just a quick jaunt over — 4 or 5 days, tops. Just enough time to be there, walk around a bit, sit in a café and sip an espresso while reading a newspaper or book. Just enough time to simply be there.
That’s what I missed, going over to Paris on business — the ability to just be there. Everything was so frantic, so rushed. Everything was so damned important. No time to just sit and enjoy yourself — which was probably as much about me traveling with Americans, as it was about the conditions. My American colleagues didn’t seem to enjoy stopping to savor as much as one might. Sure, they’d go out for drinks after work, and they’d walk around and see the sights… but stopping to savor?
It’s tough to relax when you don’t speak the language, everything is foreign and unfamiliar, and you feel like you have to be on your guard. It’s easy to feel that way in Paris. So, the main focus was work — all about business. There are a million little rules you learn about business etiquette, cultural do’s and don’t’s, temperaments and inclinations… what will get you ahead, what will hold you back, what is politically positive and what is inadvisable. You’d think that doing business in France would be fairly straightforward as a Caucasian Westerner, but au contraire. It was anything but that.
It was what it was. And we all had to make the best of it. You learned as you went, and if you stuck around long enough, eventually you became acclimated — and got pretty Zen about it.
Traveling to Paris on business was a whole deal in itself — chock full of surprises and lessons, from the minute you got off the plane, to the moment you got back on to go home. You learned, or you sank. While jet lagged. And whilst trying to make a good impression with our Gallic professional hosts.
Not much time for stopping and savoring the delights of Paris, under those conditions.
But now, on my own steam and on my own time, with my own agenda and schedule, it could work. And I’ll have enough time up front to research moto taxis to take into the city. I may even get in touch with a former colleague who swore by them — and indirectly talked me into taking one, last year.
What a ride that was! And how much I learned. I have a feeling it will stand me in good stead, if I decide to go.