The Martini Diaries – Episode 8

In which I return to work after my summer holiday, travel immediately to Rwanda, discover Rwanda is the safest country in Africa, visit the Genocide Museum, fly with Qatar Airways for the first time, bemoan the lack of respect in our society, discover I am now a male model for Italian clothing, enjoy the annual luncheon at my Club (and work out how to solve Brexit), have to wake up too early in the morning without my morning Royal Blend Tea (and miss my train as a result), and make a plea for a return to understatement in our language.

Friday, August 23rd 2019. Ipswich, Gatwick Airport, 40,000 feet above the Mediterranean.

After a wonderful 3 week period of leave spent in Portugal (Cascais) and Suffolk I return to work today. I turned on my email at 9am after a 3 week ‘black out’ period to find hardly any of the 400+ emails needed my immediate attention. This, every year, is the luxury I provide myself with by shutting down. Every year I am amazed at how easy it is to ‘go off the grid’ for 3 weeks – the vast majority of the 400+ emails in my in box over that 3 week period did not require immediate action when I eventually re-connected. There clearly is a lesson here – we are never as indispensable as we convince ourselves we are!

After a day spent working from home (it was a Friday) my driver collected me from my home at 4.30 pm and we travelled to Gatwick airport, arriving there at 7 pm. My first day back at work therefore sees me flying to Rwanda for the Federation of African Nutrition Societies conference. My regular airline of choice British Airways does not fly to Rwanda, but access to their One World alliance enabled me to use Qatar Airlines for the first time. They are the Airline Of The Year, so I was interested to see why.

At Gatwick Qatar Airlines does not have a dedicated lounge, so we shared the Aspire Lounge. With a 9.20 pm take off everything was very quiet in Gatwick and the Lounge. We headed to the Gate at the announced time (8.40 pm) only to find the flight had not even landed when we arrived at the Gate. Things looked grim, as we eventually boarded an hour late, because our journey to Rwanda saw us flying to Doha in Qatar and then connecting on to a flight to Kigali in Rwanda, via Uganda. Our transit time on the ground in Doha was only going to be 90 minutes. Having lost potentially 60 minutes all the signs pointed to missing that important connection.

Once on board I quickly became very impressed with Qatar Airlines. The cabin was extremely well presented, and the crew very attentive (not in a false way, but very genuine. They clearly enjoy their work and environment). The food is ‘on demand’, but with our late departure I ordered the mixed platter, which would arrive all at once. Once we leveled off I was served a very dry martini and the platter followed fairly quickly. It comprised of Baba ghanoush, poached king prawn, fennel salad, celeriac soup, lamb shish kebab, cheese, white chocolate tart, and I washed it down with an excellent 2012 vintage Chateau Larrivet Haut-Briton.

My pod

Dry Martini at 40,000 feet

The platter

After dinner I changed into my very comfortable White Company cotton PJs and slippers provided by the crew, and changed my seat and pod into a flat bed. It was very comfortable, and I fell asleep quickly. Of note, the temperature in the cabin remained comfortably cool (unlike many airlines where it seems to rapidly become hot and stuffy.) The crew woke me at the agreed time before landing, and delivered an excellent cup of coffee. I changed, returned my pod to normal, and waited for landing.

Saturday August 24th 2019. Doha Qatar, Uganda, Rwanda

We arrived in Doha some 30 minutes late, having made up some time. The 10 business class passengers and I were allowed off first and made our way quickly through transit security to a bus, which drove us out to our next flight. Having not been ‘outside’ since 7 pm the night before in Gatwick we breathed our first air as we left the bus and walked the few paces to the steps of the aircraft – wow, it was hot, real crushing desert heat. Coming from the air conditioned fridge of the bus my glasses steamed up immediately!

Our flight to Doha, another 7 hour flight was on an identical aircraft. It was a strange feeling to have left one flight, and just 45 minutes later, be boarding an exact replica. The only change was the crew – but again, fabulous service. After the specialty lime and mint juice and a glass of champagne, we took off.

Breakfast followed – an excellent omelette and fruit plate. Several cups of coffee and I was ready to face the pile of briefing papers and to finish my speeches for the conference. After 6 hours we landed at Entebbe airport in Uganda for a crew change and a few passengers came and went. We were not allowed off the aircraft. I remember vividly Idi Amin (the Ugandan Dictator) and the Israel raid on Entebbe in the 1970s, and how its sheer audacity and professionalism sparked, as a boy, my interest in all things military. It was somewhat surreal to now be sitting on an aircraft looking out the window at that infamous airport terminal (it had hardly changed and was still made of corrugated iron cladding!).

Entebbe airport

We took off again, for just 35 minutes, and landed in Kigali, Rwanda at 3 pm local time. Although immigration was speedy and my main suitcase arrived quickly, the smaller bag with our pop up banner in did not arrive. There followed an hilarious episode in the lost luggage office filling out forms (carbonated in triplicate) by hand – I was back in the 1980s. Made even more amusing when the young lady in the office said she didn’t have a pen, in an office without computers where everything needed to be handwritten! I lent her mine. Perhaps luggage is rarely lost in Rwanda……

Our driver was patiently waiting outside for us and drove us to our hotel, the Raddison, about 20 minutes away. As it has only been 2 months since I was last in central Africa in Kenya I was pleasantly surprised (and actually very taken aback) at how clean everywhere was. There were pavements with kerbs, everyone was obeying the speed limit, buildings were clean and tidy and well built. It was bizarre. I mentioned it to my driver, who said Rwanda was the safest country in Africa, and the 9th safest country in the World. After the genocide 24 years ago the President decreed that no Rwandan citizen would feel unsafe again – as such there is a complete zero tolerance of any form of crime. Amazingly, every citizen seems to have bought in to it. Over the next few days we walked everywhere, even in the dark at night, and met nothing but kindness and friendliness. Quite extraordinary.

I checked into my room, 23 hours door-to-door since leaving my home. A shower, unpack, a superb burger and a bottle of Merlot from South Africa in the hotel bar, a quick FaceTime call with Sue, and bed by 10 pm exhausted.

Sunday August 25th 2019. Kigali, Rawanda

Rwanda is only one hour ahead of the UK, so despite the 23 hour journey I awoke with no sense of jet lag. A 7 am visit to the excellent gym, followed by a superb buffet breakfast with eggs-made-to-order, and I am ready to go.

The conference first day was fairly light in terms of work load, so I was able to return to the hotel by early afternoon for some time beside the pool, working on my speech for the next day, and enjoying a cigar. We dined in the hotel (steak) and continued my new love affair with South African Merlot. Another, by my usual standards, early night and lights out by 11 pm!

Monday August 26th 2019. Kigali, Rawanda

First full day of the conference, and it reached bizarre standards of chaos. We arrived 15 minutes before the start time to find very few people in the main plenary room – the rest were still in a chaotic queue to register their arrival. I was approached by the organizers to ask if I would co-chair the opening plenary – nothing like advance notice! The, having positioned myself on the stage, my co-chair leant over and asked if I would take the notes, sum up the plenary three speakers, and manage the Q&A. What I hoped would be easing into the conference now took on a sense of work overload and intensity.

The inevitable opening speeches droned on, then we awoke to a fabulous traditional dance and drum display – 30 dancers thumped and screamed around for about 20 minutes.

By the time the first plenary speaker started the conference was now running one hour behind schedule. The 11 am coffee break took place at 12 pm, and then the afternoon sessions also over ran. I arrived to take part in a round table discussion in a smaller conference room at 4pm, only to be re-directed to another room. And then, having settled into that room, I was told I was in the wrong room, so moved again. In the third room the audience clearly were not expecting me – it was a meeting on finance whereas I was due to discuss governance. The organisers eventually arrived and evicted the audience! After nearly an hour of uncertainty my real audience drifted in, all looking somewhat bewildered at this game of musical conference rooms. The day finished two hours behind schedule.

I, and my colleagues, were drained by the heat, the chaos, the tiredness, so we cancelled our plans to dine out and on entering back into our hotel walked straight to the bar, ordered Gin and Tonics, more Merlot and more red meat. I lay in bed that night trying to remember the last time I had eaten red meat three nights in succession (I eventually recalled it was Argentina two years ago). I need to get to the gym tomorrow!

Tuesday August 27th 2019. Kigali, Rawanda

I delivered my keynote address at 8.15 am this morning, and joined the panel discussion afterwards. There followed a series of the usual bi-lateral meetings with colleagues from various African countries (a routine part of these trips), and then a late lunch back by the pool in our hotel (Nile Perch – one of my favourite fish).

After lunch we hired a driver and went out to visit Kigali and in particular to see the Genocide Museum. I will not go into the details of the genocide, but this museum was superb. It told the story from the early 20th Century, and the build up over the years to the 100 days in 1994 when a mass slaughter of the Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutu took place. Some 1,000,000 people were killed in those 100 days. It was not just the sheer scale of the slaughter that takes some comprehension, it is the brutality of it. The museum explained how much of the slaughter took place with machetes and clubs. As an ex-military man I know what it is like to fire a gun, or throw a hand grenade, and the somewhat detached sense of that in terms of killing can bring. It is a whole different matter to use a knife, or other ‘close-up’ weapons or tools. It requires a different level of understanding of the sheer hatred, chaos, pressure, manic deposition of human beings.

After 2 hours we visited the beautiful rose gardens and stood silently looking at the giant stone slabs under which the remains of 250,000 people lie. The museum is both a tribute to those who died, but also to the care, vision, dedication and faith of those who built it. It was a remarkable experience to visit, a true honour, and an experience forever embedded in my mind, only perhaps paralleled by my visit in 1995 to Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

To help lift the sense of depression which had descended on our small group we dined out this evening (after visiting the gym again) at Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, a 15 minute walk from our hotel. It was dark by now, but the walk (as promised by our driver earlier) felt completely safe. We enjoyed an excellent meal for the 4 of us (which as a platter was so big we could not finish it), several local beers (Virunga Gold), and water and left with a bill of just £40! It was a red meat free evening!

Wednesday August 28th 2019. Kigali, Rawanda

This morning was a further series of bi-lateral meetings, followed by a lunch meeting back beside the pool in the hotel. I then needed to catch up on events in the UK, so retired to the pool side with my laptop and cigar and spent the next 3 hours clearing emails.

As this was our last evening in Rwanda we decided to dine out. The recommendation was to try the Hotel des Mille Collines. The hotel became famous during the genocide when 1,200 people took refuge inside it, and later became the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda.

The dining room is on the roof top, and the views were spectacular. Kigali is known as the city of 1,000 hills. The hotel is on one of the highest. At night the atmosphere was serene, and the mood and atmosphere engulfs you as you enter. The excellent Campari based cocktails set the scene for what was to come. Three courses of simply beautiful food (more excellent South African wine – this time a 2017 Cinsaut Pinotage). The conversation ebbed and flowed, the food came at regular, lazy, intervals, and then suddenly we realised it was midnight! We had been there for 4 hours!

Thursday August 29th 2019. Rwanda, Doha Qatar

With the conference scheduled to finish at 12 pm (and therefore my expectations it would not finish before 2 pm!) I packed that morning, ate a late breakfast, and arrived at 11 am. True to form the closing ceremony was lengthy (although they did present me with a wonderful piece of local art, which will soon be mounted on my office wall), and the return of the dancers and drums! This rapidly turned into audience participation, and so for the second time this year I found myself dancing in a traditional African tribal ritual (see episode 5 in Kenya).

There followed a little bit of a frantic dash to the airport for our flight, a short time in the Lounge, and boarding on time. We were scheduled to fly to Doha for about 6 hours, and then change for a 7 hour flight to the UK. I decided to stay awake on the first leg, and indulge in the full dining experience. Qatar Airways excels in this – I am in no doubt this is the finest service in the air (sorry British Airways). My first dry martini was too warm, so I asked for some ice to cool it down a little (I know, sacrilege to water down a martini, but we were at 40,000 feet), instead I was brought a second martini, correctly cooled. Now I had two to consume. Dinner just kept coming, the wine flowed (the excellent Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion again), cheese, cognac, fruit. Oh my.

I also watched Casablanca, a movie I do not think I have carefully watched before. What a stunning piece of movie history.

We changed flights in Doha, visited the Qatar Business Class Lounge, and spent the 30 minutes there just walking around taking it all in. I am convinced it is the size of Stansted Airport, with a pond, dining room, cigar room, seating areas, casual dining room, bars etc. Extraordinary. Back onto the next flight and straight into the PJs and sleep. We landed on time at 7.30 am in London on Friday morning.

Saturday August 31st 2019. Ipswich

I have always had an affinity with Italy. As a small boy I lived just outside Rome for a year whilst my Father worked on an engineering project nearby. My best friend at Primary School was Italian, and Franco (an Italian based in Ipswich) has cut my hair (on and off due to my global lifestyle!) since 1979. It is no surprise then that I purchase many of my clothes from The Italian Shirt Shop in Ipswich – owned by Antonio, he has developed his own clothing line (Antonio Bellini) and has all his clothes in his shop sourced in Naples.

I am always thrilled to visit his shop, often spending several hours chatting, and of course trying on clothes. My loyalty is rewarded with the occasional discount, not important as such but a lovely gesture. In return I use social media to showcase the clothes on my travels. It has been fun in the past to be in the shop with Antonio when a customer comes in and recognises me!

Just before I left for Rwanda Antonio asked if he could use a couple of my photographs from social media wearing his clothes to frame and place on the wall of his shop. He felt using young models to showcase his clothes was not in keeping with his typical demographic – who are mainly middle aged men with good disposal income, who recognise quality and unique style.

Today Sue, Molly and I walked to the Ipswich Marina for a coffee and then stopped at the Shop on our return to say hello to Antonio. He ushered us into the store, much excited, to show the framed photographs. Somewhat embarrassingly there are not just one or two but a whole wall of them! Bless him. How kind. I suspect I am now elevated to brand ambassador, and no longer just a loyal customer. One of my Instagram followers even suggested I could even be a male model, the new David Gandy – sadly, no.

That afternoon Sue and I walked to Portman Road to watch Ipswich Town Football Club play. This summer we purchased two season tickets, but had not had the chance to sit in our seats together yet! They are great seats, on the half way line, a decent height up to see the whole perspective of the game. Ipswich scored a superb goal after just 1 minute 58 seconds, followed by a penalty, and then , towards the end of the game, one of the best goals I have ever seen at Portman Road. I love live sport, especially football, and nothing beats the roar of 20,000 people when a great goal is scored. We are now top of the league, and unbeaten in the first 6 games of the season!

Tuesday September 3rd 2019. London

After a morning of meetings in my office I headed over to my Club (The Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly) for the annual luncheon for those who have been members for 25 or more years. It is always one of the more enjoyable events of the year. We sit around, talk of the ‘old days’ when we had a decent size Air Force, stories become embellished over a few glasses of wine. We then adjourn to the bar at 3.30 pm and continue the debates and discussions. This year I think, although my mind is still a little fuzzy, we decided we could all solve the Brexit issue if I and my fellow retired officers, with our combined multi-million pound training in leadership and management from the military, decided to become MPs and took over Parliament, I decided I was one year younger (until my wife corrected me), and that I have a healthy interest in guns! At 5.30 pm my wife and I decided some fresh air was needed before I cleared the afternoon’s emails so we went for a stroll to Fortnum and Masons and then along Regent Street and back to the Club. A sound plan.

Wednesday September 4th 2019. London, Nottingham

I do not like early mornings without breakfast. That is one of the reasons I never attend breakfast meetings. The morning should begin with a shower, shave, getting dressed, tea, breakfast and quiet. Today, my train for Nottingham was due to depart at 7.04 am. Breakfast in my Club is not served until 7 am, so I had no choice other than to hope I could obtain a breakfast on the train. I woke at 5.45 am, and left the Club at 6.30 am not having even had a coffee or tea, and jumped quickly in a cab which cruised past the Club on Piccadilly. It was raining (unexpected as I had no coat or umbrella) and I dragged my luggage quickly into the back of the cab and said “Paddington Station please”. 15 minutes later the driver dropped me at Paddington, and I entered the concourse. I looked at the departure screens but could not see any trains to Nottingham. I pulled out my paper ticket which my Assistant had organised and booked for me. Yes, the 7.04 am train to Nottingham, carriage G, seat 23a. How strange. Then I realised – my train leaves from St Pancras, not Paddington! Why had I asked the taxi driver for Paddington? Idiot. That is what happens when one is expected to function at this un godly hour of the morning without breakfast! I rest my case.

I eventually made my way over London to St Pancras, missed the 7.04 am by 2 minutes, but the ticket inspector very kindly allowed me on the 7.35 am without charge. Clearly, having seen my exasperated look, a fellow anti-early morning human being!

Thursday September 5th 2019. Nottingham.

The conference programme encouraged all the student delegates to take part in a 5km walk or run at 7.30 am, as part of the commitment to healthy living. I felt I should support this initiative, so awoke at 6.45 am, made a coffee, stretched and reported to the start point outside the hotel at 7.25 am. By 7.40 am only three others had arrived – two students who wanted to walk, and one of my fellow speakers (a University lecturer from Reading). So, guided by a student volunteer, he and I (two non-student delegates!) went for a delightful 5 km run around the Nottingham campus – what a fabulous place. A lake, beautiful parkland, some hills, very interesting 1930s buildings. A great start to the day – but why no students?

Saturday September 7th 2019. Ipswich

A rather depressing incident this morning. Whilst walking Molly in our Park this morning I strode past the Cenotaph. This beautiful memorial is in a peaceful part of the Park, at the top of a slight incline. I parade here every year with my fellow ex-military colleagues from the Royal British Legion on Remembrance Sunday (and other significant events) to pay silent tribute to those who gave their lives for freedom.

This morning the Cenotaph was being used as a form of gym organised by one of those group exercise classes. They were being drilled in running up and down the steps, and jumping on and off the walls.I was appalled. These were adults, not children, and should know better. There is a discrete sign telling children not to use the Cenotaph for a skate board or cycle course, and this has been respectfully observed as long as I can remember. Does it now need another sign for adults?

I walked over and expressed my surprise at what they were doing. I suggested they show some respect, I called them disrespectful to what the memorial represented. A couple of the participants looked uncomfortable, and even looked at their feet. The organisers just stared at me as if I was speaking in a foreign language, smirked, and then carried on.

What an analogy to all that is wrong with our society at the moment. Me, me, me. No comprehension or interest in the feelings of others. No respect for history or tradition. Oh how I wish these barbarians could have joined me under fire in the military, scared witless, needing to look after our colleagues and friends, working together to survive. But, the concept of service or duty would occur to them – as long as others do it for them. So very sad. But, in a strange way, I felt inspired after expressing my opinion to them. The greatest freedom we have in this country is the freedom of speech. The incident therefore encouraged me to continue to live my life as a tribute to those who died before us, who made the ultimate sacrifice, to live with dignity, respect, and honour.

Finally, I end with a plea – a plea we return to that essential British (and English) trait of ‘understatement’. I am finding it very tiring to listen to endless hyperbole. We no longer ‘leave’ something – we ‘crash out’; if we undertake something and we are not sure what will happen it will be ‘catastrophic’; we no longer ‘compromise’ – we ‘cave-in’. We ‘fall off cliff edges’. I could go on. No wonder everyone is somewhat stressed. It is all so ‘un-British’.

I offer this piece of advice. If you find yourself thinking of being understated try replacing the normal word with the hyperbolic version for a day and see how far you get. For example, try replacing ‘leave’ with ‘crashing out’. You would find you ‘crash out’ of bed in the morning, ‘crash out’ of the house to go to work, ‘crash out’ for lunch. You face a potential ‘catastrophe’ if you decide to try a new pub for dinner.

In the words of Winston Churchill we must KBO!

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