This travelogue is more out of order than most.
While working for Megazone in England about a year ago, I took brief side trips to Finland and France; but I never took the time to travelogue them. So I'm doing it now. The trips were about a month apart, but that's not how I'm going to tell the story.
One Friday afternoon I'm sitting at my desk, and Pat wanders up, and says "Doug!" in a friendly sort of a way.
This is often a bad sign.
"How'd you like to go and drop in on Tapio?"
Tapio is the main Megazone man for Finland and a few surrounding countries. I express to Pat the opinion that Tapio is probably quite busy with the brand new equipment he's installing in his new Helsinki site.
This, Pat explains, is the problem -- the brand new packs have inexplicably begun to fail. Six have failed so far, and the fear is that the remainder will follow in short order. Since Tapio is planning to use these packs to run Finland's national tournament in two days time, this is a Bad Thing. In the interests of good customer service, Pat wants to send me to Finland to carry in replacement parts, and to help find and fix the problem.
My flight is in about two hours.
Simon drives me home. Thanks to Leicester's tortuous one-way ring road (which is a ring in the topolological but not the geographic sense) driving is about twice the distance as walking, but it's still marginally faster this way. I throw clothes in a carry-on bag, and we drive back to the office. Meanwhile, at the office they've ripped the hearts out of a dozen of Leicester's packs. Leicester is running the same gear as Helsinki, and so I can carry these parts as potential replacements.
As we pack the toolbox, I enquire as to the weather in Finland. Pat says that winter is well over now, and it will be quite warm. There is a pause for a couple of seconds, and then everybody laughs.
Bhupesh drives me to the airport, about forty minutes away, and I check in and wait.
My flight to Marseille is much less rushed. The site operator there is upgrading from the older style hardware to the latest gear. He's tried to install it himself, and failed. This is hardly surprising -- the installation is sufficiently complicated that in the US, we don't even allow operators to try to install it themselves. So Pat needs to fly someone out to do the installation, and he's offered me the job so I can see a little more of Europe while I'm out this way.
In both cases, my flight is indirect, via another nation.
Air stewardesses in Europe all speak two or three languages, and have a remarkable ability to spot what language it is that you speak simply by looking at you. As we board the flight, a stewardess greets each passenger, getting the language correct most of the time. Some of them have a little difficulty guessing my language; I suppose that they don't get much practice in recognising Australians. But they only get it wrong once; once I've spoken English to them, they remember my language for the rest of the flight. When they serve an in-flight drink or meal, they walk up the aisle asking each passenger in turn what they would like to drink, in the correct language every time.
In the airport in Switzerland, they have a separate security check at each gate. So you get checked twice before you get on your flight. They also have numerous security personnel armed with automatic weaponry; and an armoured car, the kind you see KFOR driving around in on the news, the kind that looks more like a tank than a car. Note to would-be terrorists: put Switzerland right at the bottom of the list.
At both my destinations, I clear customs, which involves just walking through and flashing my European Union passport, step out into the arrival area, and am spotted by the person I'm meeting. It helps that we're all wearing Zone logo clothing.
Tapio, like half the population of Finland, speaks perfect English. (The other half speak perfect Swedish.) The Marseille site owner, M. Adam (/m'syeu ud-um/) speaks no English, and I speak no French. Well, almost none -- I bought a phrase book at the airport before I left, and have memorised the key phrase "Je ne parle pas Francais": "I do speak not French." Marseille is in the part of France furthest from England, and almost no-one here speaks English, so this phrase, along with a shrug and blank expression, comes in very handy.
In Marseille, I'm staying at the Ibis Hotel (/ee-bees oh-tel/). In Helsinki, Tapio hasn't had time to make a hotel booking, so I'm staying at his place. Tapio's house is in a wooded suburb on the outskirts of Helsinki. There are patches of snow on the ground in spots where the sunlight seldom falls. The Ibis Hotel is in downtown Marseille, just off the same twisty turny street as the site, the Rue du Rouet ("road of the wheel"); a short distance from the harbour, which lets out onto the Mediterranean. The weather is hot and the sky is a beautiful blue.
In Helsinki, it's late, so we sleep, rise early in the morning, and drive into the city centre, where the site is located. The city has trams, of the same type as Melbourne. The city centre is elegant and pleasant, although the air is rather bracing. We drive past the front door of the site (which is in the very centre of the very centre of the city), and down a ramp under a building. There's an underground car-park off to the right, but Tapio pulls up facing the blank wall to the left, winds down the window, and waves a card in the general direction of a panel. The panel and card must contain some sort of radio comms, because the wall in front of us silently concertinas aside, in James Bondian fashion. Tapio drives into the car park thus revealed and parks in his spot. We then take an underground journey through service corridors, which bring us to the back of the arena.
In Marseille, it's the middle of the afternoon, so I check in to the hotel, and we go straight on to the site. Parked cars pack both sides of the street. The French are in the habit of not leaving any space between them and the car in front; they edge up until they hit it. When they want to leave, they simply nudge the several cars in front or behind them until there is enough room to pull out. The streets are pokey and the shop frontages small. The Megazone's shop frontage is completely covered by a roll-a-door.
In Helsinki, we are racing against time to find out what has caused six packs to fail. Tapio and I are completely at home with the pack electronics and with the oscilloscope that he has produced from the back room. We follow around, and soon find the transistor that is failing. Tapio notices that all the failed transistors are from the same batch. We check through all the still-working packs and find just two more with transistors from the bad batch. So sending me was all a bit of an over-reaction: only two more packs were fated to fail. Still, Pat wasn't to know that; given the information he had available, sending me was still the right thing. We set up a production line, with me removing boards for repair, Tapio changing out the faulty transistors, and me replacing the fixed boards. We get finished just as opening time rolls around.
In Marseille, I have to find out what's wrong with the computer system, and the answer is, a whole bunch of things. The graphics card is screwed up so that the mouse pointer is invisible; the ethernet card is screwed up so that networking is notworking; and several other things besides. Oh, and it's in French.
MS Windows is capable of being "localised" into a wide variety of languages. This one, not surprisingly, is set up in French. I've never played with the localisation stuff, so I'm afraid to just flip it into English -- I don't know if I'll be able to switch it back into French. So I'm left reading error messages in a language I don't speak. And since the mouse pointer is invisible, I'm using the keyboard. I know all the Windows keyboard shortcuts in English, but they're not all the same in French.
The funny thing is that although I can't speak French, and can't understand spoken French whatsoever, I can almost read it. A thousand years ago, some bloke called Norman invaded England, and he brought a lot of his language with him. The result is that with knowledge of just a few words of French, like "the" and "with", I can just barely puzzle out what most of the error messages are telling me.
I get most of the problems solved, except the video card. I can't fix it without the drivers, and I can't explain to my hosts what it is that I need. I want to get to a web-connected PC so I can download them off the Internet, but even though I now know the French word for driver ("pilote"), I can't communiate this to them. Eventually, they go out and buy another identical card, which comes with a driver disk, so that solves the problem.
I get the system working well enough to talk to packs, and run into problem number two -- due to an arcane misconfiguration, the packs will not download their scores to the system. The packs need to be reconfigured, and due to the architecture of the security system, they can only be reconfigured via a physical key, which has to come from Australia.
How on Earth can I possibly explain this to the site operator?
I can't. It's about 11pm anyway, so it's a plausible time to knock off for the night. I've made lots of visible progress, getting the computer configured, the software installed, and the system talking to packs, and the fact that it fails to talk to some packs under a certain (albeit critical) circumstance is not yet visible to them. So I return to the hotel, wait an hour for morning in Melbourne, and call Australia. We talk for a while, plot a course of action, and then I go to sleep. In the morning, I wake up, and call England. The end of Australia's day overlaps with the start of England's, so they're already up with the plan -- they'll ship me a key which they already have in England, and we'll drive to the airport to pick it up.
We do this.
It doesn't work.
This is impossible; it's never not worked. We repeat the dance -- I work at the site all day 'til 11pm, return to the hotel, wait an hour, call Melbourne, they work on the next part of the plan while I sleep, they communicate that to England, then I wake up, call England, and get my next set of orders. I spend much of the day attempting increasingly desperate solutions, and then conversing with England again. Often this involves them calling me at the site; and for some of the time, I'm the only person there. So the phone rings, and I wonder whether it's a call for me, in English, or a customer calling to enquire about game prices and so forth, in French. Most of the time, it is for me, and on the one occasion that it's a customer, and I trot out my "Je ne parle pas Francais", it turns out that she's a tourist visiting from England.
In Finland, meanwhile, everything is easy. We've fixed our problem, and I lounge around doing nothing while Tapio runs the site. I play a little with the PC that runs everything. Unfortunately, there is no cross-pollination between English and Finnish, and I learn a grand total of one word of Finnish from the site PC: "Pikakuvake", which means "Shortcut to".
In Marseille, I admit failure. This is difficult, as it involves a phone call to someone who speaks both English and French, and then a lot of handing the phone back and forth.
That leaves me the final day for tourism. I visit a cathedral that is visible from my hotel room. It is easy to find despite the twisty- turniness of the streets, as it is at the top of a very steep hill. I simply keep going upwards until arrive. Going down is harder and I get disoriented, and find myself lost in a city whose language I do not speak. Nevertheless, a little casting around finds a familiar street.
I have lunch at Quick Burger, a fast food chain. It's odd that in America, French is tres cool, and you see fashion labels and the like using French words; but in France, American is kind of cool, and the central character in Quick Burger's advertising is a guy dressed as a cowboy. The ad copy is in English, with notes underneath translating into French, and the cowboy is supposed to look American. It is, however, completely obvious to me that he's French. I think I'm picking up on that thing that the stewardesses can do.
In Finland, it's the day of the national tournament. The rules are posted on the wall, and the only part that I can read is the credit for the original source: "garble garble Australian Zone 3 garble garble Zone 3 League Rules".
I play in the solo competition. The top twelve people get through to the finals, but I have difficulty getting my act together in two of my three games, and I come in thirteenth. I also play in the team competition. At almost any tournament anywhere in the world, there's a pick-up team, made up of small groups of people assembled into a team by the organisers. It's teams of four, and my three team mates all speak Finnish and perfect Swedish.
This lends games a certain bizarre quality: many of the players on opposing teams speak English, and I can chat to them quite happily; but with my own team mates, I can communicate not at all. The deactivation time (how long your pack goes down for when you get shot) is fifteen seconds, much longer than I'm used to, and to my hyped-up reflexes, this is long enough to stop and do a little dance. On one occasion, I do exactly this: I come across an opposing player, standing the other side of a barricade from a team- mate. Either of them could easily lean around the barricade and shoot the other, but neither knows that the other is there. I could easily tell my opponent of my team mate's presnce, but how can I communicate the reverse? So I do a little dance in plain view of both players, staring fixedly at my opponent, while making "whoop whoop" noises. The plan is that I will engage his attention, and my team mate will follow my gaze, realize that there is a bad guy there, and shoot him. But it doesn't work -- my team mate evidently thinks that I'm crazy, and walks off in disgust.
In Marseille, I walk back to the hotel, pick up my bags, and catch the underground to the central station, which has a bus to the airport.
The underground train has tyres instead of steel wheels.
I get lost again in the train station, but after some serious wrong turns, find my way to la navette pour l'aeroport (the bus for the airport).
In Finland, Tapio drops me at the airport.
In both countries, I wait a couple of hours for my flight, deal with more preternaturally multilingual stewardesses, and return to England to sleep.