I recently went on my first business trip to a place that wasn’t London, an eight-day odyssey encompassing Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Because I am a person who measures out her life in small achievements, I saw this as being one small step for my career and one giant leap into the dizzying heights of adulthood. This whole ‘being 30, owning a house and having a husband’ thing still takes me by surprise sometimes. I keep expecting to wake up one day to find I’m still a teenager, back in the room I shared with my little sister, surrounded by Blur posters and unfinished homework assignments. It is as though life has whizzed past me while I was distracted and, when I came back to my senses, I discovered that I had a ‘proper’ job, which doesn’t involve serving drinks or the National Minimum Wage.
Business trips are strange things. You are unceremoniously plonked in a strange city on the whims of your employer and, regardless of how fascinating the place may be, you can’t really explore because you have to work all day. Most of my time in Chicago was spent sitting behind a desk at the end of a long windowless corridor. I nodded, smiled, tittered politely and generally Acted British while American teenagers rhapsodised over my tattoos and bright red hair. The only time I saw daylight was when I went on a lunch run – 30 glorious minutes soaking up the watery sunlight filtering through the grey snow-bearing clouds while trying desperately not to burst into sleep-deprived tears in the middle of Office Depot. The longer I stayed, the more I could feel myself turning into one of those terrible Hollywood travelling salesman clichés – the harried, hypertensive suit stuck in an unfamiliar hotel room, swigging cheap red wine out of the bottle while they stare blankly at infomercials in a jet-lagged insomniac haze at 5am.
This isn’t to say that it was all unrelenting misery. Quite the opposite in fact. I learned many things during my jaunt abroad that will most probably stay with me for the rest of my days. Important things. I learned that Chicago is the land of both the exemplary skyscraper and exemplary sandwich and that they have a strangely addictive snack food made from a combination of cheese and caramel popcorn (it’s also covered in strange neon orange coloured dust that stains everything it meets). I discovered that it’s possible to survive on a diet of adrenalin and Starbucks iced coffee. I’ll never forget the way Las Vegas looks at night, viewed through the window of an aeroplane – miles of inky Bible blackness and then a sudden, massive flare of light – an oasis of neon and blackjack situated in the heart of the desert. I learned that sometimes it’s okay to call your Mother in the middle of the night when you’re sleep deprived, heartsick and homesick to cry “I’M IN A PYRAMID, I HAVEN’T SLEPT PROPERLY IN FIVE DAYS AND EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG”; that being driving around a strange city at 3am in red lipstick and leopard print, singing ‘Come on Eileen’ out of a car window is a great tonic for the soul and that dancing naked around a hotel room at dawn is a brilliant way to get the blood pounding. But perhaps most importantly of all, I discovered that sometimes it’s good to be on your own – just sitting, thinking, writing letters you’ll never send while eating In-N-Out Animal Style fries in an oversized bed – even if it is in a foreign country where ‘American Ninja Warrior’ constitutes wholesome Saturday night entertainment.
When I returned to Liverpool, everything felt small and cramped – as if I was looking at the world through a new pair of glasses, rapidly blinking until everything fell back into its right place. According to my husband, I spent my first few nights back home bolting upright out of deep sleep at 3am and roaring “IS THIS MY BED?” before promptly passing out again. There was also an incident where I woke up in the middle of the night and ran around the house in my underwear, desperately trying to find my passport as I’d convinced myself I had another flight to catch. Somehow, my brain had got stuck on ‘professional’ mode – the setting where I keep calm and smile my way through a work crisis on autopilot – and it took me a good few days before I managed to calm down and accept that everything had returned to normal. That, instead of dashing around major cities and living out of a suitcase, I was back chugging tea at my desk, where I had nothing more exciting to do than block the porn bots that persist in spamming the corporate Twitter.
It’s a strange feeling, this back to reality business. I’m not sure I like it. My next business trip is to same old same old London. This will require a little less self sufficiency, but something tells me it won’t be as much fun. Or involve french fries to the same degree.