On the floor: To the States - for a joke or two

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The Independent Online
What a waste of a weekend. While my friends spent theirs basking in the sunshine and lazing around in pub gardens, I was locked away in the middle of nowhere with my colleagues. The event? The annual global team conference.

Last year's bunfight was organised by London and took place in a small but deeply impressive historic house, stuffed with antiques and oozing aristocratic good taste. We all drank loads of fine wine and smoked vast cigars, and generally pretended that this was our natural habitat. Six months later our lordly host was arrested in connection with a nasty series of frauds (he had some expensive habits to support), and he is now awaiting trial.

This time, it was the New York team's turn to play host, so we found ourselves in the American countryside in an anonymous, ultra-modern hotel plainly designed by a Scandinavian architect in the thick of a particularly dismal winter. The building somehow managed to combine a lugubrious atmosphere with rather too much in the way of glass instead of walls. As a result, taking a shower wasn't the relaxing business it should have been, especially as the jogging trail ran right past all the rooms.

As for the guests ... Laura thinks there must be a secret robotics factory deep in the Midwest where they turn out American business men and women by the hundred: identical haircuts, identical white-walled smiles, identical firm handshakes. As she pointed out, "They can do it so much more cheaply than the Europeans, too, because they don't need to give them a sense of humour."

Not that Rory would have been best pleased to hear a comment like that. Before we clambered on to the plane on Friday afternoon, he gave us a lecture on how to behave, which boiled down to one salient point: no jokes. Fair enough; after all, he was stuck with explaining them all to Mikey last time, including the one about the nun and the elephant. But also on the banned list were irony, sarcasm, cynicism and generally being European. "Read a self-help book on the journey to get you in the mood," he suggested. "I want mindless enthusiasm for the whole conference, jetlag or no jetlag."

"Well, if nothing else it'll give us an insight into how smokers feel," Laura said afterwards. "If we want to be witty or make a snide comment, we'll just have to go and do it outside."

Which is how Laura and I came to be such good friends with the hotel doormen during our stay. Carlos and John were a revelation - conscientious objectors to the American Dream, blessed with a wicked sense of humour and a keen eye for the absurd. They livened up the evenings no end - which was lucky, as our New York colleagues had no head for drink and tended to pass out after a single bottle of wine.

By early Sunday afternoon all the meetings and talks were over, so Laura and I went outside for another fix of Carlos and John's tales of American absurdities. "Good," said John, "you'll enjoy this one. We had this English guy here the other week, always going on about how wonderfully ancient everything at home was. So we told him it was illegal in the US to own a house more than 10 years old. All those quaint wooden places were modern copies. He believed every word. What a dope! You'd think he'd never heard of humour."

There was a long pause. "I don't think that's very funny," I sniffed, and stomped back inside. Honestly, these Americans, they can't be serious for a moment.

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