Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Really Back Now

I am back indeed, as my dear mother is going home tomorrow morning. So, prepare to be regaled with tales from the Continent.

But first: the week's catch up news: not much really.

We spent the afternoon in Richmond with my grandmother and ate London's best fish and chips at the Fish Bar on King Street. When we left, a wintry haze had descended, though it wasn't so cold.

I am no longer fighting the sore throat I developed the day I returned from Italy, but have moved on to the stupid itchy cough. I could have done worse; sitting for days in a coach with lots of people is akin to a few hours in a plane.

Yesterday I showed off a bit in the kitchen and made my tangy grapefruit recipe for Mum. Landlady gave us the dining room as well as two Christmas crackers. I am abandoning my recipe, as the new thyme honey I had bought ruined the flavour and aroma of the sauce. I was standing over the pot insisting, "It smells different....ew, it tastes all wrong!" I can't describe it, but it was sort of pungent. The sauce is supposed to be tangy and sweet with a layer of spring oniony-ness, but all of that was lost thanks to that honey. Mumsy was diplomatic and said nothing, even emptied her plate. Unusual for her not to comment on my cooking. You know how it is with the daughters of good cooks, they can never get it right.

Oh joy! My Dad called me last night! Last year I wouldn't hear from him unless I contacted him first, so I stopped and waited to see how long he would take. He had the flu over Christmas and New Year's, so he must be in the post-flu bout of depression, and missed the familiarity of his ex-family.


And now, gentle readers, be prepared for a vicarious holiday. You deserve it now that you're back at work ;)

Monday 19th - Welcome to France

Our drivers were Dennis and Billy, northern lads. Dennis was the quiet one in charge with a little dry humour that we only heard over the intercom. Billy was the younger one on the sugar high who never ran out of quips. He was from Sunderland and it took me a couple of days to start to understand him.
We crossed at Calais and then made an alcohol stop. Mum and I bought a coconut and chocolate rum from Guadeloupe. It is...abominable.
In the ferry we had a nasty 'caf' dinner and were stuck with the annoying oaf who was picked up with us from London and who waited with us for the coach.
From Calais we drove for hours through freezing fog and arrived late at a little hotel in Rheims.

Through the windows of the ferry, I could see seagulls flying in the opposite direction. In the dark.

Tuesday 20th - A Spot of Excitement and Onwards to Italy

In the morning we awoke to hear that the coach had been broken into and wouldn't start because the electrical system had been tampered with in order to open the hatch. This was a lovely 5-week-old Volvo worth over £200,000! Luggage had been opened and clothing strewn all over a wet alleyway. Some people lost jewellery and electronics, but thankfully ours were untouched and we keep our valuables in our overnight cases anyway.

The manager called the police and a Volvo mechanic and another lady and I were roped in to help with some translation. The police could do nothing really; the mechanic came long after they'd left, called an electrician, and then one of his friends. We were over 6 hours behind schedule.
They provided us with free tea, coffee, croissants and placed us in a conference room where the wickedest members of the group wrote down cheeky things on a meeting board. After a while the one who had started it turned a new sheet and expressed our appreciation and Xmas wishes. Having meandered around chatting with everyone and ignoring the oaf who had attached himself to Mum and me, I went over and wrote it in French underneath and received a resounding applause.
The hotel was very kind and fed us a 3-course lunch on short notice. When someone came in asking if anyone spoke French, there was a loud rustle as everyone in the room turned and pointed at me.

We had a nice salad with vinaigrette and a topping of warm duck giblets (best salad on the whole trip). Roast duck leg in a white wine reduction with pasta (this being definitely make-do food for 35 people!). Still-frozen profiteroles in warm chocolate sauce. Finally, espresso. I drank one and thus began my trans-continental enjoyment of a beverage I used to detest!

Once on the road, we whizzed past Salzbourg in the dark, where we had been supposed to stop for a wienerschnitzel type lunch, passed very late through Switzerland and finally made it to Lake Maggiore on the Italian side. We arrived at the hotel in Verbania at midnight, where the major domo and the chef had waited to lay out our 3-course meal with grilled trout as the main. Some had gone straight to bed; Mum and I left after the minestrone soup but a few brave souls stayed to the end and went to bed at nearly 2am.

Our room was absolutely cavernous! The bathroom alone was the size of a small bedroom. The shower in Rheims was great, but this was a bathtub with a shower head attached so high up the wall we could hardly reach it, plus it was on the wide side of the tub, so where is the water supposed to go? Ended up running a bath and washing my hair under the tap.

I awoke in the wee hours to the most frigid room I have ever inhabited. My nose was so cold I could not feel it. I turned onto my stomach and rested my chin on the pillow so my warm breath would hold off the frostbite (!). With nothing but two blankets and a spread, and despite my long flannel jammies and socks, I slept fitfully between 2 and 6, when the heating came back on.

1) The Europeans seem to be inept at arranging convenient bathrooms. (Seriously, last year I stayed in a 550 Euro per night room, the shower was set on a cradle above the tap - all plumbing again set against the side of the tub. Every night I created a puddle on the marble floor...)
2) Only good thing is they always provide a bidet!
3) It seems in the closed season, unused plumbing runs rusty for a long while!
4) Cutting off the heat is either a European attempt at environmental conservation, or those hotels were lacking the extra star needed to keep it on for their guests!


MattJ said...

Justa quick visit to say welcome back and happy new year liv! not had a chance to read your blog properly yet, they are expecting me to work here! Bloody liberty I call it.

Anyway, will comment properly later!

MattJ said...

Ok I read through now, sounds like the trip was eventful, am very jealous! One day i will make it to Italy, this I have promised myself! was going to go a couple years ago, planning to go camping around La Garda so I could head off to that open-air opera festival they have (I forget where but it is near by apparently). I think camping would very much be a solo adventure though as I am the only person I know who fancies giving it a go! lol!

Anonymous said...

good details.......but I'll have to finish this later.

M. said...

I didn't realize you were going to Italy via France. Had to laugh on the "convenient bathrooms" comment - we once stayed in a hotel in France (can't remember which city) that had a weird shower stall/tub where only half of it was covered in glass, so water got everywhere else in the bathroom. Don't understand why they didn't just cover it all...


Olivia said...

Matt - then your friends are wise not to go with you.

Vanessa - zut, sorry it's so long!

Mers - I know! They design such great clothes and cars but haven't the first idea about bathrooms.
Americans always win on that score, except they need to learn about bidets.
Don't let me forget to mention the toilets in the floor at Courmayeur (in the Alps! So far down to go just for a cold bum!)

Anonymous said...

I have to give credit to the japanese on their toilet....nicely heated seats so you don't have to put your butt on the cold porcelaine.


Buffy said...

I don't know that I agree with all your 'impressions'. But I would say....don't expect five star quality on the continent just because a hotel is five stars. And never, ever, drop below four, unless you want to be seriously scared to death.

Olivia said...

Hi Buffy - We had no choice, the company put us in 3-star hotels.

I was seriously scared when I travelled through the south of France with Vanessa (see comment above yours) and her bf at the time, who could only commit to a student budget total of 30 Euros per night (not each, I mean total). Some places were pretty modern and clean; others, like in the expensive town of Montpellier, were truly nasty.