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Archive for the ‘Columns 2017’ Category

Every time Geoff and I walk past the travel agent’s window we glance at the offers and sigh. Cuba? Bali? Fuerteventura? The daydreams start and we take off into our familiar world of “What if?”

Why, we’re almost unpacking our cases in that amazing poolside hotel …

Reality slaps us in the face. The travel agent’s holidays look nice, sometimes very nice, but they’re not for us.

We do our own planning and research, blundering and floundering around on the internet, confusing each other with pointless observations. We take hours over something that would no doubt be achieved by a travel agent in the time it would take to unroll and lay down a beach towel.

We played a particular blinder this week when choosing flight dates and an apartment to stay in for a break we’re planning in southern Italy late next month.

Not too difficult, you’d have thought, except that the airline prices fluctuated so much over the period of a fortnight that we found it hard to pin down the best (i.e. the cheapest) dates. We eventually managed that, only to find we hadn’t factored in any of the extras, such as luggage and permission to breathe.

Seats finally booked, we turned our attention to finding a place to stay. Should we try Airbnb, our usual resource, or one of the Italian holiday home websites. Tell you what, let’s try them all!

And that’s how hours slithered away from our lives, day turned to night, and we remained oblivious to meteors whizzing around the skies. Nothing could interrupt our search for the holy grail – a modest one-bed apartment with wifi, some outside space and within walking distance of the coast. Not much to ask, we felt, as we drew up long lists, and short lists, noting how some owners helped by posting useful photos while others merely confused with images of neighbouring towns, a beach 25km distant and a randomly placed plate of pasta or a bowl of peaches.

Soon, sitting side by side at our computers, Geoff and I were drowning in detail. If I never saw another flat with purple bed linen, orange curtains and 48 dinky vases of artificial flowers, it would be too soon.

The more we looked, the more critical we became. Almost all had faults and flaws that caused them to be crossed off our lists. Two flats in the same building even turned out to share the same sitting-room, a fact Geoff discovered just as his finger was poised over the Book Now button for the one with the disturbing lime-green furnishings.

Now there were just two contenders left on the short list. They both looked ideal, but how to choose?

We slept on it. Next day, thrashing into Hour 24 of the search and by now completely understanding why sensible people use travel agents, I spotted a chandelier in Apartment A that was so naff it made me shudder.

Oh no, I said to Geoff. Look at that hideous thing, will you? I couldn’t spend a week under the same roof as that. And the doors! Oh, no, look at those ghastly doors! Suddenly Apartment A was revealing its faults to me. First world problems, I know, and I am ashamed to admit to having such shallow thoughts.

At this point, Apartment B, a little bit quirky, it’s garden slightly rambling and unkempt, reached out to me in an Italian embrace. No contest.

I contacted our host-to-be, Isabella, who is now my new best friend. We’re booked and we can start getting excited. Perfetto!

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There are certain laws by which we live our lives, often governed by statute but also by something that is probably best described as chance.

We are well acquainted with the law of averages, Parkinson’s Law, Murphy’s law, the law of diminishing returns, the law that says school holiday homework shouldn’t be started until the evening before term starts, and other laws that, in the same sort of way, add a little light and shade to life.

Let me introduce you to a new one: not so new that you won’t have come up against it sometimes, but one which you may not have thought applied to so many people. Especially to me. This is the law that makes things disappear, just like that, and then reappear in the place where you have frantically looked for them six times before.

This dastardly Law of Illusion is in full operation in my life on a daily basis, especially when I am preparing to leave the house. This is when I engage in what Geoff refers to as ‘bag faffing’. It’s merely a rearrangement of the contents of one bag into another that I deem more suited to the purpose for which I am exiting Hill Towers. I mean, who needs a rucksack when a small bag will suffice?

So I rearrange and am ready to leave. Except I’m not. Sadly, that was only Stage One of the bag faff.

Keys? Phone? Money? Geoff recites a checklist. I invariably fail on all three, having been distracted by triumphantly remembering to slip my scribbled shopping list of two items into the bag. I trudge off and round up the keys, the phone and the money.

Now, trust me, I’m ready to leave. Keys? Geoff makes a final check. Oh yes, I say, confidently. Look, I’ve just this minute put them in here. I fumble (OK, I faff). No keys come to hand. They should. They’re on a socking great keyring with jingly bits. I hear nothing and I feel nothing.

The faffing intensifies as quietly as possible and reaches a new level of desperation. They must be in your purse if you say you’ve only just put them in there, Geoff says, entirely reasonably but with what is undoubtedly a note of mounting irritation.

The bag is small. Keys cannot go unnoticed. I plunge my fingers into every corner, run them along each pocket. Nothing. No keys. But if not here, where I so recently put them, where can they be?

There’s nothing for it. I tip the contents of the bag on to the bottom stair in the hall. The first thing that falls out is the keys.

I plead with Geoff to understand that the whole pantomime has been caused by the Law of Illusion. I illustrate this further by telling him how so often a train ticket, put carefully in an accessible pocket so that I can easily flourish it when requested, becomes instantly invisible, nowhere to be found.

The heart-thumping panic that accompanies the fevered faffing as the ticket checker approaches is nothing to the relief that washes over me when the ticket materialises exactly where I have already looked – and faffed with frantic fingers – six times.

It’s quite cruel the way things can go invisible. I spotted my daughter unpacking her bag only this morning. What’s gone AWOL? I asked. My phone charger, she said, but I don’t understand because I could swear it was in here just now.

And indeed it was – but it only revealed itself after a two-generation faff of epic proportions.

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The roads are so impossible in this country! Everywhere you go there’s traffic, traffic, traffic: every motorway is jam-packed into a solid torrent of multi-coloured metal, every A-road is covered in vehicles verge-to-verge, there’s hardly a glimpse of bare tarmac to be seen on B-roads, and even on quiet byways there’s likely to be tractors and, soon, combines, bouncing along with frustrated drivers following in long processions hissing like irascible snakes.

You may know how many miles your journey is, but can only guess at how long it will take because of the great imponderable of what the traffic will be like. Queues can build up in mere seconds and cause delays that can run into hours.

Factor in the odd roadworks, a motorway closure (oh, that M3!) or, at best, snail’s-pace contraflows, plus a few diversions, and you’re looking at something that may appear on the road map to be just up the road turning into an odyssey of epic proportions.

Friends who drove to London on Saturday – a straightforward journey that they do regularly and which normally takes no longer than a couple of hours – told us of the torment they endured when they found many of the capital’s streets closed for a charity cycle ride. They were redirected this way and that, until furious and frustrated, they reached their destination six hours later.

The return journey was only a little better. Thanks to the overnight roadworks on the M3 and some remarkably bad diversion signs that sent them in circles and then back again, it still took them four hours.

Now the summer holidays are in full swing, the roads, especially in this part of the world, are even more crowded than usual. We try to hunker down for the duration, leaving the highways for others to turn into car parks. Of course we venture out sometimes, always doing our best to skirt the honeypots and the blackspots, but if we can possibly avoid a car journey we will.

That said, I had to drive to south Gloucestershire last month, a straightforward journey that didn’t involve going through any towns. Even so, it took me three hours, so that I arrived hot and fed up and dreading the drive home the next day. The lorries I’d been stuck behind made it seem as though there was some conspiracy afoot. Was someone letting them out at intervals in front of me, just to slow me down and make me late?

In fact, against all expectations, and proving how impossible it is to predict journey times, my drive back on the exact same route was a complete contrast. It took just over two hours and was absolutely stress-free. Not even that many caravans, either – but don’t let me divert on to that topic.

I think it’s the lorries that I find the most loathsome and intolerable. They are everywhere, owning the roads. Even in the narrowest lanes and tiniest, most remote villages, their drivers gormlessly follow satnavs. They’re self-important, heavy-breathing and heavy-polluting, banging and thudding into anything along the roadside that might impede them, and far too often thoughtlessly driven.

Lorry drivers used to be dependable and mannerly, truly knights of the road. Not nowadays. They’re bullies, a lot of them, and I think they, and we, would benefit if they could be tutored in road etiquette as part of the qualifications for their HGV licence. I’d offer to tutor them, too, so there. That would serve them right.

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I am not an easy person to buy presents for, being neither acquisitive nor needy, and rarely lusting over anything other than a three-day eventer that would carry me to triumph at Badminton Horse Trials. I have put in a few requests for that over the years but since no horse has materialised, not even once, would you believe, I am beginning to think it may never happen.

I can live with that because the dreams sustain me, even while my body ages and the chances of my sitting comfortably on anything other than the sofa recede by the day.

However, some people just seem to get it right. Or, more correctly, get me right. Take my sister, for example, who has had the advantage of knowing me all my life and who understands my quirks and oddities.

It was my birthday on Sunday so she came over to share a celebratory cake with Geoff and me, accompanied by her husband and their quasi-human dog, a Jack Russell that is convinced she is one of us. We’ve all tried telling her she’d be better off being a dog, but she carries on being determinedly human in (almost) all her habits.

Sis presented me with a delightful and eclectic haul of goodies, including something that really intrigued me: a yellowed, slightly faded copy of The Times from December 5 1992. Sis has been enduring Kitchen Wars at her house, necessitating a massive clear-out of cupboards and drawers, and in one of them she discovered this old newspaper. Naturally, she read it from cover to cover, and knowing how much I would enjoy doing the very same, she added it to my birthday box of delights.

And so my birthday evening passed in a happy haze, not grooming my non-eventer in my non-stable but buried deep in the news stories of 25 years ago.

To me, 1992 seems like yesterday. When I read of someone born in the 1990s I think ‘Oh, just a child,’ but of course I’m wrong. Children nowadays were born in the century that begins with the number 20, not 19-something. It never ceases to surprise me.

In 1992 the American president was someone who many had feared would be a buffoon, a lightweight with dodgy hair and a propensity for not always saying the right thing. In fact, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that history could repeat itself, Ronald Reagan turned out to confound many of his critics. He was in Britain that December, addressing the Oxford Union where, as The Times reported, he proposed air strikes against Serbia and was critical of Nato for inaction over the wholesale slaughter in that country.

John Major was at the helm in Britain, Norman Lamont was the Chancellor of the Exchequer,  suffering the fallout from sterling’s forced exit from the European exchange-rate mechanism three months earlier (yawn yawn), and Prince Charles was igniting fury by sympathising with French farmers over European tariffs (yawn yawn).

Virginia Bottomley, the health secretary, announced plans to ‘drive down’ waiting times by introducing new guidelines for GPs (sound familiar?) and there were fears of a sustained period of terrorist attacks by the IRA in the run-up to Christmas.

On the lighter side, and my word that was needed in those days, just as much as now, there was a fashion feature on the seasonal joys of see-through chiffon and strategically placed sequins. Well, thank goodness for the sequins is all I can say.

It has all made such a riveting and revealing read, written evidence that the more things change the more they stay the same.

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It seemed such a good idea at the time. Hey, I said, let’s not go to a pub for lunch to mark the end of our exercise class for the summer. I’ve got a better idea: come to my place.

Now that would have been OK if I had been addressing, say, a couple of friends. But no, I was rashly issuing this invitation to my entire class. That’s all my exercise mat-mates and our Great Leader. Oh yes please, they all said, with an equally rash enthusiasm.

No relaxing lunch in a pub garden, no kitchen staff taking responsibility for feeding 15 of us and clearing up afterwards. Everything is down to me, the daft one who’d opened her mouth and let something oddballish tumble out.

In fact I don’t regret offering to host the lunch. It’s going to be a pleasure to have everyone here as they are all such dear and good friends.

Typically of me, I am going into this great event – and, as I write, it is less than 24 hours until lift-off – with an absolute mountain of tasks to be completed. I know this because I have made lists, dozens of them, which flutter like over-sized confetti out of pockets and bags, off worktops and tables, whenever I move. They instruct me to do such things as ‘Get spare plates from cellar’ and ‘Dust top of grandfather clock’ (some of my friends are tall).

However, totally against the odds, and in a wholly uncharacteristic way, I’ve cleaned the house and done the shopping. My reward should be a long lie-down, for at least six months, but there are lists to be checked, tasks to be ticked off and added to, and panic stations to be manned.

I’ve changed my mind 28 times on what we’re going to eat. Summery stuff, obviously, so no nice comforting (and straightforward) vat of something stewy that would just need a bit of bread for mopping.

Summery food tends to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Mine is to be a multiple choice menu – or at least that’s how it appears in my head. Time will tell.

First off the production line was a delicious salad dressing. Get the basics out of the way, I told myself, as I stowed it in the fridge. Unfortunately, within an hour Geoff and I had consumed half of it without thinking when we had salad for lunch.

Already in the fridge were about a dozen avocado pears, irresistibly reduced in price because they were verging on the squidgy side of ripe. It seemed such a good idea to get loads of them,  but now I can’t think of a good reason for having done so. The same with a small van-load of cherry tomatoes, which will almost certainly be mush by morning. They looked so full of promise when I impulsively decided to give them a home.

I’ve made caponata, all dense and delicious, the product of only about six hours’ chopping and stirring, flavouring and praying over. The big question is, will I remember I’ve got it? Will it remain in the fridge, buried under a mountain of avocados and mushy tomatoes, or will I be alert enough to check one of my lists and bring it out for its hour of glory?

Since it’s the only thing on the menu so far that’s ready, there is every chance I will remember it and it will be the star of the show. The only, lonely, star, but a star all of my own making.

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What a remarkable thing serendipity is: a chance encounter, a crossing of Fate’s alignments, that puts a zing into life.

Geoff and I were heading home earlier this week from our lovely holiday in southern Brittany. We were feeling deeply imbued with Frenchness after being entrenched as natives for the duration of our stay.

We cranked up our language skills as the days went by so that we were able to have conversations with Monsieur, our landlord, and only lapse into Italian at every third word, as opposed to every second word, as it had been at the start.

The sound of our hands slapping our foreheads in frustration as the horrible realisation dawned of yet another faux pas became all-too familiar.

But we managed, and we made ourselves understood wherever we went – even to the French couple who stopped us on our first evening to ask where they could park their camper van. We gave them a Gallic shrug, a few variations on the useful word “Bouff”, and they soon got the message.

We also conducted exchanges with stall holders in the most fantastic food market, so big and so colourful that I’d like to have just stood and stared for hours. Instead, there were choices to be made and provisions to be bought before the best stalls sold out.

Later, I tortured the most heavenly ingredients into a meal in the one pan on the one hot plate in our kitchen. Haute cuisine it was not.

We felt, on the whole, that we had become as French as we could get without actually wearing a beret and a striped top. It was far too hot for dressing up.

Driving ferry-wards through northern France, we stopped for lunch in a small town we’d identified earlier on the map as being a must-see. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a mustn’t-eat, as one restaurant was full, another closed for the day and a third had gone out of business very recently.

We walked around and a local woman gave us a recommendation, naming a place up a hill in the next village. By the time we got back into the car we had, of course, forgotten her directions, so we just pootled along, not encountering a hill, until we came to a hamlet and saw a small hotel with people sitting outside under shade eating lunch.

This’ll do, we decided, even if it isn’t the one we were recommended. We enjoyed a tasty plât du jour, followed by coffee, at which point we fell into conversation with an English man at the next table. His inquiry if we were Brits did rather break our spell of being convincing natives, albeit natives with Italian accents.

Geoff and I were amazed to discover that this chap, resident in Normandy for the past 16 years (”and I still don’t speak a word of French” – shame on him) was the retired licensee of a pub that we knew well.

We knew many people in common, among them his former partner, and we learnt that he dreams of returning to live on the Jurassic coast.

Financial constraints are unlikely to allow this to happen, meaning he will probably see out his days in Normandy.

He didn’t seem too upset by this prospect, even if, by his own admission, he rarely has a clue of anything going on around him.

Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know, but now I’m back home and the usual depressing news is coming from all angles, I can see it has its attractions.

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These words are being written in the sunny garden of an annexe to a large house in France where Geoff and I are staying for a week. Our quarters, and our area of garden, are private and perfect and our kind host has even given us permission to raid his vegetable garden and picture-book apple tree.

How are we getting on with our attempts to fit in and speak the language? In two words, pathetically badly. We gape like goldfish as we struggle for the right words to come out, but we are getting by with a confusing mix of of franglais spoken with Italian pronunciation. It’s certainly novel, and totally baffling for all, particularly us.

From my observations I note that to sound like one of the locals here in southern Brittany it would help if I spoke through a half-closed mouth. Mumbling is good. Looking like a dumbstruck goldfish is not. Also, I must learn to say ’Oui’ as though I’ve been punched in the stomach, so the word ends with a little expulsion of air. I like that so much I’ve been practising it.

On the subject of stomachs, mine has misbehaved abominably since the night before we were due to set off on hols, causing me hours of torment and lost sleep while I was violently sick. (Is there any other way to be sick, I wonder?)

Treat it mean, I decided, so 48 hours later I am still on nil by mouth and hoping that when tomorrow dawns it will find me eager for a restorative diet of good local food.

I do a terrific line in martyrdom, having been brought up not to make a fuss – even when, as a child, my horribly swollen tonsils just about blocked my throat and asphyxiated me, and I fell off horses so often that I was almost permanently nursing something wonky, bruised or broken, but definitely not feeling sorry for myself.

I have allowed a modicum of self-pity to surface when watching Geoff eat his lovely meals while I nurse a glass of water and a sad expression. I’ll get over this. I’ve decided on a galette for my first proper meal back in the world of normal. It’s a sort of buckwheat pancake and I think it will do me very nicely.

Even a bite of one now would be welcome, but I must wait. It doesn’t do to rush these things, and anyway, from other observations of the populace hereabouts, I note that, in spite of all the wonderful local produce available, eating probably doesn’t feature very high on the daily agenda. Everyone is so trim. So French. So stylish.

They are also, mercifully, not given to walking along with mobile phones welded to their hands. They look ahead, they talk with friends, they have expressions on their faces. This is all in total contrast with Italy and the Italians, for whom the mobile phone was invented.

There, you get barged off the pavement by phone-users, so you have to be constantly alert for what’s heading your way. Here, there is no such danger. The only pavement perils we’ve encountered are the countless mounds of dog poo.

So it’s heads up in Italy, heads down in Brittany. Otherwise, and the tummy gripes apart, of course, everything is just wonderful and nous sommes having un fab vacance in the soleil.

Having got such a good handle on the lingo, all we need now is the ability to speak it and not look like total fish out of water.

 

 

 

 

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