Monday, February 28, 2005

Children's swings and similar equipment

Yesterday and today we mostly spend with No 1 granddaughter. She is delightful and a joy to be with, but then we are a bit biased!

A very good Thai meal tonight, then off we go to a pub quiz, where we came second and win the princely sum of £10 (that is £2 each). Not as profitable as drugs or prostitution but at least it is honestly achieved!

We will return to France tomorrow - and get back on air on Thursday, all being well.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

London and Acorn Antiques

Up bright and early to see our No 1 granddaughter who, at 20 months, is a delight and who represents a major motivation for this trip.

Later that morning we take the train to London to meet my No 1 daughter and Jan's No 3 son. By now you will be getting the impression that there are quite a few kids around!

When I was lad, travelling on the tube was spent either reading or trying to catch a good looking woman's eye and always, in typical English fashion, in silence. Now it's different. I must have heard at least 10 different languages, many of them Slovak sounding and all at significant volume.

Talking of the tube, I'm reminded of this true story. In my early days in consumer finance, I worked with a bluff, gruff but very funny Yorkshireman. We were sitting together in the office and he was on the phone talking to our corporate lawyers from the then principal office on New Bond Street, London.

Lawyer - "We're easy to get to from where you are. Just go to the top of the road, take the tube, and two stops later you're there."

Yorkshireman - in pensive mood - "Nay lad, when I were 15, my dad tried to get me down t'pit, he didn't succeed, and neither will you! I'll get a cab."

Back to our visit. Remembering that we live in a small village in rural France and that for any serious shopping we would have to make a 1 hour journey to Montpelier, Jan's head swivels continuously as we pass each shop. If you get close you can hear her whispering oohs and aahs, clothes, spend, and other profanities. It's sad really, but also nice in some strange way. Bless!

With time to kill, we down a couple of Caipirinhas and some nibbles and then head off for the evening entertainment. We have tickets for a musical "Acorn Antiques" which we booked online a few months ago. It's a strange show, if you have not followed the television series, but we enjoy it.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Harrogate to Brighton

We leave mum in Harrogate and head south on our way to Brighton. We stop for a nice pub lunch in St Albans to meet up with some of Jan's relatives.

Back on the road, we get stuck at the latest roadworks on the M25. Great! This really is the world's longest car park.

In Brighton we pick up my No 1 son from work and later meet up with Jan's No 1 daughter and No 2 son, and have dinner at a small couscous restaurant complete with belly dancer. Great fun.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

A great site for new tyres

I've found a great site for new tyres, . We had achieved 40,000 miles on our Goodyear Wrangler F1's so decided to replace them when in the UK, and save ourselves a shedload of money. I ordered them online in France and told them that I wanted them fitting in Harrogate, England. It all worked perfectly and is highly recommended.

The rest of the day is spent shopping - AGAIN!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

From France to England

We cross the channel on a huge, ex Australian navy, catamaran. Remember, I did say that this was cheap! I wondered, why the navy got rid of this boat, but hey, what do I know about these things? They had done a good job of patching all the bullet holes and it was well kitted out. The service was very good and in order to avoid redecorating their all new interior, I spent most of the short journey on the aft deck (I learn quickly don't you know) communing with the seagulls. At £50 return it is highly recommended.

The rest of the journey is uneventful (a total of 1513 kms and a driving time of 15 hrs 45 mins - you're going to be tested on this later, so pay attention.)

That night we treat ourselves to a heart stopping meal of fish and chips.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A new (cheap) experience

A new, low cost, channel service has started, called SpeedFerries . They offer £50 return crossings of the English Channel, whilst other services will charge anything up to £600 for this short journey. This makes it very expensive when calculated on a distance/speed basis and reminds me of the state owned airlines who charged fortunes for short journeys within Europe. Determined to try the new service, despite being a poor seafarer, greed wins the day. We join the A9 at Nimes, set the cruise control, and drive for 11 hours. We stop near Boulogne at a small hotel (Les 3 Fontaines in Marconne-Hesdin) with a good restaurant. Jan really knows how to pick them. We eat, drink and sleep well.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Another trip, bye bye Max

We are leaving for the UK tomorrow, to take my mother back home and also to visit all our loved ones - well, some of them. Today, therefore, is mostly taken up with mundane matters like getting the car ready and taking Max to his kennels for a brief stay. Max is definitely a pampered pooch, and I'm sure that he senses that "something's up", but then of course, something is up, so that's not so smart really.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth as we leave Max at his pension. He, of course, makes matters worse by giving us his best hang dog expression - "please don't leave me here so that I have to live like an ordinary dog - don't you care for me anymore?" I tell Jan to stop crying and pull herself together, in my best psychiatrist manner, and return home to find my mother equally in tears. What is it with women?

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Sommieres market

This is our favourite market, the second being the indoor market in Nimes. This is a genuine French market, in a wonderful setting, in the middle of this pretty medieval town. Scenes for the film "Jean de Florette" (or was it "Manon des Sources") were shot here so you have probably already seen it without realising it.

Mum decides that she wants to eat oysters, 12 of the little critters, which are ridiculously cheap at 3.40 euros per dozen. The bars do not sell food on Saturday but helpfully provide trays so that you can buy your oysters from the stall nearby. We favour Bar Partropi today because we find a table where Jan can order the wine. If like me you can't stomach swallowing live, fishy slime, then you settle for something much more tasty cooked freshly for you from the nice man on the Lebanese (or is it Libyan) stall. Either way, everybody is happy and later we set off to buy wine in the next village, St. Christol.

This small village is quite special inasmuch as it has 3 wine producers of note. We normally favour Domaine des Hospitaliers for their oak aged Merlot, but today we are on a shopping mission for my son and mother and visit Domaine de Guinand.

With the wine bought, we head off to Nimes for a little more shopping before we wend our weary way home and a meal of crispy duck a la Jan. Yummy.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Faith restored in plumbers

The plumber arrives as promised, and by 8.30 is working under the house. He indicates that by the close of day the job will be done. He worked through lunch and by 3.00 pm the job was finished. He will return the week after next to start on all the other jobs that we have been saving up. There is just no better feeling, than when your plumbing works properly!

If anyone needs a young, conscientious plumber who also speaks English then call Emmanuel on 0466 77 80 52 and tell him that Alex recommends him.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Patience or stupidity?

I'm holding my breath. The problem with the drainage beneath the house has been ongoing for over a year now. My "regular" plumber, who is more elusive than a pork pie at a Jewish wedding, continually breaks promises to turn up. Having finally lost patience, I spoke to another plumber who said that he will arrive tomorrow, at 8.00 am, and fix the problem. Needless to say, I'm extremely curious as to whether he shows or not. You may ask why I haven't called another plumber before? Am I just very patient or just very stupid? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two, but I will admit to being very loyal. However, it does epitomise some of the frustration that many expats feel with French artisans. It appears to me that plumbers (particularly good ones) are as difficult to find in the UK as they are here in France.

Talking about my frustration with French customer service, and what set me off mentioning all this, is the difficulty I'm having in trying to buy a new monitor from a large web based computer company. The order was first placed on 14th January and at the time of writing it has still not arrived. The list of their excuses would rival those of Bill Clinton's to Hillary. But persevere I will, because a) I want the screen and b) the longer it goes on, the more determined I become to crack their non existent customer service. Watch this space.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


It's no wonder that the guy who owns Ikea is the world's richest man. We don't go that often, but when we do go, we always go with a well defined shopping list. Invariably we leave with far more than we need or anticipated. You can't help but admire his business plan.

I have visited Ikea stores in the UK, Spain and France. They are always busy and there is always a queue at the checkout. Oh for a slice of the action!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Has Spring sprung?

Whilst it is blowing a gale today, it is sunny, and out of the wind it is warm. I have just noticed a tree in blossom (don't ask - I don't know what make it is) and the fig tree is in bud and has just started sprouting leaves. Last year we had so many figs that by the end of August we were all "figged out".

A Valentines dinner tonight at Mas de Roux in Bragasargues. A set meal which was good with a reasonable wine list from local growers. We were guests of friends so did not have to pay but will definitely go back and sample it again for ourselves. It's always great when you find a new restaurant that you like.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

More - getting back to normal

Its funny to think that at this time last week we were driving along the Ligurian coast. Memory is a funny thing. When Jan reminded me, I looked back at the drive with fondness but it had little relevance to my next job of cleaning the pool.

Cleaning the pool at this time of the year involves putting my arm up to the elbow into very, very cold water. Having said that, I have established a system of gloves and plastic bags that helps alleviate the pain. Having never felt the need to put anything, including my arm, into freezing water, it wasn't until I started cleaning a pool, that I understood how people who fall into a cold sea do not survive for more than a few minutes. It can really hurt.

Talking about getting into a pool, at anything short of 28 C, those bits of me that like to remain warm and cosy are not very happy, much to the hilarity of anyone within squealing distance. The realisation that I'm a wimp does nothing to stop the discomfort, so ya boo sucks to the lot of you.

England lose to France this afternoon having thrown away a good lead. I'm miserable.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Getting back to normal

Do you realise the problems that we authors have to contend with? It has taken, dear reader, several days to disentangle the notes that we have put together about our recent trip, not to mention the hours of one finger typing to post it - and do you ever write or phone? - I feel quite alone and very vulnerable - I'm not sure I like being an author.

Editors note: American readers should look for the irony in the previous paragraph, whilst English readers should stop moaning about the rain (it's England, what do you expect), and all I can say to Italian readers is, - NO, I DON'T WANT ANOTHER HELPING.

Ok, so what's normal? Normal is dealing with Max, with horrible stuff coming out of both ends, attending to mum who breaks her thumb whilst messing about with Max and finally getting off my backside to make contact with a new plumber (for those of you with long memories, no - the other one has still not shown up ).

After much sucking of air through his teeth (do all artisans go to school to learn this?) and many admonishments, as if I'd built the bloody house, we get the gory details about our drainage. Nice.

We're back to normal!

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The final leg

No time for sight seeing, we are up bright and early for the last leg home. I anticipate at least 8 hours and so it proved to be. We also planned it so that we would be driving through the tunnels between La Spezia and Ventimiglia around lunch time on Sunday. Sunday, because any sane sensible person will have lunch at home, so the roads will be quieter and also there are no trucks on the motorway on Sunday. It turns out to be a very smart move.

What an enjoyable week. We reunited sisters who had not seen each other for 3 years. We made contact with Italian relatives and we stuffed ourselves stupid with great food. The journey there and back (a 2750 kms round trip) was inspiring and very pleasurable, so all in all it was a good week away. I can't wait to do it again but will have to get into training first!.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Foggia to Florence - going home.

We leave Foggia laden with goodies, fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella, fresh pasta, wine, liqueurs and more. There were lots of genuine tears as we say goodbye. As a matter of interest, "the best" mozzarella is made from buffalo milk (according to them that know) and for the first time ever we see buffalo in a field near Rome. We were beginning to believe that it was an Italian scam. We were wrong and eat humble pie and before you ask, no, I'm not sure where the best humble pie comes from.

We take a slightly different route going back avoiding the very boring coast road down to Rome and instead take the motorway between Rome and Florence. Once again the scenery is spectacular and helps make the 6.5 hour journey pass quite quickly. We stop overnight at a 15th century hotel just south of Florence. We eat really well in their restaurant but get a bit carried away with the wine. Oh well, at least we sleep well!

Friday, February 04, 2005

Shopping and even more food

Italians talk, and talk and talk. One of the greatest business opportunities was to get into mobile phones, in Italy, 10 years ago. Walking down an otherwise empty street I noticed a small crowd of men peering into a shop window. Aha, I thought, this must a football match, I'll stop and watch. There was no football, no pretty shop assistants, no nudes, just a shop window piled high with mobile phones. Strange!

Visitors stopped by for dinner last night and the usual huge feast was wheeled out. All the conversation centred around food. The food on offer, food from the past and what they were going to eat tomorrow. This conversation lasted about 3 hours.

We eat at Trilusso tonight. The proprietor, Angelo, is a friend of Dino's. We counted 11 courses in all. The mood was a bit sombre because we are leaving tomorrow but wading through the food kept us all occupied. The bill for 5 including wine and liquers was 150 euros. Great food and excellent value!

We have got to get out of here before we all explode!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Change of plans and anarchy

A lunch time trip to a restaurant is cancelled because of snow in the mountains. We planned to make a 40 minute drive to a small village called Orsara di Puglia where Pia and Dino know a bright new restauranteur. The restaurant call us early morning to say that it had been snowing all night and that the roads are bad. I still wanted to go but the aged relatives disagreed. The upside however is that we will have to suffer homemade pasta al vongole - pasta with clams - and sepia ripiena - stuffed squid. Yummy.

No comment on Italy would be complete without mentioning their driving. It hovers somewhere between brilliant and appalling. It is sometimes frustrating, always exciting and often amusing. Imagine that you are fourth in line queuing at traffic lights. A car overtakes the line on the wrong side of the road using an opposing bus only lane. This car goes to the front of the queue , stops momentarily, and then turns right, all against a red light. It would not be unusual to see this several times in a day. Your natural reaction is anger and frustration at the myriad laws that have been broken. Rigid Anglo Saxon attitudes don't always work here. To a lot of Italian drivers a red light is advisory rather than obligatory, and frankly a slight change in attitude is all that is necessary to see their point of view. I remember clearly when I first drove in California and became aware that it was legal to make a right turn on a red light if the road to your left was clear. Many Italians feel that even if the light is red and all the other roads are clear then you can go. Once you get into this frame of mind it really does seem to work. Late in the day I drive my mother to visit the house where she grew up. The area is pedestrianised and there are no parking spaces. The only available space is directly outside the Prefectura, with police going in and out all the time, in what I subsequently realise is a bus bay. I have to park at an angle to the curb with the back of the car sticking out into the road. Nobody seems to mind because frankly I am only doing what everybody else does. I ask a man who is parked there if what I am doing is reasonable. He nods in a 'what a stupid question' kind of way. I have stupidly asked a man, who is himself illegally parked, for permission to stop. I then worry about the car for the next 40 minutes while we make our visit. So back to being English - why can't I just let the Italian take over? Double parking - don't get me going - they do it all over the place. It is not uncommon for one side of the road to be blocked by a double or treble parked car. What do the police do - nothing - they drive around the blockage and go on about their business. This laissez faire attitude by the police to minor transgressions of the law appals the Anglo Saxon in me but amuses and cheers the Latin. The stories are endless but the system seems to work and frankly I find it amusing - I love it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Food and more food

Auntie Pia makes all our favourite dishes. Each meal is huge. Typically we start every meal with a little appetiser - like little artichoke cakes covered in a rich cheese sauce - then some kind of pasta - like ravioli filled with spinach and sage. The third course is either meat or fish - roasted veal with spinach. The forth course is a selection of cheese. Jan loves the fresh ricotta which Dino proudly points out is pecorino (sheeps milk) and my favorite is fresh mozzarella - burrata, which has an unblievably creamy taste inside. We both adore Italian food and for me it is the most satisfying. The fifth course is local grown mandarins and oranges and because we are special guests out come the cakes. All the above swilled down with wines and liqueurs. Even the liqueurs are home made - limoncello, Jan's favourite. Each meal is like this and we have no idea how to cope, but somehow we do.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Rome to Foggia

We are on the motorway by 10.00 am and the road is very busy. So busy that lots of drivers use the hard shoulder to weave in and out of the traffic. These people are crazy but it all works - so maybe it's just me being boring. More about Italian driving later.

Just after the first toll booth we pass a large service area. The first time we drove through Italy, several years ago, Jan was amazed that they would call a service area after her favourite tipple - Frascati! The motorway is beautifully named the Autostrade del Sole and as we drive south towards Naples we pass the snow capped Appenines on our left and mountains to our right. The scenery is gorgeous. The majestic Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino can be seen quite clearly up in the mountains. As you are probably aware, it was used by the Germans to control the main north south route through Italy during the war and was heavily bombed by the Allies as they pushed north through Italy. You tend to mention it in hushed tones when talking to WW2 vets. A little later, near Naples, just as you turn left to cross the Appenines towards Foggia you can see a snow capped Vesuvius on your right. All very dramatic and awesome scenery.

As we pass Avellino, mum mentions that the best chestnuts come from Avellino. As we pass Benevento I bow my head in reverence because this is where they make both Galliano and Strega. It must be something in the air! Italians always know where the best of anything comes from and this knowledge features heavily at meal times. Just to keep you in the loop, the best lemons come from the Amalfi area, the best mozzarela from the Naples area, the best prosciutto from San Daniele, and the list goes on. If asked in England where the best produce comes from one would tend to say Sainsburys, Tesco et al.

We arrive in Foggia at 2.00 pm. We immediately sit down to a 6 course lunch including wine and liquers. Normally Jan and I have a sandwich and fruit for lunch so by the end of the meal we can hardly walk. We later sit down at 7.00 pm and do the whole thing again. These meals should come with a health warning, but Italians love to show their hospitality by stuffing you full of food and drink and by proudly telling you where all the ingredients come from. If you refuse anything they think that you are either mad or dead. Either way you soon will be!

I have to mention Italian television. Frankly it is awful. Some programmes go on for 8 hours or more, all contain a game show element, are stuffed full with beautiful girls and people talk incessantly. It's TV at its worst, but in its awfulness it is also compulsive watching and very funny. I'm not too sure how long I could put up with it, but for a short period, great fun.