So, with barely a couple of hours warning, Mr G informed me that we would be going to Paris for the week-end and invited me to pack ‘some warmer clothes’ since it might be colder up there than the 18 degrees we were shivering in down in the Dordogne. Men, eh?
By nightfall we were circling a curious building that looked more MI5 headquarters than exclusive hotel, in the centre of the town of Vierzon. We continued to circle it, in a monsoon downpour coupled with a hurricane strength wind, for what seemed an hour or more – until we discovered the correct route through the maze of a supermarket car park, a bus station, and a one way system, that allows you a sharp right hand turn into the hotel entrance – which is indeed in the centre of the Carrefore car-park! Mr G was continually reminding me just what a fluid language anglo-saxon can be under these circumstances.
The outside might give new meaning to ‘unprepossessing’, but inside was a revelation – testament to one man’s obsession with 1950s American kitsch. Museum quality pieces of Americana lined every wall, stuffed every room, hung from wires on the ceiling where they had run out of floor space. The foyer contained so many examples of neon signs blinking and glowing on the walls and hanging over your head that we literally couldn’t find the entrance to the lift. The view from our room over the canal at the setting of the sun was worthy of a Canaletto painting. However, you can take the French to water – you can’t make them drink. Mr Gs devilish plan to partake of a decent hamburger after years of the endless duck and lettuce in the Dordogne, was thwarted by a menu which was…duck, lettuce, more duck, with a side order of lettuce if you wished. You could even have the duck smoked. Or dried. Or grilled. Anyway you wanted it.
Duck it was then, with an undercurrent of muttered anglo-saxon.
The next day we passed through Paris, did the Eiffel Tower bit; remembered that we live a stones throw away from Bordeaux which happily contains the very best of Paris, the Haussmann buildings, the imaginative restaurants, the glorious pavement cafes overlooking the river, the museums, the finest shopping – without any of the dreary Parisian suburbs, or the traffic, or the sense of having ventured into a third world sub-Saharan continent…I did wonder if this ‘treat’ for our anniversary was going to be all it had promised. Ms Smudd, my dear friend, had burbled, as she does, something on-line about packing a slinky black dress for dinner at Maxim’s, and I had duly done so, imagining that she was aware of Mr Gs plans. He was giving nothing away, and we pitched up at a pleasant enough hotel on the northern outskirts of Paris in time for dinner. Er, a delightful Brochette of Magret de Canard. That’s a bloody duck again for those of you who don’t speak French. ‘Bloody’ being a factual adjective in this case rather than a swear word.
Early the next morning, Mr G was restless and had our cases packed by 6am – we were off again. How to dress? ‘Warmly’ he said. Sightseeing perhaps? I do possess one pair of thin socks, not an item we normally resort to in the Dordogne, and put a t-shirt under my jumper. ‘Hmmn’ said Mr G, ‘is that all you brought? I did pack your Wellies, you might get wet feet’. Intriguing.
We sped off down the pitch black motorway in our camper van, and I soon fell asleep again. I woke to Mr G nudging me – ‘Passport’?
Fortunately for him, I do carry my passport with me all the time, for he had never mentioned it before. Men, eh? No wonder he had told me to dress warmly, we appeared to be in the queue for a Ferry at Calais! ‘Fear not’ said Mr G, ‘in an hour you will have the finest English breakfast, proper bacon, real sausages, and I shall have my hamburger’.
Two hours later we were wandering desolately round Folkstone, that fine old market town beloved of retired rear-admirals. The pavements had been painted with grey and white spots, that proved on closer inspection to be thousands of pieces of chewing gum. The French love chewing gum, it is sold everywhere – I have no idea what they do with it when they have finished chewing, perhaps they fix it to the underside of the toilet seats – they don’t decorate the pavements with it. Everybody we passed was huddled inside duvets fitted with arms, and muffled with scarves, hats, gloves and snow boots. A large number of them were holding conversations with themselves. I shivered and wondered where all the retired rear admirals had gone. Perhaps somewhere where all the shops hadn’t been replaced by pound shops and charity shops selling second hand duvets fitted with arms? And tattoo artists, and fit-your nose-with-a-gold-plated-bolt artists. And we-remove-your-tattoo-with-laser artists. We never did find the ‘we’ll-take-the-bolt-outta-yer-nose’ artist. Neither had most of the inhabitants by the look of all the royal blue and bright red ‘bolted’ noses. The Methodist chapel had become a ‘Witherspoons’, the Internet cafe neither had internet nor sold coffee – it was a ‘youth foyer’ now, we were told.
Eventually we found the ‘feeding station’ for the ‘care in the community’ crowd which called itself the Hillside cafe, tucked away down a gloomy alley filled with squabbling drunks. The customers deserve a blog post of their own, every mishappen muffin topped voluble variable state of mental health in existence. Mr G eyed the double order of huge hamburgers with fries (only £2!) that the oversized female Folkstone inhabitant opposite was manfully chugging down and wisely opted for breakfast instead. Nothing quite like cold, greasy, fried bread, incinerated bacon, unidentifiable sausage and leathery egg to remind you of what you have been missing of England’s green and pleasant land.
He cheered me up somewhat by persuading the local library to ignore their myriad rules and regulations about having a permanent Folkstone address in order to use their snail’s pace Internet connection to release the less defamatory comments on this blog…even in the library it was freezing. Outside it was blowing a hooley and tipping down with rain. ‘Never mind’, he said, ‘tonight you will be seated in front of the world’s biggest fire, and you will be warm and very, very, happy’. We sped off down another motorway. 1,100 kilometers and counting Mr G.
We were not heading for Maxim’s dear reader, so much as Maxim-um girth, the catering establishment (for friends only) (and friends of an ox-like constitution, at that) run by the ultra outsized spangled leotard-wearing one-eyed Ms Smudd of this parish. Once a year she sets fire to the cardboard packaging of the ready to serve meals she wisely serves her family rather than anything home cooked, adds to it the remnants of Smudd Towers that have fallen off her hovel over the previous months and anything else combustible that is lying around, and bribes the local villagers with copious quantities of alcohol and curry cooked by Mr Smudd (Thank the good Lord!) to stand in front of the inferno and attempt to keep warm by the light of the flickering twigs. A celebration of Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions apparently. Trust me, this is no occasion for a ‘little back dress’, nor for wimpish Dordogne issue wellie boots and thin socks. Even with a borrowed ‘feed your horses in the early frost’ gillet, I turned to a block of deep blue and bad tempered ice. Eventually someone put a match to a pile of coloured gunpowder as the signal that one might respectfully return to the centrally heated camper van that one had thankfully brought with one. Always a pleasure to see Ms Smudd and reacquaint oneself with her legendary wit, but wit alone does not a woman warm keep. Mr G had to thaw me out for a full half hour with a blow torch before before my teeth stopped chattering long enough for him to make out the words…’I'm f-f-f-fu**ing f-f-f-freezing’.
The next morning, after a night in a corner of a muddy field forever England, we slid down a muddy slope, navigated the potholes (thank heavens for four wheel drive) and inched our way back to civilisation, and after travelling many miles down a decent motorway, we came upon a golf club that promised breakfast. Mr Gs honour was restored, the finest breakfast ever served in England. Superb. I’m not going to give you the address, in case you all go there. Comfy leather sofas, a devastating view over the lake and the verdant greens full of pot bellied men with umbrellas trying to drive a small white ball into a hole in the ground in monsoon conditions, a proper chef and all the Sunday papers. They even had wi-fi, so I released another batch of the less defamatory comments. So warm, I shed one layer of protective clothing. Not for long. The English habit of insisting that you would prefer to take your after-breakfast cigarette in a force nine gale saw to that.
We crossed East Anglia, now reverting to aquatic marshland by the rain, and arrived at The Old Swan hotel in Southwold. It was exactly as I remembered it, nothing had changed, except now the clientele of ageing queens and retired land agents were all huddled outside getting wet having their pre-dinner cigarette. What is the matter with England? Has nobody thought of putting a lid over small parts of it for the benefit of those who don’t wish to stop smoking? Fortunately, with the clientele all standing outside in the driving rain, we had the choice of any number of spacious sofas in the elegant drawing room – normally filled to capacity as I remember – and the undivided attention of the staff. Perhaps a pre-dinner Kir was in order? £6 bloody quid and they charge an extra 50p for a shot of Cassis? Good grief! We inspected the menu. Nooooo! Duck a l’Orange! To be accompanied by a bottle of our local Bordeaux red at…at…at…£41 quid! Bloody Norah, a £39 quid mark-up for crossing the channel? Mr G resolved to move to England and become a wine importer; he settled for a pint of Guinness and a slab of fish. Unfortunately, the chef went home after this triumph; I swear breakfast the next day was cooked by a Bolivian Cocoa farmer who’d worked his passage to England as cook on a tramp steamer. He’d managed to slide the all the right ingredients onto the plate, but that was as complimentary as I can be. He has a bright future in Folkstone.
The next night we moved to The Bell Hotel in Saxmundham. If you have to be in East Anglia during the tail end of Hurricane Sandy, I do recommend it. A fraction of the price of the Swan. It may not have the professional Farrow and Ball dulcet colour scheme of the Swan hotel, but it does put a lid over its ‘smoking area’, it has warm, comfortable beds, lashings of thawing hot water, welcoming and helpful staff – and wonders, a chef who can cook! We had minced, reared to the sounds of Beethoven, fed on organic apples, Gloucester Old Spot, encased in its own guts, and surrounded by a gravy that the chef took the time to explain to me, took him 12 hours to simmer to perfection. The best sausage and mash in existence. He even turned up for work in the morning, and conjured up the most perfectly turned poached egg, lightly scattered with fresh herbs, that I have ever set eyes on. The Savoy would have been proud to serve it. England was cheering right up.
We spent a couple of happy days revisiting all our old haunts; including Marks and Spencers, where Mr G incurred a massive bill fitting me out with the type of thermal gear one requires in England these days, which will probably never be worn again – and then it was time to cross England once more and return the gillet and torch with which Ms Smudd sensibly equips her guests, trip headlong over the bucket left in the middle of the path, navigate past the avalanche cupboards, (which put on a particularly ’spirited’ display this year), place ones order with the local trustworthy Chinese chef, and spend the evening with the sort of old friends that money can’t buy. It was a joy.
I am now fully restored to my normal good humour, and come Monday this blog will revert to dissecting politicians and journalists…