Crisis on the Continent

It started out nicely, up early, a crisp sunny autumn day, check out, cab up to St. Pancras, Eurostar to Paris.  Last time I took Eurostar it was from Waterloo, a charming station but without the guts for a powerhouse like ES; it was like having a po-mo reno on a prized Victorian relic.
The St. Pancras makeover is something altogether different, something to blog about.  One of those rare public spaces that is both architecturally interesting without being derisory, and for those who don’t give a care about aesthetics it’s enormously practical.  Easy on too.  We had an upgrade, not to the luxe business premier, but a class in-between with spacious seats, uncrowded car, complimentary breakfast.  A gorgeous day for a train journey.  Then disaster: A one day strike in France.  Of course they’d been threatening for a while, it just happened to coincide with the one day we actually needed to take a train from Paris to Dijon to get our rental car. We waited in vain for the RER from Gare de Nord for the station transfer only to discover there would be no trains for several hours.  We decided instead to take the metro but the throngs of RER users spilling over to the subway put us off.  We went to take a cab but were dissuaded; the city was in a crisis, traffic at a standstill, so we retraced our steps (and stairs, so very many stairs) back to the metro and connected seven stops later to the Gare de Lyon.
There we discovered that although trains were running they were only running half mast and our reserved tickets, although they’d still be honoured, would have to be used two hours later.  That put us in a jam: We had to get to Dijon before the car rental place closed so we could get to the hotel in Vosne-Romanee, which is virtually Beaune.  It all looked haywire.  But what option was there?  We persevered, catching a 4 PM to Lausanne which got us into Dijon at 5:40 which got us to the car rental kiosk at 5:50 which just gave me enough time to inspect the car and report back before they closed. I was in a panic about driving a standard in France in the dark in an area I didn’t know, but the sun (after a long and stark gorgeous late autumn day)was only beginning to set as we careened out of the terminal garage and into a slew of traffic with enough late afternoon glare to get us out of the city centre.  My navigator, AKA SS, had forgotten his glasses, so I was left to drive, navigate and translate.  A little stress. Here are some foreign driving tips I learnt quickly.  First, don’t turn on your lights, even if it’s dusk; you will get honked at.  Second, don’t signal.  You know where you’re going—why does anyone else need to know?  Third, merge forcefully, wilfully and with intent.  Passive merging will result in an accident.  We witnessed one on a roundabout. Although we’d reserved a Golf, we received a Citroen Nemo, not far from Robyn’s old Nissan Multi, faux-SUV but sits high.  And it goes zero to sixty.  Who could ask for anything more?
At the hotel there was only time to park, check-in and change for dinner.  We are spending our time in Burgundy in two locs, the first in the east in Vosne Romanee at Le Richebourg, sort of one step up from a Best Western but with an in-house restaurant of note.  We decided to do our first dinner on site.  SS went whole hog, a scallops ceviche with fresh raspberries and a raspberry/balsamic vinegar sorbet, then a veal roulade with a truffle risotto (quite extraordinary) and morels, a cheese course (the best of which for me was cranberry, the best of which for him was a soft cheese with ashes on it—no one knew whose) and a chocolate sponge with cardamom ice cream and a cappuccino sponge on top (honestly, it looked like a Ronettes’ beehive).  I went simpler; a French version of a caprese with shockingly tasty in-house pesto, a pork shoulder cooked to perfection but with violet mashed potatoes (it added blue colour but not flavour and was unusual) and baby carrots steamed in clove and brown butter sauce, no cheese, then a ginger bread flambé which was basically a custard with coconut brown sugar with burning calvados on top.  And, yes, we had to get some Vosne Romanee because why else would we come here?  
No one, not the rental car assistants, the hotel staff, the waiters or the concierge, offered any commiseration.  France is France.  And, come to think of it, in 2005 when I was here there were riots rampant around Paris, and last visit I got caught up in a political demo and had to shimmy my way out of it through gendarmes with Uzis, so what’s a little “whole country” disturbance? Tomorrow something else. Mea Culpa: That was not gravel at the Tate Modern as I reported yesterday.  It looked like gravel, it sounded like gravel, onlookers thought it was gravel, but it was not gravel.  It was—wait for it—10 million pieces of hand crafted porcelain each hand painted to resemble a sunflower seed.  My deepest apologies to the artist.  Makes the Chilean miner’s issue chicken feed by comparison.

Piccadilly Whip

SS tries to make his way into the Tate Modern
Another nice day.  And they call it London. We took coffee in a St. James Cafe Nero which used to be the rectory of a church, then tubed to Canary Wharf.  SS had a vision of a UK version of, say, Toronto’s Distillery District; no, it was more like a modernized Milton Keynes, high street shops in a mall, monstrous towers.  Nice views to Tower Bridge though. See the pickle from the pier below.
We tubed back to the Tate Modern.  Although the setting is spectacular it’s somehow never as fulfilling as the original, with the Constable’s and Turner’s on one side and iconic modern pieces on the other, but it was new to SS.  Can you spot him in the entrance above? The main floor was a new installation, about an acre of gravel.  Not Saturna Island gravel, Tate Modern gravel.
Press interview with the gravel artist
We tried to take lunch in the seventh floor restaurant, best view in the City, floor to ceiling windows across the millennium bridge to St. Paul’s; too busy, Monday lunch, half hour waits, that’s the small town in us, never thinking you need to reserve for a Monday lunch.
Took the same food on the street level cafe which is pleasant but noisier with characters that reminded me of extras in the Carry On films. We split up to do the few last things we could do with such a short stay.  It would have been interesting to trek over to see the Damien Hirst butterflies and magical to have tickets to Caryl Churchill’s The Number but it wasn’t in the cards.
Dishwasher shoe in Selfridges' window
We had pre-theatre dinner at Jacob Kennedy’s Bucco di Lupo in Soho.  Giles Coren (the better looking but less witty half of the unusually addictive The Supersizers Go and a sort of sergeant at arms on Gordon Ramsey’s F Word UK) says this restaurant is boffo.  (He actually said something much more thesaurus-ish, about his tongue singing the next day, big font “Peter Travers” quotable stuff.)  I beg to differ; very good simple Italian cuisine but, just an example, Granville Island's Oyama sausage far exceeded the "home made" version on SS's plate.  A pre-theatre menu made it affordable and the space has charm (in a neighbourhood of sex shops and donair take away) but I wouldn't run back.  Plus we had to reserve at 5:45 as the play started at seven.  Seven.  A revival of Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl.
From The Supersizers Go 70s, one of my faves
In the above episode, Giles follows Len Deighton's entertaining guide which recommends a host allot a full bottle of spirits, per guest, for the first four hours.  More thereafter.  For those with time to waste:Giles and Sue have a swinging time in 70s London. Anyway: Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand played the Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly film roles on Broadway last year.  The UK has gone more traditional: Martin Shaw (who has been around so long he actually starred in the 1960s Doctor in the House series) and Jenny Seagrove (Local Hero, Moonlighting) put on American accents of the sort that American actors sometimes try with Coward and Shaw.  It started off a bit flat and we wondered why they had given so much care (e.g., the outlets were American, in Boston they get a bad review and it's in the Christian Science Monitor, the broadsheet with the old masthead) and it seemed all the themes are much better explored in The Lost Weekend or Days of Wine and Roses.  But the second act was riveting, tears all round, kleenex on the floor (excuse me, tissue on the floor) and it came together with great aplomb and in weird way sort of redeemed the play itself, which had initially seemed irrelevant.  We happened in on the opening night so there were bigwigs galore, none of whom I recorgnized (behind their specially reserved area, stanchions which I promptly stepped over).  Not as much star power as I was expecting.  At a premier in 2005 for Heroes, I was four rows behind Mike Nichols, who somehow had been allowed to bring in a glass (not a plastic cup) of white wine to his seat and took surreptitious sips at almost quantifiable regular intervals.  It was one of those not too memorable plays made brilliant by Richard Griffiths (on a raked stage, it did look like his girth might give way at least twice) and John Hurt.  Afterwards I read in a paper that during one performance, when a certain audience member’s mobile rang for the third time, Griffiths stopped the play and asked her whether she had any further calls to take. This blog does have a link to Griffiths as uncle Monty, but that has nothing to do with our last day in the UK.  Tomorrow: France.  And red sludge.  Don't know when we'll have Internet again.

Don’t be alarmed ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of stainless steel.

We were standing on Bond Street across the street from the Opera Gallery where there was a giant sculpture of an ape, think King Kong not Gorillas in the Mist, ten feet tall six feet wide.  It was, excuse the pun, hugely engrossing.  We crossed to take a closer look.  Despite looking like solid steel, up close it was in fact 3,000 coat hangers!  David Mach, Turner award winner for those who keep track of such stuff.
But that was later in the day.  SS let me sleep a little late and read the Sunday papers but by ten we were on the street.  Expecting grey, wet drizzle our plan was a matinee at the National and the Tate Modern.  But it wasn’t grey, it was a Sunday to write a blog about, a spectacular day, clear and sunny and warm with a light breeze, Palm Springs nice, too nice for theatre. Cut through St. James and into Green Park, across to Hyde Park corner and into Knightsbridge, Harrods, Sloane St., King’s Road, then back through Belgravia, lousy with Lamborghinis, riddled with Aston Martins, Bentleys and V12 mercs, into Mayfair, where we looked in the windows of shops you need an appointment to view inside, up and down a dozen streets and lanes in Soho, through Liberty (in the elevators that are hand carved wood and fit about four people and are eerily precarious), and back to the hotel.  I think nearly seven hours on our feet with only two breaks.  SS calls that the gym.  Here’s the gym: 20 minutes cardio and a shower. If I had a pound for each calorie burnt I might have shopped a little more arduously.  According to, I think, the New Yorker, the richest 400 Americans pay 16.6 per cent income tax.  No wonder they’re shopping in London...  So are the Russians of course.  And the Italians, Spanish and French are all here to offer service in the shops and restaurants.  To wit, they have dumbed down the famous warning on the Tube (“Mind the gap”) to “Mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  I could go on, but there was shopping to get on with, language barrier or no. The Brits are, probably, in Andorra avoiding the tax.  There was a piece in the Observer today about a UK gent who won the Euro Millions.  He bagged £113.4 million.  That makes him richer than the remaining two Bee Gees but just slightly poorer than Earl Spencer.  (SS explained why sometimes it’s The Earl Blank and other times there’s no definite article but, trust me, the peerage is not terribly anecdotal.)  I was thinking of that nouveau riche man today as I viewed all sorts of pointless treasures.  My favourites included stainless steel collar stays (no one ever sees them, no one will know they’re not the plastic version that came with the shirt and you are sure to lose them in the laundry): £40.  A Marmite jar with a sterling silver lid: £72.  A Marmite jar with a sterling silver lid.  Hello.  Derek Rose pyjamas (I know, they’re just pyjamas, but they’re the best PJs on the planet): £139.
After we saw the gorilla we ran into a film shoot, walked right through it while the director was discussing a shot with the cinematographer, dozens of actors in 1940s period dress in heavy pancake.  For the film buff, that stretch of Bond Street is where, yes, Sean Connery originally said “Bond... James Bond.”  Makes sense now that you know... There was no nap time.  And they call this a holiday!  Shower and out for dinner.  We wandered through Covent Garden and into Soho, finally adjusting to the crowds spilling out of bars and restaurants (smoking outside the open window of a cafe is still legal here).  We had about a pack and a half today, mainly Gauloise.  For dinner nothing fancy, just a basic French dinner at Cote, a half decent chain, with food not as good as Faux Bourgeois in YVR but in a pleasant setting.  Nice window seat and OK food but our waiter was ridiculously incompetent.  He forgot one of our starters.  The food for a table behind us came up before their drinks and it was wrong.  He got the wine wrong at another deuce.  The table beside us ordered dessert, apple tart and chocolate mousse, and a chocolate fondant came up.  Meanwhile SS ordered the fondant and I ordered verveine tea.  The waiter took the neighbour’s fondant into the bar, then brought it back to SS.  Then he never went and told the kitchen about the wrong order so they waited another ten minutes for the mousse to come out of the fridge which another waiter finally brought to the table.
Fun fact to close: The French call verveine elephant infusion.  The English call it verveine even though it’s technically lemon verbena.  One of its properties is to purportedly keep away vampires.  It will be easy sleeping tonight.

I thought the major was a lady suffragette

The priority check-in was fast and the priority security slow (you have to take your laptop and fluids out of your luggage, have these people never flown before?) and the lounge packed and the plane full. But it was a dull and drizzly day and it seemed perfect to be leaving. I forgot to phone mum and dad! That’s because I discarded the chore list. It is after all vac. SS and I in adjacent aisle seats but the privacy blinds make it inconsequential. The dinner options were smoked salmon salad with fennel, orange and dill; organic field greens salad; a choice of Alberta beef tenderloin or chicken stuffed with wild mushrooms, Cajun halibut or ricotta ravioli; breads; cheeses; trio of sorbets. I wouldn’t know; SS ate it (chicken) but I spread out on the flatbed, put on earplugs and a mask and fell asleep. Six good hours rest, nothing to turn your nose up about on a plane. Breakfast (wonderful seasonal fresh fruit and croissant but a dismal excuse for an omelette.
It was a mild grey day at Heathrow on arrival (very early, even with 20 minutes in a holding pattern), with a Qantas A380 double-decker super jumbo at another gate, and we were virtually first off, leading the two or three kilometre walk to Customs. We had an “invitation” to a separate queue and bypassed about 200 people, walking straight through. Our “priority” luggage came through first (never does at YVR) and we then used our “invitation” to freshen up at the arrivals lounge. So far it was a gratis delight. Not for long. When I first arrived in London in 1981 the money slipped from my wallet like rain. The Canadian dollar traded at a ridiculous 2.85 against sterling. I received a CDN $500 cheque and it converted to £175! Ah, but they say some things never change. (With apologies to Patricia Marx) Fast train direct to Paddington, great, my time is money! (£18/$29CDN); queue up in traffic for a cab from Paddington to hotel (£9/$14CDN, if you’re lucky in the roundabouts and the one way system). Forget that, it reminds me of the first time I made a phone call in London—you just keep adding money, over and over. I’m on vacation, my time is less valuable; spend an hour on the tube from Heathrow to central London (£4.50/$7.25CDN, hope you can find a place to stand and don’t come in over five foot three and, when the football yob opens a Holsten and the chip-eating teen beside you squishes his tomato sauce packet, hope you’re wearing jeans). We’ve arrived. Tip to bellman (£3); yogurt with fruit—should have had the airplane omelette (£3.95); tea (free in room, imagine). I arranged to see my expat YVR friend Simon for lunch which turned into dinner and involved three cab rides, kaching. SS took several long walks and opted for room service; that made my day out look like a spree at Winners. Twenty six pounds for a club sandwich! I should add we’re at the Sofitel St. James on the Mall. It sits in a renovated bank, fortress like, and even with our small room the high ceilings and 14 foot windows give it some majesty. Totally swanky, and beyond our means, but we got a special deal on Expedia: Pay for a week and stay three nights. As accommodation goes in central London this was a steal!
Free Internet ($14.95 a night in a YVR hotel) and a spectacular Epeda bed, like sleeping on a S’more: a rock hard base, a firm mattress, a marshmallow feather top and Yves Delorme sheets. A shower system so perplexing we have dubbed it the Escher.  Hermes toiletries; I like trying expensive things for free if only to know I don’t need to buy expensive things...
Wings’ Jet is about a person, not a jet! Who knew? Bad title. Too tired. Night night.

Yes, it’s a travel blog.

Harper's recently reported that about two-thirds of the one billion Indians living in India have access to a mobile phone whereas just over half have access to a toilet.  We've decided to forgo the mobile phone and blog.
I promise no lamenting about missing the dog.  And we will not hold seances a la the late Canadian Prime Minister who named all three of his Irish Terrier's Pat and talked to them during seances.
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