Enjoying space in France

WE LIVE IN A SMALL flat without neither garden nor a balcony, but near the centre of London and two large parks. For several years, we used to drive to France, where we hired country houses in rural locations from an organisation called Gîtes de France. A ‘gîte’ is essentially a furnished house available for rent to holidaymakers.

The organisation used to issue handbooks listing the houses available in various regions. Each home is given a category between the lowest 1 and the highest 3 ‘épi(s)’ (ears of corn). When we planned our trips, we used to choose from the houses on offer in the 3 épis grade. We had several criteria that determined our choice of holiday home. First, it had to have at least 100 square metres of usable space because we wanted to experience living in a spacious place for at least one week per year. Second, it had to be equipped with machines both for both clothes and for dishes.  In addition to fulfilling these requirements, there was one more thing we always wanted: a barbecue.

My wife had hired gîtes before we married, which is why we considered doing this for our family holidays. The first one we hired was in a small village, Poilly-sur-Serein near the famous wine-producing town of Chablis in Burgundy. The building was easily large enough to house my wife, her parents, who had flown over from India, our daughter, and me. We used the barbecue almost every evening, preparing vegetarian kebabs for my in-laws and meaty ones for the rest of us. Staying in Poilly-sur-Serein whet my appetite for trying other gîtes.

One April, we hired a lovely house in the south of Provence, not far from Orange. It was next to a cherry orchard and had a large garden. We could not use the garden much during the day because that year there was a heatwave in the south of France. Temperatures were hovering around 37 degrees Celsius and the best place to be was in our air-conditioned car, in which we explored the local and not so local sights.

One of our favourite hires was also in the south of France, in the Aveyron region. The house was located inside the walls of the ruined Templar’s castle at St Jean d’Alcas, which is but a few miles south of Roquefort-sur-Souzon, the centre of Roquefort cheese-making.   We visited the small town of blue cheese fame several times and ate some meals in its restaurants. At one of these, a cheese trolley bearing thirteen different types of Roquefort was wheeled to our table. Although they looked alike, our waiter patiently explained the characteristics of each before advising us that it was best not to select more than four of them on a plate at any one meal. At another eatery in the town, I could not resist sampling the ‘Menu Roquefort’, a three-course lunch consisting of dishes that included the town’s famous blue cheese. My starter was an omelette which incorporated the cheese. This was followed by meat in a sauce based on Roquefort. The dessert was a Roquefort soufflé. Although this might sound heavy, it was not because whoever prepared it was a good cook with a light touch.

The gîte at St Jean d’Alcas was so lovely that we hired it a second time, a year after our first visit. During the second stay, there was a grand celebration in the tiny village. It was probably Bastille Day. Long tables were set out in the lane running alongside our house. In the evening, we were invited to feast with the locals, who had flocked in great numbers to the usually deserted village. We joined the friendly crowd seated at the tables and were offered one of two main courses. On offer from huge cooking vessels, there was either tripe in a delicious sauce or grilled local sausages. It was a fine occasion with unlimited wine. The following morning, the tables and benches had disappeared, and the picturesque village had returned to its normal sleepy state. 

There was only one shop in St Jean d’Alcas and its merchandise was limited in range but delicious. It sold bottles of a liqueur like ratafia, but with a different name. Apart from that, we had to buy our food supplies elsewhere, mainly in street markets and supermarkets. Shopping for daily needs was one of the many attractions of having our own home away from home.

One curious feature common to all the gîtes that we hired was that each of them had only one toilet/bathroom however large the building. In 2000, we hired a large house in the Haute Loire at a tiny village with a ruined castle, Arlempdes. Its location next to the castle walls was wonderful. It overlooked a sharp curve in the river. This four-storey building had accommodation for eleven people, but only one toilet and shower. Both were inconveniently located in the basement of the gîte. Had there been eleven of us, or even just five of us, having only one toilet would have been extremely inconvenient. As we were looking for extra space to enjoy, this property more than fulfilled our requirements.

We gave up driving through France several years ago. Most of the places we wanted to visit were more than a full day’s tiring drive across France. On the way out, this did not matter as we had an exciting holiday to enjoy. But the return journey was never much fun. There was the long drive through France towards the English Channel, much of which involved driving through the often-dreary areas of the northern part of the country. Then, there was a shorter but much more exhausting ‘schlep’ through Kent and south-east and central London … and the prospect of returning to work. By the time we reached our tiny flat, we were ready for another holiday.

Brighton and the Alps

‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father.  He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.

Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.

On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.

After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:

I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”

And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.

I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’.  Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.

Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open.  Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.

She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.

After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.

I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.

French connection

WE HAVE BEEN WARNED repeatedly that during the current covid-19 pandemic that travelling abroad, leaving the UK, is not without the risk that after returning home we might have to go into quarantine for fourteen days. The rules relating to quarantine are strict and include remaining at home twenty-four hours a day. This means, amongst other things, not emerging from home even for exercise, shopping, or going to work. For those who must leave home for work and cannot work from home this quarantine can lead to serious loss of earnings. Currently, the state will not compensate those who have to quarantine because they have returned from a country that the British Government considers having a higher rate of covid-19 virus infections or infection rates. I suppose the argument is that like heat, which flows from a higher to a lower temperature, the virus tends to flow from an area of higher infection to one with a lower one. The quarantining is meant to be part of minimising the risk of importing the virus into the UK from abroad.

Some countries may be visited by people living in the UK without the need for people returning from them to have to stay in quarantine. Until recently, the Government was happy for visitors to France to return to the UK without needing to go into quarantine for a fortnight. Because of this and despite warnings that covid-19 infections were on the increase in France, British holidaymakers were happy to take a risk by travelling to France. From the outset, the Government warned that at any moment there might need to be a change in the situation regarding quarantining after visiting abroad.

On the evening of Thursday 13th August 2020, the British Government announced that anyone who visited France and had not returned to the UK by 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August would need to go into quarantine for 14 days after reaching home in the UK. Between this late evening announcement and early Saturday morning, many British holidaymakers in France were panic stricken and tried to reach British soil before the 4 am deadline because they wanted to avoid being compelled to quarantine. Many of those people shelled out enormous amounts of money to obtain last minute bookings on ‘planes, trains, and ferries, in the hope of beating the deadline.

The panicked return was entirely understandable, and I do not blame anyone for trying to avoid a quarantine period that they could ill afford. What I cannot comprehend was what was magic about 4 am on Saturday the 15th of August. If the risk of importing covid-19 from France (or elsewhere) is so great that it is considered necessary to impose quarantine on returnees, why, for example is someone landing in the UK at, say 3.45 am on the 15th of August, any less likely to pose a danger to public health than someone arriving any time after 4 am on that day? In my opinion, if the chances of bringing in the virus from a certain country are deemed dangerously high and it is determined that quarantine will reduce the chances of imported virus from adding to the already significant local supply, the quarantine requirement should have been imposed immediately, without over a moment’s delay.

As for the effectiveness of the enforced quarantine on reducing imports of infection, that remains to be seen. Recently, the owner of a well-known budget airline poured scorn on the idea of quarantine. He pointed out that many travellers landing in British airports travel to their homes by public transport. During that journey to the places where they plan to quarantine for fourteen days, they have plenty of opportunity to spread the virus to others travelling on the same bus, train, or other public transport. By the time they get home, the damage might well have been done. This airline owner was saying this to help save his business from further destruction caused by ‘lockdown’ conditions, but what he said is true.

A place of greater safety

RICHMOND-UPON-THAMES WAS NOT a place that I would have associated with refugees until we went for a walk with some friends along the Thames footpath on the right bank of the river. We started at Richmond Bridge and headed towards Twickenham. Richmond Bridge is a handsome stone structure built by 1777. It was the eighth bridge to be built across the Thames and is now the oldest surviving bridge crossing the river.

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Octagonal Room at Orleans House

A leafy footpath runs alongside the river in which pleasure boats and waterfowl can be seen. Soon we arrived at a carved stone monument, a twisted polygonal structure on which words have been carved in three languages: English, French, and Flemish. The base of the elegant but simple monument has the words “The Belgian Village on the Thames” and above them, the dates “1914-18”. Nearby, there are a couple of information panels describing the history of a Belgian settlement on the river between Richmond and Twickenham during WW1. A Belgian village? You might well wonder; I did.

On the 7th of October 1914, Charles Pelabon, a French engineer who had been working in Belgium arrived in Britain with some of his workers. By the start of 1915, he had set up a munition factory in a disused roller-skating rink in East Twickenham. The factory soon employed as many as 6000 workers, mostly recruited from the vast numbers of Belgian refugees who had fled their country after war had broken out. This led to the establishment of a sizeable Belgian community, with shops and Belgian schooling, between Twickenham and Richmond. Sadly, almost all physical traces of the community have disappeared. Where the factory once stood is now covered by blocks of privately owned apartments. Standing next to the elegantly designed monument, it is hard to imagine that this almost rustic stretch of the river was a hive of industrial activity and filled with people speaking in French and Flemish.

Currently, our government is holding out the offer of homes in the UK for up to many residents of Hong Kong. I wonder whether we will see the establishment of ‘Hong Kong Village(s)’ to accommodate ‘refugees’ from a part of China that is undergoing potentially serious changes to its hitherto special status.

Further along our walk, we reached the park surrounding Marble Hill House. This neat looking Palladian villa set back from the river was constructed between 1724 and 1729 and designed by the architect Roger Morris (1695 -1749). It was built for Henrietta Howard (1689-1767), who had been the mistress of the then future King George II. When she ceased to be the mistress of King George II, Henrietta bought land beside the river and built Marble Hill House, using the substantial financial settlement she received from the King.

Crossing a small lane, one leaves the grounds of Marble Hill and enters the smaller grounds of Orleans House, or, at least what, remains of it. The house was a fine Palladian villa built for the politician and diplomat James Johnston (1635-1737) in 1710 to the designs of the architect John James (c1673-1746). In 1720, an octagonal room in the baroque style, designed by James Gibbs, was added. This was used to entertain George II’s Queen Consort, Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1683-1737). She regarded Johnston with ‘great favour’.

Between 1813 and 1815, Johnston’s house was home to another royal visitor, a refugee from France, Louis Philippe I (1773 -1850), the Duc d’Orléans. Soon after the execution of his father in 1893, he left France. Later, he returned to France where he reigned as King Louis-Philippe I, the last king of France, between 1830 and the year of revolutions all over Europe, 1848. A print by the French artist Pingret shows the King and Queen Victoria visiting Louis Philippe’s former home at Orleans House some years after his coronation. It was the first time that a British and French monarch had been together on British soil for 500 years (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryofthe…/…/NrKCqDE8Q-arYJHipxLXDQ). Although most of the house was demolished in 1926, the octagonal room was saved. I noticed a fragment of masonry in the grounds close to the remains of the house. It bears a crest on which there are two fleur-de-lys symbols. In the 21st century, a new arts centre, including an art gallery, was built that incorporates the octagonal room, which has been restored to its former glory.

Further along the river near a disused ferry landing stage, we came across the home of yet another refugee, the composer and conductor (Sir) Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991). Born in Warsaw, Panufnik, a leading light in the Polish classical music community, ‘defected’ to the West in 1954 having become uncomfortable with the politically dominated cultural environment in Poland. He settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen in 1961. After marrying Camilla Jessel in late 1963, the couple bought the house near Twickenham that overlooks the Thames and now bears a light blue circular commemorative plaque with a red Polish eagle on it.

We returned to Richmond Bridge following the riverside path. We watched a plucky little dog rush into the water only to make a hasty retreat when swans hissed at him. Despite the birds’ unwelcoming threats, he dashed into the water several more times. We arrived back at Richmond Bridge after having enjoyed a pleasant stroll and seeing three places that have provided people from Europe with ‘a place of greater safety’, these being the words used by Hilary Mantel as the title of one of her novels.

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Atlantic crossing

I CAN ONLY FIND ONE photograph taken on board the SS France when we sailed from Southampton to New York City in September 1963. I do not know who took the picture and why I seem to have no photographs taken during the four months we spent in the USA that year. However, I do recall aspects of that voyage across the Atlantic, and I will share these with you.

FRANCE BLOG

My dear Uncle Felix gave me a present before we left London. It was a pocket-size set of tools (screwdrivers, a miniature saw, etc.) held together on a hinge. I thought that it might prove to be very useful if I became trapped in a cabin while the ship was sinking. Years before, my friend Charles S had recommended that I kept a small notebook and pencil in my pyjama pocket, just in case I was kidnapped – a prospect that used to fill me with fear. Charles’ idea was that, equipped with the writing material, one could send notes to rescuers in the (unlikely in my case) event of being kidnapped. I was, as you might be beginning to realise, a cautious little boy.

Soon after boarding the liner, which had been selected amongst others because my mother had learnt that the vessel had been fitted with the most advanced stabilisers, we looked around. When we reached the ship’s cinema, we poked our heads in and saw (on the screen) a parade of scantily dressed women parading round a pool. My mother pulled my sister and me out of the auditorium to protect us from seeing something she thought inappropriate for our tender young eyes (I was only eleven and my sister younger). The film being shown was “Scheherazade”. 

We set sail in the evening. Our first night was horrendous. As we crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Atlantic, the sea was exceedingly rough. My mother, my sister, and I became terribly sea-sick, despite the state-of-the-art stabilisers. None of my mother’s strong sea-sickness tablets had any effect on her. She insisted on summoning the ship’s doctor, a French man. She told him that she had read that there was an injection for countering seasickness, which had been recently developed, and she wanted that immediately. The doctor had not heard of this wonder cure. However, my mother, a forceful personality at the best of times, insisted on having it. She was not taking ‘no’ or even ‘non’ as an answer. I am sure that the doctor was beginning to regret having come to her aid. In the end, he gave in, and gave her an injection. It may have only been saline, but my mother was happier although no less seasick.

My father was the only member of our family who felt well enough to face lunch in the ship’s dining room. When he arrived there, he was one of a small handful of passengers who felt well enough to have an appetite. After that first night, we sailed through calm waters for four gloriously sunlit days.

During the day, my parents lazed on sun-loungers on a deck. My father is a keen amateur art historian. In his spare time, he read the academic journals, like the Burlington Magazine and the Art Bulletin, which professional art historians read and in which they published learned articles. He might well have been reading one of these, when he turned his head and noticed that a man on the lounger next to his was reading an art historical monograph, which he had read recently. He began speaking to his neighbour. Dad was very excited to discover that he was lounging next to the art historian Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989), a specialist in the art of the Italian renaissance, the period which fascinated my father most. Leopold and his then wife, Helen, were on their way to the USA to take up a temporary position in an American university, as was my father. My parents struck up a friendship with the Ettlingers, who came to stay with us in Chicago on the weekend immediately following the assassination of President JF Kennedy.

I cannot remember what my sister did during the days we spent on board, but I recall what I did. Far from soaking up the sun, I spent most of the daylight hours in darkness, in the ship’s comfortable cinema. Every day, a different film was screened, several times each day. Except at mealtimes, I watched the same film again and again each day. Two of these films, both filmed in black and white, stick in my mind although I have long forgotten their titles.

One of them, which might have had a title like “The Siege of Altona” concerned a German (maybe a Nazi), who had locked himself inside a flat in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. It was a very moving psychological drama, something that my mother might not have thought suitable for her eleven-year-old son.

The other film was a French comedy. I have not the slightest memory of its title. It concerned two thieves, who robbed locked collection boxes in churches.  Their method was ingenious even if not particularly efficient. The thieves first sucked thin circular toffees attached to long threads. After sucking one, ta toffee was lowered through the coin slot until it touched the coins. When the sweet touched a coin, the latter would stick to the toffee. Then using the thread, the coin and toffee where carefully removed from the collection box. The film worked towards it climax when the thieves conceived an improved method. They arrived in a church with a vacuum cleaner. Attached to its hose was a long thin plastic piece that fitted into the slots on the collection boxes. The thieves inserted this nozzle, turned on the machine, and were able to suck all the coins from a box. However, this discovery coincided with greater police in the activities of this duo. I cannot remember how the film finished, but the two crooks did not come out well in the end. I would love to see this film again. So, if any of you, dear readers, have any idea of its title, please do let me know.

We docked at a quay on the west side of Mahattan. Soon after that, we visited our old friends, the late Cyril and Elaine Sofer, in their holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyril had been a friend of my father’s since they were both young in Cape Town. Elaine outlived him. She was, incidentally, the first person to make a Bloody Mary for me (not in 1963, but much later, I hasten to add). Leopold Ettlinger, Cyril and Elaine Sofer, and my mother are no more, nor is the SS France. It made its last voyage in 2008, when it docked at the breakers’ yards in Alang (Gujarat, India), where it was broken up for scrap.  

Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

Death of an automobile

It is odd how an old photograph can trigger a whole lot of memories, which you thought were long forgotten. This photograph brings back memories of the last hours of one of our motor cars.

I had just had our old Saab car serviced and I asked the dealer how much it would beworth as part exchange for a newer model. I was told £400 would be generous. I was horrified, and said:
“Really? You’re kidding”
“No, Sir, yesterday I was shown a ten year old Jaguar in good nick. I only offered the owner £400.”

I paid for the service, having been told that several quite costly repairs might be needed soon if wanted to keep our Saab on the road. The first of these, and this was a legal requirement, was to replace the four tyres.

We bought four new tyres a couple of days later and set iff to attend a wedding anniversary in Kent. On the way, we stopped at a bonsai tree nursery to see an old acquaintance.

When we returned to the nursery’s car park, our car would not start. All that happened when I turned the ignition key was a whining noise followed by smoke seeping out of the engine.

We called the AA, the emergency breakdown service, and an agent arrived soon. He looked at the problem and came to a rapid diagnosis. I asked him how much it would cost to repair the major problem that had occurred. He said about £400. With that information and the knowledge that other major repairs might be needed in the near future, it was not a difficult decision to scrap our Saab.

That was back in late 2010. Prior to that date, we had used our car to make annual visits to France, where we enjoyed staying at ‘Gites rurales’, rented holiday homes often in picturesque rural spots. I took many photographs on these lovely holidays. The picture illustrating this piece was taken somewhere in France, but as I never bothered to label all of my photos at the time, I cannot tell you where I saw this fine set of doors.

A city reborn

We used to spend a night in Arras in northern France when we made driving holidays to stay in rented houses on central and southern parts of the country.

To casual visitors, such as we were, the centre of Arras looks like a perfectly preserved old baroque city.

Yet, it is not.

During WW1, Arras, close to the front line fighting, was almost totally destroyed. Pictures of the city taken after the “War to End All Wars” resemble pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it.

The reconstruction of the old centre of Arras was so successful that if you were ignorant of its history, you would believe that you are seeing the original city.

By the way, Arras is one of the few places in the rather bleak north of France really worth visiting.

Photo taken about 15 years ago.

Make park, not war

BY FEBRUARY, daytime temperatures in Pondicherry exceed 30 degrees Celsius. This combined with high humidity levels drive the wild street dogs to sleep a lot in whatever shade they can find. Likewise, sensible people avoid direct exposure to the strong tropical sun.

When you walk along the paths shaded by trees in the centrally located Bharathi Park, you can feel the temperature drop. This park, a peaceful haven, was an unforeseen result of warfare.

In 1709, the French built a fortress, Fort Louis, in the heart of Pondicherry. It was a typical fortress of the type designed by the French engineer Vauban (1633-1707). Pentagonal in plan, it had bastions at each of its five corners. The fort was destroyed by the British in 1761 and not replaced.

The space left after the destruction of the fort remained a wasteland used by the French for military training and celebration of some French national festivals. In 1854, an elegant neoclassical pavilion was erected in the middle of this wasteland. It commemorates a legendary 16th century woman, who discovered a source of water that became very important for the inhabitants of Pondicherry.

In 1946, a tree was planted on the land where Fort Louis once stood. Eventually, the present Bharathi Park was laid out. In its middle, stands the pavilion mentioned already.

One entrance to the park is opposite the entrance to the heavily guarded Raj Nivas (Governor’s Residence), housed in the former French Governor’s House built in 1766.

At the north east corner of the park, there is a statue of a man wearing a dhoti, a long jacket, and a turban. This depicts Chinnaswami Subramania Bharathi (1882-1921), also known as ‘Bharatiyar’. He was a great Tamil poet and independence fighter and opponent of the caste system. He fled to Pondicherry in 1908 to escape from being arrested (for his ‘seditious’ writing in newspapers) by the British and remained there until 1918. In 1906, he edited a newspaper with MPT Acharya, about whom I have written in my book about Indian revolutionaries in London, “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. In Pondicherry, Bharatiya met other Indian freedom fighters seeking sanctuary there, including Sri Aurobindo and VVS Aiyar (also in my book), an associate of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.

In 1918, Bharatiya moved back into British India, where he was promptly arrested. He died in 1921, impoverished.

The Puducherry Government Museum, housed in an 18th century French mansion, is a few metres from the park and well worth a visit. It contains exhibits dating from prehistory until the era of the French colonization. In need of a little bit more care and attention, there is a fascinating range of objects to be seen.

One display that interested me greatly was about the excavations made by a French archaeologist and the British Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Arikamedu, just south of Pondicherry. They were following up discoveries made in that location by French scholars before WW2. It emerged that Arikamedu was the site of a port at which Ancient Romans and Greeks traded with the local Indians.

The museum contains a few artefacts dug up including some Roman and Greek coins. A few years ago, I saw many of these in a museum at Calicut.

The ports where the Mediterranean people traded in India are contained in “The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea”, a navigational manual that was originally composed in the 1st century AD. The port near Arikamedu is most likely to have been ‘Podouke’ as listed in the “Periplus”.

So, it is evident that the area around Pondicherry was visited by Europeans long before the British, French, and Danes estsblished colonies there.

We left the museum, which also has a nice collection of Hindu sculptures, and the lovely park to enjoy some excellent French inspired cooking at the Villa Shanti. At the table next to ours, there was a very serious looking group of French tourists, who were listening earnestly to their Indian guide, who spoke to them in French with an accent that probably caused them to wince internally. Incidentally, apart from people from all over India, most of the rest of the visitors to Pondicherry are French. I wonder how they feel seeing the souvenirs of their former empire, now an episode fading into the swirling mists of time.