How hard can it be?

I’m loving this… sitting in Le Pain Quotidien having lunch, and a couple have just rocked up at the table beside me. They sound like they’re from across the pond – I’ve no idea where, could be Canada, could be America, who knows – but they’re causing me much entertainment in making their selection of food and drink such a rigmarole.

Let’s go back to their arrival­­­­­­. No, their attire. He is wearing a Gore-Tex North Face coat, still, (they’ve been here for a good 20 minutes so far; I removed my coat on arrival, and my jumper, and I’m still hot). She has made herself a little more comfortable in the bench seat against the wall and appears to be wearing the trousers. Having spent a good ten minutes deciding whether their table is acceptable, (it’s busy here today, and given the queue forming by the door, I’d say they had little or no choice of table, so if it’s not good enough, this could be a very quick lunch) they finally turn their attention to the menu.

Meanwhile Paolo, the waiter who is covering our patch today, has already made at least two speculative moves past them, clocking the menus sitting untouched on the table as they discuss their location. He glances at me and smiles, I can’t help but giggle. And unable to control my excitement any longer, Vesper quickly emerges from my bag and I power up my blog…

Divided

At the prospect of food, North Face is now busy taking in the menu, both the cardboard in his hand and the chalk on the blackboard. He’s saying nothing, giving nothing away; I’m intrigued as to what he’s thinking…

Meanwhile South Face is scrutinising, no, criticizing everything on the menu. She finally decides that they will have a salad, and divide it, then they can have a cake, and divide it, afterwards… North Face is saying nothing. South Face tells him again …so they can divide it. (Is that the number of times she’s told him, or the food itself, or perhaps their opinion? Who knows, he’s keeping his Gore-Tex very close to his chest.)

Suddenly, he pipes-up suggesting that the wine looks… and is immediately shadowed by the South Face, who proclaims that they’re not doing wine during the daytime, no way. The North Face returns to his menu, perhaps he’s only perused the beverage section so far?  South Face is still making more divisions than Carole Vorderman, and the decision is made. Right? Right. What? Her companion throws her a curve ball; I fancy soup. What’s the soup? Whoooo hold it right there, how can he want soup when they don’t know what it is? They’ll have to ask the waiter. They could ask the waiter. They don’t know what the soup is.

You’re welcome

Now being frightfully British, in this scenario, is it not customary to help out? I’m sitting no more than two feet from them, the gap between our tables is less than six inches, so it’s not as though I’m eavesdropping (however entertaining they are!) I look up from my trying and casually share that today’s soup is sweet potato and chorizo, the waiter told me as I sat down earlier. The reaction? Nothing. North Face continues to read the menu, South Face just repeats my words and asks North Face if that’s what he’d like. Far from being disappointed not to have a response, or the faintest sign of social skills, or desire to engage with the locals (as I try to whenever I’m traveling), I find the lack of reaction just makes them funnier! I return to my typing, cracking up inside, the edges of my mouth turning up as I contain my amusement at my transatlantic neighbours.

Within a few minutes, they decide to get two soups, a salad to share and, if they are still hungry, they can then have a cake afterwards, and divide it. Right, now. Where’s the waiter? The service is this place is really bad…

No sausage please

Paolo, by this point, has pretty much given up on this table. So when he comes over to bring me my top-up of English Breakfast, I nod in their direction and out comes his notepad. As South Face conveys their order, she asks again, just to make sure, about the soup (she can’t be asking them to divide it, surely?) When Paolo explains that the soup today is sweet potato and chorizo, she suggests that sounds ok, but what is chorizo?

AN: you know when you something makes you laugh whilst you’re eating or drinking, and you cough on your food / drink, then over exaggerate it to try and hide the fact that it was caused by what you saw / heard? How can a dish with two ingredients sound ok if you don’t know what the second ingredient is?…!

Paolo explains that chorizo is a kind of Spanish sausage, a bit spicy, very nice. Oh no, it can’t have sausage, why would you want sausage in soup? Oh no, that won’t work. So they just have the salad. And divide it. Then they can have a cake afterwards, if they’re not full. Paolo pauses, and explains that the salad is quite small, that’s why it’s listed in the Sides section of the menu. North Face is, by this point, losing the will (I suspect Paolo is not far behind), and he throws in a random suggestion of a salad platter. South Face concedes but wants some water. No not tap water, bottled water, still, not sparkling. Paolo writes nothing down, but relieves the climbers of their menus and hurries away before they can change their minds.

The bottle doesn’t work

Since placing their order, they’ve said nothing, just sat in silence; the North Face examining the pattern on the wall behind the South Face, as she peruses the room with mild critique. Eventually, my neighbours’ food arrives and, once again, their lack of reaction to their food makes me smile – no that looks nice / I hadn’t realised how hungry I am / hhmmm not what I expected. Just silence until South Face realises that her bottle doesn’t work. Looking across at her, the North Face expression suggests he suspects it’s actually South Face, rather than the bottle, which needs attention. He takes the bottle from her, but is equally unable to make it work. South Face is rolling her eyes – I can’t see her, but just know she is! They beckon Paolo back to the table and hand him the bottle – it doesn’t work, this bottle is broken.

AN: remember the scene in Pretty Woman, where Edward takes Vivienne to the opera, and she can’t get the hang of her little binoculars? Trying to flip them into place, she says something like “these are broken. Mine are broken…” and Edward delicately turns them the other way, and they ‘work’.

Paolo takes the bottle from them and twists the top, it opens perfectly. I’ve no idea what they were doing wrong, but it just adds to the entertainment of their ordeal!

…then they have a cake, and divide it

Having finished their salad platter and consumed their water, their plates are cleared and they are ready to order a cake. Paolo, who clearly learnt from the earlier experience, decides not to bring the menu back, and instead makes some helpful suggestions on what cake they might like – smart work Paolo – they go for a lemon curd tart. Sounds lovely, and when it arrives, they divide it, as South Face can’t eat the whole thing. The slight flaw in this, is that South Face then proceeds to leave it alone completely? Was she actually too full? Did she not fancy lemon curd? Or was it not divided enough for her liking? Who knows. But she can’t eat that, there’s far too much sugar in cakes…

Bill please!

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Happy Birthday Vesper

It was around this time two years ago, that I wrote my first ever blog post. At that time, I was sitting upstairs in the Punch & Judy in Covent Garden, typing away on my brand new laptop, Vesper, getting exciting about my forthcoming long haul adventure, starting to count down the days. So much has changed since then, yet once again I find myself sitting with a drink in a London establishment, typing away on Vesper, starting to count down the days until another long haul adventure.

I’ve wanted to do the Canadian Grand Prix for a couple of years now. But in 2012, I used so much of my annual leave in going to Honkers and Australia, I couldn’t justify or afford to go to Canada, so told myself I’d do it in 2013. Last year, I moved house, relocated to the other end of the country, left Xerox, joined Barclays and started a new role, all in the space of a week. With cars roaring around Circuit Gilles Villeneuve just two weeks later, it didn’t happen in 2013 either. At that point, with plans to head back to Australia in 2014, I started to think Canada would never actually come off? But when my uncle in Melbourne told me he won’t be around in March when the cars hit Albert Park, the decision was made – defer Australia to 2015 and nail Canada now!

Planning time – yesssss!

So last night I finally booked my tickets and once again, my head is now filled with the excitement of planning. It’s worth noting at this point that, yes, I do have a spreadsheet. It’s also worth noting that it does include a cash flow forecast. And, before you laugh louder, yes it will be evolving over the next few weeks, to incorporate such essentials as currency conversions; climatic data, potential wardrobe contents, itinerary options and full version control, and I now want to stay up all night tonight researching! Last night it was 2am before I powered down – possibly due to excitement, although having been caffeine-free since New Year, the three cups of coffee I drank may have had something to do with it?

However, there are two slight complications. Rough guides are on order from Amazon (I tried two Waterstones stores today but neither had them in stock, gutted) and, critically, the key ingredient when planning anything exciting, is a good bottle of red wine. Having also been off the sauce since New Year, this key ingredient is also ‘on hold’. Bugger.

Oh how times have changed…

So two years ago, I was sitting in a West End pub drinking a pint of lager top. Tonight, I’m sitting in a Bloomsbury coffee shop with a decaf soya latte. Yes, seriously. What’s even more worrying is that I actually asked the Barista to put chocolate on my latte. Nowhere in the UK seems to do this, but in Turin they did it everywhere? I followed suit over there (when in Turin…) and liked it, so I now have it with chocolate on top here too. Oh god, I’m starting to think about how I like my coffee… Is it February yet? I clearly need caffeine and alcohol again…

Don’t get me wrong; I love Covent Garden, but it’s very touristy and there’s so much of London I’ve never seen, so tonight I figured I’d try somewhere different. And Friday night is one of the best times to get out and explore. In honesty, there another influencing factor in my choosing Bloomsbury which, strangely, brings me back to wine…

In search of a fruity Romanian

Tomorrow night is Bo’s birthday party. Because she is Romanian, and I’m encouraged (easily) to bring a bottle, I set myself the challenge of finding/taking her a bottle of Romanian wine for her birthday.

Having got The London Guide to Cheese & Wine for Christmas (and having it torment me for the past four weeks) I find a wine merchant in Greenwich which specialises in Eastern European wine – perfect. So after work on a wet and windy Wednesday night, I hop on the DLR (not my favourite form of transport, having previously been fined £80 for not tapping out properly) and head for Greenwich. Using my new-found London navigation skills (I seem to have replaced Bruno and his posh German SatNav, Bella, with a London Bus app and Google maps?) I find my way to Maze Hill and fall through the door of Theatre of Wine looking somewhat dishevelled. The torment continues, as I look around me at the extensive selection of wine, the wooden communal table stretched out down the middle of the shop, with a cheeseboard and carafe drifting it’s tempting aroma around the shop… Rather than suffer the torment, I head straight to the desk and ask the assistant whether they have anything Romanian. She’s all smiles, and takes great pleasure explaining how extensive their range is (I can see that) from all countries in Eastern Europe (yes, that’s why I’m here) except Romania. What? Really? Instead, she suggests I download the Wine-Seeker app and that’ll apparently tell me everywhere in the world that stocks the wine I’m after. So I make use of their wifi whilst I’m there, download said app, and it tells me that the closest reseller is Adnams. What? Why ever didn’t I think of that! The biggest wine importer in the UK. I knew this. I also knew they stock Romanian, given the volumes of it which I consumed at my parents’ place over Christmas, which they bought by the case, when they went to the Adnams brewery in Southwold. Of course! Not that I needed an excuse, but if I must pay a visit to Adnams, I will. Bo – I thank you for being Romanian, and for having a birthday party on the day I’m allowed to drink again, and for agreeing my challenge to find and bring a bottle of Romanian wine. To toast the occasion, I’ll bring two – I thank you :)/p>

Must I really wait until tomorrow night?

It has been suggested that the definition of a kid in a sweetshop, is a Wallin in an Adnams shop. I support this theory wholeheartedly. So on visiting Store Street in Bloomsbury this evening to obtain a fruity Romanian, I ask myself the question: given that I haven’t had a drink for 31 days, given that I have some serious planning to do, and given that I’m presented with perhaps one of the best selections of exciting and delicious wines in the greatest city in the world, should I purchase a bottle for myself? Clearly it’s a rhetorical question, as I find myself asking the assistant which bottle he would pick, if he was to try something different.

Yet again, having entered the shop to buy just one bottle of wine, I walk away with four bottles and another new mug for my collection – oops – but the question remains, must I wait until tomorrow night to drink it? Or can I just go home, crack it open, and start planning my trip? Wine… Travel… Planning… Writing…

#tooexcited

Bxx

Travel at Christmas – OMG let’s panic!

So, we’re on the Eve of a public holiday (we know this well, there’ve been hints on tv since September) it’s winter (this, too, is not a surprise, even if the forecasters tell us ‘this year is warmer, colder, sunnier, wetter etc than ever before…’); it’s wet and windy (again, we should really anticipate this by now); and therefore, the news which dominated yesterday’s UK headlines was one of seasonal nightmare adverse weather-related travel disruption. Well I never!

Always planning

In my usual fashion, I planned ahead and booked my train tickets home about 3 months ago, meaning I got a bargain for first class with East Coast (cheers for the heads-up Bobby T). So when all hell broke loose on the railways yesterday, and people were advised to travel early, I called Bobby T to check there was a first class champagne lounge at Kings Cross. He confirmed there is and suggested that today could actually end up being quieter, as everyone panicked yesterday. So I got up this morning, allowing plenty of time to brace the underground on a day potentially riddled with disruption and late Christmas shoppers, and set off across Central London to Kings Cross.

Eerie

Now this does surprise me – the tubes are empty? Even Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Covent Garden are like Deadsville Tennessee! I expected last minute shoppers, people like me traveling for Christmas, and a few commuters. But there’s no-one around? The peace gives me chance to reflect on my packing.

At this point, it’s worth noting that I have a tendency to pack some very strange things. For example, on a weekend home from University, I once decided that staying out drinking until crazy o’clock was far more entertaining than packing. Hence when I finally fell through the door (yes literally) I threw a few items in a bag and passed out, waking up just in time to dash to the station to catch my train the following morning. Strangely enough, three odd socks, a couple of CDs, a bikini and a ball gown weren’t entirely useful during a November weekend in York…?

So what did I do last night? I went out for drinks in Canary Wharf after work with Craig and his team – Corporate Liquidity – quite appropriately named, unfortunately. Oh lord, I sense a ball gown moment on the horizon…

But despite the attempts of a rather camp but very lovely chap called Nigel, I left after pint 3 and was home by 9. Unfortunately, the bottle of red which was sitting on the side in the kitchen would’ve been wasted with no one home to drink it for the next 5 days, so I partook whilst packing, of course.

Now sitting on the tube, chugging along the blue Piccadilly, I interview myself, Jimmy Rabbit style (watch the Commitments)… So Rebecca; it’s not actually cold, the pavements are dry, the air is still and it’s not raining – yet you’re wearing a thick woolen winter coat, gloves, scarf and a wooly hat…? Hmm… Ok Rebecca; so what shoes have you packed for your 5 winter days in Yorkshire? Well I’m wearing my boots and in my case are my grey suedes, black heels and my summer flats… No trainers?… Hmm… This isn’t looking good. So at least you remembered your laptop, as you’re working on Friday – and the power cable? Oh bugger, I knew there was something…

We are where we are

Rather than worry about that, I’m checking the East Coast website and the 09:08 is reported as being on time. So far so good – I’m through to Q2 – let’s hope things remain as quiet as my laptop…

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On arrival at Kings Cross, where all other trains appear to be suffering, the trusty 09:08 still appears to be holding strong. I collect my tickets, wander through to the departures area and the friendly East Coast tannoy announcement confirms that the 9:08 is cancelled. CANCELLED? Bugger! Right, plan B; next train to York? 9:00, calling at Peterborough, York… Hang on, that’s the fast train? I’ll be in the Tap with a pint in my hand by 10:51? Sweet! East Coast apologises for any inconvenience, usher me into first class on platform 0 (still love that there’s a platform 0 at Kings Cross) and offer me a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich… Happy days, I’m through to Q3 and I believe this qualifies as a hot lap… The question is, will Vettel come out and trump me for pole?

Final stretch

First stop Peterborough, on time, so far so good. Next stop, York. Our train guard, David (a friendly Geordie chappy), advises me that we are currently running on time, and that our crew leader (Kevin) will shortly be telling me about catering facilities available on board this East Coast service today. Marvellous. That bacon butty didn’t touch the sides and my tea cup is empty.

P1 for Boxy!

We must now be approaching God’s own country – it’s glorious blue sky outside, the chavs left the train at Peterborough, and already I’m feeling relaxed. The clock has run down and there’s just Vettel and I still on track – I can see the chequered flag and I’ve run purple sector times so far this morning… All I have to endure now is the view of an Arsenal fan opposite me – rarely a pretty sight – for the next hour and I’m home free…

The chequered flag

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Doing the Fiat factory roof

So today is all about cars, and although I never thought I’d hear myself say this, all I can think about it Fiat. So I’m up and out of the hotel and straight to the Tobacconist to buy a Metro ticket, and it’s off to the underground I go.

Now sad as it may be, I’m starting to develop a liking for underground systems – or rather the differences between them. For instance, London’s tube is the oldest in the world at 150 years, yet it’s stood the test of time pretty well and still blows my mind as a feat of engineering genius. Just look at Westminster station, or the cross section of Oxford Circus… Then in contrast, you have Budapest – another of the oldest and some of it looks no different now to how it did 100 years ago – rickety old carriages, slow trains, a health & safety nightmare, but entirely functional and a perfectly adequate means of getting from one side of the city to the other. Then at the other end of the scale you have Honkers – meticulously efficient, clean and hi tech.

Torino is a little different. To start with, you can’t really get lost – there’s only one line. And it doesn’t go into the city centre. Instead it runs from Lingotto in the south, up to Porto Nuevo (the city’s southern station) before skirting round the south west of the centre then back out to the south west…? Overground there are busses and trams which seem to drive as erratically as the minis – over cobbles which I keep thinking are pavements *beep beep* and on pavements which I think are out of bounds (literally, under the arches as they did in the movie). There’s little logic in the central palazzas, so I just look and run! Is jaywalking a crime in Italy? Moving swiftly on…

So I wander down to Porto Nuevo and descend into the Metro. Lingotto is clearly marked (Treni a Lingotto) and what I find actually looks brand new – didn’t expect that? The trains are like the cars in the original Total Recall movie – big deep windows at the front, no driver, and you can look where you’re going. The tunnels are wide, with tracks in both directions and the platforms run the full length of the line, so you could, technically, walk from one station to the next. It’s smooth and simple and I arrive at Lingotto in minutes. Not that exciting to explore, but does the job.

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It really is that simple!

As I arise from the Metro, the sky is still bright blue and I’m presented with the familiar sight of the Fiat factory – yay! I walk (quickly, excitedly) across the road and up the escalator into what is now a shopping complex, complete with cinema at one end and an NH Hotel in the middle. Inside is a long mall, with shops and restaurants up and down both sides. But there’s no mention of Fiat, no mention of minis and not a Michael Caine poster in sight? Right, so where do I go? How do I get up there?

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I figure the person who’s bound to know (if nothing else, from the hundreds of tourists like me who come on this pilgrimage of epic British automotive and movie heritage) is the hotel concierge. So I trot back down the escalator (yes, literally) and round to the hotel. When I relay my oh-so-handy Italian line of mi no parlo Italiano and ask Luigi if he parla Inglesi? He responds but of course and I’m on my way. I ask if it’s possible to get on the roof, expecting a sigh and potential annoyance in return, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Luigi simply replies Yes, you want to go now? To which I nod like a child at Christmas. He rummages in a drawer and produces a yale key on a lanyard and hands it over. Go back up the escalator, across the hall, into the service elevator, up to the 4th floor, and this key will unlock the door out onto the roof. Really? It’s that simple? He doesn’t know me from Adam, yet he’s entrusting such treasure into my possession? I don’t question it; I simply thank him and scuttle off back up the escalator and into the service elevator. It’s all a bit rickety, and when I exit on the 4th floor, I wonder if anyone’s actually been up here in the 24 years since the factory closed, as there’s little more to look at than dust, a couple of brooms and a fire extinguisher. I walk over to the door and put the key in the lock, still not quite believing where I am or what I’m about to see.

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The key turns, I open the door and suddenly I’m faced with one of the most awesome views ever. I’m looking out over Turin, towards a horizon of snow-capped mountains, against a backdrop of bright blue sky. (I’ve never been skiing, but for those who have, I guess this is the equivalent of that first view you got from the top on your first skiing trip?) I draw breath, the turn round to see the banked curve at the end of the roof. Wow. This is just so cool – for those who’ve never watched the movie, it’ll mean nothing. But for those who have, it feels like I’m on a film set from 40 years ago, which has been left just as it was. There’s no new tarmac, there’s weeds growing around the edges, the only sad addition is speed bumps (I kid you not, flipping speed bumps! Clarkson would do his nut!)

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Having a moment – another one!

Of all the crazy incredible things I’ve been lucky enough to do over the past few years, I think this is one of the most personal. Simon would’ve loved to go to Australia or New Zealand (he’d probably have passed on Honkers, don’t see that being his thing really) but he’d have given his right arm to come here. If I’m honest, had he still been here, it probably wouldn’t have held such significance for me to come (because I’d have left him to do it). But because he’s not here, I feel like I’m doing it for him? The whole time I’ve been in Turin, I’ve had a little devil sitting on my shoulder whistling This is the self-preservation society… and this is the culmination of all that emotion. I Skype mum and dad so they can see what I’m seeing and share the emotion. I’m not really sure if they get it; they sure know it’s cool, and I think dad is a little jealous (as it’s something he probably would’ve done with Simon, given the chance) but for me, today is sound.

The icing on the cake, was that when I posted a picture on Facebook of where I was, the first few people to ‘Like’ it were some of Simon’s school friends… it’s as though they knew what it’d have meant to him, perhaps it’d have meant the same to them too, had they been here? The Italian Job was one of the iconic movies boys watched with their dads, I guess.

Epilogue

I’m now on the bus en route to the airport – I’ve done the one thing I wanted to do here, and it brought a HUGE smile to my face. Next time you think I wish I could do xxx… or I wish I could go to yyy… ask yourself WHY you can’t, then ask yourself what you CAN do to get around the barrier. It sounds simple, and usually it’s a time or money thing, but I believe it’s about priorities. These days, a flight to Europe can cost the same as a big night out or a weekend’s boozing. So if you REALLY want to try xxx or go to yyy, ask yourself if you want the night out or weekend’s boozing more, and if the answer is no, then book xxx or yyy and give yourself something to look forward to. Experiences last a lifetime, and they make us who we are. I’d take the stamp on my passport, every time.

Right, where’s next…?

Ciao ciao!
Boxy xx

I only wanted you to blow the bloody doors off…

Having slept in until 9, I wake feeling half human and decide that before I can justifiably consume copious amounts of red wine again, I should go exploring. On discovering that the public transport system is on strike for 24 hours, the old Fiat factory and Automotive museum are immediately deferred to tomorrow, and I opt to explore the city on foot.

Turin is stunning. Fact. It’s no secret that I love Italy, as much in the winter as the summer, as much in the countryside as the cities, as much in the hills as on the beach. But I’m close to suggesting that this is my favourite place so far. This could be because I didn’t know what to expect, or have time to even think much about it.

The fun started when I was at home at the weekend, and mum commented that I’ve been on British soil for a while, am I ok? She’s right; my passport hasn’t felt the thump of a border control stamp for three whole months! What am I playing at? Right. I need to find a quick jaunt somewhere soon. So when the Major and the Minor (my grandparents) deposited ‘a little something’ in my bank account for Christmas, just enough to cover return flights to Europe, I was straight onto the Internet to find something suitable.

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So why Turin?

One of my brother’s favourite films was The Italian Job – not the one with Charlize Theron (although he ‘wouldn’t have thrown her out of bed for farting’ I’m sure) but the original. A few years back, on what would’ve been his 30th birthday, I played with the idea of hiring three minis and driving across to Turin as a fundraiser. But the plan never came off and, until now, I’d still never been here. Now I’m starting to wonder why the hell I waited so long?!

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The plan of the city centre is pretty regular – a grid pattern. But because the city is surrounded by mountains, every street you look down is adorned with beautiful facades, and looks towards snow-capped mountains at the end. And there’s a river (the Po) which means bridges! (I have a thing for bridges… another story…) so having explored the Palazzo Madame and seen the world’s biggest advent calendar, I wander down via Po towards the river. The street itself is little to write about, until I get to Vittorio Veneto and literally gasp for breath. The road opens out into a large palazzo, with arches down both sides and a view at the other end worthy of a postcard. It’s a sunny day, and the sun is shining on the hill and palace on the far banks of the river on front of me, giving the distant view something of a haze, but against a flawless blue sky, it’s one of the most spectacular views I’ve seen.  My only disappointment is the amount of overhead cables – there are trams in Turin, but even the streetlights have cables crossing to them. I don’t know if they’re just not got to the point of putting power lines underground, or chosen not to? For me it spoils it a little, but the buildings’ beauty is just so impressive that my disappointment is short-lived.

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At this point, I could easily take pictures of the river and bridges all day. But instead I decide to go on a little mission to find places where Simon’s film was shot… the weir, the church steps, the roof of the old Fiat factory… I can hear him quoting Michael Caine all day! He is most definitely with me on this one, that’s for sure!

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#ionlywantedyoutoblowthebloodydoorsoff

Bxx

What’s the plan? Eat pasta and drink red wine. Perfetto.

Having not done my typical planathon (buying a rough guide, planning my itinerary, packing in advance, at least twice… etc) I’ve arrived in Turin with lots of coughing, low energy levels and little expectation. All I really want to do for the few days is sit in a café, drink coffee and write my blog during the day, then eat pasta and drink red wine in the evening. A relaxing few days away with no exploring itinerary.

So tonight I ventured out of the hotel and round the corner into a small piazza, looking for somewhere I can get a glass of red and a bite to eat. In the piazza are two restaurants. Both have enclosed / heated patio areas in front, both probably have the same number of occupants, but the first one looks busier as it’s smaller. So I go for this one. No sign of a menu, everything is in Italian, and everyone inside looks casual, as though they’ve walked into their own kitchen. Perfect. The staff are dressed equally casually, not a uniform in sight, and they’re all smiles and welcoming. Perfect.

Pull up a chair…

I take a seat in the corner and across comes the waiter. He drops a handwritten notepad on the table, says something in Italian and disappears…? If this was England, I’d wonder if he was he having a strop, or just being very off-hand? But this is Italy :-)

The notepad lists three items, then a line, then a further 5 items, another line, then four more items. I understand the odd word, like ‘verde’ ‘ragu’ and ‘risotto’ so guess this is the menu? Pondering whether to go for pot luck or get my iPhone out and translate, the waiter returns, pulls up a chair and starts chatting to me – if only waiters in the UK were like this, I’d be in! It’s fantastic! Or it would be if I could understand a word of what Guiseppe is saying?! Assuming he’s trying to talk me through the menu, I’m so tempted to let him continue, just for the entertainment; nod periodically, raise the odd eyebrow, make ‘hungry’ noises to suggest temptation at specific dishes etc. But my sensible (boring?) bone kicks in and I give a little nervous giggle and explain that ‘mi no parlo Italiano’. He smiles and beckons over his colleague, who apologises on his behalf (not that there’s any need) and suggests she will try to explain in English. Of course, her English is brilliant and every dish is described, complete on a bed of Italian detail. Belissimmo.

Water soon arrives, followed by a basket of bread, wine comes in a carafe, accompanied by a tumbler – no wine glasses – and the ambiance is set, to perfection. This is exactly what I had in mind. I love this place! My starter doesn’t take long – cheese (tastes like a cross between feta and mozzarella, creamy but neither crumbly nor elastic) with a green sauce (looks like an oily pesto drizzled on top, but tastes more minty that basily). Three slices on a plate, no frills. My main course follows: spaghetti with sausage (the pasta looks more like noodles than spaghetti – flat rather than round – but the taste confirms it’s home-made, and just delicious.) Again, simple presentation but all taste. I’d considered the local dish of ‘boiled meats’ or ‘lamb and potato’ for my third (meat) course, but don’t have room for more. Well, not until I see the tiramisu appear on the next table… I think the waitress sees my eyes pop out of my head – just as I’m about to ask for il conto she raises her eyebrows, nods towards the neighbouring table and I’ve no choice but to smile and nod. One Tiramisu later and I’m done. Almost…

On presenting the bill, the waiter also deposits a teaspoon on the table, with a sugar lump on it. A little bemused by this, I watch as he produces a lighter from his pocket and sets the sugar alight. OK… what do I do now? Judging by the flame, I’m guessing it’s been doused in a spirit, but do I blow it out or watch it burn?… Is the spoon damaging the wooden table?… The spoon’s metal, so I can’t pick it up, it’ll be red hot!… So do I just watch it burn and look impressed?… It’s bubbling away and I’m not really sure what to do with it?…

#answersonapostcard

Bxx

The wrong choice? Or the calm before the Tifosi…

When dad and I were here two years ago, the beautiful pedestrianized, buzzing little centre of Monza came alive, with cafes selling birra on the pavements, rock concerts in tiny piazza, where the crowd spilled out into the surrounding alleyways and side streets, and popup Nastro bars, tratorria packed to the rafters and a general lively atmosphere. Unlike some races, the buzz was less about beers and banter, and more about food and making the most of the location. It was wonderful, and one of my favourite photos of my dad was taken in Piazza Roma, with a Nastro in his hand, a tad worse for wear but beaming from ear to ear.

When I was in Budapest last month, I met up with one of my F1 mates who hasn’t missed a Budapest GP weekend for the past 8 years. So when he suggested he wasn’t coming this year, I purposely started teasing him via Facebook, saying how great the atmosphere was, how hot the weather was, how cold the beer was, how good the race would be… etc. This continued until finally, at around 11am Saturday morning, he cracked. The response simply read “Done. I land at 4:30 this afternoon.” And I thought I was spontaneous – this guy is good! That said, he didn’t buy a ticket for the race – he considered it, but ended up choosing to watch it in a bar in the city, where the buzz was buzzing just as loud but the coverage was unquestionably better. I then met up with him after the race, when I got back into the city.

So when planning Monza this year, I thought I’d try the ticketless approach here. I’ve done the circuit, I’ve experienced Parabolica, I’ve even sat in pole position on the grid. So given the Italian passion for all things Ferrari and F1, and my past experience with dad, there must be a few bars showing the race; I’ll go and watch there with the locals.

Unfortunately, this year is a bit different, and I’m not sure why? I’ve wandered down to the pedestrianized centre of the city, but you’d hardly know there was a Grand Prix going on? There are a few gazebos and bits and pieces mainly aimed at children, but no pop up Nastro bar, no rock concert, and no bars showing the race? I could handle not watching the race live, if there were people around who could join in the anticipation via Twitter, radio coverage or whatever other means. Similarly, I could handle the lack of buzz, if there was a bar with a tv showing the race. But so far, I see neither. This could be disastrous. So I’ve stopped for a coffee and conflab – I’ll ask a waiter where to go to watch it. There must be somewhere…

Quick win

I’ve deposited myself outside Il cafe della piazza in Monza’s main square. To begin with, I order a coffee – a lame attempt to vet the waiter’s ability to help (and because I’ve yet to have a coffee since arriving four days ago!)  Un latte per favore? This may not sound significant, but having ordered a macchiato before, expecting a tall variety but getting a shot, I’m not always convinced that what I ask for is what I’ll end up with! But my latte arrives, is suitable frothy, and far nicer than you get in London. So far so good.

I’ve been subtly watching Luigi the waiter, and he seems friendly enough to ask (and young enough to be likely to speak some English when my pigeon Italian runs out) about the race. Snag – how do I say “do you know where I could watch the Grand Prix? A bar with a TV perhaps?” it Italian? I get as far as excuse me before running out of ideas. So I cheat (why have an iPhone and not use it!) I type into my translation app and am presented with my answer: dove posso guardare il Gran Premio? Un bar con una tv…? I slip in the courtesy scuzi signor at the start and finish with a per favore and I’m away… until he replies, in Italian, at which point I have no idea what he’s saying. Rubbish! The downside of sounding like you know what you’re talking about, is that people think you know what you’re talking about! I respond apologetically with scuzi, mi no parlo italiano! Parla inglese? He shouts across to Claudio behind the bar, who responds with exactly the same as Luigi did to start with. Luckily, another chap at the bar says you can watch it here, on the TV and points to a plasma on the wall, currently showing a Gangnam Style video. Ah, I hadn’t spotted that.

Now I’m not sure what to think at this point. I’ve had a coffee and asked for their help, expecting them to point me in the direction of a lively atmospheric bar. But instead they’ve suggested I can watch here, in the café. I’m the only person sitting inside and the atmosphere is somewhat lacking. But I now feel obliged to watch it here, and you can guarantee that if I wander off to see what other options I can find, I’ll find nothing, get myself lost and miss the race. So I play safe, order a Panini and tuck in for the duration.

***

OK so not the most exciting race ever. I’m glad I opted not to fork out for a ticket, even if the atmosphere here wasn’t as lively as the the parc. I settle my bill and head out into the piazza. I’ll give the masses an hour or so to descend on the piazza and hopefully it’ll liven up a bit.

Or maybe it won’t? I’m sadly disappointed to report that, unlike two years ago, there are no pop-up bars, no lively cafes spilling out onto the streets, even the gelato kiosk in the centre is closed. What’s going on? Is the calm before the tifosi descend, or has the credit crunch really taken its toll on Monza?

OK I’ve now walked around the centre of the centre twice. If I do another lap, the locals will think I’ve lost radio communication and they’ll hold out a pit board. I have to pick a bar and have a birra, I’m parched. I select a place with a few inhabitants, take a seat outside, order a birra, open Vesper and within minutes the heavens open. For this, I take full responsibility – it’s like having a bbq in the uk – as soon as you light the thing, it’ll rain! We all rush inside and I grab a small table.

The boss here seems to be an Italian version of Basil Fawlty. When I order my birra, his response is “just that, that’s all you want?”  I look around, and no-one else is eating… what’s the problem? So I reply “Si” … similarly, once I’m inside, and have my second birra, I look around me to note that, because there are just two people left inside, he’s clearing things away. It’s 6.30? He can’t be closing, is he? I get the feeling I’m being ushered out, so I finish my birra and make my way out. I think everyone else had the same idea; as I walk up the road, the next bar is full of all the same customers who’d been sitting outside my previous haunt with me. I see… I join them and after a further couple of birrrrra, it’s time I found somewhere to buy a bus ticket home. Mission: look for a black T in a white circle…

Ciao Ciao xx