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  

Lago Maggiore Express

This was what I’ve been most excited about in Italy. It starts with a train ride from Milan up to Arona on the southern shores of Lake Maggiore. From here, I take a fast train up the historic Simpola route to Domodossola, where I’ll pick up the Centovali mountain railway to wind its way across to Locarno in Switzerland. Finally, from Locarno I’ll pick up a boat to bring me back down the lake, hopping from one side to the other, with various stops along the way, and ending up back in Stresa.

Not quite awake, I’ve dragged myself out of bed at 6am for this. It better be good! I’m on the way up to Arona and convinced I’m going to fall asleep and miss my stop. We’re not due to leave for another 10 minutes. Over the aisle, a young Leonardo is traveling alone. He has his suitcase by his side in a group of four seats, and is looking out of the window at an older Signor on the platform, who appears to be talking to him. All Leonardo says is “Si si. Si si.” I’m guessing it’s his father or grandfather waving him off and worrying about him traveling alone. The words he’s mouthing from the platform are probably “ring when you get there” or “did you remember your toothbrush?” or “don’t tell your mum about the limoncella…”  Meanwhile Leonardo is nodding and saying “Si si” repeatedly, wishing the train would pull away…

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Arona

When I wake up we’re approaching Sestro. So I know I haven’t over slept, but the next stop is mine so I’ll stay awake from here. I get off at Arona and buy my next ticket – to Domodoseydora. Given it’s a quick connection, I’m happy to just hang around the station. So I cross the road and get my first view of Lake Maggiore. Not the most scenic one, but a good opportunity to try out my camera. (For once, I’m not relying on my aging iPhone for photos). I even remembered to charge the battery, and ensure there were less than a few photos on it. So why then, when I try and snap the local wildlife, does it respond with “memory full” – what? This can only mean one thing… I open the side panel and yep, no memory card. Ah, but that’s ok *smiles smugly*  I have Vesper with me, and she has a memory card in her, right? Wrong – I took it out when Vesper came into the office this week (that’ll teach me to be security conscious). Damn. Right, my casual half hour just became a mad hunt for a shop which sells memory cards! Luckily enough, in the midst of market stalls, bakeries, cafes and gelateria, I find a mobile phone shop which also sells memory cards. How lucky is that? So I now have a camera, a ticket and a train to catch…

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Domosossola

Outside Milan, I’m now onto Italian time. So the Dingdongdoseydora train is late. If this was the UK, people would be looking at timetables, then checking then again five minutes later to check they hadn’t misread them, or looking at each other, wondering if their fellow passengers were concerned too (but saying nothing, of course).  But this is Italy, so without word or worry from the stazione staff to explain the lateness, my fellow passengers and I just sit and wait for the train to arrive. That is, with the exception of a lone traveling woman with a huge backpack, who bears a strange resemblance to Mary from Coronation Street. I keep my head down, but unfortunately she approaches me and starts speaking to me in more broken Italian than mine. Now this could work in my favour… a) it means I stand half a chance of understanding what she’s saying, and b) I can also claim not to understand a word of what she’s saying. This could be fun! But in a moment of weak empathy, when Mary simply points to the platform number 4 sign and says “scuzi, Domo……..?” I just nod and reply “si”. She’s happy, I’m safely assumed to be Italian, and my inability to speak much of the local lingo is safely still a secret.

We board the train and, with little to look at, I fall asleep again.

AN: I really have to stop this; I have a strange ability to sleep anywhere – standing up, during exams, in nightclubs – Bobo Lobo, I say no more.

Out of the window to the left, is much of the same housing as we saw coming out of Milan, but this time I’m sitting on the right. This is intentional; I figured we’re traveling up the left of the lake, so there should be more to see out of the right window. And I’m right – there’s the lake; not much going on, just lots of water, but it’s very pretty.

The water soon disappears from view, as we head up the valley towards Dingdongdoodah. And I’m joined in my four seat arrangement by an English couple. I keep very quiet; Jerry and Margo are apparently doing the same route as me, albeit with a different starting point and itinerary. They’re debating which stop to get off the train (interesting given that the train we’re on is terminating at the next stop – I opt not to tell them this, for fear of giving away my aforementioned success as appearing Italian). Margo pipes up with “well there’s no point stopping in Do-dah wotsit… (she clearly has the same problem as me in remembering what this place is called) …there’s nothing there except Benetton.” OK so now I’m thinking, have they given it a fair go, or is my rough guide about to get shot to pieces?

I don’t wait around to find out – as soon as we arrive in Diplodocus I hop off the train and up the hill into the old town. First impressions – there is actually a Benetton on every corner, yes. And the cafés and bars adorning the main road up the hill from the stazione, which probably would’ve been buzzing in the 50s, appear somewhat tired today. At the first junction, I pull out my guidebook and it suggests I head left. Things improve marginally, but I’m still not sold and am starting to realise what Margo was on about. I’m even cursing a white van for parking in the only spot worthy of a photo (additionally frustrating, given the lengths to which I went to have a camera with me).

But then I stumble across – the old town. This reminds me of Lakeland Italy’s answer to Stonegate in York. Old crumbling buildings, desperately being restored, with a gentle hum of people sitting outside little cafés and Osteria. In just a few minutes I’ve walked every inch of it, but it really is a little gem in an otherwise humdrum place. So I wander back to the stazione to await the next (and more exciting) part of my trip – the Centrovali train to Locarno.

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Die Deutsche Saga

Oh joy; as I descent into the underground platform to find the Centrovali, I find myself encircled by at least 30 Germans, aged between 50 and 80. It’s Aunty Shee and the Saga group from Malpensa! Nooooooooo…

Unfortunately, yes. At the bottom of the steps, there is no other place to go but the train to Locarno. I therefore skirt around them as they dawdle on the platform and head for the far end of the train. Luckily, they continue to dawdle and seem to think that, despite there being six coaches to our train, they must all cram into the first doors they come to. Peace… but not for long – three of them manage to escape and find me in my otherwise empty carriage.

So I read in my rough guide that, when coming on the train from Locarno, you’re best to sit on the left to get the better views. So going in the other direction, I sit on the right. Within 20 minutes of our journey, I’m regretting this supposed intelligence, as Hans, Helmut and Helga onthe other side are enjoying lovely views down the grassy valley, whilst I have a rock face covered in trees up against my window. But hey, this is fine – I hop down the steps to the centre of the carriage, and get a floor-to-ceiling view through the doors through which I can take pictures. Perfect, only I wish the train would time its journey with my visits to the door – every time the view gets good, I hop down to the door, and the trees come across. I wait a few minutes then give up and wander back up to my seat, just as the trees clear. It’s like playing chicken with nature!  I end up with some lovely pictures of trees…

***

Must have dozed off…  I wake to realise Hans is standing over me uttering something in German (hopefully something like “I must remember to pick up some deodorant when we stop”). I look the other way and am presented with the most beautiful view – it reminds me of the dam at the start of Goldeneye, only the water is blue (not green), the valley is green (not grey), and the sun is shining. It’s lovely, and guess who has the best seat in the house?! Clearly seat envy has now passed to Hans, as he ignores the option of the floor-to-ceiling glass door down the steps, and continues to stand in the aisle for the rest of the journey. (I lay my scarf on the seat in front of me, remove my flip flops, and put my feet up, in hope that my ponky feet will give him other ideas! 

The views generally get better and better until eventually we go into a tunnel and emerge in Locarno. As I hop down onto the platform, I realise the exit is at the other end. This means playing the Germans at their own game and weaving in and out Vettel-style down the platform, with the token “scuzi” thrown in for good measure.

AN: I’ve no idea what language I should be speaking now… we’re now in Switzerland, they’re German, I’m trying to be Italian, and everything is priced in Francs? It’s anyone’s guess.

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Locarno

Aside from having the most enormous ice cream ever (think a whole pot of Haagen Das in a cornetto), there’s not much to write about Locarno. I was somewhat disappointed, if I’m honest. The architecture was very well maintained and much of it is new. There are big hotels in the central piazza, with fountains and underground car parks, and a department store resembling Peter Jones, John Lewis or House of Fraser. Clearly, we’re now in Switzerland, but whilst the cleanliness and modernity is pleasant, it seems to have stripped the place of any charm? I wander around for a while, trying not to head straight for the harbour (I’m going to get four hours of lake on the way home, so really should try and explore a bit) but the best I can do is an ice cream, a bag of amaretto biscotti and a temptation to dive into Kookai (just for the aircon, really Mum).

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I last until 3:45 before heading down to the harbour for my boat trip. The train here was lovely, and probably something I’d like to do again, but stopping at each stop for a drink or something, as the villages we passed through were lovely. But the boat trip is the bit I’ve been looking forward to the most. So I head down to the harbour and am soon rejoined by Hans, Helmut, Helga, and the rest of their Saga chums. We board the boat and set sail off down Lake Maggiore.

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Wow. Wow. Yeah ok, wow…

Can you get bored of something beautiful? Perhaps a million dollar question, but we’re now two hours into the boat trip and I’m bored. The views are stunningly beautiful, there’s no question. But the boat travels very slowly and I was expecting to be able to get off for a bit at each stop. Instead, we literally stop to let passengers off and pick others up. Meaning it’s a bit like watching paint dry, even if it’s a lovely colour. I want to make the most of it, but there’s only so long you can stare at water or a hillside, with little change in vista, before you want to nod off! So I head below deck for a change of scenery.

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At the bar (well it is after 6…) I soon learn how to say “same again”. Sarah and I learnt this in Venice, as “ancora losteso” and when I said this, the lady behind the bar knew what I meant. But she suggested I could also use “uval a prima” – maybe they’re regional dialects or something? No idea, but I’ll try both again before I leave Italy, I’m sure.

Weirdly enough, it’s usually about this time of day / week I’d arrive at an F1 weekend, yet this time I feel like I’ve done heaps already. Probably because my holidays these days tend to be weekends away, so by day 3 I’m almost waiting for the mean reds you get when you realise it’s nearly the end of your holiday and time to go home. But this time, I still have a weekend to go! Right, time to get off the boat and explore a bit more.

Stresa – and a good looking birra

I’m sitting in a bar in an Italian stazione, with a decidedly tasty view, sipping a birra, listening to Italian radio, and feeling quite content.

The rough guide suggested that, in its day, Stresa was a haven for the rich and royal. When the first tunnel opened to connect Switzerland and Italy, it connected northern Europe with the Med and therefore attracted the Orient Express and various wealthy travellers to stop off at Stresa. Today, it’s lost much of the popularity, as other areas have become equally (if not more) accessible. So I wasn’t expecting much as I walked up to the stazione from the harbour.

But I found it really lovely. This could be because of the time (people are starting to come out for Apertivo, and evening meals) there’s a buzz (live music in one of the piazzas I walked through) and having had a chilly breeze on the lake, the still air is a pleasant change again. But much like Locarno, Dingdongdodah and Arona earlier today, there’s little to do for more than a few hours.

This has made me think about my experiences on and around Lago Maggiore. All the places I’ve been to have been lovely, for a limited time. None have a great deal to see, perhaps enough to occupy a visitor for a day. The scenery is delightful; on land, it’d be great to explore at your own pace, stopping as and where you chose, rather than chugging through on a timetable. The lake itself is much the same – maybe a day trip from one place to another, with the option to explore, rather than chugging through on a timetable. But had I not done this trip, I’d probably only ever have seen a little piece of it. Instead, I’ve seen a lot, in one go, giving me the taste of it to come back again, should I choose to create such an opportunity. I’d love to have brought Bruno down here – it’s something I said I’d do one day, but the days of having such a lovely car have gone for now, and so has the ease of doing it. It’s not an opportunity lost, because I could still do it, just not quite so easily. But it’s another part of Europe I’ve now seen and one I’ve enjoyed.

Now, time to finish my birra and hit the binari for my train back to Milano…

Ciao Ciao xx

Milan’s answer to subway

…only cleaner, classier and much more tasty!

In my usual fashion, I’ve returned to Milan with my trusty Rough Guide, around which most of my previously-mentioned planning has focused. Having read this thoroughly in parts (and briefly in others) I’ve identified my ‘vital few’ – the things and places I want to see whilst I’m here – and now have colour-coded page markers. Yellow is transport (tram plans, metro networks, bike hire and Lago Maggiore Express info); blue is maps (Lombardia, Milan city centre, and Porta Ticinese); pink is food (Luini for lunch, La Biciclette for apertivo, La Libera and/or L’Osteria del Trento for dinner); and orange is nightlife (Corso Sempione, Corso Como, Porto Venezia and Ticinese). These are all places I didn’t go last time I was here and which, according to my Rough Guide, are worth a dabble.

If anyone reading this ever goes to Milan, you should try Luini. It’s down a side street away from Duomo and can really only be described as a cross between Thomas the Baker (for those in the north) or Greggs (for those in the south) and Subway, except the food is Italian, the kitchen is open there in front of you, and the food is to die for. There is a queue, but only just out of the door and it appears to be moving pretty quickly. Outside, there are no elegant tables with parasols, no armchairs with cushions and no waiter service (quite the contrast from the establishments a few feet away towards the Duomo). Instead, people are standing in small groups or sitting on the kerb, dressed in skirts and suits, eating their Luini straight from the paper. The busyness (with apparent local workers, rather than just tourists) suggests something good is going on in there, so I venture inside.

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The queue is indeed moving quickly, thanks to a suited gent inside directing you, like a Clarridge’s doorman, to the next available attendant behind the glass counter. Beneath said counter is the calzone. The flavours are typical – mozzarella and spicy salami; onion, olive and tomato; spinach and ricotta – but the smell is incredible. As well as the savouries, there are various sweet-looking pastries, each looking slightly different (giving me comfort that they are from the kitchen behind, rather than out of a box from a factory down the road.) But I stick to just the savoury and opt for a spicy salami and mozzarella. And there’s only one word for it really, delicious. Right then, looks like I picked the wrong day (week, country…) to try and cut out carbs…

Ciao Ciao xx

Travel bloging again – scary eyebrows, croysunts and flushing too soon

I’m technically on holiday for the next five days. Yet I’ve brought some work with me – not because I have to, but because I want to get my plan finished and into action quickly. However, we’re 40 minutes into the flight and Vesper has drawn me away from my work and into my blog. Again.

Or is it British Airways which has drawn me away? Or the chap two seats down from me? Or the curious couple in the front row? Or forgetting to do my eyebrows before I left?  It could be any of the above, but they all deserve pen time, so here we go.

After a bit of a do at home last night (riverside barbie with two Aussies, a South African, a girl called Peter and tales of a hot but somewhat dopey American), I started packing at about 10pm. Having spent the past three weeks planning my itinerary (including the tubes in London, metro in Milan, boats around lake Maggiore, Trenitalia to Genoa and the mountain train to Switzerland), you’d think such organisation would’ve included a list of what I’d be taking in my suitcase. But no. On the contrary, the comfort of knowing I have extra baggage allowance (flying business class) means I’ve paid little attention to this, instead airing on the side of ‘just take everything’. So with very little contemplatory head scratching and perhaps a few too many pairs of flip flops (is 3 too many for a 5-day trip?), I set my alarm for 4am and fall into bed at about midnight.

It’s 20 minutes later than last time you looked at the clock

As you do when you know you have to be up early, and can’t sleep in, I wake up every 45 minutes thereafter, looking at the clock and wondering if I’ve packed the right things. I also have the usual mental list on the go, of things I know I’ve already forgotten to pack (and will undoubtedly forget to throw in). So by about 2:45 I give up trying to sleep and get up.

I dig out the linen trousers (both pairs) and try them on, only to decide the blue ones are too long and can only be worm with heels, and the beige ones are too short, having apparently shrunk in the wash? They go back in the drawer. I go back to bed.

Why I bothered getting back into bed I don’t know – I get straight up again and pack Vesper’s power cable – that would have been seriously annoying, to have Vesper and no power. I throw in the black heels (having remembered the LBD) and in go the GHDs for good measure. (I’ve changed – never travelled with heels or hair straighteners before… fiver says they both come home unused!)

By 3:59 I’m in that all-too-familiar position of bending around my suitcase, holding it shut with one hand whilst trying desperately to pull the zip round with the other hand. I’m almost there when my alarm goes off and the whole house is welcomed into Wednesday morning by the opening riff of INXS ‘All Around’. I dive across the bedroom to get to my phone before Michael Hutchence ‘Sees the rising sun’, my suitcase lid flies open, and the GHDs snap at my little toe on their way to the floor. Eeeeek…

In the end, I have no idea what has ended-up in my case. My oh-so-neatly folded contents are now forced in regardless and the zip is shut. I shower and dress and head out for the airport.

Can you take tweezers on a plane?

Despite my somewhat sleepless night, random packing and inelegant departure, my journey to Milan is business class. So I arrive at T5 and head straight for duty free, stock up on Coco Madamoiselle and head for the BA lounge. All seems lovely – I settle into the leather armchair, read the paper, log onto wifi, post my #tubetunes to Hootsuite and enjoy a spot of breakfast. It’s only when I go to the ladies, that the tranquil picture is once again disrupted.

When I looked in my bedroom mirror this morning, it was obviously too dark to notice the somewhat scary appearance of my eyebrows. Having not been plucked for a few days, they’re in a less than acceptable state of tidiness for the world’s style capital. Right, mission: tweezers.

This strikes me as weird. You can’t take a bottle of water through security, as it’s considered a potential terrorist threat to take over 100ml of liquid into the cabin. Yet once through security, you can buy liquids in far larger quantities. Indeed, you can even buy lighters, knives, enough electrical equipment to make a small incendiary device. But can I find tweezers anywhere? Nope. It would seem that, contrary to most decent shopping areas, T5 has a wealth of designer boutiques; Prada, Gucci, Chanel, Paul Smith, Tiffany’s, Harrods, but I haven’t seen a Boots since before security? I give up and decide the Milanese will just have to put up with my scary brows. The app on my phone buzzes to tell me my gate has been assigned and I should head to A8, that’s the one opposite Boots J I dive in, grab a pair of tweezers and whip over to the gate.

Croysunts, turns-ups and espadrilles

Today’s flight isn’t full. So I’m on row 2, with two empty seats to my right and three more across the aisle to my left. After a few minutes, a young lady parks herself by the window across the way and I’m almost getting excited at the prospect of having not one, but three business class seats all to myself… until Albert turns up.

Albert is in seat 2F by the window. So I stand up and let him through. He must be in his 70s, is traveling alone and has a small satchel in his arms. He doesn’t seem at all phased by the experience, is probably a seasoned flier, and a worldly-wise gentleman, I’m thinking. That is, until breakfast arrives.

The cabin attendant asks him what he’d like for breakfast. Given there is only one row in front of us, it’s unfair to suggest it’s unnecessary to make her repeat the options, even if she did utter them to three people only inches in front of us only moments before. Nevertheless, he may not have heard. The attendant starts her list again for the fourth time in two rows. Interestingly (if you’re bored on a plane), I’m impressed at how she does this – rather than simply list a load (and there are loads) of options, she kind of offers each component of the pre-packed breakfast trays, as if it were an a la carte menu from which would could pick and choose.  In fact, and perhaps the downside to what I’m seeing as a more friendly and less production line approach to in-flight meals, Albert does think it’s a pick and choose job. So he asks for “just a croysent please”.  Now, I know exactly what he means. I may not pronounce it in the same way and neither, I suppose, do the French. However, the attendant either doesn’t hear or doesn’t understand, and asks him again. God bless uncle Albert, he repeats “just a croysent please”. Is he uneducated? Not bothered? More knowledgeable than the rest of us? Who knows, but he gets his solitary continental pastry and picks at it for the rest of the flight.

Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly entertained by Rupert across the way. Sitting in seat 1B and 1C are a couple, about my age (maybe a little older), and I can’t decide if he is just over excited or whether he knows the crew? Before we took off, he had a word with the cabin attendant and was subsequently ushered the few feet forward into the cockpit, shaking hands with the pilot and his chum, and taking photos on his iPhone. Scurrying back grinning like a Cheshire cat, Rupert then proceeded to share his snaps with his companion beside him, bless.

During the flight, Rupert appeared to be looking at EVERYTHING on the plane. For most, this could be a subtle review, but the downside of sitting in row 1 is that you have to turn around to see anything, making it blatantly obvious that you’re having a look, again, at breakfast, at what everyone else had, at the duty free trolley, was anyone buying anything?… As I sit here evaluating Rupert’s appearance and actions, I suddenly realise he’s doing a me… he’s reading (and trying to fathom the controls for) the entertainment screen! Yes Rupert, we’re at 37,000 feet, traveling at 538mph, somewhere over Southern France.

Still trying to decide if I think he’s a friend of the crew (which could explain how he was able to get photos, the hand shaking, and perhaps even the seat choice), I realise Rupert is actually the chap I clocked in security, noticeable by the delightful elbow pads on his jacket, the decidedly creased state of said jacket, and the size of the turn-ups on his jeans – his companion actually let him go out like that?! Maybe he thinks he’s Tom Ripley? As we land, he produces a trilby from the overhead locker and his look is (debatably) complete. Relieved not to hear him break into a verse of Americano, the doors open, it’s 10:45 local time, 24 degrees and I can smell Italy… buongiorno!

Aunty Shee on a Saga trip…

I walk into the Ladies’ at Malpensa airport. There are three or four ladies waiting in front of me, one of whom seems to be what the Wallins would call an “Aunty Shee”. With no reference to gender reassignment, (although in today’s world, if my brother was still with us I’m sure he’s debate this, purely for entertainment value), an Aunty Shee is a comparison to a friend of my grandmother’s, who regularly appeared at family gatherings and was no relation whatsoever, yet still went by the label of ‘aunty’.

Anyway, the comparison here is the fact that Shee had a presence about her, which meant that even if you couldn’t see her, you just knew she was there. Similarly, here in the Ladies’ at Malpensa airport, is a Shee-like figure, giving (questionably) helpful direction to the other ladies around her, who are of a similar age, fashion(less) dress sense and they’re all American.

It’s only when Shee turns around and I see the badge on the lanyard around her neck. The former being about A5 in size, roughly laminated, and bearing the words “Magnificent Lakes of Italy tour”, along with her name and a badly pixelated image of what could be a lake. The lanyard is blue and holds a strapline which I can’t clearly make out, but it includes the words ‘Milan’ and ‘2013’. Having clocked this, I look around me to realise that I’ve potentially become mixed-up in an American Saga trip around the Italian Riviera – leave Rebecca, quickly!

Enough! I’m not done yet!

A quick one, albeit, not as quick as the Italian women must be… Why is it, whenever I sit on a toilet over here, it flushes, whilst I’m still sitting there?! Talk about chicken and egg; I think I’m done, prepare to leave, the toilet flushes, meaning more tissue / drying required, which then triggers the flush again… Enough! I’m not done yet! Will someone please invent an automatic flush which is triggered by the lid being lowered, or the cubicle door being unlocked (like the French public conveniences do in Bezier) rather than by movement in the vicinity of the toilet seat. Whoever thought it’d be good to trigger it whilst you’re wiping? Rubbish, or even crap design! I’ll leave you with that delightful though…

Ciao Ciao x

I love surprises!

I know; me doing something I’ve wanted to do for ages is hardly new. And getting excited and feeling the need to tell people about it is no big surprise. But I LOVE surprises, especially when they’re things I’ve conjured up for someone else. Call me sad, but I get uber excited seeing the look on people’s faces when they realise something they’d love to happen, is actually about to happen, or happening right there and then. It’s an incredible feeling, when you have made it happen.

For instance; on my mum’s 59th birthday, I kidnapped her and flew her off to Spain to spend a few days with her best friend, and the first thing she knew of it was when we got to the airport.

I’d told her I was flitting off on one of my random weekends away, to Milan, and she thought she was giving me a lift to the airport. Dad came too, for a ride out, and in the car on the way there, I couldn’t help but laugh as mum saw this as an opportunity to do a ‘big shop’ at Sainsburys on the way home. So spent the entire journey writing a list of groceries!

But I’m wearing my big winter coat?…

When we got to the airport, she said “I wish I was coming with you…” to which I replied “that’s good, because you are” Her face was a picture! Questions then came out of her mouth which were clearly blurred by excitement… “but I’m wearing my winter coat?” (No reference to her passport) “but I haven’t brought my toilet bag?” (the passport still didn’t figure in her thought processes) “what about my handbag? I’ve only brought my big one?” At this point, I revealed that with a little help from one of her friends in the village, I’d already packed her clothes in my case, booked her time off work, snuck out her passport, and as dad lovingly gave her a little envelope, with instructions not to open it until she was in duty free, she actually started to get excited!

As we trundled through security, mum proceeded to tell everyone she could, that she “had no idea about this until five minutes before, and was even wearing her big winter coat!”

By the time we reached departures, and she had her first G&T in hand, she was still under the impression we were going to Milan. It wasn’t until our flight was called (after a slight delay, a few more G&Ts and much excitement) that mum realised we were actually going to Spain. At that point, the penny dropped and she said “are we going to see my bestest?!!” …and the surprises just kept on coming, brilliant! The best thing about all this, was that mum had no idea what was going on, at any point. She was so focused on her 60th and planning her retirement trip of a lifetime, she didn’t consider that we’d do anything for her 59th, it was brilliant.

Today’s surprise

Since moving to London, I’ve been car-less. Now most people (including me) would agree that, living and working in London, you don’t need a car. It occasionally proves handy, but it’s far from a necessity. So when I moved here, I got rid of my beloved Bruno and, if I’m honest, day-to-day I haven’t missed him. However, having the freedom to just jump in the car and disappear was something I loved, and I do miss. But there are ways and means, it’s just a case of doing things differently.

So today, I’m jumping on a train and heading up to Suffolk to surprise my grandparents. They’re both 90-odd so I’m hoping they’ve not decided to do the same as me and flit off somewhere! Clearly I can’t call to check they’re at home, as they’d ask why. But dad spoke to them this week, and apparently they’re in all weekend.

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The drainpipe (London’s shortest tube line)

Unusually for me, I’m not in a mad dash this morning. I think, having the morning off yesterday meant I got a few housey chores out of the way, leaving today to enjoy lazily. So I’m up at about 7, have a leisurely breakfast overlooking the river, before heading up to the station about 8:30, to make my debut on the Waterloo & City line… I didn’t even spot that this existed on the tube map! In my defence, it’s a watery green colour on the map (not striking) and only has two stations – Waterloo and Bank. I guess it’s designed to help commuters coming into the City from the South West, so probably crazy busy during rush hour… right now though, it’s Deadsville Tennessee, I have just an elderly couple and a festival-goer for company (I’m assuming the occupation of the latter, based on her attire of tiny denim shorts – no I’m not just getting old, cheeks were on full view, although fair play, no cellulite in sight – a flower power t-shirt, turquoise willies and a backpack twice her size.)

It’s a quick train and I’m at Liverpool Street by 9:20 – my train doesn’t leave until 10:00; excellent, time to people watch!

Passing the dutchy

My first targets are a West Indian-looking family getting coffee. Well, I think they wanted coffee, although I’m not sure they got anything? Costa Coffee in Liverpool Street station is a pop-up booth with no customer seating, but it’s cleverly positioned close to some station seating. Here sits Mamma, wearing the most flamboyantly coloured dress (I think Nanny used to have a tablecloth with a similar pattern?) accompanied by her flock: two girls with their hair tightly pulled into bunches on top of their heads – too cute for words – and two boys dressed in yellow (Pele?) football shirts. The girls sit quietly surrounded by ‘stuff’ – I say ‘stuff’, because I’m not sure if it’s their possessions, their shopping, or just some random articles they’ve chosen to bring along? Think metal cooking / mixing bowls of various sizes, a rolled-up rug, a plastic bag (not sure of its contents) and a wheelie bag (the kind Nanny used to use to go for her shopping, as opposed to the airline variety).

Whilst the girls are immaculately behaved, the boys are full o’ beans; running around tripping over the metal bowls, which makes quite a tune, and I half expect a flash reggae ensemble to kick in. Then Mamma pipes up “now you boys, come sit down and be’ave, gotta get me a drink, yeah…?” Despite her request and desire for hydration, she never actually moves any closer to Costa. Is this a ploy to get them to sit down with the girls? Is she in need of something stronger than coffee? Is Popps with them, already queuing for coffee? Who knows. I just queue for my latte, as the tuneful metal bowl dance continues, with the boys choreographing different moves each time a bowl goes flying. By now, I’m not sure what’s more entertaining; the fact that Mamma continues to shout at them, without actually getting more irate, or that fact that the boys seem to have made a game out of tripping over things, and each time, striking a new pose. My fellow coffee queuers are clearly as aware of the show as I am (it’s hard to miss, to be fair), yet in true British fashion, no one dares turn round and look… we’re so British!

Surprise…!

So I’m now aboard the Great Yarmouth flier. This is weird – I’m tempted to stay on the train to GY and explore the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline… I haven’t done that in nearly 30 years. I’m long overdue a trip to Southwold, and Aldborough would be a high choice for a coastal retreat, if I ever won the lottery… But today is about Nanny and Hampa, so I’m changing at Ipswich and heading for a little village a few miles from Bury St Edmunds called Thurston…

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As my train speeds across the glorious Suffolk countryside, I’m wondering how to make my entrance. The simplest way is to just ring the doorbell, but I want to do better than that. However, I need to think about logistics here. Nanny and Hampa age over 180 years between them, so can’t just jump up to answer the door. If they’re in the garden, they might not hear the doorbell. I could call them, to make sure they’re indoors, then ring the bell whilst I’m on the phone, finish the call (on the pretense that they have to go to answer their front door) and there I’ll be. Perfect…

Flowers; ah I can’t turn up at Nanny’s without flowers. I have a 13-minute connection at Ipswich – long enough to get flowers? Probably, if we were running on time, but I think we’re about 5 minutes late. That just leaves Thurston village shop. Well, I’d be supporting their local community that way, the flowers would have less time out of water, and I’d have less distance to carry them. That’s if the shop sells flowers. Let’s hope so…

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Hello sausage!

I’m now on the train back to London, having spent a lovely day with my grandparents. The post office sold flowers, which made Nanny smile on my arrival. I telephoned as I was approaching the house, and when he answered, I told Hampa he should open his front door. And as I walked in, Nanny said she knew it was me because of Hampa’s welcome of “Hello sausage!” and my squeels of excitement (never too old!) The picnic went down a treat, and conveniently left two of everything, so they can have some supper later on.

Despite being 92, my grandfather still has his marbles and is pretty quick on his feet. Sure, he has a few niggles, but he seems incredibly well, probably better than I’ve seen him in a long time. No coughing, no visible pain, he was even singing – I always know when he’s feeling affectionate, because he sings back to me the song I used to sing to him when I was 5!

Nanny was also very well. She’s 89, and although she did recite to me the same story she called to tell me last week, about getting a bottle of Cointreau for her birthday, she too has all her marbles. She probably should think about getting a hearing aid, as her hearing seems somewhat intermittent; she hears Hampa singing in the morning but fails to hear common details as well (he says two, she hears three, he says Saturday, she hears Sunday etc). But they are wonderful – they’ve been married for 66 years and she still refers to him as ‘her chap’. He is talking about changing his car, she rolls her eyes at me, giggling; he quotes Spike Milligan, she doesn’t hear properly, he winks at me and wiggles his eyebrows up and down… They are wonderful parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and I love them dearly. I’m so pleased I went to see them today and because I wasn’t’ driving, I was even able to enjoy a pint of IPA with Hampa. Ahhh, there’s lovely.

If Top Gear tested zimmer frames…

Around 3ish, my uncle (Dick) and cousin (Tom) arrived for a cup of tea. Whilst not unusual, this brought much entertainment, as the cross-room looks, loving giggles and Milliganesque winks became abundant, as we noted silly habits, age blunders, ‘Nannyisms’ and Hampa tendencies’ (even more frightening when they came from my uncle)… Nanny referring to my laptop as my ‘pod thingy’… Hampa asking my uncle to show him how to make a call from his mobile phone… endless entertainment. But the finale came when Dick decided to give Nanny’s new ‘tricycle’ a try out.

A little background. People often ask me where my passion for Formula One came from. When I was young, and the family congregated at Nanny’s, the men would generally be found keeping out of the way in the garage, with their heads under the bonnets of some car or other, and if anyone had recently brought a new car, they’d all have to have a test drive in it. Meanwhile, the women would generally be found in the kitchen, putting the world to rights over a G&T or three. At the time, I was a tomboy and would rather be in the garage with the boys than in the kitchen with the girls. Sunday afternoon telly would generally be either Rugby Special or a Grand Prix, and so began my love of cars and preference for rugger over footie.

So when Dick spotted Nanny’s ‘new wheels’ today, he just had to have a test drive. Tom and I were almost crying with laughter, as Dick whizzed it around the living room, testing the brakes, the turning circle, the torque and the power:weight ratio, which was surprisingly good, for a zimmer frame. Its aluminium build makes it more lightweight than its predecessor, and with a 50-something year old rugby player driving it, the result was frighteningly nifty, for a zimmer frame.

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An afternoon snooze (by me, Hampa was merely inspecting his eyelids, as usual) and it’s time to head back. So I wander back to Thurston station and head back to the smoke.

Thank you Nanny and Hampa – I have always loved coming to see you, and nothing changes. Big huge love xxxxxxxxxxx