Monthly Archives: March 2008
On a recent visit to Paris, we rendezvous-ed with an old friend of Monsieur’s on a Friday evening. He zoomed across town on his scooter, arriving in a flush of excuses “so sorry I’m late…” and then a lot of finance-world explanations which I don’t understand in English, let alone French. In fact, Old Friend wasn’t more than fifteen minutes late to meet us, so he was far from being sent to Coventry, and more than made up for any tardiness by leading the way to a bistrot he’d discovered on rue Casimir Perier.
As we walked down a zig-zag of back streets towards that evening’s meal, Old Friend gave us a preview of our destination. “I was brought here a few weeks ago for a business dinner. It was a bit quiet that night and the atmosphere seemed old-fashioned, but the food’s great! They even serve marrow in the bone!” his excitement was infectious (in spite of comments about marrow being banned during mad cow years), and my mouth started to water. “I went back a few nights later and it was a completely different atmosphere – young, fun, crowded…” as it was when we walked through the door to one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten in Paris.
Old Friend had obviously visited Restaurant Le Basilic a number of times in the previous weeks because the maitre d’ welcomed him like an old friend. (We later learned this was due to a late-night session at the bar where they bonded over some fortified wine from Bourgogne, stumbling off home in the very small hours.)
As we settled into a booth, I checked out the decor. It was, as Old Friend had suggested, a renovated bistrot/brasserie with many of the original features: large mirrors, brass lighting sconces, red banquette seating and dark wood floors. But there were a few quirks of style to make sure you were paying attention, such as the life-sized sculpture of a sheep on the terrace. It served as a seat, was humourous and arresting, and caused patron after patron to stop in their tracks with that look that says ‘I wonder if I’ve drunk too much?’
The suggested apero was called ‘une piscine’, or swimming pool. Served in a red champagne cup, it consists of bubbly on ice and is a Piper Heidsieck marketing ploy to get people drinking their champagne in their branded glasses. Very refreshing… and although new to me, apparently this is a style of serving champagne that is already well-known in the Riviera.
The menu featured traditional French offerings with heavy Basque influences. We decided to choose a starter each, adding Old Friend’s recommendation of marrow in the bone as a fourth option, and tried a bit of everything. We had a black pig jambon serre (apparently this is the best kind of cured ham to be found in France), red tuna marinated herring-style, and red peppers stuffed with a fishy farce. All were tasty; I even braved a taste of marrow spread onto a piece of baguette, in spite of the offputting slices of bone out of which it came! Everything was tasty, but the red tuna was incredible. It looked raw but tasted slightly smoked, with a tougher texture than you find in either raw or cooked tuna. Drizzled with oil and a handful of small, pickled vegetables, I could easily order this again right now.
As main courses we each chose a different fish . Mine was raie on a bed of spinach. Tasty and light, it was perfectly seasoned with a sprinkling of capers to add flavour. Old Friend wasn’t in the mood for meat tonight, but tipped us off that gigot of lamb is what this restaurant is best known for.
As a sweet I ordered a ‘colonel’. This comprises scoops of lemon sorbet swimming in a shot or two of straight vodka. Once finished, I felt a warm glow of alcohol blush hit my face and had to go outside to cool it by the sheep in the fresh air.
By now, the boys were hitting the fortified Burgundy that was responsible for Old Friend being so matey with the maitre d’ and therefore, for the personal service we were receiving tonight. O.F. explained that it’s made from the second tier of grapes in the Burgundy harvest before being fermented into a brandy. It was lethal at this time of night; my eyes were only open with sheer will force and had I not felt as if I could fall asleep right then and there (as anyone who knows me will attest, this is not so funny as I will not wake up until ready to move, which could be hours away) I probably would have enjoyed another glass or two. As it was, Monsieur and I had another busy day ahead of us so had to bid adieu to Old Friend, the bottle of brandy, the cute girls who were giving our friend the welcoming eye, and the sheep. On leaving Old Friend at the bar, perhaps to continue his ongoing appraisal of the brandy and/or the girls, we walked past the church next door. In fact, it was another sort of ‘basilique’; this time a stunning construction dedicated to Sainte Clotilde (475-545), a feisty Burgundian lass who converted her husband. Clovis, King of the Franks, to Christianity. Perhaps, following a day of hard converting, she, too, enjoyed the Burgundian brandy that we’d sampled tonight, and yes, we will be back for more…
Restaurant le Basilic – 2, rue Casimir Perier, 75007, Paris /Tel 01 44 18 94 64
To add to the list of restaurants that I really rate, I must write about L’Epicure, a restaurant in Corbeil-Essonne. Located in a traditional stone house that looks as if someone could be living inside it, sitting with cat on lap in front of the fire, the restaurant may be found a short distance from the Seine in Corbeil, to the south-east of Paris, and this is a place worth knowing if you happen to find yourself in the area. Having said that, you really would have to know about it, because its location in a dark street, possibly more appropriately described as an alley, makes it not the easiest of Corbeil’s eateries to track down.
Luckily, we were guided to l’Epicure with Monsieur’s mother, who’d made us a booking for a small family celebration not so long ago and a very pleasant evening ensued.
I’ve spoken French for many years now, but have never lived in France, so I find it quite a mental drain towards the end of the day when we’re across la Manche and my synapses cease to function in multiple languages. It’s like a neurological twister game. I know what I’m saying but it might just come out in the wrong language, or in more than one language, or in a blend of languages that only I comprehend. At times like these, small things have the potential to revive me and one of them was walking into l’Epicure to find a Jamie Oliver cookbook – in English – sitting on a table in the foyer. That table was a bit of a dream for this amateur gourmet. It was covered in cookbooks by the French greats and others. How I would have loved to sit down and flick through them all. But we were here to eat, so stop and read we could not.
The maitre d’ showed us to our table in a room that probably housed half-a-dozen tables, with another room containing several more just adjacent. There was a newish stone and plaster wall at one end of our room, bearing the year 1981, which had been carved deep into the plaster, and a door gave onto a terrace for use in warmer seasons.
We ordered an apero each of champagne with peach liqueur, and our drinks were presented to us by an immaculately-presented lad of about thirteen. He wore the traditional waiter’s garb of black trousers with white shirt, black waistcoat and bow-tie, and had spiked his shock of dark hair with gel. Throughout the evening, he presented drinks and collected plates without a single mishap, and when the senior waiting staff spoke to him, he listened intently. We wondered if he was being trained into his family’s metier, or if he was some sort of protege who knew he wanted to be a restaurateur already and was working his way through the ranks. Either way, he was a charming addition to the staff.
We were brought an amuse-bouche (cappuccino of mushroom, served in an espresso cup) to tickle our tastebuds into action, and I followed that with a starter of tartare and carpaccio of scallops, swordfish and salmon, marinated in spices, with cream of lime and chives. It was laudably fresh but the swordfish tasted a little bitter so I couldn’t eat it all. Also, anyone who thinks that fish carpaccio is a light dish hasn’t been travelling with me recently. This was huge!
Monsieur and Belle-Mere went for a house special of avocado and lobster, which appeared on dark plates, arranged in a beautiful display of green and orange with artistically-placed claws. It was the sort of dish that makes one sad to begin. One mouthful and the art disappears into the usual mish-mash of food on a plate.
Foie gras features regularly on the menu at l’Epicure – in papillottes, seared, with magret de canard, in ravioli, tossed through salad and as a warm accompaniment to veal. It therefore wasn’t a huge surprise to find a piece of delicate foie gras on top of a tuna steak for my main course. It was an unusual, yet successful combination. However, I was filling up fast and yet again could not finish the generous helping.
Meanwhile, Monsieur and his mother polished off steaks, served with foie gras yet again, and the room, which had been a little empty when we arrived, was filling up. There was a family with an impeccably behaved pair of young boys at one table, a pair of young lovebirds at another, and in one corner sat a chic blonde woman with her male partner, both effortlessly presented in designer jeans, tailored shirts and boxy jackets. Her grooming was expensive – perfect highlighted hair, flawless skin and a splash of natural make-up. She reminded me of a more relaxed version of Caprice, causing me to wonder if it was indeed her. Sipping away at their flutes of champagne, they ordered liberally from the menu and each of their plates was clean when removed. How on earth can it be that they remain so slim whilst Monsieur and I battle to keep our waistlines in check? For now, I’ll call it genetics.
We finished the evening with a chocolate fondant pudding… oozing calories all over our plates and into expanding tums, and waddled out just after coffee. It’s a bit of a trek if you don’t live in the area, but I can unreservedly recommend l’Epicure to anyone visiting Corbeil. Just be sure to bring an appetite.
Place de l’Hotel de ville, 5 et 7, rue du Grand Pignon, 91100 Corbeil Essonne
Tel 01 60 88 28 38
I have a strange thing for travel kits. When I was growing up, our bathroom cupboards were full of in-flight toiletry bags filled with nylon socks, eye masks, creams to keep your skin soft in dry aeroplane air and strange-tasting mouthwash. Dad would bring them home from his frequent business trips and we were sometimes lucky enough to be given our own if we were upgraded when travelling with him. Even today, when I find myself flying business class, it’s the travel kit I go for first, before taking a single sip of the complimentary champagne. I guess that tells you a lot about my interests.
At one point, my mother had sufficient small bottles of Hermes Caleche scent to keep her smelling sweet for years, simply because they were included in a particular kit for an airline that Dad travelled with a lot of the time. We had exotics such as pepsodent toothpaste in miniature tubes when they didn’t sell this American brand in New Zealand, plenty of spare toothbrushes and disposable razors for forgetful guests, and used the empty bags to store all sorts of small items around the house.
In recent years, most skin care and cosmetics companies have introduced their own travel kits. Filled with trial sizes of their most popular products, they allow us to pop one in the overnight bag without the hassle of decanting lotions into plastic travel bottles. One of my friends has given me travel kits two years in a row for my birthday. They’re a wise choice of gift showing that she really understands me and knows that the kits will be used because of my Incurable Travel Bug.
First up was the Eve Lom travel kit, containing facial scrub and muslin cloth, mask, two types of moisturiser and a hand cream. I used it on a one-week trip last year and, apart from the facial scrub which was so divine that I continued to use it at home, I have yet to finish all the products. The packaging is a white faux-leather zip-up box which is small and practical, and because of its shape it’s impossible to squash the tubes inside. £50.00 from Harrods. Ouch. But I have to say that I am seriously considering saving up for the facial scrub (£48.00 for 100ml) because it smells citrus-y and edible and made my skin incredibly soft.
This year, Wise Friend gave me a Liz Earle kit which comes in a plastic zip-up envelope containing facial scrub and cloth, a toner and two moisturisers (again). It’s already been used for a visit to my parents and will come in handy for upcoming weekends away. Checking out the Liz Earle website, there are lots of different kit combinations (£15.00-£50.00), depending on how much product you think you’ll need on your travels. There’s the Pampering Weekend Kit, the Ski Kit and even a London Marathon Kit for those of us who think pounding the pavements for 26 miles is fun. (Not me.)
I like Decleor’s travel washbags. Jo Malone makes luxury travel kits, too, as does Molton Brown, Bliss, The Sanctuary etc etc. However, it’s also easy to make our own, Bespoke Travel Kit, and this way, you can use exactly what suits you. They also make great gifts, especially if you use products you know your friends will like.
Pick and choose from the following travel kit contents:
- use a clear, plastic case. That way, if you’re flying, it’s easy to whip it out of your carry-on at security for the liquids spot check. Depending on how many of the following you decide to include in your kit, you may like to use a regular washbag, but keep any liquids in a small, clear zip-lock bag packed inside it. At present, all liquids must be in containers of 50ml or less. Check with your airline before flying to ensure you meet all current requirements.
- re-use an eye mask from a previous travel kit or buy a new one. For added relaxation properties, find a lavender-imbued mask.
- Invest in a pair of long, soft socks in 100% pure cotton. They’ll be far more comfortable than the nylon versions found on planes and pure cotton on your feet will help eliminate in -flight static.
- Pop in a pair of ear plugs to block out noise.
- Toothbrush and travel-size toothpaste + small pack of mints
- nail file and orange stick (for removing under-nail grime)
- mini hand cream
- mini face wash
- mini moisturiser
- a selection of cotton buds and cotton pads
- individual sachet hand wipes for sticky moments
- individual sachet dry-cleaning wipes (great for removing spots on clothes. Try De-Solv-It Stain Wipes, £2.99 for 10)
- individual sachet nail-varnish remover
- a facial spritzer. I like Evian’s brumisateurs. It’s not always easy to find the purse-size sprays, so when you see them, pick up half a dozen. Failing that, order them on-line.
- soap. Crabtree and Evelyn make packs of soap papers which dissolve into soapy suds on contact with water. Really practical to travel with.
- mini deodorant
- travel pack of tissues
- a couple of sticking plasters (band aids)
- lip balm – to prevent in-flight chapping.
- a travel sewing kit (but without scissors if you are flying, due to security restrictions)
- sweeteners, if you use them. I also carry a couple of herbal teas (camomile to calm me down and peppermint to pick me up). Then all I have to do is ask for hot water.
- Chaps – throw in a travel razor and sachets of shaving foam. However, do check with airlines to make sure razors aren’t considered dangerous items so they don’t end up in the amnesty bin.
- Lastly, put a pen with a cap into the kit. That way, if you need a pen and can’t find another, you’ll know you have at least one, and where.
A couple of optional extras which I find useful to keep in the kit:
- bottle opener (but not corkscrew if flying – as this is a dangerous item) . How many times have I been in hotel rooms where I can’t find an opener, and inexplicably, nor can Room Service? Once too often…
- mild multi-purpose painkillers. Helps with headaches, colds and sleepless nights.
- a couple of elastic band/s for bad hair moments. One is never enough…
And did you know…
that camomile tea bags are great deodorisers? If you are ever caught short in a smelly moment, soak one in cold water and wipe under your arms. It’s a great temporary fix. Do the same for mosquito bites if you don’t have salve with you – the camomile acts as a basic anti-inflammatory.
Monsieur visits Paris on business fairly frequently and, if time permits, will visit food halls, filling his bag with tantalising treats. As he unpacks, I stand transfixed by the foreign labels and cooking instructions, a gourmet in food heaven. Were we to buy the same or similar in London, the prices would multiply before us.
In anticipation of Monsieur’s return from one such trip, I trotted off to the local supermarket to buy ingredients for dinner. Such efforts really aren’t necessary as I found once the suitcase spilled its contents, vastly superseding my relatively meagre bags of shopping. There were aromatic coffee beans, hand-made chocolates, large jars of beans, carrots and peas (4 or 5 Euros apiece, versus £10.00 in the local deli), Norwegian smoked salmon, and, of course, the piece de resistance, a duck.
This bird was unlike any duck I’d seen before, mainly because its head and neck were still attached. That included the feathery head, beady eyes, yellow beak and raw, vein-filled snake of a neck. There was something very wrong with having to look it in the eye before putting it in the oven. Here I was, face to face with Sunday lunch. Literally. A sudden understanding dawned on me of why we don’t eat things with heads more often.
Never having cooked duck before, this would be a new culinary experience. Gathering inspiration from cookbooks and the internet, I knew how to prepare it, but first I had to remove that head. As the little duck eyes watched helplessly, I took to the neck with the biggest knife in the kitchen and wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the beak had quacked its protest. Deed done, I sat the detached head on the chopping board, talking to it like a crazy woman, whilst preparing the body for human consumption. “When did you last fly, little duck?” I asked, “I hope you had a good final flight…” This was proof enough that I had lost it. Would Raymond Blanc talk to duck heads while he cooked? I doubt it. “You really do have beautiful feathers,” I picked up the head and played with the beak, opening and closing it as I made quacking sounds. Just then, Monsieur entered the kitchen. “Oh dear, darling,” he frowned, “you really are weird.” Monsieur doesn’t like it when I play with food, even, apparently, if the food has a head.
I turned on the oven and started to prepare the vegetables and sauce for Canard de Paris. Monsieur went out briefly and when he left, all was well. Then a strange smell emanated from the oven. Smoke filled the kitchen and soon the flat was submerged in a cloud. The oven controls now ceased to work, apart from letting me turn everything off. Oh goodness. Somehow I’d blown the thing up.
When Monsieur returned, it was to find a smoky flat, harassed cook, broken oven and uncooked duck, the head of which still sat on the chopping board, watching proceedings with a glint of satisfaction in its beady duck eyes. Perhaps this was a case of Revenge of the Duck? Perhaps the little duck spirit had sabotaged my attempt to cook it? Mental note to self: time to find a therapist.
Sadly for the Canard de Paris, there is a secondary oven in our kitchen, so the bird was indeed cooked once its head was safely in the bin, unable to cast its evil duck eyes on any more of my cooking.
And yes, the duck, served on a bed of roast vegetables with divine citrus gravy, tasted quite divine.
Years ago I shared a flat with a PR girl from the States. She earned a lot more than my meagre art-world salary, claimed all sorts of allowances (car, housing etc) to boost her already generous income and used what she didn’t spend on rent to travel. A lot.
For a while I found her lifestyle enviably glamourous, until I realised that the destinations she was crossing off her list were chosen to Keep Up With The Joneses and didn’t add any particular value to her life. “Kelly’s going to Morocco,” she’d exclaim, and, before I knew it, she was off to Morocco, too, hot on Kelly’s heels.
When PR Girl returned from a luxury tour of Morocco, I was keen to hear all about it. “well, they all drink tea. It’s gross. They serve it in weird glasses and there’s never any milk.” She screwed up her nose and continued: “We went up to the Atlas mountains on a private 4 by 4 tour and met a local family and they gave us tea. Yuck, more tea.” Who ever would have known that this could create such a downside in a tourist’s review of a nation? “The Souk in Marrakesh was okay, though. I bought some cute slippers, kinda like Aladdin wears.” Saved by shopping. Phew.
PR Girl then planned a five-star vacation with a friend she complained about at every opportunity. Why on earth she’d want to travel with someone so incredibly annoying was anyone’s guess. This time they were off to Thailand to stay at the Banyan Tree Resort and indulge in their relaxing spa treatments. Was the feedback from this trip any better? In a word, no. “The hot stone massage did nothing. NOTHING. I couldn’t believe it. The girl obviously didn’t know what she was doing. The stones weren’t even hot.” Okay, then. I’d never had a normal massage, let alone a new-age version involving stones, so I couldn’t really sympathise. “What else did you do?” I asked, hoping that this super-expensive trip had had some positive attributes. “Well, we went on an elephant ride in the jungle, but the elephants stank. You wouldn’t believe how bad those things smell!” PR Girl exclaimed. Now I was getting annoyed. I’d love to ride one of those beautiful creatures, and I’ve known that they smell a bit ever since my first trip to the zoo as a child. So what? “I couldn’t wait to get off, it smelled so bad!” That sweet little nose would need botox before long to straighten out the constant wrinkling. How was the hotel? “There were bugs everywhere in our villa,” villa? “You’d think a Banyan Tree Resort could at least get rid of the bugs. We sure paid enough.” Then PR Girl brought out a ring she’d found in a Bangkok jewellers. “Isn’t it pretty?” she handed it to me to appraise. I held it up to the light where even without a 10x lens I could see it was synthetic, worth absolutely nothing. No use telling her that. “It’s lovely,” I said.
PR Girl had the whole London Season marked up on her calendar and made sure she got to every event possible: Ascot, Henley, Lords, Wimbledon, you name it. Tickets were procured and outfits purchased, hats donned and appropriate companions sought. When it came time for her to go to Cowes I warned her to leave London in plenty of time as there were bound to be traffic jams en route. There were, and she almost missed the ferry, but apparently that wasn’t so bad. PR Girl was this time complaining about UK hotels. “they didn’t have a hairdryer!” This presented a problem because she got up every morning at 6.30 so she could spend over an hour washing and setting her hair with that perfect Manhattan flip. “what IS it with this country, huh? The hotel amenities are crap, there’s nowhere to eat after 10pm, the sailing guys aren’t that cute and we couldn’t find any parties to go to.” Life’s tough.
Summer ended, winter arrived and with it, the opportunity to ski. “I’ve been invited to Saint Moritz,” PR Girl was excited because a group of appropriate American companions would be meeting her there. “It’ll be perfect for catching a Major Player,” the dollar signs were rolling around her eyeballs like you see on the dials of a one-armed bandit. PR Girl duly went to Saint Moritz and returned from Saint Moritz. As she dumped her case in the kitchen and sank, defeated, into a chair, she amazed me once more: “I didn’t stand a chance. The girls are skinny. Like soooo skinny and they’re way prettier than me!” unbelievable. PR Girl was petite, attractive and always groomed to perfection. The girls she was talking about must have been anorexic models. “besides. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be over there. Everyone’s way too rich.”
I’m grateful that I hadn’t had the money to join PR Girl on any of her excursions. It’s such a shame that even with all the incredible opportunities she afforded herself, she couldn’t see how lucky she was. Only a five-star hotel with working hairdryer and a chic A-list bar full of major players, one of them willing to become her husband, would do. You can get that in New York easily enough, so one asks oneself why she ever left.
There are certain words that have the ability to make us cringe in the same way that sounds make us recoil when listening to a dentist’s drill or nails being dragged across a blackboard. At work, a group of us compare notes on Vile Vocabulary from time to time. So far, one person absolutely detests the word ‘pamphlet’. We all think that ‘moist’ sounds rather unsavoury, and the word making us heave today is none other than ‘chunks’. Putting the three together in a cohesive sentence, we’ve come up with :
‘I’m picking up moist chunks of pamphlet.’ Hmm, what superb imagery.
In relation to another Vile Word, someone recently told me that a friend’s mother thought she was really hip when she said “he’s a real see-you-next-Wednesday!” The daughter had to explain that the saying is actually “see-you-next-Tuesday,” and why.
Monsieur and I booked our flights to Nice many weeks in advance of departure, yet, when we went to the check-in machine at Heathrow, our seats were separated. We had booked a PAIR of tickets at the same time, so why were we seated apart?
We found a uniformed helper and explained our plight. “No problem,” she smiled, “just join the check-in queue over there and a clerk will re-seat you.”
The queue moved slowly. It was even slower than necessary because one of the three clerks on duty was busy, not ticketing, not tagging, but chatting to the group currently at her desk. It wasn’t work-related conversation; it was idle, annoying chatter about holidays, and it went on forever.
Everyone in the queue exhaled with relief as that group moved on and a French woman, elegantly attired, moved forward to take their place. She was shooed back into the queue by Chatterbox Clerk as a rope was raised to admit a group from outside. They had not queued; they’d queue-jumped, with the smiling aid of Chatterbox. French Femme stepped forward to complain, the people behind her nodding and muttering in support, but Chatterbox waved her away and continued to chat chat chat to the interlopers.
When our turn finally came, we had the great misfortune of being summoned by the Chattering Wonder to her desk. “How may I help,” she began with a Cheshire smile, smug in her popularity with her two previous groups. “We went to check in at a machine but the seating plan wouldn’t let us sit together,” we explained, “so, please would you re-seat us?” She took our passports and booking reference, tapping busily on her computer keyboard. “I’m afraid the flight is full,” she said. “I can’t re-seat you. Sorry!”
Monsieur started up. “I don’t understand. I am a frequent traveller and I’ve never had this problem before. We booked the tickets at the same time and together. Why should we have to sit apart?” he asked, flummoxed.
“If you hadn’t aborted the check-in at the machine, you could have changed your seats then. At that time, there were pairs of seats available, but now there aren’t. Perhaps you can ask at the gate to see if anyone wants to swap.” Chatterbox’s job was done, according to her, as she turned away to tag our bags.
I had to retort. Her information was inaccurate. “Actually, when we went to the machine, there were no pairs of seats showing on the system.” I corrected her. “Only separate seats. We’d really appreciate it if you would re-seat us.”
“That’s impossible. The only thing you can do now is ask for a swap at the gate.”
“This is bollocks,” mumbled Monsieur.
“What did you say?” Smiley Chatterbox was gone. Indignant Cow was in her place. “Tell me again, WHAT did you say to me?” Monsieur hadn’t said anything to her at all, just muttered under his breath, but he was about to be roasted by the clerk. “I am offended by your language. You are French, no?” Whatever relevance that had was lost on us, although I remembered how the clerk had so breezily dismissed the earlier complaint of French Femme. Right now, she was treading on dangerous turf. Monsieur hates criticism of his French-ness. “It’s none of your business where I come from. I wasn’t talking to you at all. Anyway, what I said is not offensive” he fumed. “Besides, you’re not English, yourself, so why are you commenting on my nationality? Where are YOU from?” “I don’t have to tell you that,” she hissed, “I’m calling my manager.” Chatterbox duly picked up the phone, requesting back-up, and we were only too happy to wait for a manager to come and quiet the insolent clerk. Meanwhile, the queue was growing behind us. Chatterbox rapped her fingers on the desk and looked around, but not at, us as we waited. And waited. And waited.
Monsieur broke the silence. “Is the manager coming? Because we have a flight to catch and you’re holding up a lot of people here.” Chatterbox picked up the phone to The Invisible Manager as we waited. Again.
Eventually, Monsieur caved in. “Okay, okay,” he sighed, “Just check in our bags and we’ll take our passports.” But no. That would be too easy. Chatterbox was on a roll. “I am not giving you back your passports because you have offended me. Besides, the plane will wait for you.” Oh, Heaven forbid! This little show by the timewasting clerk was now a real annoyance. If her employers only knew that because of her dramatics a plane might be delayed, incurring late fines and losing its take-off slot, she’d be history right now. “Don’t you think you could be helping other passengers instead of being like this?” I asked. “I know my job.” she replied, “and I know how long I can spend with a passenger.” Try telling that to the people tapping their feet in the line as they visualised missing their flights because of this clerk’s inefficiency.
A few minutes later, when we pointed out that her manager obviously had better things to do than help her, Chatterbox finally tagged our bags and handed over our boarding passes and passports.
“I will complain,” stated Monsieur “as this is how you treat your frequent travellers. I will never book tickets on this airline again!” Chatterbox had to have the last word, of course. As I watched our bags disappear down the conveyor belt, saying a silent goodbye to them in the certainty that Chatterbox Clerk had sent them to Timbuktu in revenge, she spat her last words at us: “As far as I’m concerned, fly whoever you want. Perhaps Air France would have you.” she quipped with a smirk. Very likely you just lost two customers, we thought. I only hope that the next people in the queue made Chatterbox wish she’d stayed in bed.
Chatterbox may have checked us in, but concerning her job, she deserves to be checked out.
Standing on the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel, one of our tour group whispered something in my mother’s ear. Apparently, the tour leader had suggested to this woman, a teacher, that she read the Beatitudes aloud to us all to enhance our visit to the Mount but the teacher suffered from dyslexia and found reading aloud a paralysing challenge. How could she get out of it? “Tell the tour leader,” my mother suggested. “She’ll understand.” She did and I was next on the list.
“Come on, you can do it!” my mother encouraged me. I was not yet eighteen, still stuck in that awkward age of self-consciousness where the smallest thing became soooo embarrassing, and reading aloud to a group of strangers made me want to disappear, preferably now. “By doing this, you’ll be helping someone,” my mother continued, “it’s the kind thing to do.” That was that, then. I looked across at the teacher. By this point she had flushed red and was leaning against the wall of the Italian chapel, biting her nails and looking as if she’d like to disappear into it. That made two of us. “All right, I’ll do it,” I told my mother and the tour leader. They smiled and handed me a sheet of paper.
“The Beatitudes,” I began. I figured at least it wasn’t a long reading. In fact, this would be over in no time.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they that suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment when I finished the reading. What a strange feeling it was, to read the words Christ had spoken in His Sermon on the Mount. Here we were on that very same Mount, standing in the porch of the Italian chapel that had been funded by Mussolini, of all people! It was more than a little surreal.
Looking back on that day has become a favourite family memory. My parents are proud that their daughter read the Beatitudes on The Mount where they were first spoken, almost two thousand years ago and, as I grew up, leaving that uncomfortable teenager behind, I began to realise what an incredible experience it had been. We hadn’t planned it; we hadn’t asked for this opportunity. It just presented itself out of the blue. How strange life can be at times.
Most importantly, the Beatitudes are something I believe in, especially now that I know what a battle life can be and that the easiest options are too often wrong.
St Gregory of Nyssa’s analysis of the Beatitudes makes for inspiring reading. As he observed:
“Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good,
from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.
Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us
if it is compared with its opposite.
Now the opposite of beatitude is misery.
Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings.”
Whether or not you are Christian, each Beatitude has universal significance. In basic terms, they encourage us to be humble, charitable, show love for our fellow man and hold firm in our belief in what is good. The reward will be an improved life with a clear conscience and peace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone read and abided by the wisdom of the Beatitudes? I’m sure Epicurus would agree that the world would be quite a different place.
Having been a fan of blog-star, Petite Anglaise, since I first stumbled across the link to her blog on Expatica.com, I have happily dipped in and out of her observations on life in Paris. Being a Kiwi living with a Frenchman in London, I am fascinated by the cultural differences she writes about as an Englishwoman living across the Channel. In spite of our different locations, some of our experiences are similar, such as the menace of slippery little dog poos on a footpath (almost trod in 3 of the blighters en route to work this morning), the stultification of being a graduate working in admin or the way that the study of languages has infected us with a passion for The City of Light. Other experiences are quite different, namely, I am not a Mum, like Petite, and therefore couldn’t possibly imagine how hard it has been for her to go through the events of recent years, nor would I even try.
Like so many fans of Petite Anglaise, my calendar was marked with the release date for the book of the blog for ages. I couldn’t wait to read it and see how Petite’s experiences translated into a more traditional form. There was a lot of predictable pre-release hype regarding the morality of Petite’s actions as detailed in the book, most importantly, what drove her to embark on an affair behind the back of her long-term boyfriend, Mr Frog, who is also the father of her daughter, Tadpole. Some of the comments following on-line reviews and articles are encouraging “live your life, Petite!”, but others have been judgmental and cruel in the worst way, making me wonder whether this was simply because Petite was a woman (heaven forbid) who’d had an affair. If a man had had an affair, left his wife and child and written a book about it, it would probably still be in some sub-editor’s slush pile somewhere. It’s simply too commonplace a scenario.
Affairs are a sensitive subject to broach, with good reason. Someone usually gets hurt and their ripple effect transports pain and awkwardness throughout the surrounding group of family and friends. But why should anyone feel they have the right to pronounce on someone else’s life and actions? No matter how well we think we know someone, we can never see inside their minds to truly understand how they feel or why they act in a certain way. With this in mind I started to read Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson (Petite’s real name), searching for reasons to explain why people were being so hateful towards her.
In three words: there were none.
Granted, Petite had hurt Mr Frog by falling for another man, but given the hum-drum routine that her life had become coupled with a lack of attention and physical affection from her partner, perhaps we should focus on this for a minute. Perhaps being taken for granted and spending most evenings caring for baby alone, waiting for the moment that Mr Frog returned home late (yet again) from work is where the real damage was done. Perhaps the hurt done TO Petite, as opposed to BY her is where the real pain lay. We cannot know. We are not Petite or Mr Frog. Only they can truly understand the way their relationship dissolved and why.
Which brings me to the next point: you should never judge a person until you have walked at least a mile in their shoes, should you? So what sort of tortured souls are they who find it appropriate to criticise a woman who has made some unenviably difficult choices and written a candid book about them? I guarantee that they are jealous of Petite. Perhaps they, too, found themselves at a crossroads once, but instead of being brave and trying out the unknown quantity in their quest for a more satisfactory existence, they did what society considered “right”, only to become bitter online comment makers with nothing better to do with their spare time (of which there is too much) than be mean to those whose courage we should be celebrating.
Just to take my own turn at being bitchy, have you ever noticed that these commenters are so keen to get their angry words on the page that they make spelling mistakes? Really silly spelling mistakes which immediately undermine whatever their opinion is by making them look stupid. They also tend to get their facts wrong. I would suggest to anyone about to write with acid tongue about another’s work to please, do your research. The very fact you misinterpret could change your view if you took the time to get it right. Lastly, and most importantly, how about experimenting a bit with ‘live and let live’? The book may not be for you, it may not be interesting subject matter to someone who lives for wargames, doesn’t like children or who has no interest in other cultures, but it may be a great read for your neighbour or colleague. It’s not right to dismiss things out of hand because they don’t suit your own personal preferences. Let go and try to do something positive with that misaligned energy of yours, and if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing. There’s enough negativity in the world.
In the meantime, I’d like to tell Petite that I have to admire her candour for writing about such tricky subject matter. I, for one, admire her for not accepting drudgery in her life, for seizing the day and changing direction and for maintaining a good friendship with Mr Frog in spite of all the ups and downs. You go, girl! Can’t wait for the next instalment…