10–13th December: On The Road Again


(Mark Sampson) #1

Maybe there's something lacking in my psychological make-up, but I just can't get excited about the thought of travel. The Daughter arrived home on Friday evening, full of the joys of winter and bubbling with enthusiasm about our coming road trip, as she calls it.


Without wishing either to curb her youthful enthusiasm or to come over as a curmudgeon, I let it slip that I didn't relish the drive of 700km or however far it is from here to Le Havre. Not to mention the interminable crossing to Portsmouth and all the uncertainties of cross-Channel transport at a time of year when we're subject to this new concept of weather bombs. Are they delivered by meteorological drones, one wonders?


Plus the fact that we're taking my old shake-rattle-and-rolling Berlingo rather than my wife's tiny but very comfortable Peugeot, because I need the capacious boot to bring back some more stuff. My father has just moved into a new two-bedroom flat. Being the fabled World's Laziest Man, my sisters have spent the last couple of weeks sorting through the parental house, unearthing surprises – some welcome, most unwelcome (including the now legendary plastic bag full of dubious underwear and labelled by my mother, Pants loose-fitting) – and bagging up enough rubbish in the car port to simulate the great refuse collection strike of 19wheneveritwas.


So there's an old trunk to bring back, in which my maternal grandfather used to pack all his stuff for the coming term at school. Inside it there are all my mother's manuscripts, hammered out on an old Olivetti portable typewriter and copied onto carbon paper but never sent out to publishers. And there's a nice rug apparently and a box of my mother's paperbacks, which alas she won't be needing now that she's well and truly away gallivanting with the fairies. There should also be room for a Radio Times, some Christmas puddings and crumpets as gifts for the French fraternity and some much-needed Patak pickles – oh, and anything small but useful that Tilley and I might find in the Southampton branch of Ikea.


The worst thing about going away is the to-do list of last-minute tasks. After gluing the driver's-side sidelight with some silicone to stop it popping out of its socket – as it first did on the hellish windswept Costa del Sol about four years ago now – there's an aide memoir to prepare for my long-suffering wife, who is staying behind to be with our doddery dog. This note will be about the burning characteristics of the various different types of wood for the fire, just in case she isn't already aware that the shorter, stubbier round oak logs are the best overnighters. That will be one less job for the morning if the right logs continue to do their job.


Oh, and I mustn't forget to take the Christmas cards for friends in England. They'd have probably had more chance of getting to their destination in time if I'd posted them in Martel early last week, but never mind. In some of the notes scribbled inside, I've mentioned that we want to come over before too long for an infusion of culture in London/Brighton/Sheffield.


Not that we're totally devoid of culture here in the winter, but it's not laid on; you have to make your own. On Wednesday evening, for example, we dined with our tall German friends, Achim and Martina, in their monumental house. The Château Plagne has been restored and appointed throughout with unerring good taste and offers the necessary big volumes to accommodate our lofty friends and their frequent guests. (Is it a thriving economy that makes the Germans so strapping?) In their tasteful château, they run residential courses throughout the spring and summer and work 18 hours a day, so you can never rely on them to turn up at parties and the like.


But every now and then they will lay on some refined cultural event for their friends here. An exhibition or a concert perhaps. One of the highlights of this summer was an intimate jazz concert in their vaulted cave, which featured the two musicians who were running the course that week: Jutta Glaser, a bubbly singer, and Christian Eckert, a rather fine jazz guitarist who studied in the US with the great Jim Hall.


Achim used to be a professional chef in their days back home in Heidelberg. He told us proudly that he didn't cook the same meal twice throughout the long working months this year – which strikes me as tantamount to lunacy. In the winter, they take it easy and Achim cooks normal food. But not on Wednesday evening.


In their voluminous kitchen/dining room, in front of a gently glowing wood fire, we were treated to something from Master Chef. We felt like the food critics at the table, relishing and discussing every exquisite dish set before us. I could hear in my head that awful dreary female voice: Achim's starter is a trio of ravioli stuffed with Madagascan prawns and coloured with the ink of cuttlefish, garnished with gnocchi mushrooms cooked in a creamy sauce... It won't be long before he'll be buying sous-vide equipment to add to his armoury and coming up with food froth, spittle and gas even.


Although he failed to swipe the main dish with a streak of concentrated puréed whatever, it was quite simply the best meal I've ever eaten in France. The trouble is, it's difficult to know how to reciprocate. Mark and Deborah have cooked a curry of mixed winter vegetables... Well, I'm loving the taste of the pan-fried aubergines, Mark, but frankly the presentation. Not to put too fine a point on it, son, it's a disgrace!


Moreover, their generosity knows no bounds. It's not many places where you turn up to eat a meal fit for catering royalty – and then go back with a going-home present. A silk scarf for Debs and a pair of wooden pens for moi, to mark my recent birthday, and the kind of notebook that turns the physical act of writing a journal into a sensory delight.


After such bounty, what return? Maybe The Kid and I can find room in the Berlingo for something suitable from the homeland for our beneficent German friends. A tin of Sainsbury's mince pies? Or a year's supply of Marmite? Could do better, son...


Now, if you'll excuse me, I must prepare that aide memoir. What shall I call it: 10 Awesome Tips for Prioritising Your Wood Pile? That trips nicely off the tongue.


(Mark Sampson) #2

Hi Ian, John and Jane. I note with interest your comments about UK traffic. I'm still here, but looking forward to getting back to calmer roads very soon! I've already had quite enough of the UK and its traffic and spending frenzy. Roll on Christmas, French style!


(Ian Cowburn) #3

Was once coming back from a conference in Ireland with a hired Renault Laguna, and having stopped over in Cardiff for a night in the Westgate with some mates, was late getting away in the morning for the shuttle at Dover. OK had to chance it, M4 not too bad, but hell, the M25 and M20 were so clogged up, I had to use my best Marseille driving skills :) Just made it.


(John Alcock) #4

I have only been back to the UK once in 4 years and that was once to often, the drive up to Calais is superb trouble free roads free flowing traffic parking free on motorway services when used.Dover to the North Midlands is Hell on Wheels, traffic jams, motorway services expensive and stop for more than 2 hours a parking attendant appears from nowhere, 6 hours to travel 70 miles in the Birmingham area i was sure the same traffic cones were there and i recognized the guy leaning on his shovel from when i past on my way to France 4 years earlier


(Jane Williamson) #5

We too enjoyed a concert in a house in our neighbouring village last night. It was two very talented young men, one a violonist and the other with a vibraphone.
It was billed as jazz, but it was much more energy music, which had it been on the radio, we would have turned off. However, in the intimate setting it became interesting and enjoyable.
We now take a break on our trip to UK, so that we can tackle the M25 in a reasonably fresh state instead of being at the end of a long trip. We make a dash bak in one go on our return trip as the autoroute is so much easier to drive.