Winters in Sweden are supposed to be cold; nothing strange there. But this winter it wasn’t really cold. I’m not familiar with what the data have to show in order to define a winter as being mild but I’m confident that if you have have only three or four frosts between November and February, no snow at all and birds that normally migrate to warmer climes are lined up on the fence at the end of the garden watching you debate whether you should bother waxing the cross-country skis or not, then it’s reasonable to describe the winter as ‘mild’. Additionally, almost continuously overcast skies, frequent drizzle and the shortest of dark, grey days had us very close to understanding why Sweden began limiting access to alcohol more than 150 years ago.
After suffering since November – metaphorically speaking of course, given necessary interruptions to share some glögg, attend Christmas lunches and participate at an occasional cocktail party [one of which included the joyous escapism of a concert by the host’s acapella sextet] – we felt a dire need for clear skies and bright sunshine. Somewhere ahead of us a trip to Dubai and Oman was waiting for a confirmed schedule so we decided on an expedient; we’d drive to UK, leave the car there while we went to the Middle East and on our return take a leisurely meander through Europe, stay with friends in Berlin en route and end up here in Sweden at Easter.
The Grand Plan – drifting through sunny Spring weather, sampling local comestibles, staying in enchanting guest houses that we would absolutely return to – was extremely attractive and we were discussing options long before we agreed dates and confirmed flights with people in Dubai.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the background a story was developing about an outbreak of something nasty in China, in a place in called Wuhan. Initially, the descriptions of the wet market and the already well-documented exploitation of wildlife concerned me more than the increasingly alarming human death toll but, having escaped Sweden’s continuing non-winter and with the prospect of sunshine at last, we departed Europe.
In short time the Grand Plan collapsed as the anticipated sedate drive transformed into a bleary-eyed overnight dash following a rapid exit from Dubai. Last week saw the start of a period of self-isolation that appears to be heading for September at least.
So I’m now locked down in southern Sweden, avoiding people, wearing gloves to the shops and making the best of virtual cocktail-hours on WhatsApp and Zoom. This is the story.
The Coral Hotel was an engaging experience; way off the beaten track and a minuscule enclave of clipped grass and ‘Le Monde Sauvage’ artifacts. But whilst the surroundings were delightful there was an undercurrent of self-indulgence surrounding it that was essentially French. The food was – well – Thai but subtlety bastardised and so allowed guests baguette with their morning coffee and Gauloise. I guess that once you’ve made that sort of concession you’ve lost the neighbourhood, so to speak. But the hotel setting – little chalets scattered among the trees and facing a tropical pool – was very pleasant and a refreshing antidote to the traffic. A few steps from the elevated dining terrace took you into rural Thailand, the forest edge and onto a long, deserted beach. It was exquisite but all the time, though, my mind was drawn to that Emmanuelle film from the mid 1970s and its idealised, romantised and eroticised representation of a perfect, but unashamedly Francophile, Thailand.
We left the hotel with its French contingent in a smokey huddle, intensely debating the day’s issue, to continue our drive south. We were off the tourist beat and on minor roads that would eventually connect again with the still ‘under construction’ Phet Kasem Road. There were few vehicles and the drive took us south through villages and plantations, past small fields with single livestock and wretched buildings whose purpose and product were frequently unidentifiable. And at every point smiling kids waved while some of the dustiest and most contented-looking dogs I’ve ever seen either slept the morning away at the roadside or sat up somnambulantly and scratched with enthusiasm.
The poverty we witnessed was a stark contrast to the smug complacency of the previous night’s acquaintances and, as the vista unfolded alongside us, made for some deep thoughts about the nature of tourism in the country. Most people I’ve spoken to about Thailand haven’t ventured outside the fleshpots and tourist-orientated centres that exploit the indigence and deprivation of a largely subsistence agricultural economy in which something over half the population is engaged. Unemployment is officially ‘low’ but those without jobs frequently gravitate towards rural family occupations or unskilled work that are outside Governmental influence and aren’t recorded formally. The economy was projected to grow and revitalise the tourist industry with the announcement of the ‘Thailand 4.0’ initiative last year but the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has imposed a year of mourning on the Nation. This has had a direct and adverse effect across most sectors. In practice the slowing of the economy means less for rural regions and encourages further population drift towards areas where tourist-related employment promises opportunity. That in turn generates social, cultural and economic pressures with consequential demands on natural resources and the environment. Tourism and its income are increasingly important to Thailand but the pressure imposed on its population and environment is unsustainable. In some respects the Thais are their own worst enemy although all tourism doesn’t need to be exploitative; some travel companies take a more circumspect approach and you gain a sense of this if you look at what Responsible Travel has to say.
Back in the traffic on the main road the landscape became open and expansive. Roadside shrines glimpsed between heavy trucks and rickety buses were set against a distant backdrop of verdant hills and plantations. We passed through the outskirts of unglamorous Surat Thani, a regional transport interchange with an airport and ferry access to Ko Samui and the Gulf islands. These larger towns present a very different Thailand from the beach resorts that come immediately to mind when tourism is mentioned.
There were still extensive areas of uncontrolled – and unattended – roadworks but I became a little more comfortable with the erratic and occasionally heart-stopping manoeuvures of other road users with the help of a gem in the madness – Café Amazon. These surprising and charming road-stops with their green and black uniformed baristas are associated with PTT service stations and are built on a standard layout that includes shops, toilets and food stalls. The coffee – ‘do you like your cappuccino cold or hot, sir?’ – came in biodegradable cups if you didn’t sit in the pretty little cabins and was passable, if not entirely authentic, but then I wouldn’t order pad thai at a Sicilian Autogrill. The invariably winsome staff more than made up for any inadequacies in the product and the banana cake set us up perfectly for re-entering the fray.
Once we’d turned off towards Phang-gna, however, the traffic cleared and we were frequently on deserted roads. The driving experience changed, the road became less straight and the scenery more spectacular. As we neared Phuket the influence of the tourist-dollar began to show itself in improved roads and street lighting, better building and a veneer of increasing opulence – and fewer dogs. Then we were over the bridge and onto the island. The main drag avoided the worst excesses of the place but as we approached and passed through Phuket Town the traffic intensified, smiling children were replaced with crowds; mopeds were interspersed with tourists on scooters and emboldened Westerners sporting distasteful tee-shirt slogans appeared among the Thai faces. But we were soon through it and at Cape Panwa, with 850km completed and the sun setting across the bay.
Our ‘Bangkok in a day’ tour completed, we were ready to head south to the hellacious Phuket. It’s difficult to overstate the kaleidoscope of elements that contributes to experiencing Bangkok; from breathtaking cuisine – we’d dined on exquisite Miang Kham* in the riverside Thiptara restaurant and meandered through street food stalls – to the people; charming, respectful and gentle in a manner that is disarming to hubristic Westerners; and that river – rich in horrific and mysterious flotsam. We’d wandered along Charoen Krung Road to shop at Robinsons and I’d established a relaxed stand-off with the security officers who never quite understood my dawn excursions, bush-shaking and pishing** in the hotel gardens.
In the taxi to Suvarnabhumi airport to collect the rental car I was mindful of the wealth of advice provided, guidance published and concern expressed about driving in Thailand. Statistically we were in the second most dangerous country in the world with something approaching 24000 vehicle-related deaths a year; that’s about three an hour. I had been counselled on the risks of drunks, un-roadworthy vehicles, insurance scams and corrupt police. In short, choosing to drive was madness.
The rental desk was deserted and the assistant who arrived to deal with her only customer [locals and Asian visitors were using a presumably cheaper outlet next door] was only matched in her warmth and enthusiasm by her apparent lack of experience. Whilst putting some of that down to language it became clear as we struggled through the process of processing booking confirmations, passport copies and driving licence details that she probably hadn’t done this before. I began to have visions of being angrily accused by a moped-riding drunk in baggy shorts and tee-shirt before being pulled over by corrupt police to find that the one piece of paper you must carry in Thailand was still at the airport. My fears were compounded when the SatNav I’d pre-ordered was respectfully presented to me in a box – cellophane intact – with a perfect set of instructions in Thai. That was swiftly followed by an invoice for the rental charge – £1200! This disjunctive and time-consuming exchange was all very good-natured but with distance to drive and the day disappearing I was relieved when her senior colleague arrived. Within minutes the SatNav was programmed, its cost moderated – she’d used the purchase price for each day of the rental – and we were wedged into a tiny but shining new car with the smiling staff waving us off at the kerbside.
Now – the aforementioned perils aside – all we had to do was follow the directions. Straight down the Suvarnabhumi Road to the Sirat Expressway; along Ratchadaphisek Road, join the The Rama II Frontage Road and head for Prachuap Khiri Khan. The roads were pretty good and the traffic surprisingly benign but we encountered an unexpected problem – the SatNav couldn’t pronounce Thai. We were reduced to floods of laughter at the American-accented gibberish and were forced into the nearest service station to buy a map that would facilitate our journey towards Huahin.
Once out of Bangkok the road degenerated into a straightish dual carriageway but, as one would expect, it was sort of different from what we see in Europe. A lot of incomplete road works necessitating diversions, U-turns and – frighteningly – some unmarked two-way stretches were interspersed with random traffic signals and junctions that often defied comprehension. Numerous potholes, missing bits of road and debris encouraged heavy trucks, tractors and pick-ups full of schoolgirls to swing erratically from lane to lane but it became clear very rapidly that none of this concerned the Thai drivers; they simply ignored everything in a headlong rush to get where they were going. It was truly nerve-racking but in time I became more confident and once we’d reached a velocity approaching that of the traffic it was akin to floating down a river on a log.
We had an overnight stay booked at Coral Hotel in Bang Saphan but it was almost dark as we arrived. The SatNav, which we’d by then begun to interpret, garbled a left turn onto an unlit, narrow road heading into the forest but there were no signs and the road was too small to be on the map. We could see no indication of where we should go, turned back, retraced our steps and tried again before eventually seeing lights. We emerged into a rural setting that boasted a supermarket, a rail crossing and a single traffic light. I decided to try – map in hand – to see if anyone could point us towards the hotel and was ushered to the centre of the store where a youngish guy was ministering to a hoard of local residents. This was the pharmacy and he was, I guessed from the way he was consulting each customer before dispensing pills and tubes of ointment, the local doctor. I was at the back of a queue but quickly became the focus of animated attention, being foreign and all. We collectively established that we were indeed on the right road and that we should cross the railway, turn right at the signal and look for a sign. Whether that would be transcendental or physical I couldn’t tell but the garrulous crowd quickly turned its attention back to the doctor and we headed further into the trees. Eventually a hand-painted notice directed us along a sandy track that broke through the forest onto a beach, edged with coconut palms and bathed in moonlight. A short distance further and we pulled into a bijou tropical paradise, adorned by beautifully presented Thais and a small group of trendy, French guests. For all the world we had emerged in the film set of Emmanuelle.
So, we’d passed the first test by avoiding death on the highway – narrowly, at one point – and were in a tropical paradise.
*Dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanut, shallot, ginger, lemon wrapped wrapped with betal leaf and served with palm sauce.
I like to walk and, in my view, the best way to acquire the feel of a place is to walk it; just pick a couple of points and walk between them. You set the pace, take your time and if you’re in a city like Bangkok, where you get to hear, see [and smell] it, the experience is completely immersive. We had a couple of days before we started the drive to Phuket so I wanted to show Mission Control an aspect of the city that was just a little off the tourist route and busy with life; people working, eating, shopping and living. So we took our shuttle boat across to the right side of the river and threaded our way along backstreets towards Lumphini Park. You could debate whether temperatures approaching 30C and humidity in the high 80s combined with continuous traffic, unsettling aromas, flea-bitten dogs and hawkers reduced or enhanced the intensity of the experience but I struggled to get her to engage; it was, in fairness, a little sweaty.
The walk from Chao Phraya river takes you through the Bang Rak district; past housing and go-downs, local restaurants and hotels, shopping malls and street-food stalls. It’s bustling, noisy and surprisingly colourful in the muted sunlight, providing as it does a rewarding and instant snapshot of Bangkok. Wealth and poverty rub shoulders with locals and tourists; there are temples, a Hindu shrine and even a cathedral as well as Patpong, which is famous for its night markets and red-light area. Bang Rak feathers out on either side of Silom Road; an artery of heavy traffic and public transport that forms a spine running through its centre.
On the eastern side Lumphini is the biggest area of green in the city with massive trees, clipped grass and secluded paths. The park provides shade for myriad gatherings; jogging, cycling and group aerobics. People meet to improve Tai Chi, others are boating and some are simply giving their kids a day in the park. You can get dance lessons or watch free concerts and there was even an all-join-in singing session in progress when we arrived, not that I could follow the tune or understand the words. The tourist authority offers birding in the park and it does have a reasonably long list of recorded species, despite there always being more people than birds. It needs a bit of luck and an early morning but it provides a glimpse of Thailand’s rich avifauna but unlike the parks in London, where we sprinkle crumbs for sparrows and encourage squirrels to feed from our hands, Lumphini is overrun with two-metre long water monitors that seem to just about tolerate the human visitors, as long as we keep our distance. It really does feel foreign.
Remember the noise and humidity I mentioned? Bangkok can become very oppressive and uncomfortable after a day plodding through its atmospheric neighbourhoods and so a culture has evolved that provides for an altogether quieter and more tranquil environment – the roof terrace. There must be at least twenty sky bars in the city, each expressing its own degree of cool and each striving for a unique identity that tends to make them all, well, a bit similar. Nonetheless, a sundowner high above the cacophony as the sun sets in spectacular hues through the befouled atmosphere is an essential experience. At the corner of the park we were near the So Sofitel hotel and so, leaving crowds of joggers and monitor lizards in our wake [and after taking our lives in our hands by crossing Rama IV Road], lost no time in getting our feet under a table at the Park Society. The drinks were perfectly chilled, the music was ‘Buddha Bar’ American and the clientele mostly Western; none of it was really Thai at all but then, why would someone from way down there want to sit on a rooftop drinking white wine when you have a business and a family to feed?
Bangkok excites me and it is exhilarating but a walk through Bang Rak has me wondering how many of the aficionados of cool at Park Society took a moment to count their blessings.
It was an original and exciting thought to celebrate a birthday abroad although when Lars told us where we’d meet I had conflicted views. You see, I like Thailand – a lot, to be truthful – and was very enthusiastic about visiting again but I’d been in Phuket before and anticipated finding it further down the toilet than it was last time. As a centre of gravity for the worst kinds of tourist activity it has form and, despite retaining areas that remain essentially Thai, it embodies most if not all that the dark side of Thailand has on offer. The island is continually ravaged by development – much of it illegal – that ranges from pretty bad to goddamn awful and is a prime example of what I strive to avoid.
But the Kantary Bay hotel on Cape Panwa looked good; it ticked a lot of boxes and had hosted our fellow revelers before. It also provided, we were assured, a very nice beach, excellent bar service and egg and bacon at breakfast. But what attracted me most was its location at the southernmost point on Phuket, which is far, far away from the Gomorrah-like Patong Beach.
Mission Control hadn’t seen Thailand and flying into and out of Phuket without experiencing something more of the real thing seemed a wasted opportunity. We had to work out how we’d make the trip and enjoy the celebration but still see more of the country than Phuket had on offer. I wanted to see Bangkok again and there was also the not inconsiderable opportunity to get some exotic birding under my belt, so to speak.
The answer was simple – we’d aim for Bangkok and have a few days there either side of renting a car and driving south. That way we’d see some of the country and enjoy the freedom of the open road. The eight-hundred and fifty kilometres would present wonderful opportunities to see aspects of the country that tourists often miss and we’d be able to take in a few sights while we enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Of course, anyone who’s seen the traffic in Bangkok or feared for their life in a tuk-tuk would appreciate that there was a downside to the idea but, what the heck? All I had to do was keep the traffic accident statistics out of any conversations.
Bangkok looked and smelled as I recalled it. It is exotic and quintessentially Asian; a heady combination of decrepit buildings and spectacular temple roofs; spice, traffic fumes and drains. The monsoon was about done and the humidity was promising to reduce – in fact, every Thai we mentioned it to assured us with absolute certainty that the rainy season had finished the previous day! Bangkok is evocative and mesmerising but it’s also crowded, dirty and noisy. To enjoy it fully you need two essentials; a bedroom that insulates you from the noise and a refuge from the humidity but with those essentials taken care of you can get on with absorbing the essence of a wonderful city. Just watching the busy and congested river as well as what floats down it is an experience in itself.
So we parked ourselves centrally, alongside the Chao Phraya River, in the Peninsula Hotel – a place that gets it and knows how to take care of you. And we made that point to a manager over chilled drinks on the dining terrace one evening. He was preoccupied, however, with a recent post on that bane of hoteliers, TripAdvisor. Apparently the hotel [together with it’s complimentary, atmospheric and liveried river shuttle] had been marked down by a recent American guest because it was located ‘on the wrong side of the river’. I guess ‘wrong side’ implies there is a ‘right side’ but after several visits I’ve yet to work out what there might be a right side for.
Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.
It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.
Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.
I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.
Dubai has an undefinable quality; it can amaze and depress; enlighten and shock but never, I’ve found after many years living there, leave one unmoved. You can love it or hate it in equal measure and, sometimes, endure both emotions simultaneously. When I received a request a few days ago for a copy of my passport my initial reaction was of disinterest but it quickly changed as I learned that ‘they’ were requesting an update because my passport had expired. ‘They’ are not the police or the immigration authority or any other quasi-governmental body. ‘They’, in fact, are the inept leisure division of a crap developer that issues access passes to the beach.
Dubai has a wearying reliance on bureaucracy and I suspect it may have cornered the world market in rubber stamps. At every turn, it seems, a document is required from individuals who are at once detached, uninterested or, frequently, merely absent. You need a stamped and signed piece of paper for just about everything in Dubai whether it’s bringing in your piano, buying a bottle of wine or shopping for a local SIM card. And you have to provide a copy of your passport to get it. I once estimated that I have probably provided over two hundred and fifty copies in exchange for passes, approvals, authorisations or, that singular invention – the ‘no objection certificate’. So there must be literally millions of passport copies floating around the Emirate and where they all go is one of the great Mysteries of the Universe. In an endless danse macabre passport copies are stamped, signed, stapled and – well, from that point on I have no clue. They just disappear after they’ve been taken so if you visit two desks in one organisation the second desk will have no knowledge of your passport existing. A further copy will be demanded and if you are unfortunate enough to be sent back to the first desk – the usual procedure when five administrators are tasked with doing the work of one – they won’t be able to find the first copy and you’ll have to copy it again. Next day all three copies will have disappeared so it’s likely you’ll have to start all over again. Where do all those copies go?
The process is numbing and takes time but if you want the freedom to run child-like through sunshine in a landscape of tax-free salaries as you seek consumer Nirvana, developing patience and a personality that provides for circumspection become essential because in Dubai most things eventually get done and most things work. For individuals like me, with little or no patience, an administrative foray can be a very bumpy one but at least I’ve grown out of banging tables and demanding to know where all the copies go. That question, always greeted with a smile, is never really answered because no one really knows; it’s just a requirement, you know, to make the copy, stamp it and sign it. It has occurred to me that there is perhaps a secretive government department going around in the dead of night, cruising silently in unmarked vehicles and collecting copies of passports. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?
Dubai’s idiosyncrasies often defy analysis, inducing an impassioned response. But then, with eye-watering speed, perception can be turned on its head and one is lost in all the things that Condé Nast Traveller and the Sunday Times tell us it is. Last year, while my mind was on packing cases and contract exchanges, the gourmet tower at Dubai Marina was completed. Now renamed Pier 7 it is a circular building linked to the Marina Mall and with a single themed restaurant on each level. The views over the marina are spectacular and, at night, even cynical travellers like me can’t help but be impressed. Dinner or drinks in balmy air on an open-sided terrace high over the water has to be one of Dubai’s most striking experiences. And in another example of the city state stretching a visitor’s sensibilities to extremes, an extension to the already gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has opened. Of course that delivered yet more restaurants as well as a vastly expanded Vox cinema complex. Our old favourite, Gold Class – with its wide seats and Coca-cola on call – was gone. In its place was a cinema restaurant experience called ‘thEATre by Gary Rhodes’. This puts watching a movie with a tub of popcorn to shame. If you like your food and reclining sofas ‘juste pour deux’, semi-private viewing-rooms, a waiter on hand when you need a drink or snack or just like spending a couple of hours watching a movie the way Donald Trump probably does, then this is for you. Dubai’s apparently endless capability to knock your socks off has left me non-plussed once again.
My Passport, by the way, was copied several times when I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and is valid for another seven years.
Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.
The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.
The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.
When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.
I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.
I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.
In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpein Noto, whichhas just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.
In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.
We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicanoat Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone whowas actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that.
It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.
Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.
I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what conventionsuggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.
* This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.