One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh
Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

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.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea
Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea



“Er, waiter – what’s that tune?”

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 Volpe in Noto, which has 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.

The peaceful view from the belvedere at 'Volpe', with the volpe symbol.
The peaceful view from the belvedere at ‘Volpe’, complete with volpe sculpture

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 Pellicano at 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 who was 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. 

Il Pellicano's terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever...
Il Pellicano’s terrace restaurant, where on a clear day you can see forever…

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 convention suggests. 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.

if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as sea below the hotel
… if only the reason for the flugelforn was as clear as the sea below the hotel

Marie after lunch and both kinds of music; country and western

Copenhagen, as I’ve probably written before, can be many things but on the whole it is wonderful and I love it. There’s a lot on offer and last week on two separate visits – when it was far too cold for my favourite pastime of watching girls on bicycles – I dipped into different ends of the cultural spectrum.

I take every opportunity I can to spend time with a Danish lady who enchanted me when I first encountered her more than twenty years ago and who continues to fascinate me. I had arranged to see her again last week and, although you couldn’t describe what we have as a relationship, it is most certainly an affaire d’amour, albeit one-sided. My admiration is unrequited while she remains distant and unattainable so, when we are together, I have some mixed feelings to deal with. I wasn’t due to see her until after lunch so Mission Control and I enjoyed a very pleasant couple of hours in Bistro Boheme. This is another Danish café that presents a sort of faux French ambience and, in doing so, isn’t quite one thing or the other.  Nonetheless, the food’s good, the atmosphere better and the wine list excellent. Smart and attentive staff in the ubiquitous black outfit served us fried cod’s roe, fois gras and a passable Boeuf Parisienne with a really good Cote de Beaune.

After the pleasant interlude we wrapped-up against the cold and headed up the road, rosy-cheeked from the biting wind or the third glass of wine, I’m not sure which. Although I was on my way to ‘Den Hirschsprungske Samling’ to see Marie again it was actually her husband, Peder, who was the main attraction. Peder Severin Krøyer is the most well-known of the Skagen painters and, in celebration of its centenary, the Hirschspung Collection is holding an exhibition* of his work. The Skagen painters were an eponymous group of Scandinavian artists and writers who lived and worked in the northernmost part of Denmark at the end of the nineteenth century. The landscape and quality of light there is perfectly suited to working in the open and it encouraged the establishment of a small school of painting that drew influence from both the Impressionists and French realists that included Degas and Manet. A lot of Krøyer’s paintings and sketches feature his wife, Marie, and capture a beauty and inner calm that I find both fascinating and irresistible. I never tire of the apparent serenity that flows from the images of her. The Krøyer’s marriage ended badly; he struggled with mental instability brought on by syphilis and died nearly blind at only 58. By that time she had left him to live with and then marry Hugo Alfvén, a Swedish composer. She died in 1940 after living in Tällberg, Sweden – by coincidence, the same place that featured in Barrowboy in winter – and years later cast a spell on me during my first visit to Scandinavia. I’m not the only one that sees something special in Marie Krøyer; a new Danish film – The Passion of Marie – will tell the story of the Krøyers’ relationship when it’s released in November 2012.

‘Roser’ – the exquisite Marie sits in the garden with Rapp the dog. 1893

This is the garden in Skagen depicted in the painting shown above. Krøyer became very interested in photography

and used photographs to fill-in details on his paintings.

‘Hip Hip Hurra’ – Kroyer’s well-known painting of Skagen painters has Marie with her back

to us at the front and the artist fourth from left. 1888

Marie, Rapp and Peder Severin Krøyer

And so from the truly sublime to the, well, other kind of sublime. There’s a lot of music in Copenhagen and an advantage in having family there, especially when a stopover between Sweden and Kastrup airport offers the twin attractions of a late Friday night [an excellent single malt included] and breakfast on Saturday morning. But there’s something else, too; a brother-in-law who has, on the one hand, his own recording studio – fully kitted-out with the latest techno-geekery – and, on the other, a desire to share it with an inclusive and disarming enthusiasm. We’ve enjoyed quite a few soirees over the years and whether it’s picking over vintage R&B, browsing YouTube, recording some not-too-difficult favourites – a pastime not recommended if you think you can carry a tune but don’t like surprises – or simply listening to Lars play guitar or keyboards, it is way up there as an enjoyable means of spending an evening. So, glass in hand and stepping a careful path between guitars, mics, keyboards, speakers, a Hammond B3 and knee-deep song sheets, we immersed ourselves in a surround-sound, twin screen, HD replay of the Earth, Wind and Fire / Chicago concert at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 2004. [Here’s a sample] Yes, of course it’s shamefully nostalgia but there isn’t a lot of music produced today that can raise the hairs on your arms in the way that combined brass section does.  Sometimes you have to agree that the old stuff was better.

LA Studios – Lars selects another clip that cannot be missed!

It was 3.00am before we were done with those guys and a few others; I remember Chaka Khan and The End of a Love Affair; singing along with Hall and Oates; Boz Scaggs and a cool Swedish guitarist called Andreas Oberg but the rest has faded.

Copenhagen can be many different things.

* The exhibition lasts until 10 April 2012 and the 140 works feature many important paintings and sketches that have been loaned from other collections, including some private ones. It represents a major collection of work across a lifetime spent travelling in Europe as well as living and working in Skagen. The exhibition will be in Skagen after Copenhagen, from 4 May to 2 September 2012

Day 8 – 3 March – Cold, wet and windy Florida

Windy, wet and cold – I’ve had weather here before that wasn’t what the brochure described but man has it been cold. This morning we made it a late one and had a leisurely breakfast before walking the beach. The Stoopers are thankfully thinned out during this sort of weather but you have to feel for the one-week-a-year holidaymakers, who must be so disappointed. The forecast for next week is good so we’ll stay on a bit longer and enjoy at least some sunshine.

But today was an inside day; we went for a drive onto the mainland, had a look around Cape Coral where we had considered staying at a new resort in the heart of a mangrove forest and then hit the outlets for some recreational shopping. Like most guys [aside, that is, from the metrosexuals I was working with in Dubai recently] I hate shopping and spend as little time as possible in shops unless they are selling books, technology, computers, photographic gear and that sort of guy stuff. So I’m always astounded that I can pick up two or three absolutely necessary things in moments [this time it was chinos and underwear at Tommy Hilfiger] when Mission Control, who had a list of targeted items, couldn’t get anything other than a cute, hooded jerkin in twice the time.

Whatever, it was good to get back to Loggerhead Cay, eat and watch some American TV – three hours of ‘The Office’. Isn’t Pam just lovely?