Baths, Bowls and Bogs

You can have too much choice in life. We are in the throes of browsing for bathroom parts. In the showroom there is a plethora of porcelain, sparkling white and clamouring to be purchased. Whereas in the seventies the choice would have been all about colour-Pampas? Whisper Peach? Avocado? These days it is the shape you must consider. Take basins. There is a trend for bowl-shaped basins perched on top of dinky cupboards-sometimes ‘his ‘n hers’. It prompts a vision of the morning ablutions, a harassed couple; he is shaving, flicking flecks of foam with abandon as she applies her lipstick-a recipe for a squabble. No. We are opting for an old favourite here-plain, rounded basin on a white pedestal. It is also the cheapest. This is no accident.

Toilets, then. As a very young child in rural Wiltshire I’d make my way out of the house and up the garden towards the run that accommodated the hen house where there was a rustic, timber shed with a rickety door. Inside was a bench in which two holes had been made, one larger and one child-sized. It allowed a child and an adult to sit in companionable contemplation whilst performing their bodily functions. A thick wad of cut newspaper hung suspended on a string from a nail in the wall. This, together with a tin bath in front of the fire in the kitchen is what constituted our bathroom facilities. At night there was an ornate chamber pot tucked discreetly under my bed to avoid hazardous, dark forays down the garden. I wonder what the constructor of the garden privy would think if they were to wander around a bathroom showroom today.

Now most of us in the developed world at least, are lucky enough not to have to walk outside to an old shed with a wooden seat to do the necessary. Not so in many countries where an outside privy would be considered and un-dreamt of luxury; the only option being an open field. Years of camping holidays taught me that there are worse things than having to nip behind a bush  to relieve oneself although most camp sites now have glorious, tiled, heated blocks-often with piped [no pun meant] music to boot. One flower-adorned, Swiss chalet style building in Germany’s Black Forest sports a dog shower that would put most people’s bathrooms to shame and the children’s bathing option is a masterpiece of tiled, underwater cavern complete with mermaids and sea creatures.

Back in the showroom we ponder wall-mounted, square-ish, close-coupled or bog [no pun] standard? We select the standard. It is the cheapest. This is no accident. On to the taps, where an array of designs awaits, including the standard. Toilet seats? It’s tricky. The seat shape must match the toilet shape. The French avoid this problem by having no seats. You can’t complain, since many of their toilets are still the ‘squatty’ kind-that is- square porcelain trays with central holes and places for your feet. I think I’ll be a man next time…

 

 

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A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

Smaller is more beautiful…

                In a somewhat treacherous and hypocritical move, we have executed a kind of ‘upgrade’ of our travel vehicle and are now using a slightly larger camper van. I say this because I’m aware that I posted on the pecking order and the relative sizes of travel vehicles at around this time last year. We were always the smallest unit in the village, the runt of the litter, dwarfed by the gargantuan motor-homes that surrounded us. The ironic outcome of this change is that we are still the smallest camper van wherever we go, owing I presume to the fact that everyone else has acquired a larger one also.

                Husband mourns the tiny van and was reluctant to exchange it for the current home-on-wheels. I accept it is trickier to manoeuvre and cannot be used as an extra car at home, but the advantages are undeniable. It has a large, comfortable bed constructed from the two plush sofas lining the walls, a walk-in shower and toilet cubicle, a cooker complete with oven, swish windows complete with blinds and pull up insect screens, skylights and a wondrous amount of storage. All this luxury is quite enough two people. It makes me a little curious to know why other couples would need such enormous wheeled dwellings. And how much must it cost in fuel? And where on Earth do they keep it, assuming they have a bricks-and-mortar house elsewhere?

                How bizarre it is that in the present day, when technological advances seem concentrated on producing ever smaller devices- tiny ‘watch’ style internet consoles, Google’s strange glasses with internet screen [won’t everyone be bumping into each other?] etc, other items become larger and larger. TV screens, lattes, beds, cruise ships, aeroplanes, McDonalds’ meals and people are growing bigger by the day.

                Wouldn’t make more sense for the collected, obvious genius behind such marvellous and desirable, tiny objects such as slimmer tablets and phones to direct their talents into technology that reduces our need for so much power to use them?

                The French have constructed a cunning new law for owners of motor-homes so massive that little cars needed to be towed behind them. A HGV licence is necessary for the additional vehicle to be hauled along behind the mother ship. The lack of these small cars rolling along behind is starkly noticeable, although how the inmates are coping with their daily needs is not altogether clear. For us, little in this respect has changed. We shop in between one destination and another, we park up, we free our bikes from the back and use them to collect what we need. We also get to cycle around the lanes in the Provencal sunshine looking at the rural landscape and stopping at an occasional hostelry for a glass of vin [me] or a beer or two [Husband].

                We have learned not to dash around ticking off sights in an ‘if it’s Wednesday it must be Rome’ way, getting to know a small area; the beautiful, medieval villages, the vineyards and the orchards-currently clouded with pink blossom. Small [even if a modicum bigger] really is better.

A Long Tale of Long Tails

                Despite the blazing sun, white sandy beach, extensive, tropical gardens, azure sea, herds of cushioned sunbeds and unlimited mango shakes, after two days of lolling around reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ [which I can highly recommend when travelling to foreign climes] I was itching for some activity.

                ‘This hotel is too posh for us’ was Husband’s pronouncement-a judgement I considered perhaps appropriate for him, but did not necessarily relate to myself.

                The fact was, the hotel-or rather the ‘resort’ as it liked to be known was certainly ‘posh’, in that it boasted two infinity pools, a spa, three restaurants, numerous bars [including one of those incorporated into a swimming pool], a fitness centre, beach barbecues, those low platforms with cushions for lounging around, coy, individual nooks furnished with pairs of sun loungers and a range of accommodation including private suites with personal pools etc

                That it was plush and luxurious could not be ignored. Neither could the problem that it was a taxi or a long tail boat ride away from anywhere we wanted to visit or activity we’d like to undertake.

                We set off for the nearest town, Ao Nang- a busy seaside resort awash with tourists; not unlike Torquay in high season, but with hot weather. Along the shore throngs of long tail boats bobbed gently in the waves, waiting to take eager tourists to a variety of destinations. We bought our tickets from the booth at the end of the promenade and were amongst the waiting passengers swept down on to the beach and into the sea to heave ourselves up a crude ladder [a dousing is unavoidable] and into the boat.

                A few minutes later we were chugging past an astonishing array of limestone outcrops and fascinating, sculptural cliff formations dotted with tiny fringes of beach as we made our way to Railay Rocks-a popular magnet for tourists; as demonstrated by the multitude of boats jostling for position on the beach. Most were disgorging visitors, some of whom were shouldering luggage in an attempt to keep it dry as they waded ashore.

                If you ignore the ‘walking street’ with its cafes, bars, shops and trinket sellers and walk through to the other side of the peninsula [ten minutes at most] you come to a bay furnished with mangroves. You turn right and walk towards the end and right again to encounter a warren of fantastic caves with dangling creepers and hoards of cheeky macaques; continue through the cave complex to a beach so beautiful as to be almost unreal, although predictably busy. Here there were more boats, some sporting fast food menus-fresh roasted corn, spring rolls and burgers. There were more caves, this time bizarre forests of enormous phalluses replacing the monkeys.

                Later we walked past the burgeoning hotels, bars and [strangely] a Thai boxing ring, around the mangrove bay to the other end. It was wilder, quieter with pockets of discreet accommodation. Later we joined the assembly of waiting passengers on the beach for our return to Ao Nang and our shuttle back to the opulent splendour of  the resort.

 

It’s an educational odyssey-honest!

                September. For many of us Northern Hemisphereites who are beyond the ties of dependent children or parents or day jobs this is the perfect time for slipping away to extend our summers. This year, especially, as the magic of the first warm, dry summer for seven years bursts in a wet bubble we have made our escape, along with a whole convoy of other wrinklies, besides one or two couples with pre-school children, capitalising on the cheaper prices, the quieter roads and the emptier resorts.

                Despite having undertaken a substantial amount of meandering in foreign territories for lengthy periods since I retired from the nine-to-five I still receive a barrage of remarks and expostulations regarding what I like to call ‘trips’. I describe them as trips for this very reason, since to call them ‘holidays’ would imbue them with an impression of hedonistic opulence and wanton enjoyment and this is not the idea I want to convey at all. I prefer to be conveying the appearance of undertaking some kind of research or undergoing an educational experience; activities more worthy and valuable than mere enjoyment. One of last night’s FB remarks referred to my ‘life of luxury’-and may or may not have been ‘tongue in cheek’.

                Luxury is a subjective quality. When applied to holidays-or even trips, it means different things to different people. For some, the epitome of a luxury holiday is to be pampered in an exquisite hotel offering complimentary champagne on arrival, chocolates, fruit and flowers and plump pillows. For many it is to be carted away on a floating gin palace, stuffed full of food whilst dressed in a designer outfit and disgorged at intervals for a hasty snapshot of a famous city-[as in ‘if it’s Saturday it must be Rome’]. For anyone in a demanding and stressful job, luxury can be slobbing around in bed on a Sunday morning in front of the TV with a cup of tea.

                I have friends for whom the ideal break is two weeks, twice each year in the same apartment on the Costa del Sol, lying on the same sun-beds, visiting the same bar. It is relaxing, they explain, that nothing has changed, that there is nothing to do. This is easy to understand.

                For me, the concept of luxury is also a simple matter. It is freedom. You wander where you want, for as long as you want. When you tire of somewhere or it rains you move on. If there is a lot to do, or the weather is wonderful you stay. It isn’t always simple. You have to research, you have to plan, you have to drive, shop, set up, pack up; but you are free to do exactly what you want. And that, reader, is my idea of a luxurious trip. What’s yours?