Friday, July 30, 2010

Vive La France

I'm in Nice and in heaven. It is glorious here: the sea is unreal shades of blue and turquoise, the sky is deep blue and the town nestles between shaggy green hills, dotted with villas. It's a perfect sized city with buses that go everywhere, making transportation easy. Those buses negotiate the most impossible winding roads with apparent ease--just rather terrifying for people like ourselves to look down at the sheer drop on one side.
I'm dying to get up to the little mountain villages but so far I've been WORKING. The reason I'm here is research for my next Lady Georgie book in which Georgie is sent on a dubious errand by Queen Mary to the French Riviera.  I've been looking at hundreds of villas, looking through archives in the libaries and generally making sure I've got my facts right. It's not always easy--for example the road I need in the book is called Princess Grace Boulevard. Obviously that wasn't true in 1930!
It's amazing how being a writer opens all kinds of doors. I presented my card at the Negresco Hotel and told them I would like to take a look at their old photos. "No problem, madame," I was told and spent an interesting hour wandering those hallowed halls, poking my nose into hidden corners of the hotel.
Yesterday I discovered where Queen Victoria stayed when she came to Nice. I'd never known she'd visited Nice before. They built a whole wing of a great hotel for her, called it the Regina. She brought a staff of 100 with her for her little jaunts--so now I have to include her somehow in the story as she is Georgie's great grandmother!
It's fascinating how one piece of research leads to another and shapes the story as I write. I wanted to include Coco Chanel and in doing research on her I discovered all kinds of fascinating facts I am using in the book (I'm not going to tell you what they are--it would spoil the story).

Anyway it's always fun to be back in France. There is a wonderful feeling for me that nothing changes here.  One gets the feeling that the French are never stressed and don't take life to seriously. Businesses are open when they feel like it--some of them not too often. A librarian recommended another library branc to me because it had a great collection of archives. "But it's closed until August 16th" she added.
Restaurants have signs outside. "Closed for our summer vacation" which is strange when you realize that the tourists come now! Everyone closes for lunch, including baker's shops. Old men still have time to sit in the square with a red wine or a coffee.

Today I'm going to take the bus on the coast road to Cap Ferrat. More impressions tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Religion is not dead

All those nay-sayers who claim that religion is dead should take a trip to Lourdes in the summer. The place is packed with pilgrims from all over the world. The procession of thousands of pilgrims, many in wheelchairs, actually moved me to tears.In that procession there was a group from Slovakia, several from UK, some delightful Hawaian ladies in pink mumus and flower-trimmed hats, Tamils from Sri Lanka, some Chinese-Americans and of course zillions of Italians (praying louder than anyone else).

The thing that stood out--the number of young people among these groups.  Students and school kids who have given up their summer vacation to volunteer--to push wheelchairs, help with the sick and do all kinds of unpleasant jobs, yet they are laughing and obviously having a good time.

It's easy to condemn Lourdes as an outdated place of superstition. Most people don't actually come there hoping for a miracle. Most come hoping for grace. And you only have to look at the faces to know that they are receiving that. You can feel the holiness, the tranquility, the hope and the grace. You can't fail to be moved by it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

In praise of tea!

One of the things I've appreciated most about my time in England has been my favorite meal--tea. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to do a TV program on the virtues of tea and why it was such a perfect meal. I was filmed hosting a ladies tea party (nerve wracking as a huge camera was pointed at me as I poured tea into china cups and took bites of cucumber sandwiches.)

The point I made is that tea is the ideal meal at which to entertain. The food is all there on the table. The only requirement of the hostess is to fill cups and pass plates around when necessary. And I love delicious small bites--smoked salmon sandwiches, cucumber, egg and cress. Then come the scones, fresh baked and served with jam and clotted cream (which I have been sampling frequetly during the past weeks) and finally a selection of cakes or a big cake like a victoria sponge.  It's a great excuse for relaxing mid afternoon and chatting around the table. It's a great meal for Moms too, as the little girls can have their own tea table and play at being grown up.

I flew to France today, so that's the end of my tea parties for a while. But I certainly had some memorable ones. One family member had made tiny tarts with wild strawberries, and goosberry flan with cream. Another tea with a nephew was on his cottage lawn--take a look at the photo!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hair in London--or lack thereof

Following up on the wearing of headscarves, burkas etc in London... I needed a haircut and could not find a hairdresser anywhere in the West End. I'm sure they were lurking on backstreets, but not the ones I searched. At last in desperation I got on a bus and rode it until I saw a beauty salon... a very exclusive one, as it turned out (and correspondingly expensive) but the girl did a wonderful job and took over an hour on my hair, so I was well satisfied.

However, in the next chair was a man who was almost bald. Literally a ring about an inch wide of hair under a bald head. He wasn't particularly old--maybe fifties? Anyway, he had the works--shampoo, massage, special foamy stuff on his hair. His treatment took almost as long as mine and I felt like asking him, Is this really worth it? But obviously it made him feel good.

I wonder if hairdressing salons are going out of business in London because half the population now hides long hair under headscarves?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old London Town?

I'm in London and I'm asking myself, "Is this really the place I went to college and used to work for the BBC or is it a foreign city?"
Certainly foreigners outnumber Londoners in the area where I am staying. Men wear beards. Women wear headscarves, complete head coverings or even burkas. It is strange and most unsettling for me--because this is England and these are not visitors, they live here!
I have no objection to someone wearing a headscarf, especially if it is in respect for her religious beliefs. But that someone should be invisible under a complete covering in a Christian country of two thousand years of culture makes me see red. I think it's great that First World countries welcome refugees from Third World places of intolerance and persecution--but I can't see why they are allowed to import their lifetsyle and impose it on the country that has taken them in.
To me a burka or chador or whatever they want to call it is an insult to half the population. It is essentially saying, "I am invisible. I don't matter. I don't count." And women in civilized countries should learn to stand up for themselves and refuse to wear it.
But the government of England has been so falling over backward to be PC and not offend immigrants they they do not try to assimilate--they bring the intolerance and persecution with them.
Another reason to ban the burka is the terrorist aspect. When I pass a tall woman, completely covered including face, I don't know if it's a terrorist with a machine gun or bomb under there.
So I am not easy in London. I can only hope that the next generation of these immigrants wants to fit in, wants to Westernize and refuses to be bullied into submission.
Sorry this isn't a cheerful travelogue, but this is my overwheming feeling in this city.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Land of my Fathers

I've just spent a couple of very wet days in North Wales--trying to show my grandchildren what I did when I was a child. But alas the weather was typically Welsh--it poured and poured. Great areas were flooded. The mountains hid themselves in cloud. Riding the train up Snowdon was out of the question.
And I'd also forgotten that Wales shuts down on Sunday evenings--we had a hard time finding a restaurant open.

But they loved the castles--it stopped raining long enough to do Conwy and Caernarfon castles and I relived many a summer vacation in Wales in which we tramped miserably, decked in raingear, and wondered when we could get the next cup of hot tea! I remember one summer when my father and I bet each other we could swim in the sea every day. It was so cold and blowing that we drove the car to the very edge of the ocean, stripped off, raced in, swam out and back, got back in the car and drove away!

I'll try to download pictures tonight and post some--but I've had two great tea parties I want to tell you about!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In Praise of English Food

A lot of jokes have been made about English food. At it's worst it has been pretty bad in the past. I remember the cabbage boiled to death, the overdone meat, the greasy chips. But at its best it has always been superb--because it is good ingredients served simply. The beef has been living in a field, eating good grass, the chickens running around and laying eggs and the veg picked that morning.

I have been eating an awful lot of good food during the past week: the Sunday lunch with a piece of beef eighteen inches long, and so tender you could cut it with a spoon... the fresh strawberry tarts and goosberry flan with clotted cream, the cream teas, the fresh eggs that taste like egg.
Yesterday we went to tea with a cousin in a lovely country village. What a spread--table covered with plaates of tiny sandwiches, smoked salmon, cucumber, ham--thin sliced fresh bread with Gentlemen's relish, tiny wild strawberry tarts, hazelnut cake, the aforementioned gooseberry flan--this is what I like best about English food. Tea is the most civilized meal.

Yesterday I lunched with the producer who is trying to get Evan Evans onto TV. Some hopeful news, some not so hopeful. And today we go to Wales.
I promised pictures--here are the first samples. The manor house in Cornwall where we stayed (John's sister's place) and Sunday lunch there.
More to follow. Off to eat a full English breakfast: egg,  bacon, sausage, tomoato, mushroom etc. Not getting fat as we are walking so much.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Summer Sunday in the English countryside. Part 1

I'm celebrating a perfect English Sunday at Merthen Manor in Cornwall. Went to local church where relatives knew everybody and now anticipating a huge Sunday lunch--well over 20 people I believe. (yes, the table holds that many)The roast was almost too big for the Aga! Ah, this is what I miss in the US--the feeling of family togetherness and neighbors just dropping in and being welcomed and people and dogs wandering in an out just as it was in manor houses in the past. It is a great feeling of continuity and community that we sadly lack at home.
I'll post pictures as soon as I can find a moment of peace and quiet to get them downloaded.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In the good old Summertime

Today I'm blogging on Jungle Red Writers ( about the good old summertime--how unstructured and magical it seemed when I was a child and how that is lost to today's children.
Do you have summertime memories to share?