Airbnb: the nuisance neighbour


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Lovely three-bed family home. Sleeps 14.

Hot on the heels of last week’s celebration of local loveliness comes a rude reminder that all is not quite rosy in our garden, for there is a fly amidst the buttercups and daisies. Well less fly, more monster for the house next door is in fact a hotel.

Alice and Jason own the house next door; they have done it up very nicely – they tell you all about it on Airbnb. This handsome ex-local authority town house has been refitted to sleep up to 14 guests – a snip at £420 a night. Making the most of its market, the house also boasts “essential business amenities”, perfect then for company away-days or conference stay. In short, the house next door is a business masquerading as a home, for Alice and Jason live no doubt very peacefully, in the next street.

While families in East London face rising rents and fierce competition for fewer available good properties, people like Alice and Jason buy second and third homes, not to rent out to families or key workers but to revellers whose sole purpose is to party long into the night. These are people who contribute nothing to the community, to the neighbourhood or to the economy – bars and clubs excepted. They turn up, have fun and go home, leaving empty bottles, fag-ends, and knackered neighbours in their wake. Meanwhile, rents are pushed up and locals pushed out – because they can’t afford to stay.

We have been lucky with a few low-key weekends, but at 3am last night our peace was shattered by garden revelries – a lightweight issue compared to other occasions when music and myriad other noises thud through our walls well into the later than early hours.

Friday is approached with trepidation, for who knows what this week’s guests will bring? We have endured hen parties, stag weekends, corporate shin-digs and other love-ins (yes, we hear all that too.)

We have complained bitterly to Alice and Jason who presented us with a bottle of Organic wine, yellow tulips and an assurance that they would levy a fine on guests who caused us disturbance; £50 according to the website. How nice that they will be compensated for putting up with our weary texts at 2, 3, 4am. As to the guests …. They don’t live here, they probably won’t be back, they don’t need to apologise, they couldn’t care less. £50 and a finger-wagging on top of £1000 weekend won’t nail it.

Tower Hamlets tell me that Airbnb lets are limited to 90 days a year, on which basis the property is “outside the scope of a landlord licence”; I’m not sure they appreciate that this home is in fact a business, presumably not paying business rates either. As to the noise, they very kindly provided me with a number for Noise Control; the people on the other side of the hotel report that this has little effect. They have tried.

The calendar for the business next door shows over 40 days’ occupancy between now and the end of June. Given it has been booked almost every weekend since we moved here in November, the 90 day annual quota seems a little optimistic, but it’s not in Airbnb’s interests to enforce limits on their landlords. More to the point, the revenue from 90 days equates roughly to the annual yield of a traditional rental, so to make the business viable the more the merrier – after all, who’s counting …  and who’s to know?

Ironic surely that this house, built for people who could not afford their own homes, is being used as a commercial enterprise by others who have more than one.

There is nothing wrong with the Airbnb premise to help home-owners generate additional income from renting rooms or the whole place when they are not there.  Turning homes into hotels however, is a whole different thing. If you find yourself living next door to one, you might just agree.

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London E2: life’s good in the ‘hood


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Our new home.

In April 2008 My Girls and I moved into a three-up-two-down on Wimbolt Street just yards away from Columbia Road, Bethnal Green. It is here that the world famous flower market takes place every Sunday.

Despite our proximity to the market, we never heard a thing on Sunday – until we ventured forth to the packed street lined with that increasingly rare breed of shops, the independents and colonised by market stalls. The stalls here begin setting up at dawn; I know this from the occasional foray home, early doors. On weaving through the melee of trucks, trolleys and trellises, the traders often had a coffee to offer along with a friendly word.

As this Sunday street fills with people, Londoners and visitors intermingle, spending their hard-earned cash on everything Columbia Road has to offer, from flora and fauna, pots and plants to coffee, crockery and other nick-nackery. Myriad foreign tongues fill the air; Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Chinese. The street teems with men, women and children,  wide-eyed at the organised chaos of this crazy local landmark.

We adored our little house, as did our two black cats who would sit one at either end of the windowsill, for all the world like elegant black bookends. Before long, they made friends with Lara-the-dog-across-the-road; the three of them would hang out together on Lara’s ‘sill. It was that kind of a street. It’s that kind of a ‘hood.

Time passed. My Girls grew up, slipping from their Mother’s embrace into the world. Happily, fate intervened for as my children fell out of the maternal home, their Mother fell in love. Change beckoned and before long my empty nest was abandoned for the making of a brand new home on Barnet Grove, now with Beautiful Boyfriend.

Two years of bliss followed, our happiness dampened only by a regularly flooding basement, which the landlord did not see fit to fix. Mouldy belongings featured low on our wish-list, so we upped sticks and moved around a few more corners to Brick Lane; not the Ibiza-meets-students-union stretch, but a little-known residential idyll where peace reigns along with dry, light and spacious rooms.

So fond are we of this neighbourhood that leaving the close-knit streets was inconceivable; we looked at a reasonably priced Peckham penthouse – but even that light and panoramic possibility in a vibrant and emerging part of town couldn’t tempt us.

Our position on this famous street is urban indeed with rear windows that overlook a honeycomb of life, colour and eye-popping garden ornaments. Mai’da around the corner tempts us on those days when cooking seems a stretch too far. The Shoreditch Spa and its high-pamper treatments lies nearby; on locking myself out one evening I sat with a glass of wine at a vantage point in Casa Blue from where I spotted BB turning the corner to our home – just a few short steps and I was by his side.

Brick Lane has kept us close to our old neighbours; meantime, we are meeting new ones. Happily, we remain party to parties and dinners that pop up here and there – often around our own dinner table, for I am never happier than when cooking for friends.

This sunny Saturday morning I walked to Columbia Road for a hair makeover. An experienced craftsman of exceptional talent, John Birchall has created less salon, more lifestyle; his banter and humour combined with the steady popping-in-and-out of chatty locals make for a compelling hour or two – and the cleverest of cuts to boot.

Any foray to this wonderful stretch of independent businesses can include a stop at family-run Maks News for the weekend paper, Pavilion for coffee and warm, fresh bread, a chat and browse through fashionable finery at Precious, provisions from the Flower Supermarket, medicinal needs met by the lovely people at Columbia Pharmacy …  and finally a swing round the corner to seek out gardenish things from Les in his treasure-trove at Organics.

All of this lies just moments from home; familiar streets and friendly faces who greet you by name make this corner of London a truly wonderful place to be. Long may it last.

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Up and down in San Francisco: the long walk


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Rich textures in San Francisco

My recent ten-day business trip to Texas was preceded by a wonderful day in San Francisco.

Arriving at the Stanford Court Hotel, I asked if my room had a view. Not from the third floor, confirmed the Reception Staff. Would you like a view? I explained this was my first visit to the city and a relaxing 36-hour precursor to a gruelling business trip in Texas. My Receptionist smiled: Let’s see, shall we?

Key in hand, the elevator whisked me to the 14th floor and a large double aspect room overlooking the cityscape; waning sunlight highlighted the extraordinary variety and texture of this famous skyline that stretched all the way to the Bay and Bridge. I thanked not just my lucky stars, but the hospitality of Stanford Court.

After a languorous and welcome bath, I ventured out to the Ferry Building to meet a friend of many years, whom I had not seen for three or four. She lives here now; she and partner waiting for me at a French-style wine and charcuterie place inside this magnificent building. Within its walls, the building hosts myriad chic restaurants and food stores, the exterior still performing its original function as a ferry terminal. We had a gentle and lovely evening, drank probably too much, laughed (never too much) and a rather wistful parting came only too soon.

My body clock had not yet adjusted to US time and waking earlier than hoped, I decided to visit the hotel gym – unusually good and spacious for its type. Regime complete, I scooped up a hearty breakfast from the lobby and returned to my room, where I enjoyed delicious poached eggs, bacon and steamy coffee and luxuriating in a rare and perfect silence took in the remarkable panorama, sharper now in the morning light.

After a few hour’s work, at midday exactly I donned flatties and set out for my San Fran Walk. Deliberately eschewing map or advice, I preferred instead to follow the famous Forte Nose, trusting my instincts to draw me to interesting places and neighbourhoods.

Meandering first through Chinatown I paused here and there to look in the windows of groceries, health and household shops. I crossed over to roam down a side-street peppered with bohemian cafes and stores whose signs told me I had entered North Beach. I decided to stop at one tiny, but welcoming spot for coffee and some freshly squeezed orange, the latter a reminder that I needed oranges and lemons to make my own morning juice in coming days, for which purpose I had packed a traditional squeezer.

Coffee imbibed and fruit acquired, I continued through North Beach noticing the growing number of Italian places and faces, some of which threw a casual but friendly greeting my way. From North Beach then and down, down, down towards the Financial District and its glassy towers. I was not ready for them yet, so diverted left across Sacramento, up Powell and on Columbus Avenue I spotted Saints Peter and Paul Church. Despite my collapsed Catholicism I cannot resist a bit of candle action and thoughts of a comfy pew, classic carvings and glorious glass windows drew me up the steps and into this magnificent place of worship. Here, my passion for flame and colour rewarded, I lapsed into long reverie before stirring myself back onto Filbert Street, into the sunshine. Turning left I saw my first truly serious slope, which led to another, higher and still more serious slope.

Can they be serious? I thought. Who on earth decided to build this city on these hills? Before I could change my mind, I drew breath and got going and drew breath and drew breath … Although I knew not where I was headed, the anticipated view drew me (not without more breaths) to the summit and Coit Tower, which sits atop a green spot from where the views are beyond spectacular. Looking down, vertigo overwhelmed and I sat awhile until things settled and holding the handrail, began a long, slow descent to Lombard, from where I found Broadway, sight of the Bay … and the Ferry Building.

The outline of this familiar edifice was a joy; to get there I meandered through the Financial District, huge glassy towers and wide shining monoliths abounded, rendering me tiny, and not a little intimidated. The streets were quiet and few stopping places were in evidence. With the Bay glistening between the buildings, I forged on until I reached The Embarcadero from across which the Ferry Building Marketplace rose in splendour.

Tired now and happy to see last night’s destination in daylight, I strolled across the waterfront and admired the Oakland Bay Bridge where I sat awhile to revive my energy with another coffee. Duly restored, I set out back towards the City climbing up and up, down and down, up again and down again until I reached California, home to my hotel.

I decided to eat and meandering here and there, found the Gallery Café, a place that celebrates the inertia and moodiness of its staff with highlighted cuttings in the restrooms. Reader, I can corroborate, for the server who greeted me did so silently, with scowling demeanor. So famished was I that a welcome and huge chicken Caesar salad, fat chips with mayonnaise, a large glass of dry white duly arrived and I settled happily with the New York Times. Almost an hour spent here, scanning the paper and watching the world go by did the trick, and soon I was revivified and ready to move on.

Not wishing to be hotel-bound quite yet, I decided to seek out Tartine, the Bakery recommended by YoungestOfAll, my talented Patisserie Chef daughter. Guerrero Street ran through a whole different world, one which reminded me of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch – familiar territory indeed. It took nearly two hours to get there but with plasters bought along the way to protect my blistering heels, I found it, identified not by the shop front so much as the queue snaking out through the door.

Approaching, I realised that some relief was needed and decided to buy a treat, so that I could use their facilities. Alas, the interior of this clearly much-loved café precluded the eat; it was full to capacity with people waiting for whatever they had ordered and with the line from the front door too onerous to consider joining, I slipped through the crowd to the restroom. Calculating then how long it would take to be served, I decided instead to navigate to the counter, where nose-to-glass I admired the array of exquisite confections and concoctions.

Although the afternoon had progressed slowly enough, by now time was galloping along and in checking I found it was almost 7pm. Seven hours walking – no wonder I was fading. But where to find a taxi? I walked and walked, heading I hoped towards Nob Hill where Stanford Court awaited. Lucky me; before too long a taxi loomed large and I climbed in, grateful to the God of Cabs for delivering this one, now.

The driver asked where I was from and what I had been doing that day. I told him. Hell, Lady! he exclaimed. I’ve lived here over twenty years and I have NEVER EVER walked up them hills. Are you mad? No, I assured him … just curious.

At 7.30pm then, too tired to eat I stepped into a hot bath and clambered abed, sinking quickly into the deepest slumber. I awoke refreshed – albeit with rather sore feet – more than ten hours later, ready for my Houston-bound flight and the rigorous days ahead.

Thank you Forte Nose for pointing me in such rewarding direction. But even greater thanks to San Francisco for a splendiferous stay, wonderful walk and deep, deep sleep.

© Giovanna Forte 2017

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California conversation and happy travels.


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It was all going so well. My arrival at Heathrow in better than good time, the security experience easier than usual (I didn’t get stopped – a miracle) and time to drift through the stores in wonderment at the nonsense people feel compelled to buy at airports.

We boarded on time. I settled into my seat, stowed Private Eye and Guardian for later reading and awaited lift-off … only to find we were all waiting in vain. The intercom crackled into life: A strange occurrence has occurred, said our Chief Flight Attendent. A mouse has been  found on board. We cannot depart with a mouse on board.  British Airways regrets, that all passengers must disembark. We have been assigned a new aircraft and expect to have you and your bags transferred ….  Amusement tempered mild annoyance and within minutes I was back in the melee of Duty Free … As entranced by the Chanel lipstick counter as a child in a sweet shop. Nonsense indeed; each candy colour smudge on my hand, every gentle nod of acquiescence to the sales assistant declared me guilty as charged.

Three hours later and lipstick-rich, I embarked upon the flight to San Francisco; good films, good food and good wine helped the hours slip by. In SF, I made my way to Information, where I asked for a recommendation to reach Palo Alto. We cannot recommend, the Information Attendant informed me. We are here to answer questions. I tried a different tack and was soon two floors up, staring at the BART ticket machine, with bafflement.

I heard you ask about getting to Palo Alto, said a kindly voice. I am heading for the stop after you and don’t know where I’m going either. How about we join forces and get there in one piece … or get lost together? Keith and I duly joined forces; he to see his Grandson and a first visit to his own son’s home – I, destined for a meeting critical to my business.

We were both nervous and relieved to find a friendly travelling companion; Keith and I got along famously. Keith is a recently retired civil, structural and environmental engineer who was involved in converting traditional power stations to run on biomass. I explained my line of work and there ensued a deep and detailed conversation about engineering, technology, design, manufacture and their implicit yet often unsung roles in helping the world turn smoothly on its axis. As our conversation ventured here and there, we each caught the other observing the frozen nose-to-screen demeanour of our on-board compatriots and agreed: Hell! People just don’t see the world around them any more …

Palo Alto arrived all too soon. Keith and I shook hands; what an absolute pleasure to have met him and to understand that despite his experience of life over 60-something years, he was still nervous and excited about engaging with the boy who is now his adult son, and with the small and lesser known Grandson. A testament indeed to the fragile and tender human condition.

I stepped onto the platform at Palo Alto intending to clamber into a cab. Every station in the world plays host to a taxi rank – or so I thought. But this is twenty-first century; the suburban taxi-rank (and independent enterprise that goes with it) has been eroded and userped by UberWorld. Spying the station cafe, I dragged my excessively large case across the concourse and enquired of the Barrista: How do I get a cab around here?  His eyes narrowed to peer over my shoulder: If there ain’t one under that tree over there, there ain’t one. 

Adjacent to that tree over there was a Transit Centre – a bus station to you and me. I trundled into its midst and looked around. Of the few passengers-in-waiting, the most approachable was an evidently homeless gentleman who not only kindly disabused me of the time it might take to walk to my hotel (understanding distance on map-scale is not my forte, as it were), but told me which bus to take, what to say to the driver and when I might expect to arrive at the establishment in question. We had a brief chat about London – he had visited in happier times – before I left him with much gratitude and the wherewithal to buy an evening meal. The number 22 duly arrived when he said it would; I confirmed with the driver that she would drop me at the Creekside Inn, and found a seat.

Boarding with me were the disparate, now familiar faces from the wait: a stressed woman with three children, a rotund gentleman with woolly beanie hat, an elegant elderly lady with Zimmer frame and a rather cirucumspect Hispanic couple who stared in wonder at all around them.

You’re British? From England? The lady on the seat opposite addressed me directly, her worn clothes a contrast to the newer apparel of her three children. They were all  mesmerised by my accent. Dear reader, there followed a lively exchange that excited comment, question and opinion from almost every passenger, and which embraced the Queen, Scotland, bearskin hats, Beefeaters, London buses, whether Buckingham Palace is more House than Palace, British weather and more.

I’ll never get to London, said my new best friend. I only have one lung working – and these kids. It will never happen. I looked at the children looking at their mother, faces etched with resignation. You never know, I thought out loud to the window. You never know what’s round the corner. If you focus on the problems, you might miss the opportunity.  Anything can happen if you want it to. Even going to London. I never thought I’d come here either.

Mum stared and I thought she was going to shout at me – I could only imagine how difficult life is for her, after all. Maybe she sensed that I meant well though, for she considered, nodded and said: I hadn’t thought about it like that. Thank you. 

Glancing back to the window I caught the reflection of Beanie Man, whose face had spread into a broad sunshine smile; he looked for all the world like a jolly emoji. By now, chatter filled the bus and upon alighting at the Creekside Inn I was waved on my way, feeling peculiarly happy and sad.

The average price of a decent hotel in Palo Alto is steep. By comparison, the  Creekside Inn delivers an upscale motel at modest incline, with room service until 9pm. A Caesar Salad and glass of Pinot Noir duly arrived, the salad less Caesar more Assorted Field, but by now very welcome.

I showered and turned in, mind flitting here and there over my day, full and rich with experience and I counted my lucky stars. Drifting to sleep I realised that despite its highs and lows, in spite of the bumps and bruises it metes out to us, the world can still deliver kind and interesting people. With ten days of travel ahead,  I set myself a question to consider each night .. quite simply: who might I meet tomorrow?

Isn’t life grand?

© Giovanna Forte 2017

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Karma Kandara: a travelogue


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The pool at sunset

Last year was long and tough. One of the hardest aspects being how much I miss YoungestOfAll, The Exocet who now lives in Melbourne.

Last Spring then, flights were booked for a three-week Christmas holiday. Deeming it necessary to shed some of the year’s stresses before reaching DaughterBliss in Australia, we accounted for a four-day stopover in Bali.

On the 17th December 2016 we set out for Heathrow. Not half an hour before boarding the 9pm Garuda flight an announcement was made. There is a longer story here, but suffice to say that our journey was extended by 22 hours; we should have been grateful, for our bags took a further three days to join us.

Luckily we were heading for Karma Kandara, the King and Queen of resorts and the tortuous journey delivered us to a welcome even warmer than the weather. Checking-in formalities over, a buggy arrived to transport us to our villa … five-star luxury, perched atop Bali’s southernmost point.

Moments after we had settled in – easily achieved with no luggage – the doorbell rang; two young men attired in Karma White entered, bearing chilled Champagne and a huge plate of canapes. “You have had a difficult journey,” they said. “Management thought this may help.”

As it happened, management was correct. Sighing with pleasure, we took our booty outside, where we found rather more than we bargained for: a private garden, dining table and chairs, recliners and a canopied day-bed open to the magnificent view. The party piece was our very own shimmering infinity pool. Furthermore, we had complete privacy and could not be overlooked or disturbed by neighbours.

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Di Mare from Our Estate

Sipping Champagne, we strolled to the end of what we came to call Our Estate; this exceptional clifftop villa nestled lightly in the land. To our right, lush leaves and fantasy foliage; ahead, a glittering seascape that circled 180 degrees to an adjacent clifftop where we spied Di Mare, the resort restaurant, a-twinkle with welcome.

Replete and happy we retired inside to a king-size four poster bed, artfully draped with silken net to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Our limbs unwound, minds cleared and the sea below sang us to sleep.

A few short hours later I awoke, bright as a button. It was maybe 4am, BB sleeping so soundly I could not wake him; instead, I slid open the glazed garden doors, stepped onto the terrace and into the pool, the glow of dawn casting a mystical light across the sea.

Our first full day at Karma Kandara began with villa-service breakfast; exotic fresh fruit, fluffy omelettes, bacon and coffee; a fine, lazy holiday start. We swam, we read, we gazed at the view, a world away from London; 4pm brought an appointment with the Karma Spa.

The Karma Spa is no ordinary therapy spot. It is poised on a cliffside promontory overlooking the ocean; beneath, one can just about glimpse the resort’s private beach.

The therapists beckoned us onto parallel beds and so began the next stage of de-stress. We were rubbed with salts and oils, wrapped in hot muslin, washed, oiled again, pummeled and stroked to within an inch of our lives; tension relieving massage as never before. Treatment over, the pampering continued: we were given kimonos and led  to a compact and private terrace, featuring sauna and Jacuzzi. The cabin was glazed to the ocean view; this hot, surreal and sensuous experience was followed by a soak in the Jacuzzi, marveling at the sheer, decadent good luck of finding ourselves here, now.

We returned to the villa in time to change for dinner. Well, our clothes washed and dry from the sun were in surprisingly good shape. Fortunately, I had just-in-cased some elegant silver sandals in my hand-luggage; these brought my look to something more appropriate to our setting, while poor BB stepped out in long wool trousers … and boots.

We wandered through paths lined with scented flowers and low dry-stone walls,  past an elegant sign asking guests not to feed the monkeys – they are fat and lazy enough! – around a guest pool with waterfall, up some steps and into Di Mare, the shimmering destination of our villa view.

Whisky and G&T in hand(s), we settled into these new surroundings. Then we ate; every dish was sublime, created and served with the lightest touch, the wine, fragrant and dry. We stayed awhile, replete and happy, this long lazy dinner having taken the day to dusk and into darkness. It was under a canopy of stars that we wove our way home to find – oh joy – that the diligent Concierge had somehow teleported our luggage into the villa.

Not wishing to break the spell of this magical night, we retired to the day-bed and lay watching sea and sky. BB dozed while I took a dip in the pool, pausing to watch starlight dance upon the tiny waves below. Before long, subtle eddies washed against my body and I turned to see BB floating towards me; his arm then around my shoulder, he pointed out starry constellations, with a reminder of how to identify my own sign, Taurus.

And so to our final day. Holiday wardrobes now at our disposal, we made our way to the seaside. A frisson of excitement accompanied us to the Funicular that transports guests from resort to private beach.

The carriage landed at a leafy waiting area, through which was the lively beachside restaurant and cocktail bar, complete with DJ. We were welcomed by name (how do they do that?) and led to less seaside, more elegant stretch of finest Karma reef decorated with sand, canopied daybeds, a healthy sprinkling of recliners and friendly staff that almost outnumbered the guests.

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Karma Kandara Private Beach

BB loved diving into the waves, I paddled; olives and a local super-fruity and dry white Pinot cooled us. Reclining, we watched men, women, boys and girls frolicking and it occurred to me that there is a beach-body factory somewhere, popping out perfect people with sunny silhouettes from a life-size cookie cutter, although I confess that by now, we too felt sun kissed, relaxed and happy.

Back in the villa our backs turned to the kitchen, one fat and lazy monkey crept in to claim a pack of peanuts. On hearing the war cry from BB, he grabbed a pack of coffee, fled to the terrace and settled down to his snacks all the while keeping a wary eye on us, the interlopers.

Our stay at Bali’s southern-most point came inevitably to an end. Karma Kandara sent us on our way feeling lucky, rested and fresh for much anticipated Christmas and New Year DaughterBliss.

Since our visit, I have thought long and hard about Kandara and what it does for its guests. I give you that it is a rare destination, awash with perfection; it appears that even when every-day folk arrive at Kandara, they too become effortlessly relaxed and desirable, floating artlessly here and there with an enviable edge of glamour.

For this is what Kandara does. Rumour has it that every Karma Resort casts the same spell. Dear reader, I will investigate and promise faithfully to report on my findings.

© Giovanna Forte 2017

Footnote: our luggage arrived thanks to daily efforts of the Karma Kandara Concierge staff, who called the airline and airport again and again … until they got the answer they sought on our behalf. The staff at Karma Resorts have, for us, set a whole new standard in hospitality. 

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Bonhomoux: summer fabulousness in France


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All the parties.

Mid-August arrived at last, delivering the welcome start of our summer holiday. We set out early and excited … remembering passports only as we climbed into a waiting taxi, an anxious moment that heralded a journey fraught with the mishap and extra charges that come hand-in-glove with low-cost airlines.

Thankfully the flight provided enough time and wine to recover and before long we found ourselves in gloriously sunny rural France. Aching to reach our destination, I whisked through customs ahead of BB to find our good friend Mr Host waiting patiently outside Arrivals, my embrace of him so joyful that BB walked straight past. He took us for a pair of re-united lovers.

Not half an hour later, we drew up to The Hosts’ vogueish village townhouse and a glorious Mrs Host – the Raven Haired Marilyn Monroe – ready with olives, cool local vin and a very warm welcome. We had arrived.

My first desire was for fennel tea, a new and delicious habit that prompted Marilyn to exclaim: Giovanna Forte has been taken over by aliens! Bring back the real Giovanna Forte! Fennel tea consumed, shower and change of attire complete, the four of us – five including resident elegant canine M. Clark – gathered on the terrace for Proper Drinks. From here we eyed the pool and lavender-rich garden, our idyllic home for the next ten days. And so, feeling blessed and lucky, the unwinding from hectic urban life began.

The Hosts were enjoying a celebratory summer and our time with them featured a series of dinners organised to high-five twenty years of marriage, and two birthdays, one of which featured an 0. A busy ten days beckoned, four of which were to be spent on our own while Hosts retreated to an arty hideaway further south. The perfect quid-pro-quo; we became canine caretakers, leaving them free to indulge in each other.

The following day involved a trip to the market and lazy coffee, watching the locals negotiate with animated stallholders. There followed preparations for that evening’s dinner, intended to take place au terrace, pool-side. Alas, it was not to be; light rain made an indoor setting compulsory. Bringing outside’s longer tables in, we draped them with white linen and candles and lo! a beautiful setting came to life for no less than ten guests.

A melee of marvelous people arrived on time; the party included local wine makers, a clever composer (with cheekbones to die for), his chic film-producing wife, a jolly summer expat couple we met last year and an artist – all life and souls of any party. This one fizzed until the early hours involving much hilarity, gourmet grub and sumptuous wine from the Hegarty estate.

The following morning was understandably slow; our holiday began in earnest, lazing by the pool, seeking succulent figs picked straight from the tree and inhaling the lush lavender that surrounded us. The days rolled by until Mr and Mrs Host departed for their southern sojourn leaving us to pretend that their dreamy dwell was our very own. BB and I sank into daze of luxury, doing nothing but eat, drink, chat, swim and find each other all over again. Even the garden and household duties we offered in return for our stay were a joy to carry out in this oasis of boutique, ambient calm.

The days passed; Mr and Mrs Host returned rejuvenated by culture and each other and with Hippy Son scooped up from the airport. This former boy whom I had not seen for many years has become a beautiful blue-eye handsome man with an exemplar head of hair, terrific taste in music and an excellent way with cocktails. God bless youth.

Friends of Hippy Son arrived the next day; two more cocktail-and-clearing-up friendly young bucks who catered for us without complaint and delivered excellent conversation to boot. More diverting dinners were enjoyed with equally entertaining guests, daily sun and slow swims, trips to the market … and of course, preparations for the London Crowd, scheduled to arrive a day prior to the Big Birthday Dinner.

Toasting dozily by the pool, I was stirred by the sounds of warm welcomes from within, closely followed by new poolside footsteps. Standing to apologise and confess rather obviously: Hello. Sorry, I’m a bit naked, I need not have worried; the lovely Pablo stood, hand extended in greeting, his partner R close behind. These gloriously urbane boys had come to celebrate their friends’ anniversaries in advance of their own nuptials taking place two weeks hence. Their glamorous presence heralded the later arrival of  Glossy Red Setter, a gorgeous and funny only-just-forty-girl-woman with long golden hair. Days of amusing anarchy were well and truly on the cards.

The Hollywoods dived straight in; pool first, sociability and gales of laughter to follow. Dear reader, I cannot do justice here to the hugely entertaining hours and days that followed; suffice to say they were rich with wit, intellect, gambit, pun, farce … and of course, terrible jokes. In short, it were a right old carry on.

Our penultimate eve in France was taken up with The Party … and What A Do it Was. Much pleasure was taken in the preparation; Marilyn demanded that I appear in LBD, pearls and pom-pom Choos, the height of which precluded my involvement in anything other than looking poised and vaguely decorative.

Around me, Mr Host cooked up a feast for eyes and appetite alike; still more fine wine was set out and guests arrived to a glittering candlelit setting, lively, seamless conversation and Boy-Team Cocktails. Music and dancing ensued well into the later-than-early hours and it was here, beneath a galaxy of fairy lights that The Hollywoods and Red Setter truly excelled, grooving to Spanish guitar and disco beats … we all joined in at one time or another but perhaps a veil of discretion should be drawn across this particular vignette of high jinks.

As the the pace slowed, guests peeled away into the night; Boy-Team began to clear, the elders retired to bed assuaged, inebriated and well, frankly rather done-in.

I awoke at 6am hungry; creeping into the kitchen I devoured tasty left-overs, someone’s abandoned brandy and returned to bed to sleep off my residual hangover. BB and I awoke mid-morning to a spotless kitchen, fresh coffee and only slightly muted company of the Hollywood Two, the Glossy Red Setter and one divine Host for Ms Monroe was still upstairs, luxuriating between the sheets. I ascended to her boudoir with coffee for two and climbed in, something reminiscent of boarding school days, hunkered under the duvet to chew the cud with a favourite wise and wonderful woman.

The last day slipped by; BB and I were driven to the airport by one of the Boy-Team and we returned home content, fulfilled and under the circumstances oddly rested.

To the gourmet Mr Host, to the Raven Haired Marilyn Monroe, to the Hollywood Two, the Glossy Red Setter, to the Music, Film and Wine-makers, to the New Friends All: from our nest in Bethnal Green I raise to you a toast:

Thank you for the Bonhomoux.

© Giovanna Forte 2016.

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Scotland: reunions, drama, art & a poet


 

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I didn’t make it up

One rainy July afternoon, BB and I arrived at a remote part of Scotland where we found forty people sheltering under a large pergola tent, sharing a generous picnic.

We had landed at the opening event of an Outlaw Family Reunion, organised to celebrate a much-loved ancestor now lying beneath a grand Memorial, set atop a nearby hill. Despite the inauspicious weather, this was a jolly affair where I met Outlaw relatives both familiar and new.

As ever for this family, the atmosphere was welcoming and warm; delicious food was passed around with mugs of steaming hot, proper coffee. Coffee when offered is generally an accurate bellwether for what is to come; this brew augured well.

Those gathered had been called from far and wide. The Ancestor’s children, the parents of some of those gathered, were also commemorated around his grave and here he reunited sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandchildren, grand-parents, aunts and uncles gathered to celebrate, well … The Family.

Not one to miss a beat – or good reason to explore lesser-known territory – BB suggested that we extend our visit for a road-trip around Scotland. Given I have only enjoyed limited experience of Glasgow and Edinburgh and am fond of the Scots, I concurred. I was, once upon a star wed to a very jolly example of the race and our beautiful progeny carry a distinctive McSurname. Greater knowledge of and respect to their origins felt right.

Picnic over, the multi-generational group began its pilgrimage up the hill. MOL (Mother-Out-Law for newcomers to this blog) barely had to take a step; with a grandson at each arm, this doughty dame was flown up the incline several inches above the ground looking neither unhappy, nor remotely concerned.

Once gathered under myriad and makeshift cover, typed sheets were distributed and BB’s Eldest Brother orchestrated the singing of a goodly number of hymns. Never have I witnessed The Lord’s My Shepherd delivered with such familial and feisty gusto … under such damp circumstances. As Memorials go, this one was truly memorable.

Some time and a hot bath later, the Family regrouped for dinner in the appointed hotel, followed by the imbibing of splendid Scotch and a good old natter.

The morning featured relaxed walks, stone-skimming on the nearby Loch and a group photograph, after which we set off for Part II of The Reunion; lunch at a grand country house hotel, resplendent upon its own Isle. This once-upon-a-time home had been built by The Ancestor and in the mists of time lost to the ownership of others; this did not dull our enjoyment of the place … or of a truly gastronomic Michelin Star lunch.

Time came to part with Outlaws-all and for BB and I to set out on our own adventures. We arrived some short hours later at Oban and the discovery that a hotel described on its website as Boutique in this case meant simply “Tiny”. Friendly, clean and perfectly habitable, our room overlooked the Bay; in each others’ company we were simply happy. We ventured out, climbing to MacCaig’s Tower before a lazy descent to claim a table at Eeusk, where fabulously fresh fish, perfectly chilled wine and picturesque views awaited.

After a brief meander around town the following morning, we set out to Fort William hoping to hop aboard The Jacobite steam train made famous by Harry Potter; alas, spontaneity is not accommodated by those in charge of tourist attractions and without having booked our seats months earlier we drove to the train’s destination. We arrived in Mallaig just in time to settle at the window of our well-placed hotel room and watch the illustrious locomotive puff its way into the station.

Having arrived late-ish, we emerged just after 9pm to try the door of several restaurants, all closed. Our luck changed at the Chlachain Inn for on being turned away by bar staff, an affable and smiling Chef burst forth from the kitchen apologising for his town; I can give you fish and chips and that’s it! he declared. We accepted gratefully and watched as he whipped up a batter made of Tennents and not much else. Reader, this fish was a joy, light and delicious; the chef extended his hospitality by inviting BB to a game of pool … and losing with exceptionally good grace

The following morning we pored over our map wondering whether to take a trip to Skye just over the water; the sky above did not look too promising however and after some debate we decided to cut our losses and head over to Perth, where one of BB’s many Aunts was expecting us one day or another that week. Decision made, we plotted a scenic route through the highlands.

The journey was spectacular – drizzle notwithstanding – and we took in panoramas a-plenty, remote railway stations where trains stop only upon request, Ben Nevis and a meandering drive through breathtaking vistas to stop at Achnambeithach. Here, a tiny road alternately smooth and rough diverted us deep into Glen Etive, where we witnessed extraordinary landscapes, rivers and remote farm houses one of which BB remembered was home to another Aunt, whom he visited as a child; in those days, reaching this house – one of only two in the valley – involved crossing a bridge-free river in a box hanging from an overhead cable. Progress has made its mark, for this neck of the water now happily, boasts a bridge. For him, this was less of a casual tour, more an instinctive trip down memory lane; his happy face brought unexpected joy to the drama of our surroundings.

We drove through grand Perth and on to another cousin’s home, where Aunt awaited with dogs and a warm welcome. We spent two lazy days and nights here, pottering, reading, relaxing, eating and drinking and getting to know Moneypenny, for Aunt was less retired older relative and more entertaining and glamorous than I had expected. An air of quiet confidence belied the impression of homeliness; M had lived in exotic places and knew more about the world than us both. She seemed quietly to organise, plan and know exactly what was what, giving the distinct impression of one around whom things happened exactly as they should.

The time for our departure arrived; M had a grandson to prepare for safari and things to do. With fond goodbyes we set off for the final leg of our adventure.

In Edinburgh the spacious apartment of a wickedly talented and Professorial friend awaited. We had spent our first night in Scotland with The Prof, who entertained us with glorious food, wine and witty repartee. She left for the USA before our return but kindly entrusted us with keys to her lovely home; from these tall windows we gazed over perfectly formed chimney pots, to all intents an army marching in splendid synchronicity down the hill towards Fettes: the seat of Tony Blair’s arrogance, Prof had quipped.

Our first evening was spent cooking and enjoying dinner a deux, after which we set out to see The Kelpies. These astounding sculptures by Andy Scott celebrate the history of working horses around the canals; as we gazed, darkness fell and lights within the structures slowly rose. We walked around, through, below, marveling at the sheer scale and exquisite detail of these fine equines, at the extraordinary feat and ingenuity of engineering. Eventually tired and inspired, we headed home.

The next day brought a visit to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art, where we saw paintings by Ben Nicholson and his contemporaries, their content chiming unexpectedly with a book I am reading. About the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, is an absorbing tale of the lives of the very artists exhibited here and a natural narrative unfolded as I moved from one painting to the next. We then took in Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Magritte, a whole room of captivating Bridget Riley and finally the super-real Tourists by Duane Hanson.

We left happy, driving across town to visit Clever Mr and Mrs Nephew, who founded and run the Edinburgh Casting Studio. Here they celebrate hands, faces, bodies, baby feet and even pet’s paws for people who want to remember themselves and their loved ones exactly as they are now; Mr & Mrs N shape this unusual work with kindness, compassion, verve and talent. They also provided us with exceptional quantities of humous, wine, conversation and laughter; I am a Very Proud Aunt.

Parting company with my brother’s son and his wife, we made our way to the Leith Dockers Club to meet Old London Friend whom I have not seen for a few years, but who happened to be in town attending a jolly memorial for punk performance poet Jock Scot. Whilst we had never met Jock, OLF knew him well from days gone by. In this room of friendly people, Jock’s arresting, moving poems were read and his life handsomely celebrated, not least by our small group where far too much scotch was cheerfully imbibed within this surreal and cherished night. The poet himself predicted that his 1993 book would be republished once I snuff it; OLF has done just that. Where is my Heroine? is a tome of grit and beauty; I have and recommend it.

In the morning my sore head regretfully dimmed our last day in this beautiful place, albeit not enough to prevent us attending the first birthday party of a smaller Family member we met at the start of our holiday: a poetic and circular finale to the week. This gentle celebration took place on Seacliff Beach, a remote and secret spot about an hour outside town; after mingling with cousins and their offspring, we wandered and roamed on the rocks and sand, the playful wind etching this beautiful bay into our skin for ever.

Scotland: thank you for your sights and scenes, unrivaled in London. We will return.

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