Austin power: an idyllic week.


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Austin riverside at dusk

Times they are a-changing and Texas beckons; my modest business has found a greater appetite for its wares in the USA than on home turf. With opportunity snapping at our heels and new horizons long overdue, BB and I decided to spend a week in Austin exploring its potential as home for a year or two. 

Our first stop was Houston and we arrived at the  JW Marriott Downtown to a customary welcome glass of fizz. I have stayed here twice before and love this hotel. Temporary disappointment loomed however, as the tiny room in which we found ourselves overlooked a shabby building well. I called reception to explain that this visit to Houston was BB’s first; I was sure they would want him to enjoy more edifying sights? Within minutes we were in a super-luxe room with a 10th floor view, huge bathroom, double-ended bath and shower with room enough for two. Thank you JW; that’s more like it.

Day one: body clock ejected me from bed to gym at 7am. Returning an hour later, BB voted for breakfast in the Museum district, our planned destination for the day. We trammed there to find tumbleweed blowing through the streets; everything was due to open at 10am, and not a moment before.

After pounding pavements for a good half-hour, hungry and not a little cross, I insisted on a taxi  Downtown, to breakfast at a place around the corner from JW.  Here our plates overflowed with eggs, bacon, sausages, fried potatoes and more. My gluten-and-dairy-free diet precluded much of the calorific upholstery enjoyed by BB, but for us both, every morsel was a tasty joy.

Our second tram to the Museum District took us to the exquisite and contemplative Rothko Chapel; here the artist’s huge canvases dominate a sparse octagonal space, furnished with simple benches and floor cushions from which visitors meditate the breathtaking work.  We moved on to the Menil Collection to see art that ranged from African artefacts of many years BC to the works of Max Ernst, Leger, Matisse, Picasso, Magritte, Warhol and more. Stopping briefly at the Menil Bistro, a visit to the Cy Twombly Gallery rounded things off beautifully.

By 5pm and cultured-out, we wove our way JWard to shower, bathe and relax. But not for long; we soon ventured to the Theatre District and L’Artista, a huge restaurant which, due to the strange lack of theatre on this Friday night, we found empty but for one elderly couple and a friendly Maitre D’ called Alex.

We settled into this glamorous and deserted place; a staircase swept dramatically from an upper level and I hoped for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to descend with superlative dance kicks … Alas, they were booked elsewhere and our evening was spent chatting chummily to Alex and our neighbours, the latter regaling us with stories of their lively retirement and love of God. Our Maker enjoys a substantial fan base in Texas.

The following mid-morning, we found our pre-booked, front top-deck seats of the Megabus bound for Austin. Passengers consisted largely of a million students, one with whom we struck up conversation. She was a bio-science engineer, fascinated by my work and amused and amazed that “a CEO takes the bus!” Upon arrival at Austin, her kindly parents dropped us off at The Guild Downtown, home for the next week.

The purpose of this visit to Austin was for BB and I to assess whether or not we might live here for a year or two while Forte Medical finds its feet in the US healthcare system. We had no idea what might unfold, for I had only spent one night in Austin, a year ago. The night in question involved much merriment with live music, a rooftop bar, a giant game of Jenga and an F1 racing driver whose foot I pierced with my stiletto. In short, nothing that might persuade BB to relocate …  for all of that (Dalston-based F1 driver included) is readily available in East London.

The Guild Downtown is nearly half the price of a decent Austin hotel and everything we wanted it to be: big kitchen and living space, generous bathroom and bedroom, walk-in wardrobe, balcony. The pool and gym were on-site; the former I used each morning. In a world entirely unrelated to London life, I was on a cross-trainer before 7am then at work until 2pm after which we ventured out to explore the streets of our friendly, prospective home town.

For Austin is nothing but friendly. It prides itself on “being weird”, but when you live in East London, the bar to oddity is quite high. The difference is that Austin folk don’t fall-over drunk after 10pm; they don’t shout about their “creativity” and however weird you want to be, human engagement is order of the day, whatever your skill or persuasion.

On Sunday a colleague’s husband and daughter took us to explore the wider perimeter of town; we drove to Austin’s high point and viewed the city from above. Its complexion is varied, interesting and walk-able with a wide river, interesting homes and a surfeit of independent businesses that appropriately reflect its hugely independent spirit. Dinner south of the river, at Austin’s foremost TexMex restaurant rounded off the day with Father and Daughter, who delivered us home happy and replete.

Monday featured little of real interest to you dear reader, but much to make me fizz with delight; I found and enjoyed the expertise of I Love Lacquer, stocked up at the local independent grocery and found a purveyor of olive oils to die for. Those of you that know me will understand the joy elicited by these high-pamper treasures – all so much more affordable than in London.

Tuesday took us to the Dell Seton Medical Centre’s Health Discovery Co-Labs, where Forte Medical is taking an office from Spring 2018. This is a neat, beautifully designed building featuring office space, wet-labs, theatre … and abundance of scientific and medical intellect. Each and every person we met welcomes their British industrial and scientific counterparts with open arms; this inclusive thinking is an implicit part of a programme that incorporates education, patient care, science, research and more. Luck has a part to play, but so does a determination to transform basic diagnostic medicine, which is exactly what my company is incrementally achieving. Michael Dell, thank you for your ingenious, game-changing medical enterprise.

After our Dell visit, a friend of Sunday’s friend took us for a delightful lunch and tour of Austin’s most appropriate neighbourhoods for this Curious London Two. It seems that our options range from a groovy Downtown apartment, to clapboard house with verandah on the outskirts of town – we are not talking London suburbia here, but a mere ten-minute drive from centre. After nearly 20 years in Shoreditch, I am quite partial to the latter option, enjoying the idea of chilling on my leafy deck, watching the world go by; I will be a Domestic Goddess, safe in the knowledge that my scooter is poised outside, ready to teleport me to work at a moment’s notice. Dreams are plans, after all.

Tour over, we were dropped on Congress, outside the venue of a legal meeting arranged to discuss our immigration requirements. As we stepped out of our new friend’s car, BB spotted on the fascia of the Stateside Theatre the words: Dylan Moran.

The following hour was tough. In distracted fashion, I gave due attention to some very important matters until, solicitous meeting over, I secured online the last two tickets for Austin’s final night of Dylan Moran Grumbling Mustard Tour.

Hours later dear reader, mere feet away from stage, we witnessed the most talented, incisive, insightful, side-splitting raconteur of our generation. I’m certain that around ten minutes in, Mr Moran and I made prolonged eye contact … but who’s to know? Since childhood I have nurtured a crush on Eric Morecambe; my knees tremble in the presence of a supremely clever and funny man …  I just can’t help it.  This dark Irishman is a comedic genius and rather cute to boot. Lucky Mrs Moran.

On Wednesday we strolled riverside, admiring nature at its finest; the trees trilled with birds, water abounded with grazing turtles and darting fish. Meanwhile, ground level was awash with runners, one of whom stopped to admire BB’s shirt (he is infamous for his shirt collection). Conversation gathered momentum and she recommended us to eating and drinking places for later. Austin is full of people who notice, who stop, who give you the time of day. These streets are a world away from London, and its somnambulant army of earplugged phone-addicts, cursing anyone who happens in their path.

The extreme beauty of the river gave way to Ai Weiwei’s astonishing Forever Bicycle sculpture, to the striking, modernist Mexican Cultural Centre, and eventually to lively Rainey, a street of former residential bungalows now transformed into bars and restaurants. These conversions have been executed with dignity and architectural respect. There is one remaining residential dwelling in the midst of the hospitable porches; I wondered if the owners of this discrete home are disturbed by people believing it to be a speakeasy? They could be missing a pension-enhancing trick. We decided against knocking on this particular door and stopped instead at Lucille’s. Our week also took in an Eddie Izzard gig and the discovery of SV, Austin’s sophisticated secret bunker bar, colonised by people far cooler and younger than us.

This eclectic Austin visit concluded on Friday with a Greyhound bus ride back to Houston. It became apparent that students apart, middle-class white people don’t take the bus. Our presence was an anomaly – but happily so; this journey like its inward counterpart, afforded us an honest appraisal of the landscape, the people and the places to which we intend to become accustomed.
And yes, we liked it all. A year or two here could be a welcome break from London life and will doubtless accelerate the growth of my little business, whose potential in Texas, land of bio-science opportunity, seems to know no bounds

Interesting times lie ahead … watch this space, y’all.

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A weekend of bliss: champion celebrations and a slice of Eden


GardenMaxFriday afternoon, a long week behind me I pack up at Forte HQ and consider swinging barside to see who might be around and about for a general unwinding and clinking of a glass or two.

Then I think about the weekend ahead and decide no, domestics normally reserved for Saturday must be addressed tonight, for we have dear friends’ wedding celebrations tomorrow and there simply won’t be time.

I scoot home looking forward to the gentle addressing of said domestics, carried out to the accompaniment of radio plays and music. There isn’t too much to be done; laundry and ironing – the latter a pleasure because it offers slow thinking time whilst folding order into our lives. Knowing that BB will, in the ungodly hour he has to wake for his role as teacher to small boys, slide a perfectly pressed shirt over his arms, makes me happy (I am normally still slumbering deeply when this happens.) There is a great deal to be said for the sensuous joy of slipping into well-ironed sheets. These simple, basic tasks are a small price to pay for the luxury they afford and after a long week of frantic twelve-hour days, feel therapeutic.

BB returns home later and we complete the evening chatting over a glass or two of wine, relaxing in our orderly home, gazing over the garden he has somehow, over the preceding weekends, recrafted from mud-bath into tiny Eden.

A sleepy Saturday awakening, breakfast, more pottering and then preparation for the champion wedding celebration taking place in a lovely location by the canal in Hackney. We are not sure who will be there and although an after-party is planned we anticipate being home by six. We have, however, underestimated the joy in this celebration, the compelling mix of guests; familiar faces, new and interesting acquaintances. Of course, we find ourselves at the after-party, arriving home after midnight chatting happily about the sweet and uncomplicated celebration for two lovely uncomplicated people, who have found in each other rare love and companionship.

It is midday when I wake on Sunday. BB has been up for a couple of hours and together we make breakfast, speculating on how to spend the day. We decide nothing and as the weather is bright, I settle in the sun-rich garden with a magazine, while he retires to the sofa to curate his vast collection of photographs.

The garden: a whole new world of beauty captured within a pocket handkerchief slice of East London. When we arrived at this rented house it was a shambles; a coat of paint and a damn good clean sorted out the interior but the exterior needed serious attention. The work that BB has put into it is now coming to fruition; he dug deep, removing what remained of old grass and tenacious weeds that choked the few square meters of mud that the estate agent called garden. He leveled the surface, created borders and beds, replanted shrubs into spots that would be better for their health and introduced new ones bought from Columbia Road market.

He pruned the fig-tree, mended the shambolic greenhouse that marks the end of our territory, hung lanterns and wrought-iron framed mirrors in strategic and clever places. The laying of emerald green turf heralded the finishing touch to our tiny Eden.

Deck chair facing the sun, in reckless defiance of all advice given to 54-year-old women, I lifted my face to the rays, stretched my arms and legs and absorbed the unique heat created by that ball of fire in the sky. Penetrating my skin, delving into the very marrow of my bones I felt the sun literally warming of the cockles of my heart.

Eyes closed, light dappled against my eyelids I focused on sounds filtering through the air; the happy, noisy lunch taking place two or three doors down, a Bangladeshi family enjoying each others company, scents of their fragrant food arriving intermittently on the breeze. I listened to an East End Mum talking her small child through the flowers in their garden, the excited young voice calling out colours and shapes of the petals and leaves being uncovered and discovered.

This is it, I thought. This is the essence of lives lived in one of the most deprived yet burgeoning parts of London; this is what takes place from day to day in households across the nation, away from politics, set apart from the human fury that is delivered minute-by-minute by the myriad media and news channels that fight for our attention through our phones, our computers, our radios and televisions.

In generating human intolerance and dissatisfaction, what our so-called leaders fail to understand is that this simple way of being is the life-blood of the nation they seek to manipulate and rule. Here on this Sunday afternoon in our tiny Eden, I listened to the uncelebrated every day of everyday people who just want to get along, to live cheek-by-jowl in uncomplicated harmony, just as this weekend has given to us.

I hope and wish for many, more.

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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 hotel, 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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