Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clock Work

The memory may be fading but what seems to me to be just a few minutes ago Britain was in the grip of an icy chaos where life stood still and I was forced to join the 'working from home' brigade. London stopped functioning properly, public transport in Brighton was taken off the roads, and trying to actually get anywhere north seemed improbable. Communications were good however, as the world has become blackberried, so emails as well as texts can now be answered from the pub, rather than your desk.
In the middle of this snowy hell I flew off to Switzerland, not to the ski slopes but to the cities, Zurich, Berne and Basel where the snow was even heavier, more relentless and at certain times of the night even colder. But not only was it not front page news, conversation barely steered towards it. What was on the front pages were pictures of chaos from Britain. Our never-ending inability to cope with snow is the subject of much Swiss thigh-slapping.

I was only told that transportation in Zurich was 'slower' when I arrived. I never noticed. At lunch, everyone's coats were hung up, their umbrellas housed properly, and nobody was warned the floor was 'slippery when wet' because it doesn't get slippery when wet because someone realised in advance that that's what happens to floors if you coat them with the wrong, shiny, material. Nobody seemed to even notice the "chaos" outside let alone talk about it.

Of course their cities are smaller, they have more snow, and they have an inherent wealth which provides. But as we boarded a late night tram in Zurich, and shoogled back to the front door of our hotel, we couldn't help but be a teeny bit jealous.
As the week wore on, the snow disappeared slowly, first from the streets, then from the rooftops. By the time we got to the last day in Basel it was simply cold. By that stage we were rattling about in Switzerland's public transport system quite the thing, leaping on and off trams which became trains, bendy buses which move quickly and are popular, and then more trams which in complex interesections never seem to crash. Nobody appears to get run over either. The famous Swiss precision in timekeeping is evident, although the trains don't leave exactly on time. They're on a par with the UK.

The inner city systems enthrall. The Zurich rush hour is a pretty big affair , but you'd barely guess it was happening while standing in the middle of Zurich HB Station, as I did for nearly an hour. Freezing cold, snow falling heavily, tens of thousands of commuters racing hither and thither. Double decker trains shoot in and out, trams are almost back to back, buses barely stop they're going so fast. There was no big traffic chaos either. Nobody was queuing, trains weren't jam packed and everyone seemed to have a seat. It was stupendous and as we left Zurich Airport to head home we agreed what we'd seen was pretty damn impressive.

Back at Heathrow, on a quiet Saturday evening our first problem was the closure of Hounslow East tube, where we'd arranged to be picked up. OK, no big deal, stations on London Underground are worked on at weekends. But the following day, trying to get to Brighton, was not good. First off in London locally it turned out there were problems on South West Trains, but nobody seemed prepared to admit it. Only by knowing the journey times did I guess there was summat up. The journey to Clapham Junction, by a rattly old bus replacement service, took an hour longer than it should, with rail staff shrugging their shoulders in that 'nothing to do with me mate' attitude which we have adopted to easily. The onward journey to Brighton, on a Sunday, was standing room only.
I'm used to this level of anarchy, and have been for a long time, but the contrast between the two systems is sharp, brought into even sharper relief by spending time in midwinter snow.

Yes, yes, they invented the cuckoo clock and Toblerone is the most popular chocolate at the world's airports. But I'm sitting here wondering what public transport is going to throw at me tomorrow, how I might end up delayed yet again, the words of a Swiss colleague ringing in my ears about how it took him two and a half hours to get from Central London to Docklands last year. In Zurich they don't even give it a second thought.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

When In Rome

It's winter, and like every other place in the civilised world, Rome is bloody freezing.

Yes I know, when you were here it was 40 degrees and the cobbles were melting. Well now it's minus something, there's slippery ice on those cobbles and while the fountains still flow and splash, at any moment the Trevi could fall icily silent.

There are many reasons to love Rome. Espresso is just one. 90 cents standing at the bar (paid for first, at the cash desk, then present your ticket at the bar. Stand, don't sit.) rivalled only by the world's most unctious, thickly sweet hot chocolate. Forget Starbucks. Forever.

There's Bernini and Boromini.

There's the 64 Bus to Piazza San Pietro, beloved by pickpockets for its map-reading cash-rich midwest Homers en route from Springfiled to the Vatican. I look at my fellow passengers. How do you recognise a pickpocket? Is it one of those nuns? That elderly man reading La Repubblica? Or the swarthy looking chap in the leather jacket picking his teeth with the flick knife? I bet it's the nun.

And then there's evening, when people come out to play. Work is over and we wander aimlessly around the city centre. It's quiet because every self respecting Roman is keeping warm by huddling in front of Berlusconi's semi naked TV game show hostesses. We're slowly climbing The Spanish Steps, alone, the city skyline unfolding before us. We're only disturbed by a charming (but annoying) man with single roses. No amount of pleading will move him. We are his only customers. After endless minutes of to and fro, he appears to give in, and for free gives the laydee a single red rose. I hate him. I know it's a trick.

Moments later there he is, hand outstretched. I give him the rose back and thank God I don't know the Italian (or Roman) for fuck off. But then I relent because I remember being seduced by the greatest cliche ever, a Romany cantante, greased hair and guitar, singing "Arrivederci Roma" (the full 20 minute version) and nearly crying.
I don't pay him but we seize the moment anyway. and keep ascending, all the way to the top, to the Hassler Hotel, where we take the elevator to the rooftop restaurant and its panorama of Rome's dark, cold, skyline.

This is not the city's best restaurant and I am distinctly uncomfortable in Tourist Central. But I think it's just what we want.

We emerge into an elegant room. There are few tourists, a lot of bankers, and discreet couples.
Smiley staff offer us a seat inland. I smile back. No thanks. Goodnight.
Mysteriously, a table 'might be free' in ten minutes (their English is impeccable, for which I am grateful), so we sit at the bar and are handed the bible, a wine list exploding with eye popping prices. I order a very reasonable Puglian red (Italians don't really rate wine from Puglia) and say we'll take it to our table. The bottle costs less than a single cocktail, and actually I'm never really expecting a table to materialise, so we'll have the view for the price of a reasonable vino rosso.

But the table is ready before the wine. It overlooks the whole of Rome, on a crystal clear, velvety black, cold night. It's ours.
*wipes tear from eye*

We stare at the view. The wine may be el cheapo but it's decanted all the same. The sommelier complements my choice (yeah, yeah, tip coming) and talks to me about Puglian wine, about Nero di Troia and Negroamaro, about this one, and why he selected it for the list. We discuss the Rosatas and concentrates of Puglia and I am charmed. This man doesn't care what we spend, he's happy to know that we know what we're ordering.

At the table next to us, the Super Tuscan red is flowing. The host is an Italian businessman - smooth, exceptionally good looking, slim and elegant; perfectly tailored and coiffed. He is entertaining a small Japanese customer who, like all Japanese, is polite, impeccably mannered, and struggling valiantly with spaghetti and a fork.
("where fucking chopsticks when you need them?")

Between them is a hooker. As Blackadder might say, she is Queen Hooker from Hooker City on the Planet Hooker. She has an obviously false ashwhite wig. In matching nylon, a lemonyellow/pink baby doll chiffon number and industrial makeup. Her eyeshadow was applied by teaspoon. Discreet tattoos, of the Playboy Bunny and something vaguelly Chinese, adorn her upper arms, which are naked. She is smiling. She has killer boobs, on show, the very definition of the word "rack", and a very, very, expensive gold Fendibag. Her heels, thick ones, are sparkly. When she totters off to the bathroom, the bankers' wives follow her every step, their husbands simply glance over for a millisecond. Or two.

Only my menu has prices. Quite unexpectedly, my eyes begin to water.
She is not stupid, and has the appetitie of a sparrow. One thing from Pesci E Crostacei (Sole Fillets) and for me a risotto from the Primi Piatti.
(cf ' cheapskate'.)

We are served tiny freebies which amuse our bouches. The wine is supple, soft and ready. The Sole is Delish. The Risotto is Perfect.

I cook risotto and am obsessed by texture, type of rice and flavour, which should always be delicate. This was beyond anything that ever emerged from the Nationwide Kitchen (even Spring's Primavera). Arborio and Porcini folded with a melted cheese of which I had never heard, finished with a red wine reduction (Aaaah! Sacrilige!). Like The Shawshank Redemption, Sideways, and Groundhog Day; I didn't want it to end.

But it did and as the plates were scooped off, I was rested as the Christmas Turkey. And seduced. I manfully refuse dessert. It would be impolite to scoff while one's partner is staring meaningfully at one's waistline. And not scoffing. (see "cheapskate", above).
The bill is not killer. (sorry, Privileged Information). I do the credit card. There is no tip. The waiter explains that it is unlawful to add it on to the bill. I must pay cash. And of course I have no cash (me and the Royal Family). He smiles as we muster up ten euros between us. He doesn't care. We have enjoyed ourselves. We are clearly not bankers. In his terms we spent comparitively little and we chose well. He likes us and we like him.

We emerge back above The Spanish Steps. The Rose Man is pestering some poor soul trying to take a photograph. It is spikily cold. We decend back to the empty, freezing, cobbled streets. The Trevi is still unfrozen. Our footsteps echo.
Arrivederci Roma.