Thursday 30 June 2011

Lidl Suddenly Madame Glamour - Sniffing Out Stocks For The Big Sniff Off

On Monday I reported on the remarkable news broken by the News of The World that discount chain Lidl's latest £3.99 perfume, Suddenly Madame Glamour, was preferred by 150 women in a blind test to Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle, which costs 15 times as much. Since then, I have spent quite a bit of time on the phone to several helpful people at Lidl Customer Services in a bid to track down the new scent in a store near me. Stocks arrived in Cannock yesterday, some twelve miles away, but the Stafford branch of Lidl had none in its delivery this morning, and I was advised to call again on Saturday to see what had turned up in the next shipment.

But that's the problem, you see - the stores don't seem to know what is going to come in the next drop: it might be perfume, it might be salami, and it might equally well be a rotary clothes line, a motorcyle helmet or flippers. Now you'd think there must be some kind of a method in this merchandise madness, for how else could an individual store replenish its stocks of milk, say? It seems unlikely on the face of it that the deliveries of all categories of goods could be totally arbitrary, as opposed to just the discretionary items like all the above...and, er...perfume?

Given the vagaries of the Lidl distribution system, and the fact that I was afraid I might be racking up a phone bill to the 0870 number of Lidl's Customer Services that far exceeded the cost of Madame Glamour itself, I decided tonight to seize the initiative and drive to Cannock. My main contact at Lidl had tried valiantly to speak to the manager on my behalf to confirm that there were still stocks left, but had not been able to get through by the end of his shift, so it was a calculated risk to go that far on spec.

Well, as it happens I nearly didn't make it, for my satnav had one of its funny turns and kept taking me to Church Street, Bridgtown (an outlying district), instead of Church Street in Cannock proper. So in the end I just switched the darn thing off and started asking passers by, particularly anyone carrying shopping bags. A mere three people later (the photocopying quest in Poland was excellent training!), I turned into the car park of Lidl, seven minutes before closing time.

Imagine my disappointment to find the perfume fixture all but bare!: just three lone bottles of Suddenly Fleurs were left standing, looking a little lost on their own in the large cardboard tray. Instinctively I knew there was no point asking the staff if they had "some more out back". As with T K Maxx, I always assume with discount stores that what you see on the shelf is all there is.

So with a heavy heart I started to head out, but something made me ask the check out assistant if they had in fact sold the entire stocks from yesterday's delivery. "No", she replied brightly, "it's here by the till - it's new, you see.". Hallelujah! There were about 10 bottles left, so I picked one up, resisting the allure of Suddenly Madame Glamour's glamorous shelfmates of fruit juice, raisin and chewing gum multipacks, and handed over a fiver. Pocketing my change, I thanked the assistant profusely, a broad grin on my face from yet another tricky mission accomplished...

Back home, Mr Bonkers was standing by to officiate over our very own blind test, albeit one comprising a not terribly representative sample of one, namely me. First of all I put ear plugs in, in case I might be swayed by the sound of differential sloshing noises (the small vial of Coco Mademoiselle vs the 50 ml bottle of Suddenly Madame Glamour). Then I offered up my inner arms to Mr Bonkers (the prime wrist sites having been taken earlier that day by Opium Fleur de Shanghai), and squeezed my eyes tight shut. Mr B did his best to spray jets of scent of comparable force from a similar distance, so that the only thing I had to go on was the respective smells of the two perfumes on my skin.

As the first spritz hit my arm, it wafted up to my nose and I thought: "That's Coco Mademoiselle, I recognise that!", but once the second one was applied, I was not so sure any more, as they were remarkably similar. The second one seemed stronger, with more of a patchouli note to it, so I decided that it was probably the Coco Mademoiselle after all. I actually preferred the first scent, because it was softer, like an EDT version of the Coco, near as dammit. And yes, I sensed that there might also be "less going on with it", but to be honest, my perfume deconstruction skills are so remedial that I couldn't really tell you what I thought WAS going on with the scent I now believed to be Coco Mademoiselle.

After several solemn challenges by Mr Bonkers of the "Is that your final answer?" variety, I settled on my verdict and he confirmed that I had correctly told the two scents apart. I asked him if he would like to smell them now and see which he preferred, to which he replied: "I can smell them both from miles away - just take yourself away, will you?" So no advance on our sample of one, then...

On a whim I doorstepped my next door neighbour, who just happened to be wearing Coco Mademoiselle herself today!! I told her that I was wearing it on one arm and the new Lidl scent on the other, and challenged her to figure out which was which. She smelt my arm with the Coco on and pronounced it quite clearly to be "NOT Coco", and was unable to detect any perfume whatsoever on my other arm! Granted, Suddenly Madame Glamour is quite a light scent for an EDP, but I could still smell it myself. And how interesting that she didn't clock the Coco Mademoiselle on me, whilst wearing it herself. It just goes to show how bamboozling this blind testing lark can be, even with odds of 1 in 2.

Now here's the the evening wore on, I warmed to the Coco Mademoiselle sample on my left arm: it seemed to have more body and complexity, but for reasons that I could not put my finger on. Pressing into service a medical term typically applied to urinary tract infections, I now believed the Coco sample was slightly superior for "non-specific" reasons that were something to do with its "modern chypre" base.

But I am wary of this shift in my appreciation of the two scents, for I feel that the truest response was the one I gave when deprived of other sensory stimuli like price, brand name and pack design. And while we are on the subject of packaging, I must say that compared with the cut out, "cut on the bias" box Suddenly D'Or comes in, Suddenly Madame Glamour looks more upmarket, though the bottle itself is identical to Suddenly D'Or, bar the opaque cap.

So in summary, to be perfectly fair, you should count me in with the 91% of women in the blind test, because I did genuinely prefer Madame Glamour blind. It is the quieter of the two, and as regular readers know, I am a sucker for quiet. And what I also learnt is that to my nose it is not so much that Suddenly Madame Glamour smells all that expensive (though a darn sight more expensive than £3.99, I will say unequivocally), but rather that Coco Mademoiselle doesn't either...

Photo of miscellaneous Lidl products from, photo of Lidl logo from, photo of Coco Mademoiselle sample from, other photos my own

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Another Bonkers Road Trip: Part 4 - Miscellaneous Oddities

When I do a serious amount of driving, far from becoming immune to my surroundings, I seem to develop a heightened awareness of the things around me, possibly because my world has shrunk to these three lanes and a bit of hard shoulder. Well, on the motorways anyway, which accounts for the bulk of my mileage. So here is a miscellany of things I noticed on my recent trip, ranging from the slightly out of the ordinary to the downright peculiar. They fell broadly into two camps: roadside and linguistic.

Roadside Oddities

Well, nothing can top the Trabant on a pole, but there were a number of other curiosities that caught my attention...

The contraflow scarecrow

Belgium, as I hope I have satisfactorily established in Part 1, is a car park, and an essential characteristic of a paralytically congested road network is the contraflow - or "Baustelle" in German. Here the traffic gets funnelled down a 10 km chicane (or that's how long they always feel like) with narrow lanes, adverse cambers, serried ranks of cones and the obligatory concrete mini-wall on one side. Any normal motorist who sees the 60 kmph speed limit ahead will leave it to the absolute last minute to reduce their speed from 125 kmph, so to encourage drivers to enter the contraflow at a more sedate speed, the Belgian highways authority came up with the ingenious idea of the "contraflow scarecrow", a rag-clad dummy on a pole (all the best things are on poles), positioned at the entrance to the roadworks.

As distinct from his agricultural counterpart, the "crop scarecrow", the contraflow scarecrow has a single articulated arm, which it waves slowly at oncoming traffic. I can't begin to tell you how cute this flappy-armed dummy is, and dearly wanted to take a photograph, but that would have been a dangerous stunt; the irony of my potentially crashing into the central reservation whilst trying to photograph an anthropomorphic traffic calming measure was not lost on me. So I scoured Google images for a picture to no avail, though I did find one of a speed cop scarecrow along similar lines. He is holdiing what looks like a papier mâché speed camera encased in polythene, but I bet he can't flap his arm.

Tree-related warning triangles

I thought I had seen every possible traffic warning sign in my time, from children, to elderly people on sticks, to tanks, and ducks crossing the road, as well as signs depicting risks from falling rubble, ice, and drawbridges opening when you least expect them. That was before I drove through a particular stretch of East Germany noted for its flatness and dead straight roads densely overhung by trees.

It was here that I spotted signs depicting high-sided trucks getting caught up in the foliage of the tree tops, and others showing passenger cars colliding with tree trunks lower down. The third main sign on these roads was the classic one showing leaping deer. It occurred to me that to complete the set, motorists round those parts could really do with a sign warning drivers of the risks of deer leaping smack into trees.

Then a few days later I came across this fallen tree by the roadside in Poland. I don't know for certain that this was specifically down to deer damage, but given the lack of warning signs to this effect it seems the most likely theory.

Shiny roofs

I noticed two things about roofs on this trip in every country I visited: the growing popularity of roof mounted solar panels, and a fashion for glossy, wet look clay roof tiles. I think I have found a bit on the process in question on the website of a leading Austrian tile manufacturer, Wieneberger: the secret seems to be all in the "engobing", with the phrase "special shiny look" the dead giveaway:

"After the drying process the clay roof tile, except it remains natural red, is either engobed or glazed. Engobed clay roofing tiles have matt, matt-glossy or glossy surfaces. Engobes are applied as clay-containing slips by dipping, pouring over, centrifugal casting or spraying on the still unfired clay tile. Glazed tiles are covered with a very hard continuous glass layer that closed all pores and makes the tile extremely water-resistant. at the same time this glass layer gives the tile its special shiny look."

I must say I didn't care for them. Even though I do own a pair of patent shoes, I was brought up to consider shiny things generally a bit of a no-no.

Pigs on the go

It is not uncommon to see lorries transporting live animals on the motorway, but what struck me as a bit unusual on this trip was the fact that they were all pigs, and I would literally see three or four lorries packed with pigs every day. Maybe they were on their way to abattoirs (or "Slagteri", that would be) in Denmark - I wasn't paying sufficient attention at the time to the route, so intrigued was I by the recurrence of the species. Now I went through a bit of an insomniac phase for a few days of the second week, and instead of trying to summon up the sandman by counting sheep, I instinctively found myself counting pigs. Still didn't get an oink of sleep, but it wasn't for want of trying.

Linguistic Oddities

1) Salacious place names


2) Most pompous slogan on a lorry


"Fruit solutions"?? To what problem is fruit the solution? Well, arguably scurvy, I guess, but I am not sure that is what Stute (the company in question) is getting at here. Now hold on, it may not be pompous at all, it may be a pun on "solution" meaning a dissolved something or other - fruit concentrate in water, perhaps? Yes, I am going to assume it is a sophisticated play on words, mischievously cocking a snook at a particularly insidious instance of business jargon.

3) Various foreign gems

WITAMINKA ("vitamins" in Polish)
INRIT FERRO ("entry, ferrous" in Flemish)
INRIT NON-FERRO ("entry, non-ferrous" in Flemish)
HOBBITS biscuits (seen cosying up in the photo below to the villainous chipsy bananowes that did for my tooth)

4) Lost in translation (on a Polish menu)




5) New words and phrases I have learnt

"Vertrouw de komkommer"

(Dutch for "trust the cucumber")

"Ris pap"

(Flemish for rice pudding AND moss stitch in knitting)

"Shopping mall" / "balls up"

(Afrikaans for "shopping mall" and "balls up")

Just one more instalment to come - with a mishap round up...

Photo of speed cop scarecrow from, photo of Wankum from (because I was driving at the time), other photos my own

Monday 27 June 2011

Lidl Suddenly Madame Glamour: Has Keira's Coco Campaign Been K.O.'ed By A Cardboard Case?

I am interrupting my current slew of travel posts for an important news flash!

Since the early days of Bonkers, I have been a champion of the "way cheaper than chips" range of perfume from European (mostly grocery) discount chain Lidl. I was the first - and quite possibly the only - reviewer to detect a marked similarity between its fruity floral Suddenly D'Or and Ghost Luminous.

Now a 50ml bottle of Ghost Luminous will set you back about £25 vs Suddenly D'Or's phenomenonally bargain price of £3.99. And now it has come to my attention that Lidl may have topped this discount feat with its latest fragrance release, the rather cheesily named Suddenly Madame Glamour. For according to an article in the News of The World, which broke the story yesterday (as we have come to expect the NOTW to do with any matter of vital public interest : - ) ), in blind tests involving 150 women Lidl's Suddenly Madame Glamour knocked the sequins off that iconic stalwart, Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle (with a price ticket of £61). A staggering 91% of respondents - whom we must assume were a representative sample of the population at large - preferred the cheaper scent.

Of course the lavish TV ad campaign for Coco Mademoiselle is fronted by the elfin beauty Keira Knightley, so the NOTW couldn't resist a teasing reference to her brand being "sniffed at". Lidl, meanwhile, doesn't do any advertising that I have noticed, other than to stuff flyers into my local newspaper. It is therefore all the more of a coup for Suddenly Madame Glamour to have apparently trounced a scent with such a luxurious advertising spend versus one which, like most Lidl products, will be merchandised in its cardboard outer case (the so-called "ready to sell" retail concept). Which isn't very glamorous at all, come to think of it!! But there again the price makes you feel like a million dollars. Or makes you feel that you have saved over 50 quid, at least...!

And wouldn't you just love to know who the perfumer is who has gone and pulled off this wizard stunt?

So does it smell like Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle? I infer that Coco Mademoiselle is the scent Suddenly Madame Glamour most closely resembles, or else it wouldn't have been directly pitched against it. But maybe not - Coco Mademoiselle may simply have been chosen as an example of an extremely successful scent from a well known brand, arguably the most famous perfume house of them all.

Sadly I haven't managed to get hold of Madame Glamour yet. With its cheap and cheerful store model, my local Lidl doesn't advertise its phone number, and the central customer service line is (perhaps predictably) "busy helping other callers". If I get a chance later today, I will drive down and see if I can score a bottle, but I fear it may have already sold out, as the NOTW article suggests.

Has anyone reading this tried it? Got a bottle even? Will you let us know what you make of it? My curiosity about this scent is so great that it has unleashed an uncharacteristic flurry of questions!

Now I don't have the note information - I had quite a job getting hold of the ones for Lidl Suddenly D'Or, though I managed it in the end - but the press release for Suddenly Madame Glamour mentions "fresh citrus and floral notes merging to an alluring, exotic oriental accord", adding that it is a "timeless, affordable and classic fragrance".

Does that sound like Coco Mademoiselle to you? Hmmm...not sure...perhaps it was just picked for its iconic stalwartness after all. What is interesting about all this is that I have always thought of Coco Mademoiselle as a crowd pleaser, as a scent that it is awfully hard not to like. It is not as though in that blind test Suddenly Madame Glamour was up against Jicky or Rochas Femme - or Caron Narcisse Noir, God forbid. Or some terrifying oud number of which there are any number of candidates to choose from.

So if Suddenly Madame Glamour has pipped such a universally popular fragrance, that really is quite something...


I have now caught up with this scent and conducted side by side tests with Coco Mademoiselle, to which Suddenly Madame Glamour compares very favourably on the whole. See my later post on 30th June here for the lowdown on the "big sniff off"...!


On Radio 4's You and Yours programme today (28.11.13) there was a feature on cheap / supermarket perfumes that are good imitations of more expensive scents, and Suddenly Madame Glamour got a resounding thumbs up! You can catch the broadcast here.

Photos of Lidl stores from and, photo of Keira Knightley from

Sunday 26 June 2011

Another Bonkers Road Trip: Part 3 – Marriott, Schmarriot! Hotel upgrades, downgrades, and Gummi bears on pillows

Readers of my account of my Mid-West trip back in March may remember that I don’t care for fancy hotels. I don’t like the fact that the better the class of hotel, the more likely they are to charge for things I consider a basic human right, like Internet access in the room or a bottle of water for when you get a raging thirst on in the night, thanks to the hotel's deliberate ploy of cranking up the central heating too high or tempting you with (chargeable) peanuts in the minibar. Then there is the suffocating attention to detail, like the way they fold the toilet paper into a gratuitous point, or place a hygiene strip round the toilet seat.

So when I travel in Europe, I like to winkle out interesting mid-range places to stay, and regularly consult my assortment of accommodation guides of the “Hotels Of Charm And Character” or “The Most Attractive Guesthouses Just Off The Motorway” variety. And then sometimes I have to find somewhere on spec, usually after a long journey, when I start scouting for a place to stay as soon as I feel myself flagging at the wheel.

So here are a few “vignettes” of the unexpectedly luxurious – or just plain curious - places I stayed in on this trip…

The romantic tower room

If ever there was a place to let your hair down and indulge your inner Rapunzel, it was the romantic circular tower room of a medieval castle in Germany to which I was unexpectedly upgraded. I had booked a budget single in the annexe for half the price! In hindsight, they may have taken a snap decision to give me this room as one of the younger and more able-bodied guests staying at the time. As such, I must have looked well up to the task of negotiating the narrow stone spiral staircase that led to the room, and would be deemed unlikely to complain about the lack of a lift, or to sue them for a nasty bump on a low slung beam.

The vertiginous townhouse

Speaking of the lack of lifts in hotels, that is in fact one of the other things Holland is famous for, apart from being a car park. This means quite a schlepp with your luggage if your room happens to be in the eaves, as singles often are. And it is not just the number of steps, but their incredibly steep angle that puts Dutch accommodation right at the top of the league table of vertiginous accommodation. Apart from tree houses and bivouacs on Mount Everest, perhaps. My attic room in Nijmegen was so lofty in fact that Internet access (mercifully free of charge!) could only be found by perching precariously - and specifically - on the last three steps of the precipitous staircase.

The chipboard palace

For my overnight in Poland I deliberately picked the same hotel I stayed in on my last visit to the area in 2007. It had the advantage of being bang next door to the chipboard manufacturer I was visiting the next day, as well as showcasing its products in surprisingly comprehensive ways. I learnt on this visit that the hotel is also something of a local nightspot. My restaurant suddenly morphed into a disco, with 60 women of my own age bopping on the dance floor with remarkable abandon for 9pm on a Monday night, and all before I could finish my pork medaillons!

The solitary retreat suite

The other notable upgrade on this trip was in Schwerin, in a historic half-timbered coaching inn famous for its wine cellar. Once again I had paid for a basic single (somewhat more than in the castle, admittedly), and this time I was upgraded to an enormous suite that occupied the entire roofspace of one wing. It was 39 paces end to end, which is a lot, even if like me you take relatively mincing steps. As well as a bathroom and twin bedroom, I had a dressing area, a walk in closet and a living room furnished with a three piece suite, wing arm chair and foot stool, writing desk and office chair, and a dining table set for two. I spent a lot of time in this suite as you can imagine, returning to it at intervals through the weekend to take naps and generally luxuriate on every last item of upholstered furniture. The hotel was disappointed in me as a guest, however, for I failed to take the 12 euro breakfast on both mornings, never mind eat in their (doubtlessly pricey) restaurant.

The forbidden chippy

The accommodation that amuses me the most looking back is the room above a pub I stayed in in Bergen-op-Zoom. My landlady was a dead ringer for Pat Butcher out of EastEnders, and the bar was chaotically stuffed full of knickknacks and random bits of Victoriana, or whatever the Dutch equivalent might be - Wilhleminana?? My room overlooked the fire escape and was furnished with a squashy but ripped black leather armchair. There was a bit of a kitchenette, with a sink and fridge and microwave, above which was affixed a notice, prohibiting deep frying in four languages. How this might have been accomplished in a microwave with no utensils was unclear.

Oh yes, I haven’t mentioned the Gummi bears yet, a German confectionery line ritualistically laid on guests’ pillows in hotels of pretty much any calibre.

As Wikipedia explains: "A Gummi bear is a small, rubbery-textured confectionery, similar to a jelly baby in English-speaking countries. The candy is roughly 2 centimetres (0.79 in) long and shaped in the form of a bear."

I got through many of these small packets on my trips – wherever I had a twin room I would obviously eat both – but I didn’t realise they came in so many varieties:

"The success of gummi bears has spawned many gummi animals and objects: rings, worms, frogs, snakes, hamburgers, cherries, sharks, penguins, hippos, lobsters, octopuses, apples, peaches, oranges, and even Ampelmännchen (a style of pelican crossing men specific to Berlin), Smurfs and spiders."

Yes, never mind the rooms, next time I want a Gummi bear upgrade to a more exotic creature!

Photo of Gummi bears from, all other photos my own

Thursday 23 June 2011

Another Bonkers Road Trip: Part 2 – Necessity Is The Mother Of Inquiry

I have lived in Stafford for nearly 24 years. And one of the reasons why I would be reluctant to leave – which may sound trivial on the face of it – is an attachment to my own particular network of (for want of a better word) service providers. I am talking about a good hairdresser, optician, plumber, paving slab layer, lady who does alterations, family jeweller who will untangle a necklace free of charge, and a garage that won’t mysteriously find £350 worth of repairs that need doing when you only asked them to check your tyre pressure. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Plus the best shops for this and that: a really nice pork bap with stuffing, an arty birthday card, or an upmarket wool shop whose wares don’t crackle with static. Yes, it would take a lot of time and effort to replicate the complete gamut of quality tradespeople and retailers from scratch in a new town. By staying in Stafford I have largely avoided the issue, however, on my recent travels my resourcefulness at finding just a couple of key service providers “on the fly” was seriously put to the test... Polish photocopying coup By way of (brief) background, the agency I am working for changed one of my questionnaires quite radically midway through the trip. They sent me an electronic version, doubtless assuming that I am a mobile business centre, for whom it would be a moment's work to print off 5 copies at 40 pages a pop. Whereas I am in fact just a woman who periodically lives out of her car. Also, to up the level of difficulty, this all cracked off on a public holiday in Germany, meaning that there was no hope of finding a Kinko’s or a Kall-Kwik in time for the following day, when I was due to use the new version. My hotel reluctantly agreed to print off a single copy of the document from my memory stick, charging me 8 euros for the privilege (I beat them down from 16!), muttering darkly all the while about possible viral contagion. I incorrectly called the memory stick a “Stäbchen”, which caused much merriment amongst the front desk staff. Having since looked it up, I realise that the word does indeed denote certain stick-like entities, but in matters linguistic, a miss is always as good as a mile. Stäbchen Chopstick Ciggy / fag Skewer Rod Crochet stitch Bra bone And when used in conjunction with “fish”, “fish fingers”. And of course I might have known that the term has already become “verenglischt” as “USB-Stick”…! Okay then…. so far so good, but I still only had one copy of the questionnaire. So as Germany was effectively closed for the day, I thought I might as well drive on to my next destination in Poland, and take my chances there. I had a whole afternoon in a small town to figure something out. It turned out to be a place with a rich architectural heritage, that was sadly now somewhat ruined and crumbly. Most of the shops seemed to be of the small newsagent/kiosk variety, selling sweets and alcohol, so in the end I asked a bunch of people in a pub, who managed collectively to rustle up some six words of English - “copy”, fortunately, being one of them. A younger guy nodded his head sagely and drew me a walking map to this magical unspecified place that would help me out. I promptly got lost on some waste ground behind the railway station - the sort of terrain in which you could easily disappear, never to be seen again - so decided the map was probably on the impressionistic side, and struck out in the opposite direction. Six more passers by later, all of whom could only communicate by pointing – which was enough, as it turned out - I found myself in a pedestrian precinct at a photographer's. Yup, the owner had a photocopier all right, but didn't speak English either, so I held up the questionnaire and four fingers (rods/skewers/chopsticks etc), and that did the trick. A young girl was conjured up from the back of the shop, and painstakingly did the copying, one page at a time... I decided that “collated” or “double-sided” might be an instruction too far, and was simply overjoyed to see the questionnaire multiply fivefold on any terms. The whole lot cost me 45 zlotys, which was about 12 quid, I think. As I stepped outside into the warm sunshine, swinging my laden Kodak carrier bag before me, I felt very chuffed. Back at the pub, my informant was standing outside by my car, talking on his mobile. He looked up questioningly as he saw me, so I held the bag aloft, gave him a thumb’s up sign with the other hand, and grinned as broadly as I knew how... Belgian dental coup The other "result" of the week was to visit a dentist in Belgium. I broke a tooth driving back from Poland, about 450 miles into the 600 mile trip - on a banana chip of all things, or "chipsy bananowe" as it said on the packet. It left a jagged edge like an off-centre Matterhorn, to which my inquisitive tongue kept returning, slightly more lacerated every time. I wondered if I could bridge the gap with a tiny ball of tissue, and conducted some experiments during the remaining 150 miles of my journey. In the act of chomping on the tissue in a bid to mould it to the interstice in question, another bit of tooth promptly broke off. So I removed the sodden wad and concluded that emergency dentistry might be – to quote Mr Bonkers’ favourite phrase – "outside my sphere of competence". Finding anyone to sort my mouth out while I was away seemed a tall order at the time. But as luck would have it, the secretary of the person I was visiting the next morning managed to get me a slot with her dentist in his lunch hour a few days later. He did a fantastic job, rebuilding the tooth with a filling that looks just like real enamel and smoothing it off so that it is better now than it was to start with. And all for the half the price my own dentist would have charged me. It was amusing having to follow commands in French (our lingua franca) all the while. The dentist described my tooth as "dévitalisée", which was why he didn’t feel the need to give me an injection. Hmm, I guess "dévitalisée" must be dentist speak for "knackered". It is also a good word to sum up how I feel generally now I am home. But I hope to bounce back presently, for the next trip will be along shortly... Photo of USB sticks from flickr, town centre photos from Wikimedia Commons, photo of fish fingers from, photo of the interior of the photographer's shop from its website, cartoon of a Belgian dentist from, photo of the train station my own.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Another Bonkers Road Trip: Part 1 – Grote Verkeershinder And Strange Things On Poles

Grote Verkeershinder

If you were to mention Belgium and Holland to most people – including me not so long ago – a host of stereotypical (and mostly benign) images would tend to float into one’s mind: tulips, clogs, windmills, dykes, skunk, and prostitutes in windows in the case of Holland, and for Belgium perhaps moules & frites, mayonnaise, Leffe beer, Hercule Poirot, René Magritte, the Ostend ferry, and expenses-guzzling EU diplocrats.

And there is some truth in all those clichés, but having crisscrossed both countries extensively for two of the past three weeks, I have learnt that Belgium and Holland are in fact most notable for being a car park. The Antwerp ring in Belgium, which – like its UK counterpart of the M25, or its US counterpart of Houston’s Beltway 8 (sorry, but I can’t think of a nationally recognised ring road in America!) - is billed as an orbital artery of key importance to the country’s road network, facilitating traffic flows north-south and east-west. As far as I am concerned, if the Antwerp ring is an artery at all, it is a terminally furred one.

No, I would tend to say that the Antwerp ring is a malign vortex, a honey trap luring lorries and the odd unwary passenger vehicle to sticky doom, mired forever in the slow lane, going precisely nowhere. The most chilling words in the Flemish language – apart from wegomlegging (“detour”) and the phrase in the title that I take to mean “major traffic hold ups” – have to be “file mogelijk” (“queue possible”). And when you see that sign you know that it is merely being coy, and that for “mogelijk” you should read “file already ongoingijk for several hoursijk”.

The reason for this terrible congestion is I think twofold. Ownership of cars per 1000 inhabitants seems to be fairly consistent across developed European countries at about 450-550. Ah, you may say, but the population of Belgium and Holland will be relatively small compared to the UK or Germany. But the surface area of these countries is of course proportionately even smaller... So exercised was I by this conundrum that I have gone and crunched some numbers, factoring in total population, car ownership and land mass. I worked out that while the UK has 116 cars per square km and Germany 128, Belgium has 172 and Holland 182.

And to compound the problem of greater car density is the fact that many people drive through Belgium – and to some extent Holland – with a view to going somewhere else. And believe me, in my darkest moments of traffic frustration I would have done that too, had I not set up rather a lot of appointments in both countries, strung out over several weeks - and had I been able to get above second gear at the time.

I was stuck in the Antwerp ring almost more than I was out of it. On the penultimate day of the trip – having clocked a particularly entrenched patch of gridlock looming - I decided to wiggle round by the backroads through the many satellite villages just outside the city. How much slower could that be, I wondered? Answer – at least as slow. It took me two and a half hours to skirt about 20 miles south of the city. I fell foul of numerous sets of roadworks and diversions in the countryside, and countless traffic calming - as in “motorist enraging” - schemes in the villages. These typically involved speed bumps as high as a small house, reinforced by a slalom-style obstacle course deploying a cunning arrangement of bollards, skittles, flowerbeds, equestrian fences and gratuitous bits of brickwork. They were placed at such outrageously sharp angles that it was nigh on impossible to determine the left side of the road from the right – the small scraps of remaining tarmac in between the many obstructions were barely passable to any traffic other than cyclists.

Oh dear me, don’t get me started on the cyclists. Basically, they were everywhere, seemed to have right of way at all times, and I tried – somewhat halfheartedly, it must be said - not to kill any of them. To give you an idea, 27% of all journeys are made by bike in Holland compared with 1.3% in the UK and 0.9% in the USA. Belgium comes in at a respectable (and only moderately irritating) 8%.

Now if you think I am being unduly churlish about cyclists, you will be shocked to learn that I actually swore at a crocodile of small children crossing the road just ahead of me in Waregem. They filed past endlessly, two by two, in a provokingly leisurely procession. For my part, I was slightly late setting off for my afternoon appointment and sat seething at the wheel, as the children just kept coming. After a while, I couldn’t contain my frustration any more, and may have muttered the ungracious words: “F***ing get on with it, will you?” With the window open.

As it happens, my satnav struggled with the travel shenanigans too on this trip. It frequently lost its bearings in roadworks, prompting a flurry of peremptory and meaningless commands, as though it had been suddenly afflicted with Tourette’s. I ignored the device at least half of the time, not least because of its unswerving wish to direct me back to Antwerp. The voice also persisted in calling Gent “Lamb” for reasons that continue to elude me.

I would like to apologise for the very car-oriented nature of this first instalment of my travel report. The act of covering 3250 miles inevitably brought with it a morbid preoccupation with prevailing road conditions, including a deep seated urge to take a cathartic pop at the “vicious circle” that is the Antwerp ring, and so exorcise the demons of my "post Flanders traffic stress disorder". Now don't get me wrong - I did enjoy many aspects of my time in Benelux, not least a lovely weekend spent with friends - but these countries do need to sort out their transport networks. And for what it's worth, I don't think more bikes are the way to go...

Strange things on poles

On a lighter note, I noticed two strange things on poles on this trip: a condom machine in the open air in Hannover, and a Trabant car in the middle of a field north of Berlin. I had seen the Trabant some 12 years previously, and went back specially to photograph it. The stork’s nest was still in evidence on the roof, though its feathered residents were not at home. The car looked seriously in need of a lick of paint after all this while, but I sense it is unlikely to get it. I asked a local resident how the car came to be on the end of a pole in the first place – well, it is more of a small derrick in fact, than a pole – and he replied gnomically: “Ah, well, Trabants are so light you can throw them up there with one hand.”

Photo of overhead signs on the Antwerp ring from, photo of cyclists from, other photos my own.