Thursday 27 August 2015

My bonkers month of extreme Euro-hoppery: Part 3 - the scented bit

A pleasingly wonky hotel in Ulm
For anyone who clocked my two days or so of technical malfunction - whereby I managed to inadvertently corrupt the code behind the site to such spectacularly awful effect that I had to set Bonkers to private for a while! - I can't tell you how pleased and relieved I am to have the blog back up and looking as normal. Or how grateful I am to the friend who managed to resurrect it.

It now remains to complete this series of travelogues with a round up of the perfume-related aspects of the trips, together with the somewhat deferred explanation of how I came to be parted from Max Rat (and much more).

Cursory airport sniffage leaves me wanting myrrh

Regular readers will have noticed that my interest in keeping up with the latest releases has greatly diminished over the years. Whereas before I used to systematically scope the fixtures in the duty free section of airports for newly launched fragrances - deploying a cunning skin site allocation system that allowed me to test up to ten perfumes at once! - now I am just as likely to walk straight through that area and out the other side, with barely a glance to left and right. That was pretty much the case on all eight occasions when I found myself at airports either on the outward or return legs of my journeys. I was, moreover, trying really hard to avoid the endless displays of Chanel Chance Eau Vive and their associated tester-toting promotional staff, who seemed to be lying in wait for me at every turn.

I stayed strong though, and managed to resist giving that a sniff for four weeks straight, though here and there my curiosity got the better of me and I sprayed a couple of things on skin. L'Occitane's Verveine Agrumes, in its leaf motif-embellished bottle, caught my eye early on - I found it refreshing and tart without being acerbic, and was pleased to note that my hotel in Paris offered toiletries from this very range. Back home, I am eking out my Verveine Agrumes guest soap as we speak. I also tried Jour d'Hermès Gardénia, which Robin liked more than me in her review on NST, though I note with amusement that she describes its latter stages as 'a bland greenish blur'. I found it too heady in a synthetic shampoo-y way from the off, but in fairness I may not have been in the mood.

Another time I chanced upon a couple of Aqua Allegorias that were directly blocking my path on a podium. These were only remarkable for their disconcerting shades of pink and blue, and I remained steadfastly immune to their alleged allure, despite being informed by the hovering SA that they were 'travel exclusives' (Flora Rose and Teazzura, if your own love of the Allegoria range is more inclusive). I also reacquainted myself with Diorella (bracing but ultimately too herbal) and Dune (unexpectedly sweet, and slightly too offbeat to be lovable), and homed in on several of the Armani Privés that were new to me - such as Ambra Eccentrica and Myrrh Impériale. In all of this (admittedly extremely selective and minimal) testing, it was the Myrrh Impériale - that in my jaded state I have mistakenly been calling 'Orientale' up to about a minute ago - that really 'spoke to me'. I applied it again on skin in Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh during a lightning visit to buy replacement Shu Uemura eyelash curlers(!) (see below), and liked it just as much.


Having since caught up with the notes in Patty's review on Perfume Posse - myrrh, benzoin, vanilla, pink pepper, amber and saffron - I can easily see why it would appeal to me, not least because I have been on a bit of a myrrh kick lately. Myrrh Impériale is not too medicinal, or too cold, dank and churchy; it's not too screechy, or too aldehydic - or distracted by other oddball notes - here the myrrh is beautifully blended with such oriental bellwethers as vanilla and amber. I am not going to drop £190 on a bottle any time soon, but I shall be scanning the Fragrance UK Sale/Swap site in case anyone is hosting a split.

A 'scents of place' challenge

At the start of July, before setting off on my travels, my poet friend Lizzie - she of the perfume bottle-shaped earrings and exquisitely vintage dressing table (on which she stores her perfume collection) - suggested I keep my wits and nose about me wherever I went and systematically record the ambient scents of the places I visited. Well, me being me, I promptly forgot about this mission, though suddenly remembered during my stay in Paris, where my nostrils were instantly assailed - and occasionally assaulted - by a cornucopia (veering to a cacophony) of smells.

I jotted down the ones I could remember as soon as I got back to base, and the aggregate list is as follows, split by Paris and Le Havre, not for nothing the celebrated setting for Sartre's 'Nausea'. ;)


'Generalised civic Guerlainade' - many times I smelt a powdery, woody, broadly oriental sillage trailing in the wake of passing women in the Metro and above ground - pretty much everywhere I went in fact. It was the ambient Parisian fragrance equivalent of 'house wine' - a sort of 'civic sillage' worn by more women than not. In vain did I crane my nostrils for a whiff of some cheap fruity was never forthcoming. The default scent of Parisian women - though I could never put a name to its many yet similar incarnations - is clearly a classy cut above.

Vaping liquid - one hot sunny evening, as I sipped a beer in the 5e arrondissement near my hotel, I was conscious of a fine mist descending on my head. After a moment's double take, during which I speculated as to whether some automatic window box plant watering system might have sprung a leak, it dawned on me that I was being vaped on. Yes, I was enveloped in a soft and cooling drizzle of droplets, pleasantly scented with tobacco and chocolate and/or cherry liqueur?

Bubble gum - half way up a steep hill in Gentilly - yet not a pink plug of the stuff in sight!

Acetone - on an escalator at the Gare du Nord

Freshly squeezed orange juice - ye orange pressé is alive and well, and has not yet been supplanted by artisanal smoothies featuring flavours of mind bending novelty!

Mona di Orio Tubéreuse - because that was the sample I wore all sadly gone the way of Max Rat

Urine / Sweat / Rotten eggs - sorry, no large metropolis would be complete without a bit of an insalubrious olfactory underbelly.

Le Havre ~ Source:


Salty sea air

Decomposing rubbish

That is all.

Meeting Vero Kern and my old Basenotes friend, Potiron

In Part 2 I banged on at length about the infernal heat in mainland Europe while I was out there. I think I stopped short of saying that as well as walking around in ambient temperatures of 35C, I was occasionally obliged to jog in them. Yes indeedy, a proper jog job, all the while weighed down by an 8kg briefcase in one hand, which also accounted for my lopsided gait. This was because I had bought a number of train tickets in advance for up to 50% savings on the normal price, but with the caveat that they could only be used on a specific train. And sometimes my meetings overran to the point where the prospects of catching said specific train greatly receded, and I would surely have missed at least two long distance services were it not for my mad and inelegant jogging spurts.

Swiss trains give good view, when you do finally catch them!

One of these trains was from Lausanne to Zurich, where I had agreed to meet Vero Kern. Had I missed it, I would have had to cry off, with all the disappointment, embarrassment and sense of failure that would have entailed. But my ungainly jogging saved the day, and I duly met up with Vero in a rather elegant bistro at Zurich station. We had tea and coffee - Vero seemed singularly unfazed by my breathlessness, gleaming patina and advanced state of crumplitude - while I did my best not to kick her little dog, Isi, who placidly sat in his basket most of the time, apart from occasional sorties to slurp water from a travelling bowl under the seat. We chatted about the people we had met in Perfume Land (notably her No 1 Fan and 'Fragrance Ambassador', Val the Cookie Queen), about her own work and career path, and our thoughts on trends - we even lapsed into German at one point, talking about certain aspects of 'the biz'. Which suited me just fine, as I have vocabulary for 'market segment' and 'packaging' and 'sales', but nary a word for things like 'hem' or 'chaffinch' or 'fondue trivet'. And all too soon it was time for Vero to meet her sister, while I headed south to my hotel in Adliswil. It was a conversation I would very much like to continue some time, as I was very drawn to Vero's free spirit, easygoing manner and nonchalantly maverick style. She is a quintessential example of a perfumer who paddles her own canoe, and the market is a better place for her being in it.

Vero's dog

Then the next day, I had had an appointment cancelled in Basel, and as luck would have it, the same thing had happened to my old Basenotes chum Potiron, who lives and works there. It is going back a bit now, but our previous meet ups - on our own, or in a four-handed gaggle with Lisa Wordbird and Alicka61 - all feature in past posts in Bonkers, typically entitled 'Meeting the Swiss perfumistas' or involving some combination of 'sniffathon', 'Zurich', 'Basel' or 'Switzerland'. On this occasion I met Potiron's girlfriend C for the first time, and we spent an enjoyable - if rather hot! - afternoon outside the Roter Engel (our default cafe of yore) maintaining our fluid intakes with a mix of tea, beer and cola. I still can't get the average size of tea cups down to anything approaching normality, but the peaceful courtyard has an enduring appeal, five years on from our first meeting.

Look at that cup diameter!

A salutary tale of my stolen case, and a ratnapped Max

So although the project went well in the course of all these trips abroad, there was an unexpected sting in the tail - on London Midland rail! - when my case was nicked on a train back from Birmingham airport at the end of Trip 3, just 30 miles from home and with only one more day left in the job. Moreover, the thief whipped it from right behind my seat (the only place I could have put it without blocking the aisle or taking up another seat). So at a stroke I lost an entire capsule wardrobe of favourite work clothes, make up, perfume, jewellery, a netbook, sundry travel accessories - and Max. It upsets me to think where he is now, and to be honest it upsets me to wonder what happened to any of my belongings. I had safely dragged that case behind me for three weeks straight, on umpteen trains and buses and trams, and it had become like a mobile home, almost a companion - or another limb. So the whole incident felt much more like a burglary or an assault rather than a simple 'case' of lost property.

Rocket configures my new netbook
But I am getting over it now, helped in no small measure by the humane attitude of the insurance company, and the kindness of friends and family. For people have generously given me money in various forms, flowers, skincare products, perfume - and replacement soft toys, two of them rats! Only Rocket the rabbit has made the cut as a travel companion, on account of her compact proportions; in fact she has already been 'road tested' in Belgium and Edinburgh. But all the new creatures - along with the other presents - have cheered me up no end, and I would like to sign off this series of travel reports by saying a big thank you to everyone involved.

Above - Elspeth, below - Monster Max Mk II!

Marble the cat cosying up with Olivia the duck.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

My bonkers month of extreme Euro-hoppery: a thematic travelogue - Part 2

'Let's stick together' - even the clocks are hot!
So as I mentioned in Part 1, four overseas trips in as many weeks have spawned fodder for several posts, this being the second of the pure travelogues. Anyone who is hanging on for the scented aspects of my travels should check back in with the next episode. And I shall also carry on with the thematic approach, starting with...

The heat!!

Where I live in Britain has pretty miserable summers, consisting of an unseasonably hot day in March, another one in April, a week of sunshine in May or June...and maybe July, if you are very lucky - then it's all downhill till Christmas. So one of the things I was looking forward to in this month of travel was some therms. How true it is that you should be careful what you wish for!  For on three of the four trips there were temperatures in excess of 30C, which may be merely balmy to anyone living in Florida - or even Vienna! - but which was unbearable to me. Or rather, I could have coped with the constant rivulets of sweat trickling simultaneously down my front and back, with the tendrils of lank hair clinging to the nape of my neck and the gleaming complexion, had I not been trying to look cool and professional, rather than like a crumpled, sticky dishrag.

And so it was that the fifteen minutes before a meeting often found me in the toilets of the company I was visiting, changing anything from tights to a complete outfit. One particularly hot day I even dared to apply deodorant in a corporate luggage room where I had been instructed to deposit my case, with just a frosted glass door (and no lock!) separating me from the queue of crisp-suited businessmen being issued with lanyards, any one of whom might have had a bag they also wanted to drop off during that crucial window when I had my arms flagrantly - and now fragrantly ;) - aloft, in mid-roll on action! But in all cases I got away with it, and at no point did a receptionist think I looked sufficiently different on emerging from the toilets etc to warrant a second, corroborative glance at my ID...

While on the subject of summer clothes, I feel moved to vent about linen jackets. Okay, the sort of linen jacket you buy from a chain like the erstwhile Principles Petite, which is of course a linen viscose mix. It still feels cool and lightweight to the touch, however the whole effect is ruined by the 100% synthetic lining - probably viscose again, on account of its very passing resemblance to silk. Oh my, how I sweated in that jacket!, and longed to be clad instead in a wispy sarong of pure cotton.

Then one day I fell into conversation with two ladies on the platform of Stuttgart station. They were fanning themselves with online ticket printouts and prising the fronts of their blouses away from their glazed décolletés in a bid to waft some air in that general direction. It was easy to gatecrash their hot and bothered banter, and in no time we were all three of us joking about the impossibility of looking presentable in these temperatures. One lady had imaginatively aligned herself with a premium tin of peaches: 'I just tell people that I am "in my own juice"'.

Another point of contention wherever I went that month is the fact that hotels had zero awareness of the seasons, or the concept of 'summer' and 'winter' bedding. I consistently encountered fat slugs of duvets that I spent all night tossing off and yanking back on again. The only place to have understood the need for versatile layers in summer was (somewhat ironically!) a Premier Inn on Teesside, in which I stayed in one of the intervening weekends - where it wasn't even particularly warm, haha - see photo below.

Max Rat, who as readers may recall came prefitted with accents of ermine, was none too struck on the hot weather either, and towards the end of the month didn't even get out of the case...

Food failures

Now the heat had other unexpected ramifications: try getting a bowl of soup on a hot summer's night in Ulm, for example. I asked for tomato soup in a branch of Subway, and after drawing a blank there, attempted to order lentil soup in the kebab shop next door. Soup was a staple menu item in both eateries, yet their proprietors looked at me as though I had landed from space.

And then there was the G & T I foolishly ordered on an Easyjet flight to Geneva, in which the ice cubes had dwindled to the size of my little fingernail before the flight attendant had finished apologising for the lack of lemon - as well she might. For that and the tonic water travesty that is Britvic's slimline version, with its nasty aspartame? tang. Oh look, I have found an entertaining blog post featuring a 'titanic tiff of the tonics', in which Britvic is described as 'heinous' and a 'saccharine blagger'. I completely concur.

I also had a 'lost in translation' food fail in Zurich that same week, when I ordered Flammkuchen, presuming them to be a Swiss take on a crepe, only to be served a large landing strip smothered in creme fraiche and piquant flecks of chives.

The worst was yet to come, however, for in Belgium I had trouble buying any food at all. By the time I arrived in Charleroi at 11pm the station was closed, driving me in search of a restaurant in the shadowy hinterland behind the hotel, with its vague - make that pointed! - air of menace. The lone Italian had stopped serving, and everywhere else that might have sold food or drink on any footing whatsoever was either shut, blocked off by building works, or a massage parlour. So I ended up back at the hotel, dining on a Magnum from the freezer cabinet bizarrely stationed in the middle of the foyer.

This nascent fat and carb-loading theme continued the next day, when I grabbed a croissant at the station cafe before hopping on a train to my destination half an hour away. There was no time to refuel before my meeting, and by the time I got back the restaurants had all closed till 7pm. No chance of what the Germans invitingly refer to as 'durchgehend warme Küche' ('hot food served all day'), then. In the end, I foraged in a newsagent for a packet of crisps and a bag of M & Ms, the latter chosen largely for their 'no melt' properties. Oh, and I was given a receipt that was larger than any hotel receipt I have ever seen, as well as being considerably bigger than the collective footprint of the items purchased.

But there was the odd 'food success'.  It's only taken 20 odd years, but I have managed at last to train the Germans to give me a jug of real milk instead of Kaffeesahne. So much in fact, that I was worried it might curdle in the heat, and was quick to return it to the waitress after use. 

There's no 'bus' in 'business people'

This is not the first time I have touched on the subject of the preferred modes of transport of the business community. I used to have a regular column in a regional magazine called 'Profit', and wrote a piece on this very topic called: 'Better dead than Midland Red'; years later I find the subject still has legs. Like business people themselves, indeed, though some of them would have to be dragged kicking and screaming before they would use them for anything so pedestrian as walking. 

On half a dozen occasions in July I arrived at the company I was visiting by bus, much to the surprise of the staff on reception. Even where there were bus stops right outside the main entrance - named after the company in question, no less - it was invariably assumed I had come in a hire car or by taxi. But having made my way to companies at least partly on foot, my commitment to self-propulsion (where practicable) could still be thwarted by a requirement that visitors use the dedicated shuttle service inside their sites. Once I had to wait a good 15 minutes for a quorum of people to turn up at the mustering point before a vehicle was despatched, when in fairness I could have walked the short distance in a fraction of that time. 

And it isn't just large corporations - the airlines are equally imbued with this mindset of 'move everyone around en masse in case they go astray'. On arriving into Birmingham from Germany, the captain announced that he had been wrongly assigned a domestic stand, and would have to lay on transport to take us to correct entrance. It took a while to rustle up the bus, and after a journey of a couple of hundred yards we were kept on board for ages before they opened the doors. Meanwhile, the sight of a disabled lady - who had been the very last person to disembark the plane - now gliding through the doors to Passport Control prompted complete uproar on the bus. One man voiced the unspoken thoughts of the whole plane: 'Noooo, look, there's that lady in a wheelchair - she has only gone and beaten us to it and she was bloody pushed!'

But to counteract all of the above, I spied a businessman and his luggage on a tram in Zurich, and got ridiculously excited, as if I had spotted a hoopoe or something. Vero Kern explained to me on Facebook that this is a perfectly common occurrence, owing to the seamless and efficient nature of Swiss transport. So yes, there are exceptions to the rule - London would be another one, I sense - but out in the provinces...bus taking? Not going to happen...unless you're Bonkers, and I am.

Socket hunts

Much has been written about the fact that we are tending to walk around glued to tablets and smartphones these days. The corollary of that - at least for anyone like me who owns an older model with derisory battery life - is that some of us are also constantly on the look out for a socket, and our next fix of power. The Swiss rail company, SBB, gets top marks for having sockets thoughtfully located over every window of its carriages.  Okay, not quite top marks, as the high up socket location resulted in a bit of a tricky dangling situation - and me worrying that the sheer weight of my phone would break the connection to its power lead - so I rigged up an elaborate edifice of pencil case on top of handbag on top of seat arm for the phone to rest on.

After the SBB, Stuttgart airport came up trumps, with a number of usable sockets at floor level, one or two positioned remotely near chairs, no less! For so often you see people squatting on their own luggage or directly on the floor - and you know that far from being down and outs or that person who spent 17 years living at Charles de Gaulle airport, they are in fact merely refuelling their devices.

Then at Le Havre station there was a most ingenious contraption laid on for people to charge their phones - a static bicycle rigged up to a battery charger. Sounds great in theory, but was moderately sadistic in practice, for after 10 minutes of frantic cycling I had only nudged my phone's charge up by 1% - and went in search of a conventional 'no strings' socket in a wall.

Musical rooms

I don't think this habit of mine quite amounts to a mental tick, but when I check into a hotel room, I often find fault with it and ask to be moved. This is usually because the room is a) a single and b) bagged for a bargain rate on Single, 'special rate' rooms are like tables for one in a restaurant - while the latter are invariably by the kitchen door or a hatch or the toilets, the former will have views of claustrophobic courtyards occupied by bins or unexplained humpbacked tubing. Or be characterised by bizarre geometry / general minuteness / intolerable levels of heat/noise. 

On my trips I didn't always manage to move rooms - being dead set on doing so at no extra cost, you see - but when I did it felt like a real coup! On one such occasion, the manoeuvre slightly backfired though, for having transferred my belongings from 'tiny, triangular, stiflingly hot room A on a major road junction with wraparound traffic noise' and deposited the key back at reception, I realised I had left a jacket in the wardrobe. When I went back down again, a woman was being checked in at that very moment to my rejected room. I ended up escorting her to her quarters, deftly extracted the offending garment from her wardrobe and scuttled off to 'quiet, spacious, conventionally shaped Room B' before she could pop the inevitable question as to what on earth it was doing there in the first place.

DIY airport procedures

As a frequent flyer, I pride myself on being up to speed with the latest technology to do with checking in procedures. Yet in Paris this time I ended up being completely floored by the scan gun that is supposed to read the barcode on the boarding pass I had just printed myself on another self-service machine. In desperation, I summoned help from a member of the Air France ground staff, who in the old days would have been sat at a desk processing my boarding card herself, but who was now hovering nearby to help frustrated passengers on a minimally ad hoc basis. She promptly showed me how to press the trigger on the scanner while holding it over the barcode, causing it to emit a startling beep. 'It's just like in the supermarket!' she exclaimed in the tone of a weary cheerleader. 'Don't you scan your items as you go round the store?' '', I replied peevishly, 'that's what the check outs are for.' 

On another trip, I was amused to hear the security staff at the X-ray machine calling out to the waiting queues as they prepared to doff sundry items of clothing: 'Any heels today?', for all the world like a market trader touting his wares. As luck would have it, I didn't have heels that day, or any other day, though I often had a belt or a jacket that had to be removed. And famously once, a small bottle of Merlot I naively thought I could sneak through security if I wrapped it in two plastic bags and a sock, and jammed it in a shoe. 

Unsporting Charleroi

And finally, my gloomy take on the Belgian town of Charleroi would not be complete without a brief mention of an incident in a Berlin hotel some years ago now involving me and a professional footballer, who played for Sporting Charleroi. He knocked on my door and tried to get me to let him stay in my room, pleading an overflowing toilet cistern. I offered him a set of ear plugs, which curved ball response he hadn't anticipated. He replied that he couldn't wear ear plugs. I offered to swap rooms with him and wear ear plugs myself. As the overflowing cistern had been a ruse all along, the game was up at this point, and he proceeded to pin me against the wall of the corridor - and a bit of a scuffle ensued. I managed to break away and scoot back into my room, locking the door behind me. So yes, I shan't rush back to Charleroi. No wonder the flight only cost £39.98 return.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

My bonkers month of extreme Euro-hoppery: a thematic travelogue - Part 1

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Goodness, it is over a month since I last blogged - that short 'place holder' post from my stuffy hotel room in Wuppertal at the beginning of July. Written on a netbook that may be in a pawn shop now, or the back of a lorry - or conceivably lying at the bottom of a canal in Tipton, having been hurled there in disgust for being password protected. But I am running ahead of myself...

Yesterday I finally finished my six country project, which has consumed the last seven weeks and part or all of the intervening weekends. 'Tuesday is the new Saturday.' Well, I say that, but there are many chores I could be getting on with today, from hacking at the thicket that has all but taken over the front of the house, to reconciling the blizzard of receipts I have collected on my travels, to making even minimal inroads into the ironing mountain, now of Himalyan and perilously tottering proportions (see below). But no, the blogging hiatus has gone on long enough, so I'd rather write about my trips instead.

I have decided to adopt a thematic rather than a strictly chronological approach to these travelogues, as the four trips were characterised by recurring themes, such that a sequential narrative would inevitably become a bit repetitive. It is enough that I was plagued by the same kinds of issues time and again in different countries, without obliging the reader to experience the mishap equivalent of Groundhog Day. And indeed there are precedents for this style of post on Bonkers already.

And by way of setting the scene, the four itineraries were as follows:

Trip 1: The Netherlands and 'the top half' of Germany
Trip 2: France - Paris and Normandy
Trip 3: Switzerland and 'the bottom half' of Germany
Trip 4: Belgium - Charleroi: a town best described in anatomical terms as 'the armpit' to be perfectly honest, on account of its brooding steel mills, messy squiggles of flyovers, and scattering of lone men loitering suspiciously by the railway station, to whom my overactive imagination ascribed multiple intents to rob, mug, molest, score drugs, or at the very least take a leak in an undesignated public area.

So yes, I got around...

And without further ado, here comes the first clutch of topics. Oh, there will be a scent- and perfume people-themed post coming up eventually (I met up with Vero Kern, and an old Basenotes chum!), so for any purists out there, do check in later - the post will be clearly flagged as such.

More like 'a day WITH champagne is 'elegantly wasted'!

The small children as iron filings effect

I took eight flights in July, on five different airlines, to and from eight different airports. And yet by some disturbing quirk of online seat allocation, on every single flight I was in a row either in front of or behind babies and small children. I guess I should be grateful that I wasn't in a row WITH small children, though on occasions there were so many of them gathered in one place that there would scarcely have been room for me. On the final flight - by way of a 'grand cacophonous finale', you might say, if your sense of humour was even more dark and twisted than mine - I had no fewer than five children under the age of five sitting behind me - well three directly behind and two the other side of the gangway. All of them wailing at the top of their lungs throughout the flight. I get the ear pressure thing, I do, but still. I actually apologised to the lady sitting next to me, explaining that it is all my fault. "I am like a magnet to iron filings where small children are concerned. Airlines see 'single woman' and think: 'let's put her next to some children, as that is clearly what is missing from her life'."

Matters were not helped on this flight by the fact that the cabin announcements used words like 'chillax', plus we had such a sickeningly grinding crunch of a landing that people gasped, fully expecting to find that the plane had touched down on bare metal axles instead of tyres.

A perplexing purple theme

I was puzzled to note a purple theme from the very first trip, starting with the livery of the train to Manchester airport, with which its seats were lovingly coordinated. Then in the queue waiting to board I spied two youths in hoodies, whom my naturally irrational prejudice earmarked instantly as trainee terrorists or international cocaine mules. I swear I overheard one of them mentioning 'Class B drugs', though in hindsight it may have been 'Vitamin C'. For my unspoken aspersions were quickly dispersed by the fact that one of the youths was swigging a bottle of Ribena, while the other was sporting trainers in a truly violent shade of Parma violet, neither of which struck me as the incontestable hallmark of a villain. The purple theme was soon to be reprised in Holland by my hotel room chair and a parked bicycle. Which leads me neatly on to...

Hotels - the quirky, the kitschy, and the downright impractical

Having travelled on business for some 27 years now, I would have thought I had seen every possible variant of hotel, whether in terms of its general design or specific aspects of its functionality. I was wrong. The first trip kicked off with this corker in Holland, which boasted a disorientatingly diagonal bed, accented by a hyperrealistic backdrop of wool skeins. Did they know I was a knitter?

To top it all, I was supplied with a 'do not disturb' bullock, that you placed outside your door instead of attempting to hang one a cardboard sign off the handle. Those things can be quite misleading in fact, for while staying in London in May for a few nights, whichever way I had hung it turned out to mean: 'Kindly do not come in and clean the bathroom, make the bed etc for the entire duration of my stay.' Unfortunately I only figured this out on the morning of my somewhat rumpled departure. So yes, a lot to be said for the binary clarity of a bullock.

Fast forward a couple of days to my hotel near Cologne, which had an imposing baroque facade and an unexpected en suite casino - I eschewed a flutter, I might add. The very next night my hotel a couple of hundred miles away was located in Casinostrasse. I started to feel positively dogged by this unsolicited gambling theme. The Darmstadt hotel was also on the ornate side, I think it is fair to say.

Going back to the hotel with the casino attached, it also boasted extremely spacious rooms. I felt moved to check with reception that I hadn't inadvertently agreed to pay the supplement for an upgrade - dimly recalling a promotional offer to that effect - as my room was so unfeasibly large. But no, there was no mistake. In a sudden access of laziness I was tempted to ask my respondent - whose office was diagonally opposite my window(!) - to pop across and do the interview at the meeting table in my bedroom, but decorum and convention prevailed. He missed out on the packet of Haribo bears, mind.

At the other end of the scale, I stayed in an Ibis Budget hotel near Geneva airport on Trip 3. Do not be fooled by its apparent membership of that reliably comfortable chain with its distinctive poppy emblem. Ibis Budget is the chain formerly known as Etape and made entirely out of moulded plastic. As you can see in this shot, Max Rat (who has sadly gone the way of the netbook, of which more anon)  is not overly impressed by the quality of the fittings.

Perverse bathroom fixtures - a special sub-category

Arguably deserving of a category all to themselves, are the bathrooms. Now I don't consider myself especially wide-bodied, but the shower stall in one hotel was about 10 inches across. Not a chance of standing under the shower head, so nothing for it but to pull the tubing out of the recess and treat the darn thing as a handheld attachment.

Then in Paris I was confronted by one of those irritating bowl basins that were quite in vogue some years ago - or rather by one of their equally impractical rectangular cousins. These are conspicuously devoid of a flat surface on which to rest the soap - assuming you have had the good fortune to be issued with something as old school as a tablet of the stuff, instead of those ubiquitous and crassly scented squeezy numbers. You can of course just leave the soap on the side somewhere, to marinate in its own sludgy puddle, but that really goes against the grain - note cunningly repurposed feminine hygiene bag in photo.

The third observation about bathrooms from these trips - which I sense is only going to get worse as time goes by - is that the more the vanity unit projected from the mirrored wall, the more futile my chances of doing my make up in said mirror. My middle aged myopia is now so acute that however far I attempt to lean across the sink unit so I can see to put my mascara on, say, it is never far enough. This leaves the poor alternatives of the full length mirror (invariably in a gloomy spot by the door) or the trusty fall back of my compact mirror, taken to the window for maximum (if alarming) visibility.

So that is probably enough for Part 1 - am off to engage in ever more elaborate forms of ironing avoidance!