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!


Tara said...

Lovely to have you back, V.

Some much great stuff here, including your ever amusing photo captions.
Loved the Ribena swilling hoodies and can't believe a cabin announcement mentioned the word "chillax". You don't get that on BA.

You seem to get the quirkiest hotel rooms. A diagonal bed would be very disconcerting and I don't have words for a rainfall shower you can't actually fit under (and if you can't fit under it no one can).

Adore the Do Not Disturb Bullock.

Please save some of that ironing for me to do on my visit. I haven't done any since the 20th century so it will feel very retro.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Hey, thanks, and glad you liked the post - surprising how quickly it all came tumbling out this morning as soon as I took one look at the ironing basket. Ref your upcoming visit, guests aren't allowed to do ironing, though it was very sweet of you to offer. Meanwhile, I shall try to discern its retro charm myself, hehe. Washing up and bed stripping are also off limits. You must conduct yourself like a complete sybarite at all times.

Haha, you do not get words like 'chillax' on BA, that's for sure. My two Air France flights were co-hosted by them. There's a bit of a tale on its way about their self-service check in kiosk in fact.

Yes, the bullock was priceless, and I doubt I will ever see its like again. ;)

Anonymous said...

Did your mother not teach you never to invite unknown people into your bedroom? That might have been interesting. Yes. Ironing is an issue all of its own. I believe I may have mentioned previoulsy that it was a pile of ironing that triggered a quite unpleasant nervous breakdown for my mother? It involved 6 six weeks in hospital with the threat of electrodes being embedded into her brain. She did recover, but I ended up having to do the ironing for many years.
Chillax is a very horrible word, one I have never used.
I carry a huge magnifying mirror with me whenever I am traveling, like a nine inch round one. Highly recommended.
I cannot wait for Part II.
Hugs. Bussis. xxxxx

Thinkingmagpie said...

So nice to read your blog post at last!
"Chillax"? I cringe every time when I hear that word. Unfortunately, my friend use it far too often. That bright wall is quite something. I don't know if I like it or hate it. Better than a hotel room I stayed at recently though. I knew each room would be decorated with music themes but I didn't expect to see the face of the Notorious B.I.G painted above the bed...

Asali said...

I would love to comment on several things, BUT unfortunately my brain stopped at the fact that you were allocated a seat in such close proximity of small children all of your eight flights!!! I'm full of admiration that you survived sane enough to even joke about it with the person beside you in the last flight. I think I would either have had a nervous breakdown, turned into an axe murderess, or just pretended to have a migraine in the hope that I might get a different seat ;-) actually, you should get those noise cancelling Bose headphones, I think it would be a great investment, as per Sod's law, you should then never again be seated next to screaming, smelly little horrors :- D

Vanessa said...

Hi Val,

She did, and I wouldn't, honest, though my old boss used to conduct bedroom meetings. I should explain that the office premises were also his house, and when he was poorly, staff were summoned to his bedside to take important instructions.

I did not know that startling and arcane fact about your mother. I bet you have very mixed feelings about the whole rationale for ironing as a result. I must confess to being haunted by my own pile, which I sense may get bigger before it gets smaller, but fingers crossed that it doesn't trigger a comparable meltdown.

I think I could do with a magnifying mirror too. I might like it even less than the compact mirror by the window, but some things - like my naked face - need to be confronted now and then.

Vanessa said...

Hi Thinkingmagpie,

Oh dear, I imagine it is easier to avoid flying on Ryanair than to avoid your friend, but I would find even occasional use of the word 'chillax' quite disturbing. I didn't really care for the bright wall - it wasn't exactly soothing, certainly - but it got lots of points for 'off the wall-ness'.

The only B.I.G I know is the on-off BF of Carrie in Sex and The City. You may have to enlighten me - or I could always try google. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Asali,

Ah yes, the Bose headphones would have the same deterrent quality as umbrellas to rain. They are a bit bulky, though, that is the only thing, and space is at a premium. Ear plugs might be the way to go in future. I did have my fingers in my ears a few times in fact, to little effect.

And don't get me wrong, I am not against small children per se - not if they are 'nicely presented', as it were.

Thinkingmagpie said...

Haha, Vanessa, if you type "the Notorious B.I.G" on google, you'll see the photos of rather solemn looking, big, rapper guy with crown on his head. You'll know how unattractive it is to see this on the wall... ;)

Anonymous said...

Eight flights, Bonks? Holy Moly! You must have nerves of steel, to brave airports so frequently and chop and change place so often. My head is spinning just thinking about it!

Welcome back:-)

cheerio from an ironing avoider of long-standing,

Anna in Edinburgh

Portia said...

Welcome back Vanessa,
OMG! Make Up is becoming harder and harder as I age too. I think I am going to get Jin (the electrician) to whip me up a long leaded plug in uber bright LED make up light for traveling. That might make my life a little easier.
My Mum used to give us a shaving of valium in a warm scotch and milk for flights, and any other time she needed peace. I'm sure that would have your children removed in the 21st century but it was effective.
Portia xx

Unknown said...

Welcome back sweetie.
Your hotel critiques are most amusing..and I quite liked the wooly wallpaper in your Amsterdam room. I like travelling to an extend, but my memories of business trips on my own are divided between glamour and gloom.

Suzanne said...

Vanessa, you do have some of the most bizarre travel experiences of anyone I know! The weirdest thing here, to me, is that hotel in Holland with the odd wall of wool skeins and the do-not-disturb bullock. It does rather have a quirky appeal to it, though: the colors are pretty and it seems very personal and homey for a hotel room. Must like wool, though, I suppose. :)

Welcome back (and good luck with the ironing)!

Sun Fontaine said...

Hehe, I remember I went on a work trip to Denmark, and (granted I'm from the USA) was really struck by how tiny the elevators were, and the bathrooms. :) I remember being in a hotel from the 1800's and barely being able to fit myself and my suitcase in the elevator - it was tricky! Best of luck with the make-up, I feel like lighting anywhere in a hotel is terrible!

Sun Fontaine said...

BWAHAHA - I <3 this.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

Ah, it wasn't Amsterdam in fact, but a small town in the provinces, which makes the presence of avant-garde wall coverings even more surprising.

I get my fair share of gloom on business trips (a predictable example of which may feature in another post), and occasional moments of glamour, but silly incidents are never far away!

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

It was gruelling, the amount of flying, especially in July, when the airports were rammed with holidaymakers. It was a job to find anywhere to sit sometimes.

Good to meet a fellow ironing avoider - I still haven't touched my mountain...;)

Vanessa said...

Well, well, I think garish wool skeins are definitely the better option. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Portia,

Haha, I like the cut of your mother's jib, even though she would almost certainly have lost custody of you nowadays as you speculate. I think even the tactical administration of Calpol may be frowned upon on Mumsnet, not that I am up in such things.

And it's good to know that I am not the only one who is ocularly challenged! x

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

The do-not-disturb bullock was a definite highlight, hehe. I would have preferred more muted colours for the wool collage, but the hotel gets lots of points in my book for at least avoiding the ubiquitous coffee-and-cream combo. ;)

Oh dear, yes, the ironing I am still trying to forget...!

Vanessa said...

Hi Sun Mi,

You are quite typical of American visitors to Europe to complain about small lifts and rooms. When I read such complaints on Tripadvisor I always look to see where the commenter lives and if it is an American I know to allow for national size expectations. ;)

I agree that a lot of hotel lighting - and shop lighting for that matter - is most unflattering, where it is accessible at all. And when I do come across a kindly reflection, I have to resist the urge to steal the mirror and take it home with me!

Undina said...

Those headphones are too expensive for the purpose of being a deterrent because if that doesn't work, they will be of no help against the high pitch of human voice (it doesn't even have to be a child!): I learned it a hard way on a 10-hour flight when an overly-cheerful gentleman kept entertaining a couple of ladies sitting across the aisle from me.

Undina said...

It's great to have you back, Vanessa! :)

I think they should make Do not Disturb sleeping cat figurines! Those can be produced in different colors. Can you imagine how the hall will look with those sleeping next to some doors? :)

Ironing... My piles of the clean clothes ready to be ironed are big by design: I'm not sure I would be able to fit all of them in the ready-to-wear condition into my closet anyway ;)

Carol said...

Hey Bonks: I am just ga-ga over the purple bicycle!
I upset the husband of my friend when I told him I don't like being at parties with children - he looked shocked! I said 'oh your kids are great, and if it was just them, I would be fine" but then I kept talking and got myself deeper and deeper .... oops!

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Thanks! It's good to be stationary at last. Well, bar the odd trip in the UK, that is. I loved your idea of sleeping cat figurines - absolutely inspired. As you say, a whole hallway would be enhanced by such things, especially if they were in different patterns. And not a trip hazard - well, any more than the bullocks would be. ;)

Love your 'big by design' ironing strategy. Ordinarily I would agree that my ironing pile takes pressure off my wardrobes, but until I replace my lost clothes, there is some newly released hanging space!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

I get why you might like that bicycle - I can see it fitting right into your own 'street scene'.

And I sympathise about your children gaffe. 'Selective children appreciation' is a topic where it is all too easy to dig oneself into a hole. ;)

Vanessa said...

My issue with the headphone was particularly about their bulk, but I imagine they would be pricey too. And it is true that noisy adults are another common hazard. ;)

Asali said...

Oh what a shame that they don't work for that purpose. "Nicely presented" being the A and O here ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ah, you've been to Charleroi! I had to go there for business trips for several years, about once a year. An unforgettable experience! Like the time the woman leaving the station behind me got mugged (I didn't even notice, but a colleague had arrived with the same train and had tried to help the lady under attack, though she told him not to endanger his life as it was an everyday occurence in this wonderful town and she was used to it).
Did you stay at the Ibis? It is definitely the best hotel in town. On my first trip to Charleroi all my colleagues felt above staying at the Ibis and booked another, more expensive, hotel instead (I won't name it). They came to regret it for various reasons:
a) one colleague was put on the floor where all the other rooms were rented out by the hour, so it was rather, well, noisy. Lots of comings (he he) and goings.
b) one colleague, after retiring to bed, noticed a strange smell coming off the duvet. On closer inspection he found that there were two covers on the duvet, the nether one being stuck to the duvet by what looked (and smelled) like copious amounts of dried blood. He got dressed again and went to reception, who apologised profusely and handed him a woolen blanket, telling him to put the duvet on the floor. They did nothing more about this affair during his three day stay.
c) a third colleague noticed that the bathroom had not been cleaned before his arrival. He phoned reception about it. They told him that of course the bathroom had not been cleaned since it was "the third floor and not Thursday yet". He then tried to get a room at the Ibis but it was booked out, so he went to a supermarket and bought stuff for cleaning the bathroom himself.
My other colleagues (five of them) refused to give any details about their stay at that hotel but were adamant about never going to return there. I was quite happy at the Ibis. However, whenever I stay there people with confirmed bookings are turned away, with reception pretending that there must have been some mistake in the booking system. I've taken to calling them the day before my arrival and making it very clear that there will be hell to pay if there is no room for me. This has worked fine so far.
One drawback at the Ibis was that the local drug dealers used the bushes directly opposite the entrance for stashing their wares, and when I wanted to step outside for a smoke (of a regular cigarette) they made it clear I was intruding upon their business. But this situation has been rectified by the bushes being hacked off due to street reconstruction work, and no one bothering to replace them afterwards.
Ah, Charleroi! I have lots more amusing little anecdotes about that place, but enough for today.
I hope you enjoyed your stay! At least you did not get mugged there, but someplace else it seems.
Looking very much forward to the rest of your travelogue. Please don't make us wait too long.


Vanessa said...

Hi Morelle,

I thoroughly enjoyed your memories of Charleroi, in all their unsavoury glory! They constituted a highly entertaining guest post in their own right - if you have any more travel tales, I would like to hear them!

And yes, I did stay at the Ibis, which was not the nicest example of the chain I have ever patronised, but definitely seemed like the most salubrious option in that area - proximity to station being a prerequisite on this occasion.

How interesting about the drug dealers in the bushes. It does not surprise me one jot, and proves that I was correct in my assessment of the louche loiterers.

And I haven't finished my account of Charleroi indeed. It - and its reconstruction work - will feature in my next post...;)

Ingeborg said...

Good to see you back, Vanessa. That room in Amsterdam has wallpaper looking very much like the magnified pattern in a colourful rag mat (I'm not sure this is the right word, but you may have seen the kind in Sweden or Norway). Better colours than the usual green and brown or beige, but not calming exactly!

Had to look up chillax, I had never seen it before! Looking forward to the next part of your travelogue.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ingeborg,

Rag mats are exactly what they look like, on closer inspection. Maybe they are that, and not skeins of wool at all.

So sorry to indavertently add 'chillax' to your vocabulary. You would be better off never having known...:)

Lavanya said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this post. I think my comment didn't go through (or maybe I only composed the comment in my head?). I don't remember everything I wanted to say but I do remember that I enjoyed it..:-)

Vanessa said...

Hi Lavanya,

Glad you liked it. This particular post had to be deleted in order to fix the coding problems, but I was able to upload it again pretty quickly. Sorry you had commenting trouble - that hasn't changed about Blogger, I am afraid...