Everything is the same and yet everything is also different. As the car moves steadily out into the main road beginning a week long 600 mile European round trip I am very much aware that I have done this before. I have arrived in Maastricht a number of ways over the years. I have not cycled, walked or ridden a horse but I have employed most other methods. The car has been the recent favourite as it is my wont and delight to fill the car with optimistic purchases en route. This year I am a pure shopper and onlooker, not wearing any hats of employment no connection to Mallett or Masterpiece. I am looking forward to seeing the Mallett stand as there will be some pieces that I found and discovered but the design and layout will be entirely Thomas free. I think this is more than my 20th journey and whilst I anticipate familiar delights it will also hopefully offer the thrillingly new.
One of the first delights is the buzz of arriving in France. The tunnel - like a birth canal - pushes one out into the fringes of Calais and you feel a little spine tingle of happiness being abroad. Driving on the right cements it and you know you are off on an adventure. The car is full of petrol and we head to the decorative junk warehouses around Lille - pausing to visit Paul De Grande at his chateau to admire his latest arrivals. Driving down a back street in the small town of Marcq-en-Baroeul, 5 miles outside Lille, we park - having missed the spot several times and circled around cursing the SatNav - the delightful, young but wracked with a beastly cold Sylvain Barrois appears. He has shifted his business from dealing in rusty pseudo ancient chandeliers though industrial style warehouse lighting into shiny metal 70s Italian furniture and lighting. Nimble though these metamorphoses have been his warehouse still bears the debris of his previous incarnations. We buy and load our acquisitions into the welcoming Subaru.
Now we head for Brussels via Joost in Haaltert. He has many temptations within his few rooms and some we admire and some we purchase. His taste is eclectic in period but consistent in that he never has run-of-the-mill or standard, there is always a quirky or magical element to each of his items. We make a purchase and the car drives on ever so slightly heavier as it is a pair of marble tazzas that we find irresistible.
Brussels offers us Vismet - my whenever-possible dining option. Just by St Catherine it is deceptively plain and simple. pale wooden chairs and tables and an open kitchen in the corner. Daily specials are hand-written and photocopied, accompanied by a standard menu printed in blocks of primary colours. I always eat the same thing here - oysters. They come without fancy ceremony, simply in a bowl. They are delicious - salty, brightly fresh and just the faintest hint of a bite. Then by mistake we get cod. I had ordered my usual deep fried cod fritters but what came was a fancy dish with a sauce and accompanying vegetables. I looked at this vision and I have to admit - like looking a gift horse in the mouth - I was disappointed. But gallantly I ate it and I begrudgingly have to admit that it was the most delicious cod I have ever had, brilliant white flesh and chunky ,neither chewy nor gelatinous, just succulent and perfect.
Sleep was followed by the final leg to Maastricht via Wim van Dam in the over-complicatedly named 's - Hertogenbosch ( by everyone shortened to - den Bosch ) He and his lovely wife Cornelia live in retirement flats overlooking the Meuse and spend their days looking for and buying antiques. He sits at his William IV writing table and peers through catalogues and decides where next he will visit and shop. He has never failed to have something for me to buy ever since I first met him. But the charm and tenderness of the couple and their manner of living makes the visit worthwhile - even without a commercial corollary.
Maastricht brings dinner with Larry Strenger at his hotel in Slanaken - half an hour outside of town. Here he stays for Tefaf every year; the attendees to his annual preview eve dinner make for an amazing sub-history of Mallett. Larry speaks slowly, each word lasts a minute at least, with a gravelly deep voice, he is also quite large; primarily a deal maker, from his tiny office in NY he has put some substantial deals together - mainly property - mainly shopping malls. He loves to shop and be involved with antiques dealers and their trade. I had thought that this year it was going to be a reduced group of just us and the Chinese export art dealers -the Gregory's, who are his good friends and fellow hotel residents. But in came the residual Mallett staff and their chairman George Bailey. I anticipated a certain awkwardness but George was charm itself. Over dinner which was moderately tasty but fundamentally interminable - ending at 1 am! Justin revealed that he too was leaving Mallett. Thus leaving not a skeleton team but only a part skeleton. The future of Mallett, indeed the whole group, appears very much in question.
The preview opening of the fair was very much business as usual with hoards crowding round the stands and voraciously consuming all the so-called free eats. The fair has undergone a radical redesign with more openings and aisles and it has been made easier to navigate and more exhibitors are happy as they feel more prominent. For Esther and yours truly the worst thing to admit is that the highlight for us was stopping our peregrinations and sitting for a while at the oyster bar and having a dozen Zeland oysters which were masterpieces in their own right. It is hard to describe an oyster as good ones all have so much in common but these were everything an oyster could aspire to being. Imagine a delicious oyster and these were they.
The days pass and many treats ensued, including a surprising eccentric tour of the Thiessen winery in town - eccentric because they don't seem to make wine there anymore, the tasting was not even of local wines, the tour was in Dutch with offered but no actual translation from a nice young man who did not speak much English at all.
Finally we had to head home but not without trying to get to see the Hieronymous Bosch 500 year anniversary show in his home town back in's - Hertogenbosch. Tickets were all sold out but we boldly nonetheless ventured the journey. Our pluck was rewarded by the offer of tickets at 6pm - it was then midday. We ruminated and decided to go for it. What followed was a fascinating day spent around the town trying to walk though as much as we could of the surviving elements of the 15th century town. His first home was adjacent to a house that had collapsed only a week earlier - survival is precarious. The exhibition was heaving with people when we entered and it was quite a mission to actually get close to the works, but as the day ended and the kick-out time of 8 pm approached we were able to get much appreciated unimpeded access. The imagination of Bosch is beyond question but I repeatedly kept feeling that I was being sucked into a 500 year old version of "where's Wally?". My problem. We drove home to London exhausted but with the feeling that we had been granted a special insight into another time and space. The codicil to this is that we are soon off to Madrid where we can see those works at the Prado that were deemed too fragile to make the journey.