It began on Thursday with a photograph in the paper. A sale in France on Sunday was offering a pair of Chinese coromandel lacquer armchairs. They looked 18th century and though that is quite late for Chinese things it is the golden age for European furniture.
I booked the euro tunnel for 8pm, booked a cheap hotel in Calais and held my breath. It was going to be a long drive. Down to Angers, (I immediately nick named it angers managements) and I prepared to set off.
We had had a frantic week in the office. With finishing touches being made to various aspects of the fair. After Easter is one of those transitional moments between gathering and building. The gathering is now almost done and we are ready to fully focus on getting the show ready. It is like a play and we now have the script and the cast, the next target is a fabulous performance.
After this week of calls and meetings a quiet weekend would have been welcome but I had decided to drive. As a rule I like people and their lives and stories. But this weekend I was going to have to sit in a box on wheels and discourse with a very dull man called "me".
Friday was frustrating too. Calls were expected confirming a number of choices and one after the other they were put off until Monday. So it was with a certain relief and aggression that I revved the engine and headed off.
The roads for a Friday night were astonishingly clear and I was serenaded by a podcast of "in our time " I arrived in Folkestone in good time. Dealt with customs, manoeuvred my car onto the shuttle, felt uncomfortable as the train seemed to rock, shake and grumble generally as it was loaded. Then we were in France. My hotel, awkwardly named the Cottage and aspiring to look like the White House with a white colonnade at the front, was reassuringly gruesome. The lady at the desk was nice enough. She wore a badge with the Spanish flag and the English flag proclaiming her efficiency in those tongues. Her bright dyed orange hair and slightly blotchy complexion did not encourage me to test her language skills. I quietly scuttled away to my room. A certain type of hotel has worryingly stained carpet in its common areas and the rooms are faux wood Formica or vinyl. This was one of those. There was a shower too which had a surreally high tray. It was almost encouraging you to try to bathe in its minute squareness. Also certain hotels have a very distinctive smell. Bleach and ancient vomit. I was quickly asleep lulled by the rumble of large lorries rumbling past.
In the morning I checked my destination. 5 hours away. Then a second destination and then Paris for the night. Wow. I had better get going. The roads passed but I did not feel the urge to stop. Usually with friends I try to negotiate a lunch. With wine, them driving in the afternoon and me snoring quietly. No such strategy this trip. Mid afternoon I filled up and bought a vaste bag of m & m's. A sausage in a bun and a bottle of Evian. Gastronomy indeed. Cunningly I managed to empty the entire bag of sweets onto the floor and for a couple of hours until my next break my feet looked like they were in some miniature children's ball park awash in brightly coloured balls.
The first stop was Rennes. There the single room auction house was quite full. And there were some interesting bits. But the lady who sat on her dais behind her computer screen was in full flood. ' You want to bid on the telephone? Where is your letter of credit from the bank? Have you never bid here before? I don't care for your credit card or your business card or the names of the dealers you know' . No, it is not a shame for the vendor that you will not be bidding. Rules are rules. I stomp back to my car heading for 'angers managements' with real relish and intent.
Two hours later I am in Angers. The sale room is charming and the staff are helpful. I examine all I need and I jump back in the car leaving my mobile as the contact number. It is a bit scary as the phone is never 100% but what is the option?
To Paris and again sat nav Melvyn Bragg and I make it without much of a hindrance or a hazard. The car is purring and the only problem is my sugar rush from eating all those sweets all day. Even the dusty ones.
Paris, and I park on the pavement right outside the hotel. I shower and head out to brasserie Lipp. This restaurant is a legend. Classically good, no Michelin stars or anything like that but for decades and decades the food has been brought to the table in a charming and efficient way and is absolutely delicious. I celebrate my 750 mile day with a glass of champagne and a half bottle of Chablis. Next to me a group are magnificently tucking in to that festival of pork products choucroute garnis. The large slabs of pink meat nestling in grassy mountain of sauerkraut. They are large people with large mouths and facial hair and gurgle and chew noisily and appreciatively. On the other side are a youngish couple who seem to be having a row. They sit side by side and though we are inches away I never hear a word exchanged. Just gloomy expressions. They don't last long and are soon gone. But the roast chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans that are brought to them look wonderful. And amazingly French. I don't understand how such basic food can be graced with a national identity. But those dishes were the quintessence of France.
I order one of the house classics the pate de fois gras. It comes with a tiny sprig of lettuce leaves, you might deride it as garnish but it is better than that. It leavens the richness and smoothness of the pâté with a fresh bitter crunch. Joining all together is the soft runny jelly. As I quaff the last bite so do I swallow the last vestige of my champagne. Perfection. Then on to the main event, brandade de Morue. It comes in a pot, a spiral of grilled brown surmounted by a sharks fin of toast. Fluffy, salty, fishy and potatoey it offers a forkful of France in every mouthful.
Bed and I simply disappear in white linen to emerge a little late to rush round and see a friend who thinks he has made a furniture discovery. Sadly not so. The piece is a 19th century copy.
Then I notice the sun is out. I have not seen the sun for weeks. London has been bleak and grey and cold. Paris is smiling and there is a flash of warm in the spring sun. I put the hood down for the first time this year and drive around enjoying the beautiful city. Then I head back to the shuttle. Painless. The smell of the tomatoes and strawberries I bought in the market by the rue de buci aromatically smoothing my way.
Two hours delay because of French reasons. Then supper in Primrose Hill discussing kitchen rearrangements and job prospects for recent graduates. Then home, bed and back to work in the morning.
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