Wednesday, 25 October 2017

LAUNCHING THE BOOK AND THE SHITPOO


 
I am invited to go to London for a big book launch of “Sorting the Priorities” this month at the Italian Embassy.
 
I log into the latest low cost airline options – well perhaps not Ryan this time, Easy Jet will do fine.  I can take the slinky, screws up into a ball,  Emilio Pucci number in bright pink which swears so nicely with my red hair and has the daughters groaning in desperation.
And the flat straw almost matching handbag purchased from a Corsican market. And the pair of matching shoes, (yes, daughters, your mother still does matching shoes and handbag whenever she can…) and it will all stuff nicely into an approved Easy suitcase, give or take a bit of encouragement from someone sitting on it.

I notice Himself is studying a shiny new map of France that I didn’t know we possessed. A particularly large map of France which, now I think about it, I am quite sure we didn’t possess before because we don’t have a table large enough to spread it on.
“We could” he says, drive from Rome to Alessandria. Stay the night in Alessandria and then head on to Beaune, and Troyes, via Monte Bianco, I think, then stop the night…. Be there in two days no problem.”
“Four” I say, knowing his reputed intention to be late for his own funeral but at the same time hyperventilating at the idea of  all that extra luggage I could stow in a car.

“Or maybe take a detour around Bordeaux...... pick up a couple of bottles in Champagne.”  Ah! Now we were getting to the real reason. The cellar, as he euphemistically calls it, has been looking decidedly moth-eaten recently. Not least because of my well known partiality for the odd thimbleful of that light and amusing sparkling liquid with the charming nose of apple sauce, freshly baked bread and a hint of honey which goes down a treat leaving a suspicion of strawberries and cream on the discerning palate. I quote or misquote the experts, of course. I myself merely use it for medicinal purposes and, when desperate, to encourage the fluttering of the muse.

We sauntered through France and toddled across the Channel on the P&O Ferry just for old times’ sake and because it was cheaper than the tunnel, with the odd bottle of fizz already fizzing nicely in the boot. The book launch was a triumph
and with immense restraint I refrained from cracking open one of the bottles just to make sure it had survived the journey. And three days later, just when it had settled down again, we heaved it back amongst the luggage which, in the manner of luggage the world over,  had quadrupled itself in the meantime, and headed back down to the coast.
Storm Brian was hot on the heels of Hurricane Ophelia and caught up with her just as we were driving into the port of Dover. No budding starlet  faced by a bulky Weinstein ever put up a braver fight. How ever do they keep all those juggernauts from skidding down to one end and hurling themselves into the foaming brine? The waves were crashing over the sides of the ship and a foot of water was swirling merrily along the decks. After an hour and a half of violent juddering and rolling, the Captain, oozing charm and confidence, asked everybody, ever so nicely, to sit down whilst he performed a necessary manoeuvre which he regretted might be ever so slightly uncomfortable, to set us back on course for Calais.
Nobody moved since nobody, except for a few hardened lorry drivers and a couple of half-drunk students, had even considered trying to stand up in the first place. Strangely, P&O’s special offer of tea and scones with whipped cream was not proving too popular either, and it was with a united sigh of relief that we all staggered groggily down to our cars and drove out to greet the black and lowering skies of northern France.We were spending the night with a fellow author near St. Quentin and since he had just finished that most boring of chores, re-reading the proofs of his latest work and was celebrating with a small party, it seemed only fair to crack open a bottle in mutual celebration. I slid a couple unseen into the freezer upon arrival.
The first one exploded as, refreshed and fragrant, we were descending the staircase prior to greeting the other assembled guests. Mine host, a former war zone correspondent, dived immediately behind the sofa without so much as a second thought. His wife hoofed it to the downstairs loo and locked herself inside while the shitzu cum poodle hybrid, with amazing agility for one with such short legs, hurled itself straight through the back door into the garden. The rest of us stood there awaiting developments until realisation suddenly dawned. Shamefacedly I ran into the kitchen and rescued the other bottle which, with appalling timing, shot its entire contents all over the pooshit just as it had decided that anything was preferable to the raging storm outside.
Oh well. Like I said, the book launch went down a treat and not all of life can be a bed of roses.
 
 

 
 

 
 
 

 
 

 

 



















 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

MINDING THE Ps AND Qs


 
 

 
 One very important aspect of diplomatic etiquette is, of course, the bread and butter thank you letter. Also known as the day after letter. Ideally this should be written (for the English) on deckle-edged personalised notepaper in a subtle shade of white, pale cream or something equally uncontroversial, with matching and lined envelope. Of necessity, one should mention how warm and charming were one’s hosts and their beautiful residence, how intellectually stimulating and extraordinarily witty the conversation, how innovative the menu and succulent the food, how wonderful it was to meet old friends and make some new ones, how fortunate one had considered oneself to be seated next to two such enthralling conversationalists as those to one’s left and right……You get the picture.
Traditions, however, differ greatly.
Italians, for example, rarely bother to set pen to paper at all. They prefer to express their thanks via a phone call. Thus, if you are an Italian hostess and wish to achieve anything at all the day after giving a dinner party, you are well advised to Be Unavailable for the entire 24 hours and just leave the answering machine on.
I was feeling particularly grateful for this solution just the other day for it permitted me to leave a succinct but hopefully elegant little thank-you message for a particularly voluble friend who had been using me as a sauf-douleur for her matrimonial woes for the past six months. Her temporary absence saved me, at a conservative estimate, a good forty minutes of sympathetic listening. I had reckoned without her most kindly ringing me back to say thank you for my thank you.
The call came just as I was applying my left shoulder, (the one with the torn ligament), to a rusty gate in an attempt to get through it without letting three large and very excited thoroughbred horses escape to the freedom for which they were fighting. Underfoot was a puddle the size of Lake Ontario and a muddy bog which needed some careful circumventing if I were to remain upright and capable of heaving and shoving gate and horses out of my path.
I was also having one of those coughing fits where your eyes stream, your voice disappears and you need to get to a glass of water immediately if you are not to die. A howling north-easterly was blowing a gale across the fields and a recently stitched finger - mistaken for a carrot by afore mentioned over enthusiastic animals,  (memo to self: abandon horse riding for less dangerous sport), was aching in the freezing cold without a glove because in that particular hand I was holding the damn cell phone. I mentioned some of this in passing to my voluble friend and some of it I guess she could have figured out for herself by interpreting the various noises hitting her down the phone line.
Did that stop her?
No. She went on for a good half an hour about her recent divorce settlement and I was reduced to saying “I do think you should appeal,” about one hundred times because what else do you say when she isn't really listening to you anyway? And besides, I had a gut feeling she wouldn't dream of appealing because, know what? I suspect she realises she's pushed her luck over the years and doesn't stand a chance of squeezing another penny out of the poor sod.
But times are changing and etiquette has moved on.
Nowadays the younger generation, even at diplomatic level, resort to dashing off an email at any time of day or night to say “thank you for dinner last night/last week”. Or worse still, they actually REFUSE  invitations from their own Ambassador  (aka God in my generation of dip wives, since his word was most certainly law and his invitations were most certainly not to be refused should he be so magnanimous as to extend one to a mere underling). To add insult to injury, these young whippersnappers do so with the frailest of excuses  such as that their mother in law just died, or they have a child in bed with meningitis or can’t get a babysitter.
Can’t get a Babysitter? What do you DO with the taxpayers’ money, for heaven’s sake? What’s £30 an hour compared to an evening basking in the presence of such an august personage as that of His Excellency your very own esteemed Ambassador?
In my day we would have been shipped off pronto as Third Secretary to Ouagadougou on a one way ticket.






 

Friday, 30 June 2017

IF THE CAP FITS

IF THE CAP FITS




There was a group of Americans down in St. Jean Cap Ferrat doing the Alphabet Tour.
It was Friday. Friday was France. Saturday was Spain and Sunday was Sicily. Thursday had been The U.K., which I thought was pushing it a bit, but they didn’t seem to mind. Monday would be Malta. I was slightly worried about Tuesday and Wednesday but they assured me with some excitement that the former was To Be Announced and the latter was Wherever. It was an Adventure Tour. They actually thought they were in Cap d’Antibes but the tour operator had muddled up the two Caps, an easy mistake since both locations have luxury hotels of the same name, so they were being shuffled up and down the coast in an overly large coach which was contributing dramatically to the snarling up of the already snarled traffic all along the Corniche. They didn’t seem to mind that either. You got better pictures that way, apparently.
We had been slightly worried about turning up at the Party of the Year in a dusty rented Fiat Punto smelling of stale tobacco and, by now, splattered with road kill - albeit of the six-legged winged variety. Himself wanted to put it through a car wash but I demurred. Let them think we had just driven up from a Safari, said I. Much more glamorous. I also pointed out that it was 8.00 pm which left us precisely half an hour to get showered, dressed, made-up and out the door.
There was a little note attached to an exquisite flower arrangement in our room welcoming us and informing us that we would be picked up in front of the hotel at 8.15.  Right.  Good news bad news. Saved from the dirty Fiat dilemma, at least.
We scrub up something lovely the pair of us after a lifetime of doing it against the clock, but it does require a good twenty minutes to achieve the required effect. Twenty-five if a bow tie is involved, which of course it was. Wrestling a bow tie single-handedly into submission is not something Himself has ever managed to achieve during his lifetime and it is invariably presented to me with a request for assistance just when I have two finger nails left to varnish. Purple. To match the toes.  I do hope you have been following. We are nothing if not colour co-ordinated. Or anal, as some would have it. There is nothing I can do about that: I belong to a generation which still matches its accessories. When I remember to pack them.
We shot out of the hotel lift and through the revolving glass doors in the manner of a brace of dervishes on their way to the carnival.
There were a dozen or so extraordinarily elegant couples standing in the forecourt checking their Audemars Piguets as we tumbled out at their feet. The men were all uniformly dressed in impeccably tailored white dinner jackets, the ladies in full length ball gowns and drooling with jewels. I regretted having omitted to pack a wonderful diamond cuff which a friend  had bought me from the local street market in Rome just before we left. I endeavoured, none too successfully since it was required for balance, to keep my left hand – the one carrying the uncoordinated handbag - out of sight behind my back whilst shaking hands with my right. I was making insignificant small talk in three and a bit languages about the weather and the non-appearance of the minibus when this sleek, highly polished black Rolls came purring to a halt at our feet and a sleek, highly polished, colour co-ordinated driver stepped out, consulted his list and read out our names. Leaving the rest of them standing there wondering who the hell we were. We smiled apologetically to the waiting hopefuls and slid gracefully into the padded leather upholstery. Awfully sorry.
Well, how were they to know our surname begins with an  A?



Bet the Americans would have twigged it, though. Americans are hot on things like that.



(...and don't forget there are more Ambassadress Trying to Behave episodes in





 


Sunday, 11 June 2017

DEMOCRACY AT IT’S MOST DEMOCRATIC


DEMOCRACY AT ITS MOST DEMOCRATIC

😀   YES    πŸ™…   NO           πŸ˜–  WHO ?     πŸ™‰  WHATEVER      πŸ’¨ LATER
 
There are ways and means of clouding the issues, of course.
First and foremost you need to phrase the questions in such a manner that your average voter won’t understand what is being asked of him.  Her.  Other.
 
The first time I voted in Italy was in a popular referendum in the summer of 2011. The difference between a popular and a constitutional referendum is that in the former you vote "Yes" to abolish the law under discussion, whereas in the latter you vote "Yes" to support it. So if you really wanted to say NO to Berlusconi and his favourite laws, you had to put YES on your ballot sheet. Also, ideally you should have been aware of the name, number, paragraph and subsection of whichever law was being referred to. The papers had been full of diagrams and explanations for weeks, but there was so much other more riveting news to absorb that one had tended to skip the legal stuff and head for the juicy bits
.
Where Berlusconi was concerned, there was never a  lack of juicy bits. 
 
Thus I found myself heading off to vote that summer bearing a stick-it note with "NONONOSI" scrawled on it. Or perhaps it was "SISISINO", I really don’t remember. My main worry was not getting to the church on time, since not only was it rush hour, it was also none too clear where, after a lifetime of moving house and country, I was supposed to be registered.  Under my maiden name.   Over forty years of marriage, two children and five grandchildren, but I am still not permitted to use my married name on any official document in Italy.
I drove out to the borough we had inhabited way back in the seventies where, according to Rome city council computers, I still resided.
I know better than try to argue with a Rome city council computer and I most definitely knew better than to try to argue with one of its computer operators. Eventually I reached the designated secondary school way over on the other side of town just before they closed the polling station. 
When I finally drew up in a cloud of dust, (we do dust in Rome - especially at that time of year,) outside my not very local and not-at-all friendly polling booth with just seven minutes to spare before they closed, parked on top of two police cars thereby blocking their escape route for what I hilariously had thought would be a mere 70 seconds, (just enough time to place My Cross against all the opposite answers to what I was voting for,) it was to be asked, with much sucking of pencil and no little embarrassment, whether I knew where the letter  "J" was positioned in the alphabet? 
 
And do you know what?  I did.  I really did.
Between "I" and "K", I answered with some pride, Whilst looking anxiously at my watch. Three minutes down and four to go.
Silence.
Ms. Voluntary Pensucker starts over again from A and flips her way laboriously through to Z, Swearing audibly. Just her luck. Three minutes (by now) to closing time and she gets the foreigner called Jackson.
Maybe, she said hopefully, they stuck it at the end? With the zebras and zippers.
Try again, this time starting from the end and reading backwards.
You should know that the letter J does not figure in the Italian alphabet. Kiddies in play school go straight from I for Illiterate to K for Kleptomania.   I mused silently, not wishing to disturb her laborious train of thought. 
O.K. Time's UP!!
Sigh of relief all round.
Go home and watch it on the tele.
Except, of course, I didn't have a tele.
Maybe that explains everything. One tele, one vote. No tele, no vote.  though in the end it transpired that I was not going to help change the face of Italian politics singlehandedly anyway.  
The postal vote for the Brexit referendum on the other hand, was a cross between Painting by Numbers and an Ikea self- assembly kit. Two little boxes. Choose one. Eeny meeny miney mo.
Next take piece of paper A and fold along line B. Insert in envelope C and seal before slotting carefully into postbox D. A literary style reminiscent of a Delia Smith recipe.
For U.K. based voters in  some constituencies, notably Bristol, you didn’t even need to make a choice, it was all done for you with a picture of a pencil hovering over just one of the two boxes. The one for remaining in  Europe. Easy Peasy. There. Piece of cake. All the intellectually challenged would vote to stay in because that was where the hovering pencil indicated they should place their  X.  The Remainers couldn’t lose.
 
Well that worked well, didn’t it? 
 
So now we wait for Scotland. I can see the graphics already. A kilted Scotsman building an impenetrable wall of haggis and threatening any invading Englishman with the wrong end of his bagpipes whilst simultaneously dipping his French croissant into a melted Mars Bar.
 
Choice is highly overrated, I reckon.
 
 
 
Sandra Aragona  (alias Jackson) would love you to read the book :
 

 

Monday, 29 May 2017

Less than Popular



 
EASTER EGGS

We are endeavouring to be on our best behaviour at this time of the year. We have disturbed memories, you see. Last Easter weekend saw Beagle and me qualifying for Guests From Hell status. On the Sunday morning we had gathered together our bi-national offerings (Italian olive oil and Cadbury’s Easter eggs), rounded up the dog and tripped lightly downstairs  to stuff it all into opposite ends of the Chelsea tractor.
Trip was the operative word. A litre of  olive oil goes a horrendously long way on a marble floor and takes the best part of half an hour and most of the Sunday Times to mop up.  Hound was subsequently inserted with some difficulty behind the dog-proof iron bars, having picked up the scent of the eggs at 100 yards. I might also mention at this juncture that Beagle’s personal vision of Paradise consists of a large meadow dotted with rabbits (real, imaginary or chocolate,) and laced liberally with fox poo.
We were thus a little late starting out on the requisite trek to the country for the traditional Easter Egg Hunt.
Technologically Impaired husband watched with some scepticism as I deftly programmed my girlfriend’s postal code into the GPS and then turned on the radio. Soothed by the dulcet tones of Ms. Sat Nav, however, he relaxed sufficiently to obey her instructions for once, instead of arguing furiously with her disembodied directions at every crossroad.  I sank back to listen to the chewing-gum-for-the-ears braying of the Omnibus Edition of the Archers. Something about the combined effect of these two acoustical elements  must have dulled our already waning critical faculties. We had the motorway to ourselves and had made up for nearly all our lost time as we swung triumphantly through the gates and up the drive to our hosts’ magnificent residence. Blindly obeying our front and rear sensors, we parked expertly between a Land Rover and a Bentley and began to unload.
Realisation hit the pair of us more or less simultaneously. It was the wrong host. Wrong lunch party. Wrong girlfriend. Wrong post code. Clearly there was an Easter lunch in progress here too – witness the cars all over the drive. But not the one to which we had been invited.
It is not an easy feat to back a 4 x 4 silently out of a gravel drive with a Beagle howling to get out for a sniff at one’s non-host’s lurchers’ backsides, but we managed it. Except that having scrunched back up to the main road spitting gravel to left and right, somehow the main gates had closed on us…..
The good news was that I had, at least, chosen the right county, and after a highly apologetic phone call to explain in graphic detail the tremendous traffic jams we were encountering on the M20, we finally reached, as Ms. Sat Nav sexily remarked, our destination.
Our real host had been obliged to open an additional bottle of fizz which had clearly not overly amused him. His guests were starving and pie-eyed. The cook was threatening to resign as she watched her succulent pink lamb turning to strips of grey leather. Beagle had an immediate fight with the house Labrador about who had territorial rights over the last remaining smoked salmon canapΓ© left on the plate for Miss Manners. The children sulked throughout lunch refusing to eat anything at all because they had been deprived of their Sunday morning egg hunt.
I slipped out into the garden as soon as coffee had been served and started to hide the eggs in as many Beagle-proof places as I could find. This, I realise in retrospect, also rendered them completely invisible and unattainable to anyone under the age of 15 or below 6ft in stature. The oldest child was four and a half, though with the lungs of a thirty year old coloratura.
The score at the end of the day was as follows:
2 yr old girl………..three daffodil heads and a peony.
Older brother……....two shiny flat stones, three pellets of goat droppings, one fir cone, two lost golf balls,
Black Labrador……. look of extreme guilt, four remaining mauled eggs. Estimated eight swallowed whole complete with silver wrappings.
Beagle………………nowhere to be seen. Later found in hen house consuming a raw omelette having rolled in all the fox poo.

Him and Me………… a fragrant ride home.
 
More Beagle anecdotes in:
 

 
 
 
 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Ambassadors Do It After Dinner



AMBASSADORS DO IT AFTER DINNER

Now as all we Diplomatic Bags know to our constant frustration, the term Ambassadress shouldn't exist. And even when one uses the cumbersomely correct terminology– Wife of Ambassador – it still doesn’t carry much weight. Partner? You have to be joking. Equality doesn’t come into the equation here. We are at best an appendage and at worst a liability. A ticking bomb to be kept on as short a rein as humanely possible, if I may be forgiven a mixed metaphor or two.
We take a four hour train journey into the middle of nowhere for His Excellency to deliver a speech about European Matters. As the train pulls out, I asked him precisely which aspect of E.M. he would be addressing for the improvement of his public’s edification, insight and comprehension. The reply was non-committal, but I was made to understand that he would be giving the matter his most profound consideration throughout the trip. I therefore stopped talking and confined myself to listening to our fellow travellers ringing every one of their respective friends and relatives to reassure them that they were, indeed, on the train.
H.E. fell asleep.
After a couple of hours, worried about the possibility of a hired restaurant full of diners living out the rest of their lives in European Ignorance, I gave him a gentle nudge. He half opened one eye, swore gently in two languages and assured me that he could wing it. I went back to glaring at my fellow passengers in three languages as they continued to regale the carriage with their tales of woe or joy or just their latest recipes for quick and inexpensive suppers.
Upon arrival, we were met at the station by the President of the Society in Question, a perfectly charming gentleman in his mid-eighties. A former Ambassador. We recognised him immediately because, as promised, he was wearing an electric blue E.U. baseball cap. The summer version, with the see-through fish-net crown. The rain was coming down in sheets.  At some stage in his diplomatic career, however, he must have been posted to Moscow, for as soon as we had identified each other, he quite understandably exchanged this for a Siberian wolf Davy Crocket number though without, fortunately, the tail. Beagle would have gone wild with delight and shaken it to death right there on the platform. Fortunately Beagles are not an option when Ambos are addressing the after-dinner crowd on Matters of International Importance. The rain turned to hailstones.
Indifferent to the fact that all the Society members were already seated in the restaurant awaiting the arrival of their after dinner speaker whilst drinking themselves to a stupor trying to keep warm, we requested a five minute stop at our hotel to leave the luggage and freshen up.
For “freshen up” read:  “jot down speaking points.”
Whilst we were thus employed, our octogenarian Davy Crocket decided to turn the car around in the limited space of the hotel forecourt whilst waiting for us to re-emerge, painted and coiffed and, more especially, bearing indecipherable squiggles on the back of an old envelope. When we did just that, 6.5 minutes later, we found him standing out in the sleet looking shamefaced.  It had taken him a mere 3 minutes to rip the back bumper off the car whilst backing into an attractive hydrangea bush and a not so attractive immovable concrete pillar and a record 3.5 minutes to stuff the entire offending article into the boot. We were politely requested to pretend we had seen nothing unusual.
A very jolly crowd was awaiting our arrival inside the restaurant. Most mellow. We were slotted into our respective places at table and plied with vast quantities of alcohol: it seemed we had a lot of catching up to do. Food duly arrived and was duly despatched at everyone’s leisure. A musical interlude followed after which various worthies were inspired to hit their wine glasses with a fork until an unruly silence was achieved. The Chairman staggered to his feet to introduce Mr. Ambassador who was to address us upon Matters of Universal Interest and Importance. Except that the Ambassador in question was nowhere to be seen, since the upper half of his torso had disappeared under the table whilst he searched in vain for a) his table napkin and b) his speaking notes, both of which had by then been reduced to a pulp by his neighbours’ wet shoes. 
Some Speakers’ wives manage to buy themselves whole apartment blocks, of course, on the proceeds of their husband’s lecture tours. I don’t know where I go wrong, really. Even the hotel freebies were rubbish. I went around smelling like a tart’s parlour after using the shower gel that night and H.E.’s hair was standing on end for two days after he had ill-advisedly washed it with their organic shampoo. Or perhaps that was just the result of having to answer half an hour of decidedly incoherent questions at the end of a decidedly awful meal.
One certainly sings for one’s supper whilst eating for one’s country.

 



.....and if you like this, try the book from Amazon:
"Sorting the Priorities - Ambassadress and Beagle Survive Diplomacy"