Amsterdam 1 – pre-dawn

VERY early start today: alarm goes off at 3:45 so that I can catch a 6:20 flight to Amsterdam. Blech! Apart from the odd lorry, no one ventures on the roads at this hour. I make my way in the growing light of dawn, there is more activity around VCE, and the airport is actually busy with assorted biz people and long-distance holidaymakers mostly travelling to the US. At this time there is not even a coffee shop open for a cappuccino, and so at least stave off sleep, not to mention the hunger pangs!

Paris 3 – La Coupole

Spent whole day walking the show. Quite a few customers here and also customers of our distributors, so much talking shop and promises of eternal collaboration (i.e. we’ll send you an order soon…). I had to stop at the stand of our gastronome Belgian and refresh myself every now and then with a cool glass of Corsendonk beer.

Coupole.jpgDinner tonight with my largest German customer, who is also exhibiting at the show. I select a Paris institution: La Coupole in Boulevard Montparnasse, a brasserie founded in 1925 and still going strong. It’s a large place, with about 300 couverts. Good, solid, traditional brasserie menu: I choose the foie gras with the obligatory sweet white wine (a Gewürztraminer Spätlese from Alsace), followed by an extremely tender Chateaubriand with Béarnaise sauce – a far cry from the tough shoe I had yesterday! Ile flottante as a dessert – that is, “floating islands” of hard beaten egg whites on a lake of sauce anglaise (=custard). Yum!

My guests were suitably impressed by the food and the lively atmosphere (not many restaurants are packed full in Ludwigshafen on a Wednesday night…), and seemed to enjoy their soupe au poisson and grilled sole meunière. They even more enjoyed the bottle of Sancerre we drank. On my next trip to Germany, they promised to invite me to their favourite Gasthof that apparently does an excellent Saumagen. I’m not sure if this is a treat or a threat….

Back to the hotel at 11 pm, where I spent a good half hour talking with a garrulous Tunisian receptionist and his Japanese girlfriend. A weird conversation – he started off trying to flog me an Ecuadorian Panama hat, then moved on to world politics, throwing in references to European integration, the thinking of Sartre and Nietzsche, Chinese population trends, and the role of black Africa in Arab thinking. We concluded agreeing that de Gaulle was right in keeping the Brits out of Europe in 1967 and that Berlusconi is a shite. I assure you that we were all quite sober!

Paris 2

After the morning’s airport excitement, I finally get to board the 11:30 Air France flight to Paris. Compares very badly with Ryanair. Although there *is* some kind of service, it consists of an orange juice and a bag of peanuts, at almost eight times the cost of the flight last week to Stansted! Lo-cost competition has not arrived on the Paris route…

Arrival at CDG, then smooth transfer to the RER train towards Paris. The cleaning exhibition I am visiting is away on the other side of town at Porte de Versailles, and with two metro changes it takes me a good hour to get there. A little larger than the UK exhibition, and full of my products, with most stands displaying a few sprayers. Our gastronome Belgian distributor (who handles this sector) is doing his job well!

On to the hotel before dinner. I am staying near Montparnasse, an area of Paris I am relatively unfamiliar with, but close to the exhibition halls. The hotel room is a tiny box with barely enough room for the bed – not a good choice! Never mind, I won’t be staying much in there! Check out the TV news, praise Chirac for standing up to Anglo-American neo-imperialism. Have you read the report that the Bush admin has already divvied up the post-war Iraq reconstruction spoils? Of course Cheney’s Halliburton is getting the job of rebuilding the oil fields after the cruise missiles have finished destroying them. British companies are squealing as they haven’t had their “fair share” of the loot. Disgusting.

Anyway, back to the nitty-gritty. I walk along the lively Boulevard Montparnasse, full of theatres, cinemas and many restaurants. Spring is almost here, and the dehors of the cafés are full of people watching the world go by. My chosen restaurant tonight is Rotonde, Blvd. Montparnasse 105, at the corner of Blvd. Raspail. I regret to report it was not a good choice. As starter, I chose a charlotte de saumon something-or-other that turned out to be a baked potato with cheese filling on a bed of smoked salmon. Not a good combination. As seconds, I select the entrecote au beurre à la fleur de sel that promised to be a juicy steak, but turned out as a rather chewy, fatty, hunk of meat. I was not impressed by the accompanying gratin dauphinois either. No garlic to be tasted when the thing should have been reeking with it! I console myself with the light and crispy Millefeuilles à la vanille bourbon, and the half bottle of Lussac St. Emilion. There are better places to eat in Paris.

Paris 1 – missed flight….

I am currently sitting at VCE, and am mightily pissed off: I arrived at check in for a flight to Paris at the usual 40 mins before the flight was due, only to be told that “due to security” the regs have changed and all flights close 45 minutes before departure!! Result: I have to be rebooked to a later flight, an have to pay a penalty fare to boot! Luckily I get to Paris only an hour later than expected, but it’s not a good start!

Athens 3

I wake to a grey winter day. There’s a stiff wind outside and the hills surrounding Athens are blanketed by snow. Morning visit to the offices of my Man in Greece. No chance for any sightseeing, he’s in a grim industrial area outside the city centre. Well, as grim as most industrial areas, but I notice the streets and pavements are potholed and in need of repair. The traffic is terrible: total stoppages are said to be frequent due to heavy pollution.

Usual discussions presenting our new products, market situation, activities of the competition. I study more etymology: “competition” in Greek is “antagonismos”! We then go out to do some market research in a couple of supermarkets – an opportunity for me to grab a 1 kg pot of delicious Greek yoghurt and a bottle of Metaxa 5*. Soon enough it’s time to head for the airport. We enter the brand new Athens ring road, financed by EU cohesion funds (the Greeks are desperate to spend as much EU dosh as possible before the East Europeans get in). In just twenty minutes or so I get to the “aerodromos” with plenty of time to spare for the flight back to Rome. I while away the time catching up with email and news in the AZ lounge.

More airport waiting in FCO, I finally board the chock-full Venice flight, an hour’s drive home and I arrive at last at 22:15.

Athens 2 – evening

Uneventful flight from Rome to Athens; there is plenty of free space, as the departure was delayed they serve us lunch at 14:30, and I hungrily wolf down my ration of penne al sugo di olive and roulé of salmon. As we prepare to land, I observe the sparkling blue waters of the Aegean as we approach the mainland……..hang on…….on closer inspection, the waters are steely grey, a fierce wind is whipping up the waves and the clouds are covering the barren hills…. this is winter!! Temperature around 5C, and the locals are evidently not used to this!

Surprise as I emerge from the aircraft – this is not the old Ellinikon airport I knew, but a completely new airport with acres of marble and granite, called Eleftherios Venizelos. Efficient and quick, particularly as I only have my carry-on trolley. My Man in Greece has an appointment this afternoon, so I have to make my own way downtown. It turns out there is a direct bus to the central Syntagma Square. The airport is out in the countryside and it takes well over an hour in heavy traffic. I amuse myself reading the Greek signs (I can only read the capital letters!!) and thereby getting an etymology lesson:

bibliotheka – bookshop
typosgrapheios – printer
sigara – tobacconist
exodos – exit

At Syntagma Square I take the metro to the hotel – another surprise – only two or three years old – more acres of marble and granite – not a single graffiti in sight! The Greeks are certainly benefiting from EU dosh and, naturally, a grand plan for the 2004 Olympics.

I meet my Man in Greece for dinner. He is a friendly guy of my same age; appropriately named Achilles. I have met him a few times before, but only briefly; I am glad to be able to get to know him a little better. He takes me to a rather posh restaurant called Dionysos just at the foot of the Acropolis – you certainly can’t fault the setting: vast plate glass windows with a view of the floodlit Parthenon and the theatre of Herodes Attikus just beneath. Magnificent!

We dine amongst the great and the good, and the food is excellent too: assorted _meze_ (dolmas, moussaka, spanakopitta, kalamares and others), a grilled sea-bass with courgettes and greek salad. Maybe a little over-enthusiastic in the olive oil, but this habit is typically Greek. A good bottle of Santorini white wine and a Metaxa brandy to finish. The conversation ranges widely from talking shop to bambini to stock market woes to Iraq. A very pleasant evening!

Yassou!

Athens 1

This week’s trip is a short hop to Greece. Fly in today, fly back tomorrow. A visit to our local distributor, who is a good one, but given the size of the country, does not do an enormous amount of business. But I’ve promised him long ago that I’d visit him, so here’s the opportunity.

I’m looking forward to the trip: I was last in Greece twenty years ago in 1983, as a fresh-faced neo-graduate exploring the roots of European culture and Byzantine architecture. Of course sun, sand and s*x had no attraction for me… Anyway, I wonder how the place has changed.

My itinerary today takes me VCE-FCO-ATH, with AZ. I arrive punctually in Venice, only to discover that the Alitalia flight is delayed and I risk making the connection in Rome. The check-in lady efficiently reschedules me on an AirOne flight. I go to gate, only to find THIS flight is delayed too! Aargh! I’ll have to sprint for it in Rome!

Côte d’Azur 2

Early morning start today: I have an 8 am meeting with my first customer. The valet collects my car from the garage, then I drive up the Grande Corniche on the way towards Monaco. This particular customer is in a splendid location: from his plate glass meeting room windows, the view stretches from the seaside to the glinting snowy peaks of the Alpes Maritimes. Aren’t meetings better with this kind of scenery rather than with a view of a car park?

In contrast, I spend the rest of the day in the large industrial area north of Nice. Decidedly more down-to-earth, but also very convenient, as I can see four customers one after the other. Exit one customer, drive a couple of hundred metres along the road, enter another customer.

More visits in the afternoon, then back to the hotel. After checking in back home and a shower, it’s time for dinner! My chosen spot for the evening is l’Effeuillant at 26 Boulevard Victor Hugo, tel 04 93 82 48 63, in the modern city centre, specialised in Provencal cuisine. As I enter, I feel somewhat out of place: it is maybe more suitable for a romantic evening out rather than a single business traveller, but the waiter soon puts me at ease. I decide on the menu fixe. Firstly an amuse-gueule is served: a small toast with smoked salmon, plenty of olive oil, a few sprigs of fennel.

With the entrée, it is obvious that the chef has an artistic bent. I order a Terrine de fois gras de canard au Muscat de Frontignan, pain brioché. Instead of the usual limp lettuce leaf to garnish the slab of fois gras, I have an exquisitely decorated flower made of sprigs of chive with a tiny quartered tomato and a few drops of balsamic vinegar to serve as branches. The foie gras is sprinkled with a few grains of sel gros. It is so beautiful that I am reluctant to eat!! As we say in Italian, “anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte”!

The foie gras is excellent as well as beautiful, and is soon followed by the second course: Carré d’agneau tout simplement rôti, avec son jus d’ail, a succulent roast rack of lamb, with a very garlicky sauce and roast potatoes. I love lamb, but it’s hard to get in our part of Italy out of season, so I am glad to enjoy it.

The waiter arrives with a rumbling cart: the cheese course! I am presented with a wide selection, and choose the St. Maur, St. Marcellin, Livarot and a tiny piece of chèvre whose name I forget.

Dessert is a soufflé glacé à l’orange which is a rather posh name for a cylinder of orange ice-cream, but here again the chef has excelled in the decoration: with tiny pieces of exotic fruit, candied orange peel and a sprinkling of icing sugar, he has created another work of art!

A half bottle of Côtes de Provence red went down very well.

Now I ask you, can you show me where I can eat a comparable meal in England for EUR 31, let’s call it twenty quid?

From the restaurant it’s not far to the Negresco and the sea front Promenade des Anglais, and I walk briskly in the cool night back to the hotel.

Côte d’Azur 1

This week I’m on a three-day trip to visit my customers and contacts on the Cote d’Azur. Not a trip I do every year, but it’s always “un vrai plaisir“. The locals are friendly, the climate is agreeable, the customers are generally “sympa“.

The drive to Nice is around 550 km. I leave at 8:30 and at a steady pace arrive at 15:00, with a short lunch stop before Genova. Weather good, temperature about 12C, not exactly balmy, but certainly warmer than back home. On the way to France I pass the dozens of greenhouses on the coast of Liguria, housing the famed Sanremo flowers. Mimosas in full bloom bedeck the hillsides.

Quick meeting with a small customer in the industrial area outside Nice, longer meeting at the airport with a potential agent for Poland, but who lives in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Claims to be able to sell millions but requires rock-bottom prices. Hrrumph! Then I drive along the Promenade des Anglais to my hotel, near the old town. It is dark, but the immense crescent of the Baie des Anges is impressive as ever: lined with fine hotels, the Negresco in primis, the West End, the La Pérouse just at the end beside the castle, where many, many years ago I spent my wedding night!

Tonight’s dining choice is an old-time favourite of mine, Flo in rue Sacha-Guitry 2, just round the corner from the hotel. It is a 1920s theatre that has been converted in a restaurant, whilst still maintaining it’s original structure. The foyer has become the bench for the huitrier, on the stage, beyond a huge red curtain and a plate glass window, is the kitchen with the bustling chefs and the diners are seated at tables where the audience would normally be.

I decide to eat fish: as a starter Tartare de saumon mi-fumé, jeunes pousses, parfum exotique. As expected, the classic minced salmon with a baby spinach leaf salad, but hey, what’s this?? A mango sauce! Strangely enough, the smoky, salty salmon is well matched to the sweet mango! What a surprise!

As main course I chose a Nage crémeuse de joues de lotte, ravioles au basilic. I am presented with a mysterious black cast-iron cocotte, the waiter opens it with a flourish, and proceeds to ladle out the contents. I have a delicious creamy monkfish stew, with tiny basil-filled ravioli, with morel mushrooms, a sprig of rosemary and a dried tomato. Incredibly tasty – only the French could make a dish of such perfection!

As a wine I choose a dry Muscadet sur Lie, 2001, but a red would have gone down equally well with the monkfish.

Dessert: being a chocaholic, I am sorely tempted by the Croustillant de Chocolat amer, crème anglaise à la vanille, but after much indecision I decide on the Croustade de Pommes gasconne au jus du vieil Armagnac. A worthy choice: I get a crunchy puff pastry castle with a puréed apple filling, the alcoholic aroma of Armagnac wafting all over. An excellent meal!

To aid digestion, a brisk walk up to the seaside, I watch for a few moments the bright lights of the planes landing at the airport on the other side of the bay, then on to bed.