Paris – Tuesday

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Aah! A busy show day together with my Portuguese and English agents. These two fifty-something ladies are talkative, bubbly characters and also have a business relation together. They have a whale of a time reminiscing of assorted incidents on a recent trip to Portugal. A lively ambience is called for, so I select Le Grand Café in Boulevard de Capucines.

The ambience is the usual 1900’s Art Nouveau style, our table is on the verandah overlooking the Boulevard – just the spot for people-watching! And people-watch I must, as my two companions are late! They appear after 45 minutes, claiming to have mislaid addresses, delayed taxis, etc…..methinks they have just gone shopping! Anyway, after a quick apéritif (A Kir Royale for me), we get down to the nitty-gritty: I choose to go for the seafood tonight, and order a plate of langoustines and crevettes grises. These are served as usual on the platter of ice, with a side of brown bread and mayonnaise. A nutcracker, steel toothpick and an L-shaped fork device to get at the innards of the langoustines. I spend a happy hour cracking them open and getting at the succulent meat within. The tiny little crevettes grises are also excellent, but require rather more effort in peeling them open. My partners instead choose escargots and sole meunière, and foie gras and a magret de canard. A good Pouilly Fumé washes everything down.

Dessert: I decline the superb Moelleux au Chocolat , and plump for the Parisian classic – the Crème Brulée. The shiny sugar crust gives way with a satisfying crack, the creamy, eggy interior is simply délicieux!!

Paris – Monday

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First day of the exhibition. It’s rather slow to get going, but then we had a steady flow of visitors, mostly our existing customers and distributors. Competitors also came along to talk shop. The Parmesan was attacked and red wine flowed. Travel back to Paris on the RER jam-packed with exhibitors and visitors, but I manage to win a scramble for a seat.

An so on to dinner tonight – I select an old favourite of mine that I used to frequent regularly but then dropped as once they failed to honour a reservation because I had arrived a mere 10 minutes late! But for good food, I am willing to forgive and give them a second chance, so here we are: Restaurant Vagenende, 142 Boulevard St. Germain, 75006 Paris. Tel. 01 43 26 68 18. In the heart of the Quartier Latin. Beautiful 1900s mirror décor.

We start with an unusual apéritif: a glass of Crémant d’Alsace, perfumed with an essence of violets. Sweetish, but a lovely aroma! Accompanied by an amuse-gueule of croûtons with olive paste. As entrée, I have Feuilleté de Chèvre Chaud, a wonderful creamy goat’s cheese, served on crisp puff pastry on a bed of frisée salad and a good spoonful of acacia honey! My partner chooses a Tartare de Saumon fouttée à la crème, I do recall I had this dish ages ago and it still looks delicious.

Our seconds arrive: Carrè d’agneau rôti au thym, with a side of gratin dauphinois. The lamb chops are tender and juicy, but maybe a little too fatty – it’s the wrong season! My partner instead opts for a tender melt-in-the-mouth fillet with a two-pepper sauce. A bottle of Médoc Château Carcanieux 1997 accompanies our meal.

Dessert – a high point for Vagenende: the crème brulée vanille bourbon here is an unctuous delicacy, but I leave that for my partner, whilst I have a croustillant chocolat crème anglaise – a cylinder of mousse au chocolat placed on a chocolate biscuit with a light vanilla and chocolate custard. A must for chocaholics like me!

OK, Vagenende, all is forgiven! I’m a loyal customer again!

Paris – Sunday

Long lie in this morning. We take advantage of being bambini-free, and I arise at 10:30. I avoid the overly expensive hotel breakfast (a mere EUR 20!), go to the local café and partake of a croissant, jus d’orange and a café au lait. Just what we need to start the day in France and to prepare to build the exhibition stand where we will spend the rest of the week.

We hop in the car and drive through quiet Sunday morning streets up to the Périphérique and on to the A1 northwards. Just before CDG airport are the giant Villepinte exhibition halls. As usual on the day before exhibitions, the place is a hive of activity, with workmen hammering, sawing and driving fork lift trucks at top speed. We unload our exhibition essentials (Parmesan, red wine, espresso, a couple of brochures….) and locate our stand. Our stand builders are there, but…..the stand is not according to the agreed plan! Frantic phone calls to Italy follow and we determine that the workmen’s boss had given them the wrong drawings!! More phone calls to our stand designer, we agree on a new plan that can be made with the materials to hand. The final result is decent enough, but we wasted much time and then had to hang around whilst the builders finished the job. We get back to the hotel at about 20:45, totally knackered!

Moules.jpgNo desire to go miles out to eat, so we go to the nearby Chez Léon, a chain of Belgian mussel restaurants. The ladies have a panful of mussels each, but I can’t stand the things, so I make do with a steak frites and a large Affligem. Collapse into bed afterwards.

Paris – Saturday

Long drive over to Paris – we manage to do 1.100 odd km. in 11 hours. Rain and storm in Italy and much of France, but the weather cleared as we approached the Ville Lumière.

We check in our hotel. The Holiday Inn in the Place de la République is a large establishment, housed in a Napoleon III era building, with a large central courtyard. The room is not large, but comfortable, a good place to spend a week in.

chez Jenny.jpgHowever, the hotel has no private parking! I have to drive around for an hour before I find a garage that has a free space! With this, we don’t go out to eat until 9:30, so I choose the nearby Chez Jenny, in the Boulevard du Temple. This is a brasserie alsacienne, with lots of choucroute varieties, groaning with sausage, bacon, jarret de porc and so on. But we are tired and decide on simpler fare: I choose a Foie Gras de Canard avec marmelade d’oignons, followed by a Steak Tartare avec frites. My partners also have the Tartare, but choose Escargots and Frisée salad as starters. A good bottle of Gewürztraminer Riquewihr 2000 with a lovely fruity bouquet refreshes our taste buds.

USA 4 – Grand Canyon

Saturday – we check out from Bally’s and collect our hire car – nothing fancy – a Chevy Cavalier with usual incomprehensible ding-dong noises and crazy “central locking system” that requires you to press an assortment of buttons. Have GM never heard of keys?

Never mind. It’s a fine cloudless day and we’re off to the Grand Canyon! First direction on US 93 towards Arizona. About half an hour out from Vegas we are in Boulder City and have a hill top view of the shimmering waters of giant Lake Mead. Surreal in a dry desert country. Soon after, we pass by the reason for this lake: the giant Hoover Dam, an engineering wonder built between 1931 and 1934. We’d like to stop and visit the museum, but we have no time, there are still many miles to the Canyon! Security at the dam is strict: no buses and trucks allowed at all, all cars and RVs have to pass a security check. Uncle Osama has not been caught and they’re evidently taking no chances.

US 93 continues into Arizona desert country. First we pass through barren brown mountains stretching away for miles on all sides. Then through a flat, featureless desert. The road is straight as an arrow for thirty miles or so, disappearing ahead into a mirage. This is the great American West, the landscape is huge and there are few signs of human habitation. The sky is equally huge, and the few clouds dotting it are a vivid part of the scene. How come we don’t notice it in our everyday life?

We get to Kingman, Arizona (“the heart of historic Route 66”), grab a coke and bagful of beef jerky, and join I-40, the main interstate heading east from L.A. The traffic is mainly the huge American trucks with number plates from all over the US: Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee…. Incidentally, the speed limits are generous (75 mph on I-40, 65 on the state roads), and there are no snarling cops to be seen. The landscape changes again: no longer desert, but arid plains and barren hills, unlike any European scenery. Ever so slowly, the road rises: we pass 4,000 feet, then 5,000, mile after mile we climb onto a high plateau, studded with small conifers.

We leave I-40 at Williams, Arizona, a small frontier town, with Highway 64 heading directly North: its only destination, the Grand Canyon! Again, more miles of driving in high plateau country. This is the Kaibab National Forest. The few settlements we pass appear to be populated by Indians (Sorry! Not politically correct: they’re called Native Americans and now live in trailer homes, not in teepees). We pass the type of dusty gas stations you see in films: two pumps, signboards flapping in the wind, freezer chests with “ICE!” written on the side. Miles of nothing on both sides, the road points straight towards the only feature in this plain, a red rock butte.

We pass Tusayan, Arizona, and the Canyon is near: there are a few motels, a supermarket, a McDonalds, an airport with signs offering Canyon flights. Five hours and 280 miles from Vegas, we are there: the Grand Canyon National Park entrance. We pay the $ 20 entrance fee, and proceed onwards in a juniper and pinon pine forest. Can this be it? It’s not what I expected. I assumed we would be in some kind of mountain range! We proceed towards a newly built visitor center when a road sign indicates a view point: Mathers Point.
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What I see takes my breath away: a huge gash in the Earth as though some giant had cut a zigzag separating the North Rim from the South Rim. In between, thousands of rock columns, amphitheatres, pyramids, walls, terraces, cliffs, crags and pinnacles, in hundreds of shades of red, yellow, ochre, grey. Far, far below, the blue water of the Colorado River can be seen. The North Rim is far away across from us, more than 16 km away, say the signs. What a sight! This is nature at its most majestic. What a difference from the tacky kitschiness of Vegas!

As we go (on foot) from one viewpoint to another, we begin to appreciate the subtle nuances in the rock layers, more than a dozen from rim to canyon floor – a geologist’s dream! As the afternoon wears on, the light changes, the shadows lenghten, and the whole view changes too. We are now at Hopi Point, and have a fantastic outlook on the sun setting down on the Kaibab plateau and of the reddening rocks of the Canyon walls. Soon, only the highest spires are bathed in the evening light, and as the sun finally sets, the full moon is rising on the opposite side. A chill wind sets in – we are at about 2,500 metres here! But soon the shuttle bus arrives and takes us to our lodge.
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Evening meal at Bright Angel Lodge – a southwest steak fajita with guacamole, refried beans and tortillas and an excellent “Fat Tire” Colorado ale. We retire tired but happy.

Sunday – we take the shuttle bus to the viewpoints we didn’t see yesterday – here I must admire the organisation of the US National Parks – with a regular free shuttle bus service they have eliminated the traffic of the hundreds of private vehicles, whilst providing access for all. The informative panels at each viewpoint and at the park center are exemplary. At every point we admire the Grand Canyon’s unique beauty and changing scenery. But at 11 we have to say goodbye, we must drive back to Vegas to catch the 5pm flight to Denver and thence to Minneapolis. The drive back retraces our previous day’s route, but it is not at all tiring, we just set the cruise control and enjoy the endless vistas.

As I write, I am brought back to earth after the wonderful Grand Canyon experience. Or rather, I am up in the sky – in a cramped centre seat in the DEN-MSP flight with nowt but a packet of peanuts and a coke to eat, and a 23:45 arrival time!

USA 3

My second full day in Vegas today. Much like the first: wake up at 4-5 am due to jet lag, toss and turn around in bed, eventually I get up, check mail, breakfast, then off to the convention centre. I’m visiting a janitorial supply exhibition, much like the one in Amsterdam I saw in May. Only this is bigger. Lots of meetings with customers and potential customers.

The fun part starts after the show: we go off to visit the fantastic hotels – Paris complete with Eiffel tower and bistros, Bellagio with huge lake and fountain display, Caesar’s Palace with Roman Forum, the Venetian complete with St. Mark’s campanile and gondolas, the Mirage with exploding volcano, Treasure Island with pirate battle….Vegas is the true capital of kitsch! And people everywhere late at night – a most uncommon sight in American cities. And of course the sights of the casinos: hundreds of slot machines a-ringing at all hours in a cacophony of sound, the yells celebrating a winner on a roll at the craps tables, the discreet side-rooms where middle-aged Chinese ladies bet thousand-dollar chips at Baccarat.

Nothing to report on the foodie front. The convention centre specialities are warmed-up cheeseburgers with greasy fried onions or hot dogs. Last night we chose badly and went to the buffet at Caesar’s: shrimp salad, spare ribs, assorted sweets. OK, it was just $ 16.99 (“gratuity NOT included”), but we could have had better. Tonight we will patronise the steak restaurant in Bally’s, supposedly one of the best in Vegas.

Our Saturday excursion has been decided: we will go to the Grand Canyon! We’ll have an early start, drive over at European speeds and hope to see something before sundown. Hey, it’s supposed to be one of the wonders of the world, it’s not that far, I’ll give it a go! North Rim is closed, so we’ll go to Yavapai Lodge on the South Rim.

USA 2

As it turned out, my flight to IAD left at the same pier A as my arriving flight from VCE. But this is no consolation: gate A56 is upstairs in the long distance area, whilst gate A28 is downstairs in the Schengen area. The escalator connecting the two is cordoned off for “security reasons”, so this means a long trudge to the head of the pier, up a flight of stairs , through pasport control and a long trudge back again!!! Germanic efficiency is losing its famed touch!

Security is relatively relaxed, I meet my colleague Andrea who has come in from a Milan flight. Again, the flight to Washington is full – evidently the airline cuts have resulted in a higher passenger load.

Usual high LH standards aboard – a prime reason why I choose this airline over another. After take off we are served lunch – I choose the Gravlax with Coriander Ginger Mayo and smoked trout tartare as a starter, the Gravlax is fine, but I would much rather have a Hovmästersäs with dill instead of the mayo as a side. As a wine, I select the 2001 Riesling Schossgut Diel – a fine wine with appley flavour, but I would really have preferred something drier with the salmon.

As a main course, I select an excellent lamb medaillon with herb crust accompanied by ratatouille and potato dumplings (= gnocchi in Italian!). The lamb is very tender and tasty, but the wine, the wine – a superb 2000 Stellenzicht Stellenbosch really gets the ticket! Michelin would say “it’s worth a journey”. Let me quote the blurb accompanying the wine: “the deep red ruby colour of this Cabernet Sauvignon and its exotic bouquet with predominant aroma of blackcurrants and mulberries make it a very pleasurable wine. The elegant oak tones and a long finish complete the picture”.

What really completes the picture for me is the Taylors Port to accompany the Gingerbread Mousse Basel-style and Fig compote, followed by a delectable Kirsch……..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Somewhere over Chicoutimi, Québec, I get prodded awake – it’s mealtime again! Jeez, I was sleeping soundly! With an admirable spirit of self-abnegation, I decline the meal, and settle for a glass of mineral water!

Flight time FRA-IAD: 8h35min. I arrive in Washington at 15:55 = 21:55 CET. A cloudy autumn day, 14C. No sign of Bush’s pad out of the window. Lots of United jets on the tarmac, must be one of their hubs. An hour or so to rush for the Vegas flight. Let’s hope we make it through customs and immigration in time!

AAARGH! The immigration queue was *miles* long! No amount of entreaties could convince the guys that we were in a hurry to get a connection. Final result – our bags make the flight to LAS, but we have a gate door slammed in front of our very eyes!

UA rebooks us to Vegas via Denver. It ends up that we should arrive in Vegas two hours later than we expected. It’s now 00:00 CET, I’m still on the East coast, I have a nose bleed, there are no biz class seats and I’m pissed off!

A lunch box is served aboard. I peruse the contents: a bag of tortilla chips (“perfect for dipping” – but no dip!), a bread roll with “honey roasted turkey and American cheese” (dry as a bone), a sachet of mayonnaise (presumably to relieve the dryness), a tub of vanilla pudding.

Flight time IAD-DEN 3h10min. Arrival at 19:40 local = 03:40 CET. My eyelids are drooping…..

DEN is at 1,650 mt. above sealevel -we’re now on the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (sadly invisible in the darkness). Supposedly one of the world’s largest airports by area. Curious terminal building with a roof like a circus tent. Not that I care much – at this point I’d rather have a bed!!

On to my fourth flight of the day: DEN-LAS is 1h50min. Travel in so-called “First Class” – all you get is a couple of cans of Heineken and a sachet of peanuts! And then the airlines wonder why people aren’t travelling any more…

Finally get in to Vegas at 21:30 = 6:30 CET. Just about time for you folks back home in Europe to get up!! The airport halls and baggage claim areas are alive to the sound of the slot machines, welcoming the first punters. Quick drive by shuttle bus to Bally’s Hotel and I’m now ready to straight to my king-size bed!

USA 1

Looooong day flying today – a trip to the USA beckons! I set off through the usual morning traffic to Venice airport – a full hour and a half is required – I’m always disconcerted when about 10 minutes after take-off I see my town and house below on the right. Think of the time wasted! I could use a company ‘copter instead!

Disorienting arrival at VCE. They inaugurated a new terminal last July and this is my first time here. The car park remains next to the old terminal, so I have to hike a while before I get to check-in. The new terminal is supposedly modelled on old Venetian warehouses. Lots of glass, a zigzag roof.

The LH A320 is full! A cold collation is served over Innsbruck: asparagus, smoked chicken breast, sausage, jumbo shrimp, a Kartoffelsalat, mustard mayo. Two Lindt chocs. A Gerolsteiner Sprudel and a nice Chilean white wine. Didn’t see the label, but quite possibly a Chardonnay! Flight time to Frankfurt – 1h05, we are slightly late on departure, I’ll probably have to rush for the connecting flight to Washington – most likely on the furthest possible pier with the longest security queue…..

Drumshanbo

Another grey and wet day. I have the flight out at 16:00, but there’s a few meetings before that! We quickly meet a guy in a hotel just off the Dublin ring road, then we’re off to the countryside! Destination: Drumshanbo, co. Leitrim. I have difficulty locating it on a map, it’s way out in the sticks, almost by Sligo/Sligeach on the west coast. About 200 km. from Dublin. In weird Irish fashion, distances are shown in km, but speed limits are in miles! Confusion reigns.

We drive past flat countryside, much like rural England: green fields, hedgerows, grazing sheep and cattle. Several lakes (locally known as loughs) dot the scenery. Many road improvement projects financed by the EU regional development fund. No wonder many Irish are against EU expansion (and there will be a referendum on the Nice treaty in a couple of weeks) – they would lose out to the countries east!

I am told that the best scenery in Ireland is to be had in the South West – wild coastline, country pubs, friendly locals. But the cost per person for a B&B is now around EUR 40! Will hence give Ireland a miss for holidaying unless I travel in a motorhome or something.

Meeting with customer in Drumshanbo, then back down to Dublin just in time to catch Ryanair to Standsted and then to Treviso!

Dublin

A grey drizzly day. Ok, the Emerald Isle must get rain to stay green I suppose….

My MII’s family problems have caused disarray in the trip. Ivan (despite the Russian name, he is a genuine Irishman) tries to reorganise visits and make sense of the intended schedule. We visit a few accounts dispersed around Dublin in dreary industrial estates. There is no big deal to be done on this visit: this is a “distributor support” trip – a chance to talk shop, discuss possible new business areas, and a chance for the distributor to wheel me in to a few people to show what a fine company he is representing. They supposedly like this kind of treatment!

At one point we pass through Phoenix Park – a vast green area in Dublin. The presidential palace is located there, with the American ambassador’s residence just in front. A large cross nearby marks the spot of a Papal Mass a few years ago.

I am fascinated by the bilingual English/Irish road signs: Dublin/Baile Atha Cliath – Cork/Corcaigh. The roots of the Irish language are way unfamiliar tro me!

I have to arrange my own evening meal as Ivan has another meeting. It is raining. I am tired. I elect to dine at the hotel bar: steak and chips and a couple of pints of Guinness. Nothing worth writing home about…