The Roquefort Files

Travels to the pub and back

January 22nd, 2011

Brisbane II

(Right: it’s about time I finished off documenting the ‘Fynn’s Australian adventure. It’s hard to imagine how different things must be after the horrific flooding earlier this month — thankfully, Chris, Leyla & Scarlet are fine.)

After having spent Friday messing about on the water, Saturday was a designated drinking day. That afternoon Chris guided us to Brisbane’s West End, a cosmopolitan area with cocktail bars, tattoos and singlespeed bikes much in evidence, and we proceeded on a geographically short but alcoholically intensive pub crawl. We kicked things off with an excellent meal in a quiet music bar called Vinyl, then moved across the road to Archive, a so-called ‘beer boutique and bistro’, where we were intrigued to see a waitress working the floor while carrying an enormous tray of — well, of meat. A barman accompanied her with a book of raffle tickets. Chris nodded towards them.

“It’s the meat raffle,” he told us.

“Wait, what?” we asked him. Consternation reigned until the pair arrived at our table.

“What’s the meat for?” we asked him.

“It’s the meat raffle,” he told us.

“A meat raffle? A raffle for meat? But why?

The barman was unperturbed by our obvious incredulity. “It’s the meat raffle.”

“Is it for a good cause?”

“It’s for meat.”

This stylish establishment might position itself as a high-concept ‘beer boutique’ but underneath the gloss it was Australian to the core: if you pricked it, did it not bleed Bris-bonian? If you tickled it, did it not emit a hearty belly-laugh and throw another shrimp on the barbie? We giddily bought tickets and awaited the draw, which we lost. I might have been disappointed had I not become quite drunk in the intervening period.

After Archive we decamped to the nearby Boundary Hotel to shout “Crossroads” at the resident blues band and finally pitched up at a decidedly slick cocktail bar named Sling. We sat outside and perused the menu. What would Don Draper do, I asked myself?

“An Old Fashioned! I must have an Old Fashioned,” I told everyone as I read the menu, “apparently with a Hand-Crafted Ice Cube.”

The waitress took our order.

“Can I have an Old Fashioned, please? And what’s so special about a ‘Hand-Crafted Ice Cube’?”

“I’ll ask for you,” she replied without a hint of irony. And so she did, returning five minutes later. “Basically the ice is purer than water, you see, and so, uh…and also they cut it to fit the glass.”

Miss, I wanted to say, miss, please. The purity of the ice is independent of the means by which it is shaped. Sadly, such a retort was beyond me at that point, not least because I was by now having difficulty forming basic words. “I’ll take one,” I managed instead. When it arrived, most of the glass’s volume was occupied by a monolithic, roughly sculpted cylindrical ice cube; the remainder was occupied by a cocktail not a million miles away from neat bourbon. It was anticlimactic, but in the spirit of the evening I knocked it back. We drank on, taking in stolid White Russians, kitch Tiki drinks and arty molecular cocktails as we ranged through the menu, and at a certain point a primitive survival mechanism clicked into action in my foggy head.

“Guys,” I said, “I have to go now. I’m absolutely hammered.”

I left them to it, taking a taxi home from the rank next to the bar. Finding the side door open, I crept stealthily through the garage and quietly called to Leyla (so as not to wake Scarlet) to let me into the house. I fell into a drunken slumber as soon as my head touched the pillow.

“You know when you came in last night,” Leyla said the next morning as I crawled downstairs with a raging hangover, “I’ve never heard anyone so loud in my life. You shouted ‘LEYLA! LEYLA!’ from the garage, worked out how to open the door yourself and slammed it behind you, then talked to me at full volume as I was trying to get Scarlet to sleep.”

Oops.

* * *

The next few days were necessarily low key. I borrowed Chris’ brother-in-law Darren’s bike for a couple of rides; we barbequed sausages on the deck, played cards and generally pottered around at a laid-back sort of pace. Then, in the middle of the week, Leyla took Doug, Davis, Scarlet and I to the South Bank on the site of the old Expo ’88. There’s an articifial beach and a paddling pool there, and after lunch we sat by the water to soak up the rays and make sandcastles with Scarlet.

Alongside the South Bank runs the Queensland Cultural Centre, an interconnected stretch of concrete edifices housing the State Library, the Queensland Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. In concept, it’s not unlike the gaggle of newer buildings clustered round Edinburgh’s George Square with their multi-level layout and hidden tunnels, but the experience of walking around the place could not be more different. Brisbane’s version is amazing: the concrete is broken up by lawns, trees and ponds, while airy passages cut through the buildings and seem to blur the distinction between inside and out through the use of consistent materials and clever layout. Key to it all, thought, is that the sunlight keeps everything warm, bright and inviting; much as I love the architecture in George Square, in this respect Brisbane has got it firmly licked.

That evening we chaps headed out once again, this time to Caxton Street, a diverse stretch of watering holes that encompassed fixie-riding hipster hangouts, multi-level sports bars and strip clubs. And reader, our evening would also take them in.

Things started off gently enough near Caxton Street’s eastermost extremity in a sprawling multi-level place called , before we headed out looking for some food. Aiming for the Barracks, a converted jail and army base, we gawked into the various restaurants available to us before Chris unilaterally decided on an outlandishly baroque-looking place called Libertine. What he said to us, in essence, was this: “We’re eating here. I don’t know anything about this place, what the food is like or how much it costs, but we’re eating here.”

Libertine, we found out, was a seafood-based French/Vietnamese restaurant with fairly lofty ideas about its station in life. After some horse-trading to manage the 50-50 seafood/you-must-be-joking split in the group, we ate an intriguing meal of soft-shelled crabs, foie gras and a variety of other tasty but challenging dishes. I don’t think I can say we enjoyed all of it, but at the very least it won our respect.

Next up was an Irish bar called Kitty O’Shea’s. We shouldn’t have bothered. The four of us found ourselves forming roughly half the audience of a dreadful ‘comedy’ show which started shortly after we arrived. Doug, Davis and Chris formulated a plan to escape this ghastly spectacle, sidling outside one by one ‘for a cigarette’. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell me about this plan, and so after ten minutes spent wishing quite specific forms of harm upon the performers, I turned round to find the three of them laughing at me through the window. I got up and left, making ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ gestures at the jokers on stage.

Having extricated ourselves, the night picked up. We crossed the road to a tiny coffee/cocktail bar called Cartel. I’m not sure how convinced the others were, but I could have stayed there all night: it had a relaxed indoor/outdoor layout, a decent selection of beers with a South American bent to it, and most importantly of all the toilet key was attached to a set of drop handlebars. (If you know me at all, you’ll understand that this discovery made my night.) From Cartel we hit Calypso just down the road for a jug of sangria (that’s how we roll, yo), which Chris lobbied the barmaid to have spiced up with extra brandy, and where he further endeared himself by haggling over the price and then accidentally smashing a glass on the floor. We drank more cocktails at two formidable multi-bars, the Caxton Hotel and Hotel LA, before finally wandering out into the night air and heading back down to Calypso for a nightcap.

Davis and I were about to cross the road to take a seat at an outside table, and waited for Doug and Chris — lagging behind to light a cigarette each — to arrive. They seemed to be taking an awful long time. As we watched they each took a final drag, stubbed out their cigarettes on the ground, turned around and walked straight into the only strip club on the street.

Oh balls, I thought.

Davis, to his credit, suggested that we get a drink and wait it out, so we crossed over and took a seat. Calypso had — rather unfortunately for a cocktail bar — run out of tequila, and so we ordered a pair of extravagantly gauche strawberry-flavoured cocktails while we waited for Doug and Chris to emerge. As our glasses neared empty, we saw them come out. They each lit up, smoked a cigarette, stubbed it out on the ground, turned around and walked straight back into club.

Oh balls, I thought.

We gave in. We paid for our drinks, crossed back over the road and went into the Velvet Cigar (yeah, you probably want to avoid that link if you’re at work) to find Doug and Chris deep in conversation with one of the strippers. The place was dark but not gloomy and had an unexpectedly upmarket feel about it — to call it ‘classy’ is probably going too far, but it did have a certain Moulin Rouge air which I suppose isn’t entirely incompatible with its primary source of income.

Davis and I walked over to them.

“Guys!” said Chris, then pointed me out to the girl he was talking to and declared: “This man hates strippers.”

And so I found myself plunged into a long, rambling conversation about strippers, strip clubs, moral relativism and my imperfect knowledge of feminism. Of course, at least one of us was sorting out another round at the bar this whole time, and so by the time the first girl had headed off to perform and been replaced by a Geordie physiotherapy student who found that stripping was an excellent way to support her studies, I was completely blotto. I tottered unsteadily back to the pool room near the entrance, collapsed into a high-backed armchair and attempted to focus on the game of pool being played by a hopeful punter and a visibly bored stripper.

When it became apparent to me that it was going to take a lot longer than I would have liked to sober up, I decided that it was time to call it a night. I walked back into the club proper, could not for the life of me find any of the other guys, and headed out the front door to find a taxi. The journey home was an exercise in restraint; restraint, that is, of the contents of my stomach, which were agitating for freedom. I got home to find all the doors locked and my phone gone from my pocket.

“Balls,” I said to myself. After a few minutes spent evaluating my options, I went down the outside stairs and collapsed on the hammock under the deck. An hour or so later I was woken up by the sound of Doug and Davis’ taxi pulling up. They found me in the hammock.

“Dude, you know there’s a spare key under the big plant pot on the deck, right?” asked Doug.

Christ, as Doug is wont to say in an Italian accent, Christ. What an evening.

* * *

I made a round of Skype calls the next day to try to find my phone. The first was to the taxi company, and was relatively straightforward (“Have you found my phone?” — “Sorry, no”) and the second was to the Velvet Cigar. I was in the downstairs bedroom and Skype was on speaker. The receptionist’s first, very loud question:

Where were you in club? Did you have lap dance? Did you have lap dance?

“No, I didn’t,” I told her. She didn’t believe me.

Are you sure? Did you have lap dance? Did you have lap dance?

I could have died. And they also did not have my phone. Le sigh.

We left a couple of days later, saying goodbye to Leyla and Scarlet at the house and Chris at the airport. It had been an amazing holiday, as much for the opportunity to see Charlie, Penny, Annabel, Alex, Chris, Leyla & Scarlet as it was for the chance to bask in the sunny, relaxed Aussie way of life for a few weeks. It’s wrenching each time we have to leave, and this time was no different. Thank you all for having us, and I can’t wait to see you all again!

FIN
December 31st, 2010

Decemberist

(A short interlude before I finish writing about the ‘Fynn’s Oz tour.)

Merry Christmas! This is, somewhat improbably, the 8th Christmas go-round for the Roquefort Files; not only that, but in an echo of the reason I started this whole enterprise in the first place, I find myself in the midst of documenting a recent holiday in Australia. Plus ça change and all that.

The month of December (and the year, come to that) has flown past, despite being packed to the gunnels with a selection box of assorted parties and boozing opportunities. Time for a Christmas clear-out of notes.

* * *
swegly (adj.)
Mutilated hybrid of sweater and ugly

At the beginning of the month I borrowed a knitted snowman sweater from Devon for a ‘swegly’ party over at Ash’s friend Jen’s place. My notes for the party are brief: they say only “swegly party. Ye Gods.” I may have looked a right Christmas pudding, but that innocuous acrylic jumper conferred upon me an entirely unexpected sexual magnetism. I only wish I was joking.

* * *

A couple of weeks later I was round at Jeff & Devon’s with some of the usual suspects for a general pre-Christmas gathering. We ate ham, Jeff and I got drunk and after everyone else had dribbled away due to ‘work the next day’ and ‘illness’ we watched the last episode of Misfits. If you haven’t already done so, I strongly urge you to watch it over at 4oD: it is a foul-mouthed, amoral beacon of utter joy. Next week on Misfits:

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to kill Jesus.”

I love it.

* * *

My work Christmas party this year do took place at Le Monde on George Street, and other than my attempt at dressing as a 1930s reporter, it passed off much as normal. We ate a reasonable dinner, danced at a reasonable ceilidh and then drank reasonable drinks in a reasonably tasteful bar. This was not enough for some of us. I extricated myself from Pivo at 4am and waltzed unevenly home through the slush and ice on slick-soled formal shoes.

* * *

Christmas dinner at home was a step into the unknown: for the first time, due mainly to uncooperative weather and adjacent Christmas appointments, my sister and I were to provide Christmas dinner. In the event things were fairly evenly spread — Ruth and her boyfriend Andy did the starter and main course, our Uncle Jack made some soup and I was to do something for dessert. I chose, as I believe is customary, a recipe that I had never tried together and which hinged on the success or failure of a large pastry component.

I chose poorly.

Here is the actual recipe for failure. I believe it’s called ‘scone dough’ in this context.

  • 250gr plain flour
  • 15gr caster sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 40gr butter
  • 1 large egg
  • 100ml full fat milk

For scone dough, mix all dry ingredients, add butter in cube. Then make a well and add the milk/egg. Mix and make a circle to go over the dish (you need to seal the edges).

I followed this to the letter, but what resulted was not dough: it was wallpaper paste, or at least it shared its defining physical characteristics. It was a viscous, adhesive sludge which I could neither roll out into a sheet nor spread across the top of the filling. I panicked just a little.

In the end, Ruth suggested that we try putting a dollop of the pastry into each of the hollows of a muffin tray to see whether or not they’d rise. There followed an anxious 25-minute wait for the oven, and finally — in a Christmas miracle, if ever I saw one — everything came together. The dough-balls rose to form little scone-like things which we served with ice cream and warm stewed apples, and it was good.

On Boxing Day it was over to Jeff’s Mum’s place in Kirkcaldy for another 4am night of multi-generational boozing, embarrassing stories (“he wouldn’t latch on, you see,”) and a 12-person game of Werewolf dominated by Jeff’s Gran because no-one ever suspects the grandma. Amazing stuff.

December 12th, 2010

Brisbane I

Chris met the three of us at Brisbane airport and ferried us back to his new house in his dependable, pie-warmer-equipped Forester. We said hello to Leyla and their new daughter Scarlet, and I was amazed once again how natural it is to say hi to these guys even though we often don’t see each other from one year to the next. (This, surely, is a either product of a deeply held friendship — of an indelible connection on some intrinsic emotional level — or evidence of supreme shallowness on my part. Show your working.) Scarlet was amazing, looking for all the world like a miniature person in a toddler’s body. Had we not been subject to a mandatory crash-course in adult/child interaction back in Melbourne, we might have been startled by the sudden yells she periodically emitted when our collective attention began drifting away, but as it was we were all pretty much unfazed. We played, gurned away at her and gently pushed phones, netbooks and other electronic sundries beyond her reach.

The first couple of days were a gentle introduction to Chris & Leyla’s new house and the local neighbourhood of Everton Park. We climbed (comically and ill-advisedly) onto the roof to inspect Chris’ beloved solar panels; we walked down to the local creek to see a colony of shrouded, sleeping fruit bats hanging in their hundreds from trees on its banks; we drove to the local drive-through “bottle-o” and bought a “slab” of “beer”; we played cards and drank the aforementioned beer on the deck at the back of the house and gazed out over the leafy Brisbane suburbs.

Chris took Friday off work to take Doug, Davis and I for a day out to Moreton Island, a sand island a few tens of kilometres north-each of Brisbane. We caught a catamaran ferry over in the morning and came ashore at Tangalooma, an ’80s vintage holiday resort built on the site of the old Tangalooma Whaling Station. The only reminder of this gory history is the ‘flensing deck’ a concrete platform onto which whales were hauled for dismemberment, and which appeared to have been repurposed as a rain shelter for ping-pong tables. I wonder how many holidaymakers knocking a table tennis ball back and forth ever consider the slither and slap of blubber and viscera which would have rained upon them fifty years ago?

We walked further down the beach to rent a small metal dinghy along with some fins, snorkels and masks. A couple of miles down the coast were a series of ships which had been deliberately scuttled to form an artificial reef and we puttered off towards them with Captain Dave at the helm. From a physics point of view, our stubby little boat had a surfeit of rotational inertia and an unfortunately cylindrical hull section; from a physical point of view it teetered on the verge of capsizing all the time.

Move to the other side of the boat? Almost capsize.

Move the tiller? Almost capsize.

Twist the throttle on the feeble 4hp outboard? Almost capsize.

And so we pitched, bobbed and rolled the short distance to the wrecks like drunken sailors, finally flinging the anchor into the sea and coming to a more or less steady-state halt. One by one Doug, Chris and I leapt into the blue water — the boat threatening to turtle itself each time — pulled on our fins and masks and swam off towards the group of rusting hulks.

Snorkelling is, if anything, more difficult than scuba diving. When you have thirty feet of ocean above your head you make damn sure to keep your mouth clamped around the regulator, and with a ready supply of compressed air available to purge it or to clear your mask, any errant seawater is quickly dispensed with. With a snorkel, on the other hand, the natural reaction to an ingress of seawater — inhale briefly so you can blow it back out — only makes things worse. Not only that, but the simple act of looking to one side can plunge the tip of the snorkel underwater, and again, your next breath is more of a briny swallow. My progress was punctuated with great heaving gasps for air.

Even in broad daylight on a spring day, the wrecks were an eerie prospect. They sat at oblique angles, half exposed and half submerged with rusty spars and ledges jutting out here and there, and as we swam around them we could peer through hatchless openings into the silty darkness of their holds. I kept expecting some fanged aquatic beast to shoot out and rip us limb from limb. As it was, the marine life was plentiful but harmless: shoals of little fish darted around below us and kept out of our way as we occasionally dived down for a closer look.

We swam back to the dinghy (necessitating, of course, a large amount of pratting about in order to keep it right side up as we clambered in one by one) and returned it after a short jaunt back down the coast. We floundered around inexpertly as we beached, refloated and finally anchored it more or less where we picked it up.

The day brightened had up since we arrived and with some time left before the ferry departed for the mainland, we sat in the sun at a beachside picnic table, sank a few beers and talked bollocks until it was time to go. We sat up on the deck of the ferry for the return trip and I spread out contentedly on the plastic bench: my limbs were heavy from a welcome bit of exercise; my head was fuzzy from the sun and the beer, and my hair was thick with salt. Australia: actually quite good.

November 30th, 2010

Melbourne II

We all relaxed perceptibly after the gig. Borderline shambolic it may have been, but we’d belted out some great tunes and by gigging the new album we’d come satisfyingly full circle from our first recording sessions almost two years ago.

Friday was spent in gentle recuperation from the stresses of the gig but the day after that we piled into both cars for a trip down the Mornington Peninsula, the spit of land which forms the western boundary of Port Phillip Bay. After an hour or so in the car we turned upwards onto a zigzag, Alpine-style road leading up the slopes of a hill named Arthur’s Seat after a supposed (and to my eyes, wholly imagined) resemblance to the Edinburgh original. Charlie’s otherwise bulletproof Falcon felt just the slightest bit geriatric as we rounded each switchback.

We parked alongside Penny’s more athletic Camry (there’s something you don’t hear every day) and wandered out to the lookout point in the blazing sun. It was spectacular: we had uninterrupted views out over the pale blue water of the bay and unbroken sky, with the Melbourne skyline hazily visible to the north a full 60 kilometres away as the crow flies.

That afternoon we drove a few miles inland to a winery for lunch. There was a grassy slope and a sandpit round the back where Annabel could run joyously amok while the rest of us chilled out at a long table on the terrace and gazed out over the rolling countryside. Waiting for our food to arrive, Doug and I walked round to the cellar door at the front of the winery and proceeded to methodically sample each of the ten wines produced there; there followed a fairly outstanding meal and for me at least, a gratifying feeling of being on holiday at last. (I think for me it’s being half-cut at 2pm in the afternoon that does it.)

The festivities continued that night with our first official band night out in Melbourne. We grabbed a taxi to the CBD and followed Charlie through the bustle on the streets to a bar called Cookie. “I’ve been here before,” he said, “it’s great.”

The bouncer eyed us up as we approached. “Got a reservation, guys?” he asked.

“A reservation? For a pub?” Charlie replied with evident incredulity.

“Yup. It’s [inaudible] night tonight — look at all the other people. It’s the races.”

We did appear to be a little underdressed compared with most of the other revellers out that night. And whether or not this ‘reservation’ was just a ruse to keep four likely looking lads out of his bar or not, the bouncer had a point; the races in Melbourne go on all spring and this was clearly some sort of Big Night Out.

We wailed and gnashed our teeth and after consulting Doug’s iPhone went round the corner to Berlin Bar instead. This was to be our first encounter with Melbourne’s infatuation with theme bars, but this was no sloppily clover’d-up Jimmy O’Flanagans or Union Jack-bedecked Red Lion; this was instead a literal recreation of East and West Berlin circa 1984. The door was guarded by a buzzer system and pierced by a slit window through which the maitre’d could decide our worthiness to enter. We passed whatever test was silently administered by the fashionably quiffed (and drop-dead gorgeous) girl who answered the buzzer, and were then shepherded through the opulent ‘West Berlin’ room and into gritty ‘East Berlin’, decorated with ammunition boxes and anti-Soviet graffiti. We were worthy, but only just. Another startlingly attractive waitress took our order of four standard-issue but eye-wateringly expensive lagers. We clinked brand-specific glasses and got to it.

After Berlin Bar we trotted a few streets along to the Croft Institute, a three-storey, ceramic-tiled chemistry lab/hip hop club which served shots in plastic syringe plungers; we drank cocktails at Sweatshop, another hip hop place nearby (sadly, this one only really measured up to the others on the expense front), and lastly we descended on the magnificently pompous Melbourne Supper Club/Siglo, a pair of twinned bars sited respectively inside and on the roof of a grand old Victorian building. We shivered on the roof while drinking beers and eating meatballs — this was a night which needed some protein if it was to continue — and then descended to the warmer surroundings downstairs to drink whisky and rum. I was absolutely mortal, truth be told, but as is my custom I held it together and smiled wanly as the others blethered. Possibly the stand-out, jet-liquid-out-your-nostrils moment of the night happened just then, as a clot of braying, preppy 25-year-old guys at the table next to us started complaining loudly that their cheese platter was taking too long, and that they absolutely could not enjoy their Beaujolais Nouveau without it.

We caught a taxi home, tired, as they say, but happy.

On Sunday Doug and I caught the train to north Melbourne to meet up with Kristen and her boyfriend Steve (who we’d already met at the gig) for a barbeque at Steve’s place. We sat out the back in camping chairs and shot the breeze as we waited for sausages and kangaroo skewers to cook.

Doug had mentioned a few days before that Steve used to restore old American muscle cars for a living, and that he might just have a couple of works in progress on the premises for us to take a look at. My mind reeled at the prospect of getting up close to the coke-bottle curves of a General Lee-era Charger or a Plymouth Satellite or something equally exciting. “So, Steve,” I asked as casually as I could, “I hear you used to repair old cars for a living?”

“Yeah,” said Steve. “In fact, I’ve got a couple on the go at the moment in the garage if you’d like to see them.”

Yes, Steve. Yes I would indeed. Show them to me right now.

Steve rolled back the garage door to reveal — well, as Doug said later, it wasn’t quite the gleaming Mopar mecca we’d expected, but the cluttered garage had a charm all of its own. Two grimy white late ’60s cars — a Chrysler Valiant wagon a cut-and-shut Dodge Dart coupé, Steve told us — were crammed in side by side, the rest of the garage filled with sundry mechanical innards.

“I’ve got a Skyline engine waiting to go in the Dart,” Steve said.

Okay, now you’ve got my attention again.

We nerded out with some petrolhead chat until the food was ready, and after eating we headed inside so that Steve could educate us in the ways of the Melbourne music scene. Seemingly a bit of a renaissance man, Steve is the owner of Love & Theft Records, and as we blethered he trawled through his label’s back catalogue, putting on this vinyl or that CD. Doug told him about our abortive PR attempts with Triple R.

“That’s weird,” Steve said. “Normally if you pay three hundred bucks for an advertising campaign Triple R will play some of your music or get you on air for an interview.”

Coba Fynn: masters of the own goal.

Our last few days in Melbourne went by too quickly. Monday was taken up by a leisurely lunch in St Kilda followed by a little light boozing and some excellent funk music in Windsor that evening, and on Tuesday we again loaded both cars for a day trip down to Phillip Island, off the southern tip of the Mornington Peninsula. We took a walk along the scorching sands of Woolamai Beach on the southern edge of the island, and which, unprotected from the overwhelming expanse of the Pacific, gets some of the best surfing waves in Australia. For lunch we drove over to Cowes on the placid northern coast, and then, leaving Charlie & Penny and the kids to play on the beach, Doug, Davis and I commandeered the Falcon for a trip to a nearby Pirate Mini Golf course. How could we not?

“Anyone mind if I drive?” I asked as we finished our round. I gleefully helmed the Falcon for the 20-minute journey back to Cowes. Charlie, if you’re reading this, I must be honest: I hooned it just the tiniest bit. How could I not? I spun the wheels on the way out of the gravel car park and chirped the tyres as we turned out onto the highway, but that was the limit of my automotive abuse; for the rest of the drive I adhered to the internationally accepted speed limit of “as fast as the guy in front”.*

We rounded off our day on the island with a visit to the Penguin Parade. Each night at dusk, hundreds of Little Penguins come ashore after a day at sea and waddle up the beach to their burrows in the sand dunes above it. We watched this earnest little procession from boardwalks raised up off the beach in the dim light cast by ‘penguin friendly’ floodlights, wandering back to the cars when the last of the birds had scrambled up off the sand. We were all shattered, and I must admit that to a person, we forgot to heed the notices warning us to “Check under your cars for penguins!” before we set off home. Happily, though, no penguins we injured in the making of this entry.

Charlie ferried us to the airport the next morning. Annabel slept soundly in the child seat between Davis and I, waking only to wail inconsolably as we said goodbye at the airport kerb. We kissed her goodbye, man-hugged Charlie and set off for the flight to Brisbane.

* Australia still wholeheartedly embraces the sort of car culture which America seems to have forgotten. GM and Ford (who own Holden and Ford Australia) have abdicated this responsibility to their antipodean subsidiaries who manage to design and build mass market, rear-drive sedans powered by 4.0 sixes and 5.0 V8s in a country of only 22 million inhabitants, while in the USA only bit part player Chrysler can make a similar claim. I saw more ’70s iron with bonnet scoops and side exhausts in three weeks than I’ve seen in many months in North America. It’s enough to make me want to spend a gap year over here, if only so I can spend 12 months hooning an ex-cop Commodore SS around the outback.

November 20th, 2010

Melbourne I

The ‘Fynn are on tour. Two intercontinental flights — a blur of letterbox-sized movies, insomnia, meals with no name (what’s the correct term for a snack comprising chocolate, nuts, cheese and crackers served at 3am in some indeterminate subcontinental time zone?) and thousand-yard, sweaty-faced stares in 747 toilet mirrors — have brought us to Australia. Ten days in Melbourne have passed and ten days in Brisbane remain.

Charlie picked us up at Melbourne airport on a Sunday evening and ferried us back to his house in Bentleigh, a genteel suburb south-east of Melbourne city centre. We sank some Tasmanian beer (James Boag’s, pronounced “bo-ag” if ever you have a need to confuse a Victorian) and a few shots of duty-free Talisker before heading to bed. I slept very well indeed, waking woozily only for a short time in the early morning to hear Charlie and Penny’s eldest Annabel getting ready for nursery. I went back to sleep.

Our first day was a quiet potter around a local suburb named Hampton. We ate lunch just off the main road (I had a salmon risotto which tasted a little curious — this becomes important later), afterwards wandering out to the nearby beach and then heading home so that Penny could collect Annabel. Davis rode along in Penny’s Camry while Doug and I climbed aboard Charlie’s venerable, sun-blistered Ford Falcon Futura to cruise home in ironic style.

I fell in love with this car instantly. It was a redneck bruiser, a lurching retro-tank with acres of space and buckets of character. There was paint peeling off the bonnet, tinting film peeling off the windows and the HVAC controls were off-limits (“if you’re driving this car,” Charlie said, “don’t touch the heating. Sometimes it just stops dead”), but a 4-litre straight six, rear wheel drive and a willing auto box go a long way to mitigating such piffling cosmetic issues. I had an absolute need to get behind the wheel.

Charlie tuned the radio to Melbourne’s local indie station, Triple R as we rolled down Hampton’s main drag. He had been conducting not a PR offensive but open PR warfare against Triple R: “I faxed these dudes a copy of our album cover about six times, with the words “Coba Fynn” written on each one in big black letters.”

He had, in addition, forked over $300 for a series of ten thirty-second radio spots in the days leading up to our imminent gig, and we listened eagerly for it during each commercial break. Charlie’s initial script for the advert had been a semi-random list of adjectives like ‘bombastic’, ‘tender’, ‘farcical’, ’emollient’, ‘surprising’ and ‘bonzer’ (along with the rogue compound noun ‘idiot-savant’) culled from band emails, and had been soundly rejected by the station. If you listen to Triple R’s self-produced replacement you can quite clearly hear the laughter in the narrator’s voice.

Our advert was not forthcoming.

“I’m going to call them with a request,” Doug said.

I watched Doug in the massive fish-eye mirror that the Falcon’s previous owner had clamped over the standard one, and which gave a back-seat passenger a panoramic view of pretty much the entire world, as he dialled Triple R’s number on his phone. This is the conversation he had, word for word:

Doug: “Hi, is this the correct phone number to ask for requests?”

Triple R: “We don’t generally do requests, but what are you looking for?”

“Can you play something from the new Coba Fynn album?”

Suddenly firm: “We don’t take requests.”

“Okay, fair enough. Bye.”

Doug turned to Charlie and I.

“She knew exactly who I was.”

“Oh God,” I cringed. “They must hate us.”

That evening we drove the fifteen minutes to Jam Tin rehearsal studios, two converted industrial units in an anonymous estate off the Nepean Highway, for our first practice in almost a year. We were listed on a whiteboard on the way in as “Covasynn”.

Our room was indistinguishable from more or less every rehearsal room we’ve ever used: a large but past-it sofa upholstered in unfortunately absorbent fabric took up one wall; a mismatched, abused drum kit faced it and a complement of middle-of-the-road Marshalls liberally painted with the words “Jam Tin” completed the picture. The combined whiff of stale BO and air freshener added some olfactory authenticity. We were instantly at home.

With most of our gear still in the UK, Charlie had sorted us out with two Strat replicas and a Stingray bass knock-off, all sporting maple necks, black bodies and white pickguards, and all bought for peanuts at the local Cash Generator. Either they sounded great or we’re chronically unable to appreciate expensive musical instruments; either way, the old ‘Fynn sound was surprisingly audible in these hundred-dollar guitars and battered drum kit.

We broke for dinner a few hours into the practice. The only place open nearby was a Nando’s across the road, so in the Australian style we drove the hundred years to the car park, scarfed down chicken burgers and drove back to Jam Tin to finish the session. The practice had gone rather well, I thought, and with another six-hour block still to come the following night, things were looking good for Wednesday’s gig. Charlie ferried us home and we retired to our various pits.

…only for me to awake nauseous and sweating at around 3am. I clambered off the sofa where I was sleeping that night, stumbled into the bathroom and had only just made it to the toilet when I forcefully hurled the contents of my guts into it. Chiefly visible in the matter I had ejected was risotto rice and partially digested chicken. “Oh God,” I moaned. The sight and smell made me sick all over again. I clung to the porcelain throne with eyes watering and chest heaving for a few more minutes. Finally finished, I brushed my teeth, gulped down some water and collapsed back on the sofa, sleeping, more or less, until Annabel got up noisily around 5.30am.

The bulk of Tuesday was an unpleasant blur, a sort of movie nightmare sequence of tossing and turning and sweating and shallow breathing, lest I trigger the whole thing again. The guys were off out somewhere, so when I managed briefly to get up I sat with Penny and Annabel and baby Alex and tried not to breathe on anyone. Penny gave me an electrolyte powder to help get some water back into my system and by 5pm that day I was well enough to get up, shower and get ready for the practice. At 6pm we were back in the same room down at Jam Tin. I was still a little wobbly, but we managed to take care of the loose ends in our set, and more significantly I was able to hold down some Thai food from an unassuming but decent local restaurant.

On Wednesday, Doug, Davis and I occupied ourselves with a little light sightseeing (lunch at Federation Square and a visit to the observation deck of the Eureka Tower, a genuinely entertaining attraction which comes across as a little desperate to define its uniqueness — “highest public vantage point in a residential building in the Southern Hemisphere”) while Charlie worked. We had a beer in a Federation Square café but I was still suffering from yesterday’s travails and a single ‘pot’, or Aussie half-pint, was enough to send me home for the day.

Thursday, the day of the gig, was mostly spent practising, writing down makeshift set lists and picking up rental gear. Charlie was working again, but having met up back at his house we made it through the turgid rush-hour traffic and were unloading our hired amps at the Empress with a couple of hours to spare.

The Empress was a marginally grungy place composed of a bunch of knocked-through rooms on the ground floor of an old hotel. We set up and soundchecked on the crowded stage with our begged, borrowed and (possibly) stolen gear and retired to the dining room to await our hoped-for public. What with our radio ad, spruced-up website and Charlie’s hounding of his colleagues at work, we were expecting literally teens of people. I picked at my stringy steak sandwich without much enthusiasm; lingering rumblings in my stomach combined with acute nervousness to suppress my appetite.

Gradually people arrived: some of Charlie’s colleagues, Doug’s old housemate Kristen and her boyfriend Steve who happened to live in Melbourne, and my old workmate Sheena who even more coincidentally happened to be on holiday in Melbourne at the same time. With fans of the headlining band Paint Me A Phoenix arriving too, the room was reassuringly non-empty.

We took the stage at 9pm, strapped on our matching pawn-shop guitars and played. And when all is said and done, we played pretty well for a band ravaged by jet lag, food poisoning and the common cold. Granted, we were a little shambolic at times, but what’s a drumless verse or a fluffed bass line between friends? We finished with our first-ever live rendition of Whitechapel, a track of which I’m inordinately proud despite having nothing whatsoever to do with its composition, and it rounded off the gig magnificently. We came off stage and clinked glasses. Tour complete! Now the drinking could begin.

October 26th, 2010

Waiting days are over

Calling It A Day album cover

After much heroic effort by all concerned, Coba Fynn have finally released our debut album! Calling It A Day is out now on CD and for download at bandcamp.com, and you can preview all of the tracks there, not to mention download our 2007 Waiting Days EP for free. cobafynn.com has been spruced up and our Facebook group is gathering steam — Calling It A Day is a misnomer, really; the ‘Fynn are back in town.

P.S. In Melbourne this November? Catch us there at The Empress hotel on the 4th!

October 24th, 2010

(It’s all) catching up

I turned 33 a couple of weeks ago. Jesus died at this age, as people keep reminding me, just as turning 27 came with a flurry of “Hey, didn’t Jimi Hendrix/Kurt Cobain/Jim Morrison die when he was 27?” And while Jesus marked this particular year of his life with a triple-whammy of crucifixion, reincarnation and sublime ascent to the right hand of God, I decided to kick things off with a few jars down in Stockbridge.

Yea, it was good.

Glory be

We met up down in the Raconteur in Stockbridge, and things snowballed after a slow start. I was given a cornucopia of tremendous birthday presents to enjoy later — a batch of brownies from Jez & Katri; a book about Le Tour from Row (how did she know?), and a quite mesmerically awesome melamine-plate-with-painted-sperm-whale from Jeff & Devon (how did they know?) — and a variety of tasty drinks to enjoy right then.

Sam arrived later (gift: The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas — “explores the relationships between quantum physics and post-modernist and deconstructionist theory” — how did she know?) and proceeded to set me up with a series of shots of liquor sorted, at least as far as I can remember, in terms of increasing difficulty. Apricot brandy was followed by tequila and then absinthe. I became very drunk. Other people may have brought me shots too, but by then I was on autopilot. I swayed gently and nodded appreciatively. We went home when the bar closed.

Next morning, the brownies saved my life. Carbs to soak up the booze and sugar to kick-start my system: the perfect morning-after birthday present.

A few days later Maisie and I, along with Jeff, Devon and Custer, were over at Sam’s place for Tim’s slightly-surprised birthday party. Custer and Maisie’s love/hate relationship seems to have reversed polarity and become instead a hate/love relationship. They start off play-fighting with alarming ferocity and then at some point, like courting teenagers discovering that a pillow fight is just a gateway drug to something quite different, things tip over into sexytiem! Or at least they do for Custer; Maisie seems oblivious to Custer’s romantic overtones and continues with the play-fighting. It is quite something when the hubbub of conversation in a roomful of people gradually dies out and everyone swivels to watch the pair of dogs inexpertly grinding in the middle of the room.

The festivities continued the next weekend with a ceilidh at Pollock Halls, with tickets being organised by Row in honour of a visit by her Mum. The band, who I get the feeling I’ve seen before, were fantastic, and by the end of the night everyone was exhausted and dripping with sweat. In a good way. The stand-out dance of the evening was the Cumberland Square Eight, where sets of two guys and two girls form a ‘basket’ and spin so that the girls’ legs fly out and up as the guys support them. It looks striking from the sidelines; no less memorable is the sight from inside the basket, where each guy gets to stare at the sweaty, grunting visage of his opposite number as they take the strain of spinning four people at once. I’ve never felt quite so close to Neil as I did that night.

October 16th, 2010

En Plean air

The Roquefort Files are currently on holiday tour with Coba Fynn in Australia. More on that soon, but first a post about my first cyclocross race. You might want to skip this one if the bike blogging isn’t up your alley!

As I stood by the chip van with a lorne sausage roll in one hand and a styrofoam cup of coffee in the other, I wondered what I’d let myself in for. I was with Brian (one of the Sunday regulars from the ERC) and his wife in Plean Country Park near Stirling, and we were waiting for our race to start. Our first cyclocross race, to be exact. I was all nerves, jittering in the cold partly to keep warm and partly because my system was buzzing with Lucozade and banana and energy bars.

In cycling terms, ’cross racing is ancient. Legend has it that to keep fit during the winter, fin-de-sièle French cyclists would race from town to town across the intervening fields, churning through the earth, throwing their bikes over fences and fording streams along the way. And despite the carbon fibre and titanium on show in the paddock at Plean, cyclocross clings to tradition like mud clings to a tubular tyre: slender frames and drop handlebars ape their road racing forebears, wheels ride on skinny tyres with decades-old tread patterns, and the whole shebang is brought to an eventual halt by finicky and primitive cantilever brakes prized for their mud clearance over any pretense of stopping power.

We made nervous small talk and glanced around at the other cyclists. Aside from the mountain bikers — already we were subtly prejudiced against the mountain bikers, who in our eyes had brought the cycling equivalent of knives to a gunfight — the other ’cross racers arrayed about the starting area seemed distinctly professional in their aspect, all one-piece liveried skinsuits and set-jawed determination.

I warmed up as the penultimate race of the day (women, veterans and youths) came to a close, and Brian and I followed a six-pack of our grim-faced competitors out onto the course for a sighting lap. Plean seemed to me (judging from my extensive personal YouTube experience) to be a fairly representative course, mixing grass, tarmac and hardpack surfaces with narrow singletrack sections and wide-open straights. One of the hallmarks of ’cross racing is the deliberate inclusion of unrideable sections, and here we were forced off our bikes for a muddy scramble up an earthy bank and again later for a standard-issue ‘obstacle’, a pair of wooden planks a few strides apart. A few exposed tree roots and muddy corners rounded things out and brought us back to the start-finish straight where the riders were congregating in advance of the start.

The commissaire moved down the knot of racers, calling the genuine contenders to the front and separating us into four-abreast lines. Brian and I ended up midway down the pack with another couple of ERC riders in our row; I found myself on the outside, with a muddy ditch to my right. I’d forgotten my HRM, but I could feel my heart rate mounting: we were standing still, but my body had started the race already.

The commissaire climbed onto a grassy bank beside us. He reminded us of the rules of the game and announced: “I’ll start the race by blowing this whistle sometime in the next thirty seconds.”

“Good luck,” we told each other.

A second later and the whistle blew. There was a gentle crunch as fifty left feet propelled their owners off the line, then fifty clicks as cleats met pedals, and the race was on.

Or rather, it wasn’t. The field was so dense that there was no way to make a move without ploughing into the back of another rider. Up ahead the leaders were leaving us for dead, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. Content to be upright and not actually going backwards, I kept station in the centre of the pack and waited for things to thin out.

The chance to open things up came as the track took us through an open gate before heading off into the woods. The pack squeezed through like toothpaste from a tube, and when my turn came I stood up in the pedals and hit it as hard as I could. Almost immediately I overtook a big guy wearing shorts emblazoned with the words ‘Royal Marine Commando’, and I thought to myself:

What if I can actually beat this guy?

It turns out that there’s nothing like dropping a trained killer to galvanise one’s vestigial competitive instincts. At exactly this point my vague plan from the start of the race — to pace myself until the final lap — was smartly defenestrated, and was instantly replaced by “Destroy! Destroy!” For the next hour I went hell for leather (at least in relative terms), determined to roll home ahead of my first scalp.

Without the ability to sit inside a wind-defeating peloton or to reach the speeds where drafting other riders becomes an option, ’cross racing boils down to outright fitness and bike-handling skills. A well-timed dismount-portage-remount is enough to overtake another rider, while a botched manoeuvre will rob you of your momentum or even pitch you off the bike and into the undergrowth. The race reduces to a series of mini battles, hopping from wheel to wheel when the terrain allows it and your energy levels cooperate.

Little moments stand out: a Contador episode when I shot past a rider with a dropped chain (“bad luck!” I told him as I passed by; he replied only with a baleful glare); a thundering descent towards the dismount for the earthen bank, only to brake too late and come to a juddering halt with the rear wheel spinning in the air; the recurring nightmare of a muddy descent-corner-ascent where the bike slithered around almost uncontrollably but which I managed to pull off lap after lap.

By the last lap, signalled by a ringing bell, I was almost out of energy — sliced sausage, banana and Clif Bars had been overwhelmed by an hour of all-out effort. My Commando nemesis had been steadily making up lost time, and as we ground up the long climb before the barriers and then the finish line, he inched slowly by me and then disappeared off round the corner at the top. I was too tired to be angry, and by the time I reached the barriers myself I barely had the energy to lift the bike over them and remount on the other side. After that all that remained was a mercifully easy downhill and a final cheeky bunny hop over the speed bump just before the finish line. I rolled to a halt on the grass beyond the line, dropped my bike and collapsed on the ground. I was absolutely wrung out.

The results came out a few days later. I’d finished 20th of 53, one lap down on the leaders and one place behind the Commando. The race had been a revelation: exhilarating, terrifying and gruelling. And we’re supposed to do this every weekend for three months?

October 9th, 2010

Good moaning

From Orléans we hared down the toll motorways towards Bergerac, stopping only a couple of times to refuel either the car or ourselves. At one particularly green and pleasant rest stop, we snacked on baguettes and sweaty cheese as a TGV whooshed incongruously past sounding more like an airliner than a train.

We turned off the péage near Bergerac and, after half an hour of missed turnings and conflicting directions, found the villa in nearby Lanquais. Tom, who had already arrived, showed us up to the terrace at the back and pressed glasses of Bordeaux red into our hands.

Before we could settle in to this rural French idyll, though, there remained the little matter of picking Josh up from Bergerac airport. A couple of oncoming cars had flashed their lights at us on the road to Lanquais, reminding us that the Alfa’s headlamps remained defiantly unconverted from UK spec, and with no desire to be lifted by the Gendarmerie on our first day here, I called Josh to tell him the bad news.

Here is how that turned out:

RF (on phone)
Josh, I can’t pick you up. The headlamps are still set up for British roads and I’m blinding other drivers here. Can you get a taxi instead?

JOSH (on phone)
Balls. There are no taxis.

JEZ, KATRI, JEFF and DEVON arrive. They have picked up JOSH from the airport.

ALL
RF, you are a massive cock.*

* repeat ad nauseam

Still, that minor unpleasantness behind us (who am I kidding? I’ll be getting stick for that ’till the day I die), we settled in to enjoy our first evening. We ate baguettes and camembert provided by Tom, watched as the bats took flight from the eaves of a neighbouring house at dusk and generally relaxed. And then we got shitfaced.

The next day we headed out for a stroll around sunny Lanquais, taking in the château and the nearby lake. We were chagrined to find out that the lake was dedicated to a “miniature port” and that swimming was not allowed.

“Why not?” someone asked.

“Because of the eels,” Devon replied. “Because of the electric eels.”

That afternoon we took both cars to a Carrefour on the outskirts of Bergerac to stock up on food for the week, only le supermarché était fermé because it was Sunday. Thwarted, we drove in convoy to a nearby McDonalds, ordered a perfunctory few items between us, propped open our laptops and basked in the glow of the complimentary wifi. Jeff and Josh checked their respective fantasy football teams; I checked the progress of the Vuelta a España and more or less everyone checked their work email accounts. Disconnection anxiety reigned, but hey; it was sunny, and even McDonalds is bearable in France.

Unable to feed ourselves, that night we had dinner at the Auberge des Marroniers, the surprisingly cheap and even more surprisingly excellent restaurant at the edge of the village. And then we got shitfaced.

The week meandered on in a similarly relaxing fashion. We visited local villages (Limeuil, Lalindes and St. Emilion) and towns (Bergerac and Bordeaux); we canoed down the Dordogne, hauling the canoes onto a pebble beach along the way to stop for a thirst-quenching beer; we shopped at open air markets, speaking broken French to bemused stallholders; we ate croissants for breakfast, read the International Herald Tribune, played pétanque, picked apples in the garden and lazed in the sun. We drank like alcoholics and ate like kings.

Life in the villa was so achingly French that from a dreich Edinburgh viewpoint it seems almost absurd. The house was the very image of a traditional French farmhouse, at least as it exists in the mind of a British tourist, and the village around it was sun-drenched, rustic and quiet. Eerily so, in fact — we barely saw any of the inhabitants from day to day, and the village shop’s shelves were almost bare. Presumably our daily order of croissants and pains au chocolat was enough to pay the no-doubt piffling French mortgage.

All in all, the holiday was very good indeed, and by the end of it we were already discussing plans for the next one. My only regret is that the €6, 5-litre plastic keg of wine that Josh and I fought so hard to get into Devon’s carefully curated shopping trolley during our first visit to Carrefour was carelessly left behind. I was distraught. C’est la vie, I suppose.

September 23rd, 2010

Old Orléans

I felt like a new man when I woke up in Bruges. Which was nice, because the me of the day before was a broken-down alcoholic with impending liver failure.

After checking out of the hostel we pottered into the middle of the old, walled town of Bruges. It was a lovely little place, full of well-restored older buildings (without internet access here in our villa in the Dordogne, I hesitate to guess at what period the older buildings are but I’ll plump for anywhere in the last 400 years) and well-architected new ones.

To me, the way that modern buildings had been integrated into the existing fabric of the town was as impressive as how well kept their older neighbours were. It seems to me that in Britain, shitty architecture in the middle of grand old towns is a given: buildings which are meant to blend in end up as lazy pastiches of the prevalent architectural style, and those ‘statement’ buildings striving to make a break from the past are boring, corporate sandstone monstrosities. In Bruges, though, modern buildings were either indistinguishable from their older neighbours, or were timeless enough to not embarrass themselves by standing out. Minimalist glass-and-steel cubes sat at ease in amongst centuries-old ornate stonework, and simple, modern shopfronts made for intriguing rather than incongruous additions to older buildings.

We ordered coffees and pastries at a swanky little café on a square of jewellery and couture shops. Our waitress, perhaps only 17 years old and already with near-perfect English, brought them to us at an outside table and we watched as the inhabitants of Bruges (Brogues?) went about their daily business. The striking thing was how healthy everyone looked: tanned, slim and generally good-looking, not to mention quietly well-dressed, if not quite so intimidatingly fashionable as in Italy.

Bicycles were everywhere, but the lycra monster/rusty MTB commuter split typical of the biking population of Edinburgh was nowhere to be seen. Here, almost everyone rode sit-up-and-beg Dutch city bikes in a very bof (or the Flemish equivalent) manner, trundling along at a dignified pace and chatting on mobile phones or smoking a cigarette. It was very, very civilised.

We pottered around for a while longer, taking in the leafy canals, narrow back streets and the intricately carved stonework which appeared here and there in the form of crests and gargoyles on houses and churches. The one fly in the ointment was the occasional waft of a vaguely sewage-type smell — another reminder of Florence, and apparently the price one has to pay for a well-preserved medieval town. Other than that, Bruges was a town for which the word ‘charming’ was invented. I’m tempted to make a return trip one of these days.

* * *

We loaded up the car and took our leave around lunchtime, heading out onto the motorway for the first long driving stint down towards Paris. There had been some discussion as to whether this was a good idea.

“Hell no,” I said.

“I’ve printed out a Google map with directions,” said Ash, and so in the absence of any better plan we decided to roll with it.

We hit the périphérique around 4pm and spent the next hour and a half in nerve-shredding nose to tail traffic, with motorbikes shooting past on the white lines with their hazards on and their horns blaring. Our first exit was closed by roadworks, the hard shoulder was littered with broken cars and at least one SUV trundled past in a tunnel with smoke billowing out from its engine bay. We’re going to become a tunnel fire statistic, I thought. British tourists perish in Paris traffic apocalypse.

After what felt like a complete orbit of Paris we found another exit and turned south towards Orléans. We arrived around 7pm, at the tail end of rush hour, and the streets were still clogged with cars. Roadworks on the way in threw us off track almost immediately, and after being funnelled all the way across town by the relentless traffic we capitulated and asked for directions at a nearby hotel. We found our own hotel (forming part of Orléans’ conference centre, as it turned out) without too much more fuss, but getting into it was another matter entirely. At every step there was a problem.

Gain entry to the building
The door is locked. Wave at another guest loitering in the foyer to buzz us in.
Find room key
Reception is closed. Follow another guest up to the second floor at the direction of the manager, who is providing instructions via the guest’s mobile phone. Enter a code (again provided over the phone by the manager) into a wall safe and find inside a bunch of envelopes with names and room numbers on them.
Park car
Find that parking garage is locked and that the room key and key fob do not operate any of the four entry systems on the wall beside it. Await egress of another car and drive craftily under the closing shutter. Drive two floors down to find a space reserved with the hotel’s logo.
Return to room
Call lift from garage. Find that lift cannot be called to this sub-basement floor. Take emergency exit stairs up two floors, noting in the process that every door onto the stairs has a blanking plate rather than a handle — once you exit, you can’t get back in — and exit at street level. Re-enter hotel via front door. Go to room. Collapse, mentally and physically exhausted.

We did nothing else that night. Orléans could suck it, for all we cared.

* * *

The next morning dawned a little brighter. Only one more day of driving before we got to the villa! Having packed up and tidied the room, we entered the Crystal Maze a second time.

Take lift to sub-basement level of parking garage
Enter lift and discover that the sub-basement button does nothing. Take the lift to the basement instead.
Take stairs to sub-basement level of parking garage
Exit the lift at the basement level, pass through the poubelles room and enter the emergency staircase. Descend one floor to the sub-basement level and pry open the handle-less door by fingertips under the door. Leave door ajar so that future fingertip gymnastics will be obviated. Reflect that perhaps parking is not included in price of room.
Leave the parking garage
Load up the car and drive up two floors to the exit. Discover that the four exit systems (still) do not respond to the room key or key fob. Press all visible buttons on all door-related systems. As a last resort, press the big red panic button attached to the door motor and discover that it is an emergency stop button rather than an emergency exit one.

Concede defeat and call for help
Reverse car away from door and park in nearest free space, which coincidentally is reserved for the “Président” of some construction company or other. Return to street level via the emergency stairs, find contact number at (still closed) reception and call for help. Occupy half-hour wait for weekend manager to arrive by ordering cappuccino at neaby tabac and realise that the staff are subtly mocking you by providing instead a latte with a massive dollop of squirty cream on top. Fume silently. Ignore Ash’s laughter.
Gently coerce weekend manager into releasing locked parking garage door
Accompany weekend manager on same odyssey to parking garage as undertaken earlier, with added complication of mistakenly entering a pitch-black room next to the poubelles with a locked door at the end. Try to suppress laughter as weekend manager fumbles with keys in the light from your phone’s screen and fails to unlock door, then retrace steps back to emergency exit stairs. Feign surprise when handle-less door off stairway is ajar. Try and fail to convince weekend manager that the car was not in fact parked in the Président’s space all night. Learn unequivocally that parking was not included in room rate (“This is not your parking place. We do not even do parking ‘ere. ‘Ow did you say you got into the garage?”). Wait for manager to release door. Drive off waving in a bemused touristic fashion. Thank your lucky stars you weren’t stuck in Orléans all weekend. Drive south very rapidly indeed.