In Connemara

The local shop advertises donkeys for sale. They stare at me because I am obviously not a local. There are oysters for sale at the small market. Cashel blue is a local cheese. I had crab salad for lunch. Yesterday seafood chowder. Delicious! Yes I am in Ireland with my friend Geraldine. She lives 10 minutes drive away from the nearest shop. There is no petrol station, off licence or pub. She doesn’t even have a postcode. But the compensation is that you can see the sea through every window in her home. The landscale is desolate and barren but beautiful. A paradise for those of us who like to relax and be quiet. There isn’t much to do here and that is a bonus. We chat, read, write, eat, watch films. You can’t help but feel better when you return to reality.

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Today I met a friend of Geraldine’s. Anne lives in a grand old house, right next to the sea. She is French and has lived here for many years. Recently returned to her home ‘after seven years on the road’ she writes a blog called ‘grannyontheroad’. For every year during the seven she had a different principle that she pursued. The first one was Freedom, the second Joy, the third Love and so on. She made many friends on the road and told me that people looked after her and out for her because of her age. She has written a book about her extraordinary life and is looking dor a publisher. She gave us tea which we needed as the house was so cold. But her hands we warm and so was her heart.

Under the Tuscan sun

You have to forgive the Italians for their lack of humility for so many of their superlatives are true. The finest architecture, the grandest churches, the best cuisine, the most stylish people, and the best ice cream. Even ‘the best in the world’. At this time of year crowds are less dense. St Guigminiano is said to be the best preserved Italian medieval village. A walled town of 15 turrets. The model of what all Italian cities used to be. Atbthis time of year crowds are less dense and there are few children. But Americans of a certain age in droves. I imagine many of them are in search of the same experiences as Frances Mayes of ‘Under a Tuscan sun’ fame. It must be the ‘Peter Mayle effect’ in Provence. And then, having publicised this idyllic lifestyle he left. I think I am sensitive to their loud voices because of my own experiences as a student 40 years ago in France. Americans were everywhere, and my friends and I were constantly asked ‘Are you American?’ or even ‘Do you speak american?’. I always like to visit churches and of course there are many. But most deconsecrated now (no light on the sanctuary) so you have to pay. A sign of the times. Some have become museums, others ‘vinatecii’. The walls are left to fade. Fewer people understand the history. It’s ironic that many of the frescoes show Christ amongst the people, and in the marketplace. He’s still there.

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A perfect day

The weather is glorious in Italy at the moment. Warm days and a blue sky. A perfect day to visit Loreto in Italy, exactly 50 years and a month after I started as a Loreto pupil in Manchester. Wearing an oversized uniform, like most girls, I hadn’t a clue what Loreto meant. Little did I know about the nuns whose vocation was to educate ‘the poor girls of Manchester’. I always wanted to visit. Loreto is the site of the Virgin Mother’s home, where it was supposed to have been flown from Nazareth and preserved. Few people believe that now. It may be that the stones were transferred. It has been proved that there is some resemblance in the type of stone in both places. It doesn’t really matter. The yellow and white bunting was still in place from the Pope’s visit last week when he inauguarated the Year of Faith. His picture was everywhere. When we went to eat at lunchtime, after paying the bill, they gave me medals. That’s a first. Unlike most places of pilgrimages we have visited there were not queues of people kissing stones, as in Chaucer’s time. I only saw one nun. You can’t go anywhere in Italy as a Catholic without feeling transported back to biblical times. It reminded me of what I once knew and had almost forgotten. Later on we went to Norcia, home of St Benedict. We went into the crypt of the church where he is said to have been born. We were present at Compline, the divine office at 7.45pm. Hooded monks sang it in Latin. It brought back what I had been taught at Loreto. You never really forget. The responses trip off the tongue as they did 50 years ago. I prayed for most people in my life and lit candles. Norcia is a town dedicated to St Benedict and food. Regional specialities must include wild boar. It is on all the menus and there are stuffed animals in the shops. I also saw ‘coniglio di malo’ in a food store which I think is too revolting to translate. I thought of bringing some home as a joke for my son in law. But at 9 euros, if he doesn’t eat it, it’s an expensive joke. I ate tasty sausage and lentils with a local red wine. This is our last night before moving to Tuscany. More churches and restaurants. As always in Italy.

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Wonderful Italy!

Why is it that you can go anywhere in Italy at any time and get a good meal? This would be impossible in or home town. We are in Spoleto in Umbria. The sun is shining and all is well with the world. What seemed like a sleepy town has restaurants still open mid afternoon. Lots of pasta dishes we didnt recognise, great local wine, a dessert with coffee and all for about £15 per person. Granted the free licquer tasted like cough medecine. But it was free and three of us drank it!

Shelley is said to have described Spoleto as ‘the most romantic town I ever saw’. Well I dont know about that but it does seem to have its fair share of winding cobbled streets, antiquities and galleries. Tomorrow it’s Assisi and then Wednesday Loreto, before moving to the Marches. The holiday we never thought we would have.

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Blackpool

20120122-183240.jpgI love Blackpool. I should loathe it, because it’s not what it was when I spent my childhood holidays there in the 50s and 60s. Then it was the first choice of Northern working class folk who had enough disposable income to spend their one week’s holiday there, during Wakes weeks when the factories closed. It was never posh but it was decent. We stayed in hotels on the front. In Central not North. Later South, when my parents had more money. But never b&bs. We had ‘hoteliers’ looking after us, not ‘landladies’. Every year my parents would walk along the front and peer into the dining rooms in an attempt to select a hotel for the following year. ‘Select’ is the operative word because that’s what my mother wanted. She wouldn’t stay in any hotel that had sauce bottles on tables. She liked hotels with waitresses, dressed in pristine black and white uniforms, with frilly pinnies, who handed out napkins. One strict rule for we children was that we behaved at the table. ‘Aren’t your children well-mannered… ‘ was the highest compliment, followed by ‘They know how to use cutlery…’ What do other kids do?, I wondered.

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So seeing Blackpool today is ‘different’. (Let’s be kind). Rows of hotels with fringed and coloured canopies, names like ‘Dun Roamin’ and ‘Ponderosa’, each trying to differentiate their appeal. Some advertise ‘colour television’ as if we we were still in the 50s. We would never have stayed in a Beatle-themed hotel. Mum would have assumed that it was full of Liverpudlians and ‘common’. One of the worst insults. (I couldn’t watch ‘Coronation Street’ because Mum said it gave a poor impression of the North). We once had a waitress with a Brummie accent who was deemed common. When she offered the conversational titbit that she liked salad cream sandwiches, that confirmed the opinion. But where else today could you get a hotel room for £12 a night?

20120122-183207.jpgToday in Blackpool we took Photography student daughter to tea. In an effort to avoid sauce bottles on tables we went to Lytham. Real china cups, tea leaves, not bags. Pot dogs and decorative teapots, you get the picture. Conversation got round to the changes being made to the town. A new front with giant black fronds lining the approach to the Tower. They are trying to remodel Blackpool on Torquay or Las Vegas apparently. To attract a different class of visitor. They have a long way to go…

Taking photos of the sand dunes with a friend late one evening Susie and friend were approached by a man, tottering drunkenly and with just two teeth, looking for a car-park.’Why?’ they enquired (no car). ‘I fancy a spot of dogging’, he said.

I love Blackpool for all its tackiness. I can see past obscenely shaped rock, badly spelt signage, rundown hotels … common folk. It’s the childhood memories that linger. Though we wouldn’t have got Mum back there.

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Customer service stories (1)

The lovely 'Toppings' bookshop in Ely

Customer service – or the lack of it in the UK – is a particular bugbear of mine. So many people who ‘serve’ seem to regard it as a form of subservience, rather than an opportunity to help people.  Whenever I’m asked to design or deliver customer service training I never had to search hard for examples.  Inevitably, in the few days leading up to the training I am on the receiving end of good and poor examples that I use to illustrate my points.

Take the bar of a well-known Spanish tapas chain on Regent Street.  On requesting a second glass of wine I was told ‘It’s not my job, I just take you to a table’. No referral to a colleague, just a turned back.  Second example same place.  After two more requests to the waiter we decided to pay the bill and leave.  A manager look-a-like approached us. ‘How was it for you, ladies?’ (Ugh!). So I told him politely. His reaction: ‘Was everything else ok?’. No apology or redress.  Why ask in the first place? It just compounded the contempt with which we were treated.

Now for a London hotel.  Struggling in with my bags, post training, porter sees me but ignores me (see – older women are invisible). Straight faces at reception. I enquire about wifi. ‘It’s the global system’, I’m advised.  What does that mean? It wouldn’t work in my room, anyway, so I didn’t use it.  The bedside lamp needed a new bulb, the shower spluttered and to cap it all… When I went to dine, alone, in the restaurant, they seated me at a table for 8, in the centre of the room.  When I commented they said that smaller ones were reserved.  I don’t mind dining alone but felt exposed to the room. Not like Mumbai where they put a goldfish in a bowl on the table ‘to keep you company whilst you dine with us’. Unusual tactic but at least they cared! What kind of reaction will Olympic-bound tourists form of we Brits next year, I wonder?

Then there’s the Orange shops. I still haven’t bought an Iphone because of the service. So badly treated I walked out of two of their shops.  Not like the Apple ‘geniuses’ who are brilliant.  Totally take on board the Steve Jobs messages.  (See on YouTube his brilliant address to Stamford University grads in 2005.)

Now for a couple of great examples.  Toppings bookshop in Ely.  I went in because they were advertising ‘Nigella booksigning’ in the window.  Sold out – mmh, could have been a disappointing experience.  But no I got attentive service, free coffee, comfy seating, a signed first edition of the Nigella book, two further signed books for friends with birthdays, all books covered in protective cellophane. In all I bought six books, at full price, something I never do (with Amazon).  Later I discovered that the shop is owned by a former manager of Waterstones, Manchester, who was fired for giving customer good service. What this meant was that he refused to remove books he felt customers would like, in favour of the rubbish celebrity books he was asked to provide. See their website, they do interesting stuff. (And Ely is a great place for a weekend break).

Last week, a busy London restaurant, Da Polpo in Covent Garden. Really interesting place. The interior is built largely from reclaimed materials including a salvaged tin ceiling from New York, church pews, chemistry lab benches and Dutch school chairs. Crammed and crowded.  No reservation, no table available., no problem. ‘Stay and have a drink with us…’. Charming waiter with a sense of humour. Treated like real people. Knew all about the dishes on the menu (Venetian ‘tapas’, try them!) How many should we order? ‘No need to over-order… try a few and then more if you wish’.  None of this a big deal – but exceptional enough to remember and comment. Oh by the way, it’s a family business.

I am with Mary Portas on a crusade to improve customer service. When I train, I define it as ‘being a decent human being’. Although to be fair it’s more of a recruitment issue and not always easy to teach. I have a personal mission to ‘spot someone doing something well’ and tell them.