Monday, 4 October 2010

I come bearing gifts

Battling the rain, with my mock-Chanel sloppy trousers rolled-up around my ankles to avoid the tell-tale splatter, I picked my way around the puddles to the Tube station (that's what they call the London Metro/Subway). My destination? Kings Cross Station - or rather St Pancras International (or St Pancreas... as I like to call it) home of the Eurostar. I was heading home to Paris for the weekend. I'd packed rather light, in my wonderful Kitsch Kitchen bag. After some agonising sartorial decision making, I'd plumped for the school girl meets Chanel look which involved soft layering, slouchy trousers, long necklaces and charm bracelet, and a lot of pink and purple. (Sorry, I've been gorging on the freebie fashion mags on Eurostar - it's either that or Sudoku).

I'd even painted my nails "Rouge Seduction" which only the most dedicated of readers will remember as "the Woman" nail colour in Desire. That was a bit of a gamble: not only is this season's deep iridescent purple more "on trend" but there was a risk my mother would disapprove of the clash with my pink and purple colour scheme. (Note: as it turns out, she disapproved of the rather natty bright red lipstick that I put on to detract from my no longer black but mauve and green eye.) The other bit of gamble was borrowing a character's physical trait - but she was bold and feminine - a good talisman for a rare family visit. As it was a rather last minute decision, the top coat got mussed up - so I diligently repaired the damage when I got to the Eurostar lounge, but on that later.

Now for the "bearing gifts part". I'd already purchased some short bread, a favourite of my favourite aunt and godmother who is now 80, full of beans, and who developed a penchant for short bread shortly after my first stay in England in the late 1970's. (Kidmore Road, Caversham Heights if you must now.) Now I had to find something for my parents.

I got to St Pancras very very early. After retrieving my ticket from the self-service machine (which always involves a Continental frisson of  the "will-it-accept-my- booking-reference-number-or-will-the-computer-say-no" variety) I headed back out into the shopping arcade in search of TPP: The Perfect Present. They have loads of lovely things and I flirted with the idea of getting my dad the latest John le Carre hardback but decided against it as I was pretty sure he hadn't enjoyed the last one I'd got him. I looked at some costume jewelry and pretty scarves but my Mum has always eschewed frivolity and bright colours in favour of her very own brand of monochrome minimalism (head to toe black with the occasional flash of brown, tan, grey or white). Votive candles, incense sticks or house fragrances from Rituals? My mother doesn't tolerate lit candles or incense sticks... apparently the soot in the smoke blackens walls and ceilings.

So I walked into Neuhaus, the Belgian chocolate people. Everyone likes chocolate. Especially my mother. After a shortlived  "should I get the 40 or 60 piece" debate between my instinct to be generous and the voice in my head telling me my mother might think it wasteful, I went for the box of 60. Eat your heart out.

Not for the first time in my life I wistfully thought how I would have liked a mother who loved receiving presents, any kind of present, rather than a mother with impeccable taste. Luckily, therapy and a dedication to my personal yoga practice have made me rise above such considerations. Even if it still makes present hunting that little bit more challenging.

The lady in Neuhaus wrapped a nice ribbon around the box, and after paying for my purchase, I went to take part in the obstacle course which Eurostar generously provides free of charge to all passengers and which they amusingly call "security and passport control". Ha.

Actually it was fine. I got flirted at by a security lady with a Heidi blonde hairstyle (but not body searched) and I got a searching look from the French police official who was too polite to ask about my black eye.

Having reached the main lounge (as opposed to the lounge for business and first passengers which is off limits to the great unwashed) I sat down for the rather long hour wait until the scheduled boarding time and was treated to the most fascinating floor show - set to an Andrew Lloyd Webber catchy tune, it could have given Les Mis (Victor Hugo must be spinning in his grave) a run for its money.

Act 1: Bloody Jonathan. A rather tall and plump American business man called Jonathan had apparently tripped and hit the floor with his left brow and was now sitting rather dazed, blood pouring down the side of his face, attended to by Eurostar personel. They were diligently wiping his face clean with copious amounts of paper towel and a glass of water (!). They eventually wrapped a huge crown of gauze around his head before two medics showed up with some more impressive medical kit and - I think - gave him a few stiches. A few moments later, sans the gauze, he was escorted off presumably to his train? Goodbye Jonathan.

Act 2: The Mail Order Bride. An other American sat down next to me on my right. He was the domineering type who spoke in affirmative statements ("Swiss Rail Passes are a waste of money!") and his partner was very nervy but acquiescent. I nicknamed her the mail order bride. Totally not PC. Totally inappropriate. But he was getting on my nerves. And I wanted to kick her. I wanted to kick him too.

Act 3: Don't go anywhere. To distract myself I turned my attention to the lift well on my left. A Eurostar employee was wheeling a sweet rather frail looking elderly lady holding crutches towards me. He stopped by the lift and left her with a rather concerned sounding plea: "I'll be just a minute, please don't go anywhere!" She and I had a nice chuckle over it. "What on earth does he expect you to do?  Go scooting around the place?" "I know! I know! But isn't he sweet?"

Act 4: The Ballet. Then the real action started. Due to the late arrival of one train (from the depot! What happened? Was someone sleeping?), both the Brussels train and the Paris train (not mine, I was on the next one, I got there that early) boarded simulaneously. I watched wave after wave of people launch themselves across the lounge and then squint desperately at the most badly designed boarding screens and then perform a little jig, left - right - left until they finally spotted some unfortunate Eurostar Staff at whom they brandish their ticket in a desperate flourish only to launch themselves all over again in the direction in which the finger was pointed, trailing scarves, small children and luggage.

Act 5: The Trick. Like most things in life - is all about timing. You want to be standing close to the entrance to the platform from which your train will depart so that you can walk up the ramp ahead of the crowd, find your coach, find your seat, have room for your luggage near your seat, snaffle the freebie papers and mags and get yourself all settled in. The challenge is that the platform number is not announced until boarding commences, about 20 minutes prior to departure time. The trick is to spot the clues. Be alert. 25 minutes before departure time, I spotted a very pregnant lady with a stroller being directed towards gate 7. I took a gamble. Leaving the domineering American and his yes girl behind I followed the pregnant woman. And sure enough, the doors opened and after flashing our tickets, up the escalator we went. Cool.

We left on time. The journey passed without incident.

And my mother loved the chocolates.

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