THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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June 2018


I had another splendid day. I rose early and loaded the car before breakfasting and checking out. I was on the road by 0815. I fuelled and topped up washer fluid at the first petrol station on the autoroute and set about devouring miles. I encountered my first and only traffic jam on the approaches to Lyon. This may have been caused by the strike on French railways today, but it was nothing by London standards and I was soon heading South on the wonderfully named Autoroute du Soleil (Motorway of the Sun). I lunched modestly on a packaged salad and some mango at one of the aires and pressed on to my destination. The only excitement came when a sudden thunderstorm caught me out on the motorway with my roof down. At speed, the rain mostly passed me by and I only really got wet during the 14 seconds it takes Speranza to pull off her convertible to coupé trick during a quick pit stop in an aire. Half an hour later it was blazing sunshine again and 30ºC. So I boxed again to lower the roof and let the sun dry out the interior.

Having left the motorway and cruised slowly but uneventfully along the Promenade des Anglais, I left my bags with the hotel reception and headed off to my planned spot in a nearby underground car park. Road works in the centre made that more of an exercise than I would have liked but I was soon back at the hotel. In all the hassle I forget to note my stats for the day, but the journey was about 630 km and was achieved an hour more quickly than Google Maps had predicted this morning so can be accounted a success. I was flashed by a speed camera near Lyon. I hope it caught my smile, as the we don't have free movement of such tickets across European borders.

I showered and met up with my group for the initial briefing. This was quite the reunion as most of us know each other from previous such events. The briefing became a bit of a joke. Though we are a mature bunch on average, the atmosphere was very much first day back at school. Joe was heckled, in-jokes were exchanged and a lot of fun was had. I watched the two "newbies" with some concern. All this must have meant nothing to them. I remembered feeling rather awkward at my first such introduction to the group, but they seemed relaxed enough about it. No doubt will bond as the week progresses.

Nice Monument_01
Dinner was at a neighbourhood bistro across from the hotel and presented a few problems for me. I skipped the bread, pasta starter and dessert. I also asked them to replace the risotto in my fish dish with a salad. I drank water and green tea instead of wine. I enjoyed it far more than I would have imagined if you had predicted it to me a year ago. I have become accustomed to dealing with such situations and, to be honest, my food tastes far better now than it used to. Hunger is the best sauce, they say. Certainly food that you need (rather than food you are just stuffing down from bad habit) tastes great! It is odd to be in the home of wine without partaking though.

Class begins tomorrow at 0900, followed by a shoot on the beachfront. I don't know if our all-American faculty knows about privacy laws in France. In the country where Henri Cartier-Bresson pretty much invented street photography, the publication of most of his images would be illegal now. Privacy trumps art and even the architects of buildings in the background have a veto right on publication. I guess the simple solution is not to publish anything, but I will be interested to hear what our teachers have to say on the subject tomorrow.

Legere et gourmande

My hotel recommended a local competitor as a place for me to dine [Be patient waiting for those links to load – our French neighbours have finally given up on the blaring music to accompany their websites but they still like a pointless animation here and there]. It was a short drive away through the ridiculously picturesque villages of Challanges and Levernois. Once I had parked Speranza safely, I had a short walk around the beautiful, wooded grounds and wondered as I always do how such small villages can sustain such places in France when the ones I grew up in in Wales can barely support a chippie, a Chinese and an Indian takeaway. Then I introduced myself and settled down on the beautiful terrace to my current drink – a Virgin Mary – as my "apero".

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The chef, Philippe Augé, has a Michelin star and it's well-deserved. Tonight he proposed a special menu around "Bar" (Sea Bass to you and me). Fish is very much my thing right now but I had some issues with the menu because of my regime. I am not a New Yorker, so I hate to make a fuss, but the waiter was curious, helpful and intelligent. I dispensed with the carbohydrates in the form of gnocchi, canapés, bread and the sugars in the macarons and dessert. Among the pictures you will see the chef's response to my declining his dessert. I was asked what my diet was about and whether I ate fruit. I said I did, but that berries were better (less sugar). The amazing, decorative plate of fruit and berries was his response.

I am breakfasting at 0800 tomorrow and will load the car before then so that I can head off quickly. I have a five to six hour drive ahead of me through the hotter and even more picturesque countryside of Provence.

Another wonderful run

I drove 799 km today in seven hours and nine minutes. A travelogue without jeopardy is tedious I know but my day was wonderful. I set off from home in London at 0430 am to get to Folkestone in time to board the Eurotunnel shuttle train at 0650. I was there in plenty of time. For some reason the lady in charge thought Speranza was "too wide" for the regular carriages (on which she has ridden dozens of times before) but who was I to argue as she put us up front with the horse boxes, caravans and RVs, which meant I was among the first to disembark. 

I had driven to Folkestone with the lid down. I got some odd looks but the weather was clear and the temperature a relatively balmy 16º C. I am one of those chaps (dreaded by ladies with fancy hairdos) who can't see the point of a convertible with the roof up. In Northern France, however, it was colder. At 13º C even this Northerner was nesh enough to raise the roof and turn on the heater.

I made good progress but, having eaten breakfast in London (!) found that I was craving lunch quite early. I have been on a very serious diet (I have lost 33.4 kg so far this year and hope to lose 40 kg by the end of this month). So motorway service areas in the UK are strictly off limits. There really is nothing in any of them that fits my regime and the smell of stale chip fat is too much to bear. France, of course, is a different matter. I stopped at an "aire" and had chicken with lentils. It had skin on, which is verboten, but I just left it. This, a side salad, and a pear made for hearty eating by my present standards. The only way I have broken my regime today is by not walking far enough and by not drinking the 4 litres of water my nutritionist prescribes. There are not enough "aires", even on the well-furnished French autoroutes for all the stops I would have had to make!

By lunchtime I was far enough south for the sun to be bright and the temperature high (28-30º C). So down came the lid again and I bowled along cheerfully, drinking in the air of my favourite region. My Panama hat (sitting on the seat, you can't wear something like that with the roof down at 130kph – or thereabouts, officer) got caught in an eddy of air and took off but I deftly caught it and stuffed it behind the passenger seat.

I arrived at my chateau/hotel outside Beaune in Burgundy at 3pm. I was smiling to myself at having driven past all my favourite Burgundy villages – the ones that make my preferred wines. I will permit myself no alcohol until I reach target #1 (now in sight, I hope – less than 7kg to go). Then I will be consuming moderately for the next year until I have met target #2 – my ideal weight, which I have not been since my twenties! Driving past Gevrey Chambertin at al. did not create any cravings, oddly. It just reminded me of many fine glasses consumed with dear friends and made me look forward to enjoying many more.

To compensate for my sedentary day, I swam in the hotel pool on arrival. I am trying to swim for fifty minutes, three times a week (though unlike the diet regime I find the exercise one difficult to keep to). At any rate I have done my bit for today. I don't know if my hotel in Nice has a pool but there's a fair amount of walking involved in a photo workshop, not to mention hauling several kilos of gear about in the heat. When I couldn't keep up with older colleagues on last year's trip to Tuscany, I began to realise something had to be done. I am looking forward to seeing how well I keep up this week. 

Before deciding to act on my weight/health issues, I peaked at 178.6 kg. I know! Even at 2 metres tall, that's appalling. It is enough to drive Jamie Oliver into an fascistic ecstasy of lobbying.  The simple truth is, it was always my fault. Passing manufacturers or chefs were not to blame. The late Mrs P. nagged solidly for thirty years but as long as my weight didn't prevent me doing what I wanted, I didn't care. When I reached the point where it did – and was probably life-threatening to boot – I acted. I joined Weight Watchers where various local ladies regale me with their psychological reasons for being plump (aka excuses) but it's simple science really. Put less energy into the tank than you expend, and off the weight comes. The biggest surprise this year is just how fuel-efficient the human body is. I had no idea I needed to eat so little!

To put it in contest, Oliver Norwood, who plays football for Fulham FC and Northern Ireland, weighs (I happen to know from the Fulham programmes) 68 kg. My target is to lose his entire body weight. I am half way (weigh?) there after five months of exercise and diet. My waist size is down eight or nine inches, as is the circumference of my calves!

Speaking of food, it's time to dress for my dinner at a local Michelin-starred hostelry. A waste of money, you say? Not really. A word in a great chef's ear via the maitre d' will result in a more pleasurable weight-loss meal than I can drum up at home. I am looking forward to it. It's a shame that I can't have some of the local beverages though. I am a Burgundy man through and through. And I hate to put a frown on the face of a good sommelier


On the road again

The old blog is going into travelogue mode. I am dropping my political pen and putting on my driving shoes. I will be motoring to the Cote d'Azur for a photographic workshop led by famous American photographer Joe McNally FRPS. I have been on several of his workshops before and they have always been as fun as they are educational. My lady friend mocks me for my admiration of Joe's talent. She has christened him "Joehovah" and claims to be able to tell from the spring in my step whether he has "liked" one of my Instagrams lately. Her joking apart, if you follow this link I think you will agree that he's a rare photographic talent. 

Unlike some of his fellow-photographers (as I have found to my cost on some workshops I have attended) Joe can teach photography almost as ably as he can do it. He pulls no punches on critiques but his sense of humour softens the blow and allows even a prideful chap like myself to accept guidance. To the extent that I can make a decent image (on a good day, with a following wind and when the muses permit) I owe it largely to his patient advice over the years.

Our topic for next week's workshop is visual storytelling. Gentle reader you will have the chance to tell if I learn anything because, as usual, I shall be recounting my adventure here in pictures as well as words.

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First though, I am looking forward to a leisurely drive on the autoroutes of France. Speranza and I will be on the 0650 Eurotunnel Shuttle to Calais tomorrow morning and will then be heading to our overnight stop in Beaune. If you have suggestions as to places to visit en route, or for suitable hostelries for a driver on a diet in Beaune, please pipe up in the comments or message me on Twitter if you are that way inclined.

As usual, I shall be using the excellent "Track my Tour" app to log my journey. You can follow my progress here if so inclined. One of my fellow students is also blogging about this trip. She's already in Nice and you can read her blog here.