Alarms and excursions

Les parapluies de Poitiers. Pink umbrellas are festooning the streets of Poitiers throughout the month to support the October Rose breast cancer awareness project.


We had a pleasant few sunny days in Toulouse and Bordeaux last week. I’ve always liked both cities. Bordeaux is the grander of the two, but I marginally prefer Toulouse, with its wonderful rose-red buildings and its slightly scruffier, more laid-back air. It was a gentle relaxing trip, with the odd jerk to keep us awake – literally, in one case.

On the journey to Toulouse on Friday, our train stopped at Montauban, where we were told we would be delayed for an hour. A case had been left on the train, and the bomb squad had been called. In our carriage there was a collective groan, and then we all went back to looking at our phones and tablets.

Then at 3.20 a.m. on Saturday we were roused by a fire alarm in the hotel. Oh, how we laughed. Mind you, it was almost worth it to see the other guests assembling in the hotel reception area. Madame and I had sleepily put on our jeans and tops, but I was surprised to see how many people bring nightwear with them when travelling – everything from old-fashioned stripey jim-jams to funky modern ‘loungewear’. An elderly Japanese couple in thick woolly dressing gowns, the woman in curlers, were taking no chances and had brought all of their luggage with them. The stars of the show were two middle-aged French gentlemen, who had arrived first and were standing at the reception desk. One, in what looked like a black posing pouch, had a towel draped over his shoulders, and the other was wearing nothing but a pair of dark green Y-fronts. The former was talking to the receptionist, while the latter stood looking sternly at the rest of us as we sheepishly shuffled in. Whether this was because we were late to arrive or had failed to match his sartorial expectations was difficult to say.

The emergency was over in about five minutes. The alarm had been set off by some twat lighting a cigarette in their room. I suggested to the receptionist that they be identified at breakfast so that we could all thank them personally, but the idea was politely declined. We were back in bed fairly quickly, but the images of the friskily clad Frenchmen was etched on my brain and it made getting off to sleep difficult.


What’s in a name?

I occasionally treat myself to a pastry with my coffee, but one has to be careful when travelling in France. There is a line one crosses, I’m not exactly sure where, but Bordeaux is definitely on the other side of it from Poitiers. Once over this line, ordering un pain au chocolat is asking for trouble. Here, it is most definitely une chocolatine, and the difference is much more important than the English question of whether scone rhymes with John or Joan.

A recent survey found that about 60 per cent of the population would ask for a pain au chocolat, with Paris being the strongest in favour, whilst 40 per cent would demand a chocolatine. Apparently, Bordeaux and Toulouse feel particularly strongly about this. So much so, in fact, that getting the name wrong here might cost you – as this sign from a Bordeaux boulangerie indicates:

Be careful what you ask for

This is not the only form of punitive price adjustments one comes across in France. We are constantly reminded of the importance of saying ‘Bonjour’ when entering a shop or café, and journalist John Lichfield recently came across this sign in a café-brasserie in Clécy, just south of Caen.

Un café! 2€50. Bonjour, un café! 2€. Bonjour un café, s’il vous plaît 1€10.


Two years ago I discovered a wonderful website,, which, once you are registered, sends you a daily email with an extract from Samuel Pepys’s diary. This quickly became addictive, and it is usually the first thing I read each morning. There is now also a Twitter feed containing daily extracts.

It turns out that comedian Bill Bailey is also a Pepys fan, and the Pepysdiary website recently provided this transcript of part of his live show, Larks in Transit, a recording of which can be seen on BBC iPlayer.

I look for the little sort of glimmers of hope, and sometimes you find them, right? Someone has taken the trouble to set up a Twitter account in the name of Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century London diarist. The Twitter feed is just genuine extracts from Pepys’s diary, which is a beautiful thing.

But, of course, this being Twitter, there’s a lot of people who have never heard of Samuel Pepys, so they just think it’s some old bloke talking in a weird way. So you get these fantastic exchanges, like this one. This is an entry from 1665:

‘I was mightily troubled with a looseness, and feeling for the chamber-pot, there was none, I having called the maid up out of her bed, she had forgot I suppose to put one there; so I was forced in this strange house to rise and shit in the chimney twice.’

And somebody’s replied, ‘Been there, bruv. Been there.’ So, if you know of anybody called Adam Hodgkiss, don’t let them stay in your spare room, that’s my advice.


September’s Tweet of the month from @jackbern23:

“I’ve spent 25 years designing wedding dresses in west London, one stop on from Warwick Avenue.”

“Maida Vale?”

“I’ve done thousands, mate.”

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