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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 3 - Frankfurt & Freiburg (including a belated cameo appearance by asparagus!)

An Alaska's eye view of the Frankfurt gig

The next day started early and on a somewhat surreal note. For as I was paying my hotel bill, the receptionist asked if I wanted to cancel my entire booking and book it all over again. 'Er...but I have just been here for two nights?' I replied weakly, whereupon the woman muttered something about this being a way of helping her to dodge's fees while securing me a better rate. However, her cunning plan messed with my preconceptions of time in such a profoundly disorientating way that after another robust exchange at complete cross-purposes, I ended up jabbing my credit card at her, and settling the bill for the stay I had actually had. Yes, on balance I shall leave all that time travelling malarkey to H G Wells, Dr Who, and Cher.

For my scent of the day I had picked out Amouage Honour Woman, in a valiant attempt to keep the rhubarb theme going as we headed south, and out of Rhabarberschorle country. We still had a goodly on-board stash though - more rhubarb drinks than you could could shake a stalk at, indeed.

Molluscs and fatty mediums

No sooner were we all loaded and on the bus than my missions for that day cracked off, starting with a series of random requests to google octopuses and squid and sundry other cephalopods to confirm whether they were in fact all molluscs or not. In the course of my research, I chanced upon a German news article about a woman who had been made accidentally pregnant by calamari - after experiencing a 'pricking and foreign body sensation'. ;). It seems the story has also been covered by The Daily Mail. Anyway, as you might imagine, the ensuing tittering and savouring of terms such as 'spermatophore', 'octo-mum' and 'squid insemination' lasted well into Thuringia. Further amusement was prompted by my verdict on a vegan chocolate bar Caryne passed round the bus: 'Um, it's like someone just poured cocoa powder over a fatty medium.' Cue comedy visions of curvy spiritualists dusted with a light patina of Bournville.

Eisenach, courtesy of Caryne
Stau, Stau Stau auf der Autobahn

We stopped for lunch in the picturesque town of Eisenach, where Dave's vegetarian baked potato came generously topped with bacon sprinkles. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed my pork goulash with dumplings and red cabbage, and it was lucky in hindsight that we had had a substantial meal as the day started to unravel at that point - or 'go in the trousers' as the Germans say. Ugly traffic jams greeted us on the approach to Frankfurt, and once again Alaska tossed the road atlas into the back and asked me to figure out an alternative route parallel to the motorway, but still taking a southerly course. Having wiggled round the jam, Alaska checked the satnav again. It was set on taking us back north - presumably with a view to skirting round the top of Frankfurt and dropping down the west side, which it clearly thought was quicker. But we didn't know the prevailing traffic conditions over there, and I had a split second in which to advise Alaska on this fateful choice. 'Ignore the GPS, and carry on down to Hanau!'  I squeaked, not at all convinced that it was wise to flout the satnav at this decisive point in our journey. It was the most stressful moment of the whole tour for me, as there was no turning back, and I just had to hope that we would get to the venue before the doors opened(!), in time for the band to sound check. After a sprint down the A45 and west on the A3, we  made it with 40 minutes to spare, but it was a stomach churning, white knuckle ride of a near miss!



My human post-it note moment and Chinese carry out challenge

By showtime, I was able to relax and enjoy the gig. Just before the end of the set, Alaska unexpectedly broke off from his sound engineer duties, came right to the front where I was standing, and whispered urgently in my ear. Three times. On each occasion I only caught the word 'desk', as in 'mixing desk', no doubt. Now why would he want me to go up there, I wondered? I am completely clueless about all matters sound related, unless something's broken and he needs me to fetch a tool or keep a knob or a switch in a certain position while he fixes whatever the fault is. It seemed unlikely, so I decided to ignore him, and stayed in my spot. Then, a minute or two later, Alaska came bounding up to me again and this time slapped a sticky note on the lapel of my jacket, which I couldn't possibly ignore! (Since transferred for posterity to my tour notebook.)

So I went to the mixing desk(!), where I was charged with the important mission of picking up a Chinese meal for the band from a restaurant a few doors along from the venue. It had to be collected on the dot of 10.30pm, which meant missing the encore. I did get invited to share the food, mind, which turned out to be the best Chinese takeaway of my life, all the more welcome after the stress of the long drive and its associated navigational trauma. ;)

Caryne caught me taking the photo of the mixing desk above!


Spargel Everywhere!

The next day dawned bright and warm, with temperatures topping 20C. There was genuine concern amongst the band that we might easily end up with a 'baked Alaska' on our hands, so we encouraged him to keep his pork pie hat on at all times.

Courtesy of Caryne ~ a momentarily baked Vanessa

The sunshine put us all in particularly silly mood, and someone had the idea to get the band to stage a mock police hold up.

It was also on this leg of the trip that we spied our first asparagus crops, which inspired the bass player to promptly rename the new album 'Spargel Everywhere'!

Source: Zumthie via Wikimedia Commons

For throughout our time in the south of Germany, we encountered numerous expanses of these tell-tale polythene furrows. Surprisingly, we never did eat any asparagus on this trip, though it is a delicacy I have enjoyed in the past. Here is an extract from a travel column I used to write for a business magazine (from 2007):

"I spent the last night of my trip in Trochtelfingen, which despite its small size, turned out to be a major hub of vegetable festivities, simultaneously showcasing leek pesto and asparagus.  There were entire “Spargel-Menus”, boasting asparagus in every course.  At breakfast, I spied a couple of spears nestling in the muesli, which I put down to a dish washing error rather than a case of fusion cuisine gone bonkers.  But you never know…"

Never let it be said that the Germans are risk averse and law abiding

We reached Freiburg in the early afternoon, and after a tasty lunch in a Sri Lankan restaurant - yet another of Alaska's secret tips - checked into our hotels. I had been to Freiburg a few times before, but not lately as a tourist, and was excited to explore the historic centre again. Set against a backdrop of bright blue sky, the coloured facades of the buildings lived up to even the most vibrant postcards on sale in the main square...

A logistically complex scented cuckoo clock idea

I was not completely without focus in my wanderings, however, as the singer had entrusted me with a trio of missions: pricing cuckoo clocks, looking for a particularly avant-garde style of shopping basket (I failed miserably on this one!), and buying pink and/or green roller ball pens, so that he could carry on his graffiti apprenticeship in more novel colourways. Oh, and Bid came up with a silly idea about cuckoo clocks as it happens, namely that someone could consider developing ones that emit a different scent each hour. I don't think he meant the cuckoo itself to be redundant exactly, but I am not sure how the poor bird wouldn't quickly end up smelling of 24 different perfumes by virtue of popping out in broadly the same area as these supposed scent puffs. I sense the idea, while ingenious, may need more work.

Bright lights, stage fright, and whipping up whooping

At the gig that night there was one further, unexpected task to perform...After the set, the singer beckoned me to come on stage. As with Alaska's urgent instructions the night before, I ignored the beckoning for quite some time, till it dawned on me that I really was being summoned on stage, who knows for what. Once up there, and blinded by the lights, Bid whispered in my ear: 'Tell them in German that we would normally go off now as it is the end of the set, only we can't because there isn't a dressing room! So we are just going to stand here instead and if they would like to clap and whatnot we will play an encore.' Thoroughly put on the spot, I did my best to render this in German, except that I asked them simply to 'scream'/'whoop' instead of clap, as I couldn't remember the word for applause, and also came up with a non-existent word for dressing room - 'Umzugsraum' (removal / moving room!??) instead of 'Umkleideraum', or better still, 'Künstlerumkleide', which has more of a sense of backstage dressing room. It didn't seem to matter though, as the audience brought the house down with their whooping and screaming, and the band played an unprecedented four encores...

Yay! We caught the nightlife!

Courtesy of Caryne ~ the Herz Jesu church in Freiburg

Monday, 20 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 2 - Hamburg & Berlin (including a meet up with Anka!)

Photo courtesy of Caryne

'Alaska's cave' - a tardis stuffed to the gunnels with Zubehör

Easter Sunday saw the first long drive of the trip, and my first experience of tour bus travel. It was in fact technically a tall van - a Mercedes Splitter - but seemingly the Germans would refer to it as 'ein Bus'.

The most remarkable aspect of the van was driver Alaska's comprehensive assortment of accessories and bloke-y tackle, which hung off the back of the headrests, were stowed under seats, lined the dashboard - and also dangled perilously from pegs clipped onto the roofliner. He had everything on board from plastic cutlery to a spare toothbrush, torch, screwdriver, whistle, straws, paper cups, tissues, penknife, bottle opener, obligatory pin up photo, drinks box, tote bag of 'passenger reading matter', first aid kit, and - most intriguingly - several sets of swimming goggles. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

A small snapshot of Alaska's bits and bobs

A rat's eye view of the Autobahn

On Day 1, seating habits were formed, which also included my travelling mascot, Max Rat, who assumed one of several more or less perilous poses to the left of the drummer's headrest. On cold days, he took to swaddling himself in the keyboard player's scarf, which also made for better stability (see one of his many toppling incidents below).

Motorway travel games and ghosts of projects past

Further to the head scratching over US states that also double up as Christian names, another travel game I played with the keyboard player consisted of listening out for travel bulletins, specifically any instances of a person or foreign body obstructing a motorway lane. This is an incredibly common phenomenon in Germany, and on a single trip could range from the customary burning vehicle or HGV tyre shreddings to 'metal poles', 'unidentified objects', and - our personal favourite - 'children'. We didn't encounter any 'Geisterfahrer' on tour though - so-called 'ghost drivers' who drive the wrong way down the motorway, causing a major risk to other traffic. Oh, and the bass player remarked that for a long time he had thought 'Ausfahrt' was a major city in Germany, as so many roads seemed to lead to it...

Max inexorably heading for the passenger reading matter bag

Then I am not sure if it counts as a game as such, but pretty much any sign off the motorway had associations for me with a particular job - or several, indeed, going back over the past 25 years...So, Laupheim (high speed blister packing plant), Hannover (blind rivets, rubber additives for tyres), Rottweil (architectural lighting), Wittstock (composite wood panels), Schneverdingen (wafer biscuits), and so on. On one - rather startling - occasion, a domestic appliance factory I had visited in the late 90s turned out to be bang opposite the venue! And when we stopped for lunch at a service station on the way up to Hamburg, I realised I had been there in 1994 to met a Dutchman in the cafeteria, whom I interviewed in German about stationary waste compactors. So whilst I was outwardly in 'band on tour' mode, the ghosts of my professional past persisted in popping out of the woodwork at every turn...;)

My jacket potato with 'no sour cream please'


The gig that night was held in Hafenklang, a scruffy but capacious club by the harbour. All but obliterated by graffiti, as is standard for the German indie scene. Our rather 'retro' hotel was within easy walking distance, and I was invited to join the band - and Caryne and Dave, the husband and wife duo selling the merchandise each night, aka 'Die Merchandiser' - for a delicious homecooked meal at the venue.

Note the matching shower curtain with its cheery depiction of marine life!

The rhubarb lemonade raid

Now we were in Hamburg, we had squarely entered Germany's answer to Yorkshire's Rhubarb Triangle, meaning we had ready access at last to that sought-after soft tipple of Rhabarberschorle - the rhubarb equivalent of 'Appletizer', comprising rhubarb juice and fizzy water. The lemonade part is poetic licence to be honest, though you can also get a rhubarb version of that. And thus it was that at the end of the night I was charged with yet another drinks mission using band vouchers - to include as many rhubarb drinks as the bar had left.

There were so many of these vouchers that I decided to minimise my embarrassment by staging a split raid between the upstairs and downstairs bars. The upstairs sortie passed off without a hitch - was 'reibungslos abgewickelt', as the Germans might say - and I snagged five bottles of Rhabarberschorle. However, when I went downstairs I found the way to the bar deliberately blocked off with trestle tables and stacks of chairs. Nothing daunted, I managed to negotiate this veritable obstacle course of furniture and sneak through to the bar, where I scored another half dozen bottles of our rhubarb elixir. My cunning plan backfired rather though, when the woman from the upstairs bar - who must have wandered down for some reason, possibly to seek replacement stocks of rhubarb drinks from her colleague downstairs(!) - caught me in flagrante as I was clumsily clambering up the trestle table mountain on my way out.



The next day, Easter Monday, should have seen a fairly straight run down to Berlin, however we hadn't fully reckoned with holiday traffic, and got caught out with a vengeance a little north of Neurüppin. We were so behind schedule that I scrapped my idea to take the band on a scenic Umleitung to view the Trabant on a pole of a past post. My assigned mission that day was a spot of emergency navigating - using a paper road atlas, how impossibly quaint! - yet essential to figuring out a route that dodged the main jam and any likely spin off bottlenecks on the more obvious alternatives. To say we ended up off the beaten track is putting it mildly. Some of the minor roads we traversed were so minor they were cobbled, an oddity peculiar to former East Germany, as far as I can tell.

On this leg, I was also given the very important task of 'holding apples and envelopes of money'. Just briefly, you understand, while band members' hands were otherwise deployed.


The third and fourth gigs of the tour were back at Monarch, a quirky little venue overlooking the U-Bahn station of Kottbusser Tor. A full description of the place may be found in last year's tour report. Back then the dressing room had consisted of a subutteo table, but the ever resourceful Alaska took it upon himself to fashion one this time using a black out curtain and some of his extensive collection of clothes pegs.

Two English fans had come over specially for the gig, and proffered their necks for me to sniff - Simon (he of the Pratchett-esque beard) was sporting the über-elegant Chanel pour Monsieur, while his wife Mazz was rocking Aromatics Elixir, which wore beautifully soft and mysterious on her. I was rightly reprimanded for completely failing to recognise either of these iconic fragrances.

Photo courtesy of  Caryne 

At some point in the evening I embarrassed myself in the (heavily graffiti-daubed) ladies, when I followed a young girl inside without realising that the toilet cubicle itself was missing its door, thereby scotching the usual possibility of someone going to the loo while the waiting person touches up their makeup or whatever by the sink. The girl proceeded to take her trousers down in front of me, muttering with a slight note of petulance: 'Well, okay then, if you must', whereupon I legged it out of there as though I was on fire. I was sure to use the disabled toilet later on, which to my amusement was not completely free of graffiti either!

Hope and Anka

The following afternoon I had arranged to meet fellow perfumista (and Bonkers reader) Anka in a coffee house near our hotel, where I took a seat at a table by the window a little ahead of the appointed time. Anka recognised me straight away from my blog photos - while I recognised a woman with a look of recognition of her face ;) - and we spent a most enjoyable hour chatting about our respective jobs, her recent holiday, and that evening's gig which Anka and her husband had gamely agreed to attend! Our chat stretched my 'extrem eingerostet' German to its limits, but it was a jolly good thing for me to practise in this way. Surprisingly, we barely touched on the subject of our fragrance hobby...another instance perhaps of '(brand new) friends before perfume', to quote Val the Cookie Queen.

I didn't catch up with Anka and her husband till after the gig, though they had texted me their whereabouts, while I had left a notice by the door to direct them to where I was standing, in the unlikely event of their wishing to be as close as I like to be to the stage (for reasons of height and photography, mostly)! I was delighted to learn that they had enjoyed the set. Moreover, as they were eating their dinner before coming out, they had tuned into a live radio interview with the singer, Bid,  which had helped them to get 'in the zone', as it were. ;)  I should also mention that Anka was wearing Rozy edp, which smelt amazing on her. It proved to be an unexpected leitmotiv of the tour, as will become apparent in due course...

My confusing use of arrowheads was a source of some merriment

Oh, at the end of this gig the bass player sent me back upstairs to 'waste' TEN more drinks vouchers on beers for the next leg of the trip. I encountered the same resistance to the 'alcoholic beverage takeaway concept' as I had in Cologne, but in the end I managed to do a runner with all ten, though not before I'd copped for a serious ear bashing from the barman.

The singer leaves his mark at Hafenklang

PS Spargel (asparagus) will be along soon!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Spargel Everywhere: The Monochrome Set Germany Tour 2015: Part 1 - The journey out & Cologne

During the course of their last German tour, my favourite band, The Monochrome Set, were signed up to a German record label called Tapete (amusingly translated as 'Wallpaper'). A year later, their first album under the new label - Spaces Everywhere - is out, and the band embarked on a 9-date tour of Germany to promote it. I was lucky enough to be invited to join them on the tour bus for the trip, which was pretty 'flaechendeckend' ('surface covering' - much like the wallpaper indeed!), and as randomly fun and exciting as it was punishing. And I wasn't even working, though as the tour progressed I increasingly morphed into 'band runner', and was assigned an assortment of more or less offbeat errands to carry out. Oh, I should also say that the 'scented bit' was pretty minimal on this tour, and can readily be woven into the travelogue proper rather than having its own post at the end.


I set off from home at 7am on Easter Saturday, and as ever was surprised to see so many people about at such an unfeasibly early hour. On arrival at the airport I was crestfallen to find a massive queue at the one operational Germanwings check in desk. No one seemed to know what was up with the other desk, though a member of the ground staff - who bore an uncanny resemblance to David Suchet - could be seen listlessly tinkering with some knobs as we shuffled forward to the remaining counter at a snail's pace. Some forty minutes later, a fresh-faced young colleague came bounding up, and within seconds the check in computer sprang miraculously to life.

An Easter-themed airport security alert

In the spirit of using up my fridge contents in a timely manner, I had with me two hard boiled eggs and an egg-shaped bar of soap in a decorated cardboard shell, the latter a gift for Val the Cookie Queen, whom I was meeting towards the end of the trip. To my surprise, both of these Easter-themed items provoked a lengthy security alert. There was concern that the real eggs might be raw, and though I finally persuaded the X-Ray machine staff that they were in fact cooked - and that surely only the most foolhardy of travellers would risk carting raw eggs all over Germany in a rucksack - as a precaution I was given a special bag to put the eggs in for their onward journey. Meanwhile, the soap egg caused a stir, because the staff were adamant that it was a tin of Vaseline. Three X-Rays later, we finally confirmed that the offending petroleum jelly staple was merely another suspiciously behaving egg.

Once in the Duty Free, I was predictably assailed by a clutch of perfume tester-toting sales assistants. No, I don't want to try the new Jimmy Choo, thank you. My overriding priorities were a cup of tea, a cafe-neutral spot in which to consume the eggs before they caused any further brushes with officialdom, a stamp to put on Tara's birthday card, and a post box to post it in.

Taking a chance on Germanwings

The atmosphere on board the Germanwings flight itself - just 11 days after the fateful crash in France - was a curious mixture of tension, excessive bonhomie and gallows humour. Beady eyes were kept on the toilet nearest the cockpit, and had either of the pilots attempted to answer a call of nature, there would have been a chorus of: 'Nooo, please hold on - you said yourself that the flight time was only an hour and five minutes!' Seating-wise, I was 'mixed up' in a stag party bound for Dusseldorf, and as the plane was about 15 feet from touch down, one of the lads behind me said exactly what I had been thinking: 'It's okay - I can jump from here!' The filling in my in-flight sandwich had been shockingly skimpy - something which would normally have been a source of considerable irritation - but any disappointment on the catering front was more than offset by my delight at landing safely. As I disembarked, I pressed a handwritten note in German into a flight attendant's hand, which said: 'Happy to put my life in your hands - thanks so much for a safe journey.' It sounds a bit corny looking back, but at that time of heightened emotions and loss of confidence in the airline, I felt I wanted to tell the pilots that I wasn't going to let this tragic aberration destroy my own trust in them.



A dishevelling putty crisis 

No sooner had I got to my hotel in Cologne and unpacked a few things than I realised I had left behind a crucial hair product in my armoury - one unfailingly described by hairdressers just as 'product'. To be more specific, it is a 'styling paste with ultra matte finish' called 'dry muk', one of the very few unguents that gives my fine hair volume without leaving it lank and greasy. Now I only know that it IS the above, because I am now reunited with the tin and in a position to read the label. At five o'clock on Easter Saturday in Germany, my chances of finding something I usually referred to as 'product' seemed slim. The lady on the hotel reception recommended a supermarket round the corner, but a quick scope of its haircare options drew a blank. Next up I tried a drugstore across the road, and ended up buying a tub of some kind of 'dishevelling putty' by Wella or L'Oreal, on the fairly flimsy premise that this a) didn't smell horrible and b) wasn't for men, as many of the more recognisably 'product-looking products' seemed to be. I still had misgivings that this might not be as dry and light as my usual brand, and when I spotted a hair salon that was still open, I decided to show them my purchase and generally throw myself on their mercy.

The senior stylist took one look at my tub and clucked her tongue disapprovingly. She confirmed that the dishevelling properties of this particular paste would come at a fairly sticky and oleaginous price. After consulting with a colleague and poking around the fixtures in the salon, she finally put her hand on a tub of Sebastian Craft Clay, described in English on the box as a 'remoldable-matte texturiser'. Certainly its grey clay-y colour looked promising, and I reluctantly parted with 20 euros - the price of being able to 'verstrubbeln' my hair while away. My shock at the price must have been all too apparent, for the stylist immediately opened her till drawer again and handed me a small bottle of sparkling wine. I may try this trick again sometime - in any kind of shop, even.

The madness of King Georg

The gig that night was held at King Georg, a venue 'in the round' attached to a stylish retro cocktail bar, described at more length in this post from the 2014 tour. The little dog in a bag was still officiating at the cloakroom, and there was the usual notice asking people to kindly not stand in front of the mixing desk. But this year I fell foul of another prohibition. For after the gig, Andy the bass player gave me a strip of drinks vouchers. He suggested I exchange them for some bottles of water to drink in my hotel or take on the next day's journey, however, the barman forbade me to take my load of liquid swag off the premises. To circumvent this, Andy - who was staying over the venue and thus able to move freely between bar and band accommodation - casually suggested I give all the water to him. Once in the street outside, he promptly handed the bottles back to me. It was the first of many 'left field' tour moments to come...

It was here too that I first met the sound guy and our driver for the tour, a genial giant from Augsburg called Alaska. Yes, you heard right!, and we had hours of fun on the bus trying to think of other US states commonly used as Christian names. In the end we only came up with Georgia and Dakota, so please share any other suggestions in the comments!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Bonkers is interviewed on Nosegasm!

A while back, Toronto-based Bonkers reader and fellow blogger Gil Segev dropped me a line to ask if I would care to take part in a Q & A session he was hosting on his blog, Nosegasm. I was very happy to do so - the questions were fun and thought provoking in equal measure, touching on the themes of blogging specifically, and my perfume hobby more generally.

I think I am the third interviewee to appear, and my answers are up today...Hop over here to read the full interview.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Hiatus ahoy! Bonkers is off 'on tour' - to Germany - again

The bass player's view at Monarch, Berlin
I am afraid that between a rush work job (gratefully received!) and a few days visiting friends in The Cotswolds, I don't seem to have had time to write a blog post of any substance in the last week, and now I am about to go 'on tour' in the morning! Yes, it's that time of year again, and I am off on another harum-scarum itinerary around Germany with The Monochrome Set. There is a twist this time, however, in that I am meeting up with not one but two perfumistas on the way round - Anka in Berlin and Val the Cookie Queen of APJ in Augsburg. Both are attending one of the gigs, in a fabulous colliding of my special interest worlds. More on those meet ups in the inevitable travel posts that will follow the trip.

I must apologise in advance for the fact that I will have limited Internet access for the next ten days, which will doubtless also mean that I shan't manage to keep up as much as I'd like with reading and commenting on my favourite blogs.

Oh, and I am flying Germanwings to Dusseldorf, no less, but I have faith. Trusting the crew of a plane is the only reasonable response to such an aberrant tragedy. That said, I sense that I will only start to feel properly 'on holiday' when I have landed...

Here is the complete German tour itinerary, in case any readers who are also fans - or simply curious ;) - might be tempted to come along to a gig. The reviews of the latest album, Spaces Everywhere, have been little short of stellar, including 8/10 from that blast from the past, the NME. And here is a typical example (in German!) from the Berliner Zeitung.

Source: Tapete Records
PS Wishing everyone a Happy Easter, whatever you are up to!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Jasmine awards: a memorable way to start the day (very early!), plus Penhaligon's Ostara mini-review

Regular readers - well, even very recent readers of my last post! - will know that I am not a morning person. So you can imagine my great surprise to find myself at the BAFTAS venue in London last Wednesday morning at 8.30am. You read that right - actually in London at 8.30am! That's as opposed the bathroom, maybe. At best. I was a bit bleary-eyed, despite having gone down the night before (the trains to Euston would have been prohibitively expensive first thing). On the one hand, going down the night before was good, because it also meant I got the chance to meet Sabine of Iridescents for a meal and a quick recce of a French pharmacy in South Ken. Lots of lovely skincare brands, priced to reflect the catchment area. Plus we did rock up just before they were closing, so didn't even have time for a leisurely ogle. Over dinner, we had an in-depth chat about the German culture and language - in English, because my German is woefully eingerostet. I will just say though that my Pad Thai dish, while tasty, 'hätte wesentlich wärmer sein können'.

On the other hand, going down the night before was a high risk move, as it meant throwing myself on the mercy again of the cheaper end of the accommodation options near the Piccadilly Line. My hotel in Gloucester Road was in a very good spot, with a spacious lobby area remarkable for its enormous 'water torture feature' (as ex-Mr Bonkers was wont to call such things), but there the positives stopped. For only the second time ever, I felt moved to submit a review to the website:

Great location, staff perfectly friendly, the foyer looked nice!
Room was minute (208 - economy single), and looked out onto a high enclosed wall / well, giving it a prison-like feel. The bed was rammed between the two walls such that a power socket was almost unusable between the struts of the bed head. I had to boil the kettle in the corridor outside! Couldn't dry my hair in front of a mirror either. Bed sloped in both directions so my feet were higher than my head, *and* I thought I was going to fall out laterally. The toilet seat swivelled and the shower dripped all night. Slight smell of drains. Paper thin walls. One towel and one very flat pillow. Didn't sleep a wink.

So there was that. But I figured to myself in my sleep-deprived state the next morning that the beauty of a breakfast function is that you can keel over at 10.30am if you must - well, you can if you don't have to rush back to work straight afterwards, which obviously I didn't.

There was one other person in the lift going up to the floor where the event was being held. 'I will let this lady out first', I thought to myself, 'as she might be one of the judges'. Sure enough she was(!), but I sense the allocation of the awards in no way hinged on my last minute impromptu bellhoppery.

Having registered, I hurried to the toilets, where a number of impeccably groomed and beautiful women of all ages were applying the finishing touches to their already immaculate makeup. Meanwhile, I had multiple contact lens crises in quick succession, thinking at one point that there was a real possibility that I had put TWO lenses in the same eye, but it seems not. Liz Moores had asked me to take photos of my chosen outfit, and I did manage to take a quick selfie in front of a dispensing machine, over the precise contents of which I shall draw a veil. It was one of only two ensembles on the shortlist - the dress I had in mind was a little snug and I could anticipate a few strange looks if I persisted in standing for an hour in an all-seater auditorium.

Contact lenses inserted, the next hour was spent in major milling mode, mostly with other bloggers, but also with the friendly lady ahead of me in the tea queue. Of special note were the exquisite canapes dong the rounds - tiny wisps of smoked salmon, blinis topped with blueberries so minute they looked like caviar. Unfortunately I was way too nervous to sample any of these miniature delicacies, which verily were the amuse-bouche equivalent of your name written on a grain of rice.

The proceedings proper got underway about 9.30am or so: all the judges sat in a row on stage, while the President of the Fragrance Foundation addressed the audience from a lecturn. Maybe I need a public speaking engagement to get some wear out of that dress I rejected. One of the highlights of the ceremony was the awarding of prizes to a clutch of small children who had written poems on a fragrance theme. Richard E Grant was a judge in that particular 'Mini-Jasmines' category, but sadly not in attendance. 'We want the finest perfume poems available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!' A couple of the kids were in their school uniform, the others in flouncy party dresses, and all looked exceptionally sweet.

In case anyone hasn't caught up with the details of the winners in the 'grown up' Jasmines(!), here is the complete list. Persolaise won the blogger award, for which I had been shortlisted - that's a hat trick of Jasmines for him now! - while Thomas, The Candy Perfume Boy, next to whom I was sitting, picked one up in the digital category for a piece he wrote for Escentual - second time round for him! Thomas was shortlisted in no fewer than four categories, and while I dearly hoped he would sweep the boards this year, realistically there might have been practical issues with multiple bouquet storage in the small area by our feet. Meanwhile Liam Moore's online magazine, ODOU, won again this year in the Literary category. Big congratulations to all the winners!

After the ceremony, I spent an enjoyable hour with fellow nominee, Pia Long of Volatile Fiction, mooching in the shops north of Piccadilly, before we headed off to our respective lunch dates with friends. The scent of Penhaligon's new release, the quintessentially spring-like Ostara, lured us into the venerable brand's Regent Street branch, where we each bagged a sample and a hanky impregnated with the fragrance. Having tried Ostara on skin a few times now, I can say that it plays much more nicely with a human canvas than a fabric one. The hanky went incredibly indolic, such that I was not sorry to pop it into the wash when I got home, whereas on skin Ostara is a warm, sweet, radiant scent, nicely accented with spiky hints of green to evoke the trajectory of daffodils 'from bud to full bloom'. It also has a so-called 'solar note', as does Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Lys Soleia, to which it is quite similar - that's if you imagine a greener interpretation, as befits the spring rather than high summer theme. Ostara is the soprano to Lys Soleia's alto, type of thing. There are also echoes of Puredistance 1, in terms of its strong, warm, musky vibe, say. Going back to Lys Soleia, there is a lot more going on in Ostara than in the Guerlain scent, because of its 'whole of life' daffodil rendition - as you would deduce from the note list indeed! Also, the sharper facets ensure that Ostara doesn't tip into overly sweet territory for those with a low sugar threshold.

Pia sniffing Ostara


Top notes: bergamot, lemon and palm leaves
Heart notes: lily, ylang-ylang, tropical fruits
Base notes: tuberose, vanilla and white musk


Top notes: bergamot, clementine, juniper, red berries CO2, currant buds CO2, violet leaf absolute, green leaves and aldehyes
Heart notes: daffodil, hyacinth, cyclamen, ylang-ylang, hawthorn, wisteria and beeswax
Base notes: styrax resin, vanilla, benzoin, musk, amber and blonde wood

No appraisal - not even a mini-one - of Ostara would be complete, however, without a word on the name. To me it conjures up the German for Easter, 'Ostern', but I am also reminded of Ostrava, a town on the border with Slovakia where my friend and I accidentally ended up on a short train ride from Prague. Yes, so engrossed were we in our girly chat that we managed to overshoot our destination by some 180 miles, the truth of which error took some explaining to the bemused ticket inspector.

Royal Apothic Balmoral Rain

After Penhaligon's, Pia and I browsed in Anthropologie, toying with the testers of their fragrance line. None of the scents really grabbed me, but they deserve a big thumbs up for their small formats and pretty packaging. From there, we headed to Space NK, passing an amusing sign outside a house where the poet William Blake used to live. One wonders if he had ever availed himself of the Ministry's services? For his moustache, perchance? Here is Blake, waxing lyrical...

"What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?"

In the bijou branch of Space NK I learnt the disturbing news that my favourite cream blusher, NARS Penny Lane, had been discontinued. So after Pia and I split up at Bond Stree tube, I hotfooted it to Selfridges on a NARS blusher dupe mission. The sales assistants at the various concessions were surprisingly helpful in suggesting rival brands that might be worth trying, and the trail of recommendations finally led to Laura Mercier's slightly darker take on Penny Lane, called Canyon. Then in an unprecedented - and ill-advised! - splurge, I picked up not one but two brow pencils: a MAC in Lingering and a Suqqu in Moss Green. What between those and my Benefit Gimme Brow in Light/Medium, I hope to have the greyish-browny-taupe shade I sense my brows are craving thoroughly covered off. Plus I am happy to report that since returning home, I have had a professional plucking session for a fiver(!). And though I still need to grow my 'sprouts' back on one side, my eyebrows look related at last. Not twins, and maybe not even sisters yet, but first cousins, certainly.

A post-shopping cuppa with added lightbulb moment

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Ladies that brunch: featuring redemptive French toast and a rose scent recce with OT's Birgit and Tara

Source: Foxcroft & Ginger
It is almost exactly a year to the day that I set off for Berlin, the first stop on The Monochrome Set's 2014 spring tour. On a whim at the airport, and notwithstanding the preternatural sparrow's fart of an hour in question, I decided to have breakfast, and was promptly confronted with an absolute travesty of a dish calling itself French toast. So remote was this all-but-eggless, deep fried monstrosity from the fluffy primrose layers of my recall, that the chef apologised profusely and gave me a full refund.

And now, here I was in Soho, cosily tucked into a corner of the edgily named cafe Foxcroft & Ginger - which I persisted in referring to as Foxtrot & Ginger, even though I neither dance nor have occasion to use police radio - with Birgit and Tara of Olfactoria's Travels, when I spied a French toast option on the menu for the first time since that fateful meal at Frankie & Benny's.

But I am running ahead of myself...there is a bit to say about the journey down to London first. For starters, it took a mere hour and twenty minutes this time!, owing to the fact that I had snaffled a Virgin ticket for just two quid more than I would have paid on my usual London Midland service that takes about two and a half hours each way. Also - and readers may find my wonderment surprising - there were refreshments on the train. On the train - fancy that! In an actual buffet car dedicated to the purpose, where a cup of hot chocolate cost 30p less than in the cafe at the station. By the time I had finished marvelling at the amenities of the Virgin service, I had arrived at Euston, and a quarter of an hour later, found myself disgorged from the Underground and standing on a sunny pavement in Soho with Birgit. As we waited for Tara to arrive, we chatted about Tara's recent visit, from which they were newly returned. I also admired Birgit's HSOTD (Hermes Scarf Of The Day: a beautiful cashmere number in shades of grey - I counted more than two, but fewer than totally torrid, hehe. ;) ) I can also reveal that it was tied in a 'cowboy knot' - I thought it might be a style called 'the waterfall', which I saw in a YouTube video once, but I was mistaken. It looks rather like the Maxi Cheche in this link, but with the two outer points tied in a cowboy knot as a last step. A very elegant and relaxed look, anyway.

Source:  Foxcroft & Ginger

Shortly afterwards, Tara popped up and we made straight for Foxcrop & Ginger - I mean Foxcroft...I only finally mastered the name today, would you believe?! - where the waiter directed us to the last available table downstairs. At the far end was a wall of white subway tiles, a sure sign that you are either in a hip and trendy eaterie or a turn of the century public convenience. Menus appraised, the others plumped for Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, which looked delicious, while of course I had to order the French toast in a bid to exorcise the painful memory of the last one. In fairness, it was more of a French Toast-Croque Monsieur fusion dish, owing to the addition of ham and cheese. Basically, it was the non-pareil of toasted sandwich-like entities, as you can see in the photo.

Unfortunately, we had to be pretty disciplined about the time, as Birgit had a theatre show to catch in the afternoon, however, we did manage to slip in a quick rose scent recce in Liberty, still on the quest of a Holy Grail rose perfume for my friend Jessica. It was great having the combined thinking power of Birgit and Tara and a very helpful male sales assistant as we speed sniffed our way round the perfume hall, scoping the fixtures for rosy inspiration. The top contenders were:

Acqua di Parma Rosa Nobile
Maison de Kurkdjian A la Rose
ODIN Milieu Rose
Keiko Mecheri Attar de Roses
Serges Lutens Fille de Berlin

Jessica is going to check them out on her next trip to the West End, and I will report back on her findings!

After the Liberty detour, we ambled down to Haymarket - or elbowed our way through the crowds, more like. Tara and Birgit lamented the fact that London is a lot more densely populated with tourists than Vienna. After picking up Birgit's ticket, we still had a little while to kill, so we walked round the block, enjoying the sunshine and loitering out of the wind here and there. On one of these street corners, we conducted a side-by-side comparison of Puredistance WHITE on my skin versus Tara's. I had written in my review of how my skin seems to amplify the coumarin facet of the tonka, making for a slightly dry, austere opening, and sure enough, the OT duo agreed that WHITE was 'sharper' on me than on Tara, whose skin seemed to grab the basenotes and go straight to that softer, more dreamy phase of WHITE's development. So to anyone out there who doesn't believe in 'YMMV' skin chemistry, we stick up two empirical fingers at that preposterous notion! Birgit and Tara also sniffed me wearing Opardu, but I will save those musings for a separate post.

Looking stylish despite the strong wind!

All too soon, it was time for the parting of the ways. Birgit and Tara's leavetaking was particularly poignant, as they had been constantly in each other's company for the past week. In time honoured perfumista tradition, I pressed a pair of tea towels on Birgit. I figured they would be thin enough to pack at least. Tara and I then made our way to Harvey Nichols. En route I clocked a number of young girls wearing jeans that were ripped at the knees. I suddenly remembered that the girl who was sitting next to me in the train down had worn a similar pair just like these pictured from New Look, and it was clear to me that denim's answer to self-harming must be a bit of a 'Thing' at the moment. I may be a middle aged old fogey, but I  really don't approve. When that trend is past, you will be left with a pair of foolishly mutilated jeans. It reminded me of that John Hiatt song lamenting those tempestuous rock stars who 'smash a perfectly good guitar'.

Source: New Look

Arriving at Harvey Nichols with a few minutes to spare, Tara and I stopped by Shu Uemura so I could buy a pair of their iconic eyelash curlers. According to Sali Hughes - despite their resemblance to an instrument of medieval torture - eyelash curlers are in fact an indispensable beauty aid for the mature woman, as long as you avoid crimping your lashes into the high kicking pose known as the 'hockey stick'. No danger of that yet awhile. So far I have only mastered one eye(!), and a look I can best describe as 'mildly surprised uplift'. As you can tell, I have been quite surprised lately, what with one thing and another. I kicked myself when I got home for not thinking to bring with me my Shu Uemura Hard Formula brow pencil, so that I could have asked the assistants to whittle it into a 'Samurai sword shape'. Well, that is how it is known, but to my eye it looks more like a canoe paddle or the bill of a platypus. Turns out that the pencil I have is not 09 but 06, which cannot be sharpened in that way anyway. Plus I think it's the wrong colour for my hair (Seal Brown), so in the bin it should go in my next decluttering putsch. Though I know I will struggle to throw away a 'perfectly good eyebrow pencil', if colour wasn't so key.

The sublimely sultry Tara

After roaming aimlessly round the top floor of Harvey Nichols, Tara and I eventually found the 'green bar' where we were due to meet Liz Moores of Papillon, who had kindly invited us to join her and her daughter Poppy (aka 'Pod')  for a drink. Readers, we could be excused for our failure to locate this stylish watering hole, a) because there seemed to be numerous bars and cafes on the same floor and b) because the seating was predominantly cream, with green accents. And when it came, what a drink it was!

An 'Enchanted Garden' no less, with edible glitter and pansies. I experienced collateral sparkling lip gloss(!) for the rest of the day - I had appreciably more glitter than the others, I should point out. It was, however, an age-inappropriate risk well worth running for the sheer fun factor and intoxicating deliciousness of this cocktail, which featured two kinds of fruit liqueur, vodka and champagne. I am used to drinking my alcohol one variety at a time, so this multiplicity may well have contributed to my feelings of pleasant muzzy-headedness on the train home. Which also took an hour and twenty minutes! A hop and a skip, merely exacerbating the dreamlike sensation I always get whenever I visit London.

Which was compounded further the next day by a 50th birthday party in a Wimpy...

followed by a bracing country yomp in all our finery.