Just before it started to get cold, I spent five nights in Marlow at a scientific conference, sequestered in the stuffiest of stuffed English hotels, the Compleat Angler, although its position by the big weir on the Thames is admittedly rather impressive. I spent a discreet weekend there once over twenty-five years ago but now cannot remember much about it or the weekend. It suffers very badly from the English hotel disease of leaving no space unfilled, no chair uncushioned, no cushion untasselled, no furniture leg unfrilled, no wallpaper unflocked, no shelf uncluttered and no table unbedecked with heavy glossy catalogues and plumply embossed leathern writing cases. Even the obligatory molded teapot/kettle set has to be fitted into the back of a drawer behind the Gideon’s Bible.
Marlow has a jaded, fading feel. I needed to write and post a letter from a standing start and found it remarkably difficult to do so. The hotel sold no stamps. (Great. It sold balloon trips, Dead Sea algae and tangerine tisane but no postage stamps.) Her Majesty’s Royal Mail in Marlow is to be found in a Portakabin at the back of a supermarket car park at the top of the High Street. I queued for nearly ten minutes for one stamp, and when I asked where to post the letter, was shown a half-full burlap bag lying shapelessly on the dirty linoleum floor. And this was before the postal strike. On the way back, recycling opportunities proliferated from huge thrusting sturdy containers shaped like bulky postal boxes, as if mocking the absence of the real thing. It seemed to fit my general mood to be listening to Warren Zevon’s stirring Middle England anthem Porcelain Monkey as I strode back down the stricken high street in the wet rain. When I came back to Basel, it turned out that Alli had thought all along that I was in Harlow, not Marlow. But enough of my complaints about Ye Olde England. The England of the 1970s (or so) was well portrayed in two plays by John Godber and Jane Thornton, Bouncers and Shakers, put on by the Semi-Circle, an English-speaking theatre company, at the noted Helmut Förnbacher Theater located in the former customs hall of Basel’s Badischer Bahnhof. The plays portray, relentlessly, the shifting, feverish underside of Northern English nightlife. My friend Richard put in a barnstorming performance as Lucky Eric, whose first speech was genuinely memorable.
Having not immediately exchanged into Euros the large wad of pound notes that we received from the sale of our UK house, deciding instead to leave it accruing interest at the princely rate of 0.5% I viewed sterling’s freefall in September and October with less than equanimity. I took to posting a link to the exchange rate fluctuation on my computer desktop but this only enhanced my bi-polar tendencies and I was plunged into either bleak despair or blithe joy at the merest movement of even one hundredth of a percentage point, knowing that these indicated several hundred euros at a time. Eventually I changed the pounds on the 22nd inst., deciding neither to rue nor regret my impeccably awful timing. Being rubbish at currency arbitrage is one of my many congenital failings.
But this was nothing compared to the drama on the home front. The one thing we had not worried about in the whole gamme, the timing of our move to France, now became our biggest concern. We advertised to the expatriate community and Alli showed our house to many interested parties, but few wanted it, then one family said they wanted to move in straight away, then told us at the last minute that they did not. Finally, after a particularly upsetting letdown, I decided that we would act on events rather than be acted upon, so we resolved to move before Christmas regardless of whether we could find a family to take our house over before the end of our notice. We are therefore going to move in late November, come what may. And I am sure that it will. Alli has been packing cases and boxes ready for the move but a new worry now is that we seem to be unable to locate our vendor to confirm the move, sign the papers, receive the money and, above all, move out before we move in.
Ella had an excellent report from school, and seems to be getting on well with the IB course. We talk to Jessie quite regularly through a variety of means, the most recent being Skype, which I have now accepted as A Good Thing. We spent a fine day in Colmar (France) with Gwen, did some shopping, and had a delicious lunch at the Café de Paris. We bought a modern sofa (in blocks of different colors) from the deeply chic establishment Rochebobois for our house, although amazingly enough I had not intended to open my wallet. Talking of which, I see that Stanbrook Abbey, of Worcestershire, for 150 years the home of a Benedictine order of nuns, is for sale at 4.5 million pounds. Maybe we should move in there instead – it might turn out to be (quantitatively) easier and cheaper.
Yours with crossed digits,
Bonnie by the Birsig, October 2009