People have asked me where I get ideas for some of the crazy situations Shaz, the protagonist in What Goes On Tour, gets herself into. This may give you an insight.
Picture this… It’s the summer of 1995 and I’m working as Head Cook at a French château. This château sleeps 150 people a night. During their two night stay they are fed two breakfasts, two dinners and a picnic lunch. This is where I come in. I’m in charge of making sure that all happens. My role involves ordering the food from the local butcher, baker, fresh produce supplier and supermarket, many of whom speak no English. I take weekly stock takes, doing the accounts for the kitchen and actually cooking the food along with two assistant cooks both who have less experience than me.
My experience heading into this role? Virtually none. I spent three months the summer before working as the fourth staff member in a campsite in Venice. I did a lot of cleaning cabins and chopped a few tons of onions. Previous to that I’d been working in New Zealand for the Inland Revenue. I actually wanted to train to be a tour manager in the summer of 1995 but the office had other ideas. They decided throwing me in to the deep end of a running massive kitchen operation was the place for me.
For the most part I think I did okay. No one died, as far as I know, and people mostly got fed edible food and on time. There was one unfortunate incident with a suicidal mouse.
The building had been mostly empty over the winter as it was being redecorated. This, and some food supplies left behind from the previous summer, had led to a population explosion of tiny rodents. While we had laid lots of bait and got the local exterminator in, some determined little devils remained. One busy evening tour passengers assigned to help with dinner service were trailing through the kitchen collecting plates, kitchen staff and road crew were serving food while I was hard at work at the deep fat fryer keeping a steady chain of piping hot pomme noisettes coming.
Suddenly the fat fryer started bubbling and spitting for no obvious reason. I looked closer into the furiously bubbling oil and floating balls of potato to see what had caused this sudden flurry of oil activity. A kamikaze mouse had scampered across the top of the industrial stoves and took its final plunge into the boiling oil. The awkward thing was I couldn’t fish it out as there were so many people in the kitchen, so there it stayed until the end of service. Aside from that, the kitchen ran, mostly smoothly.
It was a very busy job with very few days off. If you were lucky enough to get a couple of rostered days off in a row one of the preferred things to do was to jump on the next coach leaving the stopover and have a few days in another European city. When I had time this is exactly what I did. The coach I was on headed to Barcelona. I had a couple of nights there and then convinced Gary, who worked there, to jump on the next coach with me and head to the next stop for a couple of nights. Our plan was that we’d then travel together back to my work site and he’d get another coach back from there to Barcelona. What could possibly go wrong?
We stocked up on a case of cava (Spanish champagne) for me to give to my work colleagues when I returned, as a thank you for covering for me while I had a break and jumped on a coach headed to Antibes.
The next day on the French Riviera we heard through the grapevine that there was a coach leaving from Fragonard’s Perfumery in Eze tomorrow morning heading to Lyon, the closest city to my place of work. Keep in mind this was 1995. Cell phones were still only something that Maxwell Smart had in his shoe. We couldn’t check this information but we figured that the cost of a taxi for the 45 minute trip from Antibes to Eze to get a free ride to Lyon would be cheaper than each paying for a local train to Nice then a regional train to Lyon. Plan in place we hit the campsite bar for a night of celebrating nothing in particular.
The next morning we dusted ourselves off, got the campsite to call a taxi and loaded into it our small amount of luggage and our large case of champagne. The plan was working out great as we enjoyed the scenery along the coastline and the views as we climbed above Nice towards Monaco. It was still going well as we drove down the steep driveway of the perfumery and said goodbye to our taxi driver after handing him a fistful of francs. It was only when we found the road crew to let them know we’d be joining them that the plan fell foul.
The coach that we had made our way to was not in fact heading to Lyon. It was going to Lucerne, or somewhere equally far away and useless for our needs. We had to think fast. I was due to be starting work in the kitchen later that afternoon and we were now further away from Nice train station than we had been when we woke up. While I guarded the champagne Gary chatted to the various coaches parked at the perfumery until he found one that was heading back down the hill to Nice. We bartered a ride with a couple of bottles of cava and we were soon inside Nice train station looking at the vast board for the quickest and cheapest train to Lyon.
It was with huge relief when me, Gary, our small amount of luggage and our now ten bottles of cava were on a train moving out of Nice train station. That feeling of relief though was short-lived.
Now geography isn’t my strong point but I knew that Lyon was north and west of Nice. What became quickly obvious was that this train was heading due south, not north nor west. The Mediterranean sparkled out the window on our left as we hurtled back past Antibes and through Cannes. It looked like we were heading back to Barcelona!
Deciding we needed help we tried in our, very limited French, to ask some of our fellow travellers if this train was heading to Lyon? Oui, they assured us. We weren’t convinced. To ease our mounting anxiety we decided the only thing for it was to drink cava. If we were going to be lost we may as well be lost AND drunk. Our area of the train was like a magnet as thirsty travellers joined us to share in the international language of cheap fizzy wine.
We did eventually make it to the Château nearly in time for me to start work, but by then I was in no fit state to be in charge of knives or flames so I was dispatched to my room to sleep it off.
All’s well that ends well. It’s travel tales like this, and generous friends who also have tales to share, that have given me some ideas to include in my books.
Did our friendship survive? Sure did, here we are (with other former staff) at a reunion last year before the world went mad.