Archive for January, 2010

Calypso the white cat on her new Ikea rug

Calypso seems very happy with the new rug we bought her from Ikea.

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Coliposte delivery query form

After more than a week and a half, our skis still haven’t arrived from France. Never mind that parcels from Hong Kong arrive at my doorstep four days after being posted.  No, in France, it seems, things take longer.  It took more than a week for my skis to make it 280km to the Export Centre, where they have sat for the last three days making no progress at all.

Once they make it over the border, I’m confident that the Swiss won’t waste a second assessing the duty and taxes on my skis, then sending a man around to collect the balance.  Nothing motivates the Swiss like collecting taxes.

So our plans to go skiing this weekend were put on hold, as I’ve found skiing is less fun when you’re simply wearing boots.

Instead, we headed off to Germany to do a little ice-skating.  Nice way to spend a cold winter’s day, and we had some snow outside to make it even better.  Finished the day off with a trip to the German supermarket (always fun, although I discovered that everything is a little picked-over if you wait until Saturday afternoon to do your shopping.  It’s like the beach chairs – the Germans get up early to ensure the best choice!)

We’re crossing our fingers that the skis turn up before next weekend.  We’re trying to squeeze in a day of skiing before I have to leave for India and Australia – we’ve got a week booked in Chamonix as soon as I get back, and I’d like a chance to get out on the skis once before we hit the big mountains.

…and Matt found them first, serving them with a sauce échalotte, garlic mashed potatoes, and mixed veggies (for Naomi, my vegetarian friend).

Lamb steaks with shallot sauce (echalottes & vin rouge)

Everyone goes on and on about Scottish Lamb, Welsh Lamb, New Zealand Lamb.  But I’ve never had lamb as good as we get here in Switzerland, and (comparatively speaking), it’s not too expensive.  I love a good piece of roast lamb, but the lamb steaks here are more flavourful and tender than what I’ve found anywhere else in the world.  They really are superb.

So I bought a beautiful lamb nierstuck (which, if I understand correctly, is a fatless steak off the back of the shoulder) that was so tender it cut with a fork.  I guess they must butcher the lamb differently here, because it’s a cut I don’t know from the US, the UK, or France.  But it’s tender, full of flavour, and delicious.  Sautéed the lamb, served with garlic-infused mashed potatoes and fresh winter vegetables and a sauce échalotte with red wine. Aude has given the meal her endorsement and approval.

Heaven on a plate.  And just the thing to piss off my vegetarian friends on the heels of eating Bambi. 

(Don’t worry – this isn’t going to become a foodie blog any more than I’m a foodie – I just like to remind my vegetarian friends from time to time that there’s a whole world of deliciousness that they’re missing!)

Braised venison with red wine and balsamic vinegar

Venison was on sale at the supermarket in Germany, so I decided to pick some up for dinner.  Braised the venison in red wine and balsamic vinegar, added veal stock, onions, carrots and tomatoes.  Went totally Germanic with red cabbage and spaetzle sautéed in butter.  Threw in a couple of green beans to get all of my ‘five-a-day’ on a single plate to keep Aude’s mother happy.

Posted my dinner menu on my facebook page only to receive a comment from a vegetarian friend: “you are horrible.”  No doubt more horrible because I’m eating something cute, despite the fact that Bambi probably lived a far more fulfilled life than most industrially-raised animals.

No, as committed carnivores, we’ll happy eat most creatures regardless of how cute they are.  Daffy, Donald, Bambi (and little Thumper, too), Bugs Bunny, Babe, Shaun, Ermintrude, Foghorn Leghorn, Kermit and Tweety all have a place on our menu.  Just wait until I finally find Nemo.

 Finding Nemo as Sushi

As Sandro reminded me this weekend, “you don’t win friends with salad.

I read an interesting article called It’s the Little Things today about the type of small services that only come from loyalty, and it got me thinking.  I’ve stayed at hundreds of hotel over the past ten years, but there are some where the personal service really stood out – and where my loyalty paid off. 

It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, of course, and that’s what I think the article misses out on.  The hotels where you’ll stay frequently enough to build loyalty are the ones that treated you well enough as a guest initially to cause you to return.  It speaks about the commitment of the hotel management to really understand what their guests want, whether it’s for a single stay (when you get the standard package) or for a long-term repeat visitor who gets a little more special treatment.

I’ve certainly had the kind of treatment that the article talks about from a few hotels where I was a ‘regular’, and the extra service really makes them stick out in my mind.

In New Orleans, the sales manager of the hotel knew that I liked a particular room, and she made sure that it was always available for me whenever I stayed at the hotel.  At the hotel bar, the staff learned that I liked Guinness (not on the menu) and arranged to have it special-ordered and kept in the bar when I was staying at the hotel.  It was a really nice, personal touch.  When the lifts were slow, I was escorted to the staff lift and taken downstairs the ‘back way’ to avoid the queues.  Each time I arrived at the hotel, the front desk staff greeted me like an old friend.  The sales manager at the hotel would invite me for a coffee every few weeks to find out personally how I was enjoying my stay.

At another hotel in London, it was the same story.  There was one room in the hotel that was furnished differently from all the others – it was a prototype for the redesign that they rolled out to the entire hotel, but some of the higher-end features were cut from the final design, so only featured in this room – making it the nicest in the hotel.  Once again, the hotel manager learned that I liked this room, and made sure I had it on every visit.  He’d often invite me for a drink in the bar to hear my thoughts about the hotel and service – it was a really personal touch that made a huge influence on my decision to stay with the hotel.  When the food & beverage manager learned that I had eaten everything on the room service menu and was bored, he asked the chef to propose some specials from the main restaurant and have them sent to my room.  It was a nice touch.

In Singapore, there was no formal loyalty programme at the hotel where I used to stay regularly, but it was clear that the hotel was tracking my stay and preferences each time I visited.  There was a sort of one-upmanship in the welcome I received each time I visited.  The first time I arrived, there was a pot of tea waiting for me in my room.  The second time, it was a pot of tea and some cookies.  After that, tea, cookies, wine, fruit, even a tub filled with rose petals.  I was afraid of what they’d think of next if I went back again!  Still, it made an impression that they really valued my business and were interested in making me happy as a customer.

As much as a hotel can track preferences through loyalty schemes and guest preference cards, there’s no substitute for the real customer service that comes from a genuine human.  It’s becoming more and more rare these days, but there are still some places that make the effort.

Up in the Air Movie PosterAfter having heard other frequent travelers raving about it, I finally found time to see the new George Clooney film, Up in the Air.  Lots of good attention to detail and plenty of things that made Aude say “wow, that’s exactly like you!”  The suitcase-packing scenes (right down to the brand & model of suitcase) could have been shot at our house, and the TSA security regime (including the slip-on shoes and de facto profiling of the other passengers in line in order to get through quickly) rang true as well.

Really enjoyed it, although there was a little too much gratuitous product placement (heaven knows how much Hertz paid to plug their #1 Gold Club card, and one wonders how effective it was as they hurtle towards bankruptcy).  But overall a fun movie.

And sadly, playing the Frequent Flyer game of one-upmanship with Platinum cards only helps you score if you actually look like George Clooney.  For the rest of us mere mortals, even with a fist full of Platinum cards, I don’t suggest trying it at the hotel bar.

All in all, a lighter-hearted look at frequent travel than Lost in Translation.  The truth, I think, lies somewhere in between the two…