Herewith a continuing account of the adventures in England in 2017, written on the spot with scant reworking. The events depicted took place two weeks ago.
Herewith my review of the Botley Hotel and Spa, Southampton. Short version: there are beds and plumbing, so you’re good to go for the basics.
Long version follows. I wrote this in a state of utter unhappiness to get my mind off everything and just bitch about something that didn’t matter at all.
The room: ordinary. Clean. Amenities include a trouser press, heated towel rack, a bottle of water, and the usual kettle-and-free-tea assortment with two shortbread biscuits. (The coffee was Nescafe crystals, which form a bitter simulacrum of coffee that also doubles as an antiseptic.) The towels are thick. Shampoo and liquid soap are provided, and there is also a purple square of something that could be soap, but I didn’t have to the time to see if it diligent rubbing under water would eventually generate lather.
Some rooms have bathrobes, but when I inquired if they were normally found in one’s closet, the front desk clerk thought for a moment, and said “Yes, but not for you.” Really. And she was right - I was here with a group that convened to join a cruise ship, so our package did not have bathrobes.
The staff: front desk is fantastic, and responded promptly to requests, if only to tell me I was not Robe Class. Ring them up for ice? It’s at your door in a minute. Service staff is cheerful, and while there was occasionally a language fumble, their English is immeasurably better than my Polish.
Behold, the Botley Bar, the place where I took my troubles to be multiplied.
Food: The hamburger was cooked by some special process that extracted all moisture from the meat, and it was served on a bagel, which suggests they received their instructions on burger construction from someone who made a trip to the States long ago, went mad, and gave rambling accounts of his days among the savages.
The condiments on the table: ketchup, an unrefrigerated container of Mayo whose label encouraged consumption within four days of opening, and a crusty bottle of Tabasco - no mustard. The table had neither salt nor pepper, so one had to walk around the bar picking up the mismatched shakers and turning them upside down to see if there was anything within. Eventually I gathered up two shakers and headed back to my table - whereupon the waiter, whose appearances were so infrequent we spoke about him like the rumor of a ghost on the second-floor landing, wandered over with two shakers, which he deposited on my table. I now had four. He appeared a minute later and took two shakers, both of which contained the pepper, leaving me with nothing but salt. Then he disappeared again.
Where he went, no one knew, but he possibly was attending a dance class or punching a bag in the gym, because his appearances were notable for strong body odor, both recent and historical.
Pop music at a loud volume completed the relaxing experience.
That was lunch. Dinner was also taken in the bar, and I chose a margherita pizza, thinking that would be difficult to misinterpret. I underestimated the kitchen. A proper margherita is simple: tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil, basil. What arrived was a round thing as thick and hard as the plate on which it was served. It was topped with carpet of burned cheese, had no tomatoes discernible to eyes or tongue, and if there was any basil involved in the making of the dish it would have been the first name of the person who moved it from fridge to microwave. It was the sort of thing you find in a gas station food section, sitting alone under the lamps at 11 PM.
Note: if you have no experience with either hamburgers or pizza, you may find the offerings acceptable.
Breakfast? I had hopes. It’s hard to ruin breakfast. The scrambled eggs were bland, but that’s what pepper’s for. The bacon - well, it is not my place to critique British bacon, because obviously that’s what they call bacon, and they’re fine with it. (To Americans used to the strip form, English bacon looks like a boiled part of a baby elephant’s ear.) The sausages, if they were an old comedy team, would be known as Burnt & Mealy. The “hash brown” triangles required a bandsaw to cut, and the exterior seemed like something a sea creature excretes to protect itself from predators. The croissants were small, and were presumably fresh when someone fetched them from Sainsbury the day before. The coffee was good, but you’re more likely to get a refill at the communion rail at church. I spent 20 minutes trying to get someone’s attention to get a second cup, but the staff was always busy - quite a neat trick, since the customers got their own food.
Since it was a 50-pound round-trip cab ride into town, according to the front desk, I was stuck there for supper. Figured I could avoid lunch in the bar by eating mints, complimentary sugar cubes, and making coffee in my room to kill the hunger. But eventually I went back to the bar to try again at 2:30 PM.
Only patron in the room. Two waiters. No one came over. People came up to the bar and ordered, so I figured the rules had changed since 2:30 PM yesterday, when they came to your table. Ordered a cheese and onion sandwich, and a cup of black coffee. Emphasized the world BLACK, thereby ensuring it would come with a plate of sugar cubes and a pitcher of cream.
It arrived with foam and chocolate sparkles. I was actually startled, and said what is this, since it was like ordering a bowling ball and getting a poodle. He said it was a cappuccino. Right, but I ordered a black coffee. No problem sir I will get you one.
The toasted sandwich was stone cold.
Supper. Well, where else could I go?
I ordered the Chicken Burger, which was supposed to arrive between focaccia, but then again so was my bagel-cradled burger. Eventually a plate of grocery-store frozen-foods fries arrived . . . with a chicken breast, cut in two. Where I come from a chicken burger is a patty of ground, seasoned chicken. This was not that. In any possible interpretation. So I called the waitress back and said that I ordered the chicken burger, and she ascribed this error to the other waitress, who had misunderstood me. Possibly because I was speaking English. She said chef had made a mistake. Fine. Whoever. I noted the price difference, and said I’d like it refunded, but that I would buy an ale, just to indicate we could reach a mutually beneficial point.
Went to my room to get something; when I returned the chicken burger had been conjured from somewhere, and consisted of more fries and the original chicken breast I had sent back halved and placed in a bun. There was a beer on the table. They had decided I wanted an Amstel instead of an IPA.
I finished the meal and waited ten minutes for anyone to come around to see if I wanted a coffee or dessert; no one did. I put the plate on another table just to get it out of my sight.
Available condiments for this meal: the bottom of the ketchup bottle; packets of HP sauce (2)
But I wasn’t done with the bar. Oh no. I asked how late they were open; they said ten. I went back at 9:30. The door was locked. The lower pane of glass showed occupants inside, though, and I looked: they were two friends with whom I wanted to have a drink. I knocked. The barmaid unlocked the door, irritated.
“Closed,” she said. “There are two other bars.”
“But there’s no one there,” I said. There wasn’t anyone behind the bar in the lobby and the lights were off. “I’d like to have a drink with my friends.”
Mind you, it’s 9:30.
She clucked and scowled and let me in and made it quite clear we weren’t welcome IN THE HOTEL BAR AT 9:30.
We now rejoin the Europe 2017 Bleat, where I am sitting with a view I cannot say is the best I’ve had on a ship.
But I’m not complaining. There won’t be anything to see except the ocean, and I can pop down a floor for the promenade deck. I cannot complain, because I am on the most beautiful ship I’ve ever been on, and it’s not costing me a cent except for internet and drinks, which is to say it’s costing me about a thousand dollars.
I am on the Queen Mary 2, and we are crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
So what will next week’s Bleats be about? After all, there aren’t any ports. There aren’t any stops. It may be the journal of someone quietly going mad in his cabin, for all I know. Lavish photographic records of the ship; accounts of bonhomie; visits to the planetarium (yes, there’s one on board. FINALLY) and I hope a few notes on the feel of the sea in a storm. Not enough to cause alarm, but enough to make you feel as if you’re a mariner gritting his teeth in the face of the gale. Or at least making faces from behind a window in a snug cabin.
I love nothing more than being on a ship, and leaving port. This has been an odd trip, joyous and unutterably sad, crowded and lonely. A week across the sea is exactly what I need to put distance between August and the fall to come.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get something to eat. Dinner isn’t for three hours, so it’s time for a bit of this and a bit of that. And perhaps a bit of the other thing.
See you on Monday.