The Consolation of Cakes


The Children’s Theatre School in Shiroka Luka ended yesterday with the most harrowing ritual of all – the giving out of diplomas to the children who took part, and the saying of goodbyes to children, artists and sponsors – an occasion for torrents of tears. Many of the children look forward to the Theatre School all year, and all of us remember how long a year lasts when you’re a child. Tears are followed by the consolation of cakes and then we’re gone.

Cakes are, indeed, one of life’s great consolations, and I must admit that food still occupies as important a place in my mind as it ever did when I was a child. I remember that at the end of the very first Children’s Theatre School just before Christmas in 2001, Elena Panayotova, who directs the School, asked the children to tell her their dreams for the future. Some of them mentioned becoming a footballer, or having loads of money, or being a film star, but I remember, with great affection, one small, slightly plump boy saying, ‘As many kebabche as I can eat.’

The kebabche is the local sausage – minced pork flavoured with cumin – and in 2001 orphanage food wasn’t as good or as plentiful as it is now. At the party we held for the children following the show I saw him pile a plate high with kebabche and cakes, and then take himself to a quiet corner to eat them all on his own. As much as he could eat was quite a lot.

I’m afraid I’m the same, and I saw myself in that child. I still haven’t entirely mastered the art of restraint. This morning in Sofia, we found the best patisserie in the city – the Orsetti Pasticceria, owned and managed by an Italian couple. Anything to avoid the appalling breakfast offered at the Arena di Serdica, an otherwise very good hotel. The cakes were delicious, and I ate too many of them.



Blingless in Sofia

There are large parts of the world where many of those of moderate wealth, and all of those of great wealth, have acquired their possessions questionably. In such places bling abounds. If there are ‘expensive’ restaurants for business visitors or tourists they tend to be decorated brightly, opulently and ostentatiously, with the undiscerning, and undeserving, rich in mind. They are peopled by fat-bellied, swarthy gangsters, shouting into their mobile phones, blowing cigarette smoke with arrogant abandon and largely ignoring their blonde and leggy molls, who look on vacantly, even anxiously, uncertain of their tenure.

Such was Sofia some fifteen years ago, and such is Moscow still, and probably Almaty. If you weren’t wearing Gucci, or Versace, and weren’t dripping with ill-gotten gold, you were consigned to a table in a dimly lit corner of the restaurant, to be served, eventually, by reluctant waiters, and glanced at with sneering pity by more profligate and better-tipping oligarchs.

I feel a great nostalgia for such times. There was an edge to travel in the newly free democracies of Central and Eastern Europe that has been lost to normality. It was an adventure. Now it is merely a pleasure.

I’m in Sofia for two nights on the first leg of a four-country tour of LLP Group’s offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, before returning to my home city of Prague, and then on to the UK for Christmas with my mother. I’m travelling not on a Santa-style sledge, drawn by flying reindeer decked out in our company’s colours, but by low-cost airlines, which take me through two additional capitals, Belgrade and Berlin. If time permits I might also make a detour to Vienna on Sunday, since I have designs on Demel, the great Viennese café and cake shop, who make the best stollen and gingerbread in the world. I need stocking fillers for Christmas.

The purpose of my tour is unambitious and largely gastronomic. I take my colleagues out to lunch or dinner. I bestow Christmas goodwill, and listen to their woes and joys. Yesterday I took my Bulgarian colleagues to my favourite place in Sofia, the entirely bling-less Made in Home, a restaurant that is the antithesis of gangsterism, ostentation and tastelessness. The blingy rich wouldn’t even be seen dead there, though, aware of it or not, they’re far more likely to be seen dead at the places they do frequent. Its décor comes from grandmothers’ attics, bizarrely juxtaposed with original modern paintings and prints. Its chairs are a mismatched collection from the last ten decades, and your table may well have been made from a door. It’s cosy, friendly, inexpensive, and peopled by people of all kinds, none of them eager for display, and the food is absolutely excellent. It is the kind of place you might find in New York, London, Tel Aviv, or Paris, but that’s not to suggest it’s bland.


We booked a table for 12.30 and although we set out from the office at 12.15 we were lucky to arrive before losing our table. Traffic in Sofia is appalling, made worse by breakdowns (see my colleague Stoyan removing an overheated car from our path) and by road works. Sofia, one of my favourite cities in Eastern Europe, is still being remade.



We enjoyed an excellent lunch, choosing from a menu that included Bulgarian as well as ‘international’ dishes. The emphasis is on vegetables, but you can also eat fish and meat. It was so good I returned, alone, for dinner, and ate the zucchini patties with yoghurt all over again.


Music and Dignity

I love to see pianos played in public places, and, of course, other instruments too. Over the last few years I’ve seen more and more pianos, some of dubious quality and provenance, in railway stations and airports.

On Saturday I saw someone play jazz (very well) on a piano at Avignon station, and later a teenager practising a chromatic scale (very badly) at Charles de Gaulle airport. And when I was last in Sofia I admired this lonely, unplayed Steinway and its incongruous ‘piano stool’ at the airport, but sadly, there was nobody to play it, and no one, I think, would want to hear what I can do.

sofia piano

Live music, wherever it is, in the concert hall or the departure lounge, is always preferable to the piped variety. I’d put my own Bluthner grand piano in the street outside my apartment if only I could get it through the window. It would probably get more playing there than in my living room.

People often think that classical music should be played with a special kind of dignity, in sombre, old-fashioned, uncomfortable, expensive clothes, in sombre, silent, sepulchral halls. We forget that it’s ‘entertainment’, by which I don’t mean that it isn’t serious or intelligent. It’s entertainment because it’s played for, or to, an audience, and audiences can be found anywhere.

Most of the time classical music is played as if it’s a ritual, whose moves are known only to a few initiates, and as if its practitioners are unapproachable high priests, even Gods, remote and full of dignity. It’s usually played in sterile ‘laboratory’ conditions, in an inert and unvarying atmosphere, where performers and audience are set decisively apart. Heaven forbid that you should clap at the wrong time or show too much emotion as you sit and absorb what the musicians are doing in front of you. Small wonder that when this is the prevailing style, audiences are sparse, and elderly.

Why should we listen to music in just one way? We eat in restaurants, on the street, at home, even at 30,000 feet. Every new location adds something different to the experience. Food tastes different in the open air. A Beethoven sonata, taking us by surprise on the concourse of a railway station, comes at us in a different way, catches us in a different frame of mind. And for the performer, too, it can be exciting to play for different audiences in different places. Why should the experience of performing and listening be confined only to a few locations?

Classical music needs to be stripped of its excessive dignity. At its best it’s an informal, warm, living, exciting, entertaining, even challenging, activity that’s performed by people for people, the one lot ‘saying something’ to the other, and the other responding with appreciation, delight, or sympathy. Music, at least in the form of singing (or howling!), was probably the precursor of speech. Music is communication of an elemental kind.

The fact that music is entertainment doesn’t mean it can’t be serious. I mean ‘entertain’ in the broad sense of capturing the attention of an audience. In this sense both Hedda Gabler and Absolutely Fabulous are entertainments. Seriousness needn’t be pompous, needn’t be surrounded by too much dignity. You can play Beethoven just as well in blue jeans as in a dinner jacket.

When I played my oboe regularly in amateur orchestras in London in the 1980s we often performed in busker venues, such as in the piazza at Covent Garden, and these performances were as serious, and as much fun as any in a concert hall. Never mind that some people came and went, that others stayed, that the applause came at the ‘wrong’ moments, I’m sure we said as much as we ever said in the frigid conditions of the concert hall.

So, I love the pianos that we see in public places, where the public are invited to perform any music that comes to mind. Sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes (too often) it’s Fur Elise, and sometimes it’s deeply serious music. When my nephew Frederic played some Chopin at Herne Hill Station in London, a small crowd gathered and applauded. I would love to come across Alfred Brendel or Andras Schiff playing at St Pancras station or on this Steinway at Sofia Airport. I hope that they could dispense with the dignity they’re used to.

But, for some players, music is so special that it’s no longer part of life. It’s something separate, dignified, dead. There’s a young pianist I know in Prague who takes himself too seriously. He’s good, and has played as a soloist with many famous orchestras. Though he has a magisterial way with Brahms, he’d be a happier man if he could lighten up a little. I invited him to my annual Christmas Party, which is also a Birthday Party for my partner. As I lit the candles on the birthday cake (a little the worse for drink, I will admit), I asked him, on an impulse, to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the Bluthner grand. I knew immediately it was a faux pas of colossal proportions. He actually shuddered, as if I’d put something nasty under his nose. Too much dignity!

If Leonard Bernstein were my guest (sadly, he never will be now, because he’s dead), I wouldn’t even need to ask. It would be difficult to get him to stop. Music infused every moment of his life, not just those moments in the concert hall, and he didn’t give a damn about dignity.

Just Another Form of Sitting

People often suggest I should be exhausted by travel. I travel a lot, I suppose, but mostly over short distances in Europe, and I always carry my own bag (as, I note, the Pope does nowadays). There are many people my age, older, and younger, who travel much more than I do. David Cameron, for example, and he looks well enough on it, and Angela.

I’ve taken 44 flights so far this year, flown around 90,000 km (just more than twice around the world) visited about twenty countries and still have the appetite for more. I’m off to Sofia today, and thence by bus to Plovdiv. But don’t think for a moment that I travel in great luxury or style. Only 10 of these flights were not economy – most of them were on low-cost airlines, on planes where the seats don’t recline and conditions are cramped. Wizzair, easyJet, and the like (though I avoid Ryanair if I can  because I can’t bear their pizzazz).

No, I don’t have patience with the view that travel is tiring. Of course, jet lag is unpleasant, and getting up early, or arriving somewhere late at night, but that’s not the point. That’s not the travelling part. To my mind, travelling is just another way of sitting. Sitting on trains, sitting in taxis, sitting on buses, sitting in other people’s cars, sitting on a plane, in a departure lounge, in a hotel room. It’s all just sitting. Sitting, and generally working. Sitting is not tiring at all. After all, what else do we do at home, or in the office? Sitting, doing emails, that’s actually the whole of life, with a little lying down thrown in at night.


Standing, of course, is tiring, a lot more tiring than walking (think of how exhausting it is to stand in front of paintings and glass cabinets in museums), and I will never buy a standing ticket for an aeroplane if they ever become an option. Ryanair once mooted the idea of ‘standing seats’ and came up with a design, but surely for no other reason than publicity. Perhaps they were inspired by those discreet ledges that medieval monks perched on to relieve their legs after hours and hours of standing and praying.

Ryanair’s proposed ‘standing seats’…

standing seats

Salisbury Cathedral economy class

monks standing

No, I don’t find travel tiring. I still find it stimulating.

What’s important, is to follow some basic rules:

  • Don’t fly early in the morning. Get up at the usual time.
  • Don’t arrive late at night. Arrive in time for dinner.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at all whilst on the road, or in the air, but eat everything they put in front of you.
  • Don’t be anxious about departure times. Arrive at the airport an hour before a flight is due to leave. It’s always plenty of time, whatever they tell you. After all, there’s always another flight, or an airport hotel, and in all my years of travel I’ve only ever missed one flight. (Note that if your flight is about to close, there’s always an official who will shout out your destination and call you to the front of the queue.)
  • Treat the queues at security and passport control with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Treat delays with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Always have some work to do. I do my best work at 10,000 metres, blissfully uninterrupted.
  • Don’t talk to the person sitting next to you until the plane starts to descend.
  • Don’t join queues until you have to. I’ve never understood why passengers queue just in front of the gate as soon as the flight starts boarding. You have an allocated seat, so what’s the point? They won’t go without you. Just sit and watch and wait, with a Buddhist nonchalance, if possible.
  • Sit near the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage to appear before rushing forward to pick it up.
  • Take your own tea bags.
  • Don’t be anxious about turbulence. The wings never fall off.

Liberty, Equality and Fraternity on the Beaches of the Cote d’Azur

I was amused by this article about Saudi King Salman’s visit to the Cote d’Azur, and surprised to read that even in the land of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, expediency and commercial opportunity trump the rights of the ordinary beachgoer.

Beach Closed for Saudi Visit

King Salman is travelling with an entourage of about 1,000 and a stretch of beach will be closed to enable him to enjoy himself in ‘privacy’. He and his companions will arrive on two Boeing 747s, some to stay in the King’s villa and the rest to be put up in hotel rooms in Cannes. A thousand people for three weeks at the peak of the holiday season must cost the royal family well over three million pounds. Trickle-down theorists will point out, in his defence, that some of the money will trickle down to those locals who are denied a swim at their favourite beach.

King Salman

The balancing of individual rights against a wider commercial advantage isn’t something amenable to an automatic moral algorithm, sadly, but with the French leading the charge against economic inequality this pandering to the wishes of one rich foreign family is rather unexpected.

But what strikes me as most odd about this story is not the closure of the beach, but the idea that you might travel to a foreign country with so many of your own countrymen that the very foreignness of the place you’re visiting is entirely obliterated. If I travel to France I want to be with the French, to eat French food, to be insulted for my language skills, and perturbed by French hauteur, not to be surrounded by my own countrymen.

I’m reminded of a time in Sofia more than fifteen years ago, when one of my visits coincided with a state visit by Bill Clinton, then President of the United States. He, too, arrived with an entourage on two Boeing 747s, and took over most of the city’s hotel rooms. I shared a dining room at one hotel with the Presidential hairdresser. Most of the city was closed for the 36 hours of his stay, not just a single beach. But in practice we can’t demand equality of world leaders, whose security must trump the rights of the rest of us, for a time at least. The wheels of diplomacy and international relations must turn, however expensive that may be. The holiday visit of a Saudi King is another matter.