Too Much Food for Thought

What are tournéed vegetables? What is a “green apple gastrique”? What’s fregola? A farro salad?

These and several other questions confronted me when I sat down to Delta’s Business Class menu on last week’s Los Angeles to New York flight. Now, before everyone gets worked up into their usual tizzy because I am even deigning to comment when not flying cattle class, I have thousands upon thousands of points acquired through daily living that enable me to travel this way. In fact, these flights invariably cost me less than Economy; and, anyway, #NYGB (Not Your Goddamned Business).

I always look forward to the meal: the laying of the cloth, the arrival of the tiny salt and pepper pots that house about eight grains between them, the wine cart that invariably gives you the choice of three different ranges of c**p.

Beverages and food are always a hit and miss affair. Virgin Atlantic currently has a terrific Spanish red onboard, while Delta has a selection of totally undrinkable wines. The Italian sparkling is drinkable enough, but even I, a huge Champagne/Cava/Prosecco lover, can’t manage a six-hour marathon of bubbles.

Virgin’s tomato and basil soup is my favourite starter, especially during my current vegetarian phase (although I’ve never been a big meat or fish fan). But, horror of horrors, on my UK to LA flight last week, there had been a catering mix-up and there was no soup. I know! Third World Problems, or what?

Luckily, the crew quickly spotted that my greed for Air Miles is far greater than my greed for two tablespoons of soup (I have eye baths bigger than Virgin’s soup bowls) and promised me a five-figure sum of miles as compensation. In future, I think I might enquire in advance, just to discover what’s not available and then ask for it.

I declined the alternative two cold starters. There were chicken skewers or a butternut squash salad. First, if I wanted bits of wood in my food, I’d go camping, not wait until I’m 30,000 feet in the air for that dubious luxury; second, squash looks like a slightly larger version of what you always throw up after a night on the tiles.

I can’t remember what I had as the main course, but I recall that it was a hot dish that arrived cold, as it always does. It was also on a plate barely bigger than a saucer and, at the first stabbing, I lost half of it as it journeyed across the aisle.

Delta, which is now a partner airline with Virgin Atlantic, has the same job lot of plates. Now, I know that space is limited on an airline, but if you are going to be serving “Herb-Crusted Lamb Chops with saffron quinoa, tournéed vegetables and green apple gastrique”, at least put it on a plate from which the lamb can’t escape before it hits the fork.

Unlike Virgin Atlantic, Delta doesn’t serve Port with its cheese plate, and the “acacia gourmet cream crackers” were even less appealing than a packet of Jacob’s cream crackers in the desert.

Here’s the other thing: the menu said the cheeses were “offered” with fresh fruit and the crackers. 

Hang on. “Offered” with? Does that mean I can take the stuff, or I can’t? There’s a bit of an “If you must, Madam, you greedy bitch” in the word “offered” there. In any case, there were only a few grapes. The cheeses were excellent, though: “Cyprus grove midnight moon” (don’t ask, I have no idea) together with “kaltbach gruyère and buttermilk blue affinée

Alas, my computer will not allow me to put any space or punctuation after the last word in the previous paragraph without removing the accent; suffice it to say that I learned more French from this menu than I have during the past 20 years of lessons.

Within the past two weeks, I have also flown on British Airways, as they threatened to take away all my points if I didn’t fly with them before June 3rd (they thought they had already done me a huge favour by giving me a three month extension). So, I took a flight that I didn’t want, to a place I had no need to go (Paris – much as I love it, it was an unnecessary trip), all in order to keep Air Miles on an airline I never wish to fly.

It was horrible. Despite being in Business, the knees of the man behind attacked my lower back throughout the flight. They ran out of the first food option after serving just two people and I had to take the afternoon tea, which consisted of stale sandwiches and a scone that looked more suited to a moon landing than an oral consumption.

I’m grounded (physically; emotionally will take a lot more work) for a while now, but am worried that I have become slightly obsessed with flying and collecting Air Miles. I always have to have one obsession in life – it used to be property or a man; now, it’s Air Miles. At least if I’m in the air, it keeps me away from putting deposits on my credit card for the former and pursuing the latter. Above clouds, I am safe.

Hang on . . . there’s WiFi on board and my credit card is in my hand luggage. And that guy in 14A is quite cute.

And I’ve just hit 300,000 Virgin Atlantic Air Miles. Triple whammy, or what?!

 

 

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A Load of Hot Air

I think I am going to have to stop travelling; it’s just all too stressful.

Every day begins a new battle with an airline or hotel whose staff seem incapable of listening to, or correctly reading the simplest information.

The past week alone brought the promise of three hours’ hold on the phone to Delta, an ongoing British Airways situation, a problem with Accor Hotels, and numerous other things too tedious to mention. I am bored with hearing about my travel woes and feel genuinely sorry for anyone else who comes across them.

Let’s begin with Delta, who recently became a partner with Virgin Atlantic. I have very few quibbles with the latter. I love the airline, the crews, the Upper Class lounge at Heathrow, and it is only their dreadful new website that continues to let them down.

Delta are another matter altogether. I set my alarm for 5am while in the US to try to avoid the three hour wait, and even at that hour was on hold for 22 minutes. When I finally got through to change my flight, I was charged several hundred dollars to do so, event though I could see on the website that I was changing it for one of exactly the same value (the website wouldn’t let me change it myself). Exhausted, I paid – using my credit card’s old address, as Delta’s system still refuses to acknowledge the address I have had for four years.

The confirmation came through: wrong flight. I had been correct – there was no extra charge on the flight I had asked for. I rang again. Another 20 minute wait. I spoke to a lovely lady who was very sympathetic, booked me on the correct flight and spent half an hour trying to get hold of her supervisor to arrange for my refund, which was duly done. Hoo-flamin’-ray.

The new confirmation came through: right flight, wrong month. Booked now for April instead of May. I had to phone again. FINALLY, I have the right flight and the right day. Delta on Twitter said they would waive my original change fee of $200, but now they tell me I have to talk to Reservations to get that done. And so the whole terrible cycle begins again.

Now, to British Airways. I was booking to go to Kiev at the beginning of May and, when I tried to cancel, was told that my Avios Air Miles had expired – by eight days. I had received no notice that they were about to do so (and I have EVERY bit of correspondence from BA, going back two decades – they still haven’t responded to any of it) but was told that if I booked a flight within three months, I could keep my miles and would be refunded the outgoing part of the flight for which I was eligible, as I had paid full price. But where to go cheaply within three months? I enquired about a one way flight to Paris. After a lengthy phone call and a long e-mail they wrote, explaining my options (both Club Europe and Economy), I said that I would like to check out the Economy fare, thereby saving the bulk of my refund.

I will not bore you even more than I already have with what transpired through BA on Twitter, but they kept telling me that they could do nothing until the Fares department came back with their calculations. This morning, I went online, and not only are both Kiev flights still there, they have also booked me on the expensive Club Europe flight to Paris. I have not agreed to this. I did not confirm anything. All I have had are the very adamant BA Twitter people telling me that nothing can be arranged until Fares get back to them. So why the heck have they gone ahead and done it?

Let’s get to Accor. Since I stayed at the Francis Hotel in Bath last year, I have been trying to get my points accredited. I booked through my membership number, I checked the hotel had my number, I wrote to the hotel, I wrote to Accor – but still nothing. Now, this morning, they tell me I should have claimed my points within six months of my stay. AGGGHHHHHH! I DID! Several times!

I really am at the end of my tether. Travelling is stressful enough (just ask poor Dr Dao, dragged off a United Airlines flight this week), without having to jump through so many hoops. Virgin Atlantic will tell you that I am the calmest and nicest passenger. I get on with everyone and always give praise where praise is due. Contrary to what people believe, I do not use Twitter to complain all the time; mostly, I use it as a means to thank people for their service – and I always take names so that I can add a personal touch.

But Delta and BA, between them, have led me to the brink. I’m just going to have to stop travelling, because my blood pressure really can’t take it. Or I’ll just have to stick to going everywhere that Virgin Atlantic goes, which limits my options; but at least I get to talk to those lovely people in the Swansea centre for whom nothing is ever too much trouble. Yes, I love you Virgin Atlantic, with a passion that grows each day that every other airline screws up.

See you on the Psycho 7! Sorry, folks – in-joke. We know what we’re talking about though, eh, Virgin?

More Tales of Two Cities

“Why do you need two places?” It was an eminently sensible question from a great friend who was querying why I currently split my time between Los Angeles and New York. A little weary of the former, I was trying to decide where to base my second home when the lease expires in May.

I’ve lived in two places most of my adult life. At one point, four – London, Cardiff, Paris, Marbella (it’s a very long story that involved buying pine furniture when I was going to be living with a man and then holding on to it when we broke up. I finally chucked it all last year. It was a harder break-up than the one with him had been).

But back to the States. I don’t like Miami (expensive, too many thin people, noisy) or, come to that, anywhere else in Florida (mosquitoes, Trumpites and God lovers). I don’t want the UK (Brexiteers, hysterical – and not in a ho ho ho kind of way – anti-Trumpites); and despite Canada having a very cute president in Justin Trudeau, at the end of the day, it’s still Canada.

The sensible thing to do would be to bring the stuff I really want to keep to NY and sell the rest. As I already have a big storage unit in the UK, I don’t really want a second in the US (having a home plus two storage units is even more insane that having two homes – at least, according to my logic). However, my place in NY is not huge and even bringing the bare minimum would make it look like a storage unit. So then I’d have still have storage units but no home.

My answer, therefore, to my friend’s question was: “I need somewhere to put my sofas.” Logic, you may have realised by now, has never been my strong point. I’d make a terrible lawyer – unless it was one on Law and Order and I was forced to stick to the script.

The decision now is where the sofas are heading. I’d rather stay on the East Coast but want somewhere warm. Everyone has assured me I would love Charleston in South Carolina. I must admit, it looks rather pretty, but even the most cursory glance on Google at Top Ten Things to Do in Charleston doesn’t have me rushing for the airport.

Walking, biking, a bridge, a church, a swamp garden . . . I already feel rigor mortis setting in.

I’ve always loved Texans who, of all the Americans I’ve met, seem the most fun-loving, but I wouldn’t like the extreme weather or the even more extreme political views of middle America (then there’s that God problem again). I loathe Las Vegas with a passion (although I’ve booked to see Elton John’s show and am mega-excited), saw everything I needed to of Boston through the plane window coming in to land, and my little experience of New Jersey makes Charleston look like New Orleans on speed.

Los Angeles still seems like the obvious alternative. I love the West Coast weather and, as a place to escape the summer humidity and winter winds of New York, it’s a great contrast. The problem is that the things I love about it are the things I dislike, too. Film, TV, showbiz and media are my passions in a life that I am grateful every day to be a part of. But then there is the downside of all that – the people struggling to make it in those areas and, invariably, being disappointed: the scent of hope, the reek of failure.

It’s also a very noisy city – ironically, I find it far noisier than New York, where the undercurrent buzz of a city in permanent flow is strangely calming and comforting. In LA, there is permanent traffic noise, loud music in every shop and restaurant (still a blessed rarity in NY), and hordes of weed-smoking, rowdy young people in every apartment block, turning the places into undesirable frat houses.

Which brings me to the dreaded weed. The smell is everywhere and it’s gross. I’m not going to get into an argument about the pros and cons – everyone with an opinion is intransigent on the subject, I have discovered – but even the car fumes are suffocating under the stink of the stuff. It’s not just the offensiveness of the smell: I hear and see so many people, every day – actors, writers, directors – missing appointments because they were up until 4am smoking weed. If that’s your thing, fine; but don’t then whinge about not being able to make it in an industry where there are thousands at the top of their game, not wasting time talking bollocks with their mates until the early hours.

This leaves me in limbo, at least until May when I have more decisions to make. I think I could be happy in a Virgin Atlantic Upper Class cubicle, just travelling the world and coming and going at my leisure. Maybe Sir Richard will accommodate me.

I’d love to hear any other suggestions. Sending the men in white coats to lock me up on grounds of insanity is not an option, by the way.

 

Living at the Edge

When I’m in New York, I have simple rules that make life a lot easier: namely, never go anywhere involving the words “East” “upper”, or “shared”. The first ensures that when crossing from West 45th, where I live, I will be stuck in a taxi whose idea of a short cut is going via Missouri. The second always entails getting on the wrong subway train that is going in the opposite direction, while the third means . . . well, I’ve never found out, because anything involving another person’s plans inevitably involves missing the start of the movie, failing to find seats at the bar, or arguing over whose turn it is to pay the Uber.

In LA, I have just one rule: don’t go anywhere – at least, don’t go anywhere further than three miles away if you want to be back home this side of Christmas. And so, when my dear friend and brilliant food PR Bradley Tuck (could anyone’s name ever be better suited to his job?) suggested going to Silver Lake for brunch, the words struck me with horror. Anything with a metal in its title is never a good sign and screams distance – Australia’s Gold Coast, the Ironback Mountains of Collabria (prone to avalanches). Coupled with the word “lakes”, this could mean only one thing. Canada.

There was more to come: the restaurant is called Cliff’s Edge, which added fuel to the fire. Not only were we going to Canada, we were all going to die!

Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered that Silver Lake is only four miles from where I live and, at just a mile out of my comfort zone, I decided to risk all. Armed with my hiking boots, hip flask and ice pick (one can never be too careful heading east), Bradley enthused about the restaurant that, since it opened in June 2004, has garnered praise from critics, locals and its fair share of celebrity diners.

The huge outside space, shaded by foliage and created around a 60 year old Ficus tree at its heart does not disappoint. It’s hard to reconcile the blandness of the typical LA road that leads one to this place of magical, yet unostentatious splendour. Interior designer and urban developer Dana Hollister (one of three co-owners) has created a soulful space of colour, warmth and inviting elegance. The Ficus feels both like a shrine and an impartial observer: comfortable and happy in the shared joy it perceives all around (I love trees).

And joy it is. Champagne arrives in a carafe I mistakenly assume is a very unusual glass (over-enthusiasm for champagne at brunch is one of my many gastric faults). Then, when the champagne is poured into a large wine glass, I learn from Bradley that this is, in fact, the proper way to serve it, rather than in a flute or coupe. It is, after all, a wine, and needs to be swirled and aired just like any other. I decide that I need another carafe, just to make sure.

The oysters that accompany the champagne are the small, delicate kind, not the over-sized elephant ears that make me heave and think I am eating my nether bodily parts. They are beautifully chilled and in no need of the Tabasco sauce with which I normally suffocate oysters to disguise the often algae smell of those that have spent too long in transit.

My only bugbear in the US is that the oyster is loosened from its shell by the kitchen. I have no idea if this is because Americans are lazy, but when I lived in Paris, part of the pleasure of oyster eating was participating in the process: scooping the flesh with a tiny fork, enjoying that last rubbery break as it left its home; the anticipation of the next part of its journey as it heads towards your mouth (I feel another oyster feast coming on).

There are very few things I don’t eat or cook, but I am really bad at desserts (because I don’t have a sweet tooth, I have no interest in them) and eggs. The only time I get to eat eggs is when somebody else cooks them, and there is just something about the timing of brunch that makes eggs acceptable. I can’t eat them at breakfast, not least because I can’t stomach anything more than two cups of tea before 10am (who needs to look at a chicken foetus before you’re fully awake?); and I don’t want eggs at dinner because I’m not four years old. But give me 11am to 1pm, and I’ll down foetuses for Britain.

What I especially love about my goat’s cheese omelette is that the cherry tomatoes are on the side. So many omelettes are ruined by tomatoes being thrown into the mix, making the dish a river of thinned blood coursing through yellow flesh struggling against the tide. We discuss tomatoes and I learn that Bradley, like me, is not a fan of tomato juice; however, we draw the line at Bloody Marys, and Vartan Abgaryan (who used to be the chef at Cliff’s Edge) has one that looks perfect.

My request when ordering a Bloody Mary is always “Easy on the tomato juice”. I think that no matter what you add tomato juice to, it just ends up tasting like tomato juice, holding everything else hostage: it’s the kidnapper of all liquids.

I also learn from Vartan how to stop chicken tasting like anything other than chicken. No matter how I cook it – salt, lemon, barbecue sauce – it just tastes the same. I’m not going to give away his secrets, partly because when I move on to the Cotes de Rhone, I suffer a memory lapse. But if you want to sample his food, he now heads up the kitchen at 71Above, Downtown LA’s extraordinary new venture in the city’s tallest building.

The Corsican red I was hoping to try is unavailable, but Corsican co-owner Pierre Casanova (I so want to come back with that surname in my next life) enthuses about his country’s liquid assets. Pierre exudes energy and gratitude for the surroundings and a profession he clearly loves. I give him a smattering of my best French, and, after the red wine, I discover I am fluent in Russian, too. Again.

My hike over, but ice pick still intact, I return from Canada along the blandness of another LA highway, dreaming of oysters, champagne, and the knowledge that no experience beats the pleasure of eclectic surroundings, lovingly prepared food, the company of Bacchus and the laughter that grows from sharing.

You see? Sometimes, it’s good to share. Just not on New York’s Upper East Side.

   

Up in the (H)air – Another Close Shave

A funny thing happens to me when I’m flying. With my dark eyes, high hair and full make-up, I board looking like Elizabeth Taylor, but after 12 hours in the air, I emerge at Arrivals bearing a closer resemblance to Adolf Hitler.

First, there are the clothes. Virgin Atlantic’s Upper gives you a Sleeper Suit, a garment I collect like some kids collect Dinky toys (do they still exist by the way, or am I showing my age?). Upon landing, I can never be bothered to change and so head out in what appears to be something straight out of the wardrobe of Fascist sympathiser Oswald Mosley but without the boots. People awaiting departing flights hide under seats when I approach.

Then there’s my hair, which, not unlike like Hitler’s everyday look, comes to resemble a short-haired Chihuahua that has decided to take up residence uncomfortably on my scalp.

But here’s the worst of it. The moustache. And there the resemblance to the Fuhrer is truly worrying. Because, on any flight over two hours, my facial hair grows at such an alarming rate, people might assume I have undergone a Transgender transformation at 30,000 feet – at the very least, landed an audition in The Muppets as Fozzie Bear’s stand-in.

I’ve always had a problem with very wiry, bodily hair. I was born very dark and, from a very young age, my two big toes carried so much dark foliage, rubber ducks away swam away in terror when the twin triffids entered the bath.

My underarms could camouflage a battalion; I can’t see my toes because of the undergrowth on my lower legs; and the single hair that now grows on my chin could pass for a hangman’s noose.

But the moustache has always been the worst. I have to remove it with facial hair cream every day. People tell me to grow it in order to bleach it or have it lasered off, but that would mean my having to look like Hitler for at least six months.

I don’t know what it is about being airborne that makes the hair on my upper lips grow at double, or even triple the rate as it does on land; but all I know is that by the time I’ve finished my entrée and watched a movie, I look as if I’m about to deliver a speech at the Nuremberg Rally.

I’ve tried everything, including electrical items I see advertised on TV that offer “virtually no pain” when removing facial hair (that word “virtually” always worries me: it’s usually a thin line between nothing and waterboarding where “virtually” is concerned). I’ve even tried shaving with a razor, but I keep coming back to Veet. It used to be known as Neet in the 20s and, later Immac; I have no idea why they changed the name, although I enjoyed the advertising campaign “No more Bush” during one of the product’s more political phases (don’t even get me started on that part of the body: when the plane’s wheels touch down, I could pass for a pony trap).

But although Veet is reliable, I don’t want to be sitting on an aircraft looking as if I have just had a run-in with a soggy marshmallow; worse . . . no, you really don’t want to know the other comparisons. Also, sometimes, even the Veet for sensitive skin can make me look a little red for a couple of hours, as if I’ve been sucking icebergs for a dare.

I suspect Victoria Beckham, who always looks like a catwalk model when leaving a plane, doesn’t have this problem. However, I know that she always sits at the very front of First Class and maybe, when everyone’s asleep, she whips out that Veet in readiness for landing and looking more Ava Gardner than Hitler.

For the present, I’m just going to have to live with it and risk being arrested at airport terminals. There’s only so much beating around the facial bush a girl can do.

 

 

 

 

Richard Branson – Best Dick in the World

Everyone recommended melatonin to conquer jet-lag.

Unfortunately, I was so jet-lagged, I told everyone I had taken methadone, which isn’t the same thing at all, and I then had to make a lot of frantic phone-calls to explain that I was not coming off heroin, nor, indeed, had ever been on it.

Anyway, back to the melatonin. I read up a bit about it and gleaned that the only negative was that it made you dream. As my dreams are very vivid anyway, especially in relation to the US (weapons of mass personal destruction feature strongly in those), I couldn’t see the harm, and so downed one before my long haul flight back to the UK.

It wasn’t good. I dreamed I had killed someone and was heading for Death Row quicker than you could say “Last meal curry and chips”.

I also dreamed that a policeman found a gun just as Prince Charles was about to do a walkabout, and threw the weapon into a bush shortly before HRH’s arrival. I wasn’t happy about this lapse in security but luckily woke up before taking the officer to task.

I was flying Air New Zealand before deciding to transfer my allegiance back to Virgin Atlantic, which I had only left because it was more expensive; but then, I just couldn’t take the stress of the ANZ points. With Virgin, you accumulate points and then use them for a guaranteed upgrade or, as I do, use them to book an Upper Class flight. On ANZ, with the “complimentary upgrade” you acquire with points, you often don’t know until the minute before boarding whether you have it or not.

It can be all the difference between sitting for ten hours next to that fat bloke with BO standing next to you in the queue or having your own lovely pod and hibernating for the entire flight.

There’s also the Virgin lounge at Heathrow, which is like a holiday in itself – salon, spa, massage, great food and beverages. It went through a rough patch a few years back when, to avoid the possibility of the masseurs getting repetitive strain injury, they pummelled you with a wheat bag, which, quite frankly, is like being hit with a bag of Tesco shopping, although probably not as effective. The wine is still a bit hit and miss, although given that they change it often, that hardly matters.

On board, Virgin Business has a bar, which serves as a terrific networking venue; and the in-flight entertainment surpasses ANZ, whose content is not only much older, but comes to you via sets of headphones that enable you to hear everything that people in adjoining seats are listening to.

At least ANZ allows you to watch stuff until the last minute, though; the last hour of the Virgin flight once had the Branson clan advertising various charitable endeavours, followed by hideous music – not what you need after ten hours in the air.

I admired the Sir Richard’s altruism, but not when I’m knackered; they now have him appearing with a little chat before each show you watch on the in-flight system, and that’s not half as irritating.

Neither airline has ever come up to scratch on the food: a Virgin dining plate is so small, it could pass for an eye patch; and although ANZ boasts several great chefs, whose menus are fine, the food is ruined by being laden with way too much butter and so much salt you can’t help wondering if Lot’s wife has jumped into the pan along with the meat.

I was informed that salt is a good preservative, which I know of course; but when dehydration is one of the key discomforts about flying, surely the last thing you need is something that is going to exacerbate the problem.

So, I remain very loyal to Sir Richard, who, all things considered, delivers the better product. The newer airlines have replaced the ludicrously complicated Thunderbird 2 style controls of the in-flight system with touch-screens, and the food has improved tenfold (though is still served on an eye patch).

The Dreamliner’s new bar stools, however, barely accommodate one of my buttocks and have been fixed way too close to the bar; and as for the Dream Suite on the Airbus A330 fleet, it’s a disaster. Not only is the Upper Class cabin incredibly cramped, the semi- transparent screens mean that you get the flashing images from about five people around you when they are watching movies. They are now pulling it and bringing it into line with the 787 Dreamliner (for which the suite was originally intended).

But it’s the staff who really make Virgin Atlantic. Loyal and efficient, they are not only wonderful in the air, on land they (mostly) respond to complaints and enquiries with efficiency and kindness. Sir Richard also provides me with a credit card that enables me to acquire so many points, I am fast on the way to owning one of the aircraft.

I was really upset when his home burned down on Necker Island and wondered whether I could give him some points to help the rebuild, but figured I need them more than he does. In terms of flying, he pretty much gets it right, and ANZ’s super dooper planes with white leather in Premium Economy will still never make up for the fact that the reception staff at the Star Alliance lounge used by ANZ at Heathrow are about as friendly as the Gestapo with a hangover.

I haven’t been in their lounge in LA for a while, though I suspect they are still serving the butternut squash soup that wouldn’t look out of place in a urinal.

I still can’t quite believe that after ten years of refusing to fly anywhere, I am spending so much time in the air. It’s rather a good metaphor for where my life has been, but I’m writing a lot and hope to have several books as a result of my new experiences.

Maybe Sir Richard would like to buy them for people to read on his planes. They would sure beat the current reading matter on offer. Forget melatonin; the in-flight magazine will help you drop off even before take-off.

 

Tarmac Orphan

Twelve inches is a long way in travel. The world may be getting smaller, but when you’re standing at A, desperate to get to B, and only twelve inches separates you from your destination, B might as well be on the moon.

The weird thing is: you wait all your life for a man in uniform with a powerful weapon to turn up, and then three come along together.

The details of my European trip were eclipsed somewhat by the problems I had getting out of France and the subsequent problems I had getting back into the US. I feel as if I lived 48 hours as a sort of Tarmac orphan, passport at the ready but unable to go anywhere.

My crime? A heavy suitcase packed with books and a couple of bags of loose change.

Nothing about me, I am sure, indicated that I was going to be Semtex catch of the week, as I arrived at the Eurostar Customs. I was loaded up because each time I returned to the US, I ludicrously felt that I had to take a huge chunk of my home library – now somewhat diminished, with the sale of my house and the remainder lurking in storage. I suppose it was my comfort blanket.

I’ve been told by Eurostar that women travelling alone are targeted because they tend to be the biggest drug traffickers, but apart from smuggling in a box of Oxo vegetarian stock cubes last time I returned to the US, my activities in this area are rather limited.

Personally, I blame the Alsation. I am quite at ease with small dogs, but when a very large one starts leaping around when your stuff is coming through on the conveyor belt, it can be a bit unnerving.

My terror was that it was going to eat my MacBook Air laptop, without my having had chance to back up the book and screenplay I am writing, so I was not really paying attention to the Customs man when he asked: “What’s in your case?”

As I had, in total, five bags, I couldn’t remember what was in the specific case to which he referred, so I said: “Things”. Wrong answer! “What things?” “Er, books, clothes . . . “ (and can’t you get that damned dog’s nose away from my computer).

Now, in my Linguaphone French language learning course, the Customs man – le douanier – is rather a nice chap. There is a family travelling together and he takes a shine to the daughter, Valerie. “Le douanier,” it says, “Il admire Valerie” (translation: he wouldn’t mind giving her one, there and then, over the conveyor belt).

I’ve always thought it was a bit sexist, but whatever it was that old Valerie had, I wished I now had it; but “Le douanier . . . Il deteste Jaci” was clearer much nearer the mark.

He told me to lift my case and put it on a table that seemed like double my body height. Not only was it too heavy to lift, I have a longstanding shoulder injury that would have made it impossible to do so anyway, and I told him so.

“You don’t lift it, you don’t travel,” he insisted. I asked for help. “I’m not going to do it,” he said, and would not budge on the matter. I started to cry. “There is no point in crying, you are not going anywhere.” So, we were stuck: me, case, man with gun.

Eventually, a tiny female member of staff, even smaller than me, came over to lift the case, and I was almost on my way. The officer opened it, took out Dr Raj Persaud’s book, The Motivated Mind, threw it back, and told me I could go.

Maybe he thought that I was so motivated, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that I could grab his gun, shoot the lot of them, and still have time to eat the entire supply of croissants in the Frequent Traveller lounge.

I thought that would be an end to my day of Customs hell, but there was more to come when I reached the US some hours later. Although I have an I Visa that allows me to come and go freely, man number two with gun was having none of it.

They always ask you why you are entering the US, and they do so with such an air of “You so much as sniff our air without asking permission” that I am trembling so much, the paramedics almost have to be called in.

I was sent to another line, where man number three with gun awaited me. He wanted to see everything – and I mean everything – in both cases. Why were my cases so heavy? (There’s a dead Alsation in one of them; why do you think?). Why was I carrying so much loose change?

Was I carrying any food? Er, no. There were a couple of boxes of herbal tea for various digestive conditions that I thought best to keep to myself. Not that I would need them, as my bowels were now well and truly working without recourse to outside assistance.

But it was the books that really interested him. He too alighted upon The Motivated Mind, with Dr Raj Persaud’s picture on the cover. Now, Raj is a very handsome man, and someone I used to work with in TV, but suddenly he had the look of an accomplice about him. He is also of a non-white persuasion, which was something that had not even occurred to me before. Clearly, very dodgy indeed.

The official moved on to Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book that is my Bible and that I carry everywhere while I am writing my movie. There is a very good picture of a cat clinging to a rope on the cover, the premise being that early in a movie, your hero should do something – such as saving a cat – that endears him or her to the audience.

But suddenly the cat didn’t look so clingy. In fact, it looked rather pained, as if someone had been trying to string it up two minutes before and it was in its last dying throes.

“If you want to write a movie it’s the best book,” I ventured. “It really is and most people do want to write one here don’t they and that’s why I came here and . . . “ Breathless, hopeless . . . If you’re in a hole, stop digging, but as if my spade were not doing an efficient enough job, I had brought in a JCB to help dig myself in still deeper.

Now, not only did I have a motivated mind, I tortured small animals. Quite clearly, it was going to be a small step from thereon in before I exercised my newly acquired killing skills on humans.

“Passport,” said my interrogator, and went off to a computer. All I could think of was the Little Britain sketch Computer Says No, as I awaited my fate. Had I done or said anything in the States that might warrant my not being allowed back in? I really didn’t think so. Apart from being born small and Welsh, of course, but it was only the English who ever had a problem with that.

Richard Curtis, the brilliant brain behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, had been on my flight, and he sailed through Customs. We had spent a brief time chatting on the plane, when I recalled a course he tutored many years ago, when he told me that all his movies were about the same thing: How do you find the right person to love?

Luckily for him, we had to return to our seats at the point where I had started to tell him that life wasn’t like the movies, that men suck, life sucks, Customs officials suck.

The last words he said to me as he left the plane were: “I’m sure you’ll find love eventually” (though you have to be honest: Love, Eventually as a movie title, as opposed to the movie he made – Love, Actually – doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So, when I descended from the plane, I was dreaming of happy ever afters and Hugh Grant meeting me at the airport with a bunch of roses. Then the men with guns captured me. Like I said, Richard: life ain’t like the movies.

I finally arrived safely back in the US, but for several days could remember very little of my European trip. I did, however, recall visiting a friend’s house in Paris and walking up the Champs Elysees, where I saw an old man holding a very small penis, urinating beside a tree. I confess to knowing the size because I stopped briefly, just to remind myself what a penis looked like (we were talking a couple of years here, give or take a magazine or two).

It didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. Twelve inches may be a long way in travel, but even a man with a gun couldn’t get me to hang around for two of his own.