It's been over two weeks that "wife of" has been traveling in Europe with Mr. Ambassador, and I'm sorry to say there have been some irritable moments between us.
Mr. Ambassador claims to have compelling reasons for wanting to spot-check London, Paris, Brussels, Alsace-Lorraine, some Swiss mountains, Florence and the hinterland of Tuscany during our three-week vacation.
Naturally his crazy itinerary gave me compelling reasons for bringing along seven pieces of luggage (don't think I haven't told him so many times as we hauled and counted our pieces on the trains, planes, cars and one bus so far).
"I need different clothes for the different climates," "wife of" explained. "And nobody wears the same shoes for hiking through mountains and shopping on the Faubourg St. Honore in Paris." Mr. Ambassador just said, "Why do you have to shop?"
Well, Beverly, that's the second reason for taking so much luggage. I'm saving money. Popsie Tribble told me to buy my winter wardrobe in Europe because everything was half-price compared with Washington. She even wanted me to bring back one of those Swiss comforters for her bedroom.
"You've got a diplomatic passport so they won't question you at Customs," she said.
But Mr. Ambassador said he refuses to enter North America with an eiderdown strapped to his back, although it didn't bother one of his ancestors who did just that when he came to the American continent in 1880.
Anyway, Beverly, let me tell you about London first. The English have retreated as far as Camden Town and have left great portions of the West End (Harrod's, Burlington Arcade, Burberry's) in the hands of Americans, Japanese and Middle Easterners in native dress.
London, according to the single Englishman I encountered, resembles the occupation of Berlin after the Second World War, except the Russians haven't yet staked their claim. Harrod's is totally blockaded. Every entrance is guarded by women from Texas, California or Osaka waiting for the moment to mount the escalator to the floor where the cashmere sweaters are supposed to be cheaper than in New York. One lady from New York told me she'd been waiting three days just to penetrate the Food Halls to buy Scotch smoked salmon.
Brussels is more peaceful. Apart from crowds of tourists around the Mannekin Pis. "I thought it would be bigger," someone said in American English. The luggage problem was not as bad as in London because we stayed with friends who gave our suitcases a room to themselves. This encouraged me to buy an eighth suitcase because the rest were now completely stuffed with London purchases.
In France, Beverly, we ate and were disappointed. Nouvelle Cuisine, mon coeur, or whatever it's called is proof that someone has indeed killed the great chefs of Europe.
Years ago, the waiters, especially in the French countryside, would offer you some au gratin potatoes or asparagus from great, steaming serving dishes so you could see the mother lode for yourself and be assured that there would be seconds. At dessert, one waiter brought in chariots of pastries, another bowls of berries and cream, and the third would tempt you with fresh, hot apple tarts just out of the oven. They usually make your decisions easier by saying, "Why not try everything."
No more, Beverly, no more.
Now all the food you're allowed to eat in one course is brought out on a single dinner plate. A mound of yellow or green puree sits on top instead of under the sauce. The puree may be vegetable or fish. It looks as if its been dumped from a can of Gerber's baby food. If the orange mound has flecks, it's probably Gerber's for Juniors and hasn't yet flopped over in shame.
The grand service is gone the same way as the great chefs. In Alsace, "wife of" asked for the cheese platter at a three-star restaurant. The cheese was a bit dried out. When I complained, the waiter replied, "What do you expect? Nobody eats cheese in the summer." Actually Beverly, we deliberately went to Alsace to eat choucroute. There was no choucroute to be had. When I asked the waiter, he said, of course, "Nobody eats choucroute in summer."
Beverly, you remember I mentioned that I bought an eighth piece of luggage in Brussels so I would have room to buy a new winter outfit. I wanted to buy it in London, but Popsie told me Paris was cheaper. Well, by the time I reached Paris I was pretty confused because I had seen the same dress priced in English pounds, Belgian francs, Italian lira, Swiss francs and French francs. Let me explain why I didn't buy the dress.
1.In Italy, I didn't buy the dress because the shop refused to take the VAT off.
2.In Brussels, I didn't buy the dress because I confused the Belgian franc with the French franc, which made the dress five times more expensive than its actual price.
3.In Basel, I didn't buy the dress because Mr. Ambassador said something about the Swiss franc being "too hard."
4.In Paris, I didn't buy the dress because a French friend told me she buys all her clothes in Brussels, where the stores have less of a markup than in Paris.
5.Not least of all, Beverly, I didn't buy the dress because Mr. Ambassador told me I was computing Belgian francs, French francs, Italian lira, Swiss francs and English pounds into American dollars.
"Not only are your initial calculations inaccurate," he explained, "you're translating the currencies into the wrong dollars."
"But," I interjected, "in Washington everyone uses the U.S. dollar. I know because I've lived there almost four years."
"You may buy dresses with the American dollar," Mr. Ambassador replied, "but I am paid in the Canadian dollar, which is worth 25 percent less than the American. You never seem to remember that. Just as you never can remember in which of the suitcases you put my shirts."
Happily, Beverly, I am going to buy new shoes notwithstanding my currency confusion. In an attempt to be more orderly, I put all our shoes in one of the suitcases, which was promptly lost by the airline on which we last traveled.
Mr. Ambassador seems a bit fussed, but for "wife of," things are looking up.
Your best friend,