Regent Holidays — For travellers looking for a truly unique experience, our tours to North Korea offer a privileged glimpse into a secret and propaganda-filled world. As the leading UK experts on North Korea we have worked closely with the authorities since 1985 to develop tours which push the boundaries for tourism.
After a fascinating week in Beijing, Daddy and I fly to Pyongyang today. So far lots of “exotic” meals and even a karaoke night. Who’d have guessed your father knew all the words to Livin’ on a Prayer!? The other members of the tour group are calling him “Elvis” Bunstable! Bad luck about the timing of our trip. We’re absolutely crushed to have to miss out on this year’s camping holiday with you and the children. Despite the torrential rains, the mosquitoes and the twins’ stomach flu, we had such a lovely two weeks in the camper van with all of you last year.
Love to James and the children,
Mum and Dad
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Dear Nic, James and kiddies,
Our group took an “escorted” tour of the demilitarized zone this morning. Bit dodgy. Apparently they haven’t accounted for all the land mines as yet, and Mum was a bit put off by the Kalashnakovs and the dogs. Still, good fun. Stopped for lunch – rice and what I hope was either chicken or pork – in an abandoned munitions hanger. (Add a cold bath and a bit of flogging, and I might have been back in the Royal Navy!) Went on to look at some rather hideous monuments, but had a celebrity sighting! Turns out it was that mad American basketball player Dennis Rodman – not likely to miss a seven-foot Black man in a pink cap, feather boa and lipstick round these parts. No traffic at all on the roads, and you would not believe what these people can do with concrete.
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Last full day behind the barbed wire curtain. Went to a parade this a.m. Not terribly festive — just tanks and missiles. We never did find out what they were celebrating, though I can’t say being in the middle of a crowd of under fed, identically dressed, flag-waving Kim fans was particularly jolly. Unfortunately one of our little band of travellers, Mrs. Fenster from London, somehow got separated from the group and ended up in the People’s Security Palace. Luckily they found nothing questionable when they searched her, and the authorities let her go in exchange for teaching them something called a Gang-Nam Style dance (?). Our “bon voyage banquet” is tonight. I’m certainly ready to be back in Shropshire. Your father’s been practicing for his karaoke performance all afternoon.
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Boarding the plane for Beijing shortly, but I have some rather shocking news, so prepare yourself. Daddy has decided to “follow his star” and remain in North Korea for the time being, abandoning not only his family, but 30 years’ service in the Commemorative Stamp Bureau and his government pension as well. After his rendition of Tainted Love at last night’s banquet, he was approached by representatives for that Rodman fellow, who are recruiting performers for something called a Diggin’ the Worm Goodwill East Tour. Given how poor Mrs. Fenster was violated here, I think your father has gone stark raving mad, but once he zipped up that yellow jumpsuit and switched on the rhinestone microphone there was no reasoning with him. Apparently they’re planning an autumn swing through rural China with a stopover in London on the way to Beirut. He can explain himself to you then, since reaching him in Pyongyang will obviously be impossible. He can do as he likes, but I am coming home. This is one Bunstable the secret police will not be using their filthy hoses on.
Love to all, Mum
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My dearest daughter Nicola,
Day twenty-four in the British Embassy compound. Sending this out in the diplomatic pouch as leaving grounds impossible. The station chief hopes Dennis may be able to secure my release. Not sure what you’ve been told, but let’s just say that when the Great Successor requests “Superfreak” it’s best not to refuse on artistic grounds. Pity really. Rehearsals for the tour were going terribly well. If you speak to your mother, please tell her how very sorry I am. Can’t think what was going through my head, but if she feels she must continue with the divorce proceedings, I understand. Seems we’d have been better off camping with you and the kiddies than swanking off to this barmy corner of the world, but no use crying over spilt state secrets as they say in the safe room. On a happier note, I’m told the Stamp Bureau may have a position in the Commemorative Re-Issues division should I make it out. Apparently they have a very competitive karaoke team and view me as something of a ringer!
Chin up and keep a good thought. Love to all,
Installment 1: Language barrier? What language barrier?
As recently chronicled, Mr. Slattern and I just returned from two glorious, albeit damp, weeks in Italia. And let me tell you the Italians were the salt of the Earth. To a man, woman and child they were unfailingly polite, helpful and kind — except for that unfortunate misunderstanding about whether the bottles of Barolo were “to go,” but once we made bail, reacquired our passports and had the dents pounded out of the polizione prowl car, it was all was bonhomie, back slapping and three new names for the Christmas card list. But I digress.
In any case, I cannot urge you strongly enough to do whatever is necessary — save your nickels, sell the family silver, cash in the kids’ college funds — and get yourselves over there. In support of this, I am starting a new travel series, and over the coming weeks I will be answering your travel questions and offering helpful tips and strategies for squeezing the maximum amount of fun from your Italian idyll (while staying out of jail).
So listen up there, Rick Steves, you’d better grab that fanny pack and get out of my way. The juggernaut that will soon become the Slattern’s travel empire starts rolling right now. Andiamo!
Dear Kitchen Slattern,
I don’t speak Italian, but I have a burning desire to take a gondola ride and drop in on the Pope. How will I get around without knowing the language?
Hot Madonna, Duluth
Dear Hot Mad,
First, kudos on wanting to put Duluth in the rear view. Well done. And may I suggest a course of antibiotics for that burning sensation?
Now to your query. During my recent trip I was delighted to discover that English has become the lingua franca of Europe, which was a big relief since Mr. Slattern’s and my efforts to learn Italian prior to departing were not exactly crowned with success, as the saying goes. I suspect this was because we listened to our Pimsleur Italian lessons while swilling vast oceans of Insolia, just to get in the spirit. While it was certainly a festive way to pick up the dialect, and we were chatting like nobody’s business during the lessons, unfortunately most mornings we could not remember one word of what we had studied the night before, and more often than not we woke up wearing yesterdays’ clothes after having slept on the living room floor.
And so our linguistic exertions netted us little more than the ability to accost a young Italian woman in the street and inform her that we could not speak Italian. Not as helpful as you might think.
Now Mr. Slattern speaks lovely German, we both dabble in Spanish, and I have a certain proficiency with French – I used to speak it quite well, but these days my skills are a bit moldy. When sober, I’m lucky if I can make myself understood at the level of a mildly retarded pissoir attendant. After a bottle or three of Bordeaux, however, it gets better, as I resemble a mildly retarded pissoir attendant who is really REALLY enthusiastic about speaking French. So drinking facilitates communication is the lesson here.
Thankfully, these days Italian sewer workers speak better English than most of the residents of New York City and the entire deep south, so we got along fine on English, especially once we had looked up and practiced the following:
Mi dispiace, mas io no parlo italiano. Lei capiche l’inglese?
Roughly translated, this means, “I’m sorry, but I am a complete fucking cretin who has swanked into your magnificent country speaking not one sainted word of your heartbreakingly beautiful language, but I hope that if I throw around enough cash, you won’t mind too much.” Quite often we’d be interrupted after the first couple of words with a pained, “English, please.” Understandably so.
Thanks to the unfailing politeness of the Italian people, however, we still managed to have a rollicking good time while visiting the sites, gazing upon the world’s most magnificent art and sucking up more fine food and wine than most Americans see in a lifetime. It was excessive on a Caligula-esque scale, and really isn’t that what we go abroad for?
So, forget Italian 101 and wing it is my advice. Just remember, there’s no such thing as a go cup in a wine bar.
Holiday travel as designed by Stephen King
So who exactly came up with the genius idea of boarding commercial flights by randomly assigned “zones”? This is not a rhetorical question; I really want to know.
Have you flown recently, by any chance? If you have, you’ve no doubt encountered the zone approach which has replaced the logical process of allowing passengers to board the plane from back to front. Under the new system, frantic holiday travelers are assigned random groups (which for reasons I cannot fathom are called zones), usually, I have observed, from one to seven.
So for example, you could be seated in the middle seat of the last row of the plane (rather than the mid-cabin aisle seat you booked and paid for three months previous when you made the reservation) as I was on a blissful five and a half hour New Year’s Eve flight from Washington state to New York City. And yet despite your location in a non-reclining jump seat adjoining the head, you could still be assigned to zone 7, or the dead zone as I think of it since it’s the final group to board the plane.
What this means is that by the time you fight your way through rows one through 37 and the hoards of clueless passengers clotting up the center aisle while lackadaisically messing around with the contents of their backpacks, every available square inch of storage space will already be crammed with the overcoats and small bags your fellow travelers have been told not once but FIFTY TIMES not to stow until everyone else’s bags have been put away. The experience is not, I imagine, unlike trying to navigate your way through a vaccine riot in downtown Baghdad. As a result, you will be able to spend your journey strapped into the equivalent of an electric chair with your feet on your carry-on, your knees under your chin and your handbag behind your head. And if you are especially lucky, you’ll get placed between a nicotine-addicted Ukrainian white slaver named Marko (don’t even ask how I know) and a hapless father traveling with an eight month-old baby and NO TOYS.
You know, I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating. It is a wonder I don’t drink more than I do. And for the record, there was absolutely no need to call in the air marshal. I will be sending United Airlines a strongly worded letter on the subject just as soon as I get out of this holding cell.
Happy New Year everyone!