For those of you who do not speak Yiddish, here is a wonderful word to know: chutzpah. The dictionary definition is: audacity, cheek, guts, nerve, and boldness.
For the most part I lack chutzpah. I am not naturally cheeky. I do however like my luxuries.
Michael and I wrote for Gourmet magazine for eighteen years. When it went out of business, we switched to another glossy food magazine. We very much liked the new magazine and our editors; but we had been spoiled by Gourmet’s publisher, Conde Nast, whose edict was that writers should spend a ton of money when on assignment. Everything that Gourmet represented had been first class; and as front men for their image, we writers were expected to know how much to tip the sommelier and to demand extra mints on our bed pillows.
The new magazine wanted to send us on assignment to England, the rural Cumbria Lake Region to be exact. They wanted us to find the best sticky toffee pudding around. It was a dream assignment in every way … except compared to Gourmet, our expense budget was more Days Inn than Ritz-Carlton.
I remember lolling on the living room couch listening to Michael firm up the assignment over the phone with the magazine’s travel agency. Suddenly I thought that we needed something extra to sweeten the deal. I was feeling cranky that our former “sky’s the limit” travel allowance was no more.
At the new magazine, writers and editors flew coach, Everyone stayed at modest hotels or inns. So what popped into my mind was: “Tell them we want a Rolls Royce to drive around England.” This moment of chutzpah extraordinaire surprised even me. It was so far-fetched I didn’t think of it again until our plane landed in Newcastle, England, to begin the hunt for sticky toffee pudding.
Slightly fuzzy-headed from the long, uncomfortable plane flight (squished in the back row of coach), we were approached by a well-dressed man as we picked up our luggage at the carousel. “Mr. and Mrs. Stern, your car is waiting for you outside,” he said. We assumed he was a rep for Hertz or Avis. We followed him out the door.
We did not see a car. Instead we saw a shiny 18-wheel semi truck & trailer with a crowd of people gathering around. The trailer’s back doors opened and a ramp slid out. Backing down the ramp was the most outrageously gorgeous brand new Rolls Royce I had ever seen. It was a Rolls Royce Ghost: top of the line, painted two-tone silver and royal maroon.
The man said, “Here is your car, and here are the keys. Would you like me to spend a few minutes showing you some of the features?” As they say around Cumbria, we were gob smacked. Magazine editorial departments often make trades with advertisers to fly, house, and feed their writers on the road. If you babble on a bit in print about a great spa or a distinctive meal, there often is no bill.
Because our Roadfood oeuvre is writing about hot dogs and ice cream cones, no one had ever offered us a damn thing for our high praise. We never got a Rolex, even if we were to have written, “According to the jewel-encrusted hands on our solid gold Submariner with its diamond bezel, it was now time to eat another pork tenderloin sandwich.” And yet somehow the ad department at the new magazine had convinced Rolls-Royce that having us drive around the UK in a car fit for Queen Elizabeth would add a fun dimension to our sticky toffee pudding search.
From the semi truck emerged two well groomed men wearing starched navy blue jumpsuits with RR embroidered on the front. They were mechanics who showed us all the basics of driving the car as well as little things like what button to push to get the iconic Flying Lady hood ornament to retreat into a hidden compartment when the car was turned off. In precise clipped speech they asked us to please not call the tiny iconic statuette “The Flying Lady” as its proper name is “The Spirit of Ecstasy.” Point taken.
We had the car all to ourselves for 9 days. It was probably the most surreal Roadfood fun we ever had. This is not to say that being the owners of a Rolls Royce with zero miles on the odometer was without problems. The first situation happened quite literally ten minutes from the Newcastle airport as we headed towards the highway.
Not yet adjusted to a car with that much weight, width, and length – not to mention driving on the wrong side of the road — Michael inadvertently steered the Rolls into a ditch, blowing out the front tire and mangling the rim. I did a quick mental calculation that the tire and rim probably cost as much as our house back in Connecticut. My first instinct was to abandon the car by the side of the road and run away, never to be seen again. I would be on the lam forever; or, if lucky, I could have plastic surgery and join some sort of witness protection program.
Michael had a better idea. The three Rolls Royce men had given us a cell phone number to call if we had any questions. They were unflappable as we reported the damage and they calmly asked us to wait with the car by the side of the road. When they emerged from the semi, they swiftly set about replacing parts and repairing the damage we had inflicted on this massive rolling piece of sculpture. We were so embarrassed that we could hardly look them in the eye. When they were finished, they handed us a sealed white linen envelope, which we assumed was a bill for a million zillion dollars.
“This is for the trouble the car caused you and the time you wasted on your trip,” one of the mechanics said. We opened the envelope when they drove away. It was three hundred British pounds in crisp cash. Yes, folks, they were paying us for the inconvenience of driving this magisterial vehicle into a filthy ditch like some addle brained cartoon character might have done. Sometimes it pays to be a reporter.
After the ditch incident we had no trouble navigating around Cumbria, which is gorgeous with its lush green fields and white sheep dotting the meadows. We came to love the car’s enormity, its heft, and the heady smell of the leather seats. Even though we were dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts when we pulled into our modest motel or to a local pub, people came running over to stare in awe at the Rolls.
By the third day we stopped explaining that the car was not actually ours, because now it felt like it was. When we shut the motel room door at night we often peeked out the window to make sure it was still there. We could only relax when The Spirit of Ecstasy statuette was slumbering in her hidden compartment and the tiny incongruous analog clock on the dashboard ticked away promising a new day ahead. It was far better than a Rolex or some smelly old cob-webbed bottle of rare wine.