Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best, Dear Reader

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best.

You find us on our occasional travels this bright autumn day, Dear Reader, this time to Italy again, to see the immortal Southampton Football Club scale the tobacco-smoke-filled heights of Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium. Which lofty ambition was thwarted by our customary inability to score from a hatful of golden chances, while Inter Milan scored from their only shot on goal of the game, much of which they spent with eleven men behind the ball and employing every niggly, nasty, time-wasting tactic imaginable, which makes their baby-snatching victory all the more galling, but heigh ho, that’s football. And anyway, what can you expect from a game administered by an obviously blind namby-pamby incompetent fool of a referee, played against a bunch of [insert nakedly inappropriate insults here], who have made a virtue of winning by playing so badly the other team subsides in a heap of confusion and frustration. Bah, humbug and curses to youse all.

We would not use our precious leave to re-visit a country we have explored before, in reality, were it not for the precious nexus of European football and a bunch of good mates traveling to see the game, but Italy is one of those wonderful, shambolic, loveable, infuriating experiences that makes a return trip enjoyable under any circumstances.

If one can ever get there, that is.

Having left home 36 hours before one finally schlepped up to our Milan hotel bedroom, one could be forgiven for thinking the Arab states have got it right and it is, per se, perfectly appropriate to cut the hands off whichever idiot air bridge operator crashed their charge into the side of our plane, thus occasioning all of us to get off again and spent an uncomfortable few hours inside Dubai terminal C waiting for a new one to complete the hop to Milano. Or whatever it is they do to ground crew who mistake their handling of what must be the slowest vehicular transport known to man for racing their new Mercedes and proceed to crash it into a $250 million Airbus, leaving an unsafe dent in the fuselage. “So sorry, Effendi, I just didn’t see it there.” Yes, medieval torture has its place in modern jurisprudence, especially when its 40+ degrees outside and your credit card isn’t working any more than the airport air-conditioning so you can’t even indulge in an iced Starbucks as you disappear into a puddle on the immaculately scrubbed floor. Even the mid-day call to prayer over the loudspeakers fails to lift our spirits. If Allah existed surely he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, right?

Milan is, of course, the jewel in the crown of northern Italy, home to fashion and fashonistas, and wandering its streets waiting for the game to start it is hard not to be struck by the fact that everyone is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful. The women are beautiful – effortlessly, so, with their immaculate coiffure and laughing eyes, high on life. The men are beautiful – boldly so, with their perfectly cut clothes in impossible, improbable colours. There is an air of stylish self-confidence evident everywhere. The short fat people are beautiful. The tall skinny ones are beautiful. Beauty is ageless – the retired indulge the autumn of their lives by dressing in designer fashions that actively defy death and wrinkles. Even the homeless guy pushing a trolley does it with a certain panache as he greets the street vendors who know him. The African migrants trying to sell useless tatt table-to-table in the piazza have adopted their hosts’ insouciant air of belonging, and the street-mime working the restaurants for tips is genuinely funny in a knowing, mocking manner. This is a city high on art culture, so that performance permeates its very fabric. Performance is the core standard. Everyone has an eye on everyone, and knows for sure that everyone’s eyes are on them. It is, frankly, as invigorating as it is scary. So one pulls in one’s belly fat and smiles at the impossibly gorgeous girl at the next table with what you hope is an appropriate devil-may-care atteggiamento. To your astonishment, she flashes you a warming smile back that would melt a Milanese gelato at a dozen paces. This stuff really works. It’s a psychological conspiracy, adhered to by all. We are all beautiful. Keep the faith. Pass it on.

churchSomewhere, a bell tower tolls the hour. Very loud. And very near. And all around, other bell towers take up the tune. The saints clustered around their tops stand impassively calm as the wild clarions ring out, as they have for centuries. They ignore the bells, as the walkers in the street ignore them, as we ignore them. Only the pigeons are startled, but not for long, and return to walking over our feet looking for crumbs.

Our hotel does not disappoint.

It is purple, for a start. Purple from top to bottom.

The grout in the bathrooms is purple.

The walls are purple.

The artworks are purple.

The helpful advice folder in the room is black type on purple paper, so that it can only be read when held under the bedside light at about two inches distance, at which point, like an ancient Illuminati text in the floor of a cathedral, it reluctantly gives up its arcane knowledge of the impossibly complex local train system.

table-and-chairsModern art furniture assails the eyes. Somewhere a table and chairs in the shape of a glass and two steins beckon the unwary. Stay .. drink … relaaaaaax. Tom Hanks rushes into the lobby, crying out to anyone who will listen that it’s not the Metro we allhotel need, but rather the slow suburban S2 line, except they’re on strike. He rushes out again, pursued by a bald monk with evil intent. Or it may have been a postman.

The carpet in the lobby is purple. Your head spins, and not just because ten minutes before you’ve gone arse-over-tit on the laminate floor in your room and you’re no longer quite sure what day it is. Ah yes, it’s match day.

Two Limoncello, please, and two beers.

The ubiquitous lemon liqueur turns up in frozen glasses that are surprisingly beautiful. That’s the aching knee fixed. Onward. Forza!

The game happens.

Having paid a king’s ransom to sit in the posh seats, we exit the ground quickly and safely, with all the fearsome Inter fans (their collective reputation marginally worse than Attilla the Hun’s) shaking our hands with courtesy and smiles and something that looked like pity, as they are enduring a season of shocking failure and they seem to say, “we know what you’re going through, we love you, we share your pain”. Halfway down the stairs, young men and women share the single toilet to serve hundreds, as the male lavatory is inexplicably padlocked, and as they wait in comfortable unisex discomfort they smile, and chatter, and look nothing more nor less than a slightly disreputable renaissance painting come to life. Caravaggio, perhaps.

We are not in Verona, but we might be. There Romeo. There Juliet. There, Tybalt, drunk of course, intent on lechery and perhaps a brawl. All beautiful.

To prevent a brawl, our friends are locked into the stadium for 45 minutes after the game, and then eight thousand Southampton fans are grudgingly permitted to exit down a single narrow staircase. As we stand outside shivering in the suddenly bitter late-evening breeze, they are greeted by a hundred or so police in full riot gear, as clearly the fact that every single one of them is cheerful and good-natured and very obviously they wouldn’t riot if you stuffed a cracker up their collective arse means nothing to Il Commandante Whoever, and having pumped millions into the Milanese economy and behaved impeccably they are now treated like morally dissolute cattle, and dangerously so, too. One stumble, and hundreds could have perished. Criminal stupidity from the authorities, who are obviously only interested in lining the pockets of their carabiniere with unnecessary overtime, as groups of young men in ridiculous gold braid with sub machine guns strut first one way, then another, then back again, noses in the air, sniffing for trouble. They glower. Only word for it. And it isn’t beautiful. It isn’t beautiful one little bit.

But after that distasteful experience, essential Milan reasserts itself, and we walk, semi-frozen and tired to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and head of the Italian Saints supporters group, and the restaurant is tiny and warm and welcoming, and as feeling returns to our fingers and toes we are treated to a sensational repast of local salami and proscuitto, followed by the most ineffably delicious and unlikely Osso Bucco-topped risotto with creamy rice so imbued with butter and white wine and saffron that the plate almost glows as it comes to the table, and the Osso Bucco topping is gelatinous and rich and the bone marrow in the veal is luscious and braised for hours so that it melts in your mouth. And at the next table are members of the local Parliament representing the curious Legia Nord, the byzantine regional and federalist party which is anti-EU and anti-Rome, fiercely proud of local traditions, socially-conservative, and essentially a party of the right (especially in its anti-immigration activism) yet containing many socialists, liberals and centrists too, who care more for their local area than they do about mere matters such as political philosophy. We remind the leader that we had met previously, at Wembley Stadium, no less, and exchanged happy banter, even though he is Legia Nord and we are socialists. “Of course I forget you if you are socialist!” he laughs amiably, and then says, perfectly seriously, “We need more socialists in Italy. All our socialists are not really socialists, they all agree with the right. This is not good for democracy. How do you like the risotto? It is a local speciality. Best risotto in Italy! More wine?”

panatonneAnd his colleague at the next table waves his serviette in the air as he makes an important debating point about bureaucrats in Brussels and sets it alight on the candle, which seems as good a reason as any for everyone to adjourn to the doorway for a cigarette. And the wind has dropped so the sky is clear and cold, and in the distance a police siren cuts through the still and smoky air and the patron announces “We have Panettone!” which is served with sweet mascarpone cream and it is explained that this doughy, fruit-filled dish is really only served on Christmas Day, but in honour of our visit they have made it specially tonight. And our hosts make it clear that they, not us, are paying for dinner, and we must come again soon. And they really mean it. And everywhere is smiles and gentility and the Gods of football work their magic.

And tomorrow, naturally, the trains are all on strike, so we will not be visiting the Cathedral to see the Last Supper, so we will have time to write this.

And it is beautiful. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful. Italy is beautiful.

And mad. But mainly beautiful.

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One of the truly interesting things about taking a vacation is the opportunity to observe another culture closely.

Port Vila on Vanuatu itself is a surprisingly compact town, with its few dusty main streets offering up a supply of souvenirs next to bright, busy clothing and fresh food markets, and waterfront restaurants and cafes.

You can do the whole place in half an hour. So on our recent trip we made arrangements to get away from the markets and tourist traps to visit an indigenous village – Ekasup. The village was on land owned by the tribe. All tribes in Vanuatu have their ancestral lands on their original island, and also some land on the main island, Efate, for them to utilise when they visit from their home.

On arriving at Ekasup, there is a short 5 minute walk through the tropical forest. This is itself was a wondrous experience, ducking under low branches and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were delighted to have been told that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Efate. It was interesting to ponder that such a walk in Australia would be extremely unwise without sturdy boots and all skin covered.

This was a great opportunity to learn and experience traditional life which has hardly changed in centuries. We learnt how to prepare products from the world around us, like using native herbs for medicine, clever techniques for food preservation and roasting, how to make fishing and hunting traps using local plant materials, not to mention weaving mats, hats, and baskets.

Three moments in particular gave us deep cause for contemplation.

girlsThe first was when the most adorable child imaginable walked into our midst clad in nothing but a grass skirt, and shyly wandered up to the Chief who was telling us about bush medicine. He casually mentioned that this was his six year old daughter and she had been sick when she was first born and her mother had died in childbirth, but she was healed using local knowledge of plants and herbs.

It was a stark reminder not only that There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, but also that maternal health care is still a major problem in the third world, and that such countries still struggle with life-threatening situations that are largely forgotten in the West.

It also, simultaneously, caused us to pause and wonder how many “bush medicines” will be lost as climate change, habitat change, and increasing urbanisation separate us from the wisdom of centuries.

Our guide mentioned herbal cures – prolifically growing all around us, apparently – for ailments such as kidney stones, hepatitis B, accidental poisoning, and other serious illnesses for which invasive operations or expensive medicines are the norm in the West. It is clear that this voluminous knowledge is being blindly ignored or wilfully discarded by the world, and that is a tragedy. He explained how every island has its own bush medicine repertoire, and guards this knowledge fiercely, as it is, to an extent, the equivalent of money. It can be traded with other tribes and communities, making a meaningful difference to their lives. It also follows that if an island or area becomes depopulated, (for example if poverty forces the people into urban areas), and the people scattered, then these traditions will die, and possibly as quickly as within a single generation.

spiderThe second moment was when the Chief showed us how he kept a pet spider, who was encouraged to weave its web between the V of a cleft stick, thus creating a de facto fishing net. As he talked, he allowed the spider to wander all over his upper body, as we might play with a kitten or puppy. To say the spider was fearsome looking would be an understatement – some lily-livered members of our party could hardly watch – but it was clearly quite at home and he resolutely assured us it was both amiable and not poisonous.

We weren’t about to pick him up, mind you.

The Chief’s intimacy with his natural world was fascinating and rather humbling.

The third moment was when he described the typhoon that had hit the country some nine months before, Cyclone Pam, with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour demolishing many homes and other structures.

The damage left behind had been obvious everywhere as we drove around. Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.The island had been denuded of mature trees and virtually all the crops that many islanders relied upon for their living, especially coconuts, and tropical fruits, simply vanished.

Immature replacement trees were springing up everywhere, to be sure, but one could so easily imagine the depressing sight that must have greeted these very poor people as they came out of wherever they were sheltering when the storm had passed, to see their cottage gardens or farms simply obliterated. Luckily aid from nearby countries, especially Australia, arrived very promptly. We were proud to hear that an RAAF Hercules had arrived with emergency supplies even before the local Parliament had met to make a response. “You got here the day after,” he smiled, “we love Australia.” It was a nice moment.

banyan_tree_5The chief’s tribe had sheltered from the howling storm in the hollowed interior of an ancient banyan tree, his ancient bushcraft judging it safer than wandering around outside, or even staying in any of their flimsy homes, which are designed to survive tropical storms but which sometimes get destroyed anyway.

He laughed – he laughed a lot, and shrugged – as he explained “If the banyan tree die, we die.”

It was a fatalistic response from a man who knew, because of his daily closeness to the natural environment, that in a life and death struggle with the planet, when “push comes to shove”, humans will always lose out to the planet. The banyan tree was a refuge of last resort. Some things in the natural world are simply un-survivable, and if the banyan tree was going to go, well, there wouldn’t be all that much left around to survive for, so, under the tree, everyone, and it is what it is.

It was a striking demonstration of how different their “stone age” attitude is to that in the developed world. (For such it is, essentially un-changed since before the arrival of technology, and “stone age” is not intended to be in any way a dismissive moniker as used here.)

In the “civilised” world we like to believe we control everything, everywhere, and nothing is insurmountable. How wrong we are. As we looked around at this environment – which was as different to our day to day experience of life as if we had been miraculously transported to the Moon – we thought about the current debate about climate change. And how, if we tip the planet too far in one direction, we are taking a risk that we have no idea how to survive. And how the damage wrought will damage things we don’t even properly realise exist.

turtleIn another spot, a rather battered but fascinating turtle sanctuary, one woman quietly told us with great dignity how they had retreated inland as the giant typhoon approached, and when they returned, her home had simply vanished. But homes can be rebuilt, even if somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style or with salvaged materials. A roof is a roof even if it’s made of corrugated iron and held on by scattered bricks that used to be in your kitchen wall. What seemed, though, to make her even more sad, was when she said “We used to have many big sharks here, they would come and we would feed them, but since that night, they all gone. All gone.” “Will they come back again?” we asked, curiously “I don’t think so, she said, almost in a whisper. “Think they dead.” If was as if she had lost relatives.

As we sailed away from the islands a few days later, and neared our home port of Sydney, we heard that Vanuatu had again been swideswiped again, this time by Cyclone Ula. Part of an uptick in typhoon activity which has been very in evidence thanks to a warming world in recent years.

We hope the banyan tree made it through.

Bobbing along

 

Well, Dear Reader, a very Happy Christmas and a Bonnie Hogmanay and 2016 to you.

We have been a little remiss in not posting much in the last few days due to two simple and conjoined facts: one, Mr and Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink are officially on holiday, (on a swanky cruise ship, no less), and two, the internet is so cripplingly expensive that we decided to hold off a few days before plunging headlong into our usual travel-ese. That this has kept us off the all-consuming Facebook has been a relaxing coincidence.

We are, in fact, swooshing up from Sydney to Vanuatu and New Caledonia for a brief and – trust us – well-deserved break, and so as we write we are somewhere south of Lougainville and north of Port Vila in international waters off Vanuatu. It’s easy to work out that we’re in international waters, because the casino is open.

There, a bunch of dour Chinese and one cheery Brit will take your money with remarkable rapidity if you absolutely can’t think of anything else to do at all, and you have to be somewhat desperate as there are at least three trivia competitions running concurrently 24 hours a day, and the brain training they offer is free – and we simply luuuurve trivia competitions – so you’d have to be dead keen on the masochism of cards, craps and roulette to spend too much time buried there in the bowels of the vessel.

Then again, we did notice some other people actually winning, which is somewhat of an alien concept to us, so maybe we just haven’t got the knack of it yet. After thirty years playing Blackjack, and almost invariably losing, we are close to assuming the knack will never arrive. Or that there is, in fact, no knack to be got. But we are not quite at that point yet.

And then again, again, there do seem to be a large percentage of young couples in there, with her gazing adoringly up into his eyes, as he rashly slams down another $20 to buy a card on twelve, and ends up duly eviscerated with 22. It’s as if, time after time, the young lad is saying to his belle, “there be no dragons around for me to slay on your behalf, sweet Princess, so have a look at how painlessly I can lose a week’s wages while you watch”. Maybe it’s not masochism but rather machismo that’s on display. Indeed, it deserves it’s own word. Masochismo works.

As first time cruisers, we have been simultaneously entranced, horrified, and sometimes simply bemused by the experience.

It’s hard, for example, not to simply sigh with pleasure when this greets you as you sit down to write.

 

IMG_4966

 

Cruising is gaining rapidly in popularity around the world as the new “go to” middle class vacation. We say “middle class” because the upper classes only cruise in uber-luxury mini-liners with 20 guests and 437 crew, either on a bateaux of their own or at a pinch a ship owned by a friend or even a discrete tour company called something like BlueOcean Wanderer – the name chosen to imply “unhurried, un-shackled, off the beaten track, and above all, daahling, no middle class people”. (We apologise in advance to the owners of BlueOcean Wanderer, which no doubt exists somewhere.)

The poor can’t afford anything more than a quick trip up and down their local capital city waterway on a Sunday. Even if they plumped for an interior cabin and no drinks package* – of those, more later – they couldn’t chuff up the vast sums cruise companies charge for all-you-can-eat corned beef hash** – more on that later, too – and hot and cold running 70s music trivia.

Which leaves us ensconced with our fellow middle-class pretend-riche, some of whom are very nice, and some of whom are utterly horrid. A bit like life in general, really, but with waves.

We have discovered that we can ascertain someone’s status back on dry land pretty accurately by the grade of orange in their fake tan – the more orange, the more entre nous – and their level of bling.

Bling is in inverse proportion to social status. A discrete golden chain married to a demure and only half-awful pair of what used to be called Bermuda shorts suggests an accountant in training, or a teacher. Especially with a tired looking wife and squalling toddler in tow.

When blinded by what looks like half of Australia’s national debt coiled round and round a neck the size of a small bull matched with a disturbingly tight pair of bathers revealing, as it were, a substantial package, you can pretty much assume “delivery driver who earns twice what you do, but who missed out on Mrs Dalyrymple’s finishing school”. And that’s just the girls.

Most of the passengers are white. Most of the staff aren’t. Many of the staff are from the world’s low-income countries –  Indonesia, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, China, South Africa, Mexico – and they work very long hours and extremely hard. It’s also easy to assume that they get paid the best part of bugger all, as the cruise line charges a quick and easy 18% “gratuity” charge on everything you spend on board – although one has no way of knowing whether that gratuity charge actually gets to the workers, or if it does, whether that simply makes up a substantial portion of their wages, thus reducing the wage bill of the employer.

One is also encouraged to tip exceptional service directly, which means that 95% of the staff are obsequiously gracious, ineffably cheery and obsessively intrusive the entire time.

This is due to a number of factors – including their quite and innate genuine niceness – but also very clearly their desire to get tipped.

To an egalitarian Aussie eye it appears forced, and demeaning, for both staff and customer. It is, of course, the “American way”, a country where a campaign to establish a national wage of just $15 an hour has been met with furious opposition from employers happier to pay $6-10 an hour. To put that in perspective, Miss Wellthisiswhatithink gets A$25 an hour for babysitting/nannying, and wouldn’t accept less, nor would it be offered.

 

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, "Breakfast".

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, “Breakfast”.

 

The other outcome of this low wage environment is that all staff – and we mean all staff – seem utterly preoccupied with selling drinks packages*, whereby one (outrageously expensive) daily charge covers all your drinks, except top shelf stuff, but where that tariff is set so high that you basically have to set out determinedly to drink your weight in rum and coke from about 10am every morning to get your money’s worth. Selling a package equals kudos, and job security.

For the delivery van drivers this temporarily-arranged alcoholism isn’t a problem, so long as there’s going to be a decent break between them getting off the ship and getting back behind the wheel, and they are all cheerfully smashed pretty much 24-seven. For those who don’t wish to be unsteady on our feet by lunchtime, or who want to avoid falling overboard, it’s an egregious waste of money.

But every time one orders a drink or a bottle of wine – which are triple or quadruple what one would pay in Australia for very average drops – one is incredulously asked “You don’t have a package, Sir?” and the sales spiel starts again while you feel obliged to dream up new excuses for your parsimony. It is, in a word, bloody annoying. Two words.

 

"Hello Ladies."

“Hello Ladies.”

 

The English language skills of the staff also often leave much to be desired, but the effect is also frequently very funny.

Watching a diminutive high-pitched Chinese waiter go up to a table full of six giant buffed Aussie blokes and start with a squeaky “Hello, Ladies, my name is Kwan and I am your waiter tonight … now, ladies, I just need to tell you about our wine special for this evening” has it’s own wonderful schadenfreude.

Needless to say, the Aussie blokes are both too polite and too anal to correct him, so night after night the cabaret repeats.

The world that is today intrudes on our idyll every time anyone wants to get on and off. Security is as fierce as at any airport, with sniffer dogs checking for bombs, and machines that go ping scanning us all on at initial embarkation and on and off whenever there is a shore excursion. I am not sure what they think we’ll be bringing back on board – nerve-gas-infused coconuts? – but it seems churlish to object and no one does. This is the one place that all the smiles disappear to be replaced with rapt attention and scowls. We are not aware that the South Pacific is a key target for terrorists of any ilk, but “you can’t be too careful nowadays”. The security officer busting a quick dance move to SuperTrooper by Abba which was blasting out to keep us amused was a welcome and timely diversion from pondering just how depressing much of the world has become. Before we left from Sydney we happened across two Border Force (customs) personnel taking snap after snap of the Sydney Opera House on their iPhones from an upper deck of the ship. “Refuse to believe that’s security focused” we opined. “Nope,” said one, “We just don’t get up here much.”

Somehow their extra-curricular casualness made us feel safer, rather than worried. But somewhere, as we write these words, we know this very scene will be stolen by a hack writer in Hollywood and coming soon to a screen near you will be pictures of the soul-less terrorist or brutal bank robber unknowingly snapped by a bludging Border Force officer, which happy chance is the vital clue that leads to their discovery and arrest. You heard it here first.

 

Corned Beef Hash

All hail the Hash

 

Which leads us, tortuously but inevitably, to the corned beef hash**. Which delightful concoction, as we haven’t traveled all that much in the USA, was a very pleasant and new experience for us, and which we have been devouring assiduously since Day 1. Corned beef, (yes, like the stuff that comes in tins), onions, and potatoes. Hashed. And fried. From the French, hacher. (Never let it be said our writing is not educational.) Or as the civilised world would call it, mashed.

Despite being a cholesterol bomb it is, quite simply, delicious, and goes perfectly with eggs and bacon and baked beans and tomatoes and fried bread and anything else one can squeeze onto one’s all-you-can-eat breakfast plate. Or plates. And it is matched very well with scaldingly hot American coffee, too, which actually isn’t anything like as bad as everyone else likes to pretend. Provided one adds lashings of milk. When drunk black it is indeed unpotable bitter mud and would be better used as tar on the bottom of passing leaky native canoes.

What is really interesting about the corned beef hash – beyond its Satanic moreishness – is that it appears to be comprised of at least 50% salt.

As was the buerre blanc on the escargots, the bifteck minute which was cut so thin that anything over thirty seconds would turn it into leather, and the beouf bourgingon which had no discernible red wine in it (not even the cheap crap; it hadn’t even had an open bottle of cheap crap waved anywhere near it) but plenty – plenty – of salt.

We are most grateful that our arteries are only temporarily being loaned to America. God knows how anyone there over the age of 50 ever survives their middle age – their blood pressure must be at least 200 over 120. In all seriousity, the difference between the two cuisines is stark. The food quality is genuinely pretty good, especially considering the number of people being fed, (nigh-on constantly), but the salt content of many dishes would put the Dead Sea to shame. We reckon someone, somewhere, as we speak, is injecting honeydew melons with salt water.

The cheese is, needless to say, inedible.

Anyhow, tonight is New Year’s Eve, meaning we are now going off to be dragooned into a mass party (all dressed in formal clothes, no less), by our talented and relentlessly cheerful MC/Factotum/Trivia Quizmaster/Tour Director, who will cram us into a small and sweaty space to shout “Ten, nine, eight, seven …” before what seems like ten thousand yellow balloons are dropped on our heads, and everyone starts kissing each other frantically.

As the outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships has led them to placing hand sanitisers everywhere – Heaven forfend that you would try and get into a restaurant without the cheery chappy from Indonesia squirting germ killer onto your hands – “Time for Washy-Washy! Time for Washy-Washy!” – there’d be a bells going off and a near riot if you tried to sneak past un-washy-washied – one would imagine that thousands of extremely drunk and hot strangers kissing each other repeatedly might not be the wisest activity. But hey, when in Rome.

More tomorrow. After the trivia, natch.

It is a matter of urban legend, Dear Reader, that your indefatigable correspondent has been known to suffer an attack of the vapours climbing up a step ladder to replace a lightbulb. We simply don’t do heights. Although weirdly, we have conquered our fear of flying (the result of genuinely taking on board the very obvious fact that one is much more likely to be killed driving to work every day than hopping somewhere on a plane) and we have very little fear of very high places that are enclosed in glass (we will lean on the window of an 89th story apartment, after a while to consider our actions carefully, showing probably unwise trust in the professionalism of builders) but we simply do not do edges. Whether walking, cycling or in a car, edges don’t do it for us.  We hate mountains with a passion, unless viewed from ground level. Even then they make us feel somewhat anxious.

Wandering around the worldwideinterwebs thingy we found this little gem of a story.

To say that climbing Mount Huashan in China is not for the faint-hearted doesn’t do it any sort of justice. Located about 120 kms from Xi’an in Shaanxi province, the path was first created in the 2nd century BC by Daoist monks, and was a major religious centre.  From that time onwards, monks and nuns slowly began to populate the mountain and surrounding areas. The mountain, with an elevation just over 7,000 metres, is considered one of China’s Five Great Mountains.

Despite some of the paths being restored or improved in recent times due to a large increase in tourists, (say what?! people do this for FUN?) it still remains extremely dangerous, with estimates that over 100 people are claimed by the mountain each year. It starts with a set of almost vertical stairs and evolves into a literally death-defying set of boardwalks and ladders. If you do happen to make it to the top, there is a small temple that has been converted into a teahouse. We’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

Source: imgur.com

Stop now. The vertically-ness stuff is a clue.

Source: imgur.com

Wrong way, go back

Quality nail-work, right there.

We suspect the sign reads “Do you feel stupid now you realise you could have stayed in the noodle bar and had another beer?”

People leave padlocks to symbolise their eternal love. Eternal being the appropriate term if they fall off going back down.

Ooooh, nice. Refreshing cup of tea time. Pardon us if we take ours on Margate Pier.

And just in case that didn’t freak you out enough, here is a video to completely take your breath away. We were actually almost physically sick looking at this. Enjoy:

(Some of this story originally written by Adrian Cordiner : April 6th, 2014)

We happened across this little article by Michael Gebicki from Fairfax and it reminded us that we have been meaning for a YEAR to whinge about the temperature on planes.

Keeping temperatures at the lower end of the range on a plane can be a better option than having passengers fainting.Keeping temperatures at the lower end of the range on a plane can be a better option than having passengers fainting. Photo: Getty Images

The pilot has overall control within a range of about 20-28 degrees, but within those parameters the actual temperature control is left up to the flight crew, who will generally set is at 22 or 23 degrees.

If the temperature drops to 20 degrees passengers start to shiver and complain, but anecdotal advice from flight crew suggests that more passengers faint when the temperature rises above 24 degrees.

This is supported by a study conducted by a study published by the American Society for Testing and Materials, which concluded “There is evidence that cabin pressure and temperature may contribute to the occurrence of syncope”, the medical term for fainting.

This results from a deficient blood flow to the brain, which might happen when a passenger rises after a prolonged period of inactivity.

Fainting is more likely to occur following a sedentary spell in an aircraft than at home, sitting in front of the TV for example, because air pressure in the cabin at typical cruising altitude is equivalent to the outside air pressure at 1800–2400m above sea level.

At that altitude, less oxygen is available to be transported in the blood stream, which increases the incidence of fainting.

Flight crew also suggest that passengers sitting in the rear of an aircraft are more susceptible, along with overweight males, elderly passengers and those with cardiovascular conditions.

Hmmm. Well we had one experience recently with drove us nuts. We flew from Tokyo to Paris with Japan Airlines, specifically because we wanted to end our brief sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun with the experience of munching sushi on the way over to France, even though by the time we got there we were actually a bit sushi-d out as we had eaten little else for four days. Well, we had one plate of German ham hock in a first floor Bavarian “BierKeller”, but that’s a long story.

May we suggest an extra serve of green tea ice-cream?

May we suggest an extra serve of green tea ice-cream?

Anyhow the cabin temperature was set to roasting overnight. It was completely impossible to sleep comfortably – or even just endure it watching TV comfortably.

Now admittedly we were sitting towards the rear of the plane (on the basis that very few planes ever reverse into mountains) and your compellingly honest correspondent will admit to being somewhat, er … well let’s just say an Indian tailor once smiled sweetly and said he thought he had something in portly short that would fit us … but it was really ridiculously hot. Even Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink agreed, and she would complain of feeling chilly sitting next to an open blast-furnace.

We pleaded with the cabin staff to turn the heating down, but they simply refused, albeit with lots of bowing and smiling. “No” still means “no”, even when accompanied by traditional Japanese deference. Eventually, one remarked that Asian passengers prefer the cabin kept warmer, or they all complain. As we were amongst very few Europeans on the flight we grumblingly acquiesced to that logic and eventually went to sleep with a tea-towel stuffed with ice behind our neck.

The sushi was pretty crap, too. And the seats were too small. Although to be fair it should be noted that in 2013 JAL was given an award for being the most punctual international carrier, so presumably you arrive at your destination drenched in sweat but on time more often.

In general, we find cabin temperatures are set too high way too often, especially on long-haul overnight flights. One such flight across the Atlantic (Chicago-London) with BA would have been more comfortable if we’d all been in bathing costumes. Admittedly it was seriously cold leaving Chicago, but it’s hard to dismiss the feeling that the cabin was set to uber-warm by the staff to greet the frozen travellers and then just left that way because no one thought to check it. Or maybe they were just having too much fun chatting to yours truly as he drank vodka after vodka in the food prep area, having given up entirely on any hope of getting any sleep.

The point is surely, if they are set at the lower end of the scale, then people who feel chilly can put on another layer, or snuggle under a blanket. Or two. Those who are overheated are limited in their ability to respond. No one wants to see a somewhat corpulent middle aged fellow in his undies fanning himself with a dog-eared in-flight magazine.

So we politely urge pursers and captains to start low and hand out lots of blankies, or at least start low and edge the temp up half a degree at a time, rather than start high and wait for people to start fainting or panting.

Unless your passenger list is mainly Asian, we guess. In which case, Caveat Emptor would seem to apply for fliers. Interestingly, though, we have also flown with South China, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysian, and not noticed the problem to anything like the same degree as we experienced with JAL.

The other hottest planes we have known have been Qantas inside Australia, which are frequently stifling. What is with that?

Apparently taking "selfies" of their beautiful selves is the latest thing with air hostesses, as this recent shot of an Emirates crew shows. Well you try Googling "too hot stewardesses" and see what you come up with.

Apparently taking “selfies” of their beautiful selves is the latest thing with air hostesses, as this recent shot of an Emirates crew shows. Well you try Googling “too hot stewardesses” and see what you come up with.

And just to throw a bunch of flowers as well as a brickbat, we flew back from Dubai to Australia with Emirates and the experience was about as magnificent as flying anywhere cattle-class could be.

Seats were comfortable, food was brilliant, staff were charming and spoke (to our count) 17 different languages – they announce them at the start of the flight – entertainment system was excellent – and above all, blessed be, the cabin was pleasantly temperate.

Still, we guess people from Dubai know a bit about air-conditioning.

The exceptionally comfortable Dubai International airport is enormous – cavernous – yet impeccably cool: quite remarkable, really, although clearing customs was ludicrously slow. That aside, we would recommend Emirates to anyone.

What’s your most recent flying experience – good, bad, indifferent? And what do you think about cabin temperatures? Let us know!

My apologies, Dear Reader, for the break in transmission. This has been occasioned by a multiplicity of factors, including a French train strike, a French air traffic controllers’ strike, and the ingestion of vast quantities of exceptionally good cognac to relieve the tension caused by said exposition of the inalienable rights of the working class to withdraw their labour in pursuit of a just outcome.

Only once, I assure you, was yours truly heard to mutter “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” Other than that, international solidarity was not breached. But please don’t tempt me to get started on the quality of mercy demonstrated by platform comptroleurs at Toulouse station. Just don’t, OK?

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Still, all’s well that ends well, and God bless travel insurance. Which is how you find your faithful correspondent the day before his [expletive mumble deleted] birthday seated at a delightful dining table in front of an open window blessed with a Juliet balcony, through which wafts not only a cooling breeze (the weather is spectacularly warm, suddenly) but also the myriad sounds of arriving ferries, chirruping swallows by the thousand, and an endless stream of Italian boys on motorbikes revving their sewing machine engines louder and louder until the local girls (or even better, the non-Catholic visitors from Germany and points north) notice and bestow a curious look upon them. Ah, the joys of youth.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me tell of you of my only confrontation thus far with fascist architecture. Because confrontation is the word.

Milan station is widely lauded as a marvel of a building: big doesn’t begin to cover it, nor yet massive.

As one of the main train hubs of Europe it can be excused sheer scale, perhaps, but the style and tone of the place is a horrible reminder of the worst of times past. The Italians started building it back in 1908, but didn’t get very far, thanks to the intervention of WW1 and a few economic crises. That was, of course, until the arrival of Mussolini, who, with the benefit of diktat and threatening to shoot any workers who disagreed with him, managed to turn the original plans into a giant, monolithic celebration of national (read: Roman) identity, complete with stylised ancient warriors, eagles, and the rest of the nonsense paraphernalia of the era.

It is a horrible building, a cathedral of nationalistic hysteria, and like the medieval cathedrals in their day it served but one purpose – to be greater than the individual human spirit, to be a statement of state power, overwhelming and crushing the spirit of the one into the purpose of the many. “The state is everything” boasted Mussolini, and he meant it.

What makes it so horrible is that one can feel the siren call of its ridiculous posturing. Its vast ceilings cry out to be photographed, its vaulted arches and endless vistas are mesmeric, they entice the eye and the heart despite yourself.

Standing in Statzione Centrale, Milan, it is all too easy to understand how the tens of thousands packed into the Piazza Venezia could believe the silly man crammed into an ill-fitting uniform to be their saviour, and also how, when his posturing proved hollow and deadly, they could turn on him so utterly and execute the fleeing dictator in Dongo, just up the lake from where I sit now.

We called in on the ferry a couple of days ago, and the Italian crew still gleefully pointed out that this was where their ultimate home-grown rogue was captured and executed along with his mistress and members of his puppet Nazi-supported regime. They paid the price, ultimately, of all those charlatans who propose deceptively simple solutions to complex problems, but not before they had inflicted terrible suffering on those around them, which was then visited, with the invariable justice of God or history, on themselves; as it must surely be, lest the universe spin off its axis with the tragic madness of it all.

Beginning and end, in the space of a couple of days. Sadly, it had taken Italy, and Europe, much longer to see through his lies and conceits.

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To happier matters. It is axiomatic, of course, that Benito made the trains run on time, unlike his benighted French counterparts, which is how we had found ourselves by and by in the tiny hamlet of Varenna on Lake Como, part of the “golden triangle” of villages about equidistant between Como at one end of the lake and Colico at the other, surrounded by spectacular Alpine peaks, and delighted to be at ground level, and not clambering around incautiously upon them.

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Determined to get as close to real mountains as I am ever going to get – being convinced beyond reason that embarking on any incline greater than 5% invites a hideous death, cast from some rocky outcrop by a momentary mistake to smash, alert and awake, into the blessed ground we should never have left in the first place – let’s be frank, if God had intended us to leave sea level he would have given us crampons on our feet – we headed wide-eyed for the far north of the lake.

Colico is not famous for much, except, perhaps, for the best ice cream I have ever eaten, or maybe it was merely the location, nestled as the gelateria was in patch of shade and towered o’er by yet another peak. At this juncture the lake itself was home to innumerable para-sailers in a regatta – my apologies for the shaky boat-deck photo – and on occasions it seemed, too, as if they were somehow in awe of the snow-clad peaks that surrounded them, and were urging their kites to fly them higher and higher, to the pinnacles themselves, and beyond. It must be something to do with grandeur: it just seduces us as moths to a light. Perhaps this is why in cities all over the world we can now be encouraged to pay good money to tour sports stadiums even when no sport is happening. “Wow, look at all those seats, Dad!” “Yes, son, and so many.” Curious.

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No exposition of a few days in Italy would be complete without a delerious discussion of food. Cognisant of my upcoming never-to-be revealed birthday, we decided to splurge on a visit to the famous Cava Turacciolo, which in any other world would be merely an interesting little wine bar, but which, arriving by ferry in Bellaggio on a picture perfect evening, offered itself to us as a mysterious Aladdin’s Cave, packed to the gunwales with rare local wines collected lovingly, and dispensed expertly, by Mario and Norberto and their crew.

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We had been alerted to the Cava by other travellers, and it did not disappoint. A mere two rooms, plus a connecting corridor, seemingly tunnelled out of the hillside and blessedly cool, to nurture the hundreds of precious bottles of vino rosso and bianco that were crammed onto its walls, which girdled us like a cocoon.

We had arrived early, still not au fait with the Italian preference for doing nothing significant until at least 10pm, which meant we were blessed with Norberto’s close attention, as he described each wine he suggested to us in minute detail, taught us what to search for in the nose and taste – disagreeing gently when we argued for caramel as opposed to what he announced firmly was liquorice – and holding forth wisely on the various ancient methods that had gone into each bottle.

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With one, apparently – the Sfursat, 100% Nebbiolo with the grapes allowed to dry for three months before pressing – the story, and the experience, amounted to an insight into the whole of the surrounding society. Wine had been made this way, Norberto explained, in luxuriously tiny amounts, for over 500 years, by artisan producers working in their own homes. All the wine made thus, which demonstrated an incredible alcohol content and a clear aroma and taste of cherries – you will pick it up most clearly on your gums, he patiently intoned – is drunk locally, and unknown in the outside world. Pity: it was entrancing.

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A dedicated red wine drinker, I surprised myself by preferring – of everything we tasted, and there was plenty – a discrete gently oaken Chardonnay from the Lake Garda area, called Bellavista Alma Terra.

It offered itself politely, blushingly, and pacifically, like a Victorian miss in a crinoline dress taken at the flood by a rampant Lieutenant … pale straw in colour, perfectly balanced, fresh and inviting and completely more-ish. I wanted to buy a bottle of what we had tasted by the glass, and settle in contentedly for the evening, but Norberto clucked disapprovingly. “Buy some to take home” he muttered, remarking that it was “fruity and refreshing” almost as if those words were criticisms. “Here you have a chance to taste something … Special.”

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So we did. We invested in the cheapest edition of a range – Amarone – that runs to bottles costing hundreds of Euros. It had been teased and coaxed from grape varieties we had never heard of, and presented a deep, mysterious burgundy in colour – almost black – with huge pepper and plum flavours, and a head-numbing 16% alcohol. From Verona it was – Romeo and Juliet country – and it immediately made one want to stand on the table and sing Nessun Dorma, or take on the the whole world to right wrongs and slay dragons. Little wonder poor old Tybalt ended up run through by a rapier. If the locals were getting shit-faced on this stuff it’s surprising any of them were left alive by the end to tell the tale.

So the wine flowed – a little too fast for Norberto’s taste, but we explained with equal patience that we were Australian, and he simply nodded sadly and politely – and then, in this temple of grapes, the real surprise.

Food.

Lovingly prepared compliments to the wine – bitingly bitter and huge green olives, a plate of achingly sweet ham so thinly sliced as to be almost ethereal and dressed with twin breasts of buffalo mozarella so fresh they were still molten in the centre, twinned with a spread of blissfully rare, sliced roast beef dressed with Parmesan and Balsamic vinegar, followed by a buckwheat tagliatelle drowning in cheese and dotted with potatoes – who knew? – and finally a selection of cheeses selected for their capacity to lift the roof off your mouth, and your preconceptions.

Not a crew to shy from strong cheese, one concoction nevertheless defeated us: in the way that one is first defeated by, say, a fiery Thai salad, one is bruised but fascinated, and determined to return to fight another day. A seemingly innocuous mixture of goats’ and ewe’s milk, it was simply too pungent to be approachable. Next time.

As one contemplated the last few days, one was struck forcibly by how Norberto and his team were the very antithesis of the statism so glorified by Mussolini and his ilk. Hard-working individuals, modest, unprepossessing even, and dedicated to principles of excellence and courtesy, with a passion bordering on the obsessional to create experiences – the marriage of the perfect wine with the perfect sliver of rare roast beef – that are utterly ephemeral in their nature, and yet are what, in reality, make life worth living. That make enduring “society” worthwhile. There was nothing of the showy arm-waving fairground balderdash of Mussolini in Norberto’s quiet certainty. His was a world that mistrusts big and celebrates miniature, a world which knows that in honest precision, and care, and dedication and sheer hard work, mortal man can sometimes touch the face of God.

I asked him if he bought in his beef ready cooked, and he looked horrified. “No, no!” He almost wailed. “Oh,” I said, abashed, “do you have your own cows?” He snorted, “I would have no time to look after the wine.” Ah.

He explained that he chose the beef from a local he knew well, but always cooked it himself. No-one else could cook it the way he did. I pondered how he had. It was somehow gently pink all through, with no signs of caramelisation on the outer, yet it was clearly roasted and not slow-cooked in water. No high-faulting modern cooking methods here. I asked him how he created the flavour, and yet kept the beef so ineffably moist, so that it literally fell to pieces on the tongue.

He smiled gently. “Magic.”

Just so. Ciao.

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Day Four of pretending we know how to handle a cruiser made for eight people. So far the score is large sticky-outey trees 2, deck furniture and paintwork nil.

One of the most peculiar (and pleasant) features of travelling without a set itinerary is when one happens across people with whom one has an in-built affinity. One supports the same football team, went to the same school, have a mutual acquaintance, etc.

On the current exploration of Brittany, et après Le Canal du Midi, (bucket list – tick), we have met precisely three groups of fellow travellers who speak English … meaning that one’s schoolboy French has been getting a bit of a workout. Astonishingly, given that I grew up in Bournemouth and then went to University in Southampton, which duly became my adopted home before I eventually moved to Melbourne, two of the groups we met were from Southampton, and one from Bournemouth. What are the odds? Quite.

Thus it was no surprise, really, when the drunken but cheery garbologist we were chatting to in a small bar in the ludicrously pretty village of Colombieres, where we had moored for two nights waiting for gale force winds to subside, suddenly announced to us in insistent French that there were two Aussies living just around the corner. Adopting a well worn practice he had obviously observed from English tourists, he simply kept saying the same thing louder and louder until we indicated we understood him, which we did, partly, but we were more concerned about our hearing, and increasingly troubled by his startlingly crossed eyes, which were becoming more manic by the moment.

Anyway, he shot off out of the bar and we assumed, incorrectly, that he had gone walkabout to fetch said Aussies. He hadn’t, he’d just gone off on a slightly crazed walkabout, maddened by our inability to follow his ravings, one suspects. So a couple of beers later, we set off in the general direction he had indicated, hoping against hope to run into Les Australiennes. Why we would imagine for one moment that we would find them is just one of those inexplicable moments of confidence that occur when on holiday. And as luck – or walking confidently – would have it, within five minutes stroll we came across a magnificently restored Belgian barge moored round the corner from the bar, with the unmissable name “Oz” and bestrewn with more than a few Aussie flags.

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A big sign announced it was a “bed and breakfast” establishment, so we rang the number on the sign. Of course they would want to meet us, we reasoned. Fellow Aussies, marooned in deepest France Sud. When the phone was answered in an impeccable French accent, one was initially perturbed, then delighted, to learn that the owners were, indeed, Aussies, but that Dominique, of Dominique and Gwen, was actually a French Australian who had run bars in King’s Cross in Sydney, and who happened to count Jimmy Barnes as a personal friend, and who had returned to his homeland to pursue the quixotic but magnificent task of restoring the barge to her former glory.

Unburdened by customers for a day or so, Dominique immediately bought us a beer back at the bar, gave us the lowdown on how to find a bus on the morrow to get into nearby Beziers (as we had decided the seven lock hill into the ancient town was a potential boat-wrecking step too far for our rudimentary bateuax-handling skills) and then offered to introduce us to the local winemaker, Louis, the next afternoon.

Which is how we came, by and by, to be sampling Louis’ exquisite reds and rosés, accompanied by a running and vibrant discussion in Franglais on the relative merits of Australian and French wine. And afterwards, how we fetched up on the Oz, more than a little tipsy, to admire the astonishing renovation Dominique and Gwen had triumphantly pulled off, and to enjoy a meal of pork sausages, fricassied potatoes with garlic, and the most perfect champignons with more garlic and parsley, washed down with some more excellent local wine. No recompense would be accepted, Dominque was simply delighted to chat about the good old wild old days in Sydney, and for Gwen to enjoy the company of some dinky di fellow antipodeans. An utterly delightful time was had by all.

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Two things struck me in particular. Louis was, astoundingly, the eighth generation of vignerons to be growing grapes and crafting wines in the same location. His antecedents began the business back in the days of Louis XV. The family had survived Lord knows how many wars, depressions, insurrections, revolutions and the like, without ever losing their heads, or their wine business. Louis himself seemed to embody why – a man of strong but courteously advanced opinions, grizzled white hair, and amused pair of twinkling eyes, endlessly patient with our stumbling attempts to communicate, and fiercely proud of his own vision of how wine should be made. Without fining (cleaning the wine with egg white or fish to remove sediment), without preservatives to add shelf life but remove vitality, without a pre-determined formula and without storage in oak barrels, so as not to hide the complexity of the wine with mouth-filling dominant wood. Instead his wines were exquisitely nuanced blends of grapes chosen year on year to reflect local growing conditions.

They revealed themselves in lingering finishes, gentle tannins, and unexpected flavours, and were, in short, an eye opener. In an instant we were transported back to an age when French wine had not succumbed to the pervasive styles of the new world, where brash Australians, Chileans, and Americans had not smothered the globe with identical massive Cabernet Sauvignons and meaty Shirazs that you could cut with a knife. Here was wine as sophisticated and as playful as the culture that produced it. Louis was polite about Australian output, but worried that our palates, beaten into industrial submission for a generation, could simply not appreciate his efforts. He was, I suppose, partly right, and partly wrong. We were surprised – challenged, even – but appreciative.

What was most sad, though, was when he quietly said he thought there might only be four other winemakers in the entire region making small-run and near-perfect wines the way he does, with the feel of his gut, and hundreds of years of accumulated nous to guide him.

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Especially when, reverently, we were introduced to his rosé Vin de Liquer, Desir. We were assured it was very alcoholic, but at 15%, we pondered, it was only a point or two above your average Aussie red. Quaffable. What was astounding was the vast complexity of flavours that exploded on the tongue. Sweet? Yes, on the sweet side, but with a crisp, balancing acidity too. It smelled of fruit … It smelled like the inside of a fruit shop, in fact, in which had been stacked fresh bales of new-mown hay. It was luscious in the mouth, but not cloying. It was, in short, a revelation. If this was what could be done with old-style wine-making, then vive les vieux! At just over ten Aussie Dollars a bottle, it was all Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink could do to stop me buying the entire output.

The second thing to strike us in these meanderings was the remarkable force of a dream. The same dream that drove Louis to keep making wine the way his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-grandfather, great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-great-great-grandfather had, impelled Dominique and Gwen to turn their back on well-paying jobs, and to turn, instead, this beautiful but battered old barge into a living labyrinthine beauty of comfortable berths and showers, with a glorious sitting and dining space up on deck, and transform it into a working memory of a more sedate and gracious time, when speed was most definitely not everything.

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After seven years, they gladly and cheerfully confirmed that Oz was their private money hole, into which they had poured savings that they knew they would never quite recoup, but which they also knew had meant the creation of one of the more remarkable places anyone, especially their fellow Aussies, could stay along their beloved Canal.

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Oh and by the way, should you drop by, Dominique is a prize-winning cocktail-maker too. Not that you’d be drinkers, an’ all, at all, Dear Readers. And Oz can be encouraged to actually move up and down the Canal with you on board, but honestly, I bet you ask for it to stay right where it is, moored two minutes walk from a superb Michelin-starred restaurant, not to mention a fifth-sixth century Church which has to be seen to be believed.

If you’re lucky, like us, you’ll happen upon it just as a wedding arrives.

And don’t be at all surprised to be asked to sit in and enjoy the ceremony. Especially when the locals discover you’re Australian, and not English.

Domaine Monlou +33 6 76 59 34 32
Oz the Barge +33 6 84 00 12 39

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I am what you might call a reluctant traveller.

Having traversed much of the known world, finally emigrating to the Antipodes almost on a whim, I never really expected to become so, but I have morphed, in that awful era in our lives euphemistically termed “middle age” (which should more accurately, of course, be characterised as “think like a 25 year old, while carting around a body that appears increasingly to be yearning to be 75”) into something akin to a homebody.

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I harbour my securities like guilty pleasures, and shamefacedly admit that I now avariciously guard my creature comforts – a chair whose vagaries I understand, knowing where to find a clean shirt, and the reliable, comforting unchanging view of trees with their attendant squawking wattle birds from my living room.

Where once I slept standing up on a train from Biarritz to Ventimiglia overnight – not to mention using a camping gas outfit to make tea at 2am, to the great amusement of the French on the train, who, preconceptions of the British gloriously confirmed, offered to keep an eye open down the carriage for the Controlleur who would not have appreciated our culinary madness – now I find I worry overmuch about the thread count on the sheets on a bed which must never be less than king size, and preferably of a hotel chain’s special design to waft me off to uninterrupted sleep in seconds or less.

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Unreliable air conditioning can throw me into a frenzy of self pity, where once I slept on the metal luggage racks of stations in 100 degree heat, grateful just for the chance of some shut eye, and contented myself with dreams of the blue, cool Mediterranean just waiting to be plunged into the next day, or the day after that, depending on when the Italian train service, grown reassuringly less efficient since Mussolini, planned to deliver us to her welcome watery embrace.

Sometimes, though, without warning, the wanderlust of old rears its head, whether or not I generate said rearing spontaneously or whether, as in this case, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink fixes one with a beady eye and insists “It is time you had a holiday.” Which translates, of course, as “It is time I had a holiday, a real one, with planes and ice tea and weird food and more planes, and some trains, and museums and hotels and cathedrals and such, and if you’re not coming I am bloody going anyway …” and even your most habitual homebody, Dear Reader, knows that he has been given his marching orders.

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Which is how, making the most of the opportunity to break the interminably long trip to Europe, your dutiful correspondent finds himself exploring Tokyo for the first time, and perhaps equally surprisingly finds himself entranced by the experience.

I have loved the last 36 hours. Most of all, I must commend the people we have encountered. It is a cultural stereotype, of course, to mention the famed courtesy of Asian people in general and Japanese people in particular, but it is famed for a reason. Everyone is unfailingly pleasant and cheerful, especially when confronted with the embarrassing but oh-so-typical fact that the entire gamut of our Japanese runs to Good morning, Thank you, and Two Beers Please. A worried expression brings forth immediate bowing, smiling, giggling and pointing at maps and up and down streets, and increasingly, frantic tapping on Google maps on the ubiquitous smart phones. Teenagers here are no different to teenagers anywhere, entirely without guile: when a tiny commuter bus passes us the girls in the back in their sailor uniforms point and giggle at the big white devil on the sidewalk. (In China they have actually asked to poke me in the belly to see if it’s hard or soft. Awkward.) Here I greet their amused curiosity with a solemn bow to the waist, and then a smile. They wave and shout enthusiastically, full of good humour. What I didn’t expect was for the rest of the bus full of company men to join in as well. In one silly incident the barriers of age, culture and history vanish as if they never existed.

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Our hotel room is laughably small. If swinging a cat, one would have to first quarter the cat, and retract one’s arms. But it is spotlessly clean and perfectly comfortable, so long as you don’t mind the fact that the entire bathroom, vanity and bath area would challenge a small hobbit to turn around, and that there is nowhere to store ones bags except on the only available floor space in the bedroom, which makes moving from the bed, once on it, practically impossible. It is so small that the only acceptable response is to laugh readily and often, which is the reaction we chose, and to drink a little too much of the very tolerable whisky we bought from the supermarket next door for ten bucks a bottle.

We have chosen to stay, deliberately, in an older part of Tokyo, away from the brightest of the bright lights, although we will probably employ the awesomely efficient metro system to go glance at those sometime. Instead, we are wandering around a rabbit warren of homes, tiny restaurants and small workshops, fascinated by the scenes around every corner.

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What is very obvious is that every property, virtually, post-dates 1945. It is easy to forget that Tokyo suffered more complete damage than even Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the result of a series of night bomber raids using incendiaries that was born as much of a desire to punish the Japanese as it had any strategic military purpose. That such a vast city has reinvented itself is a testament to the remarkable, stoic attitude of the Japanese and their adherence to notions of nationhood and authority. They just, in short, got on with it, rebuilding the city and their lives with a series of American style city grids that are easy to navigate, impeccably clean, and endlessly intriguing.

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When jotting down impressions I am always reminded at how capacious is my capacity to be fascinated by ephemera, and how impressionistic my attitudes are. When I should be observing the commercial pulse of a city or seeking insights into its people, I fix, instead, on wondering why we have no coins at home with little holes in them – they are just so adorably cute – and how the notion first arose to put plastic models of food outside restaurants, even high class ones, to attract customers from the streets. From there is but a small step to buying some of those little plastic models in a shop which sells nothing but plastic models of food. By the time I am done, I have spent more than our actual food cost us at dinner last night.

Ah, the food. If you are yet to discover the sublime raw fish and sweet, vinegared rice of a sushi and sashimi bar, then you are missing one of the most mouth-wateringly perfect concoctions of humankind.

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In a fine example of the ubiquitous sushi bars that dot every street, last night we ate our body weight in miraculously massaged morsels of at least four different cuts of tuna, salmon, roe, mackerel, seaweed-encased prawns and pastes made of fish and various vegetables, such as viciously hot peppers, washed down with ice cold beer and many smiles from the artists behind the glass bar.

We ploughed on for hours as if fearing we would never eat again, each dish a little miracle of balance, taste and form. When we left – rolled out would be more accurate – the cheery smiles and nods of the chefs and the waiting staff communicated better than any language that they valued our appreciation of their talents and their cuisine. We had taken on board enough Omega 3 to float a battleship. No wonder everyone in Japan lives to be 110.

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So. Dear Reader, it is time to browse the shops and stalls that line the ancient streets beside the re-built Sensouji Temple, originally built to honour the Goddess Kannon in the 1600s, but demolished one night by B-52s, and since painstakingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory. It is a place of ethereal peace and beauty. Even the inevitable souvenir hawkers, fortune tellers and fast food stalls conduct themselves with restraint. In fact, on the busiest street no one shouts, the traffic cruises sedately, sirens appear to be banned, and the traffic lights play classical music to you while you wait to cross. Cyclists share the footpaths with pedestrians and never collide and neither side in this complex equation hurls obscenities. Ridiculous, amusing sculptures adorn the buildings, and on one there is a sign that actually exhorts you to smile, because life is wonderful.

It’s all very classy.

Last night, we chatted for a while to a young German tourist who had already visited Japan ten times. She said she just kept getting drawn back. After a day and a half, I am well and truly bitten by the bug as well. I may just have to get off that couch more often. A scary, but rather wonderful discovery.

And yes, our room has a wash your arse toilet. And no, I am not going to talk about it.

At Wellthisiswhatithink we have been quietly issuing opportunities for people to appear on the blog as our guest, and we are delighted that George has taken up our invitation, via the StooshPR Facebook page which is an outpost of the very busy stooshpr.com.

This charming and insightful description of life and love as an expatriate in Japan’s snowy, mountainous, and exquisitely beautiful north is fascinating. Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I will visit Tokyo briefly in a  few months, and this lovely article will enrich and inform our visit. Thanks, George! Would you like to be our next Guest Blogger, Dear Reader?

George

George Polley

“This isn’t my first experience with being an expatriate, but it is by far the longest, and will undoubtedly by my last one, as I intend to spend the rest of my life as an expat living in Sapporo, Japan.

Back in late 1973 I went to Mexico City for a little over two months, explored the possibility of moving there, going so far as to check out what I’d need to do to open a counseling practice there.

But the time wasn’t right for me, so I flew back home to Minneapolis. In January. Given the fact that it was 75 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit) in Mexico City and 25 degrees below zero when I arrived in Minneapolis, that was very bad timing. If you want to explore what being really cold is like, try doing what I did. It works in spades.

The two most important things about moving to another country are deciding to move, and knowing why it is that you’re moving.

My “why” was supporting my wife’s desire to move back home after half of her life in America. Would it be a big move? Huge! That’s why the decision has to be a good one, because it’s a lot of work. Suffice it to say that, after two years of planning, three visits to Japan, and having the astonishing good fortune of selling our house days before the real estate bubble popped, I retired from my mental health practice, we flew to Japan, found a condominium to buy, bought it, flew back to Seattle, packed up the rest of our things, and on March 28th 2008, caught a flight to Tokyo, then on to Sapporo and our new home.

“Home” in this instance, was vastly different from the 1200-plus square foot house with a big yard and gardens we had lived in for eighteen years.

Our home in Sapporo is a typical Japanese “mansion” (code for “condominium”), called a “2 LDK” — two small bedrooms, a small living room, and a dining area with a tiny kitchen at one end. The bath, toilet, washing machine and water heater are off the entryway which, in winter, is cold! Then comes the reality of trying to fit everything you own into this tiny space without driving each other mad. Downsizing to something this tiny was, well, a huge challenge once everything we had shipped arrived. We were literally tripping over each other. In our Seattle home my work space was in the basement, and my wife had the first floor all to herself. Here it’s a very different world.

Tall grasses

Tall grasses photographed by George along the Motsukisamu river bank

Japanese families raise their families in places this small, and my wife grew up in one, but after spending half of her life in America, adjusting to this kind of change has been daunting for both of us. We’re still adjusting, but we have reached the stage where we can laugh about it.

The neighborhood is lovely, public transportation stops across the street, the subway station is easy to get to by bus, and there’s the nearby Motsukisamu river (we call anything this small a creek back home) to walk along.

Our condo is ours free and clear, we’re both happy, although we are a bit nostalgic at times for the things we loved about living in America.

Before moving, we had thought that I’d be the one who would find the move the most challenging. After all, I’d spent my life in America, and was going to leave family (a brother and sister-in-law, four children and ten grandchildren) and friends behind to live as a foreigner in an Asian country.

Would I adjust? Would I find it uncomfortable to be among so many strangers I couldn’t communicate with? Would it be easy to meet other expats and establish friendships?

Central Sapporo in summer

Central Sapporo in summer

As it’s turned out, my wife has found it as difficult, and perhaps more difficult, than it has been for me, as she had lived away from Japan for half of her life, had adjusted very nicely to American culture and social norms, and discovered that readjusting to Japanese social and cultural norms was very stressful.

For example, in the US if you don’t want to do something, you say “No thanks,” and that’s it. Here it’s not so simple, as the person is likely to take offense. When you receive a gift from someone back in the States, you thank them for it, and that’s it. Here receiving a gift implies that you will reciprocate, and failing to reciprocate can – and often does – result in hurt feelings, which she finds very stressful, as she is expected to know, whereas I’m forgiven because, after all, I’m an “ignorant” foreigner and I don’t know better. Good for me, not so good for her.

The other difficult thing that’s been hard on my wife is having our roles reversed in the sense that the things I did for both of us back home (obtain medical services when we moved to Seattle, take her to medical appointments, obtain a dentist, go grocery shopping, and so forth), she had to do here, as I don’t read or speak Japanese.

This was tremendously stressful for her, as she had no idea where the good service providers were. The easiest part was getting medical insurance, which a cousin’s husband helped her to do, and getting me an ID card, which he also helped us do. And he helped her pick out utilities for our condo (“mansions” don’t come equipped with them). A friend helped us find a good contractor to redecorate (called “reform” here) our condo, which needed new wall covering, new patio sliding doors and a few other upgrades. Some of these things we’ve both learned to laugh about, but early on laughing about them wasn’t easy to do. Today we can laugh about the fact that our condo looks like a jumble store in the winter when the laundry hangs everywhere; so does everyone else’s “mansion”, which though it gives small comfort, is a lot better than none at all.

The upside is that after nearly five years, we’re both happy here, are able to laugh at the quirks and social gaffes that remain, and go our own way. What we’re not able do is become “Japanese”, which isn’t a problem for us.

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is widely considered one of the most beautiful areas on earth, enriched, of course, by Japanese sensibilities concerning architecture and gardens

What about friendships, you may ask? I’ve found several expats that I’ve become fairly close to, in the sense that we get together for coffee or a meeting of a few local writers once a month, and talk about various things of mutual interest, such as writing, politics back home, Japanese politics and so forth, much as we would do back home.

Generally speaking, I’ve not found the expat community all that open to connecting, which is pretty much the way it is back where I’m from.

We connect with people we have something in common with. I’ve established some good friends online that I sometimes chat with via Skype fairly regularly.

All-in-all I’m a happy camper as an expat living in an Asian country. The benefits have far outweighed the inconveniences for both of us, though it’s taken nearly five years for us to get to the point where we’re both feeling that way.

A wonderful, and unexpected, upside to our move to Sapporo is the way it’s stimulated my writing career. Living where everything is new and challenging is very simulating to my mind and my creativity.

Sapporo is famous for its annual Snow Festival in winter when massive snow sculptures delight visitors and locals alike

Sapporo is famous for its annual Snow Festival in winter when massive snow sculptures delight visitors and locals alike

For me moving here has resulted in writing and publishing two books (“The Old Man and the Monkey” and “Grandfather and the Raven”) both set in Japan; a short story about a Tokyo artist (“Seiji”) published in “A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories” edited by Mohammad A. Quayum and published in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish Editions; finding my publisher (Taylor Street Publishing, San Francisco, California); publication of a third novel (“Bear”, about a boy and his dog, set in Seattle), and a queue full of other writing projects that are either in process of being written or waiting to be written.

I’m sometimes asked what I would do if my wife died and left me widowed. (Indeed, she has asked me that herself.) I usually say that I’d probably move back to America, though I have no clear idea where, so I’d have to research that.

When asked why, my answer is always the same: I’m not fluent enough in Japanese to live a happy, connected life here.

But that’s mostly a passing thought that I don’t spend a lot of brain time on. Mostly I spend time living each day, enjoying each day, writing, and thinking of things Aiko (that’s my wife) and I can enjoy doing together.

And, in the final analysis, that’s the most important thing there is.”


George Polley is a writer, author and retired mental health professional from Seattle, WA. He and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan at the end of March 2008, where they now live.

old people at beach

“And you can’t get a decent cup of tea anywhere, you know.” “Ooooh, I know.”

 

I am indebted to my old friend and regular contributor to Wellthisiswhatithink – Richard Ember – for this wonderful list of REAL comments received by Thomas Cook from complaining British holidaymakers.

Yes, we are assured they are true. And as Richard says, “Beware! They walk among us.”

It does remind us of our favourite description of the British holidaymaker abroad … “When you can’t be understood, just say it louder and stick an O on the end of most words. As in, “Meo wanto fish and chipso! Savvy, mate?”

Merde alors. No wonder Australians call the Brits “Whingeing Poms”.

Let the joys commence

“I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

“It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time – this should be banned.”

“On my holiday to Goa in India , I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food at all.”

“We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our swimming costumes and towels.”

A tourist at a top African game lodge overlooking a waterhole, who spotted a visibly aroused elephant, complained that the sight of this rampant beast ruined his honeymoon by making him feel “inadequate” .

“The beach was too sandy.”

“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as yellow but it was white.”

A guest at a Novotel in Australia complained his soup was too thick and strong. Then again, he was inadvertently slurping the gravy at the time.

“Topless sunbathing on the beach should be banned. The holiday was ruined as my husband spent all day looking at other women.”

“We bought ‘Ray-Ban’ sunglasses for five Euros (£3.50) from a street trader, only to find out they were fake.”

“No-one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled.”

“It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England but it only took the Americans three hours to get home.”

“I compared the size of our one-bedroom apartment to our friends’ three-bedroom apartment and ours was significantly smaller.”

“The brochure states: ”No hairdressers at the accommodation”. We’re trainee hairdressers – will we be OK staying here?”

“There are too many Spanish people. The receptionist speaks Spanish. The food is Spanish. Too many foreigners.”

“We had to queue outside with no air conditioning. ”

“It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”

“I was bitten by a mosquito – no-one said they could bite.”

“My fiancé and I booked a twin-bedded room but we were placed in a double-bedded room. We now hold you responsible for the fact that I find myself pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

Oh no, they are adding to the gene pool. God help us all.

Apart, perhaps, from lifting one’s spirits, slightly. Oh, OK, and providing the opportunity for a dash of history.

Encounter Bay looking back from the Granite Island causeway

Encounter Bay looking back from the Granite Island causeway

Encounter Bay near Victor Harbour in South Australia was so named because here explorer Matthew Flinders came upon a French vessel also surveying the local coastline. On 8 April 1802 while sailing east Flinders sighted the Géographe, a French corvette commanded by the explorer Nicolas Baudin, who was on a similar expedition for his government. Both men of science, Flinders and Baudin met and exchanged details of their discoveries; as a result, Flinders named the bay Encounter Bay. It was notorious in the early days of South Australian settlement, when Victor Harbour was a major port, for its dangerous shallow reefs on which many incautious vessels came to grief.

Granite Island and the Bluff from the Granite Island Causeway

Granite Island and the Bluff from the Granite Island Causeway

Granite Island is a small island next to Victor Harbor, South Australia, not far from South Australia’s capital city, Adelaide. It is unpopulated, however there are buildings and shelters on the island, including a cafe where you can risk sharing a snack with a flock of apparently homicidal seagulls. It is a popular tourist attraction, particularly for people wishing to see Little Penguins (commonly called “Fairy Penguins”) which breed and live on the island.

The Granite Island causeway

The Granite Island causeway

The island is accessible across a seemingly endless causeway from the mainland, either on foot or by catching a charming antique horse-drawn tram. Which needless to say, is not running while we are here. (I mean, it runs for all but two weeks of the year, right, when they are doing construction work on the causeway entrance, and we choose those two weeks to visit; I mean, don’t you just love that?) So including clambering all over vertiginous Granite Island itself we have today walked a very very long way. I said: A VERY VERY LONG WAY. I trust that is clear for all our readers. It is certainly clear to my aching muscles.

Granite Island is all windswept and salty and scrubby bush and, well, granite-y. The Southern Ocean pounds against it unceasingly, wearing and rubbing the exposed rocks into striking shapes, and the occasional blast of sunshine unexpectedly releases the gleam of quartz in the rock as one wanders by. Some hardy souls run by, treating the entire island as a sort of fantastical macho running tan, but that would seem to defeat the purpose of wandering in such a spot. One would miss sights like this tree, for example.

A fallen tree reminds us of ... what? Something atavistic and lost.

A fallen tree reminds us of ... what? Something atavistic and lost, perhaps.

Pushed over by the clutches of some vast southern storm, it lies propped up at an impossible angle, almost dead, but not quite. A few hardy green spines cling to the end of its trailing limbs. It looks like it has lain there forever, and will lay there defiantly until the end of time. It is in the same moment an intimation of mortality and an affirmation of how life refuses to give up hope of itself.

The whole place is rather like that. Eerily timeless.

There is a sense of walking somewhere both impossibly ancient, and ultimately unfathomable.

The Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal clan group lived in the area for at least forty thousand years: the Ramindjeri clan lived around Encounter Bay. Good rainfall, two rivers and the sea provided reliable food and allowed permanent settlement at nearby Yilki, which meant, literally, “the place by the sea”. The Aboriginal clans had a well-developed cultural and social structure together with a rich mythology: they lived in harmony with nature and each other, and it’s easy, sometimes, to sense why. The Aborigines believed that a fire god threw a spear of fire at one of his enemies but he threw himself into the sea and became the Southern Wright Whale, with the fire forever burning in him, and when they saw the whales surface and blow through their blow-hole that was the smoke coming from inside them.

The coffee in the cafe is very good, too, by the way.


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