Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Incredible Exploding Holiday

Australia has a history of catastrophic imports. One of our most famous was the decision in the 1930s to bring cane toads in to control pests that were damaging sugar crops. It's debatable whether they did that effectively, but there is no question that they were extremely effective when it came to breeding. Having few natural enemies here, these poisonous creatures now number about 200 million, and experts are desperately working to figure out how to stop their spread from Queensland into other states.

So what does this have to do with our attempt to bring our American Thanksgiving to Australia when we moved here? Hang on - you'll see.

Part 4 - A Very Australian Thanksgiving

Linda, Jason and I had been in Oz about four weeks when Thanksgiving rolled around. We were in a furnished apartment while we looked for a house, and we all felt a bit homesick and out of place in this new land. A Thanksgiving dinner seemed like the perfect remedy to the blues.

This would be Linda's first real encounter with Oz shopping as it existed then. Coming from the land of 24-hour grocery stores stocked with just about anything you could think of, she wandered into the local Woolies to discover that A) turkeys in Australia were about the size of large pigeons and B) even at that size they still take several hours to cook. Which posed a problem since we couldn't start cooking until early evening when we got out of work.

There actually was a C, as well. For it was that night when we discovered that Coopers Ale was a lot stronger than the beer we were used to in the US. While it undoubtedly helped to allay the blues for Linda and me, Jason was still too young to join in.

Probably because of that fact, Jay's memory of the night differs from Linda's. (I have no memory of the night myself.) Linda remembers the Thanksgiving dinner being very late. Jason also remembers dinner being late, but he insists it consisted of salami and cheese because the turkey wasn't going to be done until sometime around sunrise. Poor Jay - the move here was a difficult transition for a 14-year-old.

Anyhow, we decided to do better the next year. By then we were in our first house in Oz, and we had become friends with several other expat Yanks at work. As November rolled around, we all started remembering the great feasts of other Thanksgivings, so we invited them and a few Aussie friends to come to our place for the holiday. We would make the turkey and basics, and the cost of admission was to bring the dish that you most loved from your family's Thanksgivings.

It was obvious that a few of our friends had come from homes with a serious lack of understanding about nutrition, but nonetheless the day was a great success, So much so, in fact, that more friends started wrangling for a seat at the table next year.

No worries, mate! The more the merrier. We were up to two tables the next year, and I recall Linda having to make a turkey the night before in order to make a second on the day. Well, like cane toads, this thing just kept multiplying until it was pretty much out of control.

By our fourth Thanksgiving here, we were feeding more than 40 people. We were renting trestle tables, plates and cutlery, buying wine and beer by the pallet and figuring out pretty quickly that a four-burner stove and oven were put to the test to feed that many people.

One of our Australian friends volunteered to do another turkey for us and bring it, and we accepted gratefully. Our local friend had never cooked a turkey, however, and she didn't know that you were supposed to remove the plastic bag of giblets and other bits that is stuffed inside the cavity. The plastic had melted, and I always wondered if the bird had picked up an odd taste. No one complained, but then again, I only served that turkey to the people I didn't like that much.

The first time Linda or I gave thanks that day was when that dinner was over and everything cleaned up. We realized that we had imported a holiday with no natural enemies, and it was growing rampant threatening to destroy everything in its path.

So we did the only thing we could. We moved to a new house that was too small to hold a feast.

And now over many, many years, we have learned to be wistful as we miss Thanksgiving in America and happy we are missing it in Oz. This year on Thursday, I had lunch at a Thai restaurant with Jason and Lora. That night Linda and I had chili con carne and Matt came in a little later. It may not have been the traditional celebration, but it was nice just having time with the kids and not having to remember the names of 40 people, half of whom I had never met before.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Feast and Sore Eyes

Part 3 - Thanksgiving Today

Most of the world knows about the feast that happens on America's Thanksgiving Day. At the center of this orgy of food is a typically huge turkey bearing only the faintest of resemblances to those found gobbling free in the forests. I don't know how they get these turkeys so big, but I am pretty sure that if one were to win an event in the Olympics it would have to return the medal.

But a single bird, no matter how big, does not a feast make. So the typical American Thanksgiving Day meal also includes approximately 20 side dishes. By law, at least 80% of them must contain either sugar, starch or cream and no more than four of them can actually be healthy.

The meal carries other traditions, of course. For example, every guest must insist on helping whoever is cooking, no matter how clear it is that you will really just be in the way. Another of my favorites is that after the meal at least one of the older men must loosen the button on his trousers shortly before falling asleep in an easy chair.

But anyone who has seen a Thanksgiving meal in a movie knows all about this. So today, in continuing my short Thanksgiving course for Aussies, I need to write about two things they may not know.

1. The Macy's Parade. For 82 years, every Thanksgiving Day has started with this parade in New York sponsored by the department store, Macy's. This is the parade in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street", and it is generally felt that television was invented so they could show this parade to kids and keep them out of their mother's hair while she made the dinner.

The parade is famous for a couple of things. Notable are its huge gas-filled balloons of cartoon characters. "We see the parade as a huge pageant of American culture," said its executive producer in a recent interview. I guess that would justify their inclusion of Ronald McDonald. He certainly is part of American culture, and besides we wouldn't want the kids to get so caught up in turkey and mash that they forget about Happy Meals.

As a side note, you may like to know that this year the huge pageant of American culture is being extended with the inclusion of giant balloons of Buzz Lightyear, Horton the elephant and one of the Smurfs. And I always thought the Smurfs were from another country.

The parade is equally famous for its conclusion, when Santa Claus rides down the street. For you see, Macy's may call it the Thanksgiving Day parade, but in actuality it celebrates the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

2. Football. The TV may belong to the kids in the morning when the parade is on, but come afternoon and it is game on as the NFL begins what is in effect 11 straight hours of pro football with two 45-minute breaks built in for those who wish to squeeze in their Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps later take a toilet break.

Having this much football on TV actually makes sense since it keeps the men in the living room and allows them to doze off unexpectedly without falling and hurting themselves. I suspect most of the women are happy to have the guys shuffle off into one room and stay out of the way. I am certain the guys are happy to stay out of the way and not have to do anything except to show up when the chow is served.

In any event, this is generally considered a secondary contributing factor to the invention of television.

All of this aside, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is the one where family and friends make their best efforts to get together, catch up, tell stories, laugh and -yes - eat far too much. Many of my happiest memories are from this day. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Tomorrow: Part 4 - What Can Go Wrong with Thanksgiving in Australia? Plenty, it seems. Eyewitness reports.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Would You Like Maize with That?

Part 2 - The First Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims didn't have anything to do with the first Thanksgiving in North America. Depending on which historian you believe, it either happened in Florida, Texas or Virginia. But there are only so many myths I am willing to dispel, so let's just skip that inconvenient fact and talk about the Semi-official First Thanksgiving - the one with the Pilgrims that all the decorations show.

The Pilgrims had spent a particularly bad first winter in Plymouth - insufficient food and bitterly cold weather (which they, curiously, blamed on global cooling). When they finally staggered out into the sunshine of Spring, they had to figure out how to fish, hunt and grow enough food to get through the next winter. And they didn't have much of a clue.

So they made a deal with the local Indians and created America's first bailout plan. The details have been lost, but the results are roughly: Teach us how to survive in this place, and in exchange we will let you live in poverty for centuries while we grow rich. However, around 375 years from now, we will let you build casinos and many of us white people will come to your land and gamble away much of our wealth, making your tribe incredibly rich just in time for the 21st century.

There was much dissent among the tribal elders, with many arguing that the Pilgrims had created their own mess and why should the tribe bail them out. But in the end the opportunity to own casinos apparently won out.

Critical to the Pilgrims' bailout plan was one of the most interesting men in American history - an Indian named Squanto. In the early 1600s Squanto had been captured and sold into slavery by Englishman George Weymouth. Apparently, Weymouth had to prove to his boss that he had actually explored North America and opted to bring back Indian slaves. Given that flair for dramatic souvenirs, you can imagine how disappointed his son was when his father returned home with a shirt that read, "Dad explored Massachusetts and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Anyhow, Squanto finally received his freedom and started heading back to his tribe only to be captured by another Englishman who planned to sell him into slavery in Spain. If you think that sounds unlucky, you would be spot on. Just remember that after many more misadventures this guy ended up working with the Pilgrims.

Squanto is credited with teaching the Englishmen such techniques as fertilizing the land. The fact that they didn't know this leads me to the conclusion that these idiots really did not have a clue about how they were going to survive when they jumped on the Mayflower. Regardless, with Squanto's help the Pilgrims ended up growing all sorts of stuff, as well as fishing, fowling and hunting to the point that they were amazed at the amount of food they had at harvest time.

In the best New England tradition that meant Party Time, and they even invited about 90 of the local tribesmen to join them at the feast. The Indians are reported to have brought five or six deer to the event, making this the first instance in North America of home-delivered Indian Takeaway.

The party was so good that it became a tradition. But typical of the way the Pilgrims made decisions, not quite right away. The second Thanksgiving feast didn't happen until two years later. But after that, it became a must-do event on everyone's calendar.

The holiday, of course, marks the opportunity to give thanks for many things. Unfortunately for poor Squanto there wasn't much to be thankful for. Having helped the Pilgrims, his tribe did not trust him. Being an Indian, the Pilgrims didn't trust him. Before the second feast was held, he died of a fever. Some speculate he was poisoned.

Tomorrow, Part 3. Thanksgiving Today.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pilgrims Progress

Perhaps no American tradition draws as many questions from the folks here in Oz as does the Thanksgiving holiday. As a nation Australia always ranks in the World Top Three for holiday appreciation, so there's a natural professional curiosity (and perhaps a tinge of envy) here about this American holiday that seems to be little more than an excuse for massive excess.

So, as a public service, I will try to explain the American Thanksgiving experience over the next few days as we lead up to the big celebration on Thursday.

"Part One - Pre-Thanksgiving"

Thanksgiving celebrates the survival of a group of people we now call Pilgrims, although no one called them that in their day 400 years ago. The English government called them criminals, and the Dutch called them illegal immigrants. They called themselves Puritans. Today we would call them the Religious Far Right.

Having fled England where they were committing criminal acts by not following the Church of England, these folks settled in Amsterdam. It is unclear if Amsterdam had cafes that allowed pot smoking in those days, but it probably did because eventually the Puritans decided their kids were losing their religion. Many of you will be familiar with REM's Thanksgiving song about this topic.

Anyhow, at some point the religious leaders decided that it would be better to pack up and move to North America. This showed great foresight, since they realized that if they moved there early enough their ancestors would be able to protest immigration hundreds of years later without appearing hypocritical. So all aboard the Mayflower and on to Massachusetts.

Most Americans think the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Well, it wasn't quite at Plymouth Rock, but even more interesting is that only about 25% of those who sailed on the Mayflower were part of that religious group. Early on this established the tradition that the religious right in America can re-write history to make themselves the heart of the story and claim that their values are the only real American values.

In one sense these people established patterns that continue to this day. As a far-right religious group, they overcame severe hardship - in this case, the fact that talk radio and automated telemarketing hadn't been invented - and still managed to get control of the government even though they were in the minority.

These early settlers were pretty well understocked and unprepared for survival in the cold of Cape Cod and Massachusetts. So they did what anyone would do. They dug up the graves of the local native Indians and ate the food that had been buried with the bodies. This is generally considered the start of fast food in North America. It is also believed to have led, centuries later, to Chex Mix and dry roasted peanuts.

So where's the feast with the happy Puritans and Indians drinking cider and eating turkey, you ask? Having been sold into slavery by the English just a few years earlier, why did the natives decide to help these folks out?  Were there any Indian casinos at the time? If there were, would the Puritans play? Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Asleep at My Post

OK. It's now 4:30 in the afternoon, and for the past few hours I have been stuck trying to figure out what to blog about. One of the great benefits of the trip we took was that there was something new every day and enough of it was interesting to justify a post. But today I am woefully short of interesting things, and this compulsion to post to the blog is starting to interfere with the natural starting time for cocktails.

Let me tell you how uninteresting today was. As soon as 8:30 hit, I was in the car driving to get my license renewed. It had expired Friday, and I needed to see to that right away. I can't even do any jokes about the bureaucrats - I was in and out within ten minutes with a 5-year license.

Then I drove to the old office. We were out of town when they moved to new premises, so I had to get some of LK's stuff from her old office and bring it home. So I did.

I have a fair amount of expertise in understanding what is boring, and I am pretty sure that only my mother would find any of that interesting. Actually, I called her later and told her about all of that, and I am pretty sure she was bored, too. But, being my mother, she couldn't let me know, of course.

I did have lunch with Jon, but the last time I blogged about him he wrote a note indicating that he was not very happy with the jokes I was telling about him. Since he bought lunch today, I am not going to blog about Jon.

After lunch, I went back to the old offices to pick up the remainder of LK's stuff. There my friend Andrew took pity on an old man who clearly was feeling new pains from the earlier moving, and he took the rest of the boxes downstairs for me. But I've already written about what a prince he is in another post.

So what to write about? I think the only thing I can do today is take a page from Fox Television. If you go here, you will see World's Most Amazing Signs from our recent trip. My favorite is the hotel in Barcelona, and I think you'll see why. Read the menu carefully at the Slastice section - it's from Croatia and their spelling leaves a bit to be desired. And the rental sign was in Elba.

Please pray for something interesting to happen to me tomorrow. Or volunteer to do a guest post. Or at the very least act like my mother and make believe you're interested. Thanks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Your Holiday Feast Shopping Guide

Today's post is done as a public service for the Australians who celebrate American holidays. All seven of you need to do some serious planning right now. And I mean today.

It may seem like you have the best part of the week to get ready for next Thursday's Thanksgiving, but you don't.

USA Foods has sent me an e-mail. They're backed up a couple of days, and even express shipping takes two more days. Well, you do the maths - it's your last chance to ensure your Thanksgiving feast is replete with authentic Yankee food.

Already there are serious shortages. Pilgrim-shaped Pure Maple Candy is out of stock. You will not be delighting your family and friends with those sweet treats this year. In fact, you probably won't even be stuffing their stockings with the Santa Pure Maple Candy because that, too, is out of stock.

And for some of us, this year's Thanksgiving will be a bit less festive than previous years. Mr and Mrs T's Hot and Spicy Bloody Mary mix is out of stock, as well.

But not all is lost. There are still plenty of products available, although you may have to compromise on your brands. For example, you won't be soaking your Thanksgiving breakfast pancakes with Aunt Jemima Syrup, but for $9.99 you can get the 24-ounce Log Cabin Syrup.

(I will do this once. Americans, multiply our prices by 2/3 to get US equivalent. Australians, one ounce equals 28 grams.)

Other Thanksgiving essentials abound. You can be totally creative with your Jello mold. There's a choice of black cherry, cherry, grape, lime, peach, raspberry, watermelon or wild strawberry flavors.

Since I haven't seen one in the 20 years I have lived here, I should explain to my Aussie friends that the Jello mold is one of the healthier-looking side dishes served at the Thanksgiving feast, typically encasing fruit that has been sitting in a can of syrup inside a wiggling mound of sugary, articially flavored gelatin.

For the bakers among you, you can get a 40-ounce Bisquick for $9.99 and 3 pounds of Crisco (1500g) for $15. (If you need to ask what Crisco is, you don't want it. And if you do want it, I would like to know why you would want three pounds of it.)

Other last minute items I would recommend to anyone gearing up for the feast: a jar of Marshmallow Fluff, Keebler Graham Cracker pie crust, Jiffy cornbread mix, Chex Mix (I prefer traditional to hot-and-spicy), Bruce's whole yams in heavy syrup, and - be very grateful - Libby's Pumpkin Pie mix, which is still in stock.

I suppose all this makes Americans look like their diet isn't all that healthy. I would remind all of you non-Americans, that the country became great because it has an attitude of doing what it feels like and figuring out how to fix it later. There's no reason the holiday meal shouldn't reflect that.

For all of you in Oz needing these last minute buys, USA Foods is here. Oh, one last recommendation. I would also pick up the 8-ounce Pepto Bismol for $9.99.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Card Shark

I just watched a recording of this year's final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event. The event finished while we were travelling, so I was a little late coming to learn that some 22-year-old kid from Denmark filled an inside straight and won $9 million. Peter Eastgate became the youngest player in history to win the main event.

Just like the new champ, I have been playing lots of online poker for several years now. Given that we all use silly names at these websites, I may have even played him when he was just learning how to beat people at my skill level - in other words when he was 17 or so. But whereas he has gone on to reach the top with glory, fame and wealth in his few years of playing, I have settled into a poker niche that is, well, a little lower than his.

There are web sites that actually track your online play, and today I thought I would see how close I am to the new champ. Turns out that my average tournament finish is 49th out of 100. Some may think this defines the word "mediocre." But from my days when I marketed research results, I know this lets me claim that I am better than the majority of players. Hey, every percentage point counts.

Turns out I am in the final 3 once out of every 20 tournaments. To give you perspective, if I were an Olympian, that would be like winning a medal in the 1920 Games in Antwerp and finally making the podium again this year in Beijing.

Look, if I were a racehorse, my record would be 154 starts for 3 wins, a second and 4 thirds. In fact, the only horses that would be racing with that kind of record would be old geldings with shonky legs. Hmmm.

Another website does pyschological profiles of online players. This site told me I was a "Bomb." This sounds curiously like what a couple of my ex-wives have said, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. A "bomb", by the way, rates ahead of "red fish" and "green fish," both of which are weak players, and a "caution sign" which seems self evident.

A "bomb" is defined as "aggressive/aggressive", which means that my approach lacks variety and finesse. They suggest that a little discipline would improve my results, which come to think of it, also sounds a bit like things my ex-wives said.

Anyhow, now that I have a better understanding of where I stand, I am going to use young multi-millionaire Peter Eastgate as my role model and inspiration. If he can win the World Series of Poker as the youngest champion ever, why can't I become the oldest champion ever?

I think it will only take a little luck and taking on board all the things my wives have urged me to change over the years. I'm ready. Shuffle up and deal.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And the Winner Is ... Sydney


We are back in Sydney Monday morning after our trip of about 36 hours. Having done cars and trains and boats and planes in the last couple of weeks, I can tell you that planes are the worst of the lot. No one will argue with that who has had the misfortune of flying with BA to London's Heathrow Airport.

Originally we were scheduled to get back Sunday night but our itinerary had to be changed because we were booked on a British Air flight from Barcelona, transferring in London to Singapore Airlines. And what's the problem with that, you may ask. Well, good old BA - which seems to have completely abandoned any hopes of ever being a quality airline again - has a policy that they will not check bags through to flights of airlines that are not their One World Alliance partners.

This means that we had to check bags through to London, clear customs in London, retrieve our luggage from the carousel, put it on a trolley and wheel it to another terminal in order to check in with Singapore Air. Then, of course, we had to again clear security, which would not have been necessary if we had stayed in transit. (And I should point out that going through security in Heathrow is one of the few experiences I have had where I start to understand what it must be like to be a refugee.) And that's why our original 2-hour layover was never going to be enough time and we had to change to the later flight.

Anyhow, we somehow still ended up having enough time at Heathrow to take advantage of the VAT refund, which is the tax-back plan for the European Union. She Who Must Not Be Named had collected a reasonably good set of tax refund forms during the Accessorize My World Tour 2008, and at 17.5%, it was worth standing in a couple more lines to get that money back.

Needless to say, getting money from governments is never going to be easy unless your're a failing bank, and they certainly did what they could to make us either despair of standing in yet another long line - or just miss the plane. Once the forms are stamped, we joined another line to get the money, and there they tell you they can only give you money for your cash purchases and point you to the post box to mail the refund forms for credit cards.

In other words, I was learning what it's like to be a roadie on the AMW Tour. I'm sure I could hear Jackson Browne singing "Stay" in the background. I calculated we lost about the time it takes to have two drinks in the lounge with all this, but it was worth it, I guess.

Anyhow, you're probably enjoying this as much as I look forward to other travellers complaining about their journeys. So enough is enough.

Now it's back to work for some. And back to not working for others. But it is good to be back, so sing along with me:

I'm always traveling, I love being free,
and so I keep leaving the sun and the sea,
but my heart lies waiting over the foam,
I still call Australia home.

. . .But no matter how far or wide I roam,
I still call Australia home.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

(Many) Spanish Steps

No post yesterday because we were both exhausted by the time we got back to our hotel room last night. Sent ourselves to bed early and with no supper.

That's because we started the day out doing the last minute stuff to get off the ship here in Barcelona. That was at 8, so when we went to our hotel we had to wait a couple of hours before the room was ready.

Got in just long enough to drop off our bags and then jumped aboard the shuttle into Barcelona where we took advantage of my improved legs and walked all over the place. I don't have my little step counting device, but I am pretty sure I walked more yesterday than I have since I got lost a few weeks ago.

Barcelona is my favorite city in Europe. It is just such a unqiue city - very sophisticated, bustling city centre, classic old buildings on one corner and on the next the unexpected Gaudi-style building with their bulges and curves and fairy-tale charm. Everyone seems so well-dressed - even those doing jeans are fashionable. Linda thinks the Spanish are the best dressed people in the world. (I, needless to say, stuck out like a pair of trakkie-daks at a formal dinner.)

And on this Friday afternoon we walked down to the waterfront and sat outside at a seafood restaurant. This place and its competitors all filled up pretty quickly, and it became obvious that sunny Friday afternoons are probably an optional work day for many people here - so in that way it reminded me of Sydney.

The hotel we are staying at is absolutely stunning. It is set up on a mountain above the city, and the views are phenomenal. Our taxi driver spoke no English, but he communicated quite well and quite excitedly when we told him we were going to Gran Hotel la Florida. "Montana!" he said. "Panarama magnifico!" When we came into sight of it, he pointed excitedly. "Florida! Magnifico!"

He was right, and you can see a couple of the shots from our room at the beginning of these pictures.

Can't write much more. We must get out of here in a few minutes and head to the airport to begin our long journey home. It's been fantastic, and I will get Linda to join me in thinking about the highlights in a future post.

Till then, "Hasta la vista."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Shop in the Dark

The Isle of Mallorca. Playground of the super wealthy. Sparkling jewel of Spain's islands.

And totally dark.

When we went ashore at Palma de Mallorca, almost all of the island was without electricity. The place is really beautiful; the harbor has so many yachts it makes Monte Carlo look downscale; and the shopping area is quite impressive. Well, I made that last assumption from the outside, because there were no lights on inside most of the stores.

Leaving the ship, we had encountered a taxi driver who told us no shops would be open because it was siesta time, but he could gladly fill up our afternoon for us by giving us a tour for 100 euros.

We told him to take a nap and hopped in another taxi that was happy to take us to the shopping district for about 8 euros. Not only were most of the stores not into siesta, many of them were staying open even though they had no electricity. Some even found customers willing to swap cash for what they could barely see.

A couple of posts ago, someone whom I love dearly complained that I was writing about her and letting people know things that she said or did that weren't meant to be made public. I believe she felt this way partly because that is precisely what was happening, but also because my friend Jon had dropped me an e-mail telling me how funny the stuff about her was and she had read it when I forgot to delete it.

Needless to say, I readly agreed with her complaints. And because I would never do anything to hurt her feelings, I won't write about what she says or does anymore.

That out of the way, today in Mallorca I observed a woman who entered a pitch dark store that had Mallorcan pearls in the front window display case. (Apparently these pearls are specialties of the island. Some might even call them local accessories.) Soon this woman and the clerk were squatting near the front door in order to get enough sunlight so she could view a strand of the pearls. Satisfied, this woman then faced the challenge of paying for something when the credit card link isn't live. Obviously not one to be daunted, she found just enough cash and the deal was completed.

I stopped my observations before all the paperwork was done on that transaction, and I started backtracking because I realized I had lost the card the ship issues you in order to get back on board. The card is shaped like - and looks exactly like - a credit card, so I figured it hadn't remained on the ground for long once I dropped it. Anyhow, I never found it.

I assumed this wouldn't be a big deal, though. After all, people must lose their cards all the time. Just think of all the pickpockets running around the various tourist spots in Italy alone. When we got back to the ship, it turned out to be absolutely no big deal.

I told the guy at the gangplank that I had lost my card. He asked our room number and my name, typed it into their system and a photo ID they had taken on the first day popped up on his screen. He smiled a little and said, "You're OK. You can go in."

I said to him, "There really isn't anyone else who looks like me, is there?"

"No, Mr Kennedy, there isn't," he replied.

This is our last night of the cruise. Tomorrow morning we disembark in Barcelona and overnight there before catching our flights home. Mallorca, adios - and a few pictures here. One last post from Barcelona manana.


These are our ship buddies Jaki and Robert from northern California. One of the highlights of this trip has been meeting them and discovering over the two weeks that we really enjoy each other's company and share pretty much the same sense of humor.

As you can see from the picture, though, Jaki and Robert aren't inclined to share their gin and tonics.

Actually, our table didn't look much different. Each night from 5 to 6 is happy hour, and the lure of 2-for-1 drinks is too strong to keep veterans like the four of us away. We have even trained the waiter to come over at precisely 5:59 to take one last happy hour order. And that's when we end up with a table full of drinks.

We both brought bottles aboard and could be having 2 for none free drinks in our rooms, but there are only two places on ship where you can smoke. Needless to say, one is a corner of the bar where they have happy hour.

We have enjoyed each other's company so much that we have both promised to visit the other in coming years, and I think it's very likely we will stay in touch. I realize a lot of shipboard friendships don't last once everyone goes home, butI know Jaki and Robert want to come to Australia because they're both divers. So we have a big lure to get them to come down.

Neither Linda nor I dive, but Robert has a solution for me. You need to know that he is the anti-Don. He's very good with tools, loves to figure out how make something that he's never made before, and finds no mechanical task too daunting. I, of course, find the instructions from Ikea too complex.

So I told him I would go diving with them if he made me one of those big-helmeted, Robbie the Robot style diving suits. I meant it as a joke, but from the glint in his eye I think he is considering it. He has also talked about making a turkey fryer to add to our outdoor cooking collection, and I suspect customs will be scratching its head over that one some time next year.

All these building ideas have come about because we are talking about starting a web site/blog where I challenge him to build something and he figures out how to do it. I think it will be fun, but I haven't decided whether I want to challenge him to make practical stuff or the sort of devices Dr Evil comes up with. In either case, I recognize that I will be the Gracie Allen of this relationship, but that's OK.

Yesterday we were in Marseilles, but didn't get off the ship. It was very cold and a hard rain was coming down. The tourist books all struggled for something nice to say about the port other than the fact that you could get great bouillabaisse. And from The French Connection, I have a distinct memory that some pretty bad characters lurked in the dock area. We decided to see if the rain would let up, and by the time it did we were deep into our naps. Anyhow, no pictures and no report.

We are docking in Mallorca right now and will spend the afternoon in the town of Palma de Mallorca before heading to our final port of Barcelona.

Time to switch from "deux bierres, s'il vous plait" to "dos cervezas por favore."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mr French

Arrividerci, Italia. Bonjour, Monaco.

We left Italy last night and awoke this morning in Monte Carlo, which is pretty much most of Monaco. A few pictures are here.

Monaco is one of those quirky little places that somehow became and remains an independent country despite having the population of most apartment buildings. According to the information sheet they provide on the ship, France has guaranteed to protect Monaco's sovereignty "in exchange for a pledge that Monaco will exercise its sovereign rights in accordance with French interests." That may seem like an odd definiton of sovereignty to some, but when I think about it, it isn't really all that different from how our last prime minister, John Howard, positioned Australia with the US.

I am glad to be in the land of the French-and-nearly-French. I had proved a pretty dismal failure at learning Italian prior to our trip, despite buying two different sets of lessons for my iPod. Oh, I knew the basics - hello, good-bye, thanks and two beers, please - but I had hoped to be much more fluent with the locals.

Here at least my high school French comes rushing back. I intended to awaken Linda with a hearty "Bonjour, ma cher." I didn't because we were on our third cup of coffee before I remembered. Besides, I was a little shaky on whether the phrase I was thinking of using was asking her how she was doing or what her name was.

I do remember lots of useful phrases from my French classes, though. When we walked around Monaco today, I would have had no trouble asking a perfect stranger where the library or the bowling alley was.

The one phrase that really would have helped which they didn't teach me - or at least I don't recall being taught - was how to ask a stranger to help you get the dog crap off your shoes. "Scrapez le poo, s'il vous plait," just doesn't sound right to me.

Now that we're in the land of France and Friends, this dog poo on the footpath is a serious issue. It's everywhere. Perhaps Linda summed it up best as she was scraping her shoe on the curb: "I don't know how this society can feel superior to everyone else when they can't even get the dog crap off their sidewalks."

But that's also a sign of why we travel. Vive la difference!

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Lonely Hunter

At the height of the season, Portofino is teeming with wild life. During the warm months of summer, the picturesque town on the Italian Riviera is home to scores of predators hunting for the objects they need to sustain their lifestyle.

But come the cooler weather of November and the rainy season, and the trophies sought by the large hunters migrates to better climes. Soon there are only tell-tale signs that once this place earlier teemed with Ballys, Maxmaras and Ferragamos. And with their departure, soon the big hunters - the Yachties and their predatory Yachtwives, the Emptor Maximus (Biggest Spenders) and even the parasites that live on these beasts are not to be seen.

Portofino's off-season has begun. And though a few stragglers remain - the large-eyed Rolex, the brightly colored Hermes - they are sparse and offer insufficient reward to tempt the biggest hunters to remain.

And so it is that today we observe a lonely shopper roaming the nearly empty byways of Portofino. Emptor Lindicus (the lindashopper) hunts slowly and diligently, but with little apparent chance for success amid shuttered doors and rain-swollen streets. As is typical of the species, it is the female who hunts as the male stands by helplessly.

Our lindashopper ignores the low-quality pickings on offer at the souvenir shops. It is early in the off-season, and there is no need to resort to desperate measures. She passes by a shoe store, glances casually in the window, and walks on.

But 100 yards further on, the lindashopper circles around. Slowly, she makes her way to the shoe store again. Standing totally still to the side of the window, she eyes the wares carefully. Lindashoppers are notorious for being attracted to earth tones and muted colors, but in the off-season, it is brighter, more flamboyant colors that catch her attention.

With a slight flare of the nostrils and a widening of the eyes, she gazes intently at a pair of orange shoes. Then suddenly, for a reason that can only be explained by the centuries of DNA that have gone into creating the lindashopper, she pounces. She is through the door of the small shop so fast, the clerk has no option but to wait on her. Decisively the lindashopper moves to the orange shoes and the clerk scampers up a ladder, bringing down a box that seems to satisfy the hunter.

There is more commotion, more pointing. A second box is brought down, and soon the lindashopper leaves with her trophies. It may be off-season in Portofino, but the lindashopper has ensured she can accessorize well into the winter.

To see photos of the shopping fields of Portofino, please click here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Shore Leave

I just knew Livorno was going to be a different sort of stop for us when I opened the curtains of our cabin and saw we were docked next to a ship called Moby Love that had giant cartoons of a fat, naked couple running into one another's arms.

I was right.

Livorno is a port town that's not too far away from Florence and Pisa, and most people jump on a tour bus and go to one of those places when ships dock here. We, however, had already spent lots of time in Florence a few years ago and the trip to Pisa didn't seem worth it just to see a tower that leans. So off we went to check out Livorno.

It proved interesting in a port city sort of way. There were clues galore that it is a shore leave sort of place, like the condom dispensing machines on the sidewalk every hundred yards or so. You could almost hear Susie Wong asking, "Sailor boy, want to go topside?" Or in this case it may have been The World of Sammy Wong. Because, judging by the statuary in town, Livorno has a definite bent. You can judge for yourself above and there are more pictures here, but to me these may be the gayest statues of any municipality I have ever visited. The last one in the group is a little different - looking mostly like a flying monkey that's out hunting for Dorothy and that dog of hers, too.

In continuing the port theme, Livorno also offered a tattoo parlor. Of course, it did. However, I think you would need to intravenously feed me four gallons of limoncello before I would walk willingly into a place called "Feel the Pain Tattoo Studio". Even though my friend Picture Boy would respect me more for doing it.

Oh well, not every good tour is in the travel books and this was fun, even if it was a tame Sunday morning in a town that was probably rocking just a few hours earlier.

There is one more historical fact about Livorno that I should add. The English used to call the city "Leghorn", and that led to the breed of chickens being raised here being called leghorns. And as all of us raised on cartoons as kids would know, that means Livorno is the reason we have the greatest rooster in history, Foghorn Leghorn. I will refrain from making the obvious pun and just sum up our trip to Livorno, the way Foghorn would: "I say. I say."

PS We were in Elba yesterday in the town of Portoferraio. Not much going on. I can see why Napoleon didn't even stay a full year. Anyhow, a couple of pics here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Let Them Entertain Me

A couple of lazy days in the middle of the cruise.

Yesterday was a cold, rainy day anchored at Amalfi. We stayed on the ship because we had already been in the town the day before when our driver took us there after we finished touring Pompeii. I've uploaded some pictures of the towns of Amalfi and Positano here. Both are beautiful places, and the shots from the ship show how spectacular their setting is, built into the sides of cliffs along the coast. There are also some shots of a little roadside replica of the village that was built by a local artist. They are charming, and the fact that they just sit there without any protection says something about the locals, I think.

Today we are in Civitavecchia, the port city about 50 miles from Rome. It's a long trek into Rome - about 2 hours each way and we decided not to go since we were in the city last year. It's a cool, but sunny day, and we were getting ready to take a walk through the town here at port when we ran into Toronto Denny who had been in and told us it's a really boring industrial town whose highlight is a flea market with used clothing. Linda doesn't wear a mood ring, but I swear the one she had on started to turn dark when she heard that.

So it's up to us to make the day entertaining.

The ship tries hard to provide entertainment options for the passengers who stay aboard, but LK and I have been fairly selective so far. We were still drinking our first gallon of coffee this morning when they held the golf putting tournament so we missed that. And then we missed the ping pong tournament as we moved on from coffee to Bloody Marys in the hour before lunch.

When we scuttled our walk into Civitavecchia, we could have been a team in the non-hosted bridge play, but our style of play is to deal the cards and then talk for several minutes until someone finally gets tired of waiting and says, "Who's bid is it?" We have learned that whoever says that has good cards, and you need to be wary of them. But we also doubted our fellow cruisers would appreciate the technique.

I could end this post now and just make it to the shuffleboard tournament, but I have chosen to deliberately boycott anything that is associated with senior citizens since I am sure there will a couple of 70-year-old shuffleboard hustlers up there who play every day at their senior center. I just know they will miss their first few attempts and then innocently ask if I wouldn't want to make it a little more interesting by playing for, say, a dollar a point. And I know I will fall for it, too, because to refuse the challenge would make me a wuss. So shuffleboard is out.

Team Trivia starts at 4:30 but Linda and I have already tried that and won't go back again. We ended up on a team that had this rabid player who acted as if getting the answer right was a new ransom requirement if she wanted to free her kidnaped husband. The fact that she decided to override just about every answer Linda or I came up with did not turn out to be as annoying as it sounds, because when they read the answers out we had been right in each instance. Others in the team acknowledged we had been right; her husband probably remains captive; but we won't go back to spend half an hour with such an unpleasant person.

That takes us up to 5 o'clock. We will join the entertainment program for that one. It's 2-for-1 drinks during Happy Hour. And after a day of avoiding all the other ship entertainment options, we definitely want to be happy for at least an hour.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Our Last Day at Pompeii

I don't know why Pompeii intrigues me so much. Maybe it's just the freakish nature of a city stopped in its tracks 2,000 years ago and now on view as it was then. More likely, though, it is the macabre idea of all these bodies dying suddenly from the poisonous gas of Vesuvius and then preserved in their awful last moment by the ash that rained down on them and crusted their bodies. It would be nice to say the historic interest outweighs the morbid curiosity, but I suspect horror films will always do better at the box office than documentaries.

Motives aside, Pompeii lived up to its promise and was as interesting as I had hoped it would be. The special effects team cooked up a grand day for us. Vesuvius loomed over the city with clouds lingering at the top looking suspiciously like smoke. Thunder boomed not too far away, and it didn't take too much imagination to think the mountain was getting bored being dormant.

This was the Denny, Denny and Donny Daytrip I wrote about earlier, and we had driven up Vesuvius to check out the crater and get a view of the Bay of Naples below us. Being cold, rainy and misty, what we got was a view of the mist below us while those with sharp eyes insisted they could make out the outline of the Bay. Our driver took us as far as we were allowed to go by car, and then it was a 40-minute walk to the top. That was 40 minutes in dry weather by people who didn't limp and drag their legs. Also, most of us hadn't bothered to consider that it's lots colder at the top of a mountain than down in the valley so we were standing around with goosebumps about the size of the local lemons.

In other words, we got back in the car and went to Pompeii without staring down into caldera of the mountain.

Once at the ruins of Pompeii we chipped in 10 euros each and went with a tour guide who pretty much told us everything we had read in our guidebook on the way over. The big difference was that he made us walk around in the mud before he would go on to the next paragraph.

After seeing so many old buildings and ruins in other cities, it was always going to take a lot for Pompeii to really impress me. It did. Because of the preserving effect of volcanic ash, we could still see murals painted two millennia ago. It also became obvious that somewhere between 79AD and the 15th century someone taught Italian artists how to draw.

And of course the ash-coated corpses were there. They were fascinating yet grotesque. We were looking at real bodies yet somehow enough time had had passed to make it OK to gawk at them. I mean, people would think you were sick if you walked to the site of a natural disaster today and just wandered around taking pictures of the bodies there. But let 2,000 years pass and there we all were clicking away.

I must say there was one point when that emotional distance broke down and I became strongly aware that these weren't just statues of people who had died in a tragedy, but it was really their bodies trapped in the ash. That happened when a few toe bones showed through a break in the ash of one woman. And walking around to the other end of the display box, half her skull was showing and the grimace on her face was truly horrible.

It drove home what it must have been like to have suffered through this awful catastrophe. So of course, I took lots and lots of pictures of this poor woman. You can check them and other Pompeii shots here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Donny and the Cruisers

Today we are staying on the ship as it sails from Greece to western Italy through the Strait of Messina. In other words, we're trapped and have to figure out how to entertain ourselves for a full day without passing out before the sun sets.

Oh the ship tries to offer diversions. Just in the morning there are shuffleboard and ping pong tournaments, trivia contests, cooking lessons, needlepoint lessons, and a trolley going around the pool making Bloody Marys. As I said, the challenge is not to pass out before sunset,

It's actually not that hard because we have met quite a few people who are fun and entertaining and the conversations are good value. I've put up some pictures from the ship - including one of some of our new pals - and you can see them here, but really a ship is not the most interesting place to take pictures.

Many of my new buddies have made me feel quite amateurish about this retirement thing I've been planning. Take Jaki and Robert from northern California. Jaki retired from her job and proceeded to open a small business that now takes up more of her time than her pre-retirement job. Her partner, Robert, is more traditionally retired from the business he owned, so he entertains himself by going online and learning how to do such things as put in a new bathroom and kitchen for their house - which he actually did.

Linda looked aghast when he told us this and made it quite clear that this would never be an option for me. It was an awkward moment. I had already had to tell Robert I did not ride motorcycles. Now my wife was explaining that I was not permitted to own most power tools (that is, those with sharp edges). I really did not expect that I would be trying to prove my manliness once I turned 60, but I did feel it necessary to let Robert know I was pretty cool with screw drivers, hammers and rakes. I was just forbidden to work with anything that had the ability to cut my hand off.

Some of the other retirees are also making me feel like I need to lift my game. Tomorrow Linda and I are sharing a tour with two other couples, and we met with them to plan. Both of the men are named Denny. Besides making us sound like a bad comedy skit - Denny, Denny and Donny - I need to differentiate them. At the risk of creating confusion with the restaurant chain, I will refer to them as Chicago Denny and Toronto Denny.

Toronto Denny talks like a man who has no trouble figuring out what he wants to do each day. He is organized yet casual. He seems like a suitable role model and I will ask him more about his approach tomorrow. Chicago Denny, however, is another story.

Chicago Denny talked about his retirement. He walks a lot, works out in the gym, and spends a couple of hours a day researching information for a professional newsletter and database one of his former clients runs. He also said that his daughter, who lives in another city, calls him most mornings while he is on his walk since she knows he has more than an hour when he is available.

He then added, "I decided early on that there would be no TV and no naps when I retired."

So two questions came to mind. First, if you decided to make rules about what you could not do during your retired days, why did you bother to retire? Second, how long does it take during your walk when you can take a phone call and do more than heavy breathing into the phone?

Actually, with not much to do on the ship today and writing about all these guys named Denny, a third question came to mind. I wonder if in-room dining would serve a Grand Slam Breakfast in the middle of the afternoon.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Slight Greece Stain on Our Trip

Today we wandered around Corfu, a little island off the western part of Greece. It was OK, but only OK. Or as Linda said tonight as we sat with a drink watching the last stragglers get to the ship: "I wonder why this became a popular tourist spot."

Frankly, after Dubrovnik Corfu looked just a little rough around the edges - too touristy, not maintained as well, trying hard to get your money without doing much more than sitting prettily in the middle of a drop-dead gorgeous sea.

Mind you, part of our perception was jaded because we zigged when we should have zagged in the Old Town. (Every place in Europe seems to have an Old Town they use to suck in tourists, by the way. Sydney may be the only place I know with a Newtown.) We left the touristy part and got into a really humdrum and uninteresting section where it looked like the hottest buy would be used clothing. It's the section that put the Fu in Corfu.

But we finally found our way back to overpriced sidewalk cafes and brand names in English so we felt better. I knew neither of us was having the greatest of days because we ordered a diet Coke and a coffee - not our usual drinks when we're in a party mood.

After our drinks, we walked past the town's main church, named after its patron Agio (St) Spiridon. Which reminded me of Spiro in Sydney, the only guy named Spiridon I have actually known. Spiro would pobably like it here, if only because his namesake is the town's patron and all the girls think would think he looked like a rock star. But also because it feels like the sort of place that would love having a guy like Spiro around to fix whatever it is they have broken even if he is figuring out how to do it for the first time.

Anyhow, not every place is going to be a 10 on the meter, and there really wasn't anything bad about Corfu. Just not the sort of Wow things we've seen elsewhere. Pictures from Dubrovnik are here and pictures from Corfu are here.

Tomorrow is the first Tuesday in November - one of the most important dates on the calendar.

For every year on the first Tuesday in November, Australia stops to watch a horse race. This year, an hour after Australia watches the Melbourne Cup, the US opens its polls to decide the next president. We'll be cruising the Messina Straits while all the action is happening. Not sure if that's good or bad, but it is the way it is.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

You Can't Stop the Music

We have added Croatia to the list. Having acquired Portugal and Croatia this trip, Linda now lacks only 64 regions recognized as countries by the United Nations before she completes her official Global Domination Bingo card.

Dubrovnik turned out to be a really pretty place -- wonderful harbor, picturesque Old Town. The weather was warm, the crowds were few. We had fun. I will load pictures tomorrow on Shutterfly and put the link in the next post.

In the taxi on the way back to the ship we were subjected to some music that sounded like a bad Nashville backup group trying to cope without the steel guitar while three drunk guys and one very drunk woman sing nonsense words at the top of their lungs.

"Croatian music," said the driver, turning to see if we were impressed by the native noise.

"Very nice," said Linda in her most insincere voice. "Is it new or old music?"

Now those of us who spent most of our lives being polite and lying to clients have learned that Rule No 1 is to never embellish and never ask additional questions about the topic. So it is to Linda's credit that she didn't know this rule. It is to her discredit that she didn't know it, as well.

The taxi driver thought about Linda's question and pointed to the radio/CD player of the car. "Yah," he said. "Say day."

Having trapped herself in this extraneous conversation, Linda tried her best with a knowing "Mmmmmmm," in reply.

At which point the driver looked mildly exasperated and punched the eject button of the player. Taking out the CD (and mercifully stopping the native music) he showed it to Linda. "Say day," he said, as one might to a puppy that had peed on the carpet one too many times.

"Oh, CD!" said Linda. "Yes. New!" she said.

The driver put the CD back in the player, but did not hit play. He also did not take us to our destination, leaving us off quite short of our destination. While other passengers' taxis were whizzing past us on their way to the ship, we were walking along the pier wondering what we had done wrong so our driver wouldn't take us all the way.

"We both nodded enthusiastically and told him we loved the music," I said.

"He knew we were insincere," Linda said. "Taxi drivers can spot that a mile away. Next time it happens, we have to really look like we enjoy the music."

I don't know if this sort of moment is likely to come around a second time, and I certainly hope it doesn't. But I do agree with her general premise. Taxi drivers are pretty good at figuring out when you're just trying to take them for a ride.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

I May Not Know Much About Art,,,,

The tide was high when we checked out yesterday, so we couldn't get the water taxi to take our bags to the cruise ship terminal for a few hours. Even though it was raining pretty hard at the time, I swear I could hear Linda singing her own version of that old Blondie song, "The tide is high, so I'm going to buy."

To divert our own personal economic meltdown, I suggested we use our newly acquired knowledge of the water bus system and hop aboard for rainy day cruise.

We ended up at l'Accademia, which had lots of old art works. Linda is an art buff, and I enjoy some of it. She ended up loving the museum. I ended up liking some paintings, but really after you've seen your first 50 Madonna with Child pictures, why would you want more? It started to feel to me like I was looking at all the entries for this year's Christmas Card contest. If I had to vote which collection I like the most, I would choose the hotel with all the naked women on the walls to this, but what do I know about art?

One thing that did interest me was when I noticed that St Sebastien showed up in lots of the paintings, wearing his underpants and with an arrow or two sticking out of him. He was never the center of attention, but these old Venetian masters must have really enjoyed painting him standing off to the side. I was curious that the arrows were never in the same place. In one picture, there would be one in his abdomen on the left side; in another there would be one in his shoulder and a second in his leg, and so on. I found it interesting that these painters couldn't agree on where the arrows hit him, but they were absolutely unanimous that it happened while he was wearing only his underpants.

When I pointed this out to Linda, I got the kind of sniff that she only uses once in a while and only in public. It means something like, "I don't want to hurt your feelings so I will sniff to acknowledge you've said something, but what you said was so (A. Stupid B. Unfunny or C. Both of the above) that I don't want you to think I share your sense of humor or views of the world, especially when it comes to art which is something I know a bit about."

I love her anyway.

After the museum it was time to get back to the hotel and order up the water taxi. The tour books were full of warnings that water taxis in Venice cost an arm and a leg. It didn't turn out to be as bad as the books made us think it would be. In part, I think the driver saw how bad my leg is right now and figured he would only charge an arm. Also, when I think how much we spent in the taxi driving from Milan Airport, this seemed a bargain.

We also got to see a little more of Venice that we hadn't passed before. It was very pleasant, except when" Linda nearly capsized the boat rushing to the other side when I mistakenly thought I saw the boat her heartthrob had been in when we first arrived.

We are now aboard the ship, which looks like it will be fun. They tried their best to have a Halloween Party last night as you can see by the picture at the top of this post. Most people were too jetlagged - or too sober - to get into it, but at least there was an effort.

The other cruisers seem quite friendly. We've met Andy and Sandy (LK: "Hey, that's my sister's name!") from California, Larry and Linda (LK: Hey, that's my name!) from Long Island and several others who probably told us their names but since they aren't the same as our family's names we have forgotten. Today Linda also met a guy who went to Hudson Elementary School in La Puente - the same school Linda's mom, Peg, once taught in. He was too old to have been one of her pupils, but it really does show what a small world it is. It also shows how Linda can have a conversation starting at just about any point and find out something interesting by the end of it.

We are leaving tonight for Dubrovnik in Croatia. LK promises it will be interesting.