ROMANIA – October 2017

Please Note: I am currently editing the Travel Journal I started in 2007 and posting as I go. I welcome feedback.

Next Around the Bend: The Danube

Things about România Previously Unknown

Huckleberry B and I had a great time in Romania; which is surprising because first impressions were not favourable.

The journey from the airport to downtown Bucharest caused an insidious sense of gloom to infect my soul. Are we really spending five days in this dump?

We were soon to learn, however, that there was so much about România we did not know.

So what did we learn about Bucharest? I’m glad you asked, because we’ve prepared a list:

  • Dubbed “the Paris of the East”; central Bucharest certainly enjoys wide boulevards and many buildings constructed in the Parisian style;
  • Despite the French architecture, many denizens of Bucharest seem to think they’re Italian;
  • Indeed, the Romanian language is Latin-based and sounded similar to Italian to our un-schooled ears;
  • The French ambiance and the Italian linguistics notwithstanding, Romanian’s eat the kind of food you’d expect to find in Berlin or Munich: cabbage, all kinds of sausage, cabbage, all kinds of meats and I would be neglectful if I didn’t mention that they eat a lot of cabbage.
  • These guys seriously love their cabbage;
  • These guys also seriously love their coffee;
  • The local students are fond of applying graffiti to the walls of otherwise attractive buildings;
  • The local drivers are willing to park anyway; including, but not limited to, on the footpath, in a turning lane and, when particularly desperate, in a recognised parking space;
  • Most Romanians have a view about former Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu and seem eager to announce it.

Whilst initially underwhelmed and under-excited by our visit to the Romanian capital, the features listed above combined to make our stay a memorable one. In our experience, it beats similar sounding Budapest hands down!

Running in Bucharest

The marathon runners set out, in the chill of an autumnal Romanian morning, on their 42 kilometre journey.

Meanwhile, Huckleberry B and I were pacing up and down outside the Tocano coffee shop, waiting impatiently for the gates to open so we could chow down some breakfast and receive a much needed caffeine infusion.

After a ten minute delay, Tocano opened and we enjoyed a breakfast wrap each and an artisan coffee; caramel latte for Huckleberry and a mint forest cappuccino for me. I told you these guys love their coffee!

With our bellies satisfied and caffeine running joyously through our veins, we set off for a walk around the quiet streets of Bucharest on a Saturday morning. During our wanderings, we casually noticed a police presence and some blocked off streets, but thought nothing of it. There were some embassies in the region and we assumed some foreign VIPs were in town.

It was only when we asked a local gendarme for directions that we learned that the Bucharest Marathon was in progress.

“Which way?”

“That way.”

“Okay.”

We strolled down towards Calea Victoriei, wondering during our wandering whether we would see any runners.

“Look”, exclaimed my wife, “There’s the lead group!”

What were the odds? I’m not sure what the statistical chances were of us stumbling across the marathon course, from a perpendicular approach, just as the lead pack was passing, but they must have been astronomical. Particularly when you consider we didn’t even know the damn thing was even on!

We turned our heads to the left and watched the group of African runners, chasing the lead car, as they loped away.

A few minutes later, a white man ran towards us, at what appeared to be an easy pace, and passed us before disappearing into the distance.

Soon there were a multitude of marathoners passing our position. We maintained our ground and clapped them as they passed. Some, caught in their moment of conquest, gave us a thumbs up or clapped back. Others, to our surprise, crossed themselves. The fact that there was an Orthodox Church behind us may have, perhaps, accounted for that ritual.

In the end, we spent at least an hour watching the runners, joggers, trotters, stumblers and stragglers pass out position. On our walk back to our hotel, we noted the 13 kilometre sign attached to a lamp post. Two thoughts occurred to us: (1) some of the runners looked remarkably comfortable despite having already traversed about one-third of the course and remarkably content given the tortuous journey ahead; and (2) those who were already struggling were in for a world of pain.

As the marathoners immersed themselves in their day of triumph (irrespective of outcome) we went about the rest of our day in Bucharest.

For the record Duncan Koech, of Kenya, won the event in the world class time of 2 hours and 13 minutes (eerily similar to my best time for a half marathon) and the first female home was Almaz Gelena, from Ethiopia, in a great time of 2 hours and 42 minutes.

Walking in Bucharest

First impressions notwithstanding, Bucharest proved to be a beautiful city, particularly once we found ourselves in the Old Town, about a two kilometre walk from our hotel.

Like many Eastern European cities, the Old Town was distinguished by charming medieval structures with pitched roofs. Cobbled stones dominated.

My favourite walk, however, was on our second morning when we strolled past the University, adjacent to the Old Town, towards the Cismigiu Park. Constructed in French style – a multitude of green wooden chairs lining the paths – the gardens were beautiful. I enjoyed navigating the maze of paths, around huge tranquil lake, chatting gaily with Huckleberry B as we went.

A secondary benefit was that we burned off some calories – gained from eating too much Romanian sausage the night before – with every mile under our feet.

Nicolae Ceausescu

On the third day of our visit , we were fortunate to have the services of Kristine, our local guide.

Like almost every Romanian we spoke to, Kristine exhibited no reluctance to talk about her experience during the Communist era in which she grew up. Whilst not the first thing we learned, one of the most intriguing things she told us was that that she was employed by the State to play chess (presumably for the glory of România and the supremacy of the Communist system).

Ceausescu was certainly a fascinating Cold War figure. I have a vague memory of thinking favourably towards România as I was growing up in the 1980s. Indeed, when asked to select a country to represent, other than my own, during an underage drinking game in Tokyo, I chose România. I have been cracked my head trying to remember why. My best deduction is that I had just learned during 20th Century History Class that Ceausescu stood up to the Soviets and opposed the Russian crackdown during the Prague Spring of 1968; rendering Ceausescu a somewhat heroic figure.

I have since learned that when I was viewing Ceausescu as something of a Cold War hero in 1986 – side-by-side with Ronald Reagan and the fourth instalment of Rocky Balboa – conditions in Romania were at their most dire.

The State was rich and free of foreign debt, but the people were starving. Electricity was only available in the evening and the morning. Food was scarce.

Kristine took us to central Bucharest and pointed to the balcony of the former Communist Party building. It was there, on 21 December 1989, as Iron Curtain countries fell one-by-on, that Ceausescu gave his final speech.

Kristine described how Ceausescu began his rousing, nationalistic speech on the false assumption that the masses gathered before him, and the millions in their homes, were still on his side. Surrounded by advisers who feared telling him the truth, he had no reason to believe otherwise. But as the gathered throng responded to his patriotic words with hostility and anger, the penny dropped.

As Kristine invited us to do, I have watched the YouTube video of the speech and there is certainly a moment Ceausescu suddenly realises that the people are against him. A look of shock sweeps across his face.

After investigating means of escape, Ceausescu and his wife ultimately left the building, from the roof, by helicopter. He was, however, easily tracked down and subjected to a show trial.

Ceausescu was executed just three days later, on Christmas Day, 1989.

Later in the day, Kristine took us to see the huge Parliament House Ceausescu constructed, but never served in.

Built as a testament to Communism, the Parliament Building is immense. Kristine told us that that it housed the second largest number of people in the world, after the Pentagon. Whilst the building is clearly very impressive, it’s a shame about the beautiful neighbourhood which had to be demolished to accomodate it. It is also a shame, perhaps, that Ceausescu was executed before the building was completed.

Dracula’s Castle

Our last day in Bucharest saw us visit the fabled – and often fought over – region of Transylvania, with Kristine as our guide.

According to legend, Transylvania is the home of werewolves, vampires and, if you believe Mel Brooks, Frankenstein’s monster (even though Mary Shelley placed her story in Germany and never so much as hints at any Transylvanian tribulation).

In truth, however, Transylvania is a beautiful place; bordered by the Carpathian Mountains and replete with forests which are more likely to home cuddly little bears and cute little dears than a vicious werewolf or a blood-sucking vampire.

We enjoyed the drive through the spectacular country-side very much.

A visit to Transylvania, however, would not be complete without a stroll through Dracula’s Castle.

My last sentence, however, also contains a cheeky little myth.

Whilst Bram Stoker’s Dracula is loosely based upon Vlad the Impaler, the castle we were visiting did not belong to Vlad and nobody is even sure whether the legendary impaler ever visited the place. Kristine explained that an enterprising American tour guide met the demands of his market to visit Count Dracula’s Castle by creating the myth that the best preserved castle in Transylvania (that is; the one we were visiting) was associated with Dracula. The market, being the market, created a “truth” to match the myth.

That myth busted, I should add that a visit to Dracula’s Castle is worth the visit, its false premise notwithstanding.

Happy Birthday to Me

Whilst in Bucharest, I celebrated my birthday. It was significant because it was the last one before a BIG one!

Huckleberry B gave me a choice of venues and, just for the fun of it, I chose Excalibur. It had pretty much nothing to do with Romanian, unless you ignore the fact that the platter we were served featured – wait for it – sausages and cabbage!

But what made Excalibur different was that we weren’t given a fork; the thinking being that they didn’t have the luxury of forks in medieval times. So we were forced to either impale pieces of meat with a knife and stick in our mouths or use our hands. What fun!

Paris, Quito, Nah Trang, Nicaragua, Dubai, Boston, Cyprus, Hokkaido, Madeira, Laguna Beach and Bucharest; Huckleberry B has gone to great lengths to celebrate my birthday in exotic locations. I can’t thank her enough!

Moonriver

NEW YORK – July 2017

The Land of the Trump

Flying into LAX, both Huckleberry B and I were conscious that things had changed – just a little – since we last ventured this way.

Last October, when we visited California and Texas, the nation was exhibiting the nervous convulsions associated with trying to find some virtue in two candidates whom nobody liked. For three weeks, all we heard was profound hatred for the opposing candidate; not once did we hear full-throated advocacy for either party’s chosen representative.

During that period, we saw the final Presidential Debate live on TV with our Democratic friends in California. By the time we visited our Republican friends in Texas, James Comey had announced both that the FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of her private email server had been re-opened and that the said investigation had been re-closed. We safely exited American airspace a week before the election.

As we – and the whole world – now know, Donald Trump lost the popular vote, but won the election. Nothing in American politics has been conventional ever since.

As our Qantas A380 cruised across the Californian coast, bound for LAX, I glanced out the window and half expected to see a wheat field where some artistic farmer, with a satirical bent, may have ploughed his crop to form an immense image of President Trump greeting us to America…by flipping us the bird!

If reality had coincided with my wild imagination, would I have been shocked? Probably not. When everything you understood about the world is arse-about, you should only be surprised when something happens to occur, perchance, along conventional lines.

Only time would tell, however, whether our visit to the USA – land of the Donald and home to the discontent – would be dominated by Trumphernalia, or whether we would be able to enjoy our travels in a relatively Trump-free environment.

On Broadway

Thirteen Broadway shows in nine days, baby!

I think that’s a new record for Huckleberry B and me. And we loved it.

Here’s a brief review. You can skip it if you’re not interested in reading about theatre productions you haven’t seen. I accept there’s a ‘you had to be there’ quality about it. But if you love theatre, like we do, and you’re interested in what we saw, then please read on.

Sunday

We started on Sunday afternoon with a matinee production of ‘On Your Feet‘ which chronicles the rise of Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio. With very little expectation, we enjoyed it immensely. From Gloria’s migration from Cuba as a little girl; to the popularity of Miami Sound Machine in the mid-1980’s; to a horrible bus crash in 1990 which necessitated Gloria undergoing a lumbar fusion, the story was engaging and the music was pulsating. I’m a child of the 80’s and, whilst not my favourite group, the music brought back a lot of memories.

There was one moment during the show, however, which I will never forget because it epitomised the magic of live theatre. There was a scene in the first Act where Emilio is advocating the foundation of Miami Sound Machine’s music; Cuban rhythm with lyrics in English, not Spanish. His producer is resisting and Emilio launches into a passionate speech which ended with the words:

“I love this country and you had better get used to my face, because this is what an American looks like”.

I don’t know whether that line was written before or after Trump was elected, but the audience erupted into spontaneous applause accompanied by hooting and cheering. It was thrilling.

That evening, Huckleberry B and I saw ‘Beautiful; the Carole King Musical‘. We have seen it five times now – twice on Broadway and thrice in the West End – which is a measure of how much we cherish the show.

Monday

On Monday, we had lunch at Keen’s Steakhouse on West 36th Street before succumbing to the insidious slumber-inducing combination of jet lag and red wine and returning to our room at the Redbury on East 29th Street for an afternoon nap.

That evening, we returned to Times Square to see ‘Groundhog Day‘. Once again, I had no expectation. I enjoyed the movie many years ago despite – not because of – Bill Murray, whom I have never really liked very much.

By contrast, the musical was terrific. I found the actor playing the central role far more engaging than Mr Murray and there were some catchy tunes, clever twists in the tale and some mesmerising stage effects.

Tuesday

On Tuesday, we headed down to Greenwich Village – a journey of 20 blocks to the south – to have lunch at Carbone on Thompson Street, off Bleecker. On the way we strolled under the miniature Arc d’triomphe in Washington Square park and I softly sang the chorus to ‘It had to be you’.

Lunch at Carbone was wonderful. The amuse bouche of salami, garlic bread and the most delicious buffalo mozzarella was particularly lovely.

After lunch at Cabone, we once more battled the crowds in Times Square to see ‘Bandstand‘. Our minimal expectations were, again, easily surpassed. The story involved a group of WWII veterans – and one widowed wife of a soldier – who formed a band to compete to have their song used in a movie starring Frank Sinatra. The story was intriguing and the music was great.

In many musicals of yore, such as ‘Jersey Boys‘, the music is played by an orchestra in the pit below the stage, whilst the actors sing but merely mime playing their instruments. ‘Bandstand‘ is part of a recent trend we have noticed where the actors on stage play their instruments live. The impact is immense. I will long remember the bitter-sweet protest song, ‘Welcome Home‘, which dominates the climax to the story.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, Huck B and I enjoyed ‘Perfect Crime‘. The most extraordinary thing about this production is that it has been running for 30 years and the same actress, Catherine Russell, has been playing the lead role the entire time. She has only missed four performances in three decades – to attend siblings’ weddings – and performed the role over 12,000 times! Catherine entered the Guinness Book of Records some three years ago for the most performances of a single role. Now she is streets ahead. Will her record ever be beaten? I doubt it.

Unfortunately, the story was so complex – and the clues were so obtuse – that a viewer would have to watch the show 12,000 times to fully understand all the nuances! Indeed, the producers are so acutely aware of the complexity that they hand out an explanation sheet as you exit the theatre!

How was I, for example, expected to recognise that the “husband” was an imposter because we saw him casually eat some cake shortly after the play commences, only to learn – about 45 minutes later – that the real husband was severely diabetic?

That said, ‘Perfect Crime‘ was a very well acted play and it left us thinking for hours afterwards.

That evening, we became immersed in ‘A Bronx Tale‘. Produced by none other than Robert De Niro, the show is marketed as ‘Jersey Boys‘ meets ‘West Side Story‘. I personally found that a bit of a stretch, although the production did feature some Italian-American grittiness, a la ‘Jersey Boys‘, and an inter-racial relationship (Italian boy / Black girl) akin to ‘West Side Story‘. But there was neither a burgeoning band nor finger-snapping dancing.

That said, ‘A Bronx Tale‘ was a good show in its own right. We enjoyed the story and the guy playing Mafia boss, Sonny, was fantastic.

Unfortunately, our memory of the show will be forever tarnished by an unfortunate incident moments before the climax.

As the performers were launching into the final song of the show, Huckleberry B’s attention was very rudely interrupted by a middle-aged, female usher invading her personal space – not to mention her intimate imagination – and barking loudly in her ear. Huck B was so shocked, she didn’t know how to respond.

It emerged that the extremely rude usher was cautioning my beloved not to view her mobile phone during the show. Problem was, her phone was resting, idly, back in our hotel room. The truth is that the rotund gentleman to my left – also guilty of continuous ‘man-spreading’ and armrest hogging – was the culprit.

I think Huckleberry B handled the situation well. Rather than disturb the other theatre-goers (and potentially the actors) by causing a scene during the performance, she quietly (but firmly) confronted the usher on the way out and subsequently lodged a complaint with the manager.

Thursday

Thursday afternoon was a disaster.

After a bison burger lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill on West 51st Street, we rushed three blocks west and six blocks south to allegedly see a play called ‘Money Talks‘. Rushing into the theatre with mere minutes to spare, a young lady sauntered out of an office and asked casually whether we would like to buy some tickets. We explained that we already had tickets and asked where the theatre hall might be located. The young lady, looking a little perplexed, replied that there was no show today. When we showed her our tickets with today’s date, the less perplexed but more anxious young lady replied that the show for that afternoon had been cancelled several weeks before.

Now it was our turn to be perplexed. How could the show be cancelled several weeks before if we bought tickets that week?

There was, however, nothing to be gained by arguing the point; the show was not on today and there was nothing which could change that.

That evening we saw the ‘Marvellous Wondrettes‘; an off-Broadway production on the corner of 42nd Street and 9th Avenue. It wasn’t the highlight of our trip, but it was a bit of fun.

Friday

Sans-matinees, Huckleberry B and I saw ‘Waitress‘ in the evening. A sordid tale which involved adultery, allusions to domestic violence and plentiful American pie, the story was entertaining and included some memorable moments; but would rate neither as our favourite nor our most memorable experience.

Saturday

Compared to Thursday and Friday, our theatre-going experience on Saturday was a triumph.

After a hurried bowl of Ramen at Ippudo on West 51st Street, we relished the hugely entertaining Andrew Lloyd Webber production, ‘School of Rock‘. Like ‘Bandstand‘, the primary instruments – drums, lead guitar, bass guitar and keyboards – were played by the actors on the stage rather than by an orchestra in the pit. Unlike ‘Bandstand‘, however, said actors playing said instruments kids who appeared to be 12 years old. They were magnificent.

The story itself is not new; misfit pretends to be a teacher at an exclusive private school, for the money, and – rather than teach the children maths and science – he proceeds to meld them into a tight rock band to compete against the former band mates who shunned him in a Battle of the Bands competition. And along the way, the kids win the love and respect of their somewhat aloof parents.

But it worked and it was great. The multitude of kids in audience certainly concurred; although I did overhear one father remark to his sons during intermission, “okay, it’s a good show but it doesn’t mean you can be rude to your parents”!

That evening, we were fortunately just as entertained by ‘War Paint’, a tale which chronicles the bitter rivalry of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The story was fervently fascinating and the acting by the two leads was simply sublime. It was a great show and one which we will long remember.

Sunday

Sunday afternoon saw us love every minute of ‘The Book of Mormon‘ for the ninth time in four years. What can I say? We love it.

On Sunday evening we laughed along to ‘Newsical‘; which essentially pokes fun at current events thought satirical verse. There were many hilarious moments, but one of the funniest – and most telling – was George W Bush singing something akin to, “I know your didn’t like me much, but I’ve got one question for you all: how do you like me now?”

Laughter – some of it uncomfortable – abounded in the small theatre.

Monday

Our last day in New York was extraordinary, if for no other reason than we spent most of it in another State!

At 10.15 am we boarded an Amtrak train from Penn Station and headed south, through New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Wilmington, Delaware. There we met Tim & Elaine, whom we first met some eight years ago in Valparaiso in Chile. Soon enough we were strolling into Capers & Lemon, where our other friend, Dick, was awaiting our arrival. We first met Dick, and his late wife, in 2007 onboard Viking Burgundy on our way from Chalone-se-Soane to Avignon.

After a delightful lunch – replete with cheerful banter – we returned to the Joseph Biden Jnr Railway Station and caught the 4.15pm train back to Manhattan.

During the journey, Huck B got online and purchased tickets, again, to see ‘Money Talks’; the show we attempted to see earlier in the week, only to find that it had been cancelled. She’s nothing if not persistent, that beloved of mine!

Once at Penn Station, we scurried to the Davenport Theatre on West 45th to ensure that the play actually existed and would be performed that night. Once appropriately assured, we sauntered to West 46th where we enjoyed some extremely delicious and extraordinarily expensive sushi at Sushi of Gare.

Money Talks‘ – once we got to see it – was an entertaining play and certainty worth the effort. The story cleverly followed a greenback – represented by an old man in the persona of Benjamin Franklin dressed in 18th century garb with the imprint of a $100 bill – as it circulated amongst a myriad of characters played by two actors and an actress; punctuated by timely Benjamin Franklin quotes.

Our nine days in Manhattan were wonderful and we enjoyed the shows we saw immensely. ‘Beautiful‘ and ‘The Book of Mormon‘ can always be trusted to entertain and inspire. On this trip, the candidates for the award for unexpected gem are ‘Groundhog Day‘ and ‘Perfect Crime‘. And in a split decision by the two of us with a vote, the outcome is a tie!

We Be Walking

The Redbury Hotel is situated on East 29th Street near the corner of Madison Avenue which, if not named after a Founding Father, would have been called 4th Avenue.

Most of the shows we saw were adjacent to Times Square, which is not a square at all; but rather in the shape of an ‘X’ where Broadway runs diagonally across 7th Avenue between West 42nd and West 48th Streets.

Determined not to catch the subway and committed to getting some exercise through walking, Huckleberry and I typically navigated the 15 plus blocks north and 3 long blocks west to Times Square and back once in the afternoon and once in the evening. Whilst the 2.5 kilometres of one leg does not sound like much, negotiating four legs each afternoon and evening meant walking at least 10 kilometres per day; more when you factor in that some theatres were as far north as 51st Street or as far west as 9th Avenue.

We be walkin’; yes we’re walkin’; oh we’re walkin’; walkin’ all over town…

Factor in the heat of a North American summer, with temperatures typically between 30 and 40 degrees centigrade and we were getting quite a workout.

We be sweatin’; yes we’re sweatin’; oh we’re sweatin’; sweatin’ all through our shirts…

On the day we ate Bison Burgers for lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill, my journey was much longer than it needed to be. The stroll from 29th Street to the theatre on the corner of 42nd Street and 9th Avenue, for our evening show, seemed easy enough until I discovered, an hour before the show was scheduled to start, that I had left my reading glasses at the restaurant! Why do menu- designers insist upon using pale font which the optically challenged, such as I, have no chance of reading; particularly when you factor in dim mood lighting?

Eye-sight tribulations aside, I accepted responsibility for casually placing my glasses back on the table after selecting my meal, whereupon I forgot all about them, so I announced to Huckleberry B that I would make the long and treacherous journey up to 51st Street and back down to 42nd Street alone – the need for the extra blocks being solely my fault – and that I’d meet her at the theatre. And I had better leave immediately if I was to get there on time!

I be rushin’; yes I’m rushin’; oh I’m rushin’; rushin’ all up and down…

For me, the strolls back to the Redbury in the evening, through the steamy Manhattan night – the tunes from the show we had just enjoyed playing in our heads – were my favourite times

We be buzzin’; yes we’re buzzin’; oh we’re buzzin’; buzzin’ all the way back home…

Sometimes on those late night strolls, we would stop and buy a milk shake from Shake Shack on the corner of 36th Street and Broadway and sip away as we strolled back to the Redbury. Once we sat in Bryant Park – bordered by 42nd Street, the Avenue of the Americas, 41st Street and 5th Avenue – and shared a chicken kebab purchased from a grumpy street vendor…followed by a hot dog (aka ‘a dirty-water dog’) with mustard and ketchup. The illuminated upper reaches of the Empire State Building towered above us whilst sinister gothic buildings lurked in the shadows.

We be chillin’; yes we’re chillin’; oh we’re chillin’; chillin’ all through the night…

It’s funny the things which stick in the mind.

As much as I will cherish the memory of the shows we saw and the food we ate during our NYC sojourn, I suspect I will remember our nine nights in Manhattan just as much for those late evening walks back to our hotel, my beloved Huckleberry B by my side.

Leaving American Airspace

We’ve had a memorable time in the USA. As expected, Trump has been omnipresent; dominating the news channels and regularly raising his unsightly orange head during conversations with our fiends.

When we arrived, Donald Junior, and his meeting with the Russians during the campaign, was all over the news. Since then, Sean Spicer (Press Secretary), Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff) and Anthony Scaramucci (Communications Director) were all sacked or pushed to resign.

Foul-mouthed Scaramucci – aka ‘the Mooch’ – was my favourite; welcomed by the President on a Saturday and escorted from the building by White House security on a Thursday.

By the time we leave, news has broken that Special Counsel Mueller had empanelled the Grand Jury to investigate Russia’s meddling in the election.

In the meantime, we have learned about the potential terrorist attack in Sydney on the day we left on 15 July. Somebody tried to smuggle a bomb onto an Etihad plane, bound for Abu Dhabi, hidden inside a meat mincer. Fortunately, the meat mincer was too heavy and the bag was rejected at check-in. Most chilling for us, however, is that our early (since amended) travel plan had us fly the long way to NYC via Abu Dhabi on the targeted flight.

Hopefully, we will – once again – clear American airspace later tonight and land safely on Sunday morning.

Moonriver

LAOS – April 2017

Arriving in Style

 Our journey to south-east Asia was never more comfortable.

 As Huckleberry B and I strolled happily along the air bridge to the door to the Emirates A380, I was conscious that it was around 6pm on a Friday evening; around the time when I would ordinarily be competing with other city workers on Wynyard Station, platform 4, jockeying for positions to maximise my chance of securing a seat for the 45 minute ride home.

 By contrast, on this glorious evening, there was no need for me to monitor the position of those nearby to ensure that I had the best access to the door of the train. Our seats were secure. 

 And what a seat it was!

 Thanks to my beloved’s careful deployment of frequent flyer points, we were greeted at the door and ushered to the left, where our first class seats awaited.

We have never flown in such luxury. Huckleberry B and I. agree that Emirates out-classed Etihad and Singapore Airlines. In addition to some high quality food, and an excellent movie selection, we even enjoyed the bliss of a warm mile-high shower; albeit limited to 5 minutes!  

Truly an experience to remember! 

Luang Prabang

We arrived in Bangkok at around 4am Sydney time and hustled to an airport hotel to get some sleep. I was more successful in this endeavour than Huck B.

Then we were up again and back to the airport to fly to Luang Prabang in northern Laos.

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO heritage city, lies in the valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s a beautiful Indo-Chinese city replete with quaint cottages, French colonial villas, temples and majestic mountain views.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence; a truly inspired choice by my beloved.

The grounds are dominated by a central pavilion and our villas constructed in French colonial style; two-storey, high ceilings, pitched roof and an upstairs breeze-way. Exotic Asian trees flourish between the buildings and sit in agreement with the carefully manicured lawns and well constructed walkways. 

Upon entering the residence, I had assumed that we were staying at some restored relic from colonial times. I was, therefore, surprised when Huck B told me the resort was less than 10 years old. My compliments to the architect and the gardener! The place looked like it had been there forever.

What made our stay a true delight, however, was the food served at La Belle Époque. The Laotian tasting menu was simply superb, as were the French inspired dishes. 

Huckleberry B and proudly boast that we travel for food. We regularly congratulate each other for choosing a spouse with a love for indulgent dining. La Belle Époque at the Luang Say Residence measured up well.

The Tuk Tuk Driver with the Red Shirt

 We spent a lovely morning walking the sweaty streets of Luang Prabang.

 It’s a lovely little village. We saw quaint little terrace houses, in indo-Chinese style, and two temples. Monks in orange robes sauntered by. The stroll along the Mekong River was delightful.

The highlight was a climb to the top of Mount Phusi, which required us to conquer 330 steps. According to legend, the mountain was moved from Ceylon to Luang Prabang by the monkey King, Hanuman. A stupa, atop Mount Phusi, was constructed by King Anourat in 1804.

Following our tour of Luang Prabang we sought to find our way home…and that’s where the trouble started.

 We understood – incorrectly as it turned out – that our Resort operated a shuttle service on the hour, every hour, from a position outside the post office. As it turns out, the shuttle was only on offer after 6pm.

We waited, in vain, for 10 minutes before Huckleberry B headed to the tourist information centre to see whether she could call the Resort to determine whether we were lurking, with intent, in the wrong place.

In the meantime, I waited at the Post Office to see whether the shuttle would make an untimely appearance.

As I waited, a swarm of Tuk Tuk drivers offered their services. Nothing unusual about that. We were in south-east Asia, after all.

 What was unusual, however, was the offer the Tuk Tuk driver with the red T-shirt made to sweeten the deal.

 “You want some weed? Or opium maybe?”

At first I was stunned. Did I hear correctly? Did I look like a dude who would be cruising the mean streets of Luang Prabang – at midday – looking for artificial stimulants?

When my red-shirted entrepreneur repeated the question, I simply raised my hand – showing him my open palm – and walked away.

Red shirt remained in my presence, not far outside my personal space, for an extended time. I guess he was waiting to see whether I would rethink my priorities in life and change my overly conservative mind. He only accepted defeat when Huckleberry B returned. 

Thankfully, B had persuaded a driver from Luang Say Residence to collect us and return us to the safety of the resort

We learned, later, that the Tuk Tuk drivers of Luang Prabang are notorious for their secondary business. Unfortunately for them, we did not add to their revenue stream for FY17.

Moonriver

 

 

LONDON – December 2016

Theatreland

Back to West End

After disembarking from P&O Arcadia, I felt my excitement grow as our driver took us back to London.

The four productions Huck B and I enjoyed during our West End Week End entree, had certainly whetted our appetite for the main course.

Nine nights / ten days lay ahead of us. What adventures may come?

A Love for the Theatre

I love those moments, sitting in the audience, just before the lights go down.

I imagine the actors standing off stage – perhaps pacing nervously – readying themselves to transport the audience to another place through storytelling. Or the jaded actor, stealing themselves to deliver the same performance they had given for eight performances per week for six months, with as much vigour and integrity as their first performance (or their last).

I think of the writer, crafting a story. Working and re-working the script because it stinks; and because it continues to stink right up to the moment when it doesn’t stink anymore because it has become something magical.

I look around the old theatre and think about all the productions which have gone before. All the actors. All the directors. And all the audience members, like us, looking to be entertained for several hours.

And I look at the faces around me. Is there a young writer; looking for inspiration? Or, perhaps, an old one? Could the crowd even include that most daring of person; the budding actor who yearns for the spotlight of the stage.

As my mind wanders, my excitement grows. Suddenly, the theatre is dark and the magic begins!

Wednesday

On Wednesday, we celebrated our return to the West End by having lunch at Delauney on Aldwych Street with our dear friends, Robin and Peter. We met Rob and Peter onboard Seabourne Odyssey on our way from Dubai to Rome via, Oman, Egypt and Israel. The food was delightful, but the company was better. The 1994 Penfolds Bin 707, Huckleberry B brought from Sydney didn’t hurt either.

We love The Book of Mormon so much that we devoted Wednesday night to seeing it again! Why not?

Thursday

Thursday afternoon saw our toes tapping at the Piccadilly Theatre on Denman Street as we sang along (in our heads at least) to Jersey Boys.

Afterwards we joined our cheeky nephews for a splendid dinner at Bob Bob Ricards on Upper James Street. Bob Bob Ricards is known for having a button on each table which may be pressed whenever more champagne is required…but we did not partake on this occasion.

Friday

By virtue of some sterling efforts on Huckleberry B’s part, we secured tickets to A Christmas Carol at the Arts Theatre on Great Newport Street for our Friday matinee.

On every trip to the West End, we stumble across an unexpected gem. A Christmas Carol was an early contender for this trip’s gem.

The production starred Simon Callow, whom readers might know as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In true Dickensian style, the play was a one man show. Simon narrated the story and conveyed both the voice and the personality of each character.

The acting was just sublime. Such a great experience!

Saturday

Saturday was New Year’s Eve.

We celebrated in the afternoon by seeing a matinee performance of Motown at the Shaftesbury Theatre, followed by lovely bowl of ramen and some gyoza at Tonkotsu on Dean Street.

That night, we left our warm room at the Academy Hotel on Gower Street a little after 10pm to venture to Victoria House on Southampton Row for a Blitz Party in the ‘air raid shelter’!

In keeping with the 1940’s ‘Blitz Party’ theme, my beloved wore a dress in the style of the Andrews Sisters and I wore braces over my shoulders and my Fedora on my head.

Once in the air raid shelter – actually the basement of the building – the swing music dominated. The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B was seen to Straighten up and Fly Right. Everybody was Puttin’ on the Ritz.

There were men in uniform. There were women in uniform. There were bovver boys. There seemed to be an awful lot of English girls dressed as French girls.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the real ‘blitz’ experience occurred when we left the party, shortly after counting down the new year.

As we left the ‘air raid shelter’, and walked onto the street, we heard distant rumbling, loud banging and the smell of gunpowder in the night air; London was being hammered by the NYE fireworks two or three kilometres away. It was as close as Huckleberry B and I will ever be to experiencing the real Blitz.

 

Sunday

New Year’s Day was a Sunday.

During the afternoon, Huckleberry B and I went on a tour to see the ‘Seven Noses of Soho’, starting at Covent Garden Station and ending at Admiralty Arch, via three English pubs.

What are the seven noses? In 1997, an artist named Rick Buckley sculpted a number of replicas of his own nose and glued them to London landmarks. Only seven are said to remain and our guide, Peter, thinks he has found them all. The most famous is on Admiralty Arch and has developed its own mythological status; some say it’s Napoleon’s nose!

We enjoyed a lovely walk looking for the celebrated noses, which would have been even better had the tour not taken place on the only afternoon it rained during our stay!

During the evening, we celebrated the advent of 2017 by watching The Million Dollar Quartet at the Southbank Centre. This was another unexpected gem. The story centred around an afternoon of 4 December 1956 when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins all happened to visit Sun Studios at the same time and ended up conducting a jam session. The musicians were exceptional and we enjoyed the performance very much.

If you are wondering (as we did) who Carl Perkins might be; he wrote and had a hit with Blue Suede Shoes before Elvis!

Wednesday

On Wednesday evening, we walking north on Gower Street to Euston before heading east on Euston Road to the King’s Cross Theatre, where we sat down to experience Lazarus.

We are not sure what to say about Lazarus.

Huckleberry B kindly purchased the tickets on Wednesday morning because she saw the play was co-written by David Bowie and featured some of his music. My beloved knew that I liked Bowie’s songs. What I had never previously explained to her, however, was that I liked his mainstream music, but was not so enamoured by his weirder stuff.

Unfortunately, Lazarus – a story about a reclusive, alcoholic alien who can neither die nor return to his home planet – was positioned closer to the weird end of the Bowie spectrum. Too much of it made too little sense; Bowie out-David Lynching David Lynch.

There were, however, three positives. First, there was no intermission. Second, the show did feature three of Bowie’s better songs. Third, the main character – even if we didn’t much warm to said character – was played by Michael C Hall, who you might know as the elder Fisher brother in Six Feet Under or as the title character in Dexter.

Thursday

With the memory of Lazarus slowly fading, we embarked upon a double-feature day on Thursday.

First we lapped up a matinee performance of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Aldwych Theatre, which we have seen before and cherish deeply. One of the best constructed Juke-Box Musicals we have seen; even better than Jersey Boys.

Then we took a chance on The Dresser at the Duke of York Theatre on St Martin’s Lane. We are pleased to report another contender for the unexpected gem award. The story circles around the relationship between an ageing, grumpy and narcissistic Shakespearean actor (aka a curmudgeon) and his loyal, but bitchy, assistant (aka ‘The Dresser’).

The dialogue was very clever and the acting was positively brilliant.

Friday

Sadly, our last day in London arrived…

To keep the melancholy at bay, we were grateful to enlist the assistance of our nephews who happily joined us for lunch. Given that it was a work day, Huckleberry B and I walked four kilometres to Burger & Lobster on Threadneedle Street in the City to spend some more time with our entertaining nephews.

Unsurprisingly, we celebrated our last evening in our favourite holiday destination by going to the theatre one last time. And which production at the honour? Beautiful: The Carole King Musical!

Moonriver

THE BALTIC – December 2016

The Baltic Sunset

In the northern summer of 2011, Huckleberry B and I embarked upon a Norwegian cruise adventure which took us along the northern coast all the way to North Cape (the most northern point of Europe) and further north to Spitzbergen (at 78 degrees north – and well within the Arctic Circle – the most northern permanently inhabited place in the world).

For one entire week, we did not see darkness. Each ‘night’, at around 1am, the sun would descend in a graceful arc, hover above the horizon, before commencing its inexorable ascent.

We have now had a glimpse of the other side of the coin.

Our Christmas cruise onboard P&O Arcadia took us to Gothenburg (Sweden), Copenhagen (Denmark), Oslo (Norway), Zeebrugge (Belgium) and Le Havre (France). Given that we did not travel as far north as we did during the summer of 2011, the sun did make it above the horizon and we had around 6 hours of sunlight per day. But the sun was shy and never stood proudly in the sky.

In Oslo, Huck B and I strolled along the harbour in search of a good fish restaurant for lunch. We paused at an open square and embraced the vista across the water. Low purple clouds hovered over the rippled water. Remarkably, the water in the harbour matched the colour of the clouds, save for the aspects facing the low sun, which were emblazoned a brilliant orange. It was a beautiful late evening scene which would ordinarily cause us to reflect upon the day and to look forward to the night…except it was 1.30pm and we were on our way to lunch!

A Tale of Three Kitchens

It was the worst of meals and the pretty good of meals…

I’ll explain my crypticness in a moment; but first some recent history.

Almost exactly 12 months ago, Huckleberry B and I were sitting across a dining table from a gentleman named Walter onboard Amadara on the Mekong River. Huck B mentioned that she had already booked a suite onboard P&O Arcadia for the following Christmas. To this day, we both remember Walter – who was employed in the cruise industry – resting his head on two fingers and expressing profound concern over whether P&O would meet our high(ish) expectations. Walter knows his cruise market segments!

On the first day of our Christmas cruise to the Baltic, Walter’s worrisome whinnings appeared rather warranted.

The welcome ‘lunch’ of dry pastry items was unappealing (to say the least).

And dinner was even worse.

It was almost as though every step – from storage, to preparation, to cooking, to presentation – was designed to drain the natural produce of any hint of taste. Somebody had certainly purloined the taste from my sirloin. Thank goodness for the mustard close at hand! And Huckleberry B’s salmon fillet was as dry as a leather wallet. There was nothing she could do about that.

What made my meal worse was the side heap of limp, sad-looking, pale green string beans dumped unceremoniously on the side of my plate. It looked like some clinically depressed string beans had committed mass suicide. Glancing across to Huckleberry B’s plate, I was horrified to see that the epidemic of string bean self-harm and spread to her plate. Looking around the restaurant, I saw that almost everyone – no matter what they ordered – was afflicted by the same horrid mess of sickly green suicide beans.

 

Other than the misguided, almost totally inedible BBQ onboard Celebrity Xpedition in 2008 – a mere aberration committed in the darkness of an open deck – our first dinner onboard P&O Acardia was the worst we had experienced at sea.

So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that the standard of food improved dramatically thereafter. There were two factors which made a material contribution to this outcome. The first is that, other than one night, we chose to pay a little extra and dine in the specialty restaurants, Ocean Grill and Sindhu rather than the main dining room, Meridian, where the culinary catastrophy had been committed.

The second factor was that Huckleberry B wrote a letter to the Captain! There’s an attractive coffee table book outlining P&O’s history in our suite. I’m looking forward to a new chapter in the next edition recounting how my wife’s epic letter entered P&O folklore!

The food at Ocean Grill, inspired by Marco Pierre White, was pretty good. But the food at Sindhu was great. The menu was designed by Atul Kochhar, the first Indian Chef to win a Michelin Star. That said, it was never quite spicy enough for our taste.

For the sake of completeness, I need to stress that all the staff worked very had to meet our expectations. Our time onboard P&O Arcadia was, despite the questionable beginning, a positive experience…even if Walter did not think we were members of P&O’s target market segment.

The Captain’s Gambit

It was the worst of cruise days and the best of cruise days.

P&O Arcadia was originally scheduled to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day cruising slowly south, through the North Sea, before visiting Amsterdam on Boxing Day and Zeebugge on the 27th.

That was before Storm Barbara intervened!

Naughty Storm Barbara was scheduled to sweep across the North Atlantic – from west to east – cause the inhabitants of northern England and Scotland to whinge about the bloody weather and grumble about the damn inconvenience; before causing choppy dangerous seas in the North Sea and the Baltic beyond.

Our Captain, in whom we placed our trust, quickly recognised that docking in Amsterdam was no longer viable because its port is unprotected. He resolved, therefore, to bring Zeebrugge (and nearby Bruges) a day forward and to add Le Havre (France) to the end of the cruise.

The other decision the Captain made was more risky; he decided to head as fast as P&O Arcadia could muster on Christmas Eve in order to drop anchor, in protected waters, off the coast of Norfolk. His intention was to give his passengers a safe and calm Christmas.

The price, however, was a god awful Christmas Eve as our vessel – and all who sailed within it – was rocked and rolled, bullied and buffeted, pummelled and punished all through the night of the 23rd, all through the day of the 24th and into the early hours of the 25th. Christmas Eve was far from a silent night!

I am pleased to report, however, that I have still claim that I am never, ever been sick at sea. (What never? Well, hardly ever…). But it was a close run thing!

We heard that the Captain received a number of complaints about the Christmas Eve ordeal. Huck B and I, however, have nothing but praise; he delivered a beautifully calm Christmas Day which would not have been possible if P&O Arcadia remained at the mercy of Storm Barbara and the temperamental, spiteful North Sea.

There was, however, a downside for us; by cancelling our day in Amsterdam, we missed our tour of Anne Frank House, which I was looking forward to very much.

Moonriver

LONDON – December 2016

London Re-Calling

England may be a whinging nation, but it’s a great one too. The land of Richard Curtis, Gilbert & Sullivan, Freddie Mercury, Basil Fawlty. Sir Ian Botham’s batting…Sir Ian Botham’s bowling for that matter.

Outside Sydney, London is our favourite city in the world. At the start of this trip, we had but 48 hours to savour all the perks a West End weekend had to offer, before travelling down to Southampton to board P&O Arcadia on the Monday. But we would return…

We used our 48 hours well; brunch at the Wolseley Hotel on Piccadilly, a matinee performance of Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre, dinner at Brown’s Bar on St Martin’s Lane, The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre, breakfast at Lantana on Charlotte Place, lunch at Yauatcha on Broadwick Street, a matinee performance of Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre and an evening performance, sans dinner, of A Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre.

We love, love, love the West End!

The Book of Mormon is our favourite musical of all time. One day we will visit London and it won’t be on anymore and something will be missing. We’ll feel sad, but it’s super-easy not to feel that way. We’ll turn it off, like a light switch. We’ll go flick; it’s a nifty little Mormon trick. Turn-it-off.

Man! We love that show.

If we are giving an honest review, we’d admit to being disappointed by Dead Funny. The half-empty theatre suggests that we are not alone in that assessment. I think we may have been somewhat misled by the title. Whilst it had its (rare) moments, the story wasn’t very funny at all. Unless, of course, you find a dying marriage and a Benny Hill appreciation society conducting a wake to make his death, funny. Oh well, we can’t get it right all the time.

Thankfully, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Comedy About a Bank Robbery were both hilarious, laugh-a-minute affairs. Both are produced by the Mischief Theatre Company, responsible for The Play that Goes Wrong, which we have been raving about since we saw it two years ago.

Our West End weekend was but an entree to the main course; ten days in London before and after our cruise to a wintery Baltic Sea.

Lantana

Strolling down Charlotte Street, on a chilly London pre-Christmas Sunday morning, Huckleberry B and I were in search of some good coffee. There are a multitude of Cafe Nero, Costa, Pret a Manger (and even Starbucks) outlets throughout the town, but – as I said – it was good coffee we were looking for.

And so we went in search of Lantana, a small cafe run by some Australians, about which we had read.

After a brief, unsuccessful search of Charlotte Street, we remembered that Lantana was situated on Charlotte Place. Looking around, the situational relationship between Charlotte Street and Charlotte Place was not obvious to us. So, attracting the attention of a man walking his dog, I asked for directions.

Oh, you’d be looking for Lantana“, the man said spontaneously, “follow me.”

We were greatly encouraged by the implicit endorsement. Even the man’s dog was wagging his tail and nodding his head in the cafe’s support.

Further corroboration was soon to be found when we saw half a dozen would-be Lantana-ites queuing to enter.

Not dissuaded by the wait, we stood on the cobbled stones in the narrow lane and stomped our feet and clapped our mittened hands. Thankfully, the wait was not too oppressive and we were soon taking off our overcoats, gloves and caps and perusing the breakfast menu.

Glancing around, I was surprised to find we were dining with the cool crowd. Some elegant young Chinese women sat to my left, sipping on their lattes. To my right, two arty looking couples enjoyed breakfast together. In the corner, there were three young women who – if not actual Kardashians – might have been friends of the Kardashians. Later, a handsome young man sat next to us; his snow white face framed by black woollen jumper and black woolly hair.

The food at Lantana was exceptional. Huckleberry B enjoyed the breakfast burger (with brioche buns) and I devoured the Haloumi salad with chorizo sausage.

And the coffee? Much better than the insipid liquid dispensed by the chains mentioned above, but perhaps not fully matching the hype.

Moonriver

 

THE UNITED STATES – October 2016

Birth-Month Festivities

The Pink Sombrero

They came from far and wide to celebrate my birthday,  though none had ventured as far from home as us.

Two-point-five hours from Sydney to Auckland and then nigh on another twelve to Los Angeles, before embarking on a two hour drive through Southern California to Mission Viejo where our dear friends, Ed and Susan, were awaiting our arrival.

We met Ed and Susan in 2009 whilst waiting to embark upon Diamond Princess for a cruise from Beijing to Bangkok. Given that neither Ed nor Huckleberry B had ever met a stranger in their lives, they hit it off immediately. Susan and I are cast in supporting roles whenever Ed and Huck B get together to engage in chat and banter. Ed’s a very funny man, delivering caustic barbs at every opportunity; followed by a wicked smile and the words “I’m terrible, I’m terrible.”

In any event, my birth-month festivities began almost immediately…but not before a much needed, much appreciated and well deserved long, deep sleep. Bliss!

Refreshed and restored, celebrations began in earnest on Saturday night when Huck B, our two gracious hosts and I sat down to smash some Mexican food, while the sun set over the man-made lake at Mission Viejo. Expecting to smash the food proved, however, to be optimistic given that the meals were immense; particularly Susan’s chicken salad. Ultimately, therefore, it was the Mexican food which smashed us!

I did, however, enjoy my chicken burritos and we all sampled Ed’s fajitas, which were excellent.

I made the mistake, however, of sitting with my back to the kitchen. This proved a critical error of judgment, on my part, because I neither saw nor did I hear the approach of the Mexican band carrying an immense pink sombrero accompanied by a tiny sundae adorned with a lone candle. The waiters were already by my side when the festive sombrero was planted on by balding head and raucous singing began.

Ed, Susan and my beloved all joined the chorus with gusto; causing the colour of my cheeks to match the sombrero.

Laguna Beach Surprise

The next day – though still afflicted by some nagging time zone asymmetry – we piled into Ed’s car and traversed the manageable distance to Laguna Beach. Though the journey was short, I still managed to fall into a deep sleep – replete with weird dreams making absolutely no sense – which represented a recurring pattern during the early days of my celebratory month.

And so it was – through sleepy eyes and a slumbering brain – that I tried to process the fact that although there were only four in our merry gang, nine seats were assembled around our table at the Laguna Beach Hotel seafood restaurant. To be honest, I assumed the seats would be occupied by friends of our hosts, if I managed to think about it at all…

Soon enough, however, a cheeky smile appeared on Ed’s lips as Huckleberry B looked over my shoulder and bounced happily out of her chair. I had, once more, foolishly placed myself with my back to the entrance, so I (still) had no idea what the hell was going on. Once out of my seat, however, I saw a joyous sight: our old friend, Irene, was toddling towards us with a grin bigger than her face, accompanied by her daughter Michelle and her son-in-law, Joe.

(When describing Irene as old, I do so deliberately because she is 89 years of age…in addition to being somebody we have known for many years).

When greeting Irene, I remarked that she had come a long away for my birthday. But Joe quickly reminded me that she had moved from San Mateo (near San Francisco) to Pasadena.

I was truly surprised by Huckleberry B’s conniving. Dumbfounded would be more accurate!

But there were still two seats unaccounted for. My brain instinctively conducted an audit of our catalogue of American friends to identify who else might live in Southern California. The results were inconclusive, primarily because my data on where most of our American friends actually lived was incomplete.

While conducting this mental exercise – and struggling to extract information from the deepest recesses of my quiescent mind – I felt an arm around my rounded shoulders and saw a grinning face dominating my field of vision. Wendy! Oh my Gosh!

Huckleberry B and I met Wendy as recently as last December when cruising the Mekong River from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. She was but one of the many Americans on that trip who assured us that the Trump phenomena was a joke which would soon be over…

In any event, I could scarcely believe my red eyes. Was I still in a jet-lag induced coma, or was this really happening!

In any event, Wendy explained that she lived in reasonable proximity, at Playa de Rey.

With our cast of carousing diners complete, festivities were renewed, culminating in another round of joyous singing and the biggest chocolate cake any of us had ever seen!

Amongst the Vines in Temecula

The next day – the joys of our Laguna Beach lunch still warming our souls – my birthday caravan rolled out of Mission Viejo and trundled, ninety minutes later, into the wine country of Temecula. Positioned in the rear passenger seat, my brain resolved that our journey represented a good time, once again, to descend into sleep. More senseless dreams punctuated by snoring so loud that it woke me up, before returning to my restless slumber.

Once in Temecula, however, I forced myself to wake up and digest the sights around me; beyond the Old Town, along the highway, amongst the rolling hills, where the grapevines grow…

The countryside reminded me more of the Barossa Valley in South Australia than the Hunter Valley, closer to home, in New South Wales. The majority of the vineyards appeared to be positioned either side of Rancho California Road, which meandered through the Valley like an untamed grapevine unfurling towards the horizon. Stately wineries, mostly in a Spanish style, sat in harmony with vines which migrated across the hills.

Ed told us that the Temecula wine region was looked down upon by the more established wineries in Napa and Sonoma, but I think the young challenger was charming and enjoys great potential.

Soon Ed turned his vehicle towards the right and, disembarking, we looked for Ponte Resturant. We experienced some mild, short-lived confusion, when the hotel staff pointed us towards the restroom, rather than the restaurant! But we found Ponte soon enough.

And when we did, more surprise guests lay in wait for my arrival; John and Noelene, whom we met on our epic journey to Antarctica during the Christmas / New Year period of 2009 / 2010. But whereas there were just two of them 6 years ago, now there were five and John and Noelene soon introduced us to their three children, Noah (5), Isla (3) and little Jema (9 months).

The family had travelled from Ventura to join us for my (ongoing) birthday celebrations.

We had a great time eating, drinking and generally carousing under the shade sails at Ponte. Young Noah and Isla proved, in particular, to be entertaining lunch companions. Huckleberry B gave them each a clip-on Koala as a present. Isla, for reasons which were not explained, named her Koala “Bunk” and repeatedly reminded me of this fact by thrusting her little Koala toward my face and proclaiming: “his name is Bunk!”.

Soon, little Bunk was the subject of a game of hide-and-seek where Bunk was hidden and we, after re-opening our eyes, had to find him. When my turn came, I clipped Bunk to my right ear. Whenever Noah and Isla pointed to my ear and screeched “he’s there“, I turned my head (temporarily obscuring Bunk from their view), looked searchingly behind me and asked plaintively “where?“, causing Noah and Isla to jump up and down, gesticulate wildly and scream “there!”.

Not since the Underlings were toddlers had I had so much fun playing games with young children.

Relaxing in Mission Viejo

After a night at the charming Europa Inn, we visited a couple of vineyards in Temecula, a few shops in the Old Town before heading back to Ed and Susan’s house in Mission Viejo.

Huckleberry B and I agree with Ed and Susan that they have a lovely little home in Southern California. Situated in a peaceful gated retirement community, Castor del Sol, the homely bungalow is surrounded by trees and looks out over a valley to some tall rolling hills beyond. Susan has named the cluster of houses which occupy the distant slopes as her Amalfi Coast.

We spent the days which followed chatting and enjoying each other’s company, although the peaceful environment was interrupted on the Wednesday night by the Presidential Debate, which caused much consternation.

I am enormously grateful to Ed and Susan for becoming very willing and hyper-enthusiastic partners-in-surprise-celebratory-crime with my beloved Huckleberry B. Not only did they research suitable venues, they even travelled to Laguna Beach and Temecula in advance of our visit to personally ensure the restaurants were up-to-scratch. Being relatively new to the area themselves, it was important not to take any reckless chances.

Never in the history of my birth-month celebrations had such a highly organised conspiracy been perpetrated!

Cruising Along the Barbary Coast

A Week of Unparalleled Non-Adventure

Allow me to get one thing straight at the outset; our weekend onboard Ruby Princess was never intended to be a week of adventure.

There was nothing akin to trekking in the Himalayas or wending our way between the icebergs of Antarctica. This was always going to be a week of relaxation when we did as little as possible.

Most days involved getting out of bed, having breakfast, doing nothing, attending the morning trivia quiz, doing nothing, attending the afternoon trivia quiz, doing nothing, meeting Ed and Susan for dinner and ending the day by doing nothing.

For the record, our cruise took us from San Pedro (near Los Angeles) north to San Francisco; before heading south again and visiting Santa Barbara, San Diego and the Mexican port of Ensenada. Then it was back north again to disembark at San Pedro.

Huckleberry B and I had a lovely week together; but we didn’t do very much!

One More Birth-MonthSurprise

There was, however, one surprise awaiting me in the celebratory month of Pete-Tober.

Huck B and I were hosting Ed and Susan in our suite at the aft of Ruby Princess – overlooking her tumultuous wake – when there was a knock at the door. Assuming it was our room steward coming to enquire whether there was anything we needed, I paid little attention. I was, therefore, flummoxed when, glancing over my shoulder, I saw Charlene’s grinning face walking towards me.

Huckleberry B and I first met Charlene in 2009 during our early morning transfer from Beijing to the port which lay some two hours away, preparatory to boarding Diamond Princess to sail south to Bangkok (serendipitiously the same cruise where we met Ed and Susan).

During that long drive from Beijing, we also met Charlene’s husband, Jerry. Sadly, Jerry passed away several years ago, a suspected victim of exposure to Agent Orange during his period of service in Vietnam.

It was great to see Charlene again. She had lost a lot of weight since we last saw her, a product, she says, of her mourning. But she looked happy and entertained us with her stories during our week onboard Ruby Princess. She explained that she had adjusted to the new phase in her life, although we noticed she became teary, from time to time, when telling a story about her deceased husband.

Eating-Out in San Francisco

After a lazy day at sea, Ruby Princess docked in San Francisco.

This was a day of animated anticipation for Ed and Susan because they had arranged a lunch with their old friends from Los Gatos, where they lived before moving to Mission Viejo. Huckleberry B and I were honoured to be included in the festivities.

So, mid-morning, we left the ship and started strolling along Embarcadero towards Market Street. Along the way we encountered a homeless man walking towards us wearing a heavy overcoat. He must have have felt hot, however, because he had unbuttoned his overcoat; thus exposing every swinging part of the body which lay beneath.

Welcome to San Francisco!

Before joining Ed and Susan for their reunion lunch, however, Huckleberry B had a cunning surprise in store…

Stopping off at the Blue Bottle Cafe at the ferry terminal for a takeaway coffee, Huck B and I walked the short distance to the Robert Half office on California Street. The young lady behind the desk looked a tad perplexed when my beloved announced that she had a coffee delivery for AL..and the coffee recipient looked astounded when she entered the reception area to find her aunt and uncle standing there!

Our niece knew we were in town – and dinner was arranged for the early evening – but she did not expect an office visit.

We chatted with AL for awhile – thus interrupting her working day – before heading off to Kuleto’s on Powell Street for the lunch. We had a lovely time with Ed & Susan’s friends whilst enjoying some lovely Italian food.

After a stroll through San Francisco’s fabled Chinatown (much celebrated in story and song) and a coffee at Starbucks (much maligned by bitter experience), we joined AL and her husband, M, for dinner at the Wayfarer’s Tavern, where we engaged in animated chat.

A stroll back to Ruby Princess capped off a lovely day in the City by the Bay.

Seafood Lunch in Santa Barbara

Another day another leisurely lunch.

Home of the rich and famous – and fleeting home for the idle and lazy – Santa Barbara is a charming city with a village atmosphere. We were told that the likes of Oprah, Ellen and Portia, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn and Kirk Douglas live in the hills which arc around the town and sometimes venture down to the restaurants frequented by the common people.

I adopted the covert sharp eye of a secret agent, but failed to spot anybody famous. I would have loved to tell Mr Martin that I enjoyed his performance in movies like Parenthood and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And should I have stumbled across Kirk Douglas, I would have loved to tell him that I was always more a fan of his son, so it’s probably better that I didn’t.

Absent a chance encounter with a star of stage or screen, Huckleberry B and I settled for lunch with Ed and Susan!

(For the avoidance of doubt, the last paragraph was, of course, a cheap joke and offered in partial retaliation for Ed’s onslaught of teasing remarks we have endured over a two week period!)

 

When we located and entered the Enterprise Fish Company Restaurant on State Street, we found – to no surprise whatsoever – that Ed had befriended two random strangers seated adjacent to the table he and Susan were occupying. They looked, for all the world, like two locals enjoying a meal, dressed down in their activity wear and caps. It turned out, however, to be a fortuitous meeting. As it transpired, the female stranger Ed befriended was the general manager of the restaurant; enjoying a quick lunch with her brother after they had ascended and descended one of the nearby tall hills for fun and recreation.

And the result? Two bowls of complimentary lobster bisque, thank you very much!

The lunch at Enterprise Fish Company was delightful as we were joined by two more of Ed and Susan’s friends who had moved from Los Gatos.

We had a lovely time together.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Little Chopper and his Frisbees

Huckleberry B and I rounded out our journey to United States by flying from Los Angeles to Dallas Fort Worth where we were greeted by our dear friend Stephen.

We met Stephen and his cheeky wife, Sharon, in 2007 when enjoying our first river cruise through Eastern France to Avignon.

We were privileged, once again, to be invited into our friends’ home where we stayed for four nights.

Whilst we were looking forward to our time with Sharon and Stephen, neither Huckleberry B nor I anticipated that we would also make a new friend.

Whilst perhaps uncertain about at us at first, little Chopper – a Schnauzer Terrier – proved to be charming host. We both fell in love with him and will miss him when we leave.

Chopper’s favourite game is frisbee. Unfortunately, my frisbee skills were sub-standard at my first attempt and Chop Chop, clearly dissatisfied with my dismal performance, delivered a stinging rebuke and unilaterally terminated the game and headed back inside.

Appropriately chastened, I learned that I was required to stand in the middle of the yard with up to 10 frisbees in my hand. Chopper instructed me to toss one frisbee to one end of the large yard which he would chase and catch. He would then run back towards me, drop the frisbee from his mouth and hurtle towards the other end of the yard, reaching maximum velocity as he passed my stationary position. It was then my job to time my next frisbee throw so that Chopper could track the frisbee’s path over his shoulder and time his leap to catch it between his teeth.

Stephen laughed when he told me that Chopper ran faster, jumped higher and added a little dance at the end of his performance if the female dogs next door were watching him!

While Chopper was friendly once he accepted we were dog-people, he does not like people holding him and only truly trusts Sharon and Stephen. Huckleberry B was, therefore, greatly honoured – and our hosts were greatly surprised – when Chop Chop decided to leap up onto the lounge and snuggle up with my beloved. What a canine endorsement!

He’s a good boy, lil’ Chopper. And he’s a lucky boy too; he gets to go to work every day with his Daddy at his jewellery store. How much would our three girls love that!

Halloween in Fort Worth

As soon as we arrived at Sharon and Stephen’s house in Fort Worth, we knew it was Halloween!

Their front yard was dominated by a witch driving a pumpkin carriage through a cemetery! At the front door we were greeted by a six-foot tall Igor and the living room was dominated by pumpkins, vultures, ghosts and witches. Another creepy looking spectre with a puppet sat at the piano in the corner. How spooky!

In preparation for the trick or treat onslaught, Sharon’s grand-daughter had prepared sixty bags full of candy. When the night came, they were gone in 30 minutes! Huckleberry B and I had never seen anything like it. The doorbell rang constantly and we were greeted by gangs of ghouls of up to 12 in number.

To my observation, an implied contract was in operation. The kids dress up and they get candy. The trick in the trick OR treat equation appears to have been lost in time. Stephen said that ‘in his day’ the homeowner was entitled to request a trick, in which case the obligation to provide a treat no longer applied. But now, it seems, we live in more consumer-driven times!

The efforts of the marketing departments of major supermarkets back home notwithstanding, Halloween has never really taken off in Sydney. So we were excited to participate in a genuine Texan Halloween. It was great fun.

A Day in Fort Worth

After a thoroughly enjoyable Sunday evening when we had dinner with Sharon and Stephen, their daughter, Kim, and their son-in-law, Jim – before enjoying The Phantom of the Opera at Bass Hall – we spent Monday with Sharon’s general manager, Gracie, in Fort Worth.

The morning was occupied by a stroll around the Stockyards where we saw some Longhorns being herded down the road. Boy, those horns were long!

But the highlight was lunch at Joe T Garcia’s!

Joe T’s appears to be a Dallas Fort Worth institution! With capacity to seat 1,600 guests – most of them outside in the fabulous garden – the restaurant’s specialities are fajitas and enchiladas. Indeed, at dinner, that is all they serve. What a great business model!

Whilst their lunch menu is a little more expansive, Huckleberry B and I decided to stick with their specialities. I’ve never been a great fan of Mexican food, but Joe T’s was fantastic! We loved it.

A Day in Abilene

As readers may have gathered, this trip to America represented an opportunity to catch-up with the American friends we had met during our travels over the years.

The last couple we spent some time with – but one of the most anticipated – was Alice and Jim from Abilene. We met these crazy Texans during our week onboard Celebrity Xpedition as it sailed around the Galápagos Islands in 2008.

The small town of Abilene lies some 2 hours to the west of Fort Worth. As it happened, the day we headed in that direction – with much gratitude to Sharon and Stephen for lending their driver and Sharon’s car for the day – was our 22nd Anniversary.

Whilst visiting a working Ranch – where we saw a pump-jack and a wind farm – and whilst enjoying some Texan food (chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken), we joyfully reminisced about our time around the Galápagos Islands. Like the time Alice horrified our naturalist guide by politely enquiring whether the event of an animal attack would result in her producing a gun from her knapsack! Or like the time Jim expounded his theory that all the animals, birds and natural features were mechanically operated from a central control room.

We only got to spend 3 to 4 hours with Alice and Jim, but they were some special hours indeed.

Upon our return to Fort Worth, we enjoyed an exquisite meal with Sharon and Stephen at City Club to celebrate our anniversary! What a lovely way to end our American sojourn!

The Road Home

As I have intimated, we never intended doing much on this trip and we executed that plan with both precision and skill.

I therefore apologise with sincerity if my narrative has a `you had to be there’ quality about it.

What made this holiday special for us, however, was the time we spent catching up with a variety of American friends from our travelling past.

We are enormously grateful to Ed and Susan and Sharon and Stephen for allowing us to share their homes with them. So much so, that the words in the previous sentence seem wholly inadequate. We can not express how much we enjoyed chatting about everything and nothing across a number of meals and whilst doing nothing more than sitting around and passing time.

One topic which has, of course, dominated conversation during the last three weeks is the impending Presidential election. None of the Americans we have met have engaged in any full-throated, blue-faced advocacy in favour of either candidate. What we have experienced is reasonably polite, well-reasoned argument explaining why their antipathy for the opposing candidate outweighed the (sometimes profound) disappointment they felt in the candidate of their traditional party-affiliation.

Everybody has expressed concern for the what lies beyond November 8.

This evening, Huckleberry B and I embark on a 17 hour flight from DFW to SYD. It promises to be an epic journey. We leave late on 2 November and arrive early on 4 November. The day, 3 November 2016, will be erased from our lives!

Moonriver

All the best,