Deloused and Dehydrated at Hoover Dam!

We awoke this New York morning to a blanket of snow and ice. To a family of visitors from Australia it was magic, to commuters on Manhattan Island it was tragic, figuratively at least. By the time we left home at 7.00am, most of the roads had been cleared (not that I inspected most of the roads in New York but the ones that we drove on had certainly been ploughed).

We left New York today en-route to Las Vegas. The flight boarded roughly on time but sat at the gate for a very long time without any indication by airline staff of the reason for the delay (which was probably obvious to regular commuters but not so to naiive Australians). The flight attendant at least had a sense of humour. She was at the rear of the plane and a passenger asked her what was the cause of the hold-up. She answered with one of, what I imagine are, her top three responses in this situation; “they are just finalising the paperwork”, because she then called over the public-address system to her colleagues at the front of the plane; “Are we waiting on paperwork at the moment?”. The pilot responded; “We are taking on some additional fuel”. Quick as a flash the flight attendant called back (again over the PA); “Well that can’t be good!”. Some of us thought this was funny although there were others – perhaps not so much.

The plane lurched into motion after a time but before we did anything like what regular planes do we had to be de-loused – at least that what I thought the pilot said. We taxied to the other side of the airport. We arrived at the de-lousing area which was a large open ended hangar. A series of, what I believe to be, hot air jets started to blow all over the plane (perhaps the de-lousing area was in fact a ‘de-icing’ area). Two mobile de-icers joined the fray. They started with a series of hot air blasts at much closer range than the ceiling mounted ones. They also had a light on the end of a boom which they used to carefully inspect the wing areas for ice patches and then blasted them again with hot air. Then the plane’s wings were washed with what I imagined to be a salt water solution. Finally, they sprayed the wings thoroughly with what appeared to be a green coloured anti-freeze solution. I am not sure of the efficacy of this process but I do know that if anything subsequently went wrong on this flight we would be the plane with the prettiest luminous green coloured wings ever to have fallen from the sky!

We landed in Las Vegas. Having been up early and travelled for 8 or 9 hours including ground transfers – the horde was, again, hungry so we met our favourite burger chain again (in truth we don’t have a favourite burger chain, we are burger agnostic, if it sells burgers, fries, nuggets and coke – we are disciples). After consuming a double whopper of nutrition we were ready to go and pick up our bags from the carousel which we had left ‘carouselling’ while we had lunch.

Now any bags left unattended in airports are regarded as potentially explosive devices so in order to protect the public they take them away and explode them! Our bags had been left unattended for a lengthy period while we lunched and two of them had already been taken hostage by the TSA (Transportation Surveillance Authority or some similar thing). We negotiated their release and went in search of our rental car.

Our car was waiting for us it was a Chevrolet 6-seat people mover but it had everything which one could want in a vehicle. We loaded up, took a crash course in using the GPS and set sail for Hoover Dam. Finding Hoover Dam was one challenge, greater issues for me were driving on the opposite side of the road to Australia my normal place of residence, and having ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (SWMBO) not be holding her breath, sighing heavily, or making other sounds of disturbance which really put you off your game when you are doing the best to come to terms with changed conditions.

Night fell on Hoover Dam so we retraced our ‘steps’ along the road toward Las Vegas to a Spanish styled hotel and casino complex. We hadn’t reserved accommodation so Leanne went in and checked things out – it met all of her requirements in a hotel room – five beds and cheap –  and we checked in. The overpowering smell of cigarette smoke filled the corridor in which the rooms were located but fortunately the rooms were better.

With bags dropped and a quick change of shirt we went looking for the bar. The entire ground floor is basically a casino and it wasn’t obvious where we could sit down as a family and enable the adults to consume an alcoholic beverage. So, I asked Security Guard No. 1 who had absolutely no idea but said the kids could enter the gaming floor if they didn’t go near the machines – so we wandered through the floor until we found a bar area with a few tables and a live Neil Diamond impersonator on stage (impersonator perhaps gives him greater credit than was warranted). We weren’t sure whether we could sit down in that area with our children who were young adults but none had reached the age of twenty-one. Leanne went over to the barman to ask. As she was walking over, I noticed that he had seen us and immediately picked up a hand-held radio. When Leanne arrived at the bar the barman waved her away – she told me later he refused to talk to her and said wait for security.

Well the cavalry arrived 5 seconds later, “Is he 21?” he asked me, pointing at one of our crew. “No”, I answered. Well they can’t be on the gaming floor. “That’s fine”, said I, “where can we go to sit and have drink”. The short answer was nowhere. This family hotel did not have one bar area where the kids could go with us while we had a drink. This family hotel only caters for parents who go to gamble while they dump their kids in a games arcade so the kids can learn how to put quarters into a slot machine. I was offended by this. But not so much so that I didn’t give the kids a handful of quarters, point them to the arcade and order drinks for Leanne and me.

It was then time for a meal and we made our way into the buffet area. We were seated by our ‘server’ who turned out not to be our real server but his level of training allowed him to take us to our seats and take a drinks order. The kids had soft drinks and then he turned to Leanne and said what would you like Miss (by which I am certain she was flattered)? We both asked for beers and he said he couldn’t do that but he would get someone else who could. I didn’t understand this but Leanne piped up and said we would walk over to the bar and get them ourselves but I interjected and said I would be happy for him to arrange for someone to get me a beer. I figured that if we were in a restaurant where people would expect a gratuity, the least they could do was serve me a beer.

I really didn’t understand what was happening – we arrive for a meal to be told we have a server but this guy wasn’t him or her, yet he could show us to the table. He could ask us if we wanted drinks but wouldn’t get them. What strange hierarchy did these people operate under. After a time our drinks arrived. The fellow came over to me later and apologised for sounding like a dill and explained that you have to be authorised to make a phone call to a bar which is about 20 metres from the buffet and he wasn’t authorised so he had to go and ask someone else to phone for our beers. I appreciated his apology and explanation but it didn’t address the more fundamental question of how activities were structured in the place.

We ordered the buffet meal. Upon reflection, and credit where credit is due, I think it was probably the worst food I have ever had at any buffet in the world. Seriously, if you are near Hoover Dam please stay at this place and try the buffet just for the experience and the stories you will be able to tell your friends. With the main meals out of the way the kids were already well into dessert. I offered to get Leanne some dessert and Sarah gave me instructions to make sure I chose the ice cream dispenser and not the yoghurt dispenser. Long story short, I am dispensing Leanne’s dessert and I could hear Sarah guffawing from the other side of the restaurant – I got the yoghurt!

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Breakfast in Paris: a Pain and a Glass

The juxtaposition of a ‘restaurant’, proudly welcoming diners through golden arches, and the magnificent blue Arc de Triomph was a violation – however we were hungry after consuming the sights of Paris and so we ate there on the basis that, in our hierarchy of needs at the time, food outgunned principles. The eatery was allegorically furnished with metal structures representing the Eiffel Tower.  “Allegorically furnished!”. I have never, in my life, used that phrase before. However everywhere I travel in these culturally rich environments, a curator, guide or in some cases the doorman will explain that everything from hotels to museums are ‘allegorically decorated’ or ‘allegorically furnished’ and so I am embracing the culture.

The following morning while on a quest to find a quintessential Paris breakfast, a small café served me a generous portion of ‘Pain au Chocolat’ accompanied by a Latte in a heated glass. If ever there was an allegorical representation of ‘pain’ this was most certainly not it. Whoever came up with the notion of wrapping molten chocolate (which sounds so much better pronounced: ‘shock-oh-lart’) in pastry and serving it with a Latte deserves canonisation and Lord knows they seem to be handing them out pretty freely around France and Italy – one struggles to walk down any ‘rue’ or ‘via’ without tripping over San Pietro or Saint Pierre.

Today we visited the Conciergerie. A majestic building which I understand started life as a palace and finished as a prison – which I thought ironic given that there are some princesses from a neighbouring country who may have had that same experience!

We progressed then to our ‘church de jour’ which on this occasion was Saint Chappelle which I was lured into thinking may be a cricket museum only to be disappointed. Both the Conciergerie and Saint Chappelle were part of the Palais de Justice, also an impressive edifice. I noted that the French motto; “libertie, egalitie, fraternitie”, with its origins in the French Revolution, adorned the building’s entrance above a grand staircase. I was struck by the incongruence of the symbolic home of the people’s motto being located in a palace on an island on the river Seine –  a location that ordinary folk could only but dream to live. Enough, however, of the voice of the proletariat. Though I was reminded of the quip attributed to Queen Marie Antionette who upon hearing that the peasants had no bread, allegedly said “let them eat cake”. The Conciergerie has a mocked-up prison cell with a mocked-up Marie Antionette awaiting her death by guillotine, surely sufficient demonstration that eating cake is not good for you!

We boarded the Paris tour bus to experience the magic of the Eiffel Tower. I did not know the streets of Paris well but I felt that the bus driver may have forgotten the location of the Eiffel Tower. However, since he was the driver and I had been a resident of Paris for fewer than three days, I surmised that he either knew a short-cut or was taking a different route due to road works which would otherwise have slowed him down. However, as the bus continued its unfamiliar route others in the family questioned whether anyone had checked that we had boarded the correct bus, which was admittedly, another potential explanation for the bus driver’s erratic behaviour which I had not hitherto considered. As it turned out no-one had checked the bus details and, indeed, we were on a different trip to another part of the city which did not contain an Eiffel Tower. And if looks of the family were any guide it appears that was my fault.

After this unplanned diversion we changed buses and headed for the Eiffel Tower. I swear that this place is without doubt the coldest place on earth but we joined the snaking queue for entrance to the Tower. While I would have happily swapped my place in the queue for anyone with a blanket, I have to admit that that once there it was special. We had made our way through the ticket stall and into the cable cars which made their way up to the second level of the Tower. The fellow in the queue next to me explained or at least alleged that during the war the French cut the metal ropes on the cable car to force Hitler to walk up the stairs to the Tower. And if the day Hitler was there was as cold as this day I am sure he would have done so gladly. For it did not become any warmer upon reaching the second level of the Tower and a quick sprint up a few flights of stairs might have been just the thing to get the heart pumping.

The day had given way to dark during our waiting period and we now looked at a fully lighted Eiffel Tower which was infinitely more impressive than the day-time experience. What was equally impressive was the view over the River Seine, down toward the Arc de Triomph, the church where Napoleon is buried, Notre Dame Cathedral and a whole bunch of other places of note to me after spending a couple of days in Paris. On the hour every hour, the ‘Elves of the Eiffel’ light up the Tower with sparkling lights. Please don’t promise your children when you visit the Eiffel Tower that they will see the ‘Elves of the Eiffel’ since I may have taken a liberty in using this quaint term to describe the municipal employees of Paris who turn the sparkling lights on and off on an hourly basis.

When all was done and having missed the last bus home, we walked to the Metro and boarded a train for Charles de Gaulle which put us on the Champs Elysees. At night with trees lining the road all covered in blue lights stretching for over a kilometre and culminating in the Arc de Triomph the whole thing was truly brilliant. This was definitely a highlight for me.

The following day we caught a train to Montmartre. We found the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (Sacred Heart) upon a hill on the outskirts of the city. Upon arrival, we exited the Metro to join hundreds of people milling around a market place which led up a hill to the church. We followed the throng until we reached the church steps where there were about 10 pickpockets and other undesirables operating. As we walked past, two of them were feigning to fight and for no apparent reason they gave Chris a shove. I was watching to see whether there was any attempt to steal from him but there didn’t appear to be. I puzzled over why they pushed Chris and not me since I was right behind him and I would be the more likely of the two to be carrying the cash. My conclusion is they thought I would come to his aid and in the melee which would follow, attempt to steal from me. In any event I didn’t come to his aid – a reflection which continues to haunt me – and the incident passed without …. well … incident.

Having navigated a path away from these young lads we ascended the steps to Montmartre. I hope there are not so many steps to heaven for, putting aside whether I meet other entry criteria, I will need a training regime if I am to reach it. We climbed stairway after cobbled stairway making our way to the church doors where we were met with the ubiquitous signs which advised that we must be silent and take no photos or video. I accept the silence rule – it is a church after all. Indeed, I am often aghast at the noise which is made in famous places of worship, often when the worship is being undertaken. However, Sacre-Coeur is set up as a tourist Mecca – with apologies for mixing religions. You can light your choice of a million and one candles to venerate Saints Therese or Peter – or the big guy, yet you are forbidden from taking photographs. Most travellers know that museums and churches which are keepers of antiquities, refuse the use of flashes (in order not to damage artworks from centuries past), I support that and I am sure most thinking people do. However, these guys don’t have a concern with photography in their church since they themselves have taken multiple photographs of numerous artefacts and other items of interest – it is their argument, allegedly, that photography is not conducive to prayer. Nor, I would suggest, is having 11.5 million visitors every year tramping through the Basilica, yet there is no ban on visitors and there is no ban on the entry fees those visitors pay to view the dome of the Cathedral. Apologies but some of this stuff doesn’t add up for me.

After we left the church, we sat on the church steps and listened to some buskers who had attracted quite a large audience. We only heard their final two songs which I am sure were carefully chosen to be inappropriate for the Cathedral steps; Losing My Religion and Californication.

After the concert had concluded we made our way back to the Metro and travelled to the Musee d’Orsay which is apparently the next best thing to the Louvre in Paris. It was smaller than the Louvre yet replete with famous art works which I didn’t know I hadn’t seen at the Louvre until I saw them at Musee d’Orsay. It had rooms dedicated to Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Cezanne all the old favourites from my misspent youth! And the great thing was that all the signature pieces were there. So, I have now seen in the ‘flesh’; Whistler’s Mother, Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Renoir’s ‘Grand Nu’. I was really pleased to see these artworks which had some familiarity to me. Even though the Louvre is a must see in Paris – the Musee D’Orsay was the highlight for me as far as art is concerned. I am not suggesting that galleries should be established to house only those works with which I am familiar – they would be very space efficient galleries indeed if they did.

Such is my fascination with the world of art, that it was closing time as we made our way out of the Musee D’Orsay. Although it must be said that I have been known to be required to leave other establishments at closing time.

Paris Revealed: A Peak behind the Louvre D’or

The only food related word which I remembered from high school French classes was ‘fromage’ and if the rest of my family had been prepared to eat cheese for dinner that night everything would have been just fine. They were not.

My French language teacher at high school had noted my ‘petite’ French vocabulary and was fond of waiting until parent/teacher interviews to opine that; “French is an excellent language to learn and that I could be very good at it if only I paid greater attention in class – but I wasn’t, because I didn’t” – a fact which caused me no end of pain and parental enquiry. However, until this particular night in Paris – it had caused me minimal inconvenience. And even now as Leanne and I trekked to the local store to pay homage to the fromage – I remained convinced that my lack of enthusiasm for French class had been justified, although with age has come a certain respect for the language of love, as I believe it is known in circles in which I am yet to mix.

We had been met at the airport by our pre-arranged transport – he spoke French – we only spoke only English and it was therefore a quiet trip from Charles de Gaulle into the city (quiet that is, apart from the words; “French is an excellent language to learn….” playing repeatedly in my ears). Dianne who owns the apartment which would be our home for our short stay in Paris met us and took us through the essentials including that Gerard Depardieu has an apartment in the same building. Since our visit I have read that Gerard has disposed of his French residences and Dianne will need to develop an alternative marketing strategy for future clients. But it worked on us since we kept our eyes peeled for glimpses of movie types wandering the corridors for subsequent days.

Our first outing was to a popular art museum in Paris. The Louvre is an old castle and while it is only two storeys high, the building fortifies the perimeter of a huge rectangle covering an entire city block. To enter the Louvre, you pass through a 22-metre high, glass pyramid and then descend via escalators to below ground level and enter past the dry moat of the original fortress. For someone like me who is no patron of the arts; the juxtaposition of the modern Louvre pyramid against the moat and fortress walls was simply …. well… a juxtaposition. And I think I enjoyed wandering around the old moat as much as the modern artistic pyramid.

Our starting point was at the foot of a small staircase with a sculpture at the top of the stairs. I had no idea what the said sculpture represented and the fact that I believe it was missing its head didn’t assist in my quest for understanding. The fact that I couldn’t be certain that it was missing its head was compelling evidence of my lack of understanding! On this occasion, my son Matt was able to describe in some detail, not only the background of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, but also why this sculpture was regarded as a masterpiece – justifying its prominent position in arguably the most famous art museum in the world. Matt’s knowledge of the arts was a dimension newly revealed.

It would be foolish of me to provide a running commentary, or worse an assessment, of the 35000 pieces of art on display at the Louvre. To do so I would have to hold out hope that every reader of this account knows less about art than I do and it stretches even my imagination to contemplate such a scenario. It is best, therefore, that I don’t take the chance. Instead I will simply make an observation about what I liked. There was a fellow named Rubens who was commissioned in the early 1600’s to paint the Marie de’ Medici Cycle which chronicles coronations, wars, marriages and a bunch of other related events. There are twenty-four paintings which make up this series and while I cannot categorically state that they are all featured in the Louvre, I can confirm that at least some of them are on display there and they are impressive. I think the climax is that truth triumphs over evil – and who wouldn’t buy into that story. In any event these pieces made an impression on me. It was a huge undertaking to complete twenty-four pieces and Rubens completed the task in approximately 2 years. These paintings are hung in a huge room enabling you to follow the narrative, although you are required as a ‘reader of the story’ to fill in a few blanks since he has covered the life and times of several characters in twenty-four snapshots so it is a bit like reading a 300-page novel with 276 of the pages missing – you have to use your imagination.

We spent the day wandering through the Louvre’s but did not see Madonna of the Rocks and as the hour became late I was fearing that I may have to ask someone for directions. I held this fear since it I did not want to be thought of as one of those ‘tourists’ who wanders through Europe on some form of ‘Da Vinci Code pilgrimage’ (which neatly ignores the fact, of course, that it was probably only because of the Da Vinci code that the Madonna was known to my children). I approached one of the friendly guards whose job it is to sit in each room and shoot those people who look like they might be going to touch an artwork or use flash cameras. I could see the look of disdain on his face as he pointed out the directions and told me in French where to go. I don’t really know what he said in detail but I am confident that the word ‘imbecile’ has a similar meaning in French to that which it has in English. Nonetheless we found Madonna.

With the dawning of a new day and eager to explore more of Paris than an art museum, we jumped on one of the open-air double deck buses which run around Paris. As one does, on an open-air bus in December in Paris, we sat on the top deck – in the open-air. This had the advantage of giving a clear view of the sights be they right or left side of the bus. The view was made clearer due to the absence of people sitting atop the bus, they appeared to be crowded in the downstairs area with some being forced to stand, despite the fact that there was more than ample seating on the top deck. It took me maybe fifteen seconds of the bus being in motion to understand why people were crowded downstairs, as I felt what must have been an Arctic wind exploding against my face. The temperature, on the open-air section of the bus was obviously below freezing as I surely was. We alighted the bus when we reached the Eiffel Tower not because of a burning desire to see this iconic structure but simply to warm up.

Several of us needed a bathroom stop which we found underground and heated. It was so cold outside that I seriously considered having our lunch there. However common sense, and my daughter Sarah, prevailed and we left the comfort of the heated facilities and walked across the square which is also the forecourt of the Eiffel Tower and found a location protected from the wind where we ate our home-made sandwiches and discussed the decision to board the open-air bus. It would appear if majority opinion is anything to go by that I would be held accountable for that decision.

I had never seen the Eiffel Tower before and we were standing in its forecourt having finished our lunch. There were no queues for the lift. And yet remarkably we chose not to pay the price of admission and visit this icon. It was simply too cold. And we remained cold despite another trip to the heated underground bathrooms and so left the Eiffel Tower with intent to return on another day. Instead we rejoined the hop-on hop-off bus and travelled this time in the crowded downstairs section and made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame was an interesting cathedral perhaps without some of the glitz of other European places of worship but it had assets with which others simply could not compete. Most notable was its claim that it held the Crown of Thorns, a piece of The Cross and a nail from the crucifixion. Since returning from Paris, I have researched these relics to determine whether there was anything approaching unanimity regarding the authenticity of these items. My conclusion is that when it comes to matters ‘crucifixion’, they got it half right – it’s probably ‘fiction’ but not necessarily done with intent to deceive. It comes down to what you believe.

I Work in an Internet Café; Am I an Internet Barista or a Café Geek?

Our driver to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport was elderly and who, the evidence would indicate, was having an intimate relationship with a flagon of vino blanco. In addition, and probably because of, he was not a morning person and he grunted commands as we heaved the bags into the back of his vehicle for our flight to Venice. However, he was the safest driver I’ve seen, he followed the lines on the road all the way to the airport – left wheels on one side of the centre line and right wheels on the other – he straddled the centre line, ensuring that two lanes of traffic queued behind us. When other drivers became so frustrated that they blasted horns at our man, he would veer over to one side to let them pass before returning to his original position and then swear and growl loudly at those who dared to want to use one of his two lanes.

Upon arrival in Venice, we needed to find a laundromat and an internet café. As far as the children were concerned – not necessarily in that order – this may have influenced the effort they put into searching for a laundromat which we were unable to locate. But we did find an internet café near the Rialto Bridge and the person tending the shop (do we call him an internet barista or a café geek?) appeared to have some pretty flash 486’s just waiting to be fired up. Adjacent to the Rialto Bridge are numerous eateries and we chose what looked like a quaint little restaurant down a nearby laneway. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ (SWoMBO) was comfortable with the prices and so we decided that this would be our luncheon venue. We stood around at the entrance to the restaurant reviewing the menu which we had learned, from our European experiences thus far, would result in us being welcomed, or even accosted, by a maître d’. On this occasion, no-one came.

SWoMBO ultimately spoke to one of the staff and arranged for us to sit outside in the fresh air. It was November in Venice and the air was, indeed, fresh, crisp or even icy some might say. Interestingly, none of the other restaurant patrons had chosen to sit outside and this should have perhaps been used by us as guidance. Nevertheless, we sat down. At this point a person from the restaurant, who had a look of self- importance about him somewhat incongruent with a man who served spaghetti for a living, ambled across the small courtyard in our direction. He seemed to take an instant dislike to us, an outcome I am normally able to achieve from those who get to know me, but rarely so quickly as, apparently, I did on this occasion. Several of us were served a meal which was not in keeping with previous high standards we had experienced in Italy. SWoMBO said that her food was good, but how one could enjoy a pizza topped with artichoke and mushrooms is completely foreign to me, so I would class her as an ‘unreliable witness’.

07 Venice Rialto Bridge

We didn’t feel like dessert or coffee which was fortunate because it wasn’t offered to us, nor did they bring the bill. I entered the establishment to make payment and tendered my credit card prompting a curt response from the manager that he would prefer cash. I didn’t have much cash and so with the prospect of being unable to pay the bill, my heart started to pump faster with each of the manager’s entries into the calculator which would determine my debt. As it turned out I was able to make good the bill with five Euros to spare. My regard for this restaurant and its staff was not enhanced when I exited the establishment only to observe what was proudly displayed on the restaurant window that a credit card is, at least for others, an acceptable means of paying for your meal.

Next on our ‘to do’ list was to locate a supermarket and obtain the essentials for three nights in Venice. In the delicatessen, they had several plates of food to sample. Demonstrating my open-mindedness to the local cuisine, I sampled something which had the appearance of a white, cold, crumbed chicken nugget but I had no idea what Italian delicacy it would turn out to be. You can imagine my surprise when, upon putting the entire thing into my mouth, it revealed itself to be a refrigerated crumbed chicken nugget. I had never eaten a cold chicken nugget before and can safely say that I will never knowingly do so again. But the damn thing was now in my mouth. There was no graceful way of escape and I had to chew the entire thing and swallow it, to the sheer joy of my son, Chris, who could tell by the look of horror on my face that something was seriously wrong – he had an uncanny knack of being around when I did something stupid.

As we moved around the supermarket, our journey took us back past the food samples. I should, having regard to my chicken nugget experience, have proceeded with extreme caution, however I noticed that next to the cold chicken nuggets there was a tasting plate of something which has been rolled into balls – they looked like they may have something soft and creamy inside and I decided that they might contain a creamy camembert cheese. Therefore, I confidently selected my ‘camembert’ with the tiny toothpick provided for the purpose and placed the entire unit into my mouth whereupon it became immediately and abundantly clear that it was not a cheese ball and I felt instead that I was chewing upon dried miniature trees. It became apparent those trees took the form of cold broccoli or cauliflower. I am not sure what most influenced my response; that the consistency of the ‘food sample’ was so completely at odds with my expectation, or the fact that I routinely avoid both broccoli and cauliflower like the plague. In any event, it was most unpleasant. As soon as I commenced to chew, the look on my face told the story and yet again Chris was watching the entire experience unfold.

The following day we headed to Piazza San Marco aka St Mark’s Square which is the forecourt to the Basilica which gives the Piazza its name. The entire Square was flooded. When I say flooded I mean that the tide had risen to the point where the famous canals of Venice, had spilled into the Square. The water was calf height (no, not as high as a small cow but partially up your leg).

We decided to take a wander through the Basilica which was an extremely impressive looking structure viewed from the Piazza, but less so, it transpired, from inside. Leanne and Sarah then visited an old palace. Subsequent research leads me to believe that this was Doge’s Palace. I was happy for Leanne and Sarah to enjoy this experience in my absence since the prospect of wandering around an old palace had about as much attraction for me as being the subject of the torture which was apparently conducted there in days’ past. So, we did a deal whereby the boys would gather the ingredients for lunch at the ‘supermarcato’ while the girls had the fun of the palace tour.

After purchasing the raw materials for lunch, the boys returned to the apartment building only to realise that we didn’t have the entry key which was in Doge’s Palace with SWoMBO and ‘SWoMBO in training’. After unsuccessfully attempting to break into our unit, I decided it was time to head to reception, swallow my pride and ask for assistance. I did so and was rewarded with a spare key. Before leaving, I attempted to thank the staff. However, I must have temporarily forgotten which continent I was on and instead of saying “Grazie” to the lady behind the desk I said; “gracias” which if pronounced correctly in Spain or South America would mean the same thing. However, I was neither in Spain nor South America and I did not pronounce ‘gracias’ correctly which, had I done so, might have sounded something like ‘grass see us’. Instead I said something which sounded more like ‘grutzy ass’. I was horrified by my own ineptitude. As I walked toward the door of the reception office I started to practice what I should have said. I repeated several times; “grazie, grazie, grazie”. Alas, it was too late and I could hear the staff sniggering at my mutilation of their language as I walked away. And as if matters could become any worse, Christopher along with his brother Matthew, had overheard the entire thing and were already laughing so hard there were tears forming in their eyes as they commenced to mimic me relentlessly repeating, “grutzy ass, grutzy ass, grutzy ass!”.

Deciding to leave Venice prior to doing any further damage to my reputation, we waited as instructed on the wharf nearby our apartment for the water taxi. Numerous water taxis passed our wharf but none seemed to want to pick us up. After some time, I observed a taxi which appeared to be slowing as it came near to us and I encouraged the family to gather the bags and be ready for a swift boarding. They complied and we hurriedly grabbed each of the pieces of luggage in readiness. Yet no sooner had the taxi slowed that it increased its speed and left us standing on the wharf. All that was left for me to do was contemplate the words inscribed on the taxi; “Servizio Transporti Funeri”. I decided I didn’t want to go in that taxi anyway!

If you can’t be Original then Copy Someone Who Is

Breakfast at Hastings was taken in the hotel where three of us caused toast to catch fire creating a thick pall of smoke throughout the restaurant. The Maître d’ looked at me as if to say; “they are your pyromaniacs – control them”. I thought in silent reply that the blame for one fire may be directed toward my pyromaniacs (I mean ‘children’), but after three fires in 30 minutes my pyromaniacs are in the clear and I would be investigating inadequate cleaning and or poor maintenance in his restaurant. I think he read my mind and in response opened the doors to let some fresh air circulate through the place despite the temperature being near freezing outside. The other guests were thrilled as this private war was waged.

The food itself was your average hotel breakfast (last night’s restaurant menu leftovers, recycled into ‘Old English Chip Potatoes’ and ‘Red, ripe and rich tomatoes’). Leanne had learnt her lesson about ordering run of the mill English coffee and had ordered a cup of tea. And unless the kind waiter had gone to see Mr Dilmah to have one custom made, he had forgotten to bring it. Leanne is not one to worry about things like this and would happily have gone without her cup of tea, but I thought if she’s ordered it – she should have it. The war with this restaurant wasn’t over yet! Therefore, on the next occasion I saw one of the guys running around in suits, I said very politely “Excuse me, I wonder if we could have the cup of tea we ordered?” to which he not so politely replied, “I’m not a waiter, I don’t work here”, and then turned away and continued to arrange his breakfast. The children were mortified, 17 year-old Sarah had ‘never been so humiliated in her life’. I must admit that I too was somewhat embarrassed and chose not to make eye contact with anyone else in the restaurant that morning. Leanne simply laughed at my stupidity. I had to admit my stupidity had resulted in a decisive victory to the ‘bad guys’ in this modern-day equivalent of what I had imaginatively labelled the ‘Battle of Hastings’.

We travelled that day from Hastings to Bournemouth (pronounced ‘Bormuf’ as far as I could ascertain). We ended up staying a nice pub whose rooms, according to the receptionist, came replete with a balcony and a view of the ocean, which I was informed, “normally costs 30 pounds, and so because you have two rooms you are saving 60 pounds”. The fact that it was again freezing and pitch black outside when we arrived could equally be interpreted as us having just wasted 60 pounds on an unusable balcony without a view, but this was not a discussion I felt was necessary to have with the pleasant lady at Reception. We took the ‘dinner’ option which provided everyone the opportunity to get dressed up to eat in a restaurant, the first time we had done so in Europe. The makeup was applied in generous proportions in preparation for the evening and the girls dressed up as well!

Leaving Bormuf the following day we headed for Salisbury and navigated our way to the Salisbury Cathedral complex. I was surprised to see a sheep’s skin in a glass case being passed off as the Magna Carta, lying around in a church in regional Salisbury. I asked the official Salisbury Cathedral Tour Guide whether it was an original. “Well” she said with a slightly patronising tone; “You need to change the way you think about originals”. I didn’t feel the need to change the way I thought about originals at all but I decided to let that pass without response. She went on to explain that when the Magna Carta was agreed after 12 months’ negotiation with King John, there was a …. (what is the collective noun for a group of journalists ….. perhaps a ‘harangue’ or ‘tirade’) of scribes all capturing the words so that they could distribute 35 copies to Cathedrals around the United Kingdom. Therefore, even though each version looked different because they were done in a different hand, the words of each of the documents are the same, and as a result they are all “originals”. So perhaps I just need to change the way I think about the concept of “originals”. As it turned out only thirteen originals were produced and today just four remain in ‘captivity’.

Our tour guide went on to explain that there are only four of the original laws, first writ in the Magna Carta, still in existence today including the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. She also told us how that overly conservative Vatican wouldn’t allow the English to do things their own way, so Henry VIII had to take control of the Church for the good of England. It was a well-rehearsed line and neatly avoided the issue of Henry’s desire to marry anything in a skirt. But it wasn’t the time for me, to enter that debate as this was a formidable tour guide and she had clearly dealt with those who know their theology and its history far better than a lapsed Catholic such as myself.

After moving through the Chapter House where all church business was done including meetings of all the bishops from the diocese, we arrived at the entry to the Cathedral. I paid my dues to the man with the cash register on the door which leads directly to the restaurant (yes – restaurant!) and then to the gift shop before I even had the chance to bless myself inside the church. The Cathedral had a magnificent, well maintained organ, many small chapels off to the sides, old high backed wooden seats for the notables, many sarcophagi and a high vaulted ceiling and was well worth the visit.

However, time was marching on and we needed to see Stonehenge so we set off again. The amazing thing about this country is that you cover it so quickly. We did not set out to travel vast distances but we travelled through five or six counties in three days.

And so, in short order we arrived at Stonehenge (which means Hanging Stones). Stonehenge was excellent. It is arguable that, nobody really knows why it exists and it appears that it was built, remodelled and renovated – between 5000 and 3,500 years ago. I was a bit sceptical about the stone which appeared to have a steel reinforcing insert but I guess those guys were more advanced than I gave them credit for. I was impressed with way that lintels do not simply sit atop the vertical stones but are cut in using, what I thought were, modern woodwork techniques and also that the uprights are one third below ground. There was quite a deal of engineering in Stonehenge which occurred well before the industrial revolution. Indeed, the existence of; pyramids, the Colosseum, the Great Wall, Machu Picchu, and countless other, Egyptian, Roman, Chinese and Inca constructions makes you question whether what happened in the 1700’s was a revolution at all. Perhaps I need to change the way I think about industrial revolutions too.

One Man’s Quest for a Decent Hotel – Why the Normans Really Invaded Hastings in 1066

My son, Chris, who is especially afflicted by the effects of motion sickness, was as pale as a sheet as the train gathered speed through the outskirts of Paris. Making matters considerably worse (and I say this in a caring sort of way) he was sitting next to me! And as the train reached the French countryside, at least I believe it was the French country side, it was raining so heavily and the mist hung so low it was hard to tell where we were, it commenced to sway from side to side and Chris began to look decidedly queasy. Swap seats? …. anyone?

To take my mind off my poor son’s illness I ordered a cup of coffee – and found to my regret that my personal adage that good coffee draws its own borders was, again, proving accurate – and we were still technically in France. And, before I could rid myself of the aftertaste we arrived at the International Terminal of Ashford which, I note in passing, is a particularly grand and not altogether warranted, name for a railway station.
We had booked a car in advance and the rental company representative met us shortly after our arrival. After disposing of the administrative tasks, the representative offered to walk us to the vehicle, and provide an overview of its operation. I felt this was unnecessary and politely declined his offer to do this, only to be over-ruled by ‘She Who Must be Obeyed’ (abbreviated and pronounced ‘SWoMBO’) who thanked the gentleman for his offer and said we would be delighted for him to take us to the vehicle.

As a collective we went to the car park to find our allotted vehicle although I was probably at the rear of the group as part of my personal – but silent – protest at how unnecessary was this ceremonial hand-over of the keys to a rental car. We arrived at the car which looked much like all the other vehicles parked alongside it. However, as the car doors were opened it turned out our car was indeed different in as much as the previous user had mistaken it for the Ashford household refuse emplacement facility! It had clearly not been cleaned since its last use and the floor was littered with paper, used tissues and remnants of fast food. Sticky substances had dripped on and from the cup holders. The car was unfit for human occupation. The rental guy was very apologetic and continued to repeat the word ‘sorry’ a dozen times as he, in turn, located a vacuum cleaner and a damp rag and proceeded to provide the car something – substantially less than the thorough ‘clean and disinfect’ it required but – sufficient to give it the superficial appearance of cleanliness. He then apologised some more – and the ceremonial passing of the keys turned out to be done with less fanfare and with greater embarrassment, on his part, than had been contemplated 30 minutes earlier when this process commenced.

Then came the time I had been dreading since we arrived at the vehicle – it was the ‘I told you so’ moment. I had not thought it was necessary for rental car man to show us to our vehicle while SWoMBO, you might recall, thought this was a good idea. As it turned out, had the guy not been there when the car doors were opened; he would likely not have believed that the condition of the vehicle could be so bad, he would not have been in a position – nor as motivated – to clean it, and regardless of all those things the entire process would have been much longer had we needed to return to the rental car office, explain the condition of the car and then have them respond to it. I had clearly made an error of judgement in not accepting the man’s offer to take us to the car and SWoMBO was proven right again. It defies the laws of probability that she is right, and I am wrong, as often as these events seem to coincide. But SWoMBO didn’t say ‘I told you so’. SWoMBO didn’t say anything, she didn’t need to say anything and that was more irritating than if she had! She knew, I knew, and she knew I knew and I knew she knew, that she was right to ask the rental guy to join us at the car to deal with exactly the type of eventuality which had … well ….. eventuated. No words were necessary from her. No words came to me. None of this improved my disposition.

Following lunch, we set off in the car for Portsmouth and we were travelling without incident when SWoMBO said “stop, we are going the wrong way”. I didn’t think we were going the wrong way but with the ‘vehicle incident’ still fresh in my mind (read: burned into my subconscious), I decided that discretion is the better part of valour (well in truth someone else decided this but I appropriated it for these circumstances). So, we turned around, retraced our ‘steps’ and found what might loosely be described as a fork in the road. We approached it again and chose the alternate option. Once we had proceeded about 8 kilometres down the alternative course, SWoMBO said, “stop, we are going the wrong way”. So, we turned around, again found the fork in the road and took the original option. I kept my thoughts to myself but one of them was that there are streets in my home town which I have never entered, yet there are now streets in the south of England to which I have been twice! However, it was not my day to have a ‘smart mouth’.

SWoMBO appeared more comfortable with route selection on the second occasion we chose it (perhaps it had a familiar feel) and we continued to a place called Hastings which is on the southern coast of England and which was apparently invaded a few years prior. We decided to stay in a hotel by the sea and there were a number from which to choose. After surveying them from the outside we chose one, whose name escapes me, but which I shall not forget. It had lots of coloured lights and looked inviting from the street.

Once inside our hotel room I saw the sign. The sign advised me that the management had ‘removed all those luxuries that people don’t really want in a hotel’. I am not sure who these people are since I can’t think of any luxuries I do not want in a hotel – there are some I can’t afford to pay for but I want them just the same. Which brings me to toilets which flush or in the case of my spartan hotel room – a toilet which did not flush. Memo to Hotel: Flushing toilets are not a luxury. When I should have been admiring the view of where the Normans invaded in 1066, I found myself instead engaging in plumbing work; which is neither my forte nor my activity of choice when enjoying a family holiday. And with each ‘lunge of the plunge’ I became less forgiving about the ‘luxuries’ I was foregoing.

I have no doubt that there is a market for poorly maintained, cheaply appointed, accommodation. It’s just that I am not it. Providing just two towels per room for five guests in the apparent expectation that they may be willing to share – stretches the boundaries of any (hygienic) definition of those things “that people don’t really want in a hotel”. And leaving a note in the room which advises guests to ‘ask at reception if you want another one’ is not a satisfactory alternative. However, I wasn’t going to die wondering and so I asked at reception. And the look on the face of the receptionist indicated that I may have been the first ever to have done so!

The ubiquitous sign in the bathroom was titled; “60 Ways to be a Friend to your Environment” and advised that I might also like to ‘Ask Reception to Change my Linen every other Day’. Although my assessment, based on a casual inspection of the bedding, is that changing it every other week would likely double the frequency of the linen changes!

It is true that I have stayed in less desirable accommodation than on this night in Hastings. And in all honesty my experience did result in a personal epiphany – it became clear why someone would gather together an army and invade this city. I am just surprised it last happened in 1066.

There’s a PC Way to do Things in Boston

Wing of Plane

We were waiting patiently at the Boston Airport baggage carousel when the strangest of things occurred, someone with exactly the same name as mine was called over the PA system and was urged to return to the gate lounge as there had been some lost luggage which had apparently been found (thereby ceasing to meet the definition of ‘lost’ but let’s not go down that rabbit hole).

As you do, when you fear you may have lost a personal item, I immediately started patting my pockets for wallet, passport and phone and convinced myself that if this person with my name, was actually me – I hadn’t lost those important items. Then, making room for the possibility that there may not be two persons with exactly the same name who coincidentally happened to be in the same airport at the same time, I retraced my steps to the gate lounge as instructed by the announcement.

However, I had already passed through the secure area and the extremely large guard who was patrolling this area had no intention of letting me back through the automatic gates. I tried to explain that I had been called back to the gate for lost luggage and referred him to the PA announcement. He didn’t understand my Australian and I didn’t really understand his Bostonian. Now, I have travelled to many places; Italy, Spain, France, the south of England – where they speak ‘foreign’ languages and have been able to find a way to communicate with people, but for some reason I couldn’t make myself understood in Boston. Regardless, he had the home ground advantage and I needed to try a different approach.

Now, let me start by confessing that, with the benefit of hindsight I can appreciate that treating the guy standing between me and where I wanted to be – like an idiot, was a sub-optimal strategy – not that I set out to do this. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I was in possession of none of it at this point. I said; “Sir, it seems that I am not making myself clear”, and proceeded to launch into the following monologue, “You see, I was on a plane which landed here in Boston, I exited the plane and went to collect my baggage, someone with exactly the same name as me was paged to return to the plane and while, initially, it wasn’t me – it turns out that maybe it is me. And while initially I hadn’t lost anything it appears now that maybe I have (since I had a few moments earlier recalled that my lap-top computer was missing). So, would you please allow me to return through these gates to collect my computer?”.

He simply stared at me in disbelief for several seconds. The silence was confronting. He was over 6 feet tall and equally wide – he was confronting too. Finally, he spoke and told me that if I wanted to go back to the gate to which I had been recalled, I would need to buy another airline ticket and he pointed me in the direction of the ticket counter. He didn’t specify a destination for my ticket (although I suspect from his perspective, anywhere but Boston would have been adequate). I stood my ground thinking about my next move. The security guard had already thought about his and waved for his colleagues to come and render their assistance he even shouted; “security!”

I thought he was ‘Security’. And if he wasn’t ‘Security’ then to whom did I just tell my life’s story? However, when ‘Security’ arrived I had decided that a ‘Plan B’ was in order and I changed my communications strategy and explained my predicament to a female officer by saying; “I left my ‘laptop’ on the plane” and she told me to go to the ticket desk and get a gate pass or better still ask them to bring the ‘lap-top’ out to me. Good advice. And I was forced to confront the awkward possibility that my communication efforts may have been a factor in my hitherto spectacularly unsuccessful attempts to retrieve my wayward computer.

I therefore decided to keep it equally simple when I explained my predicament to the lady behind the ticket desk, who after checking my credentials rang the gate staff, who, I presume, confirmed that a computer had been found. She said it was now on the way to a manager’s office and that she would retrieve it for me and told me to wait. Wait I did, for over 20 minutes and she did not return. I phoned my wife, who I had left by the baggage carousel, to let her know that despite my absence for what was now more than 40 minutes, I had not been deported from Boston (although there had been a period when that outcome was more likely than not to occur).

I was starting to think my lap-top computer had become someone else’s computer. Yet my new friend behind the desk who I was confident was genuinely attempting to help me, picked up the phone and rang whatever number airport staff ring when they are looking for a lady with a ‘lap-top’, but to no avail. My friend informed me that my lap-top computer; “… was safely in the keeping of the airline, we think we know who has it but we can’t locate her at the moment, and you should wait, since it shouldn’t be much longer before it is returned”. I think she was being entirely honest in her assessment up to the point where she said “it shouldn’t be much longer”, since she really had no idea how long it would take to find the missing woman. And come to think of it there was now a missing woman in the airport – shouldn’t this have had alarm bells ringing and sirens wailing even without the added weight of my missing ‘lap-top’. There was no appreciable sense of urgency to locate this poor woman who, frankly, could be anywhere by now!

Finally, well after I had stopped counting time, another lady carrying a small black device which looked a lot like my ‘lap-top’ appeared from nowhere and I was re-united with the only piece of memory I have which works effectively. I thanked them all profusely and left clutching my ‘baby’. I was pleased that the airline staff member was ok too.

By the time I returned to the baggage carousel the bags had not only arrived but were starting to gather dust and Leanne had found our friends whom we had arranged to meet at the airport at a time which had now long passed. All three of them launched the same questions at me from several metres away about where I had been and what I had been doing. And demonstrating that the day had been a learning experience in keeping things simple, I responded; “my ‘lap-top’ was lost but now it’s found”. They were satisfied with that explanation however the burly security guard whom I had first encountered when I tried to walk the wrong way through one-way gates, heard my explanation and looked over at me as if to say – ‘if you had been that plain spoken with me earlier in the day maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long to get your damn computer back!’.

 

You’ll Never Guess Who I Ran Into on the Way to St Peter’s

07 Vatican St Peters Square   If you are a tourist in Rome, you must visit the Vatican. I know there are some who say they have no desire to do so because they are not particularly religious. This in my view is like refusing to visit the ruins of the very first Olympic stadium in Athens because you are not a fan of sports. Sure, the Vatican is full of history, religion and art but the ‘experience’ is what it’s all about. And perhaps that is why, on any day, there are literally thousands of tourists seeking entry to this institution. But be warned there is a trap for the uninitiated.

Most visitors want to see St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum (which incorporates the Sistine Chapel) and are likely to be lured into joining a queue which is four persons wide and so long and circuitous that you cannot see its front. This is the trap. This winding slow moving queue has all the indications of being a queue for entry to something of importance. It is. We stood in that queue for 20 minutes before realising that it is the queue for the Vatican Museum. However, at that time, we didn’t want to go to the Vatican Museum – but regardless of how long you wait in it, that queue will only take you to the Vatican Museum. It will not take you to the Basilica – nor to our desired destination – the Excavations Tour. Now, given that the Vatican is one of the most visited tourist destinations on the planet there could perhaps have been a sign telling you this – but alas there was not.

The Excavations Tour as the name implies takes you through underground tunnels, beneath St Peter’s Basilica to the ‘excavations’. I wasn’t sure the purpose of these excavations but the website had said it was an elite tour and was limited to 12 per group and so I figured if there was a tour for elite people, I should be on it and had therefore booked it several months earlier. However, following our wasteful time in the Vatican Museum queue, we now had about 10 minutes to be at the commencement point for the excavations tour and we were clueless about where this commencement point was located. We decided to run and ask for directions along the way from anyone who appeared more knowledgeable than ourselves – which of course left the field wide open.

And although I was pre-occupied making my way to our chosen tour, I couldn’t get a nagging thought from my mind which was, based on the hundreds of people queued for the Vatican Museum experience, that it may have been more appealing than my ‘elite’ subterranean tour. I kept this thought to myself and ran onwards until I almost crashed into a couple of Swiss Guards – who we took the opportunity to ask about the commencement point for the Excavations Tour, and who in return, in a tone befitting a security detail, told us to wait for 10 minutes. I was a little unsure whether they understood the question, but they had serious looks on their faces and swords at the ready and I decided not to press them further. Besides, any guys capable of dressing in bright red, orange and blue pant-suits and berets – I decided were confident men who would be unlikely to flinch if they felt the desire to dissect an incompetent Australian tourist who had foolishly decided to join a small tour beneath the Basilica while the balance of the tourist population visited Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the residence of the Pope. I concluded that it might be best that we wait in silence for something to happen. And in due course, it did.

The tour took us below the Basilica to the bones of Saint Peter which made all my junior school religious studies fall into place since the Bible allegedly (I didn’t say I was a conscientious student) says; “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church”. Since Peter means ‘rock’, I was taught that this meant that the Lord would build his church upon Peter. It appeared that since I was about to view the bones of St Peter beneath the Basilica, I was observing the evidence that he did just that.

After viewing the graves of popes’ past and the necropolis, we made our way to what was the climax of the elite tour – to view the bones of St Peter which are contained in a small box which was very difficult to see from approximately 3 metres a result, I have to say, which fell well short of climactic. Yet you could certainly make out some bones (or perhaps stones – they were too old to be identified clearly). Obviously, I have no idea whether these are the bones of St Peter, however it fits quite neatly with the scripture referred to above and what was a plausible narrative provided by our tour Guide. But this, of course, is my summary of information obtained during the tour which may contain some historical inaccuracies and is no way to be read as suggesting that I have accurately captured our tour guide’s shared wisdom (I know he would want me to say that).

After everyone in the group had been given the chance to view the bones of St Peter, we went up one level to see the first altar of the Basilica which was built upon St Peter’s grave, and then to the next level to view the second altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon Saint Peter’s grave, before we finally went up and into the Basilica and saw the current altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon the altar which was built upon Saint Peter’s grave!

After a comprehensive tour of the Basilica, it was 2.30pm and we convinced ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ that it was time for a meal and we walked across the piazza where we found a food vendor and lined up for the obligatory margherita pizzas. While in the queue, the woman standing next to me appeared suspicious. I don’t know why, she just did. Our landlord had warned us to be on the lookout for pick-pockets and with that in mind the woman looked suspicious. In front of us were three young girls whom it is my guess were having their first overseas adventure. I formed this view because one of them had her open bag hanging off her shoulder with her wallet clearly visible.

I remained concerned about the intentions of the woman standing next to me – who did not appear to be examining the luncheon menu at all but whose eyes were darting around over the people in the queue including the girl with the exposed wallet. I then observed the ‘pick-pocket’ woman reach into the American girl’s bag and put her hand on the wallet. Heroically, (and yes, I have given myself this attribution), I reached out and pushed the pick-pocket’s hand away and called to the American tourist that she was about to lose her wallet. Some commotion ensued and there was a lot of noise and movement. The thief, however, adopted the particularly clever disguise of someone standing in a luncheon queue. The American girls looked confused and afraid. The only thing which appeared abnormal to them was me shouting and creating disorder. The three American’s decided that I was the risk to their happy holiday and their wallets and they moved away quickly from the food vendor muttering among themselves about my strange behaviour. Meanwhile the prospective thief who, I re-state for the record, had her hand in the young girl’s bag when I acted, allowed the entire incident to wash over her like the consummate professional that she was.

I came away from the experience, feeling somehow ashamed and embarrassed since it appeared I was the only one behaving oddly. I wanted to approach the Americans and explain what had just happened but decided that would only end in them; calling the Swiss Guards (some of whom were already suspicious of me), yelling ‘Polizia!’, or best case, freaking the girls out even more than I already had.

Instead, we had our lunch sitting against the huge columns which mark out St Peter’s Square looking up at the Basilica, which provided time for quiet contemplation of those things that stretch the capacity of human understanding such as why St Peter’s Square is called a ‘square’ when it is, in fact, circular!

The luncheon interval also enabled us the time to consider what we would do next. And the decision was taken to explore Castel Sant’ Angelo which is situated opposite the Vatican. The Castle has served many purposes over the centuries and I am informed that there is a secret corridor from St Peter’s Basilica to the Castle used by Popes as an escape route. We took the tour of the Castle and while our family of five set off together, Leanne and I became separated from the kids. It was a particularly distressing period for Leanne and I losing our children in a foreign country in which neither the children nor ourselves spoke in the native tongue – and so we decided to have coffee.

And then after a long day, and with children safely back within our care, the pub located directly opposite our apartment was a welcome sight. And while I had been communicating with the Italians sufficiently well to get by, I was a bit daunted by the prospect of having to order beers, wine and soft drink at an Italian bar. With some trepidation and my best “Buongiorno” prepared, I walked into the pub and hesitantly approached the bar. My fears melted as the publican saw me and yelled cheerily “hello mate” with a broad Irish accent.

We left Rome the following day. It was an exciting stay and for me and I have just one criticism; the place needs some renovation. While they have done some work on the Colosseum, St Peter’s tomb is also showing its age. I am advised that the paintwork on Peter’s tomb was done by the Constantines. I am not familiar with this company but I think someone needs to check their trade papers. In the interim, it is my recommendation that if you need a builder around Rome – don’t use the Constantines.

A Long Cold Bath

 

If you think it might be difficult to eat a little chef in Bath, in my experience its the first course which is harder to swallow.

We left Stonehenge bound for Bath. We hadn’t reserved any accommodation but in the middle of winter we deemed that unlikely to be a problem. Yet, after having orbited the city of Bath for more than two hours, hotels were proving no less elusive than when we had arrived earlier during that brief part of the English day when the sun warms things up to a balmy seven degrees Celsius.

I note at this point that we did not have the benefit of technology such as a smart phone to assist in our quest for a hotel and while we did have a lap-top computer it relied on Wi-Fi for internet connection – a resource which was usually available to people who had checked into hotels however we were not, it pains me to emphasise, part of that demographic!

We continued our search for accommodation without success before happening upon what must be said was not a particularly attractive looking establishment. In all honesty, its dimly lit frontage screamed at you; ‘Do not enter this hotel’. And yet I approached what we shall call the ‘Bedrooms in Bath Hotel’ although the Receptionist pronounced the name; ‘Bedrooms in Barf’ which would not, as in the fullness of time I would discover, have been altogether misleading!

Approaching the reception desk, I asked; “Do you have any accommodation?”. “For when?” the young lady shot back. She was not wearing a badge bearing her name so I immediately decided that ‘Einstein’s Daughter’ would be an appropriate, if ironic, moniker. It was almost 8.00pm and I was standing in front of her, speaking in an Australian accent. If she was Sherlock Holmes she may have been shrewd enough to deduce that I was looking for accommodation for that very night.

However, I needed her accommodation more than she needed me. So, I politely explained that I was looking for accommodation for that evening. “How many nights?” she enquired. “Just one night”, I explained pleasantly, thinking that despite my misgivings about the look of the place, I was about to secure a hotel room for the night and after hours of searching I was starting perhaps to feel a little euphoric. Such feeling would be transitory.

“OK” she explains, “You will have to ring Bedrooms in Bath Central Reservations”. It had come to my attention, though maybe not to hers, that there was a computer monitor sitting between she and I – and I was willing to wager that it (and the box attached to it) contained all the information she needed, to establish whether a room was available in the hotel whose reception desk she was tending, and to place me into it. Therefore, puzzled, I said, “I don’t understand” which she thought meant I didn’t understand her instruction to phone Bedrooms in Bath Central Reservations and so she repeated those instructions. Incredulous that I was not making greater progress toward obtaining a room for the night. I asked Einstein’s Daughter, again, whether she had any rooms available, to which she responded, “I might have”. Euphoria … gone.

Truly, I am not making this up.

Einstein’s Daughter rang Central Reservations and then handed me the phone where I waited ‘on hold’ for around 5 minutes before speaking to someone whom I asked for accommodation at the Bedrooms in Bath Hotel. She replied that she needed to check and could I ‘hold’ and I agreed to wait. She seemed overly pleased with my decision as she responded; “brilliant” which I heard as “brill-yun”. I have no doubt that she then logged into the system which Einstein’s Daughter had at her disposal to determine whether there were rooms available at the hotel in whose ‘lobby’ I was waiting, predictably, alone.

Central Reservations advised that accommodation for the night was a ‘possibility’ before asking whether I would I like smoking or non-smoking rooms. I said; “non-smoking”. “Brill-yun” she said, and we continued to make arrangements. “How will you pay?” she asked, “Credit Card” I replied. “Brill-yun” says she. “Ok let me confirm; that’s two smoking rooms ……….” she said, self-satisfied. “Ah, that was non-smoking rooms” I said. “Oh, but we don’t have any non-smoking rooms” she says, “will that be alright?” “Yes”, I answered, deciding that asking her why we just went through my preferences for no earthly reason was not likely to advance my cause. “Brill-yun” she concludes and provided me some confirmation numbers to quote to the hotel.

Exasperated, I passed the phone back to Einstein’s Daughter who had been standing directly in front of me listening to this entire, in my mind, avoidable conversation. “How did you go?” she asked as if she had been in another solar system for the past 15 minutes. “Do you have your confirmation numbers?”. “Those would be the ones I borrowed a pen from you to write down and which are on the desk in front of you”, I thought, but didn’t say. God, we needed this accommodation badly!

She moved to her keyboard and the hitherto lifeless monitor sparked into action as she tapped away. She smiled. “I can give you two rooms side by side”. Her entire demeanour changed from playing hard to get, to being the gracious host.

As I turned to walk from the reception area, Einstein called out – what I heard as; “Will you be eating the little chef tonight?” By this stage after being given the runaround by her and her Central Reservations, I was hungry enough to eat a little chef, but I thought this woman was having a bit of sport with me. I assumed that ‘eating a little chef’ must be a uniquely Bathian euphemism for something or just a little humour, by her, perhaps. I figured I must have heard her incorrectly and I said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand?”. She said; “we have a little chef in the car park”. It was indeed conceivable that the hotel might employ a chef to cook for prospective hotel guests while they navigated their way through the Reservations process which, if my experience was any guide, would take most people past a meal time. But no – the Little Chef was the name of a restaurant located in the hotel car park. When this became apparent to me she said, “so do you think you’ll be eating there?” Initially I thought she was going to tell me to call Central Reservations to book a table (in which case she would no longer be around to confirm that this entire account is true) but fortuitously all she wanted to do was to give me a discount voucher for use at the restaurant.

So, that evening we ate the Little Chef!

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Breakfast

I told the travel agent that I would tell all my friends about our holiday experience including the free breakfast vouchers he provided us and he said in response; “I’m very sorry to hear that”.

It was late when we touched down in Honolulu and made our way to the reception desk at our Waikiki hotel. I produced our pre-paid accommodation voucher and said to the man at reception, who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt open to his waist, exposing more of him than good taste might require, “We have a reservation for Brannon, that’s spelled B-R-A….” “No you don’t,” he interrupted, “I received advice from your travel agent that your booking has been cancelled and you are now staying at another hotel”. And he went on to describe its location.

I might have responded; “Sure, ok, no problem, we’ve been travelling for 13 hours, we’ve got a fully paid voucher entitling us to stay here in this hotel, I’ve just paid $40 for a cab to get to this hotel – but you say someone else has dictated that we should stay at a hotel which; was not of our choice, is of indeterminate quality, and which is located at a destination unknown to me – yeah sure – I’m good with that, where do go I from here?” However, that’s not what I said and an uncomfortable conversation with the ‘Hawaiian Shirt’ followed.

I learned that there had been a commercial dispute between the travel company, ostensibly acting on our behalf in Hawaii, and the hotel we had booked. The result was that the travel company had transferred our reservation to another hotel without our knowledge let alone – our consent. The Hawaiian Shirt offered us a room at his hotel (a room which we had already booked and paid for) but said we would have to pay the full rate in addition to the payment we had already made to stay there. We had no intention of paying twice for the same room and it was clear he had no intention of making good our original reservation, so we had to find our way to the other hotel.

My disposition, not at its peak following my interactions at our original hotel, was not improved when, upon arrival at the new hotel my family, of five persons, was told that our booking was for four people and that if we wanted an additional bed we would have to pay a further $40 per night. I checked to see that it was not April Fool’s Day since I was struggling to believe this chain of events was just random. The American’s have an expression they call ‘hazing’ in which a newcomer (usually to a place of employment) has various practical jokes inflicted upon them by their playful and welcoming workmates. I felt I may be in the middle (or hopefully the end) of a ‘hazing’ as a newbie to the Hawaiian Isles. Unfortunately, after a huge day of buses, airport terminals, air travel and cabs I had left my sense of humour in an overhead locker somewhere and this just wasn’t funny anymore! I informed the hotel receptionist what should have been self-evident, since we were all standing in front of him, that we are a family of five, and he responded with; “my advice is that there are four people”. I pointed out that we had been travelling for six weeks across several continents and our family had neither increased nor decreased in size during that time, that I had booked for five persons, paid for five persons and that I struggled to understand how our travel agent would rationalise my family by one person during the final leg of our trip.

The receptionist continually pointed to a computer screen and a document (no doubt a print from the same screen) which unsurprisingly seemed to accord with one another to ‘confirm’ that there were just four people in our family tonight. I felt that I was in a scene from John Cleese’s hilariously funny ‘Faulty Towers’ but somehow the humour I obtained watching John Cleese treat his guests
abominably had deserted me this evening. After considerable debate, Leanne and I were permitted to keep our three children and we made our way to our room at some time after midnight. The room was ordinary – it was not what I had booked or paid for – but it was now well past the hour when Cinderella’s pumpkin lost its magic and all the fight had gone out of me for that night.

….But it returned when the phone rang the following morning at 8.30am. It was Keith, the General Manager of our travel company with his explanation of how we had been “upgraded” to our new hotel, which I note in passing was not on Waikiki Beach as was the hotel we had booked. It was, nevertheless fabulous, according to Keith, that he had managed to upgrade our booking! Keith’s enthusiasm for our ‘upgrade’, I am sure he hoped, would be contagious. However it was not. And the only potential contagion that I felt that morning lay within the confines of my upgraded hotel room. Then, perhaps forgetting that we had been ‘upgraded’, Keith said, “we contacted the hotel to let our customers know about the changes we had to make”, in response to which I told him that nobody bothered to notify us and after 13 hours of travel I was not impressed to be told that my booking had been cancelled. “Oh, we tried to contact you too” he said pathetically. I didn’t even debate that claim. Instead I said, “when we arrived at our upgraded hotel, they only had a booking for four people”.

“No, that’s not right” said Keith. “Yes Keith, that is right”, I retorted with more than a hint of frustration since it was me, and not Keith, who had been arguing with two separate hotel reception desks until very late the previous evening. “There are five people on my list”, said Keith. I said, “well the fellow at the reservations desk only had a booking for four people and wanted to charge us more for an additional bed”. “No, no” said Keith, “You have five in your party”. I said, “yes I know how many children I have, it is the hotel you chose for me, Keith, that seems to have a problem accepting that”.

Keith, it appeared, was no stranger to dealing with customers who had been inconvenienced by his organisation and he was now ready to make his big play, “We have given you free breakfast” he said excitedly. We had noted that we had some vouchers for breakfast included in our room key satchel upon check-in, but as I said to him, “we only have vouchers for four people”. “Oh, that’s the hotel’s issue we can’t do anything about that”, he said back-pedalling at the same speed as he had raced to make the offer in the first place. So, I said, “Keith, as a demonstration of good faith, why don’t you throw in another breakfast voucher?”. “I can’t do that” he said, “I don’t have the authority”. I pursued that with him but he would not budge. Keith was the General Manager of a travel company and had just admitted that he was either unable (but perhaps more likely – unwilling) to authorise a breakfast voucher. I would have been embarrassed to admit to either!

I wanted to ask him whether he had selected which of my children should not eat that morning but thought that might be lowering myself to his level, so I concluded by saying; “Keith, this is my first experience with your company and I will be telling all my friends about my trip to Hawaii. “I’m very sorry to hear that” he said.