Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Coming home

Back home now. The heat and energy of Greece seems a long way away. I was in the lobby of the hotel at 5.45am on Monday, and the others gathered - two needing calls to wake them! We took some fruit from the dining room, stashed our bags into the not-quite-big-enough boot and drove quietly away. The water in the bay was absolutely calm, it seemed terrible to be leaving.

In the back seat one of our passengers was strident - what name had we given the voice in the satnav? How fast were we going? Shouldn't we be more to the left? More to the right? Could the window be opened? Closed? Would it be better if she drove? Why couldn't she take the wheel? What did we mean - insurance? What insurance? Surely that roadsign said Athens?

We had the mountain road to ourselves, stopping for a pee and a coffee at a garage. The man produced two Nescafés instantly, and then brewed two Greek coffees on a tiny meths stove. He also gave us each a ring of hard, slightly spicey dry bread, and a glass of water. Patrick took over the driving. On and on we went, through the magnificent mountains, with those wild flowers thronging the verges. We reached the sea again approaching Epidavros, with islands scattered in the mist and the water still calm. Again we whizzed over the Corinth canal, looking so small and grubby - that is the impression it gives now. On the motorway, thank goodness the traffic was light. On the outskirts of Athens we stopped again for breakfast - fragrant fresh orange juice, delicious little warm sweet pastries, a dull baguette, and coffee. Patrick took an opportunity to say to me what he thought our strident passenger was all about....

I had no address for the airport to hand and the satnav could only direct us to Athens Centre, so we switched the voice off and followed the airplane signs. We saw a horrendous traffic jam on the other side of the road, and ambulance lights - thank god our side was clear. We had to get two of us to check-in by 10.30 or 11am, and a hold-up might have been expensive. But Patrick cruised us in to the Car Rental carpark, we handed the car over, sorted the paperwork and said our goodbyes. The other three headed up to the check-in, and I put my case into storage and rang my friend in Athens. I took a bus into the city, feeling really exhausted, and the day grew hotter as the X95 headed into the traffic.

I had a short walk to the Benaki Museum - past the big government building with the pom-pom guards slightly ludicrously on parade at the front, and then into the blissful cool and quiet of the National Gardens. Birds were singing, girls pulled boughs down to smell the blossom on the trees, old men disputed on benches, a middle-aged couple in the shade of the café terrace looked lovingly into each other's eyes... A tiny paradise in the heat of the city.

I crossed the road to the museum, passing a police bus parked right across the road, and a line of officers with lots of guns and riot shields in front of them. A small group of rather academic-looking people held up a huge banner - something about Europe. Slightly scary. Across the road I went into the Museum, once a private house and now a marvellous rich collection illustrating the whole history of Hellenic culture. This must be one of the best museums in Europe - focussed, calm, confident, accessible, friendly and rich. It was filled, filled with wonders which I cannot describe here, but I urge you to go there as soon as you possibly can. When I left, they gave me (on request) two beautiful books - a set of essays about the provenance of some recent acquisitions, and a catalogue of the replicas they sell in their excellent shop.

My friend came to pick me up, in her new Mini-Cooper. She explained how protesters like to demonstrate in that particular street because the King used to live there. She cruised effortlessly through the mad traffic, completely at home. She took me to lunch in the Dionysos restaurant looking out to the Acropolis, and feasted me with divine wine and salad and fish... a superb meal in one of the most spectacular places in the whole world. I cannot really describe how I feel about this generosity - it was amazing. We talked and talked, about our friends and their recent calamity, about our children, about Greece and Greek culture. She said we could go on to another museum, with more ancient artefacts - and when we got there, we had a parking place directly outside the door which seemed miraculous. We felt we had someone on our side - but, the museum had closed its doors just two minutes before. Alas.

However, it seemed sensible to make use of the time by having some refreshment, so we sat in a cafe and had ice-cream and orange juice... and carried on talking. Then she took me on a leisurely journey through the city, past the university, out into the suburbs towards the airport. The driving we encountered was unbelievable - manic, mad, dangerous, stupid, terrifying, unbelievable... but she took it all in her stride. The light on the land was shining - she said, this is one of the marks of Attica - the famous, glorious light, which she misses every time she is away from her country. I could see why. Saying goodbye was almost impossible. I wanted to stay forever, in that light and heat and that friendship - but of course, I had to go.

I had lots of time at the airport, felt unhurried, bought something light to read as my excellent C. Darwin might be just too much. Two new friends from the conference tapped me on the shoulder - they were on their way home to Brussels, looking tanned and smiling. My plane was called. I chose my seat near a window. We left on time, with some space around us. We flew right over Athens, then up the Adriatic with the coast of Italy visible all the way. Venice lay glittering beneath us, like jewellery. Then into the darkness of the mountains, and light sleep, before we circled down into London. Cold, cold wind, darkness. Something rather ratty and tired about the North Terminal at Gatwick though it is not really very old... but the carpets are worn, and the ceiling panels are loose and dirty. Andrew arrived from Brighton to meet me, and we cruised home. How odd Faversham looked, after all the Greek style of things, even though I had only been away for six days. Home. Bed. Sleep.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Hotel, scenery, food, etc

Writing this in the hotel lobby as people prepare to leave after a very successful conference. Some are staying on to enjoy the pool, beach, food, views etc. This is an exceptional hotel - very very friendly and offering superb service and help, and wonderful food, at a very reasonable price - low even!

I am leaving at 6am with three others in the car, sharing costs. I am so fortunate as to be able to meet up with my friend Daphne who lives in Athens, and can take a little time off work, because we will be at the airport before midday for someone's flight, but mine does not go till 9.30pm. It will be a long day!

This morning I walked with another delegate up the lane beside the hotel, through some old olive groves, to see the view from the hilltop. Things are clearly changing with villas and new houses appearing in the fields. One house had beautiful flowers all around and two very large barkign dogs, who aroused their owner's interest. He came out to see who we were and told us he had lived there for 12 years but it's now getting like France, he said - with burglaries all the time. He has wire fences and his guard-dogs to help. Trouble in Paradise.

We just had a wonderful buffet lunch on the terrace, with Greek salad to start (of course), this time varied with tiny little cheese pastries, and red cabbage chopped raw into the lettuce. And there were freshly cooked octopus and deep-fried mushrooms on the hot table, with masses of other options. Yummy.

After farewells and all that for the people leaving this afternoon, I shall go to the pool and catch a few rays. If I have the energy I can wander into town and shop - but, really, why? I saw some very nice handmade pottery the other day and wondered if I might take some back, but - well, I don't need them. It all has to be lugged back, too.

This has been a very heartwarming, international, successful meeting and everyone is pretty much on a high. We have made new friends and plans for the next one next year. I certainly hope to come here again, privately or otherwise. It really is lovely.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Porto Heli - the place

Porto Heli – being here

Today (Friday) I spent a lot of time alone, though I am not sure why. I saw others in groups going and doing their thing in the time before the conference starts, but somehow I didn't find the courage to join them, so after breakfast and admin (posting yesterday's account online) I set off to walk to the village.

It's a lovely place, untouched by the worst aspects of modern so-called development and I was told that select millionaires have houses here for that reason. Sean Connery has a house + helipad just up the hill, and the man who invented Bic biros owns an estate on one of the headlands protecting the bay.

One of the first things I saw on my walk was a signboard for tourists showing where the restaurants are etc, and I was very struck by how circular the bay is. I wonder, I wonder, is this a drowned volcanic crater, or perhaps like one of the huge circular depressions such as we saw yesterday? No information is immediately available but I would love to know.

While I stood and looked at the aerial view on the noticeboard, I was approached by a group of three people, who turned out to be an old Greek lady, very pretty and in sunglasses, and a man and a woman - slightly frazzled looking Norwegians. They were Jehovah's Witnesses on the prowl. They offered me the Watchtower which I declined, and told me about their mission. She took out a bible all in Norwegian and asked if she could read some to me... I agreed, wondering which text they would employ. I expected something from the book of Revelation, but it turned out to be the beginning of Timothy 3, an account of the Last Days. As she read it, people would be obsessed by money and outward things, terrible problems would be seemingly insoluble. No-one would be grateful for anything and children would refuse to obey their parents. This struck me all as very funny – a blatant attempt to make me feel worried and guilty. I wondered how to respond, whether to ask if they thought all this insousiance and wickedness was discernible in me, or whether I was supposed to feel that all this was directly relevant to me in any other way. I said, it seemed to me that people must have read these words and recognised the problem every year since they were written two thousand years ago, and would continue to do so for the next 2000 years. Anyway, I thanked them and walked on, leaving them looking even more despondent than they had been at the beginning. Maybe they thought when I agreed to chat at the beginning that they had a possible convert here. Wrong.

I saw some ants running about on the pavement and thought how much these missionaries and I myself were like these ants, programmed to do what we have to do, and not really able to deviate much, once we have a belief we choose to hold onto. Deep, eh? I walked on.

Boats line the quay in a haphazard way, with huge gin-palaces moored next to ancient fishing boats. There is a lovely replica galleon ready for tourist trips, and many small yachts and motor-sailors, and boats for hire. I saw some fish, though not many and mostly very small, in the slightly murky waters. It takes a while to work out that you can actually see quite a long way down into the water, as it is not crystal clear... but I think I would swim in it.

I walked along the wide boulevard behind the quay, with cafes and various shops of not much interest to me, up to the little orthodox church out near the edge of the houses, then on along a path round to the next bay. How peaceful and lovely it all is. I sat on a rather tall bench swinging my feet like a child, and contemplating a lot of things. For a while I felt quite sad but cheered myself up with the recollection of my good fortune to be here, and then sat there for a while reading. What is my book? Well, in this centenary year, I have been reading 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin. I find it quite hard going, because it is (to modern tastes) quite heavily punctuated, though he does relax a bit once he gets going. It is like being in the company of a very wise old uncle, a retired professor perhaps, someone so completely at home in his subject that he can take great detours round an idea and expect you to keep up, no matter how long the sentences. But, my goodness what a read! It is fascinating, exhilarating, informative, challenging and exasperating in turns, and also funny and rather transparent. He did not know, of course, about DNA, but time and again he approaches it, pointing out the facts and oddities of inheritance. And he is almost literally in love with the wonders of the animal and plant worlds, the perfection of the eye, the magic of fishes' tails, the huge list of adaptation which the swim-bladders of fish have undergone, the probable beginnings of seals' flippers, the paradox of upland geese still having webbed feet, how some kinds of ants enslave other kinds, and more. All the time he is on the lookout for what (we now call) creationists would say, and why their arguments are insufficient. No wonder this book took the world by the scruff of the neck and the world is still reeling in shock.

I read a little, turned back, fought off awareness of a blister maybe starting inside my sandal, thought about lunch. It seemed a good idea to head back to the hotel as the day grew hotter. On the way I rang my bank to find out why I was unable to use my card. I must say, once they had checked out that I really was me, they did do the biz and after about eight or nine minutes of talking and also waiting for the next person to come back to me, they did switch my card back on. The wonders of modern technology.

I went into a supermarket which was a rather calmer version of our own dear Tesco at home with almost exactly the same brands in the same arrangement of shelves, but with my gourmande eye open I quickly found some local honey to bring home, and a jar of olive pate, so Andrew is is luck. Back at the hotel I ate a delicious Greek salad bythe pool (the chef being one Steve from Northampton), and then went inside for the first meetings of our conference.

Now it's bedtime. I could stay downstairs and talk with some of the others who have gathered here from all over Europe, but I could do with some quiet time. Here in my room the only English-language TV is BBC World News which does its best to fulfill Jehovah's Witness prophecies, being full of disaster and doom in a maddening torrent of truncated stories, all jingles and bluster, and nary a smile or a moment of cheerfulness along the way. What a bloody waste of time and effort. The BBC used to be THE BEST and now it's reduced to jamboree of dread, pain, violence, corruption, humiliation, snippetery, and confusion. Oh woe! (Didn't I say 'Eheu' yesterday?)

Ooh, I forgot to say, I bought a lovely sarong thing – raspberry pink and white, and wore it this evening and everyone said how nice. Now I am going to bed with Charles. We have just finished a very good chapter called 'Difficulties on Theory' and will be starting the next chapter which is called 'Instinct'.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Porto Heli - first day

Day two in Porto Heli.

Wake to see the dawn over the bay, shower and go down to breakfast on the broad terrace overlooking the sea. Not sure where to sit, whether to join a table or sit alone, which is what I do. I have brought with me (at Andrew's suggestion) my own home muesli and glad about that as the cereals offered are either cornflakes or chocolate cornflakes. Plus of course they have a buffet with a great bowl of yoghurt, one of peaches, a tray of biscuits, and a hot buffet of eggs, bacon, etc etc, and platters of cheese, breads, ham, croissants, etc., and fruit juices and teas and coffees... So I have one orange juice, my wholemeal muesli, one tea and one banana. Fab.

I am joined by Michael, a Dane who lives very near my own uncle and aunt in Espergaerde, or however it's spelled, in Denmark, and in fact he knows their house. He is very polite as most Danes are, and stops eating if I am speaking, so I have to make sure he is not about to eat some of his bacon if I want to make a remark. We have a very interesting talk about loads of things and by the end of the meal when everyone is disussing what to do for the day, he and two other people have agreed to come with me up to Epidavros to see the shrine of Asklepios. The others are Viveka, who travelled with me yesterday from Athens, and Toni, a plucky widow from Bayswater. We set off at 10.30.

We head off back up the road by which we arrived yesterday and it is a long way. Michael was here last year and took the trouble then to explore some of the countryside so he points out things we had not noticed such as a series of absolutely massive circular holes, collapsed caves apparently, on the side of a mountain. These holes are at least a hundred metres across, possibly bigger...the scale is difficult to assess at a distance.

We see a woman on a donkey, sitting on a raised saddle softened with a sheepskin. She looks young, is wearing black, and riding side-saddle. We pass a flock of long-legged sheep being taken down the road by a shepherd walking behind them, no dog. He waves us past.

The car park for the archeological site is huge and despite this being early in the season there are already a dozen or so coaches there. Hordes of young people swirl past us as we walk up through the pines towards the entrance. Toni and I go to the loo before we go in – immaculately clean, spacious, managed by a charming lady who offers us extra wipes as we are drying our hands. We buy our tickets, 6 euros but reduced to 3 for Toni who is 83, and walk up the granite steps and paths to the theatre.

It is colossal. Not having bought the guidebook I don't know exactly how many it might seat but I guess a couple of thousand. It looks to be almost complete – with about 34 ranks of seats, and each of the 12 segments holding about 15 seats in the top row. The front row of seats has special curved benches offering a little more comfort and a lot of swank. The place is filled with children or teenagers – all excited and calling out to each other, clapping, waiting to be able to stand in the middle of the stage and DO something. Groups sing and the audience falls quiet. Two youngsters - skilled dramatists already – perform a piece, which looks as if it could be from the Oresteia for all I know – and again the audience falls quiet to listen to them, a young boy and a girl, acting out a very adult argument, something ancient and universal. They get one, two rounds of applause. A teacher tries in vain to hush her group sitting right up at the top – she is dropping a coin onto the stone in the middle of the stage to show them how perfect the acoustics are. We can clearly hear it tinkling. My initial irritation at having the place so overrun with these rowdy children changes into a deep pleasure as I realise this is how such a theatre should be experienced. The young are a living recreation of what the audiences must have been like when it was being used for real, and some of them are so obviously passionate and engaged with it, while others are just running about and enjoying being there.

Eventually we move off to the rest of the site, seeing the stoney remnants of all the buildings which were first 'discovered' in the 19th century and are now being partially reconstructed. A hostel area, square but divided into two halves, presumably to isolate people with contagious illnesses. Another large square area for ritual meals (or possibly a gymnasium complex) with a 'fountain' or spring behind it, and with colonnades down each side offering shade. The Romans later built an Odeum in the middle of this space, complete with its own little theatre seating. In a widened water-valley the builders created a stadium for sports, the valley sides offering excellent banked seating – first in some sort of bricks and later in fine stone. The Tholos is one area they are rebuilding, in blissfully white marble – a circular temple devoted to the chthonic mysteries of Asklepios, where marvellous statuary was uncovered. ('Chthonic' is one of my favourite words, look it up.)

We saw the Abaton, where only the sick were allowed in (their families banished to worry in the theatre, no doubt), while the invalids purified themselves with special well-water, read stone inscriptions about what was to happen to them, had to sleep the night – their sleep represented the death of their disease - and during the night, something happened.... the god visited them and brought healing. The god was originally Malos or Manateas, later Apollo, later Asklepios, and later still supported by other gods – Aphrodite, Artemis and Themis. The Romans plundered the site, then pirates attacked it, then the Romans came back and took it over and revived it, but under the various blows of Alaric Goths, censorship by Christian emperors banning cults, and eventually a couple of good old earthquakes, it fell silent.

It is a prehistoric site - Mycenean at least, possibly older - with great phases in the 5th, 4th and 3rd centuries BC - which kept going till the sixth century AD, in a beautiful protected valley, spreading out under trees and at this time of year filled with wild flowers and bees and butterflies. I can only describe it as ecstatically lovely, and no wonder that is why it was so successful. They had all these herbs, and the sense of place to help them. Medical instruments were found here, and it was a place of learning as well as healing and just thinking about all the thousands of people who came here, the families as well as the ailing – these all had to be housed and fed and entertained in some way. Holiday, healing, learning, catering, exercise, news, religion, faith, duplicity, fame, disaster, everything was here. I was not surprised to see Aphrodite's name here – no doubt love did a good trade too. Even today, tourists come along to gaze and wonder and frolic as we saw in the theatre. I loved it. We wandered round, watching the workmen fitting a new piece of stone to one of the huge columns in the Tholos, looking at the flowers, marvelling at it all.

At 1.30 we had lunch in the restaurant which is so convenient – salads and I had a pasta to see what it was like. Too much.

We drove home back down to the coast, full of thoughts. We saw another woman on donkey, again in black, riding like a queen sidesaddle on her sheepskin saddle, high over the donkey's back. Michael diverted us to see one of those huge collapsed caves – down a little track between olive trees, then into a steeply descending entrance of rough whitewashed stone steps inside a pretty little enclosure of railings. We went down into the earth itself, chthonic indeed. The path twisted and turned with light barely visible from the other end, and the rock ceiling above us getting so low we had to stoop. We emerged into the side of this huge circular hole, with the rough, loose, red, stoney, friable rock all around us. The stairs took us to a path which led in either direction round the bowl. To the right, a tiny whitewashed shed (chapel) with icons and a simple iconostasis. To the left the path was narrow and pushed between shrubbery. The rock walls towered above us, but also pushed out over us so we were literally underneath these slabs of pebbley stuff, which had huge cracks in it, and to either side we saw huge amounts of this stuff which had fallen in the clearly recent past. I hated being there. It was all too clear how dangerous it was. Michael led us on, and there was another little chapel, directly opposite the first. A hawk flew up from the bushes. I tried a little call - and the Echo came back, making me even more afraid this might start a rock fall. We hurried out. There was no signage there, no indication of how old these extraordinary holes are. I will have to look it up – are they 10,000 years old or 1,000? They could be collapsed cave systems, but I'd like to know if the basic rock is volcanic or sedimentary, and why are these holes this huge size? Toni did not join us on this little expedition as she said she is claustrophobic, but I thought she was very wise. She turned back to the car the moment she saw the entrance.

I was glad to get back to the hotel and the sea again. It was a marvellous trip no doubt but I had done all the driving and it was tiring. So I came up to my room for a rest, worked on Wedndesday's blog, changed, and went for a swim. Beach or pool? I will try the beach another time. The pool was cool and perfect once I had done my self-abusing thing of getting in slowly. I talked with another swimmer, Marie and said 'Who'd have thought it? Here I am in a millionaire pool, in a land of Biblical beauty, having the time of my life?' and she loved this and has been quoting it to everyone and so now today (the next morning) people have been quoting me to myself.

We ate at the Taverna next door, generally agreed to be the best-priced, friendliest and nicest food in the village, so I have not yet been to the village just a few hundred yards round the bay. That is for this morning. Some of the others were going to stay up and talk but I came home, rang Andrew, and then crashed right out.

Please comment if you want to! Means I can connect with you.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Getting there

Awake at 3am, trying to think of everything I need to do, pack, finish, arrange. Dopey in the dark, stuffing things into my case. Andrew remembers I should take my own fave muesli (Dorset spelt) and that goes into my case at the last minute. Befrore 4 we are off, collecting Duncan en route, as he is catching a plane about the same time as me, to his house in Turkey.

The roads are empty, we get to Gatwick in good time but instead of Duncan and I being able to share a breakfast, I need the North Terminal and he the South. It's all so huge now. I remember my first visits to Gatwick when it was just one large room. Getting through all the security systems is as time-consuming as ever, queuing, taking off shoes, packing make-up into small plastic bags, being given and then giving back little bits of cardboard. Hardly any time to grab a paper and a bottle of water, though I do snatch some sunblock at Glamourville or whatever they call the make-up sales area.

Patrick – my unknown fellow traveller – has preceded me to the gate. He is determinedly laid back, about where we sit, where we are in the queue, etc. The plane (Airbus 319?) is luckily not totally full and we have a bit of space about us, sitting either side of the aisle. The flight is smooth, we arrive 10 mins early, our bags reappear in exemplary fashion and we emerge into a long hallway. Our car-hire booth is not far along the corridor... The child on duty inside is efficient but hard to understand, and we struggle through details of insurance, what is or is not covered, excess waivers, drivers' details, passports, deposits and the lack of a GPS system. Eventually I go and buy first an atlas (23 euros) and a satnav (269 euros) because I spent quite a long time the night before trying to navigate our route through the mountains of the Peloponese, and the thought of driving bad roads in an unknown left-hand drive car in a country with a mad alphabet has scared me too much. This purchase turns out to be a great help.

We wait for the planes to arrive from Copenhagen and Amsterdam, bearing the two other people who we hope will share the drive and car-hire costs with us. We don't know either of them. Patrick has their names on 2 pieces of paper, but he's been waiting at the wrong place and I rush to intercept the first batch of people emerging into that long hallway. I pounce on one or two single women who look as if they might be coming to our conference, but they stare at me blankly when I demand 'Are you Viveka?' Then I see her, undoubtedly, I think, she is one of us. And she is! She looks very like my sister Sheila, in fact more like Sheila than I do, and she turns out to be Swedish (although on a flight from Denmark), and I wonder if her style is something Swedish and accounts for sister's look.

We grab a coffee and roll from a not-brilliant-but-welcome stall, and sit in the smokey atmosphere, sizing things up. Tiredness and stress are beginning to make themselves known and I am anxious about the drive ahead. Eventually Karen arrives and we buy more water bottles and set off to the car. It seems a long walk, though only 200 metres, because there is a massive, huge, dark, sweaty, rolling, banging thunderstorm advancing on us, and fat drops of rain start to hit us. I hear Karen behind me asking loudly how far it is to the car. I have no idea...I am heading for the car-hire park, with its flags fluttering, somewhere in the distance.

The car turns out to be not a Ford Focus as imagined but a BMW and the first problem is we need to pull it forward to get our luggage into the boot. But how to start the damn thing. No ignition, no visible means of starting it. A lorry driver stops to help us...the fob itself is inserted into a little cave in the dashboard. Then you press a large, well-labelled button saying START STOP. Duh! I knew that.

We try to pack our 4 bags in, and they barely fit. Thank god we fixed to book a 4-door car and not a 2-door. A man comes and explains a few more things about the controls... the lights, the amazing engine cut-out controlled by the clutch. Many of my readers will know all about these things, but to me they seem like miracles and wonders. We have only a smidgeon of petrol but the garage is not far, we are told. My passengers ask me if I am a good driver and I assure them I am, but this car is so different from my own tiny Fiat 500 and so loaded it all feels very heavy. We edge out into the traffic. We get to the garage, and after wrestling to get into reverse so the filler is on the right side, I start to put petrol in. Or rather, nothing happens. At that very moment, no doubt triggered by the huge storm, the electricity in the garage completely cuts out. The attendants shrug, spreading their arms in a classic and comic gesture of ignorance...

A Frenchman says he knows nothing. We wait, and then I ask how far to the nearest next garage. 10km a man says, on the Makmoura road (something like that). So we set off again into the furious traffic streams, not sure if we have enough gas, and not sure where we are going as the satnav is insisting on saying nothing helpful either.

However we find our garage, I luckily have enough cash to pay for it as none of my cards work in the Shell machine, the satnav starts to say where we should go, and we get going. I start to feel more at home with the controls, and we pick up speed, only to hit a massive traffic jam. I am worrying we won't get to the hotel in time for the wedding.

Along the motorway to Corinth with no-one is really obeying lane discipline, I suddenly notice that the little white van ahead of me has a logo on the back, one among many. It is the Al-Anon logo, the circle in the equilateral triangle, red on white. I suddenly know everything is going to be alright. With lots of loud driving instructions from Karen in the back seat, we get to Corinth, passing huge smelly industrial sites along the way, and crossing the Corinth canal almost without noticing it. How small it looks. I remember our ship the Dunera squeezing through it when I was on a schooltrip to Greece in about 1963, and it seemed a mighty work of engineering then but now, with modern roads sweeping across it, it looks like a grubby backwater left over from the Industrial Revolution. How sad, or since I think this is the right place to say it: Eheu.

We turned south toward Epidavros, and stopped at a roadside cafe for a pee and a drink of water. Viveca bought us each a banana. We saw in the loo that paper is not to be flushed down but put into a bin. Patrick took over the driving, announcing that he had not driven in Europe since 15 years ago, and that as a motorbike rider he hates driving cars. This last stage of the journey was a slightly scary trip along mountain roads of very mixed quality, steep edges, spectacular views, empty landscapes, with hardly any people around except totally mad Greek drivers coming round bends very fast and not always on the right side of the road. We saw areas of burnt forest, and gradually descended to the coast, arriving at the hotel at 6.30. My room is lovely, facing the sea, with a balcony. Patrick came to show me how the lights work (all based on the key of course, which just as with the BMW) you have to slot into a hole in the wall for things to happen.

I unpacked, showered, went down and bought a glass of wine from the bar and wandered out onto the restaurant terrace to look at the sea. How totally lovely it is. Diana and Dodi were here in this very bay in his yacht immediately before the fatal trip to Paris. Because access is so difficult and winding, it's not really very developed at all, and very old fashioned.

I was introduced to the bridegroom Dermott and some of his family and the other people here. A lot are Irish and not only sound it but look it – those unmistakable Irish faces. I thought David's Jo would probably know someone... We drifted across to the beach just across the road, and there as the sun headed for bed, Dermott and his beautiful bride Tammy made their vows and lots of people talked about how it had all come about. It was completely lovely. We had the sun setting over the water on one side of the sky and the moon just risen on the other. Boats lazed at their moorings nearby, the waves tumbled lazily onto the sand, and we headed lazily back to the banquet prepared for us. The whole hotel is very clean and newly painted, lovely colours, nothing too flash, just simple and elegant and comfortable. There was far too much food, lots of music to dance to including some very basic Greek Zorba-type stuff with fancy footwork, and an adorable two-and-a-half-year old little girl in best dress having the time of her life, watching everything, dancing, joining in....her speciality was a kind of break-dance in which she sat on the floor and twiddled round on her bottom with her feet off the floor. Enchanting.

I was in bed about midnight, exhausted. What a day.

(That was Wednesday 6th. Loading this up on Thursday 7th from the hotel lobby, and I will write my account of today later on. We went to Epidavros). Now going for a swim.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Solo to Greece

I am off on my own tomorrow morning, to Porto Heli in Greece, for a conference. OK - the business part runs from Friday to Sunday but I've booked a bit of time either side to laze about. As a preparation for my visit to the pool or the beach, I have done something I've never done before, and that is book in for a fake tan. Wow! The results have been most gratifying.
I went to my lovely facials-expert Lynn Taylor in Whitstable last night and she exfoliated me more or less all over, and then applied some brownish muddy looking-stuff, promising it would mostly wash off with my shower in the morning, which it did.
I am left looking really bronzed. I don't usually go this brown even after a long summer but everyone assures me it looks brilliant. At the yoga class this morning they advised I should not tell anyone about what I have done but hint I have just come back from a naughty weekend in the Bahamas....
Well, maybe, maybe not.
I think I'd better wait and see what happens when I dive into the delicious-looking pool at the Nautica Bay Hotel - will I be surrounded by a horrid tell-tale cloud of tan washing off into the water?
Another friend told me how she had done this fake tan thing once, and (as she is not an avid sun-worshipper) she alone of her friends got steadily paler as their holiday progressed and her tan washed off.
Anyway, you get the idea - I will at least look fit and glowing when I arrive and as long as I cover myself in sunscreen to make sure I don't get burned, I will probably get away with it.
I was disappointed that the ferry service from Piraeus is so much cut back this season, so that there is no practicable service to get me to the hotel in time for a wedding which is happening tomorrow in the early evening on the beach. So, a group of us will meet up at the airport and share the hire of a car to get us there.
The wedding sounds wonderful - two people I have never met but who were kind enough to include me in their party when they heard I was going to be there.
I am so excited about it all.
Right now, I should be packing and remembering all those stupid bits and pieces which make a trip easier - plug adaptors, passport, phrase book, something to read, toothpicks, blah blah blah, and I have some French homework to do - practicing the conditional tense I think - but I thought I would just get this posted for you.
When I was 60 last September, someone emailed me to say '60 is the new 10' and by George she was right. It's a gas. I just feel I can (at last) be myself, go places, muck about, say what I want. It feels rather risky and hedonistic, but so what? I guess this is how lots of people live their lives all the time, fully engaged with what is possible, and not always worrying and feeling guilty.
When I get back next week, I have at least two excellent projects to come back to: the exhibition of icons at St Peter's Church, Oare, as part of the Canterbury Festival ( and for which I am on the committee, and helping to promote the start-up of a new arts venue in the middle of Faversham this September. Both these projects are the result of literally years of dedicated work by other people and it feels very positive to be asked to help them at this stage, when we need to get public involvement.
The arts have not been particularly well-served in Kent, compared to what we saw when we were in Germany and Barcelona recently. And going to Greece for a few days, to see where so much of our culture sprang from, will be another boost. It would be lovely to spend more time there but maybe this will be just a little taster for further trips in the future.
Next time you hear from me I should be in Porto Heli.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

More hits

At the last count, our little video on Youtube has had over 11,000 hits, amazing. Now i've put some more footage up there, this time about the wonderful world of Henry Dagg, our neighbour in Faversham. Specifically it's about his present work - the Pin Barrel Harp commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, almost too complicated to be described and worth a view...just put Pin Barrel Harp into the search box and see the six little clips up there. Those are steadily accumulating hits themselves.

Sunday, 12 April 2009


As you probably know we recorded some video footage on board the Balmoral during the storms and I posted a clip onto YouTube. The name of the movie is 'Big Wave Hits Cabin Window' and I am thrilled to tell you it has now received well over 9,000 hits. It has a five star rating and quite a few comments.
It has also generated some links to other people's pages about that voyage including some very queasy-making footage of the ship filmed from dry land and heaving about in the water like a stricken animal.
Although we are now 3 or more months on from the voyage I still have not established sufficient peace in my mind to write to Fred. Olsen and tell them how angry I am about it. I hope to be able to compose a calm letter during this month and will share it with you.
I have today chosen to 'Monetise' this blogpage. Apparently Google chooses suitable ads to put beside my blog and if anyone clicks on them I might get paid something. They send a cheque, apparently.
This presents me with a challenge - how to make this blog SO gripping that it gets a huge following. Now, let me see.......

Thursday, 9 April 2009

What is travelling?

If I walk into our town centre, a matter of a few hundred yards, it usually turns into a journey and in my book, that is travelling.

For instance, I met someone I haven't seen for many years and stopped to chat, and within three minutes, three other people joined us. One said she had met a friend of hers on that same spot just half an hour before. It was as if that place, just outside an optician's shop, on a corner in the middle of the town, was one of those 'perfect places', which has clearly had that function of gathering people together for a few moments, for years - centuries, even.

Meanwhile, back in my own street, the archaeological dig which has been going on for the last few weeks has reached some sort of finish. No more digging. There will be houses built on the site shortly, but for now, the golden brown subsoil is revealed in a fantastic pattern of holes, gullies, pits, trenches, caverns, scoops and smooth-sided craters. There have been eight or nine skilled excavators working here, using trowels for the most part. We could see the bones of a buried dog, and pieces of brickwork and old stone floors gradually revealed as they worked. Now I hear one of them will be on site during tomorrow to explain what they found...a Saxon house, lots of pottery going back to the seventh century, coins, a bucket, a thimble, pins and more. It seems the alignment of the dwelling was not for our present street, but at right-angles to that, relating to the road to the church. St Mary of Charity is currently approached at this point by a small, meanly scaled road with small Victorian cottages on one side and huge redbrick industrial scale walls from the old brewery towering up on the other side. The church is quite cut off from the rest of the town, and access is either through this 19th C street right up to the grand West Door, or by a lovely wide footpath which crosses right in front of the building but which is quiet and rural in character.

This Saxon house seems to indicate a quite different layout for an earlier part of the town's history and one which makes a lot of sense. The house would have faced onto a road coming up from the Creek - indeed Quay Lane would have been the continuation of that road - at a point where we know there was a water pump, and a place where fishermen cleaned their catch. The church would have been much more directly related to the water and the work of the place, and not sequestered behind some cottages and a now-defunct brewery.

The Saxon house and the church would themselves have offered one of those magic meeting places, like the present spot in the town where I met my friends this morning. And travelling can be seen as an activity in time as well as movement in space.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Haw haw haw

You may recall way back at the beginning of this year and this blog, I had some harsh things to say about sailing on the cruise-ship Balmoral, one of Fred. Olsen's finest.... Her present passengers have been experiencing truly frightening events.

After our ghastly trip on Balmoral in January - heading for Tangiers but ending up in Antwerp because of the storms and all the accidents on board due to what I believe is the criminal lack of sufficient handrails aboard, her next trip was to Cape Verde, and after that she set off on a voyage round the world. I seem to remember this trip will last several months.

While on this mega-expensive cruise, her unfortunate passengers and crew have been subject to fierce pirate attack in the seas off Somalia, in a region known as the Gates of Hell. The ship came under fire four times from bandits armed with rocket launchers.

According to a newspaper cutting given to me tonight by a fellow-student from my French class, pirate boats appeared and began closing in rapidly.

Alarmed by the suspicious activity of these boats, the Balmoral's crew made emergency calls, and sent up distress flares. The ships' 1300 passengers, 95% British and (as on our voyage) mostly elderly, were herded into 'safe' areas (I have no idea what these could have been - maybe the big stairwell and reception area which has relatively few windows).

The attack was averted by the arrival of a US Navy ship which escorted the vessel through the Gulf of Aden - where pirates attacked more than 130 ships last year. From April to December, 42 vessels were hijacked and £100m taken as ransom.

What are these cruise lines doing??????????

PS It is worth reading the official Fred. Olsen account of this incident dated March 5th. They deny that the ship was attacked and so on.


The Sun newspaper gives more details:

Tuesday, 10 March 2009


Posted as soon as we got home on Tuesday night but written yesterday - Monday 9th.

We left Wiesbaden at 10, intending to go to Cologne but one look at the motorway was enough to make us (me) turn tail and we set off back to the rural byways. What a good decision that was. We had called into one (one only) motorway service station to have a pee and buy a map and what a ripoff. Coffee cold, croissant had a tile-like bottom, loo cost 50 cents, and it was all queues and who cares?
But, instead of the motorways we have been through forests, along wandering valleys, past ancient mills and tiny wobbly-looking hamlets, up into the Vullkan district (complete with beautiful crater lake), and over wonderful ridges and hills. We had snow, rain, bright skies, dark journeys, and all kinds of weather. The river systems are just beautiful, large or small, all busy and cleared to rush along. We loved the Lahn and then the Arh, and all the little rivers in between. For the most part the forestrty work is very impressive with trees being cleared out at a usable size and space made for the smaller saplings to grow up. Everything looks very autumnal with the brown leaves of beech and some oaks still on the trees or on the ground, and very little green apart from the occasional plantation of evergreens and some of those are very large and intimidating. It made me think of all those fairy stories of poor woodcutters' children, Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood, or other small heroes setting out on their life-changing journeys.
This must all look absolutely magnificent once the greening starts. We saw eagles a few times, I think, in ones or twos at the most and always high up. There are signs along the road for wildboar and deer, and to be honest, I was hoping to see warnings for wolves and bears. It isn't really THAT remote but coming from England which is comparatively so small and dinky, and where the landscape changes so quickly and definitively, to be in this huge place is like going back in time.
On our way today we found (by chance) the gorgeous little city of Diez – complete with medieval buildings and huge schloss, sitting all unannounced near to Limburg where we were just a few days ago. Diez (pronounced Deetz) knocks Limburg into a cocked hat.
And we stopped in the famous ancient spa town of Bad Ems – with the purpose of buying stuff for a picnic as the day was so bright and the temperature creeping up to 7 or even 8 degrees.....I agreed to Captain Thrift's proposal to buy a sandwich or some ham and bread and eat by the river. But......we found no deli along our route but we did find the Hotel Bad Emser Hof – where we had a magnificent two-course lunch for 25 euros all up. Delicious, delicious, home-made, kindly served and all overlooking the river. We walked around later, looked at the Roman spring (temperature 46 degrees), checked out the tourist office, felt as if we were in a 19th century Punch drawing of toffs taking the waters, loved it. We called into a small store which would have supplied our picnic if we'd found it in time – run by a Turkish guy I think. Outside he had about 20 kinds of apples on display, all the varieties named, all neatly ranged in boxes and all looking delectable. Why oh why oh why cannot we have a fruit display like this in Faversham which ought to be world-famous for its supply of apples?
Since we had the book to hand I looked up some of words I ought to have known the meaning of but had forgotten... hof = court, or yard, bauer = farmer or peasant, Ehemann = husband, Konditorei = pastry shop, schmucke = jewellery, etc.
We spent a long time in river valleys of great beauty and length, not unlike the Tarn in the south of France where we went to stay with Tom Vernon and his wife Sally a few years ago. But when you reach the Rhine everything else you have seen is dwarfed by its huge scale and astonishing beauty. For instance, the area around Koblenz (where the Mosel joins in) offers a great opening out of the landscape, and even with industrial and block-like residential areas getting in the way of that sense of nature, what you see takes your breath away. What time and water have done to the landscape has produced such a huge result.
In contrast, our arrival this evening at Monschau has been walking into a completely different kind of wonderland. I don't suppose all that many Brits get here. The translations on the menus etc are charmingly wrong. The town is a STUNNER....a deep valley with a rushing river at the bottom and with hundreds of ancient wooden and stone houses crammed in, along black granite cobbled streets, with stairs climbing between the old mills and warehouses. Lots of tat shops of a superior kind and lots of bars, cafes, etc all shut at this time of year. It is just gorgeous. We are in a 300-year old building which has been a hotel for 120 years, in a lovely room overlooking the (slightly noisy) river. It's very classy and comfortable, for 85 euros including breakfast. We're just about to go down for supper. The stairs and landing have automatic lighting which comes on as you go up or down and the whole thing is made of beautiful carved oak.
OK – now just back from supper where we started with the local speciality – honey and mustard soup. So rich, so delicious. The patron promises us the recipe. There is a mustard mill here in the town, hence the development of this dish.
We then ordered a salad each and couldn't get anywhere near finishing it. Too much food.
Outside a blizzard has been building up. No doubt the weather is worse up on the plateau. It is noticeable there here, as in Wiesbaden, the weather at roof level is significantly different (harsher) than it is when it reaches the pavement. Is that true everywhere? It makes the notion of microclimates even more interesting.
During our meal in the pretty 18th century dining room, we could see huge snow swirls up at roof level across the river where a light was shining, but we could hear it falling as rain as it hit the ground. The river has deep walls all the way along, so they are prepared for spring floods.
We also thought (having had a walk around the pretty cobbled streets and over the many small bridges and along some of the alleys - before we ate) that this place, unlike any possible English comparable place, is so neat and tidy, unchav, self-respectable. It really is lovely and being only about 4 hours down the motorway from say, Dunquerke, or maybe 5 from Calais, ought to be on the itinerary for any self-respecting English culture-seeker.
The Simpsons, in German, has just come onto the TV in our room. The voices are uncannily similar to the ones we know and love. And now Andrew has found Who Wants to be a Millionaire in German, too. That eery tube-train background music.... The host is not as glam as our own ghastly home-grown Tarrant.
Time for bed for me. It was a long day and very interesting to see so many things along the route... I am tuckered out.
We have had thunder now... Maybe we'll be snowed in and won't be able to get back to the ferry tomorrow night. Heheheh!

PS When I got into bed (and was not wearing my glasses) I was looking at the peculiar sprinkler system on the ceiling by the end of the bed and pointed it out to Andrew. It seemed very odd they would just douse a fire by the windows.... but he said it was just a lighting track. He thought it was unlikely the radiators would set fire to the curtains and was then able to use one of his finest comic refrains... “It's annoying when they do that....”

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Juice Plus+ Conference Ends

It is now Sunday afternoon, and the conference is over. We had a couple of terrific speakers this morning, including one talk on body language... I am usually a bit sniffy about men giving talks on this subject as there isn't a women I've met in my life who isn't an expert, yet men only 'discovered' it in the 60s when cheap film and then video was to hand, and now they are the world experts. However this chap was very amusing and had us all trying out various arm movements and different facial expressions. ie. Raise your eyebrows and now try to look aggressive. Very funny.
The meeting petered out, rather, with lots of testimonials and German plaudits for various people. It is fascinating how rip-roaring successful it is here, and in so many other countries, and such a dismal slow starter in Britain. There are various theories as to why this should be the case, which I have already mentioned and today I suggested some action we could take in our team...I think we might get somewhere. The fact is the German Olympic team is now officially sponsored by Juice Plus, and the French national ski-team too, and we need to get our UK teams to take a look. Does anyone out there know David Beckham, please, or Seb Coe? I want to talk to both of them.
Sorry if this is being a bit hither-and-yon.....I have to get the thoughts and memories down as they spring up.
Andrew came and met me at the end of the conference and we went back across the road to the Wiesbaden Museum for lunch (where I went with Dr John McConnell yesterday). Afterwards we paid our 8 euros and looked at the art.... a terrific collection from the 20th and 21st centuries. I loved a huge wooden Centaur-Trojan horse with innumerable pages of planning and annotation all in mirror-writing, and several installations of suspended groups of - what? - junk? anyway integrated masses of boxes, cones, flaps, tubes, angles, blobs, bits, etc, all multicoloured, and on two quite different scales, reminded me of space detritus, or crazy satellites, or flying towns, or even mind-maps of witches. Great fun. There was a film called Der Lauf der Dinges which was nearly 20 mins long and showed the most spectacular sequence of cause-and-effect I have ever seen, with tyres rolling down slopes and triggering small fires or waterfalls, and oscillating planks causing chemical tidal waves, and chairs tumbling over, and tides of water slowly dissolving the bottoms of tiny columns of sugar cubes supporting further boards with cardboard tubes which then rolled away and set off strange wobbly-orbit pairs of shoes flapping along, which bumped into tiny ladders which collapse and set off further explosions or fires emerging from water (phosphorus?), or clouds of dry-ice steam which somehow set off further events...absolutely amazing. Dated 1985-1987 and no doubt the source for many an advertising campaign since.
I could say so much more.... do you want to read it?
The best thing would be to come and see for yourself. English tourists are not much in evidence in Germany, yet loads of people here speak really good English and are very pleased to see us.
I was really impressed (yet again) at how much money is spent on the arts, the numerous lovely brochures and posters for local artistic events, and the space and quality of the buildings dedicated to culture.
Another nice thing here is that if you stop to watch a small child splashing in a puddle, or chasing pigeons, or doing whatever children do, the mother will smile at you.... like they used to do in England before this ghastly health-and-safety age we have to live in now. It is quite a relief, feels normal.
In the art museum I was not allowed to take my handbag around and so could not make notes of the artists' names and despite trying to memorise them, I could not. Sorry. Actually I am really tired.
Quite apart from my late night last night, I have been in this noisy dark flashing-light hall for days, trying to make sense of headphone translations and making notes as we go, and it is knackering.
Anyway, it was a relief to walk round to pick up the car and drive to Mainz – where we walked about, saw that the Gutenburg monument is absolutely empty for some reason at the moment, looked at the Rhein, ate delicious Italian ice-cream, looked in lots of pretty shop windows, heard a (Gypsy?) clarinettist playing mournfully in the streets, admired the statue of St Boniface, and generally just stroll about. Lots of nice shoe shops by the way.
We have spoken to our landlady who is coming round in the morning and we can pay her the rent and then we plan to set off for Koln (Cologne) to see the cathedral and have lunch. We have all day Tuesday to make our way back to Dunquerke and home and at the moment we have no idea where we will stay tomorrow night. Nice feeling.
I can recommend this little apartment if anyone wants to know where to stay here... not expensive, room for 4 people, very basic but clean and in a quiet and convenient central district. True is is at the very top of the building with lots of stairs, but that gets you fit and there is a nice view from the kitchen roof-light....of lots of rooftops. Also it is noticeably warmer up here so you get the benefit of the heat in the building in the cold weather.
I meant to mention the excellent wig shops I have seen, I am v tempted to buy a long wig as an act of nostalgia for when I had long hair. I do miss that but it's such a bore growing it again.
We're going back to the Greek place to eat again tonight, and maybe will be blessed with the monstrous garlic bread dish again. The internet cafe is right across the street from there so I will post last night's and today's bulletin (this!).
Best bits – some of the speakers at the conference, the architecture in Wiiesbaden, seeing my friend Michelle fall down into the seating well in the sushi restaurant last night (she's OK), seeing inside the Russian church at Neroberg, seeing the caped women of Wiesbaden in their bright clothes, seeing thousands of Germans dressed as Turks and behaving as if they were about to collect their A level certificates, and not least, the general sense of stimulation to my creativity...I have had lots of ideas for painting and for short stories and even a novel, all based on this place. Goethe was here, and Wagner and Brahms and Dostoevski and loads and loads of other people, and when you are here you can see why. Also hilarious are: the wiring in the apartment, the way almost everyone in the street stands and waits for the green man to show before they cross the road even though there is not a car in sight, the written German language with it ludicrous pilingup of nouns and adjectives to create a particular meaning, and the faint misuse of English – nearly but not quite right .... such as a sign on a shop window saying 'I'm so glad I'm a woman', and a tatty jewellery shop with the slogan emblazoned... 'Nice, but not too nice for you!'
I love it. I love the travelling. I love the differences and the civilisation and the fact that all this is going on all the time, and has been going on all this time even though we have never been here. It's like visiting a waterfall and leaving, knowing it will go on squirting huge amounts of water over the edge whether you are there to see it or not.
The Rhine is a MIGHTY river, absolutely huge and still here we are so far inland. People walked about here in these forests and mountains maybe thousands of thousands of years ago, and made artefacts and houses and created a sense of how to BE in northern Europe. They had their mythology and their sense of the weather and the food and the wild-life and the distance and they were our ancestors and while A and I were driving about a day or so ago I felt close to them, however silly that sounds. Looking at more recent human history, it is quite plain that the English language IS German... we are the same. So all these differences and silly quoibles and twiddles I have been thinking about are just irrelevant really.
OK – time to go and eat. Not sure when the next post will be. Maybe from Cologne or further west back into Holland or Belgium. Tchuss!

Wiesbaden - How things are...

OK – it's about midnight on Saturday. I've just come back from the JP conference party, theme “1001 Nights”. My own attempt at fancy dress was minimal but quite effective (scarf made into turban. low cut evening top and sunglasses). But what was totally hilarious was being with three and a half thousand Germans in disguise as Arabs. They were mgnificent. I took some video footage which I will attempt to post up for you, but not yet as I;m not sure about the protocols.
Earlier we joined some of the few from Kent for supper (sushi and Chinese) which was pretty good especially as we were joined by one of my heroes, Birgit, who is very senior and successful. She gave us an impromptu training session over dinner – very illuminating and inspiring – and then paid for the whole thing. How very nice of her to do that. She combines elegance, beauty,brains, kindness, wit and success.
Andrew had spent the day travelling about by bus and reached Mainz, across the Rhine,( a town of great charm and with a lovely medieval centre) before coming back to Wiesbaden, where he managed to find one of the hot springs – I would like to go back there with him to see that. He said they have taps of the salty hot water there for you to drink and it is really hot.
I took my lunchbreak in the art gallery across the road from the conference and will try to go back there tomorrow (today now). Had an excellent bowl of soup there and a sandwich, with no queueing and no hassle. Things inside the conference hall do get pretty full, but Birgit said that although we have each paid our 100 euros to be there it actually costs more like 800 euros a head to put on so it is heavily subsidised by some of the top team members and the company, hence the spectacular nature of the whole affair. I don't know how accurate that figure is but she is certainly in a position to know.
On my way to the hall this morning I spotted a few more of the dotty older women wandering about, and of course I identify with them so much. They wear terrific things. I am not sure why theycluster here, maybe it's throughout Germany but I can't answer that yet.
My son David texted to say he is enjoying reading the blog again, and I'd love to know who else is reading it.
I did a little deal this morning with some of the company management...they produce loads of documents which have originated in various languages but have to be published in English. The team in Italy are pretty good (brilliant, in fact) at translating it all into something intelligible but to my eye it often reads a bit cranky so I have pestered them into letting me proof-read it for style and smoothness. I have been doing this since last autumn and we finally agreed my fees today, hoorah! They are very pleased with my work so far, and I enjoy doing it. I saw some of my work up on the screen today when they announced the launch of a new website – and of course I instantly wanted to change bits here and there. I can see it is a job which is never really complete.
In many ways this is an example of how much work goes on behind the scenes, which most people don't even know about but I must say my respect for them all continues to go up. They deliver what they say, and they try to do their best. I do sometimes shiver at the rah-rah style they adopt but they are after all an American company. What's so unusual about them is that they are (astonshingly) recession proof and growing year on year regardless of the economic conditions affecting so many other sectors. Who would have thought the likes of Lehmann Bros would have evaporated, or Goldmann Sachs and Merrill Lynch etc etc.? Like Pres Obama said.... “.......CHANGE...........”
This is what change looks like. Computers, the internet, and now a new form of company structure. Very interesting and very exciting. I WISH we could have a meeting like this one but in Britian. It will come.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Wiesbaden - more about the town and our day

One in five couples in the UK sleep alone because of snoring, and I am sad to say we are in that number. Andrew retreated to the click-clack (sofa-bed) in the sitting room last night because he was too hot and because of my snoring. I wonder what on earth is the evolutionary advantage in snoring and I decided it must be to keep night-time predators at bay. A horrible night-tiger approaches and then hears a deep rasping rumbling roar and decides that he can find another tasty morsel instead of this sonorous snack... What else could it be? I inherited my snoring capacity from my dear mama, and have passed it on to my son. In case we are ever unfortunate enough to be stalked by night-predators this will come in handy but meanwhile it means solitary nights far too often for my liking. I have wondered about various patent 'cures' and fixes but none have had much appeal so far.

Another strange thing about snoring is how it can be a huge noise in the room and yet the snorer almost never hears the sound himself. Whatever the switch is in the brain which allows or encourages snoring is the very same one which renders the snorer totally deaf. I have very occasionally caught the back end of one of my snores, but it always seems miraculous, unbelievable, incredible. Why?

I am just back from the first part of my conference which I will report on shortly, but meanwhile will say how we spent our morning. We traipsed about in the drizzle, looking at various buildings and shops. I was looking for a particular kind of lip-pencil made by Mac (which being a German firm I thought would be simple – but no). Eventually we did find a stand in a smart shop called Douglas, but the colour I want is now out of production. Poo.

Most people we speak to can understand English or speak it fairly well, so it is proving a bit difficult to practice my German. I spent ages looking through the art catalogue I bought, which is all in German, trying to look up the vocabulary in my tiny pocket dictionary, but it can't cope. I was thinking it was extraordinary that a smallish provincial city in the middle of Germany could have a museum with so many prehistoric treasures – images of women, goddesses, fertility objects etc from Greece, Peru, Mexico, Roman Gaul and Germania, etc etc but of course most are reproductions, and thus they have accumulated a terrific focussed collection. This was part of a big exhibition last year contrasting and comparing these images with 'modern' iconography of the Virgin, and I would love to see something similar at home. I am thinking I will try to do something similar based on my researches from the 1990s about the Invisible Women of Faversham, of whom there are some tremendous stories and I daresay enough images, maps, even artefacts or other objects to make a provocative show.

On our walk round we saw a tiny bit of the Roman remains...really just a fragment of a wall. t was on a steep bit of hillside, so I guess that was why they fortified it. It was to keep the barbarians out, hence the name Heidenmauer (heathen wall).

We saw the world's largest cuckoo clock, a table with ostrich legs, some beggars, lots of trees pleached and pruned into the most knobbly shapes, and we inspected various possible restaurants for lunch. There are almost no German restaurants as no-one likes German food apparently, but there are loads of foreign cuisines including Mauritian and Korean, and all the usual European and immigrant cultures.

Andrew chose our lunchplace – one of the few trad German ones, and the average age of the clients put them squarely into the war generation, so I can't say I liked it very much. We ate in a similar place yesterday (though that was more touristy) and have had queasy stomachs ever since. So I did not eat much today. I expected the music in today's restaurant to be oom-pah-pah band music but it was actually mostly Tom Jones and Paul Anka.

Straight after lunch I went to my conference and I must tell you something about that. There are 3,500 people there mostly German but actually from all over the world. The venue is modern and huge and the interior has been totally staged for and by Juice Plus – orange carpet throughout, loads of tall glass vases containing just white, green and orange flower and fruits – really beautiful. There are about 400 white leather sofas, and bar-stools and tables. There are huge plasma screens beaming the stage events into the sitting areas, and loads of break-out rooms, cafes and meeting places within the conference. It looks gorgeous. High design. In the present climate of recession and anxiety, it all seems extraordinary, but the company is experiencing a massive and steady growth, so for them this is normal. The Germans in particular have taken the JP message to their hearts, and so their national marketing team (we don't have one) have been able to stage a spectacular show for us, with a fantastic acrobatic troupe doing a terrific jumping and flipping act to start us off, and then a German Olympic gold-medallist bringing 'the flame' (the real one, still living) from Beijing, to our hall.

The first big news of the day was that Juice Plus is officially sponsoring the German Olympic team – fantastic! Why can't we in the UK have this level of exposurea and success? And then we heard that the Bayerne-Munich football team who have their own doctor of course, a man who was an athlete himself and has specialised in sports medicine all his life – he endorses JP and gave a tremendous speech this afternoon. He is 66 and looks 40. It is tremendous to be with so many people who have so much energy, and all regarding health and wellbeing and preventing illness as normal and natural. In the UK with such a strong tradition of 'the National Health will take care of me' + a strong tradition of being sceptical about anything if you meet it 1-2-1 from someone, or not in a high-street store, we find the JP message is less well received. But I think things will change as the message gradually sinks in! This is not meant to be any kind of sales pitch but I am trying to describe my day. Anyway the health message fits in very easily in this city.

Wiesbaden is absolutely stuffed with clinics, doctors, therapists, treatment centres etc. based on its spa heritage. It also has a notably non-fat population. And it has a fair sprinkling of really eccentric slightly older women and men wandering around in brlghtly coloured scarves or sweaters, begging or buying buns etc. It has lots of lovely shops, including one selling very snazzy coffee-making machines, and a model-making shop which made me stop and stare - every kind of tiny lathe, jig, kit, toolset, what-have-you. The guide book claims that W enjoys a Mediterranean climate (oh yes?) but says the average temperature is 9 degrees. We have had it mostly about 4 degrees this week and drizzle all the time. You are NOT supposed to cross any road except when the green man says so, even if it means waiting at the edge of an entirely empty road. We are not very obedient to this rule, but we are not alone is jaywalking. But we get some funny looks. The Fiat arouses quite a lot of interest but we have seen about 3 just like it, so it can't be that uncommon.

Tonight we were supposed to be going to a toptable meal at the Casino with Jay Martin, the company founder who I have met before and greatly admire, but I cannot face all that food so we are having an abstemious evening in the apartment eating some pears and cheese. Back to the conference tomorrow.

Thursday, 5 March 2009


Here we are in our apartment in Wiesbaden – towards the end of our first full day. Our journey here, leaving Faversham about 6.30am yesterday, via Norfolk Line to Dunquerke and then through Belgium and into Germany was uneventful. The ferry was blessedly empty and I had fun in the shop asking if they had a selection of pens (just one with the company logo all over it) and then asking if they had a selection of playing cards (just one with the company logo all over it). I bought the cards so we could play crib if we wanted. Coffee on the NL ferries is very nice. The neck-massage service was not available, sadly.

You gain quite a lot of eastward miles going to Dunquerke but it's a bit of a long boring haul getting away from the docks. Still, eventually you hit the motorway and you can get going. We tracked down to Tournai where we peeled off for lunch in a cafe called Leons which we chose because it was not too far from the main road but the service was frustratingly leisurely and the food (claiming to be famous) was average. The best thing was the bottled water, with Bru on the label – delicious. The sparkles, according to the details on the bottle, are natural. Really?

The Belgian roads leave quite a lot to be desired, with frequent potholes and huge stretches warning of 'Aquaplanage' and indeed the drainage seemed to be non-existent for a lot of the way. We were driving through the rain, so it was quite interesting. We saw one big modern car all smashed up having swerved around on the road and hit various barriers. On the other hand they have rather nice central reservations all planted up with trees so the oncoming headlight problem is averted and it makes for a more rural feel to the journey.

At Liege we turned southeast and into spa country, very beautiful with lovingly tended valleys and wooded hills. Once we reached the German border near St Vith we became preoccupied with getting across country as the routes are tortuous and don't really go to Wiesbaden....but we managed to buy a terrific largscale map at a garage and by switching our dependence between that and the satnav ('Turn around! Turn around!!') we left the main drag at Wittlich and headed into the Mosel valley areas. How lovely! The wine country announces itself all at once, with astonishingly steep vineyards. The holdings seem to be quite small and the farmhouses are surrounded by the most amazing piles of old rubbish and machinery. Speaking as a connoisseur of such collections, I can only say I was in awe. There were tractors, spare tractors, spare spare tractors, bits of tractors, sheds, piles of rope, piles of wood, cutters, diggers, wheels, ladders, spare sheds, fallen-down sheds, and more. Wonderful.

Old railway lines thread along the valleys, some are in use but some seem to be summer lines only, but all in good order if a bit rusty. Up over the ranges we went, into tidier country and then, near Bingen (where Hildegard the nun wrote her music) we hit traffic jams and long delays. A phone call to our landlady in Wiesbaden warned us to find the 'right side of Rheinstrasse' in Wiesbaden, but by this time it was really too dark to read a map anyway and we were back with the previously jilted Tomtom. We crossed the Rhein, and tootled through the elegant 19th century avenues of the city. Totom took us straight to the door...where Daniela Hofman was waiting for us. It was roughly 7pm.

OH MY GOD!!!! I have never seen so many stairs! Up and up we went, lugging too much stuff. My knees were v wobbly by the top, though to be honest it's only 3 floors and very like the houses my granny did up in Belsize Park and turned into flats. Even had the same staircarpet. We are in the very top, a plain and simply furnished atelier, bedroom, sitting room, shower room, kitchen and hall. Ikean of course, but spacious and cheap – 275 euros for 5 nights. Daniela walked us round the neighbourhood and showed us where to shop, where to park our car for free, etc. Her ancient little dog Salsa accompanied us the whole way, eventually, taking her time but never out of breath.

Settling in and getting everything straight with Daniela took about an hour or so, and we eventually headed out to walk around and eat. We chose a Greek place, one of her recommendations – and sitting down we were both pretty zonked. The waiter took pity on us and brought us a dish of garlic bread with the cheese dip thing we had chosen. Another OMIGOD! I have never seen so much garlic in one place, and in this case half of it had to go into me. It was absolutely fantastic. The family are from somewhere in the north of Greece soe they did not do hoummus, but – hey – I'll forgive them anything for that bread. I think we have been killing people all day today with our bad breath.

The man also gave us free ouzo to drink. It seemed impossible to explain that Andrew does not drink so I had his and then the man filled the glass up again. Too much, too much. Though it is very nice. I love that aniseedy flavour.

The restaurant, not surprisingly, had lots of Greek stuff in it such as a four-foot plaster model of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and lots of other kitsch, but actually wherever we have been in Germany we spot lovingly placed Greek repro items – caryatids, statues of various kinds, lots of columns, temple-fronted churches and garden sheds, etc etc. One particularly good item was a woodshed beside a main road, with the roof made of three huge wooden half-barrels, supported by a line of fiercely white-painted Ionic pillars. Nice.

Sleep later – well, I did but Andrew didn't have such a good night. Too hot under the silk duvet.

Today we did a recce – went to the old town, into the Rathaus, into the Tourist Information portacabin, into a cafe for a sitdown and cappucino and to read the guidebooks. The ladies loo had NO toilet paper. Is this usual? Apparently not, but what a bummer so to speak.

We came back to the apartment, picked up the car and drove out to a place called Neroberg, hoping to ride the funicular to the top, but it's closed for the winter. Driving up through rich, rich villas and woods, we found a marvellous early mid-19th century Russian orthodox church, luckily open. A deaf monk was sittintg inside, taking the money for the candles and cards, and rocking back and forth on his chair. The inside was gleaming and glowing, filled with saints and icons, candles and mosaics, lamps and wonderful candlesticks.

After that we headed out of town, up towards Limburg an der Lahn, through forests and moorlands, trying to imagine how marvellous it must be here in summer with greenery and light. The weather was not really on our side: cold, dark, dull, damp. Still, the scenery is magnificent and clearly the whole region is really loved and cherished and full of b+bs and little hotels all along. We saw castles and cement factories, wonderful forest rivers, ancient little villages, lots of horses dotted around, more railway lines, and just a few glimpses of large birds – too far away to see what they were. Though I forgot to mention, I think I saw a pair of eagles yesterday when we were up in the high lands coming in Germany.
We had lunch in Limburg in an crinky-cranky old restaurant, felt pleased not to be there in the crush of the tourist season, admired the underground carpark which is quite hidden in the hill under the Dom (cathedral), and set off back to Wiesbaden. The drive back along the rivier Aar was just fantastic. Gorgeous.

Back by the flat, I went into the museum across the road – the Frauen Museum – a whole building dedicated to women's history, currently showing two art exhibitions with work by many different women. The museum's remarkable ethnographic collection was sadly for the most part not on show, but I bought a catalogue from last year's exhibition which related these (mostly) prehistoric images from all over the world to 'modern' images of the Virgin Mary. I would have loved to have seen that, but the catalogue is pretty good, with some striking photographs and themes – enthronement, lactation, motherhood, etc. I know I am not doing this justice but I am now really tired. It's getting dark again (now about 6.10 local time), so I will put all this onto a memory stick and take it along to the internet cafe.

My conference starts tomorrow afternoon I think, in the Rhein-Main-Halle Centre which is about 10 mins walk down the road. I am told several thousand Juice Plus+ people will be there – a sight to see, I imagine.

Meanwhile we are enjoying being in Wiesbaden which is not a REALLY old place but a city developed throughout the nineteenth century. It has grandeur, style, space, peace, elegance and lots of interesting places to walk and visit. (We have yet to visit any of the spas – maybe will go to the Kurhaus tomorrow morning). The balconies and fronts of the tall houses are lovely. It's all a bit reminiscent of parts of Kensington or Hampstead/Belsize Park. It must have been wonderful when it was all horse-drawn but it's still pretty good today. Prices in the shops are roughly comparable with home, and property prices too.

This did not turn out to be a funny posting, really. Though just writing that makes me want to laugh.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Video clip success continues

Well - the wave video had had 1823 hits when I checked just now, and that's in 4 weeks. Thanks, guys! Excellent.

We are off again today to Germany - Wiesbaden - for a conference. I thought our Channel crossing was going to be more of the same ghastly storm stuff because of the high winds and rain last night, but that front has passed, thank goodness, and all seems calm now.

Our studio accommodation in Wiesbaden does not apparently have internet connection so we will have to find that somewhere, and posts may be intermittent.

The good news is that loads and loads of people have told me how much they enjoyed the blog last time around, and found it funny (thank goodness for that, too), because on a day by day basis, life seems to me to be almost knicker-wettingly funny, but there isn't much opportunity to describe it or record it. Though I have to remember it might not be funny, in fact it might turn out to be sad or serious or just plain boring.

The best bit so far is that I went into the Fiat showroom and got two new windscreen washer jets for the car (as the design of that small but crucial element is not very good and they pop out in snow or icy weather). I think the forecast for Germany is 'colder than here'. I made them take them off a car ready to be sold as they didn't have any spares. The guy tried to take the old ones off my car but I refused as one is a replacement and I wanted these two new ones as spares. So they have a problem, heh heh.... (They had promised replacements 2 weeks ago but apparently nothing had come from Fiat).

Ah well, time to go.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Video clip fame spreads

The video clip we put onto Youtube (Big Wave Hits Cabin Window) is achieving a modest but steady success - 970 hits so far.

Thursday, 12 February 2009


The local paper interviewed me when we got home and gave a front-page splash to my complaint about the amount of injuries on the ship. They sent a photographer who did his best but the result was pretty exhausted-looking.
A photographer friend emailed straight away to say please to let her take my photos in future, which would be fantastic.
Andrew went into our local builders's supply shop (M and J) and Lindsey who works there asked about the cruise - she had read the local paper. She said some other Faversham people had been on the same trip and they had told her that two people who'd been on the boat had actually died as a result. I have no idea if this could possibly be true. It shows how rumours move along - it feels like Chinese Whispers.
But - how dreadful if it is true, and how concealed in this swirling disparate layer of experience, and how convenient this 'concealment' is for the shipping company if it is true.
I wrote about our trip to our MP, Hugh Robertson, who replied to say if what I had said was right, he agreed things needed looking into and he was going to contact the Shipping Minister. My attempt to contact the Dover MP (Gwyn Prosser) who I understand takes an interest in matters affecting cruise ships sailing from 'his' port, was much less successful. My email went to some Labour Party hack who replied to me but did not feel able to pass on my letter, saying I should write to Westminster or giving me some other indeterminate address.
I want to put all this down, not let it take over my life.
My heart sinks when people ask me about it - and they do, because of the local paper. The whole topic conjures up the look of the ship's carpets with their swirly pattern, and the plasticky feel of everything.
The only part I feel really good about is the way our small video clip - of a wave hitting our cabin window - has turned out to be quite a success story on YouTube. It's been up there for one week, but has had over 500 hits! I think the reason is the indavertent commentary we laid down.
You can see it if you go to and put 'Big Wave Hits Cabin Window' into the search box. What you hear is the sound of the TV with some slushy programme on... Andrew was filming and I was on the bed reading and not paying much attention to anything. Then the wave smashes onto the glass and I shouted 'Did you get it?" and he says 'Yes' and I say 'Fantastic!' and he then says he can delete his other recordings. The thing is, it sounds like we are discussing sex - something I remember from the dim past.... LOL!
Actually my favourite clips on youtube are under the heading 'woman parking' or 'stupid woman parking'. As you probably know I am a feminist and will stick up for women at all times, BUT these women are absolutely rivettingly, totally, blitheringly incompetent at driving their cars and the footage (often captured on someone's mobile phone by the look of it) is absolutely hilarious.
You see a car at some distance, being manoeuvred pointlessly back and forth, sometimes bashing into things, and eventually a woman gets out. The person filming - often a young man - is in helpless laughter and has others watching beside him, all of them incoherent with laughter. It's not so much derisory as incredulous. And very very funny.
I recommend it.

Monday, 2 February 2009

More information......

It seems I am not the one who thought the company and captain made the wrong decision to sail down into that stormy weather..... See

I forgot to tell you THIS....

Hilarious... I think I forgot to tell you this. While we were chatting to some people (and he had an enormous beer belly and a beard), they told Sheila that they thought she looked 'like a slimmed-down version of Dawn French, and your sister [ie me] looks like Pam Ferris....'

How cast down I was to hear this, initially. I used to be compared to Hayley Mills (when I was 12), and to Glynis Johns in my teens, and have not had any direct comparisons since then, and my immediately thought of Pam Ferris was as Ma Larkin in The Darling Buds of May. But actually I am delighted to have had this reflection. I spent the remainder of the trip on the boat feeling I ought to help maintain her reputation, so I was wafting along in the corridors (while trying to stay upright), and had a gracious smile for everyone. Was ready to give my autograph.

The crowning moment of this was hearing some other people talking: 'And, did you know, Pam Ferris is on this trip?' 'Really?' 'Oh yes! I've seen her....'


Friday, 30 January 2009

Still queasy

Disappointed the Daily Mirror did not follow up on the story, they were apparently mollified by the letter Fred. Olsen sent to all the passengers. I tried to get them to change their mind but no go. I feel very angry about what happened, and I do think it was criminally negligent of them to set off with us in those conditions in that ship. My personal opinion and I think shared by many.

Friends yesterday said they had been on the Ventura before Christmas, the ship which had all the oiks and trouble on it (see early bulletins in my blog). On their trip, it was clear that P&O had frantically filled the ship with voucher-offers, an appalling rabble of drunks and louts who had fights, shouted at the waiters, and were generally vile.

We have all seen the cruise-holiday offers in the papers for weeks if not months, and now we (and separately our friends) have experienced the results first hand. I can only think that cruising could be pleasurable if you go for a really long voyage, round the world, say, where there won't be any or much of this ill-mannered intrusion.

I don't really identify myself with the 'oh-so-nice' main group of cruising passengers, but I do think you ought to be able to relax on your holiday. The companies must be frantic...packing anyone at all on board, and at a terrible cost. We only went because of the price, but lots of other people who wouldn't normally go on cruises are also booking onto these ships. It must be a nightmare if you have booked up months ago, and saved up for a special holiday, and then find it's invaded by yahoos. The whole industry is clearly in trouble.

Now, various friends have been in touch to say they have enjoyed this blog, it should be a book, I should be a 'calamity travel writer', etc. (Didn't know there was such a category, but maybe it's a good idea.....)

As for me, I am still feeling very tired, pale and washed out, appetite gone, etc. I still have those faint rocking feelings. Very odd. I feel I will have a more balanced view of the whole trip when I have recovered my strength and energy. I can't decide what to do next......

Thursday, 29 January 2009


Within 24 hours of getting home Fred. Olsen had a letter through our door, admitting things had not been very good, blaming force majeure, and offering us a discount on some future booking under various conditions.

However, following the coverage in the Daily Mirror, I emailed the paper to say that I strongly believe that ship is not safe (due to its internal layout and arrangements) and should not be allowed to sail in such weather conditions, and that passengers should have been warned and offered the chance to postpone their holiday, especially as there were so many old and infirm people aboard.

The journo I spoke to said they had had hundreds of people contact them with similar arguments, and he asked for a copy of the F.O letter which I faxed to him. My sister also sent some photos - only one of mine really showed what those waves look like. Waves are surprisingly difficult to photograph, as you probably know. Timing is all!

Anyway, the thing to do is buy a Daily Mirror on Friday.

I see the BBC has had some coverage too, interviewing people as they left the ship. You can get all this by googling 'Balmoral' and the media route you want.

Personally I still feel a bit queasy and not eating, and the floor is still moving around gently (Friday morning). I'd like to know why this happens, and how long it goes on for.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Home again

Home again, what a relief. Great to see that people liked the the blog.

The floors here are still gently moving under my feet? How long does that last?

Disembarkation was managed very smoothly this morning. We had to leave most of our luggage outside our cabins last night and that was all ashore waiting for us in deck order.

Talking of luggage - we took too much stuff. I had been tempted into thinking the dressing-up might be fun, bought a pretty frock etc. But first of all the weather forced them to abandon the initial party schedule, and then I was so disillusioned by it all I just didn't want to go to any of the dress-up dos. I could see that people did look very elegant wafting along in evening dress, but my guess is that when they are dressed like that they spend more money in the bars... champagne instead of a half of lager, and a box of chocolates for the lady. So it's not really about having a party. What we should have had with us was comfortable and very casual stuff, trainers, sweatshirts, etc. Though we did not have as much luggage as some of the others.... Usually at the parties you get the chance to meet the captain but a) I met him by chance one day in the lunch queue, b) we'd had some meetings with him discussing the isobars and c) I'd have probably had an argument rather than just chit chat.

Breakfast service this morning was an eye-opener. Gone were all the cheery smiles and hallos from the waiters. Instead there was a distinct froideur, surly behaviour, backs turned and a bad atmosphere in the corners. One or two people remarked on this. The truth revealed, I guess. These waiters have been watching people stuff their faces morning night and noon for ten days, and now they have to get ready for the next lot, who are bound for the Cape Verdhe Islands.

We had all been told what to tip, typically £2 a day per passenger for cabin services and £2 a day for restaurant staff, so for us that was an extra £80 to pay in cash. I think the staff are paid a very low wage so the tips are how they actually earn their money. The ship supplies envelopes and you leave them in your cabin or in the restaurant.

Waiting to leave, in a section where people could get wheelchairs to be taken ashore, I spoke to a lady who had fallen in her bathroom due to the surges. The ship's doc had sent her for an X-ray to the hospital at la Coruna (lucky not a fractured vertebra but bleeding and severe bruising - she had fallen backwards across the raised metal barrier in front of her shower). She and her h spent the day in the hospital. However the ship's Tours desk would not refund them the £84 they had pre-paid for that day's bus tour. They said the doctor would have to write to confirm she was unable to go. Since she was by then on strong painkillers and other medication, and was only really comfortable lying down in her cabin, it was quite an ordeal to stand and try to argue.

Andrew has just sent me this link to a story in the Daily Mirror...take a look:

Antwerp provided us with the best part of the holiday - a lovely place, rich in the middle ages and then enriched by the enormous wealth of the Congo from the 19th Century onwards. Fantastic architecture and excellent shopping. Delicious meals too, and cakes, waffles, chocolates, pancakes, cream, coffee, chocolate etc etc. Definitely worth a visit. It was only when we were walking back to the ship yesterday afternoon that I felt 'relaxed' for the first time during these ten days. In fact I feel exhausted.

Setting aside the company's decision to sail into that storm, I think the worst thing about all this was what counts as 'normal' or successful on a cruise: the artificiality of it all, the fake friendship from staff - or at least the impossibility of getting to any kind of real honest communication from them. I can see that drifting along in the sun on a flat, comfortable vessel would be good. But I'd still want the main pleasure to come from the 'ashore' part: the real world. On this cruise, our main experience was of the ship, with journeys ashore being only very rapidly planned, and not what we had paid for. Four ports instead of five. So the balance was all wrong. (Literally). I had the distinct feeling that all the decisions made were for the company's balance sheet: the customer spend, not safety and not enjoyment.

They must have known about this atrocious weather before we left Dover. If not, why not?

And if so, why on earth did they set off with so many frail and elderly people, many using sticks or pushers, when the boat is so badly designed for rough weather? No handholds in all those acres of space. They chose to keep everyone aboard, not even offering a chance to think about it. I think they knew we'd never make Tangiers (and get back in time for 27th departure for next trip), and the decision to abandon Lisbon was also made very very early. We had waves up to 52' at one point. That is not funny.

Well, actually it is funny watching people staggering about, but it's not funny when they fall and hurt themselves. I found it to be increasingly distressing to see more and more people hurt, and meanwhile the tannoy announcements were of the 'Aren't we all enjoying ourselves?' kind.

So we are glad to be home. I'm sorry if the posts have been a bit disjointed.

The internet cafes offered another whole story. Sheila said the one in Antwerp featured a fat old othordox Jew who was watching pornography on the screen next to me (I hadn't noticed) but he gave up when surrounded by our little party. They all charge a very low rate, btw, such as 20p for an hour or something like that. The only problem is that they are in such out of the way places. I didn't see a single person using the onboard internet room where it racked up about £1 every 2 or 3 minutes, and there was no facility for using a flashstick or even Word to pre-write a post.

I might be able to send some sort of finishing bulletin but we are really at the end.

Thanks for reading.


Griselda and Andrew

PS Great pix in today's Daily Mirror, page 22. Worth going to get a copy.

Monday, 26 January 2009


I hqve picked up a bug on the ship, feeling a bit groggy today. Here is what I wrote over the last two days.
Sunday evening, 24th January. We are back on board after a day in Antwerp, with Frans van Dyck (descendant of the painter) and local born and bred. What a lovely city.

We did not find an internet cafe and so nothing posted covering Saturday, but I am writing this to add to the other posts and will try to get it up on Monday. These cafes which were once everywhere are now v thin on the ground, in poor or immigrant districts, or where students congregate. My method is to write things up on the little laptop and transfer it all to a flashstick then download it when I can get online. This is usually only a matter of a few minutes and a few pence. But the problem comes when we are in a place with no cafes, such as lovely, central Antwerp. I might carry this all around tomorrow to see if I can pick up a wifi patch.

Anyway, here's today's roundup, starting with our arrival in Antwerp. The ship edged its way up the R Scheldte into the sunlight, through the most amazing industrial landscape of refineries and other toxic-looking plant for miles and miles. Docking required us to turn round in the river which was accomplished almost like clockwork by a pair of tugs. Low-lying oil barges were pushing up past us. Frans was waiting for us at the quay, and eventually we were let go ashore. The preliminaries were quite amusing as the quay officials tried to get the fancy gangplank lined up and meanwhille our own crew members were tying some ropes across the gaps on either side of the walkway, and then set-dressing with some very attractive and convincing plastic white-edged fig plants.

We'd had breakfast earlier in the smart linen and glass restaurant (Ballindaloch), where the food is either buffet style or brought to you. You can order your eggs freshly fried, but the toast comes via a separate route ('Hey, Mr Toastman, you got that certain something....').

It is amazing to see the amount of food people put away...piles and piles of it. And later, when they may have been ashore to a place like Antwerp, or Cherbourg, or Bilbao or la Coruna where there are restaurants of great beauty and interest, they walk or bus into the town centre for an hour or so and then scuttle back to the ship for their free/paid-for lunch. People like us, who eat the local food as we go, are very much in the minority. There is food of some sort available almost every single moment of the day.

Frans took us for mussels and local beer. We tried to get the cathedral tour but not available today, we can go tomorrow. We walked to the raiilway station – what a fabulous job they've done restoring it, with four levels of trains all stacked inside the magnificent 1900s building. The Diamond Museum is closed for January. But we walked round the diamond district where there are millions of rather boring rings on display in the shops, and lots of diamond-cutting gear for sale in the supply shops nearby. A tram (underground) took us back to the old city where we ate waffles and drank hot chocolate. Yummy.

Tomorrow we can do a bit more looking round, and get the cathedral tour. Tonight we could be going to the Captain's final cocktail party but that would mean dressing up and somehow we just don't feel like doing that. We're all a bit tired after the cold day. At the moment there's some old Dr Who stuff on the telly. Last night as we went to sleep our neighbours knocked on our cabin wall as our tv was too loud....oh dear. We had fallen asleep watching David Attenborough talking about damsel flies and dragonflies.... such amazing closeup photography.

Cherbourg. Just back on the boat having sent off the last dispatch. A very pleasant city with lots of restoration and renewal. Street market with v expensive chickens (20 quid) and other home produce. A really surprising number of opticians shops. We had a cup of Moroccan mint tea from a charity stall, raising money for a project back in North Africa. That's the nearest we've got to Tangiers.

I am back up on the tea-deck where I wrote yesterday's bulletin, and some people are saying they paid two thousand to come on this, the captain told them to write and complain, they are sure the company knew about the bad weather before setting off, and that the papers back in England have us down as 'The Cruise to Nowhere'.

It's hard to know what stance to's partly shocking and partly hilarious, partly makes you want to shrug your shoulders and partly makes you want to pick up cudgels and have a fight with someone about it. This was billed as a four-star cruise, and that's a very optimistic description. The food is really dull and repetitive. Christopher points out it's just not possible to provide food at high levels of quality for more than about 60 or 70 people. Here they are serving 1400 and it really does come out canteen style. Not four star.

In the cabin washrooms, you get liquid soap but no shower cap or handcream – though they bring it if you ask for it. Not four star.

Our friends here are saying 50 people left the ship at Bilbao, two people have been airlifted off to hospital with suspected broken vertebrae. Six ambulances at one port and seven at the other. It's not possible to verify all this, and rumours can spread, but we have heard some of this before. One guy they spoke to had bruises on his face from falling. Another man's wife had a twisted back and has had to have two steroid injections. They say the company has cleaned up with cabin service, with so many people confined to their rooms. Two people in wheelchairs toppled over. He says, unlike the RN where a captain is able to make all his own decisions, this captain is under company orders. I am sure that is right. The successful voyages of the Balmoral's sister ship Black Prince which actually crossed our path and made it to Lisbon also raises questions – why couldn't we? More seaworthy?

Now we're off – Andrew is going out to supervise. The day turned out very nice and clear, with sunshine. Also the pavements do not move around like mad under your feet...I have just had one or two ghostly unsteadinesses. Out on the deck here, the jacuzzis are in full flow with happy old people sitting in them. The pool on deck 7 is also full, with swimmers.

Tonight it's apparently a curry night. Last night's supper was billed as Red White and Blue British night, but the main food was Bratwurst and for pudding Apfelstrudel. The music was Mozart, Bach and Beethoven – all very British. The punters had put on a good show, with lots of r, w and b clothing.

Chris has just come in from supervising the departure from the dock - the pilot launch was full of photographers, so possibly the press are onto it. Time now 5.25.