Cruising to fifty, part eight: Jesus, Jedis and home again, jiggity-jig

This is the eighth and final part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October. You can read the others here:
part one | part two | part three | part four | part five | part six | part seven

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

I’m comin’ home, I’ve been away too long
Been away so long, I’m coming home

Coming Home – Ian Thomas

Oct 12

As sad as this is to admit, I had exactly zero knowledge of Croatia as a country, let alone the city we’re visiting today, Dubrovnik. So, with that as our starting position, we headed out into the promise of rain and thunder storms to visit an ancient walled city.Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 845Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 842

And what we saw was just as magnificent as Polignano, Mykonos and the Acropolis had been.

Walking around Dubrovnik, I realized each location had its own individual charms, its own personality. For Dubrovnik, that personality was strong, proud and reverent, without any of the expected pomp or ceremony. Expected, because that’s the North American way. Polignano was the birthplace of the singer of Volare, but you didn’t see t-shirts, little statuettes or posters with him all over them. You didn’t hear the song piped over speakers 24/7 like you would if it was somewhere over here. And it was the same with Dubrovnik. No overtly cheesy marketing. There was a majesty here. For a city that was made entirely of stone, it had a warmth. It felt part of the landscape, unlike the glass and steel blocks I see in Toronto, where they have to shoehorn in a “green space”…

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 711 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 712 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 713Dubrovnik has experienced more than its share of turmoil and destruction, most recently through the bombing by Serbian forces about twenty years ago. As we walked its streets, we saw the chipped stone created from bullets and mortars. Though, to me, they added to the city, showing how it could come back from the violence.

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Yet today, it’s a vibrant hub. Yes, it has been slightly spoiled by capitalism, but with an apparently proud and resilient populace.

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Walking its streets, we were told that, back in the city’s history, the wealthy citizens could not build ostentatious buildings that overtly displayed their wealth (and how cool was that, that the wealthy would go for it? Take that, you horrible One Percenters!), so the buildings are instead tasteful and reserved, and, to me, all the more impressive for it.

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There’s an area that was once an orphanage and we were told a fascinating story. The nuns were said to have cut a small bit of cloth from what had essentially a diaper that had once been worn by the infant Jesus. The story goes that, no matter how often a piece was cut, the next morning, the original garment would be whole again. Kind of a play on the feeding of the masses, to diapering the masses. Anyway, I thought it very cool.

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The garment is now sealed in a chest and on display within the city.

Birds taking a time out to bathe in the puddles left over from an earlier rainstorm

Birds taking a time out to bathe in the puddles left over from an earlier rainstorm

We carried along, deeper into the city and stumbled upon a seller who bound notebooks in beautiful handmade leather covers. I couldn’t resist and had to buy one.

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Warning: Obligatory cat pictures...

Warning: Obligatory cat pictures…

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Me...likely taking pics of cats.

Me…likely taking pics of cats.

We’d both received an iPod with a audio walking guide to the city, but at times it became a touch confusing as to where we were supposed to be and at other times, we just wanted to go in another direction. Though, I have to say, it’s a touch disconcerting when you feel you’ve followed the map and the directions to the letter, and, as you stand in the middle of a wide open square, you hear, “As you look up, you’ll notice the archway…” Uh oh. No we don’t.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 763 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 764 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 767 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 768Eventually, after forsaking the audio guide altogether and just wandering contentedly for a few hours (and we could easily have spend a couple of days wandering this city, to be honest), we got back to the ship and Karen’s back was bothering her. All that walking and hill climbing had finally caught up with her.

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Warning: Craziest, scariest roadway ever...okay well, in Croatia, at least.

Warning: Craziest, scariest roadway ever…okay well, in Croatia, at least.

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Wait, I thought I was the old person in this story?

Anyway, I went up and had lunch with the couple we’d met from the other night, and it’s at this point I have to correct the timeline a touch. In the last blog, I mentioned we met a fun couple after Athens, Jeff and Allison. It was actually the evening previous to that when we’d met them with the Pet Sematary lady. And last night, we ran into them again.

Okay, timeline corrected. Anyway, as Karen soothed her back, I looked up Jeff and Allison and we headed up to the top deck to check out the massive barbeque. Oh yeah, burgers, chicken and ribs. Damn. This is where I learned more about their very cool jobs. How often do you run into a couple who both are real life CSI guys? That was good for hours of chatting, let me tell you, though, to be fair, I’m sure they’d taken a vacation specifically to get away from talking shop, then along comes the Canadians with their stupid questions.

Though, to be honest, I was equally fascinated to hear two people talking about their pet goats with all the glee and glowing faces I usually reserve for my cat and dog stories. Two very nice, very friendly and very fun people.

By then, it was time to head back to the cabin and wake up Karen. Then, as this was our last evening on the ship, I could only sit by helplessly as the Jedi Master of Packing utilized the Force to get all of our purchases into the already-jammed bags. I think at one point I swear I heard her mutter, “Pack or pack not. There is no try.”

Karen, using the Force to pack. Notice the effect it has on the lighting and her moving so fast she's only a blur.

Karen, using the Force to pack. Notice the effect it has on the lighting and her moving so fast she’s only a blur.

Karen. Post Force. Post packing.

Karen. Post Force. Post packing.

We took an extended break for dinner, laughs and good conversation with Jeff and Allison again, and then back to the room to watch Karen pack and then haul the bags out to the hallway for collection.

And with one last 6 am wake up call, we settled in for the last sleep on the boat.

Oct 13: Heading home

Another early morning and a bittersweet one. We were heading home to see the kids (and my dog), but we were leaving Europe. The gentle rocking of the ship on the Mediterranean would not put us to sleep anymore.

We got ready, grabbed a quick breakfast, back for a quick final check around the room and then headed down to 42nd Street, the theatre where most of our tours had started and where they would call us to leave.

From there to shore, picked up our luggage, then a 45 minute wait for the shuttle back to the airport. Karen said, “Pray it’s not the same driver we had driving us here.” Oh yeah, Frodo. Forgot about him.

It was Frodo. Dammit!

For the record, he was better this time around. I’m assuming he’s happier ferrying people out of his country rather than in.

Then we were at the airport. It was 11 am. We couldn’t even check our bags in until 2 pm. Which meant we couldn’t get past Customs until after 2 pm. Which meant we were left fighting to even find some seats to part ourselves for the three-hour wait. Note to self: Arrive in Venice 24 hours prior to cruise. Plan to leave Venice 24 hours after cruise is finished.

Eventually, after walking around and around and around, we finally snagged a table with a couple from London, Ontario.

At 2, we checked our bags then headed over to the Customs check in. This was the best entertainment we had the entire day. We were all lined up in those snaking lines you see in every airport, bank or any other place where you line up. It’s not a straight line, it’s a zigzagging maze made from posts and ropes.

Anyway, we’re in this line with our carry-on luggage. When we started in the line, we did the standard motions: stand around, then shuffle forward a couple of feet, then stand around some more. The only break from this is the hairpin turns at each end of the cattle herd. Anyway, it doesn’t take long to notice this miserable old lady with a face that honestly made the Wicked Witch of the West look hot. She was sort of trying to subtle about it, but not really. As we watched, she would crowd the person in front of her, then position herself so she was side-by-side with them, then, as she got to the hairpin turn, she’d scoot in front of that person, usually to a series of pursed lips and hateful looks. But no one said anything.

I pointed this out to Karen, and, for the next half hour or so, as we stood in this line, she became our entertainment. There were quite a few of these hairpins, so she was pulling the move each time the line doubled back on itself. And it didn’t take long for me to start laughing out loud at her. Which was even more fun, because then she’d turn and look at me, sour expression firmly in place, and give me the stink eye. Now, I’ll admit, there was a point where she seemed to linger near a younger couple and I began revising my opinion, thinking she might have been their mother/grandmonster trying to catch up with them.

Until she blew by them at the next turnaround. At that point, we started up a conversation with that couple as we passed them. Eventually, it became a spectator sport for a lot of us in line.

Then Karen said, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if she got up to the Customs Agent and they told her to go to the back of the line?” We all agreed that would be sweet justice, but shit like that never happens.

She carried on, and the closer she came to Customs, the bolder she got, fairly elbowing people out of the way to get through that line quicker. By the way, all this effort she expended likely managed to move her up no more than five or six places in line. It might have saved her five minutes.

Anyway, she finally made it to the Customs Agent, presented her paperwork, gave us the stink eye and waited to be waved through. But wait! What was this? Something wrong with the paperwork? The Customs Agent gestured for her to head back to the ticketing area, where she would have needed to stand in line again, and then have to brave the gauntlet of the Customs line yet again.

As she shambled away from Customs, entrance denied, I couldn’t help laughing at her. Poor old lady.

Shortly thereafter, we made it through Customs with no issues and found some slightly more comfortable seats near our gate. Only four more hours until our flight.

If I didn’t write horror prior to this, seven hours in an Italian airport would have been a way for me to start.

Because they had to bus us to the plane, we actually started the boarding an hour prior to the flight. Then, after all that waiting, we were on the plane and the plane was in the air. There was no woman flipping her hair over the seat, everything went smoothly. I even got to read an entire Ian Rankin novel on the flight.

As I finished my notes of this amazing journey, this incredible gift that my wife gave me for the simple act of surviving fifty years on this planet, we were over the Atlantic Ocean at about 32000 feet (9800 m) and traveling at 531 mph (853 kmph) and it was -61 degrees F (-52 C) not three feet to my right.

And not three feet to my left was the woman I loved.

And we were heading home.

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Cruising to fifty, part two: Frodo and the immovable bus

This is the second part of a series of blogs about the cruise the Wife and I went on last October.You can read part one here.

A quick set up:

I turned 50 on October 6, 2012. My wife surprised me about three weeks before, during a particular low spot in my life with a piece of paper. “Happy birthday,” she said. I opened the paper and quickly scanned it.

“We’re going on a cruise?” I said, and my mind kind of shut down with happiness after that. In fact, it wasn’t until several minutes later, as I was refolding the paper, that I saw the word “Greece” and just about shit. This is the story of what happened on that trip, taken almost exclusively from the diary I kept along the way.

Have mercy
Been waitin’ on the bus all day

ZZ Top

October 6 – My birthday!

I turned fifty over the Atlantic, but didn’t notice it until a couple of hours later. Could be I was tired. Could be I was old. Either way, I’d crossed that threshold.

The flight landed twenty minutes early and for the first time, I stepped on European land. Not that I had time to think about it. I think we’re spoiled in Canada and the U.S. when we walk off the plane and straight into the terminal. In Venice, we walked down a flight of stairs, stood on the tarmac and a crazed transport driver came by and did his best to make us puke, or at least drop us all to our knees on the ten minute drive from plane to terminal. Sharp turns with no warning, rapid acceleration and rapid stops were the order of the day.

We managed to hold down our nasty airline food and, once in the airport, desperately look for a washroom. I was quite happy I was male at this time, as I was able to simply walk in, find a free urinal, and do what I needed to do, which was to pee in my first European urinal. You’re a peein’ indeed! My wife, on the other hand, lined up for a solid twenty minutes. We both survived, then got our baggage, then we assembled to wait for our transport to the ship. If I’d known exactly how exasperating it was going to be, I would have hired a taxi. Ah well, hindsight’s 20/20, right?

So the first endurance test was to wait within the terminal. We had to wait until all the Transat travelers arrived. No biggie. The plan was to hop on the bus and get delivered to our various floating holiday accomodations, the Divina, the Jade, and ours, the Splendour of the Seas.

It wasn’t a horrible wait. We’d landed by noon local time, got our luggage by 12:30, and by 1:00, a short, balding, slightly anxious, hobbit-like driver walked us from the terminal to the bus with his hand raised to shoulder height–this from a guy barely scraping 5’3″–as though that hand could be followed through all of Middle Earth to the depths of Mordor.

Ten-ish minutes later, we were at the bus and we separated our luggage out depending on which ship we were headed to. A second group showed up, all headed for the Divina. We were all told to wait outside the bus. It was about ridiculously hot outside, but one of the other passengers described the bus as being “about 900 degrees” so we figured outside was better. Twenty minutes later, our hobbit driver started up the bus and the air conditioning and loaded us on. We were left with the impression we would leave shortly and, after eight hours in a cramped seat on the plane, here we were again, stuffed into a seat with no legroom. Meanwhile, Frodo was out chatting up another bus driver and sweating profusely.

Soon, a couple more groups showed up, stowed their luggage and got on the bus. It’s probably important to note at this point that this bus could likely seat about 70 people. I mention this because that first group I mentioned? The ones going to the Divina? There were eight of them, four couples. They obviously felt a deep, abiding love for each other and very much looked forward to spending a week with each other at sea, because when they got on the bus, they each claimed a section of two seats for themselves. Yes…sixteen seats for eight people. Four couples. Or, should I say, eight ignorant assholes. The other groups that got on the bus kind of gave them all the stink eye, then moved toward the back of the bus.

Anyway, it’s now about 1:45, almost two hours since we’ve landed, when Frodo finally climbs aboard and puts it into gear. Yay! I think, prematurely. We drive out of the parking lot, down a short laneway and get out to what looks like a main thoroughfare–a total distance of maybe a quarter-mile. Frodo then says, “Sorry!” and some other stuff in Italian that we couldn’t catch, then pulled a U-turn and we headed right back to the dreaded parking lot. He parked us in the exact same spot and leapt from the bus and ran back to the terminal.

Several minutes later, sweating worse now, he showed back up with more people and luggage.  He’d stow their luggage, direct them on the bus, grab a little fanny pack from the driver’s cockpit, say something about dropping off tickets, then scoot back to the terminal. Ten minutes later, he’d show up again.

With more travelers and luggage. Which would start the whole cycle all over again. Stow, direct, fanny pack, tickets, scoot, ten minutes.

Every time he came back, there was a feeling of anticipation, of woo-hoo, we’re on our way! Each time we saw more travelers, that feeling would deflate again. This went on for five full trips to and from the terminal for Frodo. By now, it was just getting old.

A solid hour after he’d left the parking lot, then returned, somewhere around 3:00, we’ve now been in Venice a total of three hours and seen nothing but an airport, a parking lot, a bus and a tantalizing glimpse of what lay beyond. We finally left the parking lot again, the bus packed to the gills and the ignorant assholes finally having to give up their individual sections and sit with each other.

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Our first real glimpse of Venice from the bus.

On the way into Venice

On the way into Venice

Our first glimpse of our ship

Our first glimpse of our ship

Fifteen minutes later, we were at our boat. We’d waited almost two and a half hours for a fifteen minute trip. Goddamn.

Anyway, the Royal Caribbean staff were all young, attractive and friendly and we were welcomed with big smiles. From their welcome, we then walked down a long, covered gangway and then…then we were on our ship. And it was beautiful.

The ship from the gangway

We found our way to our room and it actually had a birthday greeting right on the door. Karen let me open the door and I found the room decorated with birthday s

tuff. Holy crap! In all the fuss with Frodo, I’d forgotten it was still actually my birthday.

By now, it was about 3:30 local time, or about 9:30 am by what my internal clock was telling me. We’d been up for about 28 straight hours. We were tired and hungry.

We headed down to the solarium–a beautiful area, by the way–and had an excellent carved roast beef sandwich and it was nice to just sit in a comfortable chair with legroom  and look out at Venice sprawled in front of us.


At 4:30 (29 hours and counting), everyone had to attend muster–gathering beneath our designated lifeboat (ours was #10) and were taught, in English, Italian, German and Spanish, how to put on a lifejacket. It was interestingly refreshing to not get the instructions in French, as we would have in Canada.

We took a couple of pictures then went back to the cabin for a nap. Okay, I went back for a nap.

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I’d just laid down when Karen dragged me back out–twice–to look at interesting things. The launch of the ship out of port and Venice sliding by.

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I should say, it’s always been a dream of mine to go to Venice. And here it was. I wanted to enjoy it. I truly did. But 30 hours awake and 4500 miles of travel by plane, bus and ship had done their work. I fell on the bed and died.

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I woke up at 6:30. Karen had been too excited to sleep, so she’d taken pictures and unpacked. I’d slept through it all.

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It was time for dinner, so I clambered into the teeny, tiny shower and scrubbed off the exhaustion of the past day and a half, got dressed and we headed down for dinner. I had an excellent dinner of pork medallions, mashed potatoes and mushrooms in a ragout sauce with a Caesar salad. Dessert was Strawberry Povlova…which was crazy good.

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We took a brief walk around the ship, then came back to the cabin and we both fell down in exhaustion.

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And that’s how I turned fifty years old. A little rough in spots, but overall, it turned out fantastic. Story of my life!

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 124-2Tomorrow was going to be a better day.

See part three here.