Cruising to fifty, part six: The Parthenon, pooches and protective birds

This is the sixth 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

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.

Yugo to Slavia
Half past Armenia
Down and towards the Med
Left side of Turkey
Nowhere near Fiji
You will find Greece

You may Athena
Handed on Plato
Hole in my Socrates
I came Acropolis
On Monty Pythagoras
Ulysses Greece

Greece – George Harrison

October 10

Today we visit Athens, a city that’s over 6000 years old. Stop and think about that for a second, six thousand years old. Incredible. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world, with about four million people living there, and it’s named after Athena, the goddess of education and wisdom.

Unfortunately, while parts of the day were among the best of the trip, overall, I found myself incredibly disappointed with the current state of this historic city. Granted, this is an outsider’s opinion based on very few hours in the city, but it struck me as very poor and very crowded. Most larger cities have a rough area of town, but it seemed that the rough area of Athens was…well, all of Athens.Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 1077

Of course, Greece is going through a terrible time economically, and that likely is where much of this comes from, but it was heartbreaking to see such beautiful buildings and monuments covered with abandoned scaffolding from failed reconstructions, and graffiti, and overall, a patina of dirt and disrepair.

This is a crappy shot, but it gives you a sense of the prevalence of the graffiti

This is a crappy shot, but it gives you a sense of the prevalence of the graffiti

The graffiti was the most disconcerting. Apparently the day before, there had been a massive demonstration in the streets, so much of the graffiti was fresh, and much of it was in the native Greek language, but what I saw was unsettling. “Wake up!” and “Capitalism is killing you. Fascism is not the answer”, and, perhaps most disturbing, “Devil will come.”

Devil will come

Devil will come

However, if you looked past all that, you still saw smiling faces and beauty underneath the dirty, despoiled facades.

The other thing that becomes immediately apparent is the insanity of the drivers. I swear, they were either the most skilled drivers in the world, or the most crazy, though, to be honest, I’m leaning toward the latter. And this includes the bus driver that took us where we needed to go. And I don’t think there are any parking laws that are actually enforced. We saw No Parking signs everywhere, but we also saw cars parked under every one of them, in the most inconvenient of places. In one case, we saw a narrow street lined both with No Parking signs, and parked cars up and down both sides. Then, because all the (non)parking spots were taken, two or three more cars simply parked right in the middle of the street, rendering it virtually impassable from either direction. We could only shake our heads in wonder.

Greek parking at its finest. Note the No Parking sign at the left of the picture.

Greek parking at its finest. Note the No Parking sign at the left of the picture.

Right in the middle of Athens, high on a hill, was our destination. The Acropolis, literally Akro, the highest place, and Polis, the place of rule. When the bus offloaded us and we were preparing to climb to the top, I can’t tell you how excited I was. I was bubbling, I was vibrating. This was a once in a lifetime thrill for me. I’m not sure if Karen was more excited to see the Parthenon, or to see my reactions as we climbed.

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It was hard to get a good shot of this, but it's an outdoor theatre. Apparently Sting played there.

It was hard to get a good shot of this, but it’s an outdoor theatre. Apparently Sting played there.

The path to the top was all rough-hewn stone, very uneven, yet very smooth from the thousands of years and millions of feet that crossed them. I can’t stress how uneven the stone was. We literally had to watch each step along the way, and hold each others’ hands to prevent a fall. We saw one man step sideways, hit a calf-high wall, and tumble over it. The worst part was the area that he fell to was at least three feet lower. He hit hard. I can’t believe he didn’t break a bone or two, but he got up, brushed himself off and kept on going.

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All of it was incredible, all the way up, but I can say with all honestly, the first close-up viewing of the Parthenon, as we got to the top, was absolutely, literally breath-taking. I felt the air leave my lungs and it was like I forgot to breathe again. It was that powerful. No picture will ever do it justice. This was the first time I’d ever stood in a spot of historical significance and felt its weight and power. It was a living thing, and it was something I could only stop and allow to pass through me.

I know there's been a lot of these shots, but this is likely my favourite of the entire cruise.

I know there’s been a lot of these shots, but this is likely my favourite of the entire cruise.

Studying the ancient architecture, seeing those massive blocks of stone, so intricately carved, and understanding that this place was designed and carved and built, not by labourers, but by Artists. And I don’t mean artists. I mean Artists.

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I'm on top of the world

I’m on top of the world

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And then it struck me that it was also built on the backs of sheer manpower. No throbbing engines driving cranes. No glass and steel. Men and stone.

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Then, finally, to consider that, more than three thousand years after it was built, surviving all that time, and here were Karen and I, visiting it. They built something thousands of years ago that we could still experience.

It was a humbling experience.

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 559 Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 593Now, sections of the Parthenon are being restored and, to be honest, I’m not sure I’m happy with that. Yes, they are taking pains to match it, but still… I understand it’s to save it for future generations, but much of its power comes from what it is, not what it is from restoration.

You can see some of the reconstruction in these shots.

You can see some of the reconstruction in these shots.

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Anyway, there are massive sections of stone that have been carefully removed and set aside to be eventually returned and placed in their original spots. Stone is everywhere. Scaffolding is everywhere. People are everywhere.

And dogs are everywhere.

Apparently Athens looks after its stray dogs, spaying and neutering them as well as feeding them. There’s a lot, and every one of them seems to absolutely crave attention. So, as incredible as the Acropolis was, I couldn’t resist making friends. There was one dog, big, white and fluffy, that just melted my heart. I pet her and made all those stupid noises I make when I converse with canines. Karen looked at me and said, “Seriously? We travel 4000 miles, climb the Acropolis, and you’re playing with a dog?”

I just said, “Well…yeah.”

She was waving me on. By this time, the dog had dropped to the ground and let me scratch her head and back. A crowd of about fifteen Asian tourists had encircled the two of us and were smiling, pointing and taking pictures. Somehow, I had become a tourist attraction at the top of the Acropolis. Me and my adopted dog. “Okay, pooch,” I said. “I gotta go now.” At which point, she broke out the heavy artillery. She promptly flipped over to her back and looked at me with her head upside down on the ground.

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Seriously, how can you not go back and rub that belly?

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Various views of Athens from the Acropolis

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Eventually I tore myself away. We made our way back down the hill and got back on the bus and waited for further driving shenanigans. We were not disappointed. Several times, I knew we were within a few microns of another vehicle, because Karen would reach over, grab my leg, and dig her fingers in  to the meat of my thigh. When I looked over, her eyes would be wide and her mouth would be dragged down in a we ain’t gettin’ out of this alive frown.

At one point, the bus driver decided we were going in the wrong direction (I’m assuming) because he decided to block at least six lanes of traffic by pulling a U-turn on a rush hour-busy street. All we could do was laugh. Nervously.

On the way back to the ship, it again saddened and frustrated me to see the graffiti, even at the base of the Acropolis, but thankfully, none at the top. I guess it’s the disrespect for those who came before and created something that would last. Not something to be spray painted on, a canvas for political messages and dire warnings.

Then again, seeing the city and hearing some of what’s going on, it seems there is a growing and almost disdainful disregard for most of their history. Glass and steel boxes shine while stunning old buildings fall to disrepair, victims for the paint of the youth with their vacuous and impertinent messages. Yes, it’s the job of the youth to question what came before, to push against it, but there’s also a time to respect it.

The tour guide spoke of the new upgrades to the subway system, now in its 17th year because they run into artifacts of archeological importance. Apparently, even with these findings, they’ve decided in the interest of expedience, to ignore the finds and press on. And yet, every stop we made was the city trading on its history. It’s pushing into the future and forgetting its past, turning it into a cheap commodity to be sold to the masses.

Athens, to me, though beautiful in spots, is a sad place. I can’t see how this city, historically one of the most important in the world, can ever find that balance between past and present and find its way to greatness again.

But I digress. Our bus driver has to be credited. With all the insanity that is Athens, he accomplished nothing short of a miracle: at no point did the metal of our bus contact the metal of any other vehicle. I don’t exactly know how he achieved this, but he did. We made it back to the ship unscathed.

Later, as our ship left Athens, our ship and another Royal Caribbean ship, the Grandeur of the Seas traded foghorn blasts like two otherworldly monsters, perhaps H. G. Wells’ Martian invaders, or one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoomian beasts.

And I think, this has truly been a day of wonder.

The storm coming on.

The storm coming on.

Later that evening, that sense of wonder continued. I wrote something that I’ll simply recreate word for word here. I had sat out on the balcony, watching a lightning storm a little way off. Then I saw something magical. Anyway, here it is.

The storm birds

It’s night, and it’s raining. Clouds brighten with flashes of lightning, illuminating the shapes and contours normally hidden within their mass.

From the darkness, I slowly become aware of a flitting movement from the corner of my eye. A small, bright arc against the dark sky. I think it’s a shooting star, but it’s far too overcast for one to be visible. Then I see another, but this one changes direction. Then I see more, above the ship, level with it.

They’re birds, dipping and soaring, gliding and diving all around the ship.

Then I see a mass of them heading toward the rear of the ship. I look to that direction and see an even larger mass heading in the opposite direction, directly toward the first. The two groups appear to crash together, but they instead seemingly blend to one great flock and head back to the ship’s bow.

Occasionally, these battalions fly by, like the ship’s honour guard. Others, in singles and small groups of two and three continue to wheel against the light-painted sky.

I see a small, single white shape against the black backdrop. Then the sky brightens to stark white and that small white shape turns black and I actually gasp. For less than a second, the scene was the exact negative of itself, then it popped back to normal, white bird against black velvet sky.

These birds feel like protectors…from the storm, from the rain, the lightning and thunder, the sound and the fury. They hold vigil for us, the protectors against earth and sky and water.

They’re the storm birds.

See part seven here.


Cruising to fifty, part five: Lennon, linen and uncooperative pigeons

This is the fifth 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

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.

Now I am older
The more that I see the less that I know for sure
Now I am older
The future is brighter

Borrowed Time – John Lennon

October 9: John Lennon’s birthday

Sleep in day! Last night, prior to going to bed, Karen said, “We don’t get into Mykonos until later, so I’d rather sleep in. I don’t care if I have breakfast or not.”

This morning, I get up early as usual, grab a quick shower and, with Karen still snoozing, head off to grab some breakfast.

A little while later, I head back and find Karen up. She looks at me, crestfallen and says, “You didn’t bring me back anything?” Turns out that not caring if I have breakfast or not does not include hubby piling a plate high with pastries and bringing it back to the cabin for the wife who may or may not still be sleeping. The stereotypical wife move…don’t listen to what I say, read my mind and understand what I’m thinking at you.

So, off I go again, back up two decks, fight the breakfast crowds and get her a couple of damn pastries. Well, actually, scratch that because, as I’m leaving the cabin, the request for pastries suddenly changes to French Toast. To quote a tour guide…Jesus Christ!

Once I’m back, she’s still getting ready–seriously, for any female readers of this, please answer this question: Why the hell does it take women and teenage boys so damn long to get ready for anything? –so, I get to deliver the French Toast to the woman who didn’t care if she got breakfast or not, then head back out yet again to head down two decks to pick up tender tickets.

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The ship doesn’t actually dock in Mykonos. Instead, the passengers are ferried back and forth from ship to island to ship on small boats. Instead of everyone lining up, they issue tender tickets so you know the rough time you should be ready, and they call your number. We got tender 17.

So, I head back up to our cabin again, vowing never again to listen to my wife or punish myself by actually getting up early ever again. Finally, Karen was ready and fed, then we headed up to the deck to look at Mykonos and wait for our number to be called.

They started calling the tender numbers around 1:20 and, judging by how many boats came to the ship and how long each one took, I guessed we wouldn’t get called before 2:30. Karen guessed it would be before then. So, of course, a bet was wagered. If Karen won, she could buy all the jewelry she wanted in Mykonos, which is dangerous, because God knows Karen loves her jewelry, and Mykonos had been pushed as a great place to buy it. Now, on the other hand, if I won, then she gets absolutely no jewelry whatsoever.

We settled in to enjoy the warm weather and wait. Understand that we were out on a deck. People were all around us. Not necessarily close by, but milling around in the general area. At one point, I felt a bit of…pressure. Okay, so, let’s just be honest here. I dropped a rather raucous fart out on that deck. It was not quiet. I looked over and was rewarded with Karen’s jaw dropping as she smiled that oh no you didn’t smile of utter shock. Yeah. Like she should be shocked…have you met my wife? Anyway, I calmly, clearly and logically explained that I’m fifty now. I can do this now. I’m allowed.

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She didn’t seem amused. But then she cheered up. They called tender 17 at 2:20. Daaaaaaamn.

We took our short boat ride to Mykonos, which is simply beautiful from the ship, but when we got off the boat and hit the main street, it’s solid jewelry stores and restaurants. Nothing else. And the restaurants, which are mostly open air, each have waiters doing everything they can to entice you in, to prevent you from walking ten feet (no, I’m not exaggerating here) to the next restaurant. Annoying at first, it kind of became fun after a while, because you could mess with them. “Oh, sorry, we were thinking of heading over to that one…”

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While on the main drag, I watched a massive flock of pigeons. They would mass on a roof, then one or two would head off into the air, then they’d all take off, fly in a great, main square-circling arc, then all light back on the same roof. They did this about once every two or three minutes.

Until, that is, I mentioned it to Karen and she pulled out the video camera to catch it. Then, they just sat there. I kept telling her to watch for the tell-tale launch of the first couple of birds. Of course, the next time, as though they all got the same memo at once, they took off en masse, with no warning. Karen kept missing it. It was quite amusing to watch.

The best shot we could get of the uncooperative birds. Doesn't come close to doing them justice.

The best shot we could get of the uncooperative birds. Doesn’t come close to doing them justice.

And then there were the cats. Cats everywhere, just like yesterday in Corfu. As a cat lover, I completely dug the Greek cats.

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We broke off the highly commercial main drag and angled over to the general direction of the now-unused windmills. Once off that main drag, the true character of Mykonos came to the fore.

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The windmills, five of them, stood iconic, like the Easter Island faces, out to sea. They had once been used to mill grain, and now two or three had become private residences as the rest fell into disrepair.

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The guy sitting out front here, I believe actually lives in this windmill. When I asked if I could take his picture, he simply ducked his head and stopped moving.

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From the windmills, we took a moment to add some graffiti to the most incredibly dusty car I’d ever seen, then moved on.

I love the two additions here..."I wish my wife was as dirty as this car," and the answer, "My wife is."

I love the two additions here…”I wish my wife was as dirty as this,” and the answer, “My wife is.”

My addition: "Experimental test dirt. DO NOT WASH."

My addition: “Experimental test dirt. DO NOT WASH.”

We headed down into the confusing, but charming back alleys, reminiscent of the Italian city of Polignano we’d visited a couple of days previous, these streets were narrow, sometimes close enough to touch both sides with arms outstretched. Everything was clean with a whitewash that covered virtually every building on the island. Some of the shops here catered to the standard tourist fare and, of course, jewelry, there were also some more interesting shops.

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As we came to a small courtyard in the middle of the maze of the city, I saw a t-shirt that I quite liked hanging outside a particular shop. I went inside to see if they had it in my size, then spied a series of shirts based on the art and music of John Lennon. And this happened today, on what would have been Lennon’s 72nd birthday. On a small island of 5000 people. In Greece. Shirts I’d never seen before. Go figure.

I bought one of each. Happy birthday, John. Happy birthday, Tobin.

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Speaking of the population of 5000, apparently this island sees something like almost a hundred thousand visitors a year. Mykonos is becoming known as a party destination, much like Ibiza. That kind of saddens me, as I know it will eventually impact some of the culture I got to see today.

This is my...okay, I don't know what the hell I'm trying to do here...

This is my…okay, I don’t know what the hell I’m trying to do here…

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We then entered another shop, and it was, quite frankly, surreal. It was filled with shawls, scarves, wraps, sheets and other clothing, all white linen. Now, there was a bit of a language barrier, but from what I understood, all the clothing had been handmade by a pleasantly cheerful old woman sitting at the back of the shop, smiling and nodding at anyone that came in. She had learned the method from her mother and it had been a skill handed down from one generation to the next. Not something you see much of in North America.

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I can’t imagine any North American business person ever considering opening a business in one of these back alleys. A hundred square feet at best, no storage, no access to receive stock, no way to advertise, no place for a massive neon sign…and yet, we see business after successful business making it work here.

And not one franchise to be seen yet on this trip. Nice. I can’t express how refreshing it is to not see a familiar chain store.

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So, no franchises, but they DID have stairs leading nowhere. Bizarre.

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On our way out of Mykonos, back to the boat, we saw a fat old pelican sitting at a public faucet. He appeared quite content for all the attention he received, though I wouldn’t ever want to piss him off. He was big.

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I would have like to have taken a second boat over to the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo. No one lives there and it’s the site of an archeological dig. One of the tour guides described the island as quite barren and rocky, like walking on the moon.

Though Karen had won the bet fair and square, she actually couldn’t find any jewelry that caught her attention enough to buy. And yes, I’m well aware of how much of a bullet I dodged there.

We got back to the ship and ate dinner with the same group from last night and an added group of three from Edinborough, Scotland.

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Took a few nighttime pics, then headed off to bed earlier tonight. We’re up at 6:00 tomorrow for Athens.

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Cruising to Fifty, part four: Corfu cats, Christ and classic rock

This is the fourth 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

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.

Someone is waiting just for you
spinning wheel is spinning true
Drop all your troubles, by the river side
Catch a painted pony
On the spinning wheel ride

Spinning Wheel – Blood, Sweat & Tears

October 8

Today, we left Italy and landed in Greece. Corfu, to be exact. Beautiful country, beautiful scenery, amazing mountains, cliffs, water.

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We left the ship and clambered on the bus for a trip to two different places in Corfu.

On the bus

On the bus

I had high expectations for our tour guide after Frederica yesterday. Today’s tour guide was an older woman, I’m going to guess 55-60, who seemed to amuse herself long before anyone else. As we drove to our first destination, she took frequent pauses to laugh at her own jokes or anecdotes.

Yeah. She wasn’t funny.

Okay, well, that’s sort of a lie. I’d say she wasn’t consciously funny. She did, however, have this habit of getting pissed if it looked like rain, which it did off and on all through the tour.  So, she’d exclaim “JESUS CHRIST” out of nowhere.  As an example, she might be pointing out a mountain, so the accompanying dialogue would be something like, “And over there is a beautiful mountain and JESUS CHRIST it better not rain!”

I can’t do it justice, but trust me, everyone on the bus chuckled every time she did it. She did it a lot over the four hours we spent with her.

The first place we visited was at the top of a mountain–with one hell of a ride up and down it. There were long, curving sections with honest-to-God hairpin turns…think about that for one second. Take one of those big comfortable buses designed for travel. Now, put it on the side of a mountain. Now, give it a super tight hairpin turn. Repeat. A lot. Now, add in a “JESUS CHRIST!” every time we encounter one.

The entrance to the Achilleon

The entrance to the Achilleon

We eventually made it up this crazy mountain to a half-castle, half-mansion, known as the Achilleon built  by the estranged Empress of Bavaria Elisabeth, better known as Sisi (or Sissi, depending on which spelling you prefer). Apparently she travelled throughout Europe avoiding her husband, eventually finding a home in Corfu.

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Catching ourselves in a mirror

Catching ourselves in a mirror

For anyone local to me that reads this blog, imagine Robert McLaughlin’s Parkwood Estate, but built up on a mountain.

Rubbing for luck...why does every tourist attraction have one of these?

Rubbing for luck…why does every tourist attraction have one of these?

Karen checks out an ass...

Karen checks out an ass…

...and she likes it!

…and she likes it!

We spent a solid hour or so there, and everywhere you turned, there was another beautiful section to discover. Really, the place was absolutely stunning. Then to imagine everything being hauled up this mountain and built with the technology of 1890…it boggles the mind.

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After the Achilleon, we got back in the bus for our next destination. Kissing for luck before we fall off the road and roll down the mountainThis involved a harrowing ride back down the mountain and through all those damn hairpin turns again. There were times when I looked out the window of the bus and could not even see the edge of the road, just a long drop to the ocean below. Got the blood racing, let me tell you. JESUS CHRIST!

Once we were down on more level land, we headed to the northern area of Corfu. The old tour guide droned on. I mean, you can only handle so much of:

“As we pass troo dis cahn-tree, don’ t’ink. Don’ t’ink, juss breede in all in, fill your lungs wit all de byoo-tee aroun’ you. Juss let it fill you and calm you and make you ‘appy.”

I have to admit, she put me to sleep for a bit.

We headed to a small monastery, also built on a mountain, but nowhere near the crazy trip we just experienced.

Outside the monastery

Outside the monastery

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I’ve decided, having forgotten the real name of the monastery, to rename it the Greek Church of the Holy Felines. Seriously, there was more cats than I’d ever seen collected in a single place, ever. Cats in the hallways. Cats in the gardens. Cats on ledges. Cats in flowerpots. Cats in boxes. Cats just hanging around. Chillin’ cats.

To be honest, I lost interest in the monastery and became completely fascinated with the cats…as you’ll be able to see from the pictures.

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Back on the bus, back down the mountain and tour guide did point out one thing that absolutely fascinated me. We passed a small inlet that had a large outcropping of rock rising from the waves. Apparently this was where Ulysses landed after his experience with both the Trojan War (as chronicled in Homer’s The Iliad) and his adventure-filled return home (as chronicled in The Odyssey). That outcropping of rock? That was supposedly the petrified remains of his ship. It totally captured my imagination and drove home how much history lived in these mountains and valleys.

We had a very quick stop in “old town” then back to the bus one last time and back on the ship.

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Loved that, whoever this guy was, now he was a bird perch.

Loved that, whoever this guy was, now he was a bird perch.

In the end, we got incredibly lucky, passing through at least two major rainstorms, but seeing only sun whenever we got out of the bus.Whether it was Jesus Christ or the Greek Gods smiling down on us, I’ll never know.

Our ship, the Splendour of the Seas

Our ship, the Splendour of the Seas

In front of our ship

In front of our ship

We grabbed a late lunch and then sat out on the balcony and watched as the ship left the Corfu harbour.

The light blue waves are the water stirred up from the ship turnig 180 degrees before leaving port

The light blue waves are the water stirred up from the ship turnig 180 degrees before leaving port

Heading out of port

Heading out of port

Then, once at sea again, had a nap. Hey, I’m old. I’m allowed.

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Woke up and got all dolled up for the first (and, though we didn’t know it yet, last) formal night. We sat with a nice couple from England and an older couple from Ottawa along with their son, which was a cool surprise. Even cooler, the mother knew people from Killaloe, the town not far from Barry’s Bay where I went to high school.

The Ottawa couple were taking their son on a cruise as a celebration for him gaining his MBA from Rotman. Turns out he works for PriceWaterhouseCooper, very close to one of the offices I work out of in Toronto. Even four thousand miles away…

After dinner, we scooted over to the Top Hat bar for a game. Now, I’m the first one to admit I’m not much of a game guy. But when you advertise Classic Rock Trivia, dude, I’m there.

The game consisted of them playing a three-to-four second snippet of a classic rock song, and then we had to provide the title of the song. Oh come on, this is like taking candy from a baby, I thought.

Turns out three-to-four seconds of a song is a stunningly short amount of time. Damn, this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. And what made it even worse? There was this guy and his wife a couple of seats over that obviously knew the damn songs too. The host would play a snippet, both of them would bop along with it, then immediately go to the sheet and start scribbling. Messed with my mind, I tell you.

Anyway, I got a little jammed on a Led Zeppelin song. I knew it was Led Zep, but I got stuck on remembering only two parts, the “gonna give you my love” part and the “waaaaaaaaay down inside” part. I. Could. Not. Remember. The. Title. JESUS CHRIST!


Got a much-needed assist from Karen with another song. I knew it was Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I wrote down What Goes Up. Karen looked at that and said, quietly, bless her soul, “Isn’t that one Spinning Wheel?” When she’s right, she’s right.

He gave us a chance to replay a couple of the riffs, and I had him hit that Led Zep song one more time, and Whole Lotta Love just popped in, just like that.

When it was done, we had to pass our sheets to a neighbouring table to mark. I got a 16 out of 16, with Karen’s assist. Turns out the table that marked ours had a teacher or two, so I had to laugh at the “16/16! Well done!” note at the bottom.

And that other couple, the one I was sweating over? 14/16. Yeah, baby! The Canadians kicked ass! Apparently the host had never seen anyone get a perfect score before. So, we scored two Royal Caribbean umbrellas. As the Boy would say, “Dope!”

Victorious, we came back to our room and ended up chatting with our room guy. He’s the one that decorated the room for my birthday and made sure everything was perfect. Great guy, from Romania, where Dracula’s castle is.

One of the towel animals our room guy left for us

One of the towel animals our room guy left for us

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Karen decided to pull down the birthday decorations down. As she’s doing it, she says, “Isn’t it cool how they got the little Royal Caribbean anchors on these streamers?”

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Yes, it was cool, but when I’d said that the night before when I noticed it, she’d looked at me like I had two heads. Typical woman. Ah well, it was good for a laugh.

And then, I finished up another perfect evening writing  the notes for the day out on the balcony with the distant lights of Greece in the distance, along with the running lights of a couple of other ships at sea with us, and enjoying the warm breeze of the Ionian Sea.

Really, does it get any better than this?

See part five here.

Cruising to fifty, part three: Volare and a box of frogs

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

E volavo, volavo felice più in alto del sole ed ancora più su
Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me

And I flew, I flew happily to the heights of the sun.
As the world slowly disappeared out there,
A soft music was playing just for me.

Volare – Domenico Modugno

October 7

Today started off with two missions. One was food, and one was my ZZ Top goal: to go and get myself some cheap sunglasses. Turns out I left mine back home.

When you live with me for any length of time, you’ll find out I’m a goddamn miserable bastard until I eat something. I’m not one of those skip breakfast kind of guys.

So, our first official morning on the cruise, I sit out on the balcony quietly going mad. Karen’s dragging her ass, getting ready at a comatose snail’s pace as I try and not say something snarky. I’m starving and I’m praying she’s going to get her face on before they shut down breakfast. There’s a small, somewhat compassionate part of me that reminds me she didn’t even get a nap yesterday, so she basically ran almost thirty-six straight hours and she’s as jetlagged as I am. Still. I’m starving!

Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 154-2And I’m fifty now, so I’m allowed to be curmudgeonly.

Anyway, we make it to breakfast, and met some older travelers from Norway and a younger couple from Baton Rouge, Louisiana that had the coolest accents.

Today we were a little more awake, so we took a more conscious walk around the ship and got a better lay of the land. Saw a couple of cozy little bars that might be nice to relax in later, then we stumbled into the presentation of the cruise itinerary. Let me give you a taste: “So, dere’s a stop at Mykonos (mee-kun-oze) dat’s nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful. Sure to be a highlight of da crooze. It’s a nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful place in Mykonos.” As we listened, we quickly determined everything was nice an’ bee-you-tee-ful and sure to be a highlight of da crooze.

We decided this presentation was not a highlight of da crooze an’ we left. On the way out, I went for a coffee refill and found a build-your-own-taco station. Yeah, baby! Nothing like unexpected bonus tacos. Did I mention I was starving?

We headed back to the cabin to get ready for our first stop. Bari, Italy was in sight and, as we came closer, I caught sight of some dolphins trailing the ship for a few minutes. The Mediterranean is almost smooth as glass today, and it’s a nice and bee-you-tee-ful 81 degrees F. Sunny and bright.

There was a point when I was leaning on the balcony rail outside our room, when the guy from the cabin next to us came out to light up a smoke. We got talking and I fell in love with his English accent. He was from Lincolnshire and, while we chatted about several subjects, it was one statement that stuck out. We talked American politics, so different from the British and Canadian politics we were both used to, and he mentioned Sarah Palin. Then he said, “Oh, that one’s as mad as a box of frogs. Crackers, she is.”

Mad as a box of frogs. Love that expression.

Back in the cabin, as we got ready, I pulled out the walking shoes I’d bought specifically for the trip and remembered something my son had said when I first brought them home. “They’re really nice, dad,” he said. “Do they come in men’s?”


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A gorgeous city that venerates St. Nicholas…yes, the old St. Nick of Christmas. Our very pretty and very personable tour guide, Frederica, gave us the lowdown on all things Bari. She was very informative and a lot of fun.

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She talked about one of the area’s chief exports, olive oil. Apparently there’s a legend about why there’s so many olive trees (about 60 million) in the area. The story goes that, when the Italian men went off to war, their wives–our tour guide called them the wee-mun–were very unfaithful. Each time they confessed to their priest, they were told to stop, but also told to plant an olive tree. Interesting that an area that specializes in “extra virgin” olive oil has a legend stemming from local wee-mun who couldn’t keep their clothes on.

Frederica told us olives need six Ss to grow:

  1. Sun
  2. Stone
  3. Scarcity of water
  4. Silence
  5. Solitude
  6. …and one other that I can’t remember.  Maybe it was Sex, judging from the story above.

Our tour bus finally came to the stunningly gorgeous city of Polignano, birthplace of Domenico Modugno, the singer of the song Volare, which means “to fly”. There’s even a statue of the guy, even though he moved from the city when he was nine years old. Still, the guy had a huge hit in 1958 with the song and everyone from Frank Sinatra to David Bowie has done a version of it since.

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We first got to see the city from the outside, marveling at the stone and whitewashed buildings built right on the cliffs, towering over the Mediterranean. If you look closely, you’ll see caves at the base of the cliffs. There’s hotels and restaurants in them now.

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Then we entered and were guided through the maze of its pathways, twisting and splitting off, down hills and up stairs. And everywhere, tiny little shops, eateries, bed and breakfasts and, of course, gelato shops. When I say tiny, I doubt many Canadians or Americans can appreciate this. I know I wouldn’t have been able to without seeing it for myself. North Americans are so used to buildings build to specific standards, to safety codes, etc. Then, to walk down into a cavelike room where, when it’s Karen and I and two others, it becomes hard to navigate and you have to scrunch up against one of the walls to let someone pass. No back entrance. If it’s in the shop, it came in through the front door.

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Much of the city was built almost one thousand years ago, possibly even as much as two thousand. The stones of the streets are worn smooth from all the steps they’ve borne. After a while, we’d think we had the city’s layout down, then we’d find some quaint little offshoot we hadn’t seen before.

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At one point, one of the other guides, who spoke just enough English for us to converse, saw me taking picture after picture after picture and asked me what the particular attraction was to the city. I could tell he honestly didn’t really see it. I explained to him that I came from a country with about 150 years of recorded history, that our buildings and architecture, even our mentality toward it, was completely different. I don’t think I got my point across, and that bothered me somewhat.

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We had some spare time and, to my utter dismay, the ZZ Top goal would need to wait. I found no acceptable sunglasses that day. on the way through the port into Bari, I grabbed a pair. Please disregard the previous crossed out statement as my wife points out that, seven pictures back, I am, in fact, wearing the ZZ Top specials. And yes, she’s gloating about it. She states the reason I forgot is that I am now five decades old now and suffer from CRS (Can’t Remember Shit). She’s insufferable.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

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Eventually, we clambered back on the tour bus to take us back to the ship. Of course they played Volare on the way back and a spontaneous, horrible singalong occurred. None of knew the words, so it was “blah blah mumble mumble VO-LAR-EH! OOOOH-OH!”

Still, eventually the song ended and it took all the self-control I had to not bitchslap the foursome behind us. Here we are, surrounded by a couple millennia of history, architecture and beauty, yet all they could talk about was Jersey Shore and getting drunk.

Mad as a box of frogs. Crackers, they were.

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Mediterrean Cruise - October 2012 249See part four here.