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?”

Bari

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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.

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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.

Venice

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.

May Two-Four, Part One

The first thing, I guess, is to explain the title.

Here in Canada, we have a long weekend because Monday is Victoria Day (after the queen).  It always falls one week before the American Memorial Day weekend.  And, though it rarely lands on the specific day, we (at least in Eastern Canada) sometimes refer to it as the “May 24th Long Weekend”  which then got bastardized into the “May Two-Four”.

What’s significant about that?  Well, the weekend is really the first long weekend of summer and it tends to involve a lot of drinking.

Beer

A case of beer has 24 bottles. It’s sometimes referred to as a “two-four”. The May long weekend falls around May 24th…”May Two-Four”…get it?

So I thought it highly appropriate that it’s been exactly 24 (two-four) years since I went off with a bunch of college friends on a misguided and highly underexplained May Two-Four Weekend.

At the time, I was working for the Brewer’s Retail (now known as The Beer Store)–interesting choice of jobs, by the way, for someone who doesn’t drink, but that’s another blog–when one of the guys I went to college with came in to buy a couple of cases of beer.  I sold them to him, asked what his plans for the Two-Four were and he mentioned he and some of the other guys from class were going camping.  “Wanna come?” he asked.    I had no plans, and I had the weekend off, so I thought, what the hell?  I agreed.

I’ve since learned to ask a LOT more questions, but I was younger and slightly more stupid than I am today.  Slightly.

Anyway, Friday came, I packed my tent and my sleeping bag and some food and clothing.  I was good to go.  The group of four guys picked me up and off we went.  “So where exactly are we camping?” I asked.  I was told it was in Tweed. Fair enough. No idea where it is…

tweed 1

Turns out it’s kinda far away, but that’s okay.  We have a great time, as five guys in their twenties can have in a car.  Then we find the actual camping area we’re heading to.  This is the first time I realize I should have asked questions.  We end up in a line up to get into Trudeau Park that’s got to be a hundred cars long.  “Guys?” I ask, a little worry creeping into my voice.  “What kind of camping is this, exactly?”

I get the “didn’t we tell you?” looks and they explain.  This is a massive event.  There’s bands, there’s motocross, there’s bikers…this is not heading into the bush and “livin’ off the fatta da land”…this is getting intimate with several thousand other campers of all interests.  Oh God, this isn’t the camping I did with Mom a decade prior.

While we sit in line, we turn on the radio.  More worry slides into me when I hear a radio ad.  You know the type.  Some guy with a reasonably deep, manly voice, having been given far too much coffee comes on and says something like, “TROOOOOOOO-Do PAAAARK!  (insert first explosion sound effect here) We’re turning TWEEEEEEEEEEEED into a MUUUUUUUUUD PIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT! (Insert second explosion sound effect here, followed by grumbling motorcycle sounds).”

Then they mention some sort of exorbitant entrance fee.  I think between the five of us we may not make the fee for one person, let alone five.  I resign myself to a long return trip and relax knowing my weekend will be a little less ridiculous than what’s facing me a mile down the road.

Until, somehow, we get in free.

I’m still unclear on the details, but basically, there was a point where a bunch of cars just…somehow…managed to get into the park without getting hit up for the entrance fee and the obligatory wristbands.  I liken it to the Woodstock effect where they kind of gave up and started letting everyone in for free and, in this case, would kick you out later based on wristband ownership.  Whatever.  We’re in, we didn’t pay.  Yay me.

The next challenge is to find an unoccupied spot in the dark and set up our stuff.  It takes some wiggling, but we manage to carve out a patch of ground to call home for the next three days.  Once set up, I decided to take a walk to see exactly what I’m in for.  Worry goes to a low-level DEFCON setting.

Imagine a very large “O” shaped area…like four football fields put together.  Now, turn them into a MUUUUUUUUUD PIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!  Okay, that’s the central area where only the brave and foolish go.  Around the outside of this area, imagine a couple of thousand people camping.  Winnibagos, campers, tent trailers, vans, tents, sleeping bags, or right down to “fall down and sleep where I lay” conditions exist here.

out

Okay, I can work with this. Hell, I have no choice.

So, how do I ensure I don’t get turfed?  Because, unless the others I’m with get turfed too, I have no way to get home again.  Luck intervenes when two drunken dudes decide for whatever reason they don’t like each other and start to fight each other.  It’s one of those sloppy drunk pawing at each other debacles that are quite entertaining to watch.  So, I do.  And when one of them sort of tears the wristband from the other and it goes flying, all eyes stay on the two drunken combatants.  I follow the trajectory of the wristband and pick it up.  I can always claim it got caught on something and broke, but I’ve got my golden ticket now.

Mission accomplished, I pack it in for the night.

The next morning comes bright and sunny and warm.  What to do today?  After breakfast, I take another walk around the mud pit.  It’s on this tour that I find an area to the north of the pit that seems to be biker alley.  It’s all Harleys and leather and headbands and facial hair.  I have none of that and steer clear.  I have nothing against bikers, hell, one of my employees old man was a biker and not only was he a great guy, but he did a lot of fundraising for various charities.  But I still have a healthy respect for differences in our lifestyles and I know at times they don’t mesh all that well.  No biggie.  My mud pit is your mud pit.

I continue my exploratory tour and get a solid lay of the land.  I even manage to grab a very cold shower.

I eventually hook up with my buddies who have joined forces with a greater group of their buddies.  Introductions all around.  Beers are offered.  Jokes are told.  At one point we settle into a comfortable chill out session.  Three or four of the greater group take up position sitting on the edge of a van roof, watching the people walking the path of the circle around the pit.  It’s a constant thoroughfare.  I shoot the shit with some of the guys for a bit, then head around to the shaded area of the van.  As I do so, I happen to hear one of the guys on the roof say quite loudly, “Dudes!  Check that out?  Which one’s the dog?”

dog

Then I see the object of the comment.  A woman, tattoos darkening both arms, headband in place, as is the leather vest over the Harley T and cut off denim shorts walking a large breed of ugly dog.  And I think, did you just insult a biker chick?

I decide now may be a good time to head back toward my campsite a few yards away.

A few minutes later, I hear a commotion.  I come back out and watch along with everyone else.  The woman is back sans dog, but with her significant other.  And when I say significant, I’m serious.  This guy is significantly large, significantly tattooed, sports a significantly ZZ Top-ish beard and is signficantly fearsome to behold.  They’ve stopped in front of the same van with the social commenters.

“Which one?” says the significant one, in a voice that rumbles with distant thunder.

With no hesitation, the woman points, “That one.”

Before any retreat can occur–though really, you’re on top of a van, where you gonna go? –the biker reaches out, grabs the offending dude by the ankle, and pulls.  It should be noted the van guy is wearing only shorts.  It should also be noted this is an older style van with a fairly prominent rain gutter running the length of the roof (that little lip that stops water for pouring all over you when you open your doors).

When Significant Biker pulls Offending Dude down, his entire back scrapes along that gutter, from hips to neck.  He lands with a thud, flat on his back on the dusty ground.  Biker stands over him, then squats over him, then leans far down into his face.  “You wanna do some more comparing of my ol’ lady to my dog now?”

Dude can’t seem to catch the wind that was knocked out of him.  He shakes his head no, his face red and pained.

“How about me?  You wanna compare me to anything?”

Again, shaking of the head.  Vigorous shaking.

“You ever…EVER say anything about my ol’ lady, my dog or anyone ELSE I know, I’ll come back and I’ll kill you,” he says.

At this point, I think I hear the collective gulp of about a hundred throats swallowing all at the same time.  This guy could give Stallone or Schwarzenegger a run for their money.

“Got it?” he says.

Dude is so used to shaking his head no, he starts to do that, realizes what he’s doing, changes direction and nods like his life depends on it.  Probably does.

“Now, say you’re sorry.”

Dude says it.

“Not to me, asshole.  To my ol’ lady.”

Dude looks at her and gives the most heartfelt apology I’ve ever heard.

Biker looks down at him.  He pats his cheek.  “Atta boy,” he says.  “I think we all learned something today.”  He smiles, rises, walks over to his wife, reaches for her hand in a surprisingly gentle way, and they head off down that dusty trail.

Dude stays on the ground for a few, then realizing he’s basically ground dirt and dust into his scraped up back, heads off to the showers.  He avoids all looks.

And so ends the first part of the May Two-Four Weekend.  What have we learned so far?

Two-Four can be a case of beer or a holiday.

Ask more questions.

Sometimes fights have positive outcomes.

Don’t insult biker chicks.  Or their dogs.

More learnings to follow!!

Part Two starts here.