Wednesday, July 4, 2018

XX-rated

Not many women today, it seemed. That's a comment, not necessarily a complaint: it's a fact of history (but, hopefully, not of the future). From lovely Luke in the breakfast room of the Holiday Inn Express in Wandsworth to the unusually silent young Uber guy who drove us home, there was scarcely a Y chromosome to be seen.

It was another warm, sunny day - after an astonishingly long sequence of them, with the end not yet in sight - and we decided to take a cruise with Thames River Services from Westminster Pier down past Greenwich and out through the Thames Barrier, and back again. The man doing the commentary - which he claimed was on his own initiative and not part of the service, though there was a recording on the boat we came back on. It was all about the tips, of course - was quite informative about all the splendid buildings we went past, and a number of more overlookable ones that had interesting stories. All of them were linked to famous men: Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Lord Nelson, Brunel, Captain Kidd (who was executed for piracy, hanged (twice - the rope broke) at Execution Dock, which we went past, and then gibbeted by the river, just for good measure), and the owner of some football club whose name I forget, who owns the ridiculously huge private boat blocking the views of a considerable number of riverside apartments.

There were many more men but only one woman mentioned, and she only because she gave birth to Thomas Jefferson. Never mind. Everything looked splendid: the bridges including of course Tower Bridge, the stately official buildings, the back of the Savoy, where I nearly got to stay this visit, St Paul's, the brick warehouses converted into apartments, the little old pubs, the shapely new buildings, the O2 arena with its spikes - and also its hole, because they found they'd built it over the ventilation shaft of the tube. How on earth does that happen? There was the Emirates' high and elegant new gondola over the river, which goes from nowhere to nowhere and isn't very busy apparently. There were several ships, like the Belfast, the Golden Hind replica, and the Cutty Sark at Greenwich, now floating in a sea of glass. The tide was low and there were sandy beaches that were, surprisingly, relatively free of plastic from a distance; though the water was brown and who knows what was going on beneath its surface.

We eventually got to the Barrier, one of which was up so we could see it and study its construction; and the commentary man claimed that it has saved London from floods hundreds of times since it was built. We circled slowly through it, hearing that the 22 miles of flood wall that extends downstream actually cost more than the barrier, and then chugged back upstream to Greenwich. There's lots to do there, but not much we hadn't already done, and it was well after lunchtime, so it seemed meet and right to go to the Trafalgar (passing a couple of Chelsea Pensioners in their long red coats and chestfuls of medals on the way) for a plate of English whitebait (nothing like the NZ variety). Even better than that was the discovery that they have Blue Moon on tap there! Yay! Though Boo, hiss to the guy next to me who ordered his as a shandy. Philistine.

Ubering in London's rush hour is interesting, especially when you get yelled at by a driver for not getting to the pick-up in time, despite having to walk three sides of the block to get to it; but his replacement was nice, declaring that driving a taxi is much less stressful than being a dry cleaner, as he used to be. And the day finished with a lovely domestic evening with one of the best Y chromosomes I know, plus a tortoise, so that was all good.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ordinary. Also extraordinary.

This is an unusual trip to London for me. There is family involved, and work, so it feels more like being than doing, which is rare in my travel experience. It also gives another angle on the city, which is interesting - and, initially anyway, mildly disappointing. It was too easy to get bogged down in trivial details, and notice only the nuisances like, currently, the too-hot weather, the litter, the chewing gum on the footpaths, and crowds everywhere. 

Emerging from our very ordinary hotel for a walk, I found myself caught up in construction detours, back entrances, a waste transfer station, and backwaters of the Thames that were full of plastic. it was uninspiring - even though, on my way back from Putney to Wandsworth, the terraced houses were neat and pretty, and the summer flowers in their gardens blooming happily. There were even people playing cricket in Wandsworth Park by the river (where I walked behind a man with a strong Sarf Lunnon accent telling his friend, "Fiji has long, long beaches. Like Bournemouth"). But my focus was narrow, and my feet were hurting, and it wasn't fun.

Oh, but then we took an Uber across town to go to the theatre, and everything changed. It was just an ordinary trip from A to B - but the route was inspiring, with one famous landmark after another: Battersea Power Station again, Chelsea Hospital, Sloane Square, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park Corner with the NZ war memorial, the Ritz, Piccadilly Circus, and then all the theatres. It all looked so sharp and bright under a cloudless sky, with cheerful people thronging the footpaths intent on having a good time, red double-deckers and black taxis in the roads, flags and banners, wonderful architecture old and new... It was so exciting to be in amongst it all.
And of course it helped that we ate and drank at a lovely old pub, Waxy O'Connors, and then went to see 'Everyone's Talking about Jamie' at the Apollo Theatre, which was brilliant - fun, energetic, touching, honest and so well performed. Afterwards, the streets were still full of happy people, the buildings were lit up, the air was warm, and our trip home went through Trafalgar Square, past Downing Street, Westminster and Big Ben (currently swathed in scaffolding), the Tate, Albert Bridge, the Thames... Yeah. London. Great city.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Never tired of London

There's a point you reach in life when you realise that time is running out, and travel-wise it's foolish to waste it by going again to places you've already been. The world is so big, and there are always new places to explore, however much you've travelled. But there are exceptions, and London is prime amongst them.

The city itself is so big, of course, that there will always be new bits to explore, and today that was Spitalfields/Shoreditch. After meeting the Firstborn and partner at a café in Putney where they served a very decent flat white and also had lamingtons alongside the cakes in their cabinet - had to be a Kiwi involved somewhere - we took an ordinary bus (double-decker, upstairs, at the front) for an extraordinary tour of some of London's more famous features. Battersea Power Station is a forest of cranes, the US Embassy is paranoid behind its moat, then came the London Eye, Imperial War Museum, the Shard, Borough Market, London Bridge with its views of Tower Bridge and the Belfast, then Pudding Lane with its monument, and finally Aldgate, where we were to begin a walking tour.
It was with Unseen Tours, who employ homeless people to give a different view and interpretation of the city for visitors who have done all the usual touristy stuff. So we met up with Pete, an unemployed psychology graduate, who took us to explore Brick Lane. He undoubtedly knew his stuff, but he was a rambling sort of speaker, and had us standing in the uncomfortably hot sun for ages at various points along the route - so in the end we made our excuses and, guiltily, left. Shame. There was some good stuff about Jack the Ripper and his connection with both the Salvation Army and Barnardo's; and interesting political commentary as well as a bit of insight into homeless life - but the delivery was so dull.

Brick Lane, though, was lively as. Multi-cultural, full of ethnic restaurants, graffiti and street art, food markets selling delicious stuff, buskers, stalls, fun little niche shops (one selling copies of a smart-looking book of Trump's poetry, compiled from his footnoted tweets into haiku and rhyming poems that made both sense and him look stupid). There was a man in a double-umbrella hat playing lightning-fast speed chess with a passer-by, a black cab coffee shop, a man with a basket of pop-eyed pups on the back of his bike causing a chorus of Aww!s as he wheeled it along the street, and another naked to the waist sprawled in a deck chair on the pavement at a busy intersection. 

And people! People everywhere, enjoying the 28+ degree weather, the World Cup on multiple screens, the food, the stalls, the ambiance. It was a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and the fact that it ended up being so unstructured was actually ideal for the location.

The day ended, appropriately, in The Windmill pub on the edge of Clapham Common (much bigger than I thought, and also full of people enjoying themselves outdoors) with beer, cider, shared plates including baked camembert and yummy pickled onions, the offer of a trivia quiz - er, sorry, we are TP'd out for the foreseeable - and finally an easy Uber home to the hotel. Lovely day!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Upwards and onwards

When checking around our suite on the Silver Spirit before departure this morning, I discovered that Silversea had thoughtfully supplied a jewellery box in the safe inside the walk-in wardrobe. Damn! I could have stored all my sparkly stuff safely in there! Oh, wait...
So, today it was back to the real world, with no more butlers, or jewellery boxes or (apparently) free glasses of champagne just for the asking - it's always a disconcertingly abrupt transfer. The moment you emerge from the marquee on the dock, you're on your own again, wrestling your suitcases over the cobbles and arranging things for yourself. 

Copenhagen looked beautiful, clean and neat and colourful as we drove through the old town on our way to the airport. Three times I've been there now, and it's still a delight. Not the airport, though: it's kind of confusing, with passport control halfway through the airside shopping centre, and no announcements at all. There would be a sudden and unsignalled move of passengers towards the gate, then the tide would turn, and then turn again. Most odd. And then boarding was kind of random, simultaneously from the airbridge and the rear stairs, so everyone met in the middle inside and it was a real bun-fight getting to our seats. 

Never mind. The view from the left-hand side was lovely flying out, over the city, the islands, the Jutland peninsula and the coast of the Netherlands, and then onto England towards the astonishing sprawl of London, finally descending over Windsor with a splendid view of the Castle in the sunshine. Heathrow, on the other hand, is very far from splendid - a grim necessity, where immigration is a LAX-level ordeal as literally a thousand people from multiple planes queued and shuffled for literally an hour and a half to get to the booths. And then of course there are miles to walk to get to the transport into the city. Augh.
But now we're in London, in Putney near the Thames. There was a family reunion with added friends, a fun evening in a pub, excellent pie and cider, and a warm summer night. Sorry, Silversea, we've moved on already.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 15 - Rubbing it in

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
I think I can speak for the rest of the Silver Spirit guests - and crew too, probably - when I say that, opening the curtains this morning to a clear blue sky with the sun sparkling off the sea, I felt like spitting. Rub our noses in it, nature, why don't you? So the deck was crowded like Blackpool beach with bodies sprawled on loungers around the pool, people hung over the railings on Deck 10, and there were quantities of bare skin wherever you looked. The Mongolian Stir-fry they set up for lunch there was deservedly popular.

Indoors, there was a lucky draw at the boutique, which is full of sparkly stuff with no price labels on, and very individual-choice clothes; and a Silversea presentation in one of the Grand Suites which I went to be nosy at and came away perfectly satisfied with our Veranda Classic. I had a complimentary wrinkle treatment in the Zagara Spa which made no visible difference at all, but felt quite nice.

Up in the Panorama Lounge there was a live version of Name that Tune, where the Voices of Silversea gave us the musical clues in various amusing ways, like hummed, whistled, droned through duct tape over the mouth (ouch) and doobie-dooed. They couldn't fool us, we trounced it - and then had our comeuppance at bingo when we got nowhere. But TP came next, the final, for double points, and after so many games together we put politeness aside and fought viciously for our own answers when there were disagreements. Even so, I was over-ruled with the Japanese for 'Thank you very much'. Turned out we were both right, but my version of arigatoo gozaimasu was righter. So there. But we got the point anyway, and came in first equal again - though the victory was dimmed by our disappointment at having learnt, with huge effort but ultimately in vain, the name of Zimbabwe's president. Despite our team's confident prediction (given the nationality of Moss, the quizmaster), it never came up as a question. Emmerson Mnangagwa, if you're wondering.

There was a rush to cash in our prize points for actual goodies - pens, tiny torches, a boring tshirt, cards, keychains, iPad case and so on. I got a visor. I might even wear it. And then it was time to pack, a horrible job at the best of times and even worse when it means the end of a holiday. Even a holiday that was a bit disappointing weather-wise. But it did end on a high note: after dinner at Silver Note, which does tapas-style dishes very elegantly - excellent lamb, and a very fancy chocolate dessert - there was a party up on the pool deck with the DJ doing a great job and lots of people dancing as the sun set (what a novelty!) in a blaze of gold while, on the opposite horizon, it was balanced by a full moon rising up out of the sea. It was a gorgeous way to end the cruise; and easily today's (literal) highlight.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 14 - The end is nigh

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
Today we should have been taking a helicopter flight over the spectacular fjords and mountains surrounding the pretty town of Olden - but instead we're ploughing steadily through an increasingly calm sea under finally a blue sky, towards the cruise's scheduled end for us back at Copenhagen. There's no leeway to stop off anywhere as we have to make up for the time lost to our enforced extra nights in Tromsø. Though of course weather is both a law unto itself, and randomly unseasonal these days; and there's nothing Silversea could have done about the rough conditions back up north, it's still really disappointing to have missed out on even some of the ports and scenery that everyone signed up for.

The staff are doing their best to keep us entertained with special talks and events, the main one today being a British Pub session in the Dolce Vita lounge, with a buffet of pub food laid on - butter chicken, Welsh rarebit, fish and chips, cottage pie, rice pudding - and trays of beer and Pimms. There was also a singalong, done as a competition between the two sides of the lounge: Roll Out the Barrel, When the Saints, Yellow Submarine and many more. Reader, I skipped out and went downstairs to the peace and quiet of Japanese restaurant Seishin, to have delicious sushi and slightly confronting sashimi of scallops, tuna and salmon.

The distractions continued through the afternoon, with - honestly, the last thing you would ever think of on a ship like this, with a passenger demographic like this - a balloon sculpture demonstration by one of the crew. Truly: elephants, penguins, Sylvester the Cat. Extraordinary. Then there was a Would I Lie to You game, followed by bingo, followed of course by TP (third place, since you ask, with 18/25, our lowest score). You wouldn't believe how vehemently, though of course in whispers, the birthplace of Mother Teresa was discussed. It's complicated, people.

We're getting near the end of the cruise now - just one full day left. So the luggage labels have been dished out already, and forms to fill in about onward travel arrangements; plus, tonight was the Captain's Farewell followed by the parade of staff across the stage in the  Venetian Lounge, to the accompaniment of an enthusiastic (partial) standing ovation and even some tears. The day ended, as usual, with bright light outside still, and Angela and Alex playing soothingly familiar songs.

Highlight today? Um, maybe counting up all our Silversea Trivial Pursuit and Bingo prize points from this and the last couple of cruises and finding we have 140. That might be enough for a Tshirt even! Tomorrow's cash-up will tell...

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Silver Spirit Norway, Day 13 - Weighted down

With thanks to Silversea for this Norway cruise
More photos to follow when the wifi is faster
While it's far from a Mary Celeste scenario, the passengers guests on the Silver Spirit feel spread a little more thinly today. Certainly, a number of them jumped ship yesterday, either frightened off by the weather forecast, or uninterested in the rest of the voyage now that it will be entirely at sea. Our prolonged stay in Tromsø to give the worst of the weather time to pass means that, in order to at least try to get back to Copenhagen on time, our stops at pretty Ålesund and Olden have both been cancelled, to considerable disappointment (we'd already missed out on Hammerfest).

So our numbers are down - plus, because there's still a fair degree of pitching in the 5-6m swell, the lifts have been locked in case anyone gets trapped inside. With so many on board with mobility problems, that means, I'm guessing, a lot of them are confined to their rooms suites, and only the show-off doughty sorts are up in the library lounge on Deck 11 or even the Panorama Lounge on Deck 9. Most people out in public seem to be in Dolce Vita, midships on Deck 5 - where there is, I have to say, some territoriality involved. I was pointedly rejected when attempting to sit down at a cluster of four chairs and a sofa, informed with distinct hostility by the one (Australian) woman already sitting there that the sofa was taken, and she was expecting more friends besides. Happily, I was immediately invited to sit at the next cluster with Marcel and Christoph from our TP team, while the Dog at the Gate sat behind me, alone, for the next three hours.

On the programme today were lectures, bridge, blackjack and table-tennis tournaments, a movie, and even a fashion show, in which women who had shown an interest in the boutique were invited to model the jewellery including, to one woman's understandable excitement, a half-million dollar diamond necklace. One of our TP team members was weighed down with huge gold and amethyst pieces which were interesting to see on that scale, if impractical.

Passing over today's TP result (not a result), the main event of the day for us was dining at La Dame, the most exclusive of Silver Spirit's seven restaurants and the only one you have to pay extra for ($60 each!). There are only twelve tables - I think, it was a bit too dimly lit to be sure. The food was, naturally, very good: escargots, lobster bisque, braised duck and a sweet soufflé for me. We chose not to dump $585 on a bottle of Chateau Margaux, or even a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc for $50, because the house wine was perfectly fine. There was a slightly awkward moment afterwards, when chef Yan emerged from his kitchen to ask how we had all enjoyed his dishes and every one of the guests had to apologise for not finishing their main course because they simply weren't able to fit it all in. 

Later, I sat in the empty observation above the bow up on deck 11, watching the grey sea and listening to the wind whistling, and reading a book titled 'Norwegian Wood Chopping and Stacking', which was endearingly poetic. After that, Angela and Alex down in Dolce Vita kept up their record of not playing anything I didn't already know and like.

Highlight of the day? I suppose Capt Macarone telling us that Silver Spirit would have no trouble coping with the demanding conditions, due to being "well ballasted". After my dinner tonight (and, cumulatively, the many meals preceding it on this cruise) I feel in much the same condition myself.

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