Tuesday, February 19, 2019

I'd rather have Rodin's version. Nakedness notwithstanding.

I dunno, possibly you could get tired of this sort of thing. So, what's just happened is that an hour or so ago I was asked to caption the photos I submitted to go with a story about Pearl Harbo[u]r, which I did. They included this one. And then, in one of my many daily Oh well moments, I mentally wandered off to check out Twitter and there was a tweet from the NZ Herald, announcing this:


Coincidences, they're not really that special, people. Sorry, and all that. Also, would you really want to be that woman? Talk about snatch and grab.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Waitangi tangi

My typically Kiwi response to today's Google Doodle, which celebrates Waitangi Day, is to be simultaneously ridiculously chuffed to see New Zealand's (somewhat contentious) national day featured in that space, and disbelieving that it's actually a global webpage feature. I've even asked my spies in the UK and US if they can see it too.* But anyway, silver fern, yellow kowhai, red pohutukawa - good to see, on this beautiful, and very hot, summer's day which began (evidently) with a Dawn Service at Waitangi followed by a barbecue at which the PM was a cook. All as it should be.
However, further down the country, near Nelson, Waitangi Day 2019 is going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons: a huge forest fire blazing since yesterday afternoon, causing evacuations of 170 houses so far, one of which has been burnt down. There are two separate fires on Rabbit Island, where I cycled just a few months ago. It's awful news - and all the worse for being so familiar. I mean, fires, floods, blizzards and droughts: it's standard news report fare these days, isn't it?
Currently it's Townsville in Queensland suffering from hugely destructive floods; while Chicago is beginning to thaw from the Polar Vortex. (Did anyone else notice - yet again - the deafening silence on the subject from Canada?) The rest of Australia is only now emerging from the red/purple spectrum on the temperature map, where it was for most of January, causing horrendous wildlife suffering and deaths, and not much fun for the people either.
Every day the newspaper and TV news report another environmental disaster discovery, which I'm not going to list because you know them as well as I do. Depressing, isn't it? Even people who are only familiar with the locations through nature documentaries narrated by the (increasingly frustrated) Sir David will be saddened to hear about it. I tell you, it's even worse when you've been to so many of these places and seen their glories in real life.
I can't decide if all this is good reason not to travel, so you don't take it so personally - or, on the other hand, impetus to get out there fast to see it for yourself. Before it's all gone.

* UPDATE: As I suspected, it's just us. Pft.
UPDATE 2: After a week of unrelenting effort by the fire-fighters, it's still not out, and 3,000 people (and their animals) have been evacuated. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

Conspicuous consumption confusion


At 412 square-metres, the Regent Suite is nearly twice as large as the average Australian home and 20 times larger than the average cruise ship stateroom. With an all-inclusive price of US$11,000 per night based on double occupancy, the Regent Suite is already sold-out for nearly all of Seven Seas Splendor’s 2020 inaugural season sailings.

This is the opening paragraph of a release sent to me by someone from the PR company that represents Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will recall that last November I had a tour over the Seven Seas Mariner, followed by a fancy lunch. Despite being well-used to high-end cruise ships, thanks to a fortuitous and much appreciated work relationship with Silversea, I was still impressed by the level of luxury on the Mariner, and the size of the upper-end suites. They were HUGE! And clearly no expense had been spared with the fittings and furnishings, either. But the Splendo[u]r, which is to be launched next month, is going to be even more lavish, it seems. At least, so you would hope: US$11,000 a night!

Of course I'm being hopelessly out-of-touch and unsophisticated here. I know there are plenty of super-rich people in the world, for whom this kind of extravagance is nothing of the sort. Who do I think I'm rubbing elbows with on Silversea cruises, at Peninsula hotels, up the front in aeroplanes? (Er, not ever the very front, sadly - and actually not even in Business much, these days.) Because I'm getting it all for free, as work, I don't often actually find out how much all this stuff would cost if I had to pay - nor do I need to. Travel story factboxes commonly omit such prosaic detail, which rather makes a nonsense of the title. In the promotional emails I receive it can take some effort to drill down to the price for things. Quite often you have to get to the latter stages of making a booking on a website to get to the nitty gritty. I suppose it's the old 'If you have to ask the price, you can't afford it' thing.


I'm not skint - we did once actually pay for a Silversea cruise that was too popular for us to get onto any other way (that's frequently how this free stuff works - it's only offered at the last minute when it's clear no-one is going to buy it). But I am, by upbringing and temperament, relentlessly frugal, and it goes against every fibre of my being to even consider being so reckless with money. An Auckland hotel is currently advertising a Chinese New Year dinner that will cost NZ$18,000 for six. Honestly, I would choke on my $3,000 share.


To me, it's not only a stupid waste, it's an obscene self-indulgence when, clearly at little cost financially or otherwise to the squanderer, that money could have been spread so far amongst people and organisations who really need it, who could do some real good with it. I know that some rich people do give away big sums, quietly, and well done them - but all that conspicuous consumption? I can't get on board with that.


Except, of course, that I have/do - literally. And the people on my Silversea cruises, that I've talked to, and eaten dinner with, and played Trivial Pursuit with, have nearly all been pleasant, interesting and perfectly ordinary in appearance (I may have been missing the subtleties of labels, watches, handbags and so on). They haven't flaunted their wealth, or boasted about their successes - they've rarely even mentioned their jobs. 


I, of course, rarely mention mine on my various trips. I've always said it's because I don't want people to resent my being there for free, when they've had to pay with big chunks of their hard-earned - I have got that, occasionally, and it has been awkward. But actually, it's equally the case that on the fancy famils I don't want to risk people looking down their noses at me, as someone who's only there because it's a freebie. Not that I would particularly care what they think, but who needs even incidental negative stuff when your actual job is to be enjoying yourself?


I don't know where I'm going with this. I disapprove of people squandering vast sums of money on unnecessary luxuries. I also thoroughly enjoy my occasional upper-end experiences courtesy of Silversea and the Peninsula, amongst others, which I entirely accept many people would consider to be unnecessary luxuries. I think the world's wealth should be spread more evenly. I also think we would all be much worse off if some people didn't do extravagant things like building Blenheim Palace or the Taj Mahal. This is complicated. Why is life so hard?

Monday, January 28, 2019

Anniversary, acrobats, Australia

It's that time of year again: Auckland Anniversary Day, high summer, the harbour full of boats for the regatta, from radio-controlled models to tall ships, but all of them dwarfed by HMNZS Te Kaha moored in the middle of it all, keeping everything in order. And to make it even better, the rest of the country is back at work on a normal Monday. Smug!

There's all sorts going on in the city, which is buzzing nicely with residents and visitors, all of them trying to ignore the ugly and inconvenient mess of roadworks, rail tunnelling and building that seems to have reached a peak recently. The Port is open, strongly selling itself and its plans for future developments on what everybody else sees is a prime waterfront site. There's music, there are food trucks (genuine gozleme! baklava!) and there is the Buskers Festival, which this year seemed even more international than before.

I watched German jugglers in 1920s tweed knickerbockers, a lone Argentinian with a vast repertoire of music snatches on his phone and a talent for improvising with passers by (who, pleasingly, played along well), four French acrobats, and a Japanese handstand specialist. They all, as usual, had good patter to pad out their few actual tricks to the requisite half-hour; and this year's common joke (there is always one that every act adopts) was, when trying to work up the audience to give them some energy (bro! this is New Zealand!), telling the men with their hands in their pockets that they would hurt themselves clapping like that.

Even harder work than getting the audience to make some noise was having to perform in the baking sun, with the temperature creeping up into the high 20s (this is NZ. For us, that is sweltering). It's all down to the current Australian heatwave rolling across the Tasman to afflict us, hopefully not to the extent that they've been suffering there, which has been horrendous. What it must be like in the Outback I shudder to think. There'll be plenty of kangaroo spit being spread around, that's for sure.

And speaking of Australia, it was quite a thrill to hear this week what they found in London when digging their own new train tunnel at Euston: only the grave of Matthew Flinders, people! He was the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia (don't listen to the country's current PM, who recently claimed it was James Cook. Pft. He won't last long) (do they ever?) Flinders also, not incidentally, was the first to use that name for the great southern land. I've bumped into him quite often in my travels, and have become a fan: he seems a lot more interesting and personable than Cook. Plus, he had a cat called Trim that went with him on his voyages - but which went missing when Flinders was arrested as a spy in Mauritius because when he arrived there the French and English were at war.

I saw a black and white cat there, that might have been a descendant. I'm sorry I didn't see the statues of Flinders and Trim in Port Lincoln, South Australia, and in Lincolnshire when I was those places. But next time I go to London, I'll be sure to go and visit Matthew's grave.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Silversea's Silver Muse - once over lightly, alas

There was knife-twisting aspect to today's outing which, at best, added piquancy to the visit; at worst, gut-churning envy. It was the first visit to New Zealand of Silversea's newest ship, Silver Muse. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will recall that I have over the last ten years built a relationship with the line's PR people, which has enabled five actual cruises (plus one we actually paid for) - the most recent a Norwegian cruise last July into the Arctic Circle on Silver Spirit.
That last sentence could have been so different: it could, so easily, have read "the most recent a cruise from Singapore to Myanmar on Silver Muse". Because that was the invitation that popped into my inbox in mid-November (hence my email-checking addiction, multiple times daily) - not just revisiting two places I haven't been to since NINETEEN-EIGHTY, but cruising there on this fancy new ship that everyone's been fussing about all year. And I had to turn it down, because it clashed with an important family event. Sigh. [NB Family first, always, forever. But...]
So I accepted the invitation for lunch on board with a tiny degree of reluctance, knowing I would be made sad by seeing what I'd missed. And so it was, dear reader. It's a beautiful ship, one of Silversea's two biggest at 600 passengers, but still small and intimate, though at the same time remarkably spacious. I know that seems a contradiction - but the public areas are open, uncrowded, light and airy (I preferred Muse's warm browns and beiges to Silver Spirit's purple and silver), and there are so many of them, big and small, around the ship. There are eight restaurants, too.
After bubbles and a welcome in the theatre, we toured all over before sitting down to lunch at Indochine. Having recently been shown over Regent's Seven Seas Mariner, it was no surprise to see the big suites with all their elbow room, furniture and expansive verandas, but I think Muse's Owner's Suite has the edge - it is, after all, the first cruise ship bathroom I've ever seen that has a bidet. That's on top of all the marble, Bulgari, big-screen TVs, Bose, Illy, dining table, writing desk, multiple sitting areas, vast wardrobe with a challenging number of hangers... You know, the usual.
It was, most of all, just so nice to be back on a Silversea ship again. They do look after you so well, everything is done properly, the surroundings are so comfortable and attractive, and the staff are so friendly and welcoming. I know people who actually despise cruising, as an option - curled lips, raised eyebrows, derisory snorts, the lot. Poor, misguided souls. They have no idea what they're missing.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Fly DC3 to the '60s - and back again

Thank you to FlyDC3 for hosting me.
It's pretty hard to avoid the 'trip back in time' clichΓ© today. Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ of a certain vintage will recognise the plane: a DC3 complete with Pratt and Whitney turbo-props. This one began flying in October 1944 and is still going strong - unlike others of my acquaintance who share the same birthday (and no, I don't mean me. Hmph). That control tower is of a similar age, so they look good together. This is Ardmore Airfield, in Auckland's south-east, which is actually the busiest domestic airport in the country, thanks mostly to the seven air schools on the site. But Betsy here does her best to keep the runway dusted, too.
She was built in Oklahoma just too late for anything dangerous, WW2-wise, did a bit of service around the edges of the Korean War, working in Japan and the Philippines, and then went on to civilian duty there and in New Guinea, finally ending up in tropical Australia. After a stint in a museum, she was brought to NZ by enthusiasts and now is in the care of FlyDC3, who have a team of ex- and current pilots and flight crew, military and commercial, who think nothing of giving up their precious free time to take her up on flights that generate just enough money to cover her expenses.
That's what I did today, tagging along on one of her summer days out to Whitianga - on a perfect sunny, clear January day, with a complement of just nine passengers, so we each had a window seat. Rectangular window, see? Rather low, so you have to duck down to look out - but, since we mostly flew at about 1500 feet, it was well worth the minor discomfort to be able to see so well what we were flying over. 
That was Auckland city, the islands of the Gulf including Waiheke, the Coromandel peninsula, and the coast and farmland beyond, finally swooping down over Whitianga's picturesque cliff, river mouth and beach. 
It's quite a while since I was here last, and the town's been quietly booming: there are grand houses built alongside the airfield there with their own planes parked outside - and, nearby, an astonishing waterway development with a curved canal, artificial island, retirement village and lots more even grander houses with big shiny boats moored at jetties at the bottom of each garden. Extraordinary. We were swept along a fancy new road past big-box stores and I wondered if I'd even recognise the town now - but I'm glad to report it's just as appealing as ever, with lots of art galleries and coffee shops in the main street, a well-used marina, a very busy ferry bustling back and forth across the river, and, it being summer holidays, heaps of kids hurling themselves off a wharf they shared with a bunch of families busily fishing.
The Mercury Bay Museum has masses of stuff to poke through. I especially enjoyed, having been put by Betsy into a nostalgic frame of mind, the recreated 1960s classroom, with cursive writing practice on the blackboard, pounds, shilling and pence sums (I can still do it!) and a list of monitors' names (milk, inkwells, board cleaning...) - all so familiar. There was also a mock-up of a classic murder house [dental clinic] with a boy realistically writhing in the chair.
There was a 1960s bach [holiday house] setup, too, where I found a horrifying copy of a 1964 Jackie magazine (I remember it) - featuring youthful, and very neat-looking, Rolling Stones, but also some ghastly advice dispensed by Cathy and Claire in their column. Augh!
After a nice lunch at Stoked beside the beach, and some more wandering round the shops, including a proper emporium that stocked everything, and just went on and on, we were taken back to the airfield. We boarded Betsy again - she had been working hard doing three scenic flights while we relaxed - and Jolon and Yongxi flew us back to Ardmore, the engines roaring just outside the windows while we luxuriated in the roomy interior (leg room! no overhead lockers!). It was a lovely day out, we were looked after so well by the crew, who clearly adore Betsy and see it as a privilege to be able to do some "real flying". Recommended.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Connecting, again

Whittaker's Music Museum is quite the local treasure here on Waiheke, and about three times now I've enjoyed Lloyd and Joan's weekly shows demonstrating all their instruments. I've also been to some of the recitals they arrange, and yesterday was the second visit of the orthographically challenging Zbigniew and his wife, daughter and son, playing violins and the Bechstein concert grand piano (once beloved of Paderewski, also Polish). Although he has a slight, and no doubt personally regrettable, resemblance to Donald Trump, Zbigniew is cheerful, enthusiastic and musically highly talented. His effortless technique on the violin was remarkable, and a real pleasure to watch and listen to as he worked through the programme.
It was when they were playing a Romanian gypsy-esque number by Mareczek that a vague memory drifted into my head, of another concert, in another place. I had to look it up when I got home, and it turned out that it was in Prague, in 2012, on an Insight Vacations coach tour through Eastern Europe. It was a really good trip, from Budapest to Vienna, pretty heavy on the grim history, naturally (especially Poland, so how Zgibniew managed to stay so chirpy I can't imagine - or maybe that was the result of escaping the Polish winter for a Waiheke summer); but there was fun, too.
Still, on an itinerary like that one there's a lot to see, especially if you're a dutiful tourist like me, so I was pretty tired by the end of our day in beautiful, ancient Prague. There'd been a morning walking tour full of dramatic history and fine buildings, but after two pages of scrawled and now indecipherable abbreviations (when will I ever learn?) my notebook records "Suffering from arch/hist fatigue now - far fewer photos - be glad to get home to no arch merit". But I gamely persevered, continuing after the tour to prowl through the city's confusing muddle of narrow pedestrian lanes, poking into churches, crossing and re-crossing the Charles Bridge, dodging clanking trams and stepping awkwardly around motionless, kneeling beggars.
Regular readers πŸ˜ƒ will recall that on this trip I was suffering from a recently-dislocated shoulder, so that wasn't helping either, and once back at the hotel I really didn't feel like stirring again for another group meal heavy on the meat and potatoes. But, obligated by being hosted (thank you, Insight Vacations), I trudged out again for the evening's function - and (presumably you were expecting this) was very glad I did. 
Although my notebook indicates that my initial wow! moment was having the wine waiter pour generous serves from a long glass bulb slung over his shoulder, very precisely controlling the flow with his (presumably clean, if stained) forefinger over the opening, I soon got swept up with the entertainment energy.
We were in a big room with long tables and the music was organised by a team of ladies in national dress playing a hammered dulcimer, double bass, clarinet and violin - although more esoteric instruments got their moments of glory later. There was dancing, singing, foot stomping, thigh slapping, spur jingling and girls being flung up into the air by vigorous young men. Even my tch! moment during the international musical welcome that included Waltzing Matilda but nothing from NZ had to be retracted later when, in the audience participation section, one game man from Christchurch played Pokarekare Ana on the dulcimer. It was a brilliant evening: a fun, professional, energetic and colourful celebration of local culture. And last night Zbigniew brought it all back with his gypsy tune.

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