Thursday 31 December 2015

Wai the heke not?

I've swapped green for blue: it's been a distinctly watery year. Mostly, it's been the sea, as I've trailed back and forth across the Hauraki Gulf here to Waiheke Island, and cruised various coasts in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean and Timor Seas; but I've also pootled along the Seine, various headwaters of the Amazon, and the Grand Union Canal. It's a bit of a puzzle how I've done so much cruising this year, since it's not something I've sought out; but as it's such a huge part of the tourism industry these days, I suppose it's not to be wondered at - or complained about, certainly. It's hardly a penance.

First this year there was the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Perth, where the warm blue Indian Ocean was the backdrop for some spectacular works of art, and hissed up onto the sandy beaches of Rottnest Island, notable for its cute and grinning quokkas.
Two weeks later, I was back in Western Australia again for a Kimberley cruise along the north-west tip: blue sea, green bush, orange rocks. There were Aboriginal paintings, waterfalls (two of them Horizontal), a swimming hole, reefs, fishing and a 6-hour lightning spectacular, all of it underpinned by comfort and excellent food on the Kimberley Quest. And not one crocodile!

Next came Turkey, and the Anzac Day centenary commemorations at Gallipoli, where the literally dark Aegean lapped onto the pebbled beach of Anzac Cove, a sound amplified during quiet moments throughout the night before the Dawn Service, and forever after inescapably evocative. There was Istanbul too, many trips up and down Istiklal Caddesi, muezzin calling, a forest of fishing rods on Galata Bridge, cheerful touts in the Grand Bazaar... And the ruins of Troy, cats draped over the marble at Ephesus, a hundred hot-air balloons at dawn and sunset over the outcrops of Cappadocia, twirling Dervishes, Ataturk everywhere, and Barcin throughout, telling the stories.
Then there was an elegant and eminently civilised cruise along the Seine into Normandy, notable for cheese, cream and cider, another 6-hour effort (a rice pudding this time), comfort and luxury aboard Avalon's Tapestry II, and good company throughout. Also the inexhaustible Quan, and the Pet Cemetery which was, in its way, more memorable even than Versailles, which I finally got to visit just the 37 years after first trying.

After that I learned how to steer a 16m narrowboat through a single lock gate and hold it steady as the water rushed in, and how to shrug off bumps and scrapes as part of the canal-boater's lot. England was green and gold and lovely, fringed with poppies and full of birds. And pubs. With old friends, it was a rare holiday rather than work.

That came next, busily hopping through Peru and Ecuador, revisiting landmarks like Machu Picchu and Galapagos but with the diversions (heaven forbid these places should become ho-hum) of passport fraud at Huayna Picchu, catching piranhas, spotting pink dolphins and patting manatees in the Amazon, Cotopaxi spitting clouds of grey ash, and seeing water-walking seabirds and military-style gannet diving displays in Galapagos.
Then there was Istanbul again, departure port for a Silversea cruise that started dull but got good (ports, that is - onboard was just lovely, as always) especially at Rhodes and Mykonos - but even they were trounced by Santorini's blue domes. Even so, the most memorable meal was in unpretentious Piraeus: a Greek salad and prawns at a back-street family restaurant - a reminder that, despite all the imaginatively-presented, visually stunning and delicious feasts I was served everywhere, simplicity is hard to beat.

Finally, the shortest and most momentous journey of them all: 35 minutes across Auckland harbour to a new home, where the sea is always present, always different, always a plus. I could have stayed at the old place, home for 21 years - but when Conde Nast's world's fourth-best island and Lonely Planet's global fifth-best destination is so close, well, Wai the heke not move there?

Friday 20 November 2015

Une connexion de toute la vie

If I started this post by writing 'This time five months ago...' you would have no idea how that sentence would conclude; but if instead I wrote 'This time last week...' you would instantly think "Paris".

That is the right answer to both, in fact. Just five months ago I was cycling on a public bike along the Promenade Plantée; taking a long walk around the 13th arrondissement with Quân; standing in the dark with the crowds at the top of the steps at the Trocadero, watching the lights twinkle on the Eiffel Tower; gliding beneath its bridges on the Tapestry II, on my way to Normandy. The weather was warm and sunny, people were starting to relax into the summer, and it was a glorious place to be.

Now? Not so much, superficially. The hideousness of last week's attacks have cast a blight over the city and the unspeakable scum - Daesh - will be celebrating. But not for long. Paris will return to normal. Better than normal, because the French now know that the rest of the world stands with them. Especially those of us who have studied French.
Learning a language, and the culture and customs that go with it, forges a bond that never breaks. However long ago it was, if you've ever sat in a classroom practising irregular verbs, sweated over proses for homework, learned by using a graph how to draw a map of the country freehand, then you've made a connection that's not going to be broken for the rest of your life. 

Everyone in the free world is feeling for France right now - but because I've done my time with Tasman verbs and inexplicable genders, with y and en, with hyphens, circumflexes and cedillas - because of all that, French and France are a part of me, and I'm taking the attacks personally. (Even if turning up a stray and ancient school exercise book has proved that learning French was much more of a struggle than I remembered.)
I do hope you're still there, my Parisian reader?

Saturday 24 October 2015

Athenian observations

  •  Hadrian's Arch sounds a lot less impressive when you say it with a Greek accent, leaving off the H.
  • The original Caryatids from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, now safely installed in the Museum below, are arranged in the same formation, with an eloquent gap where the (best) one that Elgin took belongs.
  • The stray dogs here are all registered and neutered, wear collars, and are, if anything, too fat - people put food down for them everywhere. But they're dirty, matted and look depressed, poor things, with no-one to love them, or to love.
  • Stray cats, in contrast, are left untouched, are still fed, and look perfectly well-adjusted.
  • Perhaps as a result of all these peaceably marauding cats and dogs, there is no other sort of wildlife (other than birds) to be observed around the streets and parks - besides, that is, one tortoise.
  • Athens is a surprisingly small city, only 300,000 inhabitants, and the central area is easily explored on foot.
  • Greece must be the last country in Europe where you're allowed to smoke inside - and also, one of the hardest in which to get a lungful of clean air anywhere in the city.
  • Homeless people can frequently be seen sorting through rubbish bins, extracting all the plastic - presumably, for paid recycling. But also drinking coffee dregs from the cups they find.
  • Blackened, sooty marble statues are cleaned by restorers using laser technology, that looks just like what you might find inside a beauty therapy studio. (I'm guessing.)
  • 6pm on a Saturday evening, and the Orthodox Russian church in Plaka suddenly and inexplicably bursts into loud and lively chimes and peals - and then, as suddenly, falls silent again, after no visible sign of activity.
  • There are 26 differently-sized Evil Eye charms on the wall opposite the bed in my New Hotel room, which can be made to glow in the dark at the press of a switch, leading to a somewhat less soothing ambience than the designer presumably intended.
  • Choose apple pie on a café menu here and what you get is cake.
  • Hazard warning lights apparently confer immunity to all traffic regulations, especially those regulating parking. Double- and even triple-parking are common in the narrow streets, and I've even seen a double-parked Vespa.
  • Zebra crossings mean nothing to drivers.
  • Waiters and waitresses, guides, shop and counter assistants, even beggars, all seem able to swap between a handful of languages with chastening ease.
  • There is no order on footpaths: even assiduously keeping right will not prevent blocking and side-stepping.
  • If you're in need of a wind-up gramophone, white 60s telephone or Olympia typewriter, the Monastiraki flea market is the place for you.
  • Watching New Zealand play South Africa in England in the Rugby World Cup, on a TV in Greece, with a German commentary, seems curiously appropriate (even if the game is just as silly as always).
  • Corner kiosks sell newspapers from all over Europe from first thing in the morning, which is impressive, and saves on forced breakfast conversation.
  • A restorer using a power grinder to smooth the stone on a Doric column on the Parthenon makes you wonder how the original builders got the marble so smooth and finely fitted together.
  • There is no sense, logic or conformity in photography regulations inside museums.
  • The graffiti that defaces, and occasionally decorates, the entire city is apparently a fixture and not inspired by the current economic crisis.
  • The guards by the Unknown Soldier's tomb have studs on the soles of their pom-pommed clogs, which they scrape on the ground as part of their puzzlingly ridiculous stylised posturing - and they've worn grooves in the marble by doing so.
  • If you listen hard, you'll always hear the clack of worry beads coming from somewhere, swung and flicked usually, but not always, by older men, often as a non-smoking coping mechanism.
  • Gleaming gold, intricate and delicately decorated icons crowd the windows of shop after shop in Plaka and must surely exceed demand.
  • There is infinite variation in the plumage of pigeons, the world's most successful bird.
  • Flashing green crosses everywhere: there's a curious preponderance of pharmacies on the city streets.
  • On Sundays, the honour guard outside the Greek Parliament wear their white kilts and turn up mob-handed at 11am. The dogs sprawled on the parade ground sleep through it all.
  • The New Hotel has unreasonable expectations of guests regarding the end of Daylight Saving.

Friday 23 October 2015

A guilt-free day

Waking to gurgling in the gutters meant that today would be another indoor day – and consequently an educational one, since in Athens the most obvious place to escape the rain is in a museum.
Today it was the proudly modern Acropolis Museum, tucked underneath the cliff of the real thing, with plenty of glass through which to admire both the mount and the Parthenon on top of it, and Roman foundations below the floors, discovered  when it was being built. Inside are, of course, quantities of pottery and statuary recovered from the Acropolis and dating back three-plus millennia.
Like yesterday, it was remarkable how beautiful and skilfully made everything is – the understandably glum faces of the brides on ceremonial glazed pots, for example, marking their transition from one sort of ownership to another (no photos allowed at this part of the museum, irritatingly).
Of course the main focus is the statues, reliefs and pediments rescued from the Parthenon, and the chequered history of the building itself, told well in a video presentation. No-one escapes blame for the ruined glory: Franks, Romans, Ottomans, Persians, Venetians, and of course the British – Elgin is bluntly accused of looting and stealing. 
A Greek guide telling the story of the marbles to her group got a bit teary at one point, despite presumably having recounted it over and over. She was even-handed and admitted that, despite his clumsy removal of the stonework, at least it meant they were kept together – but now is clearly the time to return them. Who pays, though?
With nothing else to do today, and the rain falling steadily, there was no question of incurring museum guilt – labels were read, nothing was missed out, everything looked at, much learned, or suddenly remembered (those white marble statues? Originally decorated with colour, which I discovered only this year supervising a Classics lesson at school. Actually, it looks pretty creepy in reality).
Natasha, incidentally, really ought to spend some time in here - then she would be able to answer questions about how they managed to pile up all that stone.

And still it rained. Prevented yesterday from getting our hilltop view over the briefly sunny city by France’s President Hollande, he inconvenienced us again today, closing the restaurant at the museum, meaning everyone converged on the café, meaning we queued for ages and ended up sitting outside on its cold balcony as he was whisked by, inside and upstairs, by a phalanx of suits, while a ridiculous number of cars lined the road and one unfortunate man had to stand on the roof. In the rain.
But at least the baked aubergine was good.

Thursday 22 October 2015

Lightning bolts - not confined to Poseidon

Athens can do a mean thunderstorm, when it chooses: startling lightning flash, deafening clap of thunder, torrential rain that severely inconveniences the pigeons, all that. And it keeps on! No, er, flash in the pan here. So today was for indoors, mostly.

Note to the CitySightseeing bus people: maybe don’t cover up your windows with ostensibly – yet in practice, not at all – see-through advertising that’s at best ironic and at worst (today) just plain annoying, when the open-topped upstairs is rained out and everyone’s stuck downstairs peering out through what looks like thick black nylon mesh.
But today’s focus, the National Archaeological Museum, made up for all that nonsense. In fact, it was a bit chastening, seeing the fine pottery being made and decorated 1500BC when my efforts back in 1983 or thereabouts are just humiliating, in comparison. The numbers are all a bit bamboozling for non-historians like me – I mean, up to 7000 years BC? And so well done! Whether pottery, gold jewellery, tools, weapons, statues, glass, it’s all quite remarkably well finished. Look at the fine work on this dagger handle:
The pre-historic exhibition was most amazing; but the statues, friezes and various other marble and bronze bits and pieces (they all had technical names that meant nothing to me – I’m way past museum guilt now, incidentally) were brilliant too, despite so many of those fine, straight Greek noses having been broken off. They all looked like real people, faces so similar to familiar or famous ones that it was quite distracting, trying to put a contemporary name to them.

The Ancient Greeks, though? Democracy, philosophy, drama… yes, thoroughly admirable; but they weren’t as well-behaved as all that. What about this preserved-for-immortality frieze of two young men about to instigate a dog vs cat fight? Magistrate’s court at least for that, nowadays.
Even flitting through, skipping most of the labels and drawn on almost immediately to the next shiny thing, a museum like this takes a solid chunk of time, and you can’t do more than one a day. A trip to the top of Lycabettus Hill for the view in eventual late afternoon sunshine was stymied by road closures caused by the visit of the French President, merde alors, so we ended up in a pretty little café/bar with the best beer of the trip so far: Vergina Red.

And then, of course, there were the cats to feed with last night’s leftovers – the stray dogs are all far too well-fed (if unkempt and depressed-looking, poor things). Not that the cats are starving either, by any means…

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Stone, shell, fur and feathers

To balance all the old stone, here's today in animals:

Cats (naturally) – flitting around the narrow pathways that climb up the Acropolis, between white and grafitti’d little houses, flowers and trees. The Hop on, Hop off bus here also provides a free photography tour once a day, when those interested can follow Natasha through Plaka past umpteen ruins as she points out good angles and shrugs apologetically when she can’t answer questions, since she’s not a guide, but shows us places we’d never find by ourselves.
Tortoise – making surprisingly good time beneath the trees beside the path as we followed the shiny marble road up to the Parthenon and assorted other ruined temples. The Parthenon is, inevitably, somewhat swathed in scaffolding, but it’s still a marvel; as is the Erechtheion beside it, with its fake caryatid thanks to Elgin swiping the original one third from the right.
Dove – sitting above the remarkable Theatre of Dionysus where drama began in the 6th century BC, with women in the audience confined to the back rows right at the top. What we would call ‘the Gods’ today, ironically (or not).
Butterfly – providing an ephemeral contrast to so much antiquity, where Roman ruins don’t count as ‘ancient’ and even the Metro stations have their own museums of sites and artefacts, uncovered when the tunnels were dug. Athens is literally littered with ruins, modern city life swirling around them.
Terrapins – piling up on each other in unconscious mockery of the silly t-shirts showing old frescoes of athletes wrestling, with the caption How Ancient Greeks Did Sex. They were in a pond in the Botanical Gardens, and I’m still a bit concerned about the one that had managed to run itself aground on the highest point of rock in the middle of the pond, and was vainly waving its flippers trying to get off again.
Pigeons – dozing on the flagstones in front of the Greek Parliament, disturbed on the hour, every hour, as the new guard marches in to relieve the two men who have stood completely motionless beside the tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Not only is the uniform crazy (400 pleats in the skirt, one for every year of the Turkish occupation – since the soldiers have to iron them themselves, way to foster resentment) and the shoes particularly daft, but the ceremonial moves are patently the inspiration for Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Cats (again) – still lurking around the brightly-lit lanes of Plaka after dark, cruising underneath the tables of all the pavement restaurants, batting a walnut around the bottom shelves in a souvenir shop selling Santorini paintings, golden olive wreaths, red and blue model fishing boats, jokey t-shirts, decorated dolls and bottles of olive oil. Make one miaow by unwrapping your saved bit of chicken souvlaki and they’ll pop up over walls and from behind things in all directions.


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