Friday, March 24, 2017

Death in the morning - and in the evening, too

The original plan was to go to Bondi today but the cool, damp cloudy weather that no-one associates with Sydney has continued, so I spurned the sand and kept it cultural, mainly. The good thing about staying in Chippendale is that there's a lot that's within walking distance - even downtown, if you're keen - so it was only a few blocks to the Powerhouse Museum. No prizes for guessing the original use of the venue, but it does mean that there are big, high spaces for the exhibits.
The main attraction for me this time though was in a series of darkened rooms: six Egyptian mummies, a travelling exhibition from the British Museum. It was a combination of ancient and modern, with 3D CT scans showing what was beneath the wrappings at several levels right down to the bones. The deceased had lived up to 3,000 years ago, which in itself is pretty mind-boggling, and I was amazed as usual by the technical expertise shown by the jewellery and carvings: challenging to reach that standard even today. There were toys too, and make-up, and guesses at the stories behind each body.
It's only a temporary exhibition, but there is of course plenty else to see that's permanent - some of it kind of unexpected. Like the big display of contraceptives in their original wrappings, the very suspicious 'Relax-o-Matic' with a smugly knowing woman on the box, a mortuary table, a post-cremation ash grinder (originally designed for coffee beans), an iron lung machine, a torpedo for delivering medicines from the Flying Doctor planes. 
And there was a really interesting exhibition about Anne Kellerman, who I'd never heard of, but who was a fascinating combination of vaudeville star, actor, swimmer, and pioneer for women's health and fitness, and water sports. She popularised the one-piece swimming costume. And swam the Channel.
Next we visited Alexandria, another city district I'd never heard of, beyond Redfern, which Jess recommended yesterday. Specifically, she recommended the Grounds of Alexandria which, we discovered, is a former factory site surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings. It's old and brick, with a chimney, and inside its grounds is a coffee grindery (hence the name), a bakery, bar, deli, and several cafe/restaurant operations, all looking as though they've been plonked down in a garden centre. There are plants everywhere. It's really, really lovely - and I decided that, even before I found the little farm with its hens, sheep, goat, pig called Kevin Bacon, and Fluffy the macaw.
We ate at the Potting Shed, where everything is garden-themed - the burger served on a shovel blade, the cutlery in a little metal bucket, the menu clipped with a hand fork. It's fun. And the food was good, too - slow service, but there was so much to divert us, it didn't matter at all. Gorgeous place - and very popular.
And then, for our final night in Sydney, we went to the opening night of Handa Opera on the Harbour, which takes place at the edge of the Botanic Gardens on a pop-up (actually, on piles) stage over the water at Mrs Macquaries Point. The setting is gorgeous - just across the little bay is the Opera House, the Bridge and under it the lights of Luna Park, and all around the lit-up skyscrapers. The opera was Carmen, and the name was spelled out in red lightbulbs across the backdrop of the stage, making everything look even more Hollywood-artificial than ever.
There was a red carpet when we arrived, and lots of people were dressed up in bow ties and long dresses (not the same people) so we scurried along it in our ordinary clothes to take our seats with the other plebs. There were various dignitaries swanning it in the Platinum Lounge at the entrance, one of them our recently-resigned PM John Key and his wife - but everyone sat on the same hard plastic chairs when it began (though they all trailed back with red cushions after the interval).
It's a good one for the opera novice, with some real ear-worm songs, and I enjoyed it. Even the passing shower didn't dampen everyone's spirits (though there was a great rustling of plastic ponchos) - nor, fortunately, did it endanger the performers on their treacherously sloping, circular stage. They were good: there was energetic dancing, some parading about, even a bull fight, but no-one fell over despite the women's high heels, or slid into the water (though there was a life-saver listed in the programme). It was a magical way to end the trip. And the monster possum that strolled nonchalantly across the road under the lights as we queued for a taxi after? The final touch of Aussie insouciance.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Chocolate/fish

My taxi driver this morning was a Kiwi - no surprise there, really, there are 650,000 New Zealanders living in Oz - but it was a coincidence that he was from Greenhithe, where I lived until recently. So we bonded, a bit, as we sat in Sydney's morning traffic. He was taking me to the Royal Botanic Gardens to see the exhibition there in The Calyx. That's a rather impressive new display venue built on classical lines with a curve of pillars outside and an airy space inside that is currently focused on chocolate. So, universal appeal, then.
I worked my way through, obsessively reading storyboards and studying the greenery and glass cases, and learned a lot that I almost immediately forgot. Thanks to my notebook, though, I can tell you that there are a billion cacao trees out there supplying the world's needs (cocoa is a misspelling that has stuck, by the way). It's been cultivated for 5,000 years - not that we would be tempted by its gritty, unsweetened early incarnations. Nevertheless, Montezuma, the Aztec king, got through 60 cups of sludge a day - connection there with the term 'Montezuma's revenge' I'm thinking... I can't say I was tempted by the seventeenth-century Italian dish of fried liver dipped in chocolate, either. But it was a nice touch to provide a jar of the real thing at the end (though - can you believe it? - one teacher with a party of primary schoolkids ate his and then shooed the kids away. So mean). One final fact for you: the blood in the shower scene in Psycho was chocolate sauce, because it was just the right thickness to swirl down the plughole. Good exhibition - but only temporary, sorry.
My next appointment was with a Destination NSW person in the new restaurant district of Barangaroo, across from Darling Harbour. It was really busy, full of business people sitting on the terraces despite the grey weather, and I did enjoy both my lunch at love.fish and the company of Jess, who was full of good ideas for tomorrow. Then I left all these ultra-modern skyscrapers for a Barangaroo Cultural Tour with Mary back into both nature and history - although they were new, too. There used to be a huge concrete container port on the point here, beside the Bridge; but before that it was home to the Gadigal people, for just the 14,000 years before the Europeans arrived.
Now it's been restored to kind of its original state, umpteen tonnes of soil replaced and planted with 75,000 big native trees, plants and grasses, and edged by 10,000 blocks of beautiful mottled sandstone cut from the site. They've done a good job: it looks lovely and is already well used by people inserting a dose of nature into their city lives. 
Mary was a good guide, very knowledgeable about the history, the plants and their indigenous uses, and full of hope that the big open space underneath might "one day" become a national centre for Aboriginal culture - which Australia does not yet have. No comment.
In the evening we walked to the Capitol Theatre for one of the last performances of the Broadway show Aladdin before it moves to Melbourne. Fabulous! So much energy and talent on stage, and the dancing, sets and costumes were wonderfully done. It was a brilliant performance, the audience was standing-ovation enthusiastic and - than which there is no higher praise - despite having had the video on repeat for a fair chunk of our daughters' childhood, I scarcely missed Robin Williams at all.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ship to shore

It's always the same, at the end of a cruise. You've been fussed over right from the start, it's all smiles and chocolates and invitations to indulge - then, several days before the final port, the rot begins with departure instructions appearing in the room, labels for the luggage, timetable for disembarking... It always feels too soon. And finally, on the last morning, you're just an impediment to their readying the ship for the new passengers. It's kind of hurtful. You suspect that all that friendliness has just been a front - which, of course, it is. Welcome back to the real world.

And so we were bundled off the Azamara Journey at 9am and driven into the city across the splendid Anzac Bridge, for our part - I have to admit - leaving the ship behind without a backward glance, on to the next thing.
Which is, today anyway, boutique Sydney: suburbs far from the Bridge and the Opera House, with individual character, interesting oddities, and passionate people. We're based in Chippendale at the Old Clare Hotel, which has been converted from a former brewery and the pub next door, retaining much of its original structure, even down to some graffiti on the brickwork in what is now the entrance foyer, above an old safe with a bag on one shelf labelled 'Random crap'. Funky is, I think, the vibe they're going for.

The room is agreeably spacious after the snugness of our stateroom on the Azamara Journey - but some common difficulties persist. On the ship it was the coffin-like shower inside the cupboard of a bathroom; here, it's a roomy bathroom, but all made of glass, so until the steam gets going there is no privacy when showering, and, though the loo glass is frosted, there is no soundproofing. Kind of inhibiting - but since all the rooms are different, don't let that put you off staying here. Just avoid 117.
The position is great, with Spice Alley right alongside: a little lane filled with pan-Asian eateries serving through windows with shared eating spaces, hung with Chinese lanterns, decorated with murals, and busy as, everyone from students to suited businessmen. I had hot and crispy chicken ribs from Thai eatery Bang Luck; and though I learned rather more than I would have chosen to know about Otis, the son of the woman at the next table, the food was delicious, fuelling me up for the main event of the day, which was a Culture Scouts tour with Sophia.
She's an artist and enthusiast, exactly the right combination for exploring Chippendale which is full of art of all sorts, from vertical gardens to upper-end graffiti to galleries. We started with Central Park, a building with the world's tallest green wall, 34 storeys of happy plants; and then did a couple of galleries including White Rabbit, a private collection of large contemporary Chinese installations prowling with attendants happy to expatiate on their meanings. The one that mesmerised me, plastic boxes stuck on a wall with a half-circle of lights moving back and forth, throwing pretty shadows, was apparently all about impermanence and... well, a whole bunch of other stuff, apparently, that went in one ear and out the other. Wasn't it enough, just to be pretty?
The nice thing about walks like this is that it does make you look more closely at what's around you, and I was as taken by the peeling paint on an old brick Victorian house as I was with more deliberate art like the Aboriginal murals, traditional and modern, in nearby Redfern. This district has a history of racial violence (actual riots!) and crime, and is still a bit edgy, but being steadily gentrified from its previous 24/7 unsuitability for unescorted wandering. In other words, the disadvantaged indigenous people who were concentrated here have faded away - though The Block is still there. I don't mean that tediously over-excitable home renovation competition show on TV3, but an expanse of grass owned by the Aboriginal Housing Corporation that they want to build on, but have been stymied by resistance from the State government. Australia, eh. The dark side is always there. But at least they themed their Keep Out sign with the Aboriginal flag...
Moving on into Redfern's busy main street, we went into a deceptively blandly-named shop, Seasonal Concepts, which startled me with its hippo skull and just went on from there. It's a fabulous place, an artwork in its own right, filled with a gloriously eclectic collection of bizarre and beautiful things, displayed for discovery. Mounted zebra heads, 1950s coffee mugs, solar lanterns in Agee jars designed for Africa, furniture, antiques, collectibles. Proprietor Ken is always up for a natter about where he collected any item. 'Delight the Eye, Cheer the Heart' is the slogan; and it's true.
Then there was Chee Soon & Fitzgerald, another quirky little shop, specialising this time in 1950s Japanese kimono silks, rolls of dainty designs not much more than a foot wide; and other equally unusual fabrics, and china. The owner is a Kiwi from somewhere like Darfield, no doubt quite correct in his decision 30 years ago that Sydney was much more tolerant of and conducive to his somewhat alternative lifestyle than inland Canterbury.
And finally Sophia took us to The Bearded Tit, a bar that's self-consciously quirky and fairly rude, but fun all the same: a loo where the walls are covered in Jesus portraits, for example, crocheted woollen penises in the window, and a skeleton behind the bar, appropriately enough standing right next to the spirits. It was a good tour, I enjoyed it - you really can't beat wandering around with a local, especially when they have a particular interest, like Sophie and art. Recommended.
The day ended with dinner, just across the road at Olio - not Italian (so dated) but Sicilian. The hapuka was good and so was the millefoglie afterwards though, to be honest, I was so flattered by the waitress thinking from my millefeuille-influenced pronunciation that I was French, that it could have tasted like plaster and I wouldn't have noticed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Azamara Journey - Sydney

As promised, Captain Johannes eased us past the Opera House this morning right on 10am. Everyone was on deck for the entry to Sydney Harbour, glimpsing first the Harbour Bridge above the coastal suburbs, then the city skyline, and then, as we entered the harbour, the whole classic panorama of tower, skyscrapers, Opera House and bridge laid out for us (jostling somewhat at the railings) to view and photograph. The weather, while warm, was a bit dull and grey, and the tiles on the roof of the Opera House appeared a little dingy in the low light – but it’s always a splendid sight.
Invisible Cruise Director Tony, who has been a touch more visible lately, treated us to a short lecture full of dates, facts and figures as we sailed in. When I asked afterwards, politely, why he hadn’t done something similar for, say, Milford Sound, he said quite bluntly, “Well, there isn’t much to say, is there?” Ditto for the other ports on the cruise. Apparently Azamara only does an arrival commentary for a few ‘iconic cities’ like here and Stockholm. Pft.
Anyway, it was lovely to be back here again, and I started at Darling Harbour where, in the Maritime Museum that I flitted through, I was surprised and pleased to find a connection: a big model of the SS Orcades, on which I sailed back to NZ from England in 1957 – my last crossing of the Tasman, before last week.
On a mission to buy a wedding present for (Aussie) Daughter #3, I powered through the central city – deeply impressed by local pedestrians keeping efficiently and uniformly to the left – and finally found what I wanted in a gallery at The Rocks, that charming and authentically old and architecturally interesting area at the base of the Harbour Bridge. It’s a lovely place to wander through, all stone steps, narrow cobbled lanes and tempting bars and restaurants, as well as lots of interesting shops and galleries. Good old Sydney. Who cares about the odd thunderstorm?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Azamara Journey - At Sea 3

There are two sorts of cruise passenger: those who love days at sea as an excuse not to do anything at all except eat and snooze; and those who see them purely as a necessary, and quite boring, evil. To placate the latter there are extra activities laid on, so today I attended the Captain’s Chat first of all.

He is (I asked) still cheerfully unrepentant about giving the NZ marine forecast people a hard time – “I have lost all faith in Kiwi forecasters!” – and now jokily relies on Siri for his weather predictions in his PA announcements. Not that, he admitted, he would have done anything different back at Tauranga if he’d been given more accurate information about the storm and sea conditions.

Then there was a lecture on Australia’s dark history of transportation – a subject always good for some horrifying facts and figures: 300 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails was pretty standard on the ships coming out, laying the bones bare with just 100; in Tasmania men running alongside the jigger acted as the engine for a railway; a full quarter of the convicts on board the second transportation fleet died at sea; it didn’t end till 1868 in Western Australia.
And then he moved onto the topic of the treatment of Aboriginals (no excuse for the several incorrect spellings of the word, by the way): “Not a pretty story”. Their population in Tasmania was reduced, in 1873, to just one, Truganini, who died three years later. The ‘Keep Australia White’ campaign of the first half of the 20th century today sounds (though this American professor chose not to make the connection) alarmingly like current news.
Next I did a galley tour, full of steam and stainless steel and spotless white uniforms: 59 cooks, 5 kitchens, 24-hour activity which, during the tour, involved much stirring, frying, rolling and cutting. Of course, by the time it finished, it was lunchtime and I had to eat some of it – for form’s sake, naturally.
Afterwards there was art: an attempt to do a version of an Aboriginal dot painting that was not a great success, thanks in equal part to having to use a fancy brush instead of a stick; to having to listen to nerve-jangling, apparently inescapable and absurdly inappropriate musak (Frank Sinatra) given that the average age on this ship is 63; and to a total lack of talent on my part. But I learned to respect the inspiration and dexterity of the original artists. (My pale imitation consigned without regret to the rubbish bin.)

Outside, the pool deck was well used through the afternoon by sunbathers, snoozers and readers, with an alarming number of tats on full display (remember: 63). On the jogging track above, serious women in stretch pants swirled around above the recumbent forms below, presumably keeping count of their revolutions in their heads: 13 to cover a mile. I wondered: if they jogged instead of walked, would they have to do more circuits to make up for the ship moving below them with each stride? Or would going first with the ship’s direction, and then against it, cancel each other out?
Dinner tonight was at Prime C on the top deck, one of the two specialty restaurants on board, which are not included in the fare (so thanks, Azamara, for hosting us). It was a very classy affair, from the décor through the service to the food itself, which was beautifully cooked and presented. Chateaubriand, since you ask. Delicious, and so tender!

Finally, tomorrow being the last full day of this cruise, there was the Crew Parade – a cheesy affair, but irresistible, especially on a small ship, where so many of the faces are recognisable. Captain Johannes was jolly, and keen to share how many passengers are staying on board, or have signed up already for further cruises. The ambiance was so friendly that it was even more of the shame that the mood was so totally wrecked five minutes later by sodding jazz on the piano.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Azamara Journey - Hobart

We woke this morning in Hobart, Tasmania, and scurried ashore without breakfast to avoid the large queues at immigration that actually didn’t eventuate. Never mind, it was nice to be back in Tassie again. Hobart has a pretty waterfront, with lots of historic buildings still in use, picturesque fishing boats ditto, and even some old sailing ships (don’t know).

I boarded a camouflaged catamaran and sat on a plaster sheep for a half-hour ride up the Derwent River – I was going to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, and they pride themselves there on being idiosyncratic, hence the boat. It’s a private collection, and isn’t included on the Azamara excursion options in case anyone is offended. Certainly there is some very rude stuff in there: large and obvious (I’m thinking of the gallery comprising a long line of plaster casts of women’s genitalia – which made me, and I’m sure every other women viewing it, wince at the thought of removing the plaster afterwards) and some of it sneaky.
These silver sardine tins, with their pretty botanical features, for example – it was only when I enlarged my photo of three of them that I noticed how indecent they are.

I wasn’t a big fan of Cloaca, which is four large glass containers hanging beneath pipes and tubes that feed them a faecal concoction that emits farts and periodically has to be excreted. Hard to imagine who would be. But there was plenty of lovely stuff there too, in all media, from all times and cultures, big and small, obscure and approachable; and all explained on a nifty cellphone-type guide. Hobart is lucky to have it.
The building messes with your head, though: it’s like the Tardis, and impossible to work out how all the galleries fit together. I've no idea how it looks from the outside.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” was the verdict of the pre-Baby Boomer woman sitting next to me as I waited afterwards for the ferry back to town. I think it pretty much goes without saying that if that expression trips comfortably off your tongue, MONA is not meant for you.
At the town’s Female Factory, the initial impression is that there’s nothing there: so it’s essential to pay for the Heritage Tour. Then you get someone like John showing you around the three yards that remain, empty spaces behind high sandstone walls. He told vivid stories about the lives of the inmates that brought the place to horrifying life – no dramatic exaggerations, just bare facts. Like, after 3 to 6 months being incarcerated in the hold of a transport ship on minimum provisions, having to walk at 4am (lest the sight of 100 women inflame the passions of the town’s sex-starved sailors) seven kilometres uphill to the gates of the prison, where any child aged three or above was taken from its mother, often never to be seen again.

It was a dreadful, dreadful place. Tasmania’s history is so very dark. I’ve previously been to Port Arthur (“A holiday camp in comparison,” said John, who has also guided there) and to Sarah Island, and Brickendon and Woolmer – and that’s only the convict side of the story. The Aboriginal people fared even worse. None of it should be forgotten.

But there was fun today too, in the person of Nick Nickolas, an English magician/comedian I’ve seen performing on the waterfront in Auckland many times. His act in the cabaret theatre after dinner was familiar but as funny as ever and, yet again, knowing the sleight-of-hand tricks he had (not literally) up his sleeve was of no use whatsoever in figuring out how he did them. Excellent!

Azamara Journey - At sea 2

Sunshine! And a (relatively) calm sea. The temperature is up to 19 degrees and it’s possible that the swimming pool, which yesterday had not just waves, but breakers, will be refilled and opened for the hardy souls on board. Even with it netted off, they’re out there, bundled up in rugs and towels, beanies pulled low, squinting at their Kindles and retro books, determined to make the most of the sun.

Today there were lectures, ship tours and all the usual offerings at the spa and gym. Generously given a credit there, I decided – foolishly, in retrospect – to go for the metabolic function test. This involved sending a current through me from my foot to my hand, generating a printout telling me how much weight I need to lose, how dehydrated I am, and how much invisible fat is lodged around my organs. Given that there are about eight places to eat on the ship, many of them continuously available, and not much physical to do, it was not a helpful exercise (not any sort of exercise at all, in fact). Naturally, the follow-up anti-toxin spiel was lost on me.
More distracting were the tours of the bridge and the control room: full of screens these days, of course, and buttons (“You are not allowed to push any buttons!” was the stern warning before each tour). But the bridge still has a classic wheel, and a sextant in a perspex box with a dramatic but redundant ‘In case of emergency break glass’ label (it had a hinged lid). More to the point, you'd need to fish out the paper chart and find the guy who knows how to use it and the sextant so that, if the GPS won’t pinpoint your position with its usual 30cm variation, the sextant can do it to within, ooh, 30 or 40 miles.
The bridge is the brain of the ship, Aleksander from Montenegro told us airily, and the control room is the heart. Stanko from Croatia disagreed: they are both bodies and the ship is the soul. Pretty airy-fairy stuff from a man who spends his working day in a chilly windowless room full of screens and buttons. I did notice, though, that both places had Christian icons on the wall, the one in the control room showing Jesus pointing the way to the steersman, standing behind him with one hand on his shoulder.

The afternoon was warm and sunny, the sea calm and empty, and the sun eventually sank, with the expected but always exciting green flash. The dinner theme was Moroccan (my tabbouleh is better) and the cabaret show tonight was an energetic compilation of movie musicals, with some excellent dancing on dangerously high heels. Tomorrow morning we reach land again: Hobart – my fourth visit to Tasmania.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Azamara Journey - At Sea 1

My distinct impression is that Captain Tysse disapproves of New Zealand weather, and its forecasters, and is pleased to be leaving both behind. This is the first time Azamara has cruised NZ waters and our skipper is unimpressed. He was upfront that his main purpose in giving us an extra taste of the fiords yesterday was to encourage interest in the company's annual 15-day Norwegian route which is - unsurprisingly, since he was born there - his particular favourite, including as it does the "pretty colourful villages" that wild and untouched Fiordland, to its implied detriment, lacks. I saw people today duly signing up for that cruise in the main foyer today, at the steadily busy Loyalty Desk.

Today was our first sea day, a bit wet and rough to begin with, and there was staggering (as well as sheafs of sick bags discreetly placed about the ship); but it improved as the day went on, and became distinctly brighter. We are promised 30 degrees in Hobart the day after tomorrow, which after our recent chilly dampness seems like another world. No doubt the Aussies will be crowing about beating the Kiwis at weather.

We actually heard from Tony the Invisible Cruise Director today - it was purely coincidental, of course, that one of the things he was promoting in his PA spiel was his own performance tonight singing Irish songs, it being St Patrick's Day.
Today's programme included also Bingo, with a free Tshirt and the chance of winning a prize cruise; a sale of stuff from the shops; a spa seminar on 'Youthful Lips'; a lecture on Maori Art (which seems a little late in the piece); various Trivia competitions; a wine-tasting pitting Oz against NZ; and, amongst other 'activities' (bit of a misnomer) a Watercolour Class, at which I discovered that my technique has suffered somewhat in the fifty years since I last picked up a paint brush. Other than to paint, you know, walls.
It wasn't all frittering time away today - there was laundry to do. But the reward was dinner at one of the two special (= higher end but also pay for) restaurants, Aqualina, on the tenth deck at the stern. And very nice it was, too. Excellent service from Allan, from the Philippines, who gets home every 6 months for 8 weeks, and for the rest of the time gets just part of one day off a week - but sometimes not, depending on cruise schedule and weather. What would the hospitality/service industries worldwide do without the Filipinos?

Anyway, delicious food, beautifully presented and served, with a view of white-capped Tasman, white-clouded blue sky, sundry seabirds swooping low and soaring high, and - sadly, inevitably - a discordant musak track of jangly and irritating jazz.

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