Thursday, March 27, 2014


Wednesday, March 26, 2014


And so the Fantasia sailed back into Genoa and the cruise ended.

After more than three weeks of hauling ass around the Mediterranean in a gigantic ocean-going luxury hotel, eating and drinking and glaring at eurobogans, the Admiral and I were delivered back to where we started and politely told to get the hell off the ship.

But the cruise line had two little going away presents for me.

The first was the news that I had won the disembarkation prize: a handsome piece of vanity publishing called Cruising in Style. Which was a lovely surprise, even if a large, heavy object isn't exactly the best thing to give someone who is about to test the luggage weight limits of an international airline.

The second was a somewhat less lovely surprise, which I discovered when I picked up my main suitcase in the terminal. The cruise line requires passengers to surrender all but their carry-on bags the night before disembarkation, so that the gangplanks aren't congested on the day by thousands of 80 year olds attempting to haul six bags that each weigh more than they do. Unfortunately mine had said something terrible about a baggage handler's mother; it's is the only possible explanation for it arriving in the collection hall dirty and scarred, with its straps torn off, the handles and feet shattered, and one of the telescoping trolley arms snapped off at the base.

I was assured that the cruise line would pay for it via my travel insurance company, but it still spoiled the day, and also became a huge nuisance as it progressively fell more and more apart as I dragged it around Genoa.

Fortunately we were doing little more than making our way home. Today, leaving Genoa. Tomorrow, leaving Milan. The day after, arriving back in Australia.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Today the ship sailed back into Rome, and since the Admiral and I had already seen most of the major Roman sights, we decided to take a tour called 'The Wonders of the Vatican Museum'. We figured that after several centuries of virtual monopoly on the whole Christianity gig, the Roman Catholics would probably have amassed a treasure or two.

I'd give you a rundown on the wonders of the Vatican Museum, but I can’t talk because we didn’t see any. The blame for this can be fairly placed at the bunioned feet of old people.

Anyone who thinks that herding cats is difficult has never tried to herd old people. The process of getting a coach halfway to Rome, having a toilet break, getting the coach the rest of the way into Rome, walking to the Vatican Museum, going through security, having another toilet break, getting the tickets, getting personal tour radios, getting a short lecture on the Sistine Chapel, walking to the Sistine chapel, spending twenty minutes in it, and walking out of it TOOK FIVE HOURS. After that, there was an hour to walk to and around St Peter’s Basilica, pausing liberally for the fuddled old dears to catch up with the rest of the group after being thwarted by things like steps, ramps, doors, gift shops and the Earth’s rotation around the sun. Then it was time to head back.

Because they take so long to do anything, we only got to see a Wonder, singular, of the Vatican Museum. That Wonder was the Sistine Chapel, which I'm pretty sure isn't the most fascinating thing in the Museum's collection, and even if it were, one could view it with much more clarity on the internet. But the Sistine Chapel's appeal has nothing to do with its art work. It's just what one does at the Vatican Museum when one is a fool or an old person who abandoned analytical thought sometime around 1994, if not considerably earlier. They’re in Rome, so they see the Sistine Chapel. Do they actually want to see the Sistine Chapel, for any reason other than its preprogrammed iconoclasm? Millions of euros are being spent on an unthinking obedience to the herd mentality; a marker of tribal membership that has nothing to do with the Sistine Chapel’s art, architecture, theology or history. And meanwhile other treasures are tantalizingly just out of reach.

But if nothing else, I did learn that the Vatican Museum is a great example of chaos mathematics in action. At a certain point of load well below theoretical capacity, any system, no matter how well designed, will break down due to cascading effects of tiny variations. Specifically, all it takes is for one old lady to momentarily stumble on an uneven flagstone to cause a cascade of incrementally longer pauses in the people behind her, eventually resulting minutes later in a traffic jam two galleries behind her.

Of course once you take into account vigorous human idiocy, and not just random accidents, then the system breaks down under a considerably lighter load. It’s not likely that one old fart will stop in a doorway to film the next room with his iPad – most old farts aren’t that stupid and inconsiderate – but when you have a thousand old farts pouring through that doorway every hour, it’s a statistical certainty that at least one of them will be that stupid and inconsiderate, and if the results of his behaviour cause gridlock until the next stupid and inconsiderate old fart comes along, then you have a state of permanent gridlock and the system is a failure.

Or put five hundred people in the Sistine Chapel and tell them, over and over again, that photography of any kind is strictly forbidden, and photographs will still be taken. Statistically, there must be at least one person who didn’t understand any of the languages of the warning, or has a mental illness like dementia, or simply raises their iPhone to snap a picture out of sheer, unthinking force of habit, or is just a douchebag psychopath who does whatever he wants unless physically prevented. Above a certain number, a crowd cannot be preventing from doing something without the preventative measures causing more problems than they solve, not because of the crowd is full of terrible people, but because the numbers are large enough for rare aberrant behaviours to become statistically inevitable.

As you can see, I had to retreat into applied mathematics to avoid beating some bovine pensioner to death with his or her own thermos. At least the Admiral could clear his head by going for a spin on his scooter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Figures (Part 4)

The People of the Cruise

There’s another crewman of uncertain function on this ship. He’s a large bouncer type, with a shaven head and a trim red beard, who wears suits made from fabric with all the sheen of a newly polished Mazda. Up until last night I’ve never seen him do anything other than lurk at scheduled functions, presumably just in case a gang of 80 year old Bulgarians decides to run riot. We assumed that he was part of the Security department, and we call him The Shiny Gorilla.

But I spoke to a friend that we’ve made in the ship’s Hospitality department. Apparently The Shiny Gorilla isn’t part of Security. He’s just a technician… which explains why we saw him operating the lighting rig in the theatre last night. He’s not a bouncer, he’s an audio visual geek. “Ah yes, that’s Raphaelo,” my new friend told me over drinks. When I asked about the shiny suits, her smile became slightly fixed and she said, “Hmmm, yes… he has a style all his own.” Reading between the lines, I get the feeling that The Shiny Gorilla’s role on this ship and the one he thinks he has are two entirely different things.

It’s hard being an Italian man.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Poor old Athens, with its pollution, its 25% unemployment rate and its elegant old mansions abandoned and left to crumble into the sea. Still, at least it has the Acropolis, which has significant upkeep costs but at the same time brings in the tourists by their millions. And with entry at $18 a head, that’s a lot of help.

After our last disastrous tour in Acre, Admiral Ackbar and I had trepidation in going on a guided tour of the Acropolis, but the tour was a welcome improvement over the last one. Although let’s be honest: if the tour guide had just stood at the front of the coach and thrown rocks at us, it would have been an improvement over the last one. But she was well-informed, well-paced, coherent and interesting, and we learnt a whole bunch about the history of Athens and the Greek gods who informed its mythology.

The tour also took in the changing of the guard at the parliament building, which would thrill any fan of men in miniskirts and shoes with big pom poms on them, and the Panathenaic Stadium, the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Admiral Ackbar kindly reenacted the victory of Spyridon Louis in the marathon.

Following our tour, we had a couple of hours to spare, so we hit the streets to see more of the real Athens.

The first thing that strikes one about Athens is that it has more orange trees than Malaga. Actually, it has more orange trees than an orange orchard. However, they are a variety of orange called bigarades, which are inedible and pretty much useless except as a flavouring in syrups or liqueurs. It’s a scenario that pretty much sums up why Greece is in trouble – they planted fruit trees as street trees, but made sure that they were an inedible variety that would do nothing but attract fruit flies and rot in the gutters.

The second thing that strikes one is the sense of life’s hardness. There are more derelict buildings than in the other European cities we’ve seen. Even on the glamorous Marina Zeas, where the rich park yachts big enough to have their own matching helicopters, they’re still reduced to having a KFC, a Pizza Hut and a Starbucks, which aren’t exactly luxury brands. And, most tellingly, there are no Umbrella Men, those African refugees who make a living in wealthy cities selling cheap umbrellas to pedestrians when it rains (and everything from jewellery to novelty torches when it doesn’t). Athens is so poor that it can’t attract them.

One thing that Athens did have, however, was this Double Pie gelato – a scoop each of chocolate banoffee pie gelato and apple pie gelato.

The Admiral was sated and so was I.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Figures (part 3)

The People of the Cruise

There's a crewman whose function on the ship I am yet to ascertain, but he’s notable for being so cartoonishly beefed up, so perfectly and conscientiously chiseled, that he’s more an architectural project than a human being. He wears T-shirts so ridiculously tight that he wouldn’t need to remove them to get a mole check. We originally thought that he might be a personal trainer in the ship’s gym, but he isn’t. I don’t know what his role is – he could be anything from a navigator to a launderer - but in himself he’s just another example of the extremities of Italian masculinity, a macho dynamic that knows no irony.

We call him Barbie Girl, since he’s “wrapped in plastic” and wears shirts that would fit in a matchbox.

Friday, March 21, 2014


Today I left the cruise ship moored in Haifa and went on a guided tour that covered the nearby city of Acre and the world-famous Baha’i Gardens. I thought it might be interesting to have a more informed experience of the ancient wonders of this historic area.

Instead, unfortunately, I got ‘An Evening With Grandpa Simpson’.

About twenty minutes into our six hour tour, I leant over to my travel buddy and whispered, “I think this guide may have Attention Deficit Disorder.” He would begin telling an anecdote about the geo-political foundations of modern Israel, then get distracted by a passing car or other shiny object, then resume with a rambling monologue about desalination.

When not switching stories mid-stream, he would sometimes launch into thinly veiled harangues about the various peoples of the world, starting with the Germans but eventually covering the Dutch, the English, the Arabs… pretty much every race with whom the Jews have had contact at any point in the last two thousand years.

Fortunately, after a particularly disjointed monologue about the history of the Israeli nuclear program and the perfidy of all Spaniards, he started letting the microphone rest on his bottom lip, distorting the pickup so much that it became an incomprehensible background burr that we could more easily ignore.

In Acre, a potentially fascinating four thousand year old city on the northern border of Israel, our guide dragged us from one interchangeable piece of ancient limestone to the next, mumbling disconnected halves of anecdotes about Phoenician trade routes and “Richard Lionheart”.

The centrepiece of the tour was supposed to be a visit to the Templar’s Tunnel, which, to be frank, seemed to be less than the marvel of thousand year old engineering I was purported to be. It wasn’t very long, or wide, and to be honest a few industrious Palestinians could have knocked it out in six months. It was only later when I was re-reading the tour literature that I realised he had taken us down the wrong tunnel. The Templar's Tunnel is huge and painted with frescos. Apparently he'd taken us down a 12th century sewer tunnel.

Eventually we were shepherded back onto our coach, where he recommenced his monologue in German. This went on for a minute or so before a helpful New Zealander pointed out that this was supposed to be an English language tour, a little point he’d apparently discarded, presumably because he’d forgotten where he was. Although to be fair we’d crossed paths with a German tour group a few ruins earlier and the German language tends to demand attention.

From there we proceeded to the Baha’i Gardens, an immaculate exercise in landscaping running down Haifa’s steep hillside, and the largest example of hanging gardens anywhere in the world … which was closed due to today being the Baha’i New Year. So we got to stand at the lookout at the top for half an hour looking down into them. From what I could see they have the same sense of creepy, too-ordered perfection that typifies Mormon architecture and landscape design, but without being able to get closer I couldn’t really enjoy it on the necessary ironic level.

On the way back to the ship, while our tour guide rabbited on about how misguided the Baha’i are, I heard a little voice hiss, “Shhhh!”. A moment again it came again, this time with more emphasis. Then the little voice erupted, “I want you to stop talking to me!” It turned out to be a five year old yelling at his little brother, but one of the genteel old ladies in our group turned to me and muttered, “From the mouths of babes…”

Later I overheard that even the deaf, lame, senile old man who blamed the Muslims for the fact that the Baha’i Gardens were closed for the Baha’i New Year recognised that the tour guide was tedious and incompetent.

Nevertheless, the tour ended with the guide asking for a tip. But then chutzpah is one of the Jews’ gifts to the world.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tel Aviv

Israel is a weird little place. Born and raised in violent conflict, home to the remnants of a slaughtered people, and despised by its neighbours, it’s not surprising that the Israelis are an insular race. Even friendly people like tourists are regarded with mild aloofness at best, and active hostility at worst. The unsmiling customs officer who stamped my passport did it as if the energy required was eating into her reserves and pushing her into hypoglycaemia. The security checkpoint guards snapped irritably at a tourist ahead of me who tried to walk through the scanner while they were having a conversation about a friend of theirs. Even the automated ticket machine in the train station rejected my perfectly good credit card with a brusque error message, for no apparent reason other than the fact that it could.

The Israelis don’t like you. They appreciate your money, but frankly they’d prefer it if you just mailed it to them from wherever the hell you come from. Failing that, if you must visit their country, they’d rather you did it as part of an organised and quarantined group, especially if you’re a fat dim-witted American who wants to visit the Holy Land so he or she can stay at the same Holiday Inn that Jesus stayed at. Tourists in such groups can be isolated from the general population, hopefully only noticed as a momentary glimpse of a coach rumbling by on its way to a tourist trap in Bethlehem.

Unlike most of civilised Europe, the Israelis strenuously avoid labeling anything in English. There are a few minor concessions on train station name signs, but other than that it’s the indecipherable scrawl of Hebrew everywhere. This might be understandable if they only spoke Hebrew, but everybody without exception speaks perfect English, generally in a faultless American accent. They’d just rather not. In Europe a little English text in an advertisement in considered to look sophisticated and international, whereas the Israelis regard it as indignity.

Frankly, they’ve seen the world outside their borders, and they just don’t like it all that much.

I learned all of this within a few hours of the ship docking in the northern port of Haifa. Many of our fellow passengers decided to take expensive excursions to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but I figured that my interest in those places begins and ends with what went on there two thousand years ago. So instead, I packed up the Admiral and we took the significantly cheaper option of riding the train down to Tel Aviv.

The train trip took around forty five minutes and the carriages were fairly packed, as Thursday is the day that youths doing their national service go home for the weekend. As such, we were surrounded by uniformed teenagers who looked like supermodels, apart from the assault weapons they were hefting and getting tangled in their iPhone headphones.

Apart from the unfriendliness, Tel Aviv is much like an Australian city - sunny, modern, outdoorsy - and the climate is so similar that half of the plants seem to be Australian natives. We spotted a fine red bottlebrush flowering in a memorial plaza to the victims of the 1972 Olympic massacre.

After spending some time wandering about the skyscraper-riddled downtown, we made our way into the charming Old Town of Neve Tzedek, now given over entirely to Greens voters. Nothing but organic, artisanal, Prius driving, marriage equalising White Privilege from one end to the other.

Beyond that is the old port of Jaffa, where the bazaar is slowly being gentrified but is still full of junk shops selling old brassware, inlaid furniture, worn rugs and all manner of other things that I can’t fit in my luggage no matter how much I want them. The Admiral and I decided to stop there for lunch, and lucked on to the pointy end of Arab hospitality.

Technically, I had a beer and a tahini-baked kebab, and my travel buddy had a couple of chicken skewers and chips: these were the items that appeared on the bill (160 New Israeli Shekels, which is 32 Euros, which is around $48). But what we actually had was those things plus two types of flatbread, eleven different dips and salads, four pistachio baklavas, two Turkish coffees, and bottomless homemade lemonade.

Notice the hommous in the centre. The only reason I didn’t smear it all over my body in ecstasy was because that would reduce the amount that went in my mouth. It was utterly amazing.

It’s also worth noting that when I ordered a beer, it arrived in a half litre bottle, without a glass. Clearly these people had met Australians before.

Grossly bloated and slightly hammered, we staggered out along the beachfront in the warm late afternoon sunshine, where lean and fit Israelis were playing volleyball or riding bicycles or lifting weights, and regarding us with their usual irked disdain.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Figures (Part 2)

The People of the Cruise

An elderly woman fond of tight pants and cake whose original bosom has been augmented by a similarly sized roll of fat wedged between her breasts and her beltline.

We call her Quattro Senni, and she’s basically been our muse on this trip.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Today brought the ship to Heraklion, the capital city of Crete.

Heraklion seems nice enough, although it’s a little more hardscrabble than the wealthy cities of northern Italy or southern Spain. Stray dogs sleep in the streets, and tiny gypsy children circulate in the crowds asking for money and eyeing valuables. Even in the upmarket pedestrian malls through which tourists are channeled there’s a sense of there not being quite enough money.

We wandered the streets, absorbing the ambiance, then had a coffee and a glass of frankly sensational fresh orange juice in a cafe. We strolled along the waterfront, where the Mediterranean is so clear and sparkling that it looks like something out of a mineral water commercial.

Then, on a whim, we visited the Natural History Museum. The way the staff set upon us with glee suggested that nobody ever goes to the Natural History Museum. We had a personal guided tour of an exhibition about holograms and optical illusions, then a ride in the earthquake simulator, which taught us that earthquakes are fun when you know you’re not going to die. Then we visited the museum’s little zoo, which featured Mediterranean lizards, snakes and small mammals, as well as some exotics from further afield that had been confiscated from local collectors by Customs.

Once we left the Natural History Museum, there was just enough time to trot back to the ship before the embarkation deadline. The deadline is a fairly inflexible time limit that has already seen three passengers left behind in Katakolon, so we were careful to make it. Plus, of course, we were missing the buffet.

On leaving Heraklion, I realised that one of the things I'd noticed most about the city was the patriarchal nature of the society. From what I can see Crete has a very macho culture, all hair and ouzo and staring at women until they feel uncomfortable, if not downright violated. There is also a uniformity of male fashion. Every Cretan man dresses more or less alike.

So how does one dress like a Cretan man? I'm glad you asked.

1. Schmick hair. The hair of the typical Cretan man is naturally schmick, thanks to centuries of being in close proximity to vast amounts of olive oil, but the modern Cretan man uses product anyway, just to make sure his hair is at its schmickest.

2. A modest beard; anything from an ambitious 5 o’clock shadow to hipster plumage, but not extending into biker territory.

3. Aviators, preferably smoked, but mirrored will do, although that carries a hint of trying too hard.

4. A leather jacket or nylon windbreaker, even though it’s a cloudless warm spring day and I’m sweating in just a light cotton shirt.

5. Sweat or track pants. Even the chatty attendant in the Natural History Museum was wearing sweat pants. You can wear faded old jeans if you want to project a professional image, like the waiters at the high end café I had my coffee in. Maybe they spend so much time moussing their hair, polishing their aviators and practicing their glower that by the time they get to putting on pants they’ve run out of energy and they just go “Meh.”

6. Brightly coloured running shoes, preferably with contrasting laces.

7. A piano accordion, because apparently that’s a thing in Crete. Every street corner has some scruffy low-life with a piano accordion getting all Zorba on our asses. It’d be nice to think that this is just a spontaneous outpouring of traditional Greek spirit, but they stop halfway through a song if there’s a momentary gap in the passing tourist traffic and have a cigarette. Either that or iMessage the urchin further up the street to start playing.

Monday, March 17, 2014


Of all the places at which the cruise ship has stopped, Katakolon is the most incongruous. It’s a tiny village with one street running along the waterfront. On the water side are fishing boats and restaurants, and on the land side are tourist shops. Beyond that are woods, small farms, semi-derelict houses and wandering flocks of sheep.

When you park an eighteen storey floating hotel in the middle of that, it tends to stand out.

The reason why Katakolon has a wharf big enough to accommodate an ocean liner, when the largest vessel in its native fleet is about the size of one of the Fantasia’s lifeboats, is Olympia. The historic birthplace of the modern Olympics is a short bus ride from Katakolon. Or rather, the ruin of said birthplace is there. Apparently there isn’t much to see other than a bunch of slightly profound rocks.

Given my lifelong antipathy towards sporting endeavour, it’s little wonder than I decided to give Olympia a miss and just enjoy a beautiful spring day in the Greek countryside. Fortunately Admiral Ackbar was right on board with that plan.

We began by traipsing up the hill that forms the spine of the promontory on which Katakolon is sited. As the sounds of whining Americans and jabbering Italians receded, we could simply relax into the sounds of the countryside; the waves brushing against the shore, birds singing in the trees, and herds of goats gently bleating as they trotted along, with their bells jangling around their necks.

I walked. Ackbar rode.

I also came across this little slice of Greek life: a beer can, a condom wrapper and a shotgun shell

At least we know the people around here aren’t bored.

We eventually wound back down to the village, pausing only for pomegranate gelati, honey frozen youghurt and free wi-fi. Then I did some shopping in the tourist shops, buying a shirt that’s probably about as authentically Grecian as a Hyundai. Then it was down to the waterfront for a well-deserved beer and a rather insensitive lunch, given Ackbar’s ethnic heritage.

I had thought to go for a swim in the Mediterranean after lunch, but instead I just took the elevator up to Deck 14 and swam in one of the ship’s three swimming pools. It says a lot about cruise priorities that I had the whole pool to myself, but I was entirely surrounded by dozens of elderly obese Germans baking themselves into an even darker shade of melanoma.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


I’m beginning to get into the swing of these days at sea. The trick is to wake up late, linger over meals, find a good book to read, sample the special cocktail of the day (today’s is the Mai Tai!) and, if all else fails, remember that the candy store also sells Lego.

Doing some laundry also helps pass the time. And reduces the amount that you stink up the place. So win-win!


Today was my second visit to Genoa, as the cruise ship returns to its home port to offload one lot of awful eurobogans and take on a fresh batch. Some passengers, including me and the Admiral, are doing back-to-back cruises so it was just an ordinary shore day, apart from the presence of newbies wandering dazedly around the buffet.

Genoa is, so far, my favourite city on this tour. It has the charming cobbled streets, the walkable scale, the excellent food, the restrained demeanor, the glorious architecture, the snappy Italian fashion and the slightly bohemian air that has been erased from bigger and more popular cities. I could spend hours just wandering its ridiculously narrow streets looking in the shops and buying caffe macchiato and crème brioche in the cafes. But with only limited time, I decided to do at least one proper cultural activity.

And so I found myself at Museo Palazzo Rosso, an art museum containing more than its fair share of Albrecht Durers and Jan Wildens. The subject range was a little on the limited side – let’s just say that the Holy Family don’t need any new pics for their Christmas card this year – but it was a beautiful selection of 16th and 17th century art. Including this one, my favourite, which I’ve entitled “Here Comes Fun!”

But the Palazzo Rosso had more to offer than mere priceless artworks. We were taken up onto the roof by a friendly attendant, where there’s a tiny platform from which one has a panoramic view over Genoa’s chaotic, ramshackle rooftops. From this vantage point, we could see beautiful domed cathedrals alongside clusters of TV antennas and some guy barbecuing his lunch.

The museum also had a model on display of itself and its neighbours in the Renaissance era which was a) unattended, b) not kept behind glass and c) Ackbar scaled. And so obviously this happened:

Genoa also proved a good opportunity for the Admiral to get out on his new scooter to experience la dolce vita and pick up loose women. Sadly the loose women of Genoa were washing their hair today, but he enjoyed himself nonetheless. And he blended in well with the local scooterati.