Author Archives: Greta

A glimpse of San Francisco

The seven sisters (painted ladies) with the city behind them. I wouldn’t want to live in a tourist attraction.

After a very nice breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant we were ready to catch the shuttle bus into the San Francisco city centre. But it turned out to be a shuttle for a lot of hotels in the area, not just the Marriot. The driver came into the foyer and told us the bus was full – but if we wanted to stand for the half hour trip into town we could do that. Pete and I shrugged and got on the bus. In the scheme of things a half hour stand wasn’t a big deal.

Within a few minutes a young couple who looked Japanese offered us their seats. We refused, as you do. It was our choice to come on a bus with no seats. But they insisted and so we thanked them and sat down. We exchanged a sheepish glance. It was one of the first times we’d actually been faced with the fact that people thought we were OLD.

Little boxes on a hillside…

The bus went along a freeway. It was interesting looking at the suburbs spreading up into the hillsides around the bay. It reminded me of that Pete Seeger song – little boxes.

We hopped off the bus in the city’s central square, once again thanking the young couple who’d stood for us. The day was cool and although the drizzle seemed to have moved away, we weren’t sure. A line of double decker, open-topped buses stood in a row, offering sight-seeing tours and we thought we’d better do that rather than just walk around. That way, we’d get our bearings and see some of the main sights without wearing off any more shoe leather.

The view from the bus

Like the rest of the world, we’ve seen San Fran in the movies. We knew about the steep roads courtesy of Steve McQueen’s movies, the tram cars were familiar – they’re the same as the older style used in Melbourne – in fact, that’s where they came from. And we knew about the hippy flower days of the sixties and seventies, when we were young. That vibe still remains in areas like Haight Street. The whole inner city is bright with colour and quirkiness. Street art was flourishing even back in 2011, a little earlier than many places. Given a choice between Washington, New York and San Francisco, San Francisco won hands down for me.

Lombard St

Lovely American architecture

What it says

Back to the days of flower power

I’m sure the food’s lovely

Wonderful street art

Stevie Wonder’s paver (and a few others)

After the bus tour finished Pete and I caught a tram down to Fisherman’s Wharf, another place we’d heard a lot about. The place was packed with tourists, many of them doing what we were doing, stopping for a seafood lunch. Of course we had clam chowder. It was delicious and very filling and we regretted the fish and chips we’d ordered as a main course. Hey ho. We did our best, then wandered around the waterfront.

A road to the Bay

Fisherman’s Wharf

There’s more to Fisjerman’s Wharf than just the restaurants. We ambled through the tourist area, picking up a couple of Tee shirts to take home, then checked the historical precinct.

 

A sub and a Liberty ship

Alcatraz stood on its island in the middle of the bay but we couldn’t get on a tour. A submarine, and one of the original liberty ships built by Rosie the Riveter and her companions, were moored at the quay and were open to visitors. Read all about them here. In fact the liberty ships were actually built in the waterways next to our hotel. The factories are long gone, replaced by parkland.

Alcatraz

After a full day we boarded the shuttle bus back to the hotel. We were looking forward to having a pre-dinner drink, then enjoying a steak in the restaurant. But at around 6:30 on a Friday evening the bar and the restaurant were both closed. When we enquired at reception we were told the bar and restaurant were only open from Monday to Thursday. The clerk couldn’t suggest any restaurants nearby but we could order a taxi into the city. Apart from that, we’d find an order-in menu at the back of the amenities folder in our room. He assured us the food was good.

We were frankly amazed. This was a Marriot hotel. But I suppose it was in a more industrial part of town, no doubt frequented by business travellers rather than tourists. We schlepped back to our room to consider options. We looked on the internet but there wasn’t anything within walking distance of the hotel so we opted for a delivery to the room. Pete ordered a veal and mushroom casserole with a salad and a beer.  I ordered lasagne – after all, who could mess up lasagne – and a bottle of Chilean wine. We were told the food would be delivered in about an hour.

Two hours later Pete rang to find out what the hell had happened. After the usual pathetic excuses they said the delivery should get to us in ten minutes. Make that more like fifteen. Whatever. At around 9:30pm at last we had food.

Or so we thought. My lasagne was disgusting, grey mush which might have been meat between a couple of sheets of pasta. It was totally horrible – so bad that I wrote am email to the company complaining about it. Pete’s food was a bit better without being brilliant so we shared that.

Chicken and mushroom casserole with rice

“Lasagne”

This was our last evening in America. It certainly didn’t end in quite the way I would have hoped although it was memorable – for all the wrong reasons.

Our breakfast venue

Next morning the hotel restaurant being closed, we caught the shuttle bus (not crowded this time) into town and found a bar serving a cooked breakfast. It was a fun place and Pete enjoyed chatting with some of the folks there. Really, on this, our last day, we didn’t do much just strolled around the city, visiting some of the shops and malls.

Later in the evening we collected our bags and went to the airport for the long haul home. San Francisco to Los Angeles, then the seventeen-hour flight to Brisbane on Qantas.

It was going to be nice to be home.

 

Crossing America

San Francisco and the bridge

After our stay in Washington we would be flying across America to San Francisco on the west coast. I’m not sure why we weren’t on a direct flight, but we weren’t. We would be flying to Detroit, then on to SFO on Delta, which Pete thought was the better of the US airlines. In fact, before we left Australia, Delta informed us we’d been upgraded from business class to first class. How nice. We arrived at Washington’s airport in plenty of time for our flight and discovered a few… unexpected things about air travel in the USA.

Although airports everywhere are trying to shorten queues and reduce the number of staff at airports in various ways, up to this point (in 2011) everywhere we’d been we went up to a counter, checked in our luggage with the clerk, where we watched it disappear via a conveyor belt, and received our boarding passes. Not in Washington. For a start we had to wait a looong time to get served, despite being business class/ first class. And then when we checked in we were given a boarding pass and told to take our suitcases up to baggage handling ourselves. Then we had to go through security. When I noticed other people taking off their shoes I asked a staff member if that was required. She looked at me as if I was a bit stupid or just being difficult. There were no signs telling passengers what was needed, or if there were I didn’t see them and I STILL haven’t been through any other country’s security where shoes had to be removed – unless they set off the alarm. It was also the first time I’d been through the full-body X-ray booth.

Business class boarded first and we sat watching the other passengers file down the aisle. Many of them had suitcases which were almost as large as the bags we’d checked in and the cabin crew stuffed the luggage anywhere it could fit in the overhead lockers. Obviously, everybody was avoiding checking in luggage. We landed in Detroit and found our flight to SFO had been delayed several hours. Despite our business class/first class tickets we were not permitted into the airline’s lounge so we kicked our heels clock-watching with everyone else.

At last, we boarded and we were off. Flying across America takes as long as flying across Australia but the view is very different. In Australia most of the flight is over desert, the red heart of the country. In America we crossed farmland, enormous rivers, large cities, and mountain ranges. And maybe a bit of desert. The view out the window was great.

City, river, and hills

Farmland

Mountains

I can’t say the same for business class service. It’s a five-hour flight so we were offered a meal. We were in the last row of the business class section (I never did see any sign of first class) so the choice was a do-it-yourself hamburger, or nothing. The salad had already been snapped up by everybody else. We were delivered a tepid meat patty, a cold bun, a slice of plastic cheese, a lettuce leaf, slices of tomato, and some dressing for the burger, with potato salad (I think) and a slice of cake. I didn’t finish the burger and only tasted the potato salad which was inedible IMO. I probably ate the cake. It was the worst meal we had on any flight anywhere, by a long way.

First class meal

By the time we got to San Francisco it was quite late. We’d booked two nights in a Marriot hotel situated between the airport and the city that offered a regular shuttle bus into San Francisco. The place had a nice restaurant with an inviting menu but it was too late to eat a meal, so we sat at the bar and had a couple of drinks with some nuts before we wandered off to bed.

We’d have tomorrow and a good part of the next day to look around before we headed home.

The Natural History museum and a bit more Washington

The elephant in the room

Today we visited the Natural History Museum, with its foyer dominated by an elephant. Like its counterpart in New York, the way the exhibits are displayed is wonderful, showing creatures’ skeletons in the setting where they once lived before the climate changed. There was a minerology section and we saw the famous Hope diamond

Life and death

Crystals

The Hope diamond

Later we used Washington’s excellent train system to go to Crystal City, a shopping mall on the other side of town near the Pentagon. The trains are great – clean and fast. I was surprised at the lack of patronage but at least we had our choice of seats 😊

Washington’s subway

We wanted to experience a bit more of ordinary life in the city. For a start, we tried a Starbucks coffee. Sorry, Americans, both of us pronounced it horrible. We tried getting into Costco but the door guards wouldn’t let us even go in for a sticky-beak without a member’s card. So we went to Walmart instead. The store sold everything at often a fraction of the price we pay in Oz. But we didn’t see anybody who would have qualified as one of the Walmart people whose images are shared on the internet.

A 1950’s style diner

Then we strolled around the many levels of the mall filled with too many fashion shops (just like at home), bought lunch at a food court, and ended up in an electronics store, where Pete, who wouldn’t touch a Kindle with a barge pole, admired the Sony equivalent. The price was much less than we would have paid in Australia, so he bought one. That caused all sorts of problems back home when we tried to buy books for it. The system recognised the serial number as bought in America, but the American site wouldn’t let us buy books because we were in Australia. Sigh. This was 2011, remember. Since then, Sony and a number of other sites no longer sell books or dedicated readers and everybody (including Pete) uses a tablet to read.

There were a lot of uniforms in the mall – understandable with the Pentagon close by. There’s a diner there, too, the classic American model of the 1950’s. No waitresses on rollerblades, though.

The capitol building

The Washington monument

Ulysses S. Grant

Horses drag artillery in the Civil War

We caught the train back to the area around the Capitol building. It’s certainly an impressive pile of stone, kind of Roman in design. I expect that was deliberate. Then we headed into greener areas and admired a number of statues commemorating the Civil War, including General and later US President, Ulysses S. Grant. At the time work was underway preparing for an event which I suspect had to do with the Vietnam War. We noticed a couple of vets looking around.

Our last stop was at a stall near the museums that sold Tee shirts. I’d bought a Tee shirt in every country we visited and I acquired one with a bald eagle on the front. By that time the feet were starting to complain loudly. Looking back, we were eight years younger and a lot, lot fitter then.

Here are a couple of pictures of locals.

Tomorrow we would be heading for San Francisco, our last stop before the long flight home.

Aircraft, spaceships, nebulae – oh my

A model of the space station

On our first full day in Washigton we made a beeline for my bucket list item, the National Air and Space Museum. Ah me – spaceships, planets, nebulae, and aeroplanes. This museum has a comprehensive history of space travel and aviation. Some of the bigger pieces (eg Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber which dropped the first atom bomb) have been shifted to another site where larger aircraft can be displayed. No matter. I was more than happy to wander around in here for hours.

One of the Mars landers

The space shuttle ready to blast off

Me with a spacesuit

Many school groups were visiting, too. The displays are often hands-on so people can actually experience activities. For instance, you could climb into skylab and get an idea of what it was like. The lunar lander from 1969 was on display, as were several Russian space craft.

Inside Skylab

Even lunch was an experience. This would have to be the biggest Macdonald’s in the world, with about thirty or forty service lanes doling out burgers, fries, and shakes to hundreds of customers. I think there were other options apart from Macca’s but I’ve forgotten the details. The kids loved it, of course. And it was great to see groups of kids from every culture mixing together at the long tables. No segregation here.

The space museum naturally has a planetarium. We booked for an afternoon show that included a 3D fly through the Orion Nebula. To get a bit of fresh air before the session started, we walked out to an open-air modern art sculpture garden. I’ll admit I’m a Philistine when it comes to most modern art. This was no exception.

This isn’t art – it’s engineering

Okay, this qualifies as art

The planetarium presentation was breath-taking. We were given 3D glasses and it was just like being there in the middle of all that gas in a stellar nursery.

The mighty Orion nebula

Later in the day we went to see some of the more obvious touristy places like the White House, which was within walking distance. We did more than our ten thousand steps that day.

The white house

Secret? service

Working out the WIFI

Back at the hotel I set myself to working out how to get the WIFI to work while Pete rustled up some food. I’m wearing my Estonia Tee shirt – bought in Tallin earlier in our trip.

Washington – a capital city

The spectacular Washington railway station

Rather than subject ourselves to airline security for the short hop to Washington, we’d booked on a train from New York. But Amtrak runs trains that don’t carry luggage, and that was the only one with available seats in our time frame, so we had to send our suitcases on an earlier train. They would be waiting when we arrived. We checked out of our hotel and trundled our suitcases over the footpaths to the railway station. There’s nothing like the stubby little wheels on a suitcase to highlight every crack, every broken slab, and every bit of garbage on the way.  It was a lot harder than walking unimpeded. There was no way we were going to manhandle those bags down the stairs into the subway. There had to be a lift, which we found in due course. We checked the bags and waited for our train, watching the busyness that is the subway while we waited.

Pete and I boarded and went off searching for our seats which were printed on the tickets. We were having trouble working out the numbering system when I gentleman already seated took pity on us. “I’ve been catching this train for years,” he said. “Never has been any seat allocation.”

Well, that made it simpler. We picked a row and sat. When we’d booked in Australia we had picked a service which offered catering. That turned out to be a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Gee, thanks.

The train travels through a tunnel to get off the island, then heads south through New Jersey to Philadelphia, then Washington. We didn’t take pictures but our impressions were of rusting, abandoned factories, ramshackle neighbourhoods, crumbling infrastructure. Despair was almost palpable, an invisible miasma.  It was more the sort of vista we might have expected in a third world country. Outside the city the train rolled through parkland with housing estates further from the tracks, more the sort of thing we’d expect from America.

The line for a taxi at the airport. At least it’s under cover

After a brief stop at Philadelphia, the train went on to Washington, arriving early afternoon.But the excitement wasn’t over. For some reason the train couldn’t pull in to the station so we had to climb down and walk along the track, then climb up several flights of steps to get into the station proper. The third world analogy continues :).

In contrast the railway station (like many around the world) is magnificent, built of white stone with domes and arches. Our first job was to get hold of our luggage. We could see it, locked away in an area closed off with a locked gate. Getting hold of somebody to get it out for us took a while, but it did happen. Then we joined the end of the queue waiting for a taxi. That took a while, too.

We’d opted for a serviced apartment for our stay in the city, a place within walking distance of the museum precinct. Pete had booked and paid before we left Australia, so it was a bit disconcerting when the clerk told us we didn’t have a booking. The place was busy, with a lot of people wearing kippahs standing in the foyer. They were attending a Jewish-American event in the nearby convention centre and I expect our reservation got lost in the noise. Pete handed over his printed copy of our paid-for booking and eventually they found us an apartment. It was nice to have some room to spread out.

Our serviced apartment – glitzy but not great quality fittings

Then we needed to get some supplies so we could eat in. That would mean a supermarket. The clerk pointed us to a nearby shop, but that was just a convenience store, so we asked the customers and people passing in the street. After a few false starts we found a local who directed us to a real supermarket a few blocks away. We like going to stores in foreign (to us) places. It gives a feel for the ordinary lives of people who actually live here. A lot of the goods were just like home – but some weren’t. They had a great deli section. We stocked up with necessities and went to the checkout where the clerk asked us if we had a loyalty card. “no,” we said, “we’re only going to be here for a few days.”

“It’s cheaper if you’ve got one.” The girl pulled out a form for us, which we filled out.

It was really nice of her. In fact, most Americans we encountered were very nice, regardless of colour. On another occasion we asked a fellow where we could find a liquor store. He stopped, pulled out his cell phone and had a look for us online. It wasn’t easy, but he willingly gave us a good ten minutes of his time trying to help a couple of elderly tourists find a bottle of Scotch.

One thing we noticed about the neighbourhood where we stayed was the number of seemingly empty, abandoned buildings. Weird.

Abandoned buildings

We walked back to the hotel and rustled up a gourmet meal of spag boll and a salad. Then we headed off for a look around. It being a Sunday, the roads were pretty empty. In many respects the city reminded me of Australia’s capital, Canberra. Or maybe any city that was created to BE a capital. The architecture is very formal, with buildings dressed to impress. The feel is neo-classical with arches, domes, pillars, and formal statues. Not that Canberra has that sort of architecture – more than it’s as if it’s for show, to make an impression.

Lots of inspiring quotations everywhere

Washington’s archives office looks like a Roman building

Tomorrow we’d be off to the Smithsonian. I could hardly wait.

A last look at Manhattan

After our less than salutary experience with the hotel’s breakfast the previous day, we went off to find a café nearby that offered breakfast. This would be our last day in New York. We were heading for Washington the next day. We spent a fun morning enjoying some of the quirkier bits of the city. And another quick trip to Central Park, though not for long.

Toy Story characters. I suppose a bit like the dress-up Roman soldiers at the Colosseum

A Jewish tailor working on his sewing machine. It illustrates what used to happen in that area of New York

I don’t know what Christian sect they belonged to. They sang beautifully and offered free christian literature right outside H&R Block.

We headed back to the hotel so we’d be ready to meet a friend. My editor, Diane, lives in Pennsylvania and she had agreed to catch a bus to New York so that we could actually meet. I was looking forward to that. I’ve met a few online friends in real life and always found it very comfortable. We’d already met at an intellectual level, so this was just a matter of putting a face to a person. We returned to our room and waited for her to call from the lobby.

It was the weekend and a bunch of girls in their early teens were booked into the hotel. I assume it was a school group on an excursion. When Diane rang to say she’d arrived, I caught a lift to go down to meet her. We were on something like the 23rd floor and when I entered, the lift held about four people. From there on down it was stopping at all stations. More and more kids entered the lift. I was at the rear, my back now firmly pressed against the wall. Bear in mind I’m an introvert with a tendency to claustrophobia. When the lift stopped again I felt sure you couldn’t fit another person in that car. The kid didn’t agree, though, winkling her way into that scrum while I begged all the deities I don’t believe in not to let the lift breakdown.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when we finally reached the ground floor and everybody poured out. It must have looked like one of those Benny Hill sketches where far too many people climb out of a mini or something.

Diane was lovely, of course.

After a while we decided we’d head for New York’s natural history museum, easily reachable on the subway. We bought tickets and sat down. After a couple of stations an announcement was made via the PA. It seems to be a requisite for railway stations that all announcements are unintelligible. We stayed where we were and the train started off again. And picked up speed and zipped through stations. It seemed that the powers that be had decided that this train would be an express. We seemed to go a long way before the brakes came on and the train halted. We piled off and watch the rear carriage disappear into the tunnel. Now what? The sign said Harlem. Gosh. We’d heard all about Harlem back in Oz, not the best place to be. Oh well, All we really wanted was to know how to get back toward the central city. Reading signs didn’t help much. In the end Diane went and asked a passing lady and returned to report we had to go over the bridge to a different platform.

A train soon arrived and we climbed into a packed carriage, where we were forced to stand. One young woman sitting on a bench made to get up. “One of you can have my seat.”

“Nah,” we all said. “It’s okay. We’re not going far.”

Pete being Pete added. “One of us can sit on your knee.”

She looked us over for a second, decided we were a trio of harmless old coots, and patted her lap.” Okay. Which one of you?”

All of us laughed.

This episode stuck in my mind and a couple of years later, a suitably embellished version of this experience (along with Central Park) was used in my urban fantasy novel, White Tiger. Did you know that there are more tigers living in America than out in the wild? They’re kept as pets in backyard zoos – or even backyards in often unsuitable conditions, although thankfully, the number of states that permit the keeping of wild animals has reduced. It’s a fact that somebody actually kept a pet tiger in an apartment in Harlem. I wove that (fictionalised) into White Tiger as well.

Ahem. Back to New York, 2011.

We got off the train at the natural history museum and spent several enjoyable hours wandering through the exhibits.The museum is excellent, with fantastic displays of skeletons, reconstructions, explanations of evolution. There are other sections displaying Mayan, Incan, and Native American artefacts.

Triceratops skeleton

The evolution of the horse – much more complicated than the simple straight line that we were told about when I was young

Eohippus – the dawn horse

Part of the Ican exhibition

Then we went to find dinner. It seemed every restaurant we went to either didn’t do much for us, or didn’t have a table. We ended up back at the Irish pub where, if memory serves me right, Diane had shepherd’s pie for the first time. Later, we walked Di back to the bus station, then went back to our hotel to prepare to catch a train to Washington the next day.

A wander around Manhattan

The statue of liberty on her mist-shrouded island

We started our first full day in New York with breakfast at the hotel, part of the tariff. Even back in 2011 (let alone now) we found it hard to come to terms with the hotel’s approach. Everything in the dining area was throw-away, either paper or plastic. That included cutlery, bowls, cups, beakers, plates, serviettes, single use tiny containers of jam, butter, and honey. You made your own toast and coffee, and you could make pancakes using a machine. Hot food wasn’t much more than scrambled eggs. Management had obviously set up to avoid the need for washing dishes. All the staff did was chuck everything into one of those bins lined up outside the front door. I assume the bins were emptied into trucks and taken off the island to landfill somewhere. I can’t imagine how much garbage this hotel generates every single day.

It was raining down there

On a drizzly day Pete and I worked out how to use the subway and took the train down to Battery Park at the end of Manhattan Island. From there we could get over to the Statue of Liberty. But the weather was bleak and dreary and the queues to get on the ferry were already past my patience level, especially when we overheard some comments suggesting turnaround times had increased by about an hour. So we had a good look around the park instead. It’s called Battery Park because of a historic fortification which has a roof, ensuring a dry experience. We spent some time reading about the building, then admiring some of the monuments set around the site.

The history of Battery Park

A touch of Amsterdam (see the crest of the city at the top?) New York was once New Amsterdam.

From there, we decided to walk up Broadway. I’d always thought ‘Broadway’ was a kind of theatre district. Um… no. It stretches for kilometres up the island and we would be passing quite close to a few of New York’s icons.

I didn’t take this.

The weather started to clear as we approached the famous charging bull on Wall Street but somehow neither of us took a picture. Probably because of the squillions of tourists taking pictures.

The new trade centre rises on the site of destruction

We detoured to the site of the World Trade Centre where the new tower and the memorial to the horrific events of 2001 were rising. We stopped for lunch at a café in the Greenwich Village area, then we went on to Central Park.

Alium flowers at Central Park

The falconer brings in his hawk

Strawberry Fields

The twelve Chinese zodiac signs

We recognized this bugler at Central Park zoo

It probably says a lot about me when I tell you that Central Park was my favourite place in New York. I’m not a big city person. The park is a welcome burst of nature, a wonderful contrast to concrete and glass canyons. There were lots of people there but it was easy enough to find space. Central Park has placid lakes, grassy knolls, rock-strewn hillsides – and Central Park zoo. That, of course, always reminds me of Madagascar the Movie. We found John Lennon’s memorial with its reference to Strawberry Fields.

We walked back down 5th Avenue and took pictures of sky scrapers reflected in sky scrapers, and found out that Batman’s Gotham City really was New York. The fashion district in this classy end of town had fewer examples of scaffolding, and generally fewer people.

We passed by the Empire State building, where the queue for the ride to the top went around the block. We’d been told the Rockefeller Centre was easier to get into – but the queue for that snaked around the block, too. Whatever. I’d seen the view in Sleepless in Seattle. Here’s a picture somebody else took.

Manhattan from above – not taken by me

Reflections in glass

A couple of tourists gawking at the sights

Gotham is real!

A sky scraper reflectd in a sky scrper

I’ll bet it’s hideously expensive.

From there, we wandered back to 8th Avenue and looked over the restaurants. They have spruikers outside to entice people to come on in, just like Lygon Street in Melbourne – though I suspect they did it in New York first. We stopped to chat to a young lady outside an Italian place and said we’d come back later, which we did. Gotta be honest, it was a long way from the best Italian we ever had, but at least we could say we tried a New York restaurant.

New York, New York

Manhattan under the clouds

I’d never been to the USA. Peter had, several times during his working years, once not too long after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the parks in Utah… But we wouldn’t have time for any of that. This was going to be a ‘taste of America’ – three cities for a few days each. What the hey. It was all new to me.

Wheeling my brand sparkly new bright red suitcase, we went into Copenhagen airport to board our Lufthansa fight to New York via Frankfurt. It all started in the increasingly common way. I was stopped by security who wanted to check my carry-on luggage. I had to open the bag for the man. I’m not sure if it was a random check or whether they really did get their knickers in a twist over the little metal container filled with mints. Must have done. The man took the mints out and re-scanned the bag. I’ve become inured over the years, though I still can’t help a sigh. Flying used to be fun but all that security has taken the gloss off.

The flight was generally uneventful, although one passenger was a pain in the butt from Frankfurt to New York. The cabin crew were up and down to his seat every few minutes and he had his entertainment system on so loud I think everybody could hear the dialogue for the movie he was watching. And, of course, he was first out of his seat, talking loudly on his phone as soon as we arrived at the gate at Newark.

We collected our luggage and joined the lines to pass through immigration. When it was my turn I marched up to the end of the long counter where the immigration officer sat and handed over my passport. Officer Wong (he had a name tag on his shirt) looked me over as if I smelled bad, looked at my passport, was probably disappointed my online visa was in order.

“How long you stayin’ in the US?”

I’d prepared for that. “We’re going home next Sunday.”

He looked down his nose at me. “Ah don’t care when you goin’ home. How long you stayin’?”

I admit to being slightly flummoxed. Well shit. Let’s see… three nights here, a few in Washington…

Pete must have noticed things were not going according to plan. He came up behind me. “I’m her husband,” he said, handing over his passport.

Officer Wong took a look at the page. “You’re married? You got different surnames.”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “She didn’t change her name. Makes it easier for the divorce.”

Officer Wong’s demeanour changed instantly, clearly a fellow-traveller in that respect. “Oh, yeah. Makes sense.”

A bit more banter between the boys and we were outta there.

We’d arranged a shuttle service for the trip to New York City before we left home. All we had to do was find where we were supposed to go. It took us a while. Signage in Newark seems to be aimed at American people who fly a lot. But we got there in the end, joining half a dozen other people in a small van. How do I describe the traffic? Sydney on steroids? Or maybe St Petersburg on steroids. Our driver cut and weaved and dodged between lanes, pushing into lines of traffic to take the tunnel to Manhattan, all the while messing about with a tablet on her knee. Eventually she pulled up around the corner from our hotel in Hell’s Kitchen and fetched our luggage. I stumbled out, glad to have made it alive. I expect she does it all the time – but I don’t.

Pete took out his wallet to tip her – and couldn’t find his passport. The driver waited while he checked the vehicle, his pockets, his carry-on… I was starting to wonder where the nearest Australian consulate was and the driver was glancing at her cab and its load of passengers. She wanted – needed – to leave.

Pete gave her the tip and she headed off. Then he went back through everything we’d done since meeting Mr Wong. And at last, Bingo! We’d had to produce passports at a desk somewhere, to do with the taxi service, and he’d put his passport somewhere unusual. It was there.

Heaving a huge sigh of relief, we checked into our hotel. We were on the 23rd floor or thereabouts with a view of the river, not a large room – we didn’t expect it would be – but with everything we’d need. The hotel was a few blocks from Times Square, so in a good location.

The view from our room

That afternoon we went for a walk getting a feel for the lie of the land. The things I particularly noticed were the rubbish bins lined up along the kerbs, the food vans at just about every corner, the external fire escape stairs, the apparently abandoned scaffolding where building projects had been started. Remember, this was 2011, only a couple of years after the global financial crisis. And I learned that Times Square is an intersection.

We went to the post office to post a parcel and managed to mightily offend another customer because we didn’t understand the protocol involved before you could approach anybody at one of the counters.

Roads like canyons, with the Empire State in the distance

Food vans at every corner. They were left there overnight. We wondered how fresh and safe the food would be.

Eventually we ended up in an Irish pub – Molloy’s, on 9th Avenue – where we rested out sore feet and downed a drink or two while chatting to the Irish barman. On the way back to the hotel we felt in need of some food. Nothing substantial, just something to soak up the alcohol. We passed a few uninspiring convenience stores, then came across a sign advertising chicken sandwiches.

Perfect!

Except the Australian idea of a sandwich doesn’t line up with the American one. We were expecting a couple of slices of bread containing slices of chicken and some salad – lettuce, tomato, cucumber. What we got was a bread roll about 20cm (~9″) long, stuffed with shredded chicken mixed with something like barbecue sauce. A shred of lettuce and half a slice of tomato appeared on the plate as garnish. We’d bought one each, but one between us would have been more than enough. We left more than half of it, but we ate the garnish.

We were about ready for bed. Tomorrow we’d go and do some more exploring.

 

The end of the Baltic cruise

Under the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden. Note the wind turbines.

Nynashamn/Stockholm was the Norwegian Sun’s last port of call before we headed back to Copenhagen. After such a lovely sunny start, the weather had come over all horrid and the swimming pool and sun deck were deserted.

I suppose this is a good place to talk about the ship.

We were sold a package in Australia which included the sea component, meals in the main restaurant and the buffet, onboard entertainment, and all tips and gratuities. Land-based tours, booze, meals in the specialty restaurants – and internet access – were extra. The charges for internet packages bordered on extortion so we did without, and the only ship-based tour we took was to the Vasa museum.

The crew was mainly from places like the Philippines and India, nice people often sending the money home to families. We did tip our favourite staff. I’ll bet they’re not paid much.

We’re not much into shows and the like, so we gave those a miss and we mainly ate in the main dining room, where the food was good. We tried the buffet once, but fighting your way to the food in competition with a couple of hundred other people is never my idea of fun. The tables were crowded too close together, too.

The ‘tips and gratuities’ thing only lasted as long as the first drink. A ten percent surcharge was added to everything and there was nothing the wait staff could do about it. Most of the passengers were Americans, to whom the tipping business is second nature. But it isn’t for Australians. Besides, the terms of our holiday stated tipping was included in our package. We weren’t the only (Aussie) couple to complain. We approached management and it was agreed that we would be refunded for tips paid when we got back to Copenhagen.

One thing that I found interesting was art sales. I gather the idea is that because the paintings are sold in international waters the sales don’t attract taxes. I read a great book which included just such a scenario after we got home. It’s well worth a read. Estelle Ryan: The Gauguin Connection. It’s the first of a series and it’s free.

All up, the cruise was fine if you like that sort of thing. I discovered I don’t. I’ll never go on a ship that size again. Too many people for me.

When we arrived in Copenhagen the crew had to manage getting us and our luggage off and set up the ship for the next load. Pete and I collected our confiscated Johnnie Walker black label and our refunded tips then joined the other two thousand three hundred and ninety-eight folks out in the drizzle to get a taxi to our accommodation in the city. I think we waited there, shuffling our bags along as the queue moved, for something like three hours. No, not happy Jan. Surely the cruise’s admin could have organised something better, if only a bus to the city centre.

We’d booked for two nights in a hotel close to the city centre so we’d at least have a day to look at Copenhagen before we left for New York early in the morning. I suppose we could have gone on an organised city tour but like most old European cities the historic parts are relatively small and easily walked. Besides, we had to go and buy a new suitcase. Mine, which had been around for a while, had suffered on the cruise and was in serious danger of falling apart en route to America. So we spent a lot of time in Copenhagen’s main shopping street, visiting every purveyor of suitcases. Denmark isn’t cheap. Even Macdonald’s is more expensive. We paid a LOT for that nice red suitcase.

The city’s main square – a popular meeting place. The shopping strip is behind the fountain.

A corkscrew tower and I assume a copper roof

They do boat cruises here, too

The bridge to the palace?

We had a good look around town, though we didn’t go to find Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid. We walked past Copenhagen’s famous amusement park, the Tivoli. We admired the royal palace and wondered if Our Mary would invite us in for tea with Fred. And we went down to the old wharfs which used to be bars and chandlers and warehouses and are now bars and restaurants and tourist shops. My main memories are of brightly-painted houses and severe Victorian edifices and statues.

The line of colourful shopfronts along the wharf

It was as cold as it looks down there

One of the many bars along the waterfront

We needed that Irish coffee

Inside. It’s probably been like that for ages

A local steamer

When we left, some cleaner would score a slightly battered suitcase and half a bottle of Johnnie Walker black label. We were off to New York City.

 

A slice of 17th century maritime history

Heading off for shore leave

The Norwegian Sun’s next port of call was Nynashamn in Sweden. It’s the ferry port for Stockholm, which is about 55km away. The ship sailed in between islands and anchored offshore. From there we were ferried across to the port in the lifeboats. It’s quite an operation when a couple of thousand or so people have to be moved. This was one time when we went along with everyone else. After the boat trip we boarded buses according to our destination in the city. For us it was a no-brainer. We went for the quick city tour and then a visit to the Vasa Museum.

Lifeboats to Nynahamn

The bus drove on a motorway through wonderful scenery but while we had greatweather in Tallinn and St Petersburg, by the time we reached Helsinki the clouds were gathering and now it was cold and drizzly. As we drove our guide told us a little about Swedish history. For instance, did you know the present royal family is descended from one of Napoleon’s marshals, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte? He was invited to become king in 1818 at a time of upheaval in Sweden, which had just lost control of Finland. Sweden had been a great power in Northern Europe during the 17th century but had lost most of its external possessions by the early 18th century.

I mentioned last time the rivalry between Sweden and Finland in ice hockey. The relationship between the countries in this part of the world are a bit like England and Australia in cricket, or New Zealand and Australia in rugby – friends but competitive.

The visit to the Vasa Museum was a bucket list item for me. The Vasa was a warship built by Dutch craftsmen, who were recognized as the best in the world at ship construction. Vasa is a contemporary of the famous Dutch ship Batavia and the similarity is obvious, although Vasa was always supposed to be warship, not a merchantman. In fact, Vasa’s demise preceded that of the Batavia. Vasa sank in 1628 on her first and only voyage just outside the port, rather like the Mary Rose in England. At least Batavia made it to the other side of the world before she hit a reef in the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Australia in 1629. (I wrote a book about that – click here to learn more).

A model of the vessel

Her richly decorated stern

Like the Mary Rose, Vasa sank because people in power who knew nothing about ship construction poked their noses in. Like so many of the nobles of the time, ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ was a driving force and the powerful king of Sweden was right there with the rest. Like all merchant ships of the time, Batavia carried guns for protection. She was configured with a gun deck, an oorlop deck, and the hold, and carried 32 guns. But the king of Sweden wanted TWO gun decks, so he got two gun decks. The thing is, this style of ship wasn’t designed to have all that weight on the top decks. As soon as Vasa encountered a breeze stronger than a zephyr, she keeled over. The canons broke their restraints and slid over to one side, and water came in the open gun ports. She foundered just outside a major shipping lane and lay there in the mud complete with the remains of at least fifteen people who went to the bottom with her, passing out of history (a bit like the One Ring) until 1950.

Crowds admire the real ship’s bow

Her remains were rediscovered in 1950. The task of lifting Vasa‘s timbers, preserving the material, and reconstructing her started in 1961. In 1990 she was moved to the present museum, along with fascinating exhibits showing how the original vessel was constructed. Willem Vos, who built the replica of the Batavia, worked here for a time learning the skills of ship-building in the 17th century. Many of the skills had been lost because they were passed from master to apprentice, often father to son, and never written down.

A model of a shipyard showing how vessels were built

The intricate rigging on the reconstructed ship

Historians have also delved into the history of the people who went down with the ship, providing information about their jobs on board and how they lived. Needless to say, the captain and the officers weren’t among the dead. Sorry, photography was difficult.

If you’re ever in Stockholm, take the time to visit the Vasa Museum. It’s a fascinating slice of 17th century history.