Welcome to December

Here it is December already. Who’d a thunk? Actually, one giveaway is the faux snow in windows, a fat guy with a red coat on having his picture taken with kiddies, and endless repeats of Bing’s dreaming of a white Christmas. Good luck with that in Queensland, old man. Then again, in places the country is covered in white – but that’s ash from bushfires.

We live near that large island at the bottom of the photo. Taken by the Himawari 8 Japanese weather satellite

This has been a freakish week or two weatherwise. A thick blanket of snow (yes, real snow) fell in the Australian Alps. Sydney received 120mm (a little less than six inches) of rain in a day, causing flooding. Up North in drought-ravaged Queensland bushfires are burning out of control. Something like one hundred and forty fires, fuelled by the tinder-dry bush and urged along by strong winds. The fires are very similar to those which ravaged California last month. The BIG difference is that the area under threat in Australia is sparsely populated, so while vast swathes are burnt/burning, fewer properties are affected.

Hats off to the magnificent people who fight these monster fires. So far, only one man has died – killed by a falling tree in a back-burning operation. But thousands have been evacuated and a handful of homes have been destroyed. The fires are rated as ‘catastrophic’ – which means they can’t be controlled. Weather conditions have worsened today, with hot, dry winds fanning the flames. And there has been looting. Low-life scum.

There’s no sign of rain in our region any time soon – although a cyclone is forming off the Solomon Islands, predicted to head our way in the coming days.  That’ll be out of the frying pan into the washing machine, and the risk all the top soil will be washed away. According to the current predictions (always a dicey business with tropical cylones) it won’t hit the coast until later in the week.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Have a good weekend – or what’s left of it.

It’s Black Friday in America

It might be Saturday morning here in Australia but over in the USA it’s Black Friday, which is the American equivalent of our Boxing Day sales. The Americans don’t ‘do’ Boxing Day. It’s a very English thing which we have inherited. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. Even more so than Halloween, Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American festival, probably (from an observer’s point of view) more about family, friends, giving thanks and sharing than Christmas in that country.

I’m glad to say that while the retail stores are doing their best to foist Halloween on Australia, they haven’t tried that with Thanksgiving. After all, Thanksgiving is really a harvest festival, thanking whichever god you believe in for the fruits of the season before the cold winds of Winter arrive in earnest. In Australia that would be downright silly in late November. It’s very nearly Summer and the swimming pools are up and running. Who wants pumpkin pie and roast turkey? More to the point, who wants to cook it?

However, the fact we don’t have Thanksgiving hasn’t deterred the retailers. They will give us Black Friday whether we want it or not. It’s called Black Friday because retailers offer (apparent) bargains and they end up making vast profits – hence being in the ‘black’ not the ‘red’. So far, we haven’t seen the unseemly stampede of shoppers charging the doors that we see in the Boxing Day sales and, indeed, the Black Friday sales in the US. But time might tell. Certainly we’re being offered AMAZING BLACK FRIDAY DEALS – even those of us who have no idea (since it’s not the 13th) what Black Friday is. In fact, say ‘black’ and a day of the week and many Aussies conjure up visions of bushfires.

Why Australian retailers should respect the past and rename their ‘Black Friday’ sales

And now I’ll meander into personal philosophy. The older I get, the more I believe globalisation sucks. All our so-called festivals are turned by the retail industry into sales opportunities. When I was a kid we’d never heard of Halloween. Later, I came across it in books and TV – but it was American. Same with Thanksgiving. Yes, we celebrate Christmas but we inherited that from our European forebears. So much of it is still about the mid-Winter feast to celebrate the return of the sun and believe me, that’s not an issue at mid-Summer in Australia. Some people do Christmas in July, which makes much more sense.

The retail industry is sucking away regional diversity. Macdonalds, Starbucks, Dominos pizza (they’re even opening stores in Italy!), KFC, Burger King/Hungry Jacks, Subway. That’s just the fast food shops. You’ll find the same fashion chains and supermarket chains in Hong Kong, London, Frankfurt, Berlin – everywhere in the world. Globalism means you can buy bananas in London in mid-Winter and frozen berries from Chile or China all year round in Australia. And although the label on the packet might say the fish is Australian, look closer and you’ll see it’s Australian caught, but processed in China or Thailand and sent back to Oz. Yes, OF COURSE it’s the same fish that went into the factory. And don’t get me started on over-packaging.

I’ll bet a few of you are wondering what ‘Thanksgiving’ is all about. I certainly did. And you know, it’s a bit like Australia Day, where there’s a difference of opinion according to who you ask. Certainly, 26th January is the anniversary of the first official white settlement of Australia at what’s now Sydney. But some aboriginal Australians call it ‘invasion day’ for obvious reasons. There’s a similar dichotomy over Thanksgiving. My American friend and fellow-blogger, Laurie Green, wrote a post about what Thanksgiving means for her. It’s a lovely family gathering and all about being grateful for what they have. On the other hand, this article, written by a native American, tells a very different story. I make no judgement here. The world was a very different place in the 1620’s or, indeed, the 1780’s and there is a tendency to whitewash the past.

But in the end, none of it matters, does it? As long as the cash registers jingle cheerfully.

 

Just another lazy Sunday

The thing about being retired is which day of the week it is doesn’t matter much. In fact, you know those questions they ask old folks to see if they still have mental capacity? One of them is ‘what day of the week is it’? Just as well I have a computer because otherwise, quite often I wouldn’t know. The state of the shops and car parks is a bit of a give-away. Even with every-day trading, at around 1pm on Saturday afternoon, Hervey Bay shuts down. The roads empty – although there are still plenty of people in Bunnings or the Mall.

Sunday’s a bit the same.

Oh – and Wednesday is bin night, so we have to remember that one to put the bins out for collection. Still, if we forget we’ll know Thursday morning when we see the rows of bins outside everyone else’s house.

Butcher bird doing exercises

The animal life doesn’t give a damn what day of the week it is. This morning a butcher bird came to tell me he was waiting for breakfast. We give him small pieces of bacon rind. He eats the first piece, waits with the second piece in his beak, then I throw a handful out. He (and a couple of others) eat their fill then take the rest back to the nest.

Then the resident lorikeet couple  came to the veranda. The male comes up and virtually knocks on the door. “Where’s ours, missus?”

If it happens to be bath morning we get a hootin’ hollerin’ bunch of bathers in the bird bath. It’s very popular with everybody except the miner birds who still prefer the Big Blue swimming pool and the adrenalin rush of bathing in danger.

You might recall I mentioned a couple of weeks ago our mango trees were covered in fruit? Not anymore. Most of it has fallen off. Even so, there’s something out there that likes unripe, hard mangoes. The windfalls have been chewed by rats or possums, maybe both.

After another very dry month, a large storm system swept past last evening, slapping the Bay area with a sideswipe as it headed out to sea. After a bit of sound and fury it dropped 9mm of rain on our grateful garden. We’d like some more, of course. What else is new? But then, in Australia it’s boom or bust. In a month’s time we might be begging for some dry spells.

One hundred years

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…

One hundred years ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent along the Western Front. It was an armistice. The peace treaties were not signed until 1919 but the fighting had ended. Exhausted Europe heaved a sigh of relief.

It was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, the last of the old style of warfare where armies dug in and faced each other over disputed ground. So many deaths, so many injuries. From an Australian point of view, ‘from a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 62,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.’ [1] Drive to any country town in Australia and you’ll find a war memorial that lists the names of those who went to war and died. Listed under the 1914-18 war you’ll find so many with the same surname – brothers, cousins – from the same family. They were all volunteers, making the long journey to Turkey, and then Europe, to fight for Mother Emgland.

If Gallipoli was bad, the mud and slush and gas of Flanders was much worse, if that’s possible.  What’s more, the Australian Government expected families to bear the cost of bringing the bodies home, so Belgian, French, and Turkish cemeteries are the final resting places of Australian lads who’d joined up for an adventure. But they’re not all in the manicured graveyards. They’re still finding bodies in the fields of France.

The countryside itself was devastated by years of shelling. Parts of France are still listed as -no go zones’ all these years later. The story of the ‘red zones’ makes fascinating reading.

It’s hard to get one’s head around the fact that not twenty years after the peace treaties were signed, it was on again with a new generation of young men and women pitted against each other.

Lest we forget?

All too easily, I fear.

And it seems the President of the United States who went to Europe to remember the fallen on this one hundredth anniversary, did not attend the ceremony because of the rain. Unbelievable.

Do we ever learn from history?

It’s Spring racing carnival in Melbourne and the Melbourne Cup will be run next Tuesday. In celebration, this week I was going to write a little article about the wonderful mares who have graced Australia’s racetracks – Makybe Diva, the only horse to win three Melbourne Cups, Black Caviar who won twenty-five races on the trot (or maybe gallop) only to be surpassed by the incomparable Winx, who is the only horse to win four Cox Plates among her twenty-nine straight wins. And I couldn’t leave out the wonderful little mare Light Fingers, who won the first Melbourne Cup for the legendary Bart Cummings – and came a gallant second in the following year. Her jockey, the late Roy (professor) Higgins, loved his little girl. As Cummings’s chief stable jockey he could have ridden the favourite, Galilee, to victory, but he stuck with his little mare and brought her in a gallant, wonderful second.

Sigh.

But then a middle-aged white guy toting an AR-15 automatic rifle and three glocks stormed into a synagogue in Pittsburg during the Saturday service and gunned down eleven elderly  worshippers. The youngest was 54, the oldest 97.

It is hard to conceive of a more cowardly, gutless, despicable act. He was targeting Jews, shouting ‘All Jews must die’ as he sprayed bullets.  Anti-semitism is alive and well in America. And never really went away anywhere else. I despair. Go and visit Auschwitz, as we did last year. Here’s my article on that. Or think about young Germans leaping around on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as though it was a theme park. Or actually look at the little plaques set into the pavement in German (and Dutch) towns, recognising the lives of people who did nothing more than be a little bit different.

The holocaust memorial in Berlin – youths ‘jumping on dead Jews’

The names of Jews outside the homes where they lived before they were taken away to be murdered.

And there are people who try to say the Holocaust never happened. Chief among them is the president of Iran, who of course opposes anything to do with Israel. But David Irving is British and he’s well-known for his views.

I’ve just read that Robert Bowers, the man who pulled the trigger at the synagogue, has been charged with eleven murders and a host of other offences. He has pleaded not guilty. Here’s the story. If that man gets off on some technicality I will have lost all hope for the US legal system.

Needless to say, US politicians will tell the world that the victims are in ‘their thoughts and prayers’. And nothing will change. Disaffected white men will still be able to purchase AR-15’s as substitute dicks and kill people who are no threat to anybody. It makes me sick.

And to answer my own rhetorical question – you can’t learn from history if you don’t bother to learn any.

And here are a few photos taken with my new Nikon P1000.

 

 

A royal visit and a warning

Fraser Island’s rain forest

It’s all been happening here in Hervey Bay. We started the week with a Royal Visit and ended with something completely different… but I’ll get to that.

Harry and Megs arrived at our little airport and it’s wasn’t until then that we learned they were going over to Fraser Island (largest sand island in the world) in different ways. We’d speculated helicopter, but no. Pete, watching the live coverage on the telly, immediately said the car the drone was following was going into town, not to River Heads where the barge leaves for Fraser. Turned out Meghan very wisely decided to skip the bumpy 4WD sand tracks from the barge and go direct to Kingfisher resort in one of our whale boats. Much more comfy for a pregnant lady.

Harry went on the barge and got to see the amazing thousand-year-old satinay trees in the rainforest, and the pristine waters of Lake Mackenzie. Megs missed out.

Of course some of the locals turned out for a glimpse, gathering at the marina. I wouldn’t have said ‘thousands’ but (of course) the media did. After all, the whale season’s all but finished. Gotta look at something.

Personally, I’m very happy for them. They both seem to be nice people and they obviously like each other, which is good. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs for anything, really. Always under a microscope, always being analysed.

Our bathroom refurbishments were finally finished last week, almost in time for a visit from friends Sandy and Col, and just like last year, just about this time, the four of us had dinner at The Vinyard. You know how it is with restaurants, the moment you extoll the virtues of a place, it changes hands, or the cook resigns, or they decide to change to Hard Rock Café or something. So there was a certain amount of trepidation. Totally unnecessary, as it turned out.

The meal was delicious.

Three of us had grilled Moreton Bay bugs with a salsa and shoe string fries. We were served two whole bugs each with three dipping sauces and as you can see in the photo a heapin’ helpin’ of fries and a whole bowl of yummy salsa. Pete had a beautifully cooked steak with roasted root vegetables and rocket. Since we’d been before we knew the meals were huge so we hadn’t ordered entrees. Just as well. All of us were full up to pussy’s bow. The restaurant isn’t cheap, but since we all only had a main course, plus one bottle of wine and two beers, it wasn’t a hugely expensive evening at all.

Next time you have a spare evening in Hervey Bay, give it a go.

The week ended with Pete receiving an extortion email. I’ve quoted it in full here.

I’ll confess that I laughed. I suppose these people will come across a viewer of porno, or a paedophile silly enough to fall for this stuff, but I didn’t take it terribly seriously. After a moment’s thought I didn’t think it wise to ignore it completely. Yes, they quoted a real password. That might have been a problem. They also said they’d installed malware on Pete’s machine. We checked using Windows Defender, and then again with a more robust product. No threats were found.

We also checked on Acorn, the Federal Police site for reporting cyber crime. They already knew about it.

Here’s their response.

“Australian police are aware of an email scam where users are requested to pay bitcoin to prevent the release of embarrassing footage. The scammers attempt to establish credibility by including one of the user’s actual passwords, sourced from previous data leaks published on the internet. The threats are not credible and no footage exists. The emails should be disregarded.”

So there you are. There are bastards out there, without a doubt. If you’re not using a password generator it might be worth looking at something like LastPass, which I use. It won’t stop leaks such as our mate used to get a live password, but at least it’ll make it much harder for a real hacker to come up with the goods. Have a look – LastPass.

And to finish, here’s a lorikeet. Or five.

The Last of the Whales

Whale off Fraser Island

Whale season is drawing to its inevitable close. Since late July the Bay has been jumping with acrobatic humpbacks, a curious Right Whale and her calf, who hung around for a couple of weeks and even did some breaching, and a few Minki whales. As many as twenty-four thousand whales do the annual migration up the East Coast of Australia and it’s estimated a third of them drop into Hervey Bay on the way down south.

But now it’s only the stragglers left. Mums in a hurry to fatten up bubs before going down to the ice, the cold – and the krill – in Antarctica. Sandy and I left the boys at home to potter and took a whale boat for what will be almost the last whale watch trip this season. There weren’t a lot of whales left and mums and bubs are hard to spot. They’re spending most of their time on the bottom, feeding the calf. Whales aren’t built for suckling. The mother expresses her milk from her body, where, being forty percent fat, it floats in the water. The calf scoops up copious quantities – anywhere from fifty to five hundred litres a day, loading itself up with blubber to insulate it against the colder temperatures down south. It triples its body weight – about one tonne to three tonnes – in its first year of life.

Mother and calf

If the boats are lucky, they’ll come across a lively calf living it up around mum. They’ve got lots of energy and can entertain for long periods as they practise whaley stuff like breaching, tail-slapping, pectoral waves and the like. We saw three pods, most of them passive. We saw some vigorous activity (lots of splashing) a fair way away and the skipper headed over there. But, as so often happens, by the time we arrived it was all over and mum was a floating, breathing log, with her baby close to her side. We did get a burst of activity late in the day, with a calf doing laps and throwing itself around but they didn’t come near the boat so the pictures were more like long distance splashing. Still and all, it’s wild creatures doing what wild creatures do, so everything is a privilege.The camera ran out of power and, after tossing up whether it was worth it, I went down to the cabin to find my spare battery. When I got back Sandy, who was wearing polaroid sunglasses, pointed at a spot nearby. “It’s right there.” I pointed the camera – and blow me down, the little bugger popped headfirst up out of the water. It was the shot of the day. Of the one hundred  and fifty or so pictures I took, I’ve kept three or four. Maybe if I’d never seen a whale before, I would have kept more but I’m an old hand at this whale watching caper.

Still, it was a lovely day out on the water, not too hot and not at all rough, although the wind picked up in the late afternoon. And since we were on Freedom III, the food was marvellous.

Here’s a few photos I took in earlier seasons.

This baby humpback holds itself above the surface to look at the boat

Mum is lying on her back, pectorals extended. The calf is crossing her body

 

A mother humpback whale and her calf approach the boat in Platypus Bay

A whale calf rolls over in the warm waters of Platypus Bay off Fraser Island

The rains have arrived

Mangoes everywhere. That’s a small part of one tree

This one wasn’t too bad – sound and fury and 15mm of rain

The drought in Queensland appears to have broken – in our part of the world, anyway. A series of storms have swept in from inland Australia, the warm air mingling with a blast of cooler air coming up from the South, a perfect combination for storms. We were lucky. There was lots of thunder and lightning but no gale force winds, no hail, and no torrential rain.

Which brings me to another observation: Our two fairly large mango trees are covered in fruit, despite near drought conditions all through Winter and into Spring. You know what? I think trees are smarter than us when it comes to weather. The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting a dry Summer (because of El Nino). I reckon the mango trees are predicting good summer rains.

We shall see.

On the photography front, one of the big hassles of being a photographer on holiday is having to cart around lenses and the like. I did it for a few years, but changing lenses is cumbersome and frankly rarely happened. As I get older, I’m finding it harder and harder to cart around tripods, heavy lenses and so on. That’s okay for younger, fitter wildlife photographer types but I’ve slowed down of late. I don’t even get down to the beach much.

So… I’ve rationalized the camera situation and down-sized a bit.

I still have a Canon 70D and two smaller, lighter lenses – but I’ve sold a few items and bought a Nikon (shock-horror) Coolpix P1000. The camera is in the ‘compact’ range but it’s actually a hefty piece of kit rivalling the weight of a Canon 5D. Its claim to fame is an incredible zoom lens which will cover 24-3000mm. No, that’s not a typo. Three thousand. It means I can take the device on holidays and be able to take a landscape, then zoom in on a bird. Perfect for my needs. No, it’s not a ‘professional’ level lens and it has some short comings, but it’ll do for a hack like me.

I’ve started playing around, I have a lot to learn, but here are a few photos.

The Pets are back in space

This week I’d like to offer something completely different! You all know I write books, don’t you? I didn’t write this one. But the authors are supporting a great cause and the least I can do is urge you to rush off and preorder the latest Pets in Space (it’s out next week).

You’ll find an anthology of terrific SF romance stories starring animal critters.

Pets In Space 3: Embrace The Passion

Release date: October 9, 2018 (On Pre-Order until then)

Anthology Blurb:

Pets in Space™ is back! Join us as we unveil eleven original, never-before-published action-filled romances that will heat your blood and warm your heart! New York Times, USA Today and Award-winning authors S.E. Smith, Anna Hackett, Ruby Lionsdrake, Veronica Scott, Pauline Baird Jones, Carol Van Natta, Tiffany Roberts, Alexis Glynn Latner, E D Walker, JC Hay, and Kyndra Hatch combine their love for Science Fiction Romance and pets to bring readers sexy, action-packed romances while helping our favorite charity. Proud supporters of Hero-Dogs.org, Pets in Space™ authors have donated over $4,400 in the past two years to help place specially trained dogs with veterans. Open your hearts and grab your limited release copy of Embrace the Passion: Pets in Space™ 3 today!

Overview of Stories

S.E. Smith: HEART OF THE CAT: Sarafin Warriors Series

Can love bridge the gap between a wounded alien warrior and the reclusive human woman who holds the future of his species inside her?

Anna Hackett: DESERT HUNTER: Galactic Gladiators Series

Among the desert sands of an alien world, a man with secrets to hide finds himself face to face with the one woman who can bring him to his knees.

Ruby Lionsdrake: QUASHI: Mandrake Company Series

Alien fur balls, a handsome doctor, and a little white lie create havoc for a young woman who only wanted a job.

Veronica Scott: STAR CRUISE: MYSTERY DANCER: The Sectors SF Romance Series

A long-lost princess and her three-eyed cat seek refuge on the Nebula Zephyr only to catch the attention of an inquisitive Security Officer.

Pauline Baird Jones: OPERATION ARK: Project Enterprise Series

A not quite routine mission to return rescued prisoners to their home worlds turns deadly for unlikely allies, a USMC Sergeant and a raised-by-robots pirate. Is the Sergeant’s unusual pet the wild card that will save or doom them?

Carol Van Natta: CATS OF WAR: A Central Galactic Concordance Novella

A disgraced military Sub-Captain, a repair technician with secrets, and two special cats must save the day when trouble erupts at an important factory.

Tiffany Roberts: HUNTER OF THE TIDE: The Kraken #3

Nearly broke by betrayal, a human discovers solace—and a chance for love—among the creatures he once hunted, but he must overcome prejudice and inhibition to claim the female he desires.

Alexis Glynn Latner: STARWAY

A lonely interstellar pilot and a passenger’s mistreated consort find each other in an interstellar hotel that offers everything to satisfy its guests’ desires—even desires they didn’t know they had.

E D Walker: THE BAJO CATS OF ANTEROS XII

Two ex-lovers, stranded in space, have to save a pair of kittens with hazardous powers before the local drug cartel catches up to them.

JC Hay: SHADOW OF THE PAST

On a world of perpetual night, an aging ranger and a widowed veterinarian need to put aside their past to protect a pack of wolves… and their future.

Kyndra Hatch: AFTER THE FALL

The Invaders took everything worth living for. Could an Invader show him how to live again?

BUY YOUR COPY AT:

Amazon Amazon UK  Amazon CA Amazon AU

iBooks B&N  Kobo Google Play

Keep in touch with other readers at Goodreads

 

Stories from the bus

Scooters

The holiday travels are over for now but I can share with you some of the stories our tour director, Sergio, told us while we were travelling from one place to another on the bus. He’s in his mid-forties, rather overweight and with one of those mobile faces that can get a whole paragraph across without saying a word. And yes, of course he used his hands. He’s Italian.

Sergio comes from the heel part of Italy, I gathered from a working-class family, but these days, he lives in Milan. He has a degree in architecture and was employed for a time in a design office. But he explained that in Italy, most of the work revolves around designing the interiors of heritage-listed buildings. Just about all of the buildings are heritage listed. Sergio was more interested in the bigger picture. He told us privately he’d love to visit Canberra. After we stopped guffawing he said it was because it was a city designed before the people moved in. And I could see his point. Canberra is beautifully laid out, with its wide boulevards and public areas. And, of course, a parliament house built into a hill.

Anyway, that’s something of an aside. Sergio is one of the best stand-up comedians I’ve ever seen, with terrific delivery, all accompanied by amazing body language. Please read these little stories with an Italian accent and wave your hands around to get into the spirit.

Sergio felt he wasn’t getting anywhere, so he packed it all in and went off to London, I think to join his sister, who had gone there to work and met a man, married, and stayed. Sergio didn’t speak much English but he was willing to try just about anything, so he took a job with Costa Coffee, a chain of coffee shops often found in train stations and the like. Carlo, another Italian working there, taught Sergio all he needed to know when talking to customers – the types of coffee, size of cups, food on offer, and where to find the toilet.

Sergio’s doing all right, getting out the orders, when a man comes in. “I’ll have a large cappuccino, one of those blueberry muffins, and”, leans forward, “where’s the loo.”

WherestheLoo? Sergio panics. WherestheLoo? What the hell’s a wherestheLoo? He looks around, looking for Carlo, but he’s nowhere to be seen?

“Sorry, Senor, we don’t have any wherestheLoo”

Customer rolls his eyes. “No. Where. Is. The. Loo?”

Sergio’s still none the wiser. Loo? What the hell’s a loo?

Carlo hoves into view. “Carlo”. He beckons, breaks into Italian. “He wants to know where the LOO is? What do I say?”

Carlo pats him on the shoulder, apologises to the customer. “Sorry. He’s new. Over there, just around the corner.” To Sergio he says, “That’s what they call the toilet here.  Or they might say bathroom, gents, ladies, mens, womens, lav, washroom, WC…”

Sergio’s back on the bus with us and he laughs. “The best one I ever heard was an American lady who asked for ‘the powder room’.

London seems to have been quite the learning curve. When people came to the counter, they would often say, “How are you?”

Sergio thought about it. They’re asking how he is. That’s nice. He lines up his English sentence. “I had a sore throat this morning but I’m feeling better now, thank you.”

The customer blinks, then says, “I’ll have an espresso and a piece of raisin toast.”

Eventually, Sergio consulted with his friend, Carlo. “They don’t expect you to say anything but maybe ‘fine, thanks’. It’s not like in Italy,” he explained. “It’s just another way of saying hello.”

“Now in Italy,” Sergio said back in the bus, “You can go to a shop and if you’re third in the queue and the customer says, “How are you?” it starts a whole conversation.”

The lady serving says, “Well, I’ve got a nasty sore on my arm that won’t go away.” Shows her arm.

Customer says, “Oh that’s bad. Have you been to the doctor?”

Server says, “Yes, I went to see Dr G. He gave me some ointment, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.”

Another customer chimes in. “Dr G? Eh. He’s no good. You should see Dr T. She’s excellent. My grandma went to see her for her sore back. It’s all better now.”

And so it goes. In Italy don’t ask someone how they are – unless you’ve got plenty of time. Differences in culture, you see.

On another occasion he told us about his brush with HM tax collectors (Revenue and Customs). He’d been paying tax in the UK, of course. Or at least, Costa Coffee did, on his behalf. One day, Sergio received a letter. An official letter. Window face with a Government logo.

His heart beating a little faster, he opened it. The long and the short was there was a discrepancy in his tax, he was entitled to a refund, and he should go to the head office to have the matter attended to. Sergio was petrified. If you got a formal letter from the government back home in Italy, you were in deep doo-doo. But he hadn’t done anything wrong!

He phones his father back home in Italy. “Papa, I have to go talk to the tax people in London. But I haven’t done anything wrong!!!”

His father sighs. “Sergio, Sergio. You should have stayed in your nice job in the architect’s office. But no, you had to head off to foreign parts. Now you’ve fallen foul of the government. Oh Sergio! I’ll have to visit you in jail.”

Papa was a great help.

Eventually, Sergio plucks up some courage and presents himself at the office in London, where he eventually speaks to a po-faced clerk who asks how he can help.

Sergio hands over his letter. “I got this in the mail. But I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Unsmiling, the clerk reads the letter and looks up at Sergio. “It seems you’re entitled to a refund for overpaid tax.”

Overpaid? Refund? Refund?? Really? They were going to give him money? Back on the bus, Sergio turns to Roberto, the driver. “Do they pay you refunds in Italy, Roberto?”

Roberto laughs.

But Sergio got his refund, paid in cash.

He also gave us some demonstrations of Italian hand language. That’s too hard to describe, so I won’t try. Suffice to say he told us about a time when he was in one of those tedious, over-long meetings. His only Italian colleague was seated some distance away, but Sergio was able to communicate “this is boring, let’s leave for coffee” without saying a word.

Another time, back in London, he saw a man on the other side of the road attempting to take money out of an ATM with an obvious lack of success. Sergio crossed the road and said to him, in Italian, “You look like you’re having trouble. Can I help?”

The man’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you know I’m Italian?”

“You were trying to have a conversation with the ATM using your hands.”

Sergio was a great stand-up comedian. I think if he entered the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, or better still, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, he would be a certain hit. We did suggest it. But I think he has a good life taking tourists around Italy and France. He would have been totally wasted working in an architect’s office. It was a pleasure to meet him.

Tuscan countryside