The sights of Saigon

It’s amazing what you can pack onto a little motorbike

Because we’d elected to arrive a day early for our tour, we had a day to ourselves. The Park Hyatt is centrally-located, within a stroll of the major tourist stops on the map so, having fortified ourselves with a wonderful breakfast, we ventured forth.

I’ve already explained that walking in Saigon is fraught with danger. For a start there are few footpaths not covered with street vendors and parked motorbikes. Then you have to be ready to dodge the motorbikes who find the road too crowded and take a shortcut. Add to that a closed-off area being excavated for an underground rail system and one has no choice but to face the trial of Crossing the Road. We discovered that If we found a crossing with lights, we’d at least have a better chance of making it over the road unscathed. Also, you can join in with others and make a larger target.

A typical street scene. Note very low stools. It’s the kind of place most people use for lunch

Traffic is always noisy, but Vietnamese traffic is constantly underscored by the toot of horns, ranging from a blast from a bus to the polite chirps of motorbikes. While in Australia using a horn without good reason is illegal and usually means “get out of the f***ing way *sshole”, in Vietnam it’s normally just saying “hey, I’m here, coming through.” It’s important because of the absence of any regard for traffic lanes or right of way. If you don’t push in you’ll stay where you are. It’s all quite amicable. I only saw one incident where a bus pushed somebody off the road, no doubt for very good reason. And because the traffic isn’t moving fast, any accidents are minor.

Vietnamese houses tend to be tall and very narrow because the land is expensive. We were told later that multiple generations lived in the houses, one floor each. And often a business was conducted at street level. All the power poles were covered in wires – common in Asia. And street vendors were everywhere, doing a roaring trade. I have heard street food is safe as long as you see it cooked and while I know my inflexible creaking Western bones might have been able to sit on the little stools, I reckon I’d still be there trying to stand up.

Ladies in Vietnamese costume. It’s very common.

We noticed that many of the women kept themselves covered up. We saw lots of surgical masks, too, especially on motor bike riders. The city has a high level of pollution, so that was understandable. But the head to toe covering for women was apparently more about aesthetics. Very pale, ‘porcelain’ skin is highly prized in Vietnam so the women do what they can to protect their skin from the sun. For those working in the fields, that’s not possible, so smooth, pale skin is also a sign of class. There’s a roaring trade in skin whiteners, too. Just like in the West but the other way around. Fashion’s a bitch.

Vietnamese national dress for women was full length, loose trousers topped with a long sleeved, full length tunic, as at left. It’s elegant and beautiful – although it looks warm to me.

Needless to say, the shops around the Park Hyatt were the upmarket retailers, all air-conditioned and all filled with Christmas carols. It goes to show that living in a communist country doesn’t mean there aren’t any rich people. We saw a LOT of expensive cars on the road with badges like Mercedes and Audi, and lots of high-end Toyotas. It seems a Merc (say) would cost $US100,000. But the government taxes these vehicles at 200% so it’ll cost you $US300,000. That’s in a country where an average worker will earn around $US150 a month. I think it’s safe to assume some people are more equal than others. Certainly the Communist Party exercises the most control in the country.

Bookshops and shade

Harry Potter!

After dodging the traffic for a little further, Pete and I headed down a laneway which turned out to be devoted to bookshops and coffee – and NO motorbikes. It was surprisingly quiet after the crowded main road. Seems Harry Potter has been translated into Vietnamese. After a double latte in a cafe, we found that the road came out next to the main post office and opposite Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral, which is closed for renovations.

Notre Dame de Saigon

We visited the post office, of course. Call it ex-professional interest. Like most POs it has diversified into tourism, if not up-market hotels. Once again, it was colonial French architecture.

The post office

Heroes of the revolution outside the PO

Ho Chi Minh in front of what used to be the town hall

We walked past a park fronting what used to be the town hall, built in elaborate French style. It’s now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building, an official Vietnamese government site. The large golden statue of Uncle Ho was erected in the park and makes a subtle statement about the current political situation.

Very sixties architecture – for a reason. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30078153

We visited the Independence Palace, a site redolent with Vietnam’s post world war II history. There had been a palace on this site for many years, originally the Norodom Palace which was the home of the (French) governor of Vietnam from the 1870’s. It’s fascinating how, after being overrun at home by the Germans in WW2, European powers like France and the Netherlands thought they could just return to Asia with the Japanese now kicked out, and resume business as usual. The Vietnamese had had enough of colonial masters and the French were sent off to their shattered homeland in 1954. In 1955 Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam. It wasn’t an entirely popular move. Diem’s family was notoriously corrupt and they also tried to push Catholicism on a mainly Buddhist population. Here’s more about that story – and the iconic photo of the burning monk.

In 1962 a young pilot in the Vietnamese air force let the world know his feelings about the Diem regime by bombing the palace, severely damaging the building. Diem decided to build a new palace, which was completed in 1966 and was the site of several historically important meetings between the Americans and the Vietnamese. That’s the building we visited. It was also the place where a Liberation Army tank crashed through the gates to signal the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. In July, 1976 Vietnam was reunified under a communist regime and the Independence Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace.

After visiting the palace, we spent some time in a museum attached to the site. It contained audio-visual footage showing life in old Saigon and explaining some of the history.

The opera house

Although we didn’t visit the opera house, we walked past it on our way to a group dinner. The opera house is French colonial style, a remnant of the past. I don’t think the French did much for Vietnam other than use it for raw materials. It was going to be interesting to see a little more of the country’s own history later in the tour.

The group dinner was at Luc Nguyen’s “Vietnam House” restaurant. He’s just one of many successful Vietnamese refugees who made it to Australia. He’s best known in Australia for his “Red Lantern” and “Fat Noodle” restaurants in Sydney.

Yes, we did go to the central markets – but we went to markets everywhere, crowded alleys with stalls offering everything you can imagine and I’ll show you those later. This Saigon market was famous for knock-offs. Reebok, Nike, Samsung, Apple, Dior, Chanel – you name it. Some of it may well have been good stuff, too. After all, they make a lot of brand names in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the factories make a few extra and sell them on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn has arrived

Autumn in the botanic gardens in Christchurch, I haven of serenity in this beleaguered city

The world’s been a pretty awful place lately, what with drought, floods, and terrorism. But I’ve said enough about that stuff, so I thought I’d talk about the weather.

Here in Australia our weather woes are continuing. Two large cyclones are active in the northern parts of the continent – TC Veronica on the west coast and TC Trevor on the east coast. Veronica is set to hit Whim Creek, between Karratha and Port Hedland. Trevor has crossed Cape York into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and is going to make landfall in the Northern Territory. Both storms will wreak havoc – and bring much-needed rain to the interior. If we’re lucky, Trevor will start to move south-east and we might get something from its tail. We have had some rain here, enough to revitalise our garden, but we’d like a bit more.

Majestically ignoring the concerns of its inhabitants, the world has continued its dance around the sun. The equinox has passed, so now the days in Australia are becoming shorter. Autumn, or Fall as many call it, is my favourite time of the year. In cooler climates the trees put on a spectacular show. In warmer places like ours the temperatures are warm and calm. So here are some of my favourite Autumn photos taken over the years.

I’ll start with the botanic garden at Christchurch, a beautiful haven in that beleaguered  city.

I took this in Christchurch’s botanic garden when I visited the city last year

One of my favourite Autmn photos. Autumn finery reflected in the Rhine

Autumn in the Wachau Valley October 2015

Autumn colours and sunrise tints at Durnstein on the Danube

Autumn from the deck at our house in Greendale. The evergreen eucalyptus forest is behind our exotic deciduous trees

Silver birches preparing for the winter chill at Greendale

Golden light and calm seas are what Autumn’s all about

The sun’s just up and the rupples sparkle like silver paper

Calm seas, clear skies, bright ripples

The secret life of trees

When visitors arrive on Norfolk Island they’re picked up by a tour bus and taken for a half-day orientation tour, with the guide pointing out the main attractions. After a quick trip through the main township at Burnt Pine, featuring one roundabout and absolutely no traffic lights, we stop briefly at the lookout above Kingston, where the guide points out the wonderful Georgian buildings of Government House and Quality Row (that’s the name of the street). Over there across the golf course is Emily Bay, down there is the cemetery, that’s the old gaol and associated buildings. He drives around the foreshore from the pier, past the old gaol and out to the point where the lone pine stands sentinel. It’s an old tree. It appeared in drawings made for Captain Cook when he ‘discovered’ the island in 1774. We’re taken for a brief look into St Barnabas’s Chapel, the only remaining building from the Melanesian Mission. We admire the 360° view from Mt Pitt and we’re taken to “Orn Da Cliff” where Pine Tree tours holds its weekly island fish-fry with associated sunset scenes. We make a brief stop at Cascade Bay, where the old whaling station used to be. And all the time we’re seeing the beautiful green hills and valleys of Norfolk, where cows amble across the road or lie on the banks chewing their cud as the bus trundles by. For a quick overview of Norfolk, I’d recommend this account. It’s very well written with nice pictures :).

We took the tour. It’s always interesting to listen to different guides. This one wasn’t a local. He’d lived on Norfolk for forty years or so, but he was a Sydney boy who married a lady from the island. He knew his stuff, but on our previous visit we’d been driven around by guys born and bred here, proud sixth or seventh generation descendants of the Pitcairn mutineers with names like Christian or Quintal or Buffet, or the descendants of convicts. Those guys told us stories of growing up here. One told us as a teenager he climbed the kentia palm trees to pick nuts. On one such occasion the young fellow reached the top of the tree and came face to face with a rat, which also wanted kentia nuts. Well, when you’re up there in the canopy of a palm tree down is the only way to go. And that’s what the rat did – scrambling over the human on the way. Not long after that they put guards around the tree trunks to stop the rats from going up.

Any eggs from these ladies are definitely free range

Our Sydney tour guide had a different view of the feral chooks (domestic chickens), too. Like the cattle, chooks are everywhere on Norfolk – and they can fly. They’re being culled and he said we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The eggs were stale and the chooks inedible and the cull was absolutely necessary. Hmmm. Last year we were told the cull was happening without consulting the locals. Our driver, who was not impressed, pointed out the chooks ate insects and did no harm, and when we visited locals in the progressive dinner, we saw feral chooks in people’s yards, and yes, the people collected the eggs. I’ll bet we ate a few, too. Chicken is a major item on Norfolk menus. The other thing the chooks do is scratch through the cow droppings looking for tasty treats, all the while spreading all that lovely goodness so the grass can use it.

All the mammals on Norfolk are feral, by the way. Including the people. The more polite expression is ‘introduced’. Like New Zealand, Norfolk’s natives are birds and plants. Sugar cane, bananas, arrowroot, kumara, stone fruit, corn, tomatoes – all are introduced. So was the Moreton Bay fig tree.

During the orientation tour the bus is driven down New Farm Road between the one hundred acre reserve and a magnificent row of Moreton Bay figs. The buses don’t stop there so it was our first ‘go to’ attraction when we ventured forth on our own.

There’s something a little bit spooky as you head up the road under the trees. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s old forest, where Pippin and Merry are swallowed up by Old Man Willow, or the ents in Fangorn. I know this won’t mean much to you unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard like me. But old and spooky are easy enough to understand. These trees are two hundred or more years old, probably planted by the first white settlers on the island some time between 1788 and 1815.

Pete’s head is just visible behind the root. He’s standing

And they look it. The roots writhe across the ground. Human fences are no obstacle. Buttress roots supporting the trunks tower up to over a tall man’s head. They’re studded with algae and ferns hide in corners. It’s easy to imagine these grand old gentlefolk talking to each other in the slow speech of trees. To them animal life must be a blur of movement. Or maybe not. Perhaps they’re well aware of us.

The fence has not impeded the tree in the least

Certainly they’re not ‘nice’.

They tolerate no competition. Look closely and you’ll find trees surrounded by roots. A brave Norfolk Island pine that took root next to the figs is slowly being strangled, joining others which have already met that fate.

This is one of the creepiest sights you’ll see here. The great tree has reached out to take a grip on an intruder. It doesn’t stand a chance.

From under the trees you catch glimpses of the sun-drenched cultivated valley. It’s a whole different world out there. I wondered why the trees had been planted. They’re not much good for timber and you can’t eat the fruit. That’s a question to which I expect I’ll never get an answer.

Follow the twisting road down toward the coast and you’ll cross the Bloody Bridge. It’s another place where the tours don’t stop – at least not for long enough to get off the bus for pictures. Our current guide did tell us an abbreviated version of the story of the name. It seems the convicts working on the building didn’t like their overseer at all, so they killed him. The more interesting version is that to hide evidence of the deed, the men popped the body into the bridge and kept working. The overseer had disappeared and they didn’t know what happened. The next day the replacement overseer noticed bloody weeping from the mortar between the stones.

The bloody bridge

There’s plenty of room to hide a body. Maybe one of those dark patches is blood???

 

A Milan stopover

 

Hervey Bay from the air, showing Fraser Island across the great Sandy Strait, Moon Point, Platypus Bay etc

Pete and I, with our friends Sandy and Col, had been planning our great European adventure for some time. We’d booked a one-week wine and food cruise with Uniworld in France’s Aquitaine region, and a small group tour of Tuscany, also one week, with Collette. The two sets of dates weren’t contiguous, though, so we decided to base ourselves in La Spezia and visit the Cinque Terre, picturesque villages along the coast of Italy. Unlike our previous travels, this time we were going in August – Europe’s Summer, and the high season. It would be hot, but hey ho – we’re all Queenslanders. It would be fine. And we were all looking forward to it.

For Pete and me international flights usually mean an early morning start. We buy packages flying out of Brisbane and it’s rare that a flight from Hervey Bay to Brisbane makes a convenient connection, so we make the four-hour drive to the city and leave the car in the airport car park. After one of those nights when you doze, checking the time every hour or so, we gave up at about 3am and hit the road. Our Cathay flight to Hong Kong was scheduled to stop at Cairns for a couple of hours to pick up passengers so we flew straight up the coast. That’s always fun, picking out landmarks form the air. We spotted Fraser Island and the Mary River and waved to the neighbours as we crossed Hervey Bay. Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, the Reef, Townsville… and then we were descending into Cairns.

Part of the Great Barrier Reef

I expected most of the people boarding the aircraft would be Asian or Indian but that wasn’t the case. This hop from Hong Kong to Cairns must be very lucrative for Cathay, ferrying folks from everywhere to visit the Great Barrier Reef and the rain forest.

From Hong Kong we boarded a Finnair Airbus A350 for the flight to Helsinki. I watched Ready Player One, got a bit of sleep, then woke with sore legs. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I watched another movie (Hugo). Going through Immigration was pretty straightforward. We were on holiday in the EU and we would be leaving on 24th August. This is one advantage of the EU – you only have to go through immigration twice; once when you enter, again when you leave. And there’s only one currency, which is also convenient for us. I’m not too sure the Euro is fair on countries like Italy, but I’m on holiday so I’ll leave that thought.

The flight from Helsinki to Milan was almost on time, not that we cared much. There was a short delay while airport staff checked the runway for a bird the previous take off had apparently hit, and then we were off for the trip to Milan. Helsinki is about a spit away from the rest of Europe, across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, but we flew over water for quite some time, so I think the plane followed the Baltic for a fair way before turning left towards Italy. Visibility was poor. At the time I thought it was just a heat inversion, but that haze never cleared for the whole three weeks. Europe’s air pollution isn’t quite as bad as Asia’s but it’s getting there.

After flying across neat fields, little towns and mighty rivers we reached the Alps. Steep, rocky mountains, most completely bare of snow, are interspersed with narrow green valleys, winding rivers, and deep lakes.

The Alps from the air

Then we landed at Malpensa airport. We’d already been through immigration at Helsinki, so it was straight to the baggage hall and then, suitcases in tow, off to find the railway. (Whoever thought up the idea of putting wheels on suitcases deserves a medal) We soon discovered that signs are not a huge priority in Italy. After some faffing about we found the right platform to catch the Malpensa  Express. After a short detour to the wrong platform we towed our bags up the non-functional up escalator and joined the other bag-towing travellers at the platform marked as “Malpensa Express”. Then the lighted signs on all the four platforms malfunctioned, displaying gibberish, and a few minutes later a train arrived – at the platform behind us. Somebody must have twigged that this was, indeed, the train we were looking for, and we all scuttled over to clamber on board. BTW, that non-functioning escalator was still non-functioning when we left the country three weeks later.

When I think of ‘express’ I think of a fast commute into the central point. This was an ‘express’ from a certain point of view. The train got up to 126kph for a couple of kms, then stopped at a station. From there, it stopped every three minutes or so. And that is why the bus from the airport takes only a few minutes longer than the train. We arrived at Milano Centrale without any problems. Now we had to find the Milan Visitor Centre to obtain our Milan cards which gives 48 hrs of access to the Metro (the underground rail system) and discounts at museums and such.

Inside the station we stopped for a few moments to admire the architecture, a truly magnificent, airy building, then we began our search. In any other city the visitor centre is prominently marked. But this is Milan. We wandered around, dragging our suitcases, checking signs, looking for the universal i for information. There were ticket vending places, but unmanned. We asked at places where we thought people could speak English, looked up maps of the station. All the instructions were contradictory. Some said one floor up, some said outside, some said one floor down…

Eventually we found a tourist place (the address was on the doco Pete had received when we bought the Milano card). I went in with the app on my smart phone, the guy behind the counter glanced at it and pointed outside. “Out there.” I went outside and saw nothing. I told Pete who went back into the place with the doco in hand. While the clerk was telling him they hadn’t handled the Milano Card for six months I’d gone back outside and noticed a small glass house affair in a corner of the station’s veranda, about the size of four phone booths, marked Milano Visitor Centre. Yippee! We claimed our railway cards and mentioned that ‘this place is very hard to find’. The clerk nodded ruefully. Col and Sandy had done the same thing, wandering around the station like lost souls. After he’d picked his card up Col received a detailed video of how to find the visitor’s centre. Eye-roll.

The Milan Visitor’s Centre tucked away in a corner

We’d been wandering around the station for 45 minutes and were both in need of several scotches. But don’t worry. Things could only get worse.

Italians have something of a reputation for laid-back which is sometimes nice, sometimes not. We needed to catch a Metro train, which run underground. Even here at Milano Centrale there were many stairs, and only a few escalators. Several lifts didn’t work. So we were reduced to carrying our suitcases and cabin baggage up and down flights of stairs. I’d always enjoyed line-hopping in London, transferring from one line to another, but in Milan it’s much more confusing. It’s harder when you don’t speak the language and aren’t familiar with the stations, working out which way the lines went etc. But the signs are like something in Alice in Wonderland. You follow one sign pointing to M1 and blow me down, there’s another sign pointing at the place you just came from. We worked it out eventually and lugged our bags up the stairs at a suburban stop right next to our hotel. It was 1:30pm and of course the room wasn’t ready. Gosh, what a surprise. The hotel didn’t have a bar, but the clerk pointed us to a bar over the road, so we rang Col and Sandy, who had already arrived, and went off to inhale a well-earned drink, communicating our requirements to the wait staff by pointing and nodding. Unlike most of Europe, not many Italians speak English.

We’d stopped off in Milan to try to settle the body clock before our cruise, so we avoided an afternoon nap and despite the heat (38/100) went into the city. Milan is known for its fashion, not so much its art but the magnificent cathedral in the central square is well worth a look.

The cathedral, built over 500 years

Detail of some carvings

So is the Galleria, a shopping mall filled with expensive brand names – but also some lovely architecture.

At the end of the Galleria is a small park dominated by a statue of Leonardo and other lesser scientists.

By the time we returned to the hotel it was around 6pm and we were ready to eat and sleep, in that order. But in Italy restaurants open at 7:30 at the earliest and don’t close till late. We reconvened at Traffic Lights, the bar over the road (yes, the name is in English), then went looking for an open restaurant. We were turned away at a couple for being too early, but then one owner, standing outside having a smoke with his mate, had the nouse to realise he had four customers in front of his establishment. “Yes, we’re open,” he said.

So we went inside.

The waitress mopping the floor looked up at us in surprise. “We’re not open yet.”

We pointed at the door. “He said you were.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “If the boss says we’re open, we’re open.”

She was lovely, one of the few servers who spoke pretty good English. We ordered pizza, because – Italy – and a litre of the house white. The white wine has a tiny bit of fizz in it, not a sparkling wine but not completely still. We found it eminently quaffable. And the pizzas were delicious, thin, crispy pastry and not too much stuff on top. They were also huge, uncut, and hanging over the edges of the plate. We could easily have shared one per couple and that would have been too much. We took the uneaten portions back to the hotel. Col and Sandy had their leftovers for dinner the next night, but Pete and I went back to the same restaurant and shared one with a bowl of salad on the side.

The following day we went to a visiting exhibition of Leonard da Vinci’s machines. The Leonardo3 group has pored over Leonardo’s writings and designs and actually constructed the machines he designed, including man-powered flying machines, a submarine, and a mechanical lion. It was absolutely fascinating. Check it out here.

Later we caught a hop-on-hop-off vintage tram and visited a park/garden, apparently built around an old ruin. I suspect it was a pretend ruin, because I can’t find anything about it online. It was a nice diversion, though, on what was once again a hot day. They had several off-leash dog areas and even some enclosed parts fitted with dog agility obstacles. Quite a few doggies were socialising, which was nice to see.

A pretend ruin

In the afternoon we used the Metro to seek out a canal area we’d noticed on the tourist brochures. It’s clearly a popular restaurant area but at mid-afternoon on a very hot and humid day the only people there were a few die-hard tourists and hopeful vendors at markets set up along the banks of the canal. The water is fast-flowing and very clean. It would have been a lovely spot in the evening but the biorhythms weren’t up for that just yet.

Milan canal area

Tomorrow we would be flying out to Bordeaux.

Our Wonderful Trip Home

Sunset at Hong Kong airport – from the Qantas lounge

Hi there. Have you missed me? We’ve been Up Over with good friends Sandy and Col for a few weeks, sampling food and wine and seeing a few sights in France and Italy. Our trip started with a couple of nights in Milan to settle the jet lag before we flew (on easyJet) to Bordeaux, where we joined a river boat for a seven-day wine and food cruise around the Aquitaine region. Then we flew back to Milan and used Italian rail to head over to La Spezia, the gateway to the Cinque Terre, where we spent five nights. From there, we took trains to Montecatini Terme, where we joined a tour group for a week of looking around Tuscany. When that finished, we trained it back to Milan to catch our flight home.

I’ll tell you all about it – but first I want to share our Wonderful Trip home. The journey started in Montecatini Terme, the interim destination being Terminal One at Milan’s Malpensa airport.

We bought most of our train tickets in advance, from Australia. Despite Pete’s valiant efforts, we’d been unable to book seats on the high-speed train from Florence to Milan. (Let’s just say the Italian railway system’s website is not the most user-friendly.) Instead, we caught a local train to Viareggio, then transferred to an intercity train to Genoa, where we changed trains for Milan.

The train to Viareggio was just the local service, which was fine. From Viareggio we’d booked first class (ha ha) tickets on the intercity trains. On the platform there was the usual undisciplined crush to get on board and to our allocated seats. If you don’t do a bit of pushing and shoving you never get anywhere in Italy. I carried my backpack and camera bag and pushed my suitcase in front of me through the train’s narrow aisle, of course impeded by the people in front of me and suitcases blocking the way. I almost jumped when Peter yelled, “Get your hand out of her back pack!” I whirled and caught a glimpse of him grabbing a girl’s shoulder and dragging her away. She was clearly frightened and said, “Sorry, sorry” as she scuttled away – and off the train, probably nursing finger-shaped bruises. She’d been right behind me in the crush, against my back, with Pete behind her. Pete wondered why she seemed to be so close to me, then realised she was trying to get her hands into my back pack. Crowded places and distracted people are plum hunting grounds for these low-lifes. She hadn’t had time to steal anything, but she’d managed to get the zip on one side of my back pack’s pocket half undone when she was caught. She’d picked me out as a suitable victim, climbing into the train right behind me. Just as well she hadn’t picked that Pete and I were together.

After that encounter we weren’t in the best mood when we found an Italian woman in one of our four allocated seats, two pairs of seats facing each other with a table in between. Despite us showing her our tickets, she obfuscated until tempers became a little frayed. Although she didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian, I think she knew exactly what she was doing, taking advantage of more room and a table where we were supposed to be sitting. An Italian in another seat explained to her that she should be in the seat behind us – and we discovered that a few other people were also ‘misplaced’. These things have a domino effect. Her husband eventually turned up and although we don’t know what she told him, he shouted at us in Italian with a few words of English thrown in. This was NOT America. You Americans are all the same!!! In Italy we are kind!!! He flung a few newspapers up into the overhead racks for good measure, to make sure we knew he was angry.

In retrospect, I suspect Italians aren’t too interested in ‘allocated’ seats, working on first in, best dressed. But that’s not how we work. We all stared out of the windows trying to settle down before we got to Genoa.

The plan was that we’d have lunch during our 90-minute wait at Genoa before going on to Milan central station, where we should arrive in plenty of time to catch the Malpensa Express to the airport to catch our flight. But this time we weren’t quite so lucky. Although the train left only a few minutes behind schedule, it arrived in Milan 25 minutes late, which meant we missed the smooth connection to the airport we had expected. That was okay. The airport trains run every half hour, so we’d be fine. We’d left a sufficient window for a few glitches. But the airport train was 15 minutes late. The inevitable chaos ensued, with people and baggage coming off the train onto a platform barely wide enough for three people clashing with the stream of travellers trying to board. I have to tell you, it’s not good for stress – but we found seats and somewhere to stow our bags. SCORE!

Sandy and Col were overnighting at a hotel near the airport, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. Since we had business class tickets, Pete and I weren’t too worried about the time. The big advantage of business class is you get through all the checkpoints faster – even at an Italian airport. We checked in at Finnair and we were given express access to security, which was fine except that the system couldn’t scan the barcodes printed on the boarding passes at Finnair’s desk. Never mind, we managed to attract the attention of one of the three officials chatting together at the desk next to the priority aisle. One of them established we had genuine tickets and escorted us through the back way. It was all good – we got through in plenty of time, and headed for the business class lounge, situated a cut lunch and a compass away. We’d become accustomed to non-existent and/or confusing signage in Italy, so we eventually found the place. In typical Italian fashion not everything worked as it should. The toilets were fitted with a ‘hands free’ flush, but they must have had motion sensors, because they flushed whenever you came near them. I suppose it could have been worse, eg no flush at all.

As it turned out we needn’t have rushed. Our flight to Helsinki was delayed. It was meant to take off at 1900 and arrive at Helsinki with a 50-minute transfer time to our flight to Hong Kong. But boarding was scheduled for 19:15. Things were starting to look grim, especially when the board displayed a message that gate allocation would not be given until after 20:15. It was looking like there was no way we’d make our flight to Hong Kong. We abandoned the (pretty ordinary) lounge and went down to the gate. Pete asked the (Italian) girl at the counter about the connection but she didn’t know and didn’t care – it wasn’t part of her job.

This was starting to sound ominously like the debacle we’d experienced three years ago, when we last flew to Europe via Finnair. We’d had to stay overnight in Hong Kong, and then overnight in Helsinki (at Finnair’s expense) before finally getting to Budapest at least a day late. You can read the gory details here. But three years on, we figured we couldn’t be so unlucky twice. Or then again, maybe we could.

When we finally got on the flight it seemed that just about everyone on the not-full plane was trying to make a connection, and four long haul flights (Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and one other) were delayed, waiting for passengers to arrive from Milan. So were smaller flights headed for Russian or Baltic ports. Shades of 2015 again, where we were told a plane was waiting for us at Helsinki for the flight to Budapest – only it wasn’t.

As we waited on Milan’s tarmac for final departure, the captain explained the flight had been delayed because the plane had to sit on the ground at Helsinki for an hour because of congested airspace over Europe, it being a Friday and all. And then they had to wait to be allocated a gate at Malpensa. Yeah, right. Was this particular Friday any different? And why couldn’t they have used one of the many empty hard stands (when they park the aircraft on the tarmac and you walk down the stairs and into the terminal)? I could have handled that.

After the plane landed at Helsinki we had to go through immigration. Being in business class, we had a head start off the plane, but a bunch of nervous people ran past the two old farts to get into the line at the checkpoint first. Despite the pile-up of delayed flights, all scheduled to leave shortly after midnight twenty minutes away, passport control had only two of the row of desks open, one for EU, one for everybody else (eg most of us). Several flights to smaller destinations had already left without the delayed passengers, so a number of angry people were directed elsewhere to be put up in a hotel. They were not happy and I don’t blame them. I don’t know why they weren’t told before they made it to passport control and I felt sorry for them. Once again, shades of our experience in 2015.

About then the Finnair official supervising the line of non-EU passport holders directed us over to the other desk, where all the EU passport holders had been processed. It seemed like a sensible idea to us, so we popped over. The young fellow at the desk, however, was more interested in protocol and his own five minutes of fame than getting us through to a waiting Finnair plane. He asked me if I thought Australia was part of the EU. No, of course not, I responded. He nodded, scowling at me as if I was a simpleton. “You should be over there”, he said, indicating the line we’d left. When I said the official had sent me over here, he replied that she wasn’t part of his organisation. Muttering ‘fuck you’, I vowed never to go through this fucking airport ever again. In fact, I’ll never fly Finnair, ever again. And I shall also write that very rude young man into my next book, where he will die in  a particularly nasty way.

With half a dozen people still to go through Immigration they finally opened a second non-EU desk. The kid who finally processed me took his sweet ever-loving time to scan my passport and put in his very own stamp. Bully for him, a Hero of the Finnish Border Force, protecting his country from a special agent cunningly disguised as an elderly tourist trying to go home. Pete, who’d stayed in the other line, was already through, waiting for me. Then we were off on the long trek through the deserted building to find our departure gate. No travelators at this airport, and Pete’s legs were feeling the strain of a long day. At least there were plenty of signs. I was still more than a little convinced we’d arrive and see an empty gate, so I hurried (a bit)  in case they got sick of waiting, leaving Pete to catch up. We were the last passengers on the plane, disgruntled and angry. It was ten past midnight local time.

We’d eaten on the plane to Helsinki, we were totally buggered after a long and trying day and all we wanted was to go to sleep. But even that was stymied. All the passenger comfort systems in the business class cabin of this pretty new aircraft (that is, media, seat controls and the like) didn’t work for over an hour. We couldn’t watch a movie, we couldn’t recline our seats and we didn’t get a drink. I’d ordered a Glenfiddich with ice, but after an hour or so, I was told they didn’t have any Glenfiddich left. Would I like something else? By then I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, so I declined. Pete asked his attendant for two bottles of water, but it seemed they’d run low on that, too. Not a good look.

The plane was an Airbus 350, fitted out with each business class passenger having a small, semi-enclosed compartment. We’d flown up to Hong Kong from Brisbane on a Cathay A350, which was laid out rather better than the Finnish one. The difference was details – places to put your belongings without having to chuck everything into the overhead compartments. Finnair offered menus and the like in a folder – which looked good but didn’t fit into the magazine rack which was filled with online shopping magazines and nothing else. There was no place to put laptops, phones or shoes while taking off and landing. Cabin crew were overly officious about stupid things like putting said folder away (it didn’t fit and there wasn’t anywhere else) and putting used blankets (FFS) into the overhead locker for landing. The bed wasn’t comfortable, either. I woke half way through the flight with pain in my legs where I lay on the section of the bed where the seat and the backrest came together. From then on it was listless napping and waking until we had to sit up for landing.

We finally landed at Hong Kong mid-afternoon local time. Even then the travel gods were having a laff. We had to go through the transit security checkpoint before we could go on to the Qantas lounge to wait for our next flight. The security gate beeped when I went through. The only metal on my person was the underwires in my bra. I endured the feel-up by the security officer and went to collect my belongings. Peter had been checked through the gate, as well – and then they’d found a suspicious object in his carry-on luggage. His car keys. At least they said sorry.

We’ve been in the Qantas lounge at Honkers several times for long periods. It’s clean, with good facilities, a great bar and hot food. But this time was even better. Attendants came to offer food and drinks, which they brought to your seat. We ordered a pot of tea, plugged into the power, connected to WiFi and whiled away the time. Pete took the chance to have a shower and a shave and changed into clean clothes. Around about 5pm we were offered little Chinese nibbles rather like Dim Sum, and a glass of wine. It was all very civilized. So was reaching the plane parked some distance away in this enormous airport. All the travelators worked and the gates were clearly marked.

We were going home on a Qantas flight, an Airbus A330. The configuration is, in our opinion, better than that of the A350. You’re in your own little space with plenty of places to put small items like your phone and your tablet, and the bed slides down under the seat in front of you. We were late taking off, but the captain kept us informed, explaining that storms over the Philippines and Indonesia had caused congestion as pilots tried to go round them. We pushed off about half an hour late. But while we waited the cabin crew offered drinks, and also offered to fit up the seats with a light mattress, designed to smooth out that bump between seat and back which had caused me grief on the A350. (It worked, too). We were also given a blanket, a good-sized pillow – and a pair of grey, unisex PJs.

Qantas menu

Dinner was great, served like in a restaurant, with your choice of entree arriving first, then cleared before the main was served. I had roast duck salad, followed by spaghetti with prawns and a tub of ice cream which was immediately edible, not the usual solid block impervious to anything but an ice pick. I ate and went to sleep, only waking once for a wee.

Entree – roast duck salad

Main course – spaghetti with prawns

This is business class done right.

We landed at Brisbane a few minutes late, picked up our duty free booze, and found our luggage. We’d been worried that after the debacle at Helsinki our bags might not have made it, so that was a relief. We’d both slept pretty well and headed home up the Bruce Highway in drizzly weather – a welcome relief after months of drought. After a quick stop at the supermarket for eggs, milk, and veg and some chicken thighs for a home cooked meal, we pulled into our driveway and pressed the button to activate the garage door. No response. We thought maybe the remote had failed, so I unlocked the front door and walked inside.

There was an odd smell coming from the kitchen. Pools of nasty, reddish liquid had congealed on the tiles in front of the fridge. I opened the fridge door and was almost knocked over by the stench of rotting meat. The power had failed while we were away. All our frozen food – in fact everything in the fridge – was ruined. Any plans of a gentle chill-out as we re-acclimatised to home were put on hold. We put the defrosted food in bags, then cleaned the fridge and the floor. We’ll refreeze the food to stifle the smell until we can put it in the garbage collection on Wednesday.

We finally worked out that the power was failing because of a fault in the septic system which uses power to recycle the effluent. We’ve had to turn off the power to the septic, so that is now an urgent fix which will have to happen before I can tackle the mountain of washing.

It wasn’t quite the home-coming I’d looked forward to, especially being forced to eat dead ordinary take away chicken for dinner. The stink in the kitchen was too gag-worthy to want to prepare anything. In fact, we couldn’t get the smell out even though we washed everything with disinfectant, then again with bleach. Anything plastic seemed to have absorbed the odour. Fortunately, insurance will cover the fridge.

I’ll stop here. Next time I’ll start at the beginning of this roller-coaster ride of a holiday. One thing’s for sure; it was rarely boring.