The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Thursday, October 31, 2013

All Sorts of Ports

We left the tidy English port of Harwich on Thursday, entered the North Sea, and spent Friday steaming south toward the coast of France. I actually prefer these days at sea -- likely a legacy of all those years in the Navy -- when I can simply relax, read, and watch the ocean slide slowly past our little balcony high up here on deck 9. The seas were actually a bit higher than usual that first day and night, and the rather large swell resulted in a nice heavy roll that seemed to take most of the passengers by surprise. I was proud of Dear Diane who dealt with the rockin' and rollin' like an old salt. 

That first afternoon, looking for a quiet spot to read, I decided the ship's library was probably the best choice. I couldn't have been more wrong. The library is tiny, perhaps twice the size of our rather compact stateroom, and can seat maybe a dozen people...if they're especially friendly. That, in itself, would be no problem since there were only a few of us trying to read. I say "trying to read" because this tiny library also hosts two desks, the ship's concierge and the Captains Club, and both attract a steady stream of passengers seeking information, not to mention constant phone calls. Consequently it's probably one of noisiest rooms on the ship. As it turned out, the quietest spot I found was a deck 10 poolside area reserved for smokers. The smokers were far quieter than the folks in the library and the smoke just swirled harmlessly upward into the ocean air. I sat there happily reading Ian Ker's biography of G. K. Chesterton for two wonderful hours.

We have met many interesting people in just our first few days aboard the ship. Most of these new acquaintances form during meal times when we spend an hour or two sitting alongside another couple and invariably discover common interests and unexpected coincidences. On Friday evening, for example, we broke bread with a couple who share a close friendship with a woman from the Cape Cod town in which we lived for 25 years, a woman whom Diane and I both knew. On Saturday we joined another couple, also new acquaintances, for dinner. New Yorkers who moved to Florida 30 years ago, they have a married daughter who lives in London. They were intrigued by our stays at the Chawton cottage and the London flat and wanted to hear the details. We dined again with this couple on Wednesday evening.

On Saturday morning we awoke to find the ship already tied up at the pier in La Rochelle, France. The working port facilities at La Rochelle are a few miles from the old city and its far more ancient port, and like most port facilities are functional and not particularly scenic. But pure functionality is usually on the ugly side, so that was no big surprise. After breakfast, Diane and I hopped on the shuttle bus provided by the cruise line and soon found ourselves at the historic center of the city where we admired the old compact port guarded by it's three medieval towers. After a quick stroll through an outdoor antique market set up in a nearby square, we walked without real purpose through the center of the old town. Our first stop was the nearby church of Saint Sauveur, a church that apparently serves the maritime community of seamen and fishermen and their families. We then window-shopped along a pedestrian-only street and made our way to the Cathedral of St. Louis and it's large square, the Place de Verdun. 

It was a lovely, warm day so we joined the locals and spent some time in an outdoor marketplace filled with displays of pumpkins and gourds and other produce. Eventually we came upon a large inner-city park and after strolling along its winding paths for some time, Diane and I pulled out our tiny tourist map and concluded that we were most assuredly lost. We must have looked lost because a lovely lady approached us and asked if we needed directions. Who says the French are a bunch of grumpy xenophobes? Anyhow, thanks to her kindness we made it back to the port, stopped for an espresso (me) and cappichino (Diane), and after snapping a few dozen more photos, boarded the shuttle bus that returned us to the ship. Some scenes from our wanderings around La Rochelle...






As you can tell from the above description of our visit to La Rochelle, if one wants to get to know a city or country, a cruise ship is probably the worst vehicle for doing so. On a good day one might have six or seven hours to breeze through a port city, see a few of the more obvious or important sights, buy a couple of souvenirs, grab a bite to eat, and return to the ship. If you're fortunate you might chat with one or two locals for a few moments, but at best you will gain no more than the slightest appreciation of the city and it's people. 

Of course, instead of wandering around aimlessly as we did, one can purchase a seat on a cruise-line sponsored "excursion." These are really just basic tours run by local companies. Some are quite good, some are horrible, but all are over-priced because too many folks have their fingers in the till. One morning at breakfast I overheard a man describing an excursion from La Rochelle to the Cognac region: "We spent an hour and forty minutes on a bus, arrived at Cognac, our destination, were given a tiny shot glass half-filled with brandy, had a mediocre lunch, and were then put on the bus for the return trip." For this he paid $199 per person. 

Although Diane and I chose not to take any of the excursions at La Rochelle, we did select one of the less expensive tours in each of the next three ports: Gijon, Spain; Vigo, Spain; and Lisbon, Portugal. Each of these excursions was better than most of the tours we've taken in the past, but Monday's excursion at Vigo was the best by far. The tour involved an hour-long bus trip to the famous pilgrimage site, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. How wonderful it was to visit this remarkable cathedral, to pray before the tomb of the Apostle James, and to see the joy on the faces of the exhausted pilgrims who have made the long journey on foot across northern Spain. Our guide, a young woman named Helena, was knowledgable, pleasant and obviously enjoyed her work. We were able to spend several hours visiting the cathedral and the city before returning to Vigo on the bus. It was a lovely day. I've included some photos below...









The previous day, after our arrival in Gijon, in the province of Asturias, we climbed aboard a bus and joined the tour to Oviedo. This tour was a bit of a disappointment because we were unable to enter several of the Romanesque and gothic churches we visited. We did, however, enjoy our long ramble through an extensive marketplace that filled a number of local streets and in which one could buy virtually everything from antiques to underwear. Some scenes from our visit...





Yesterday, Tuesday, the ship arrived at Lisbon. The city's magnificent harbor, one of God's great gifts to this small yet strategically located nation, does much to explain the influence of the sea on the history of Portugal. Possessed of a harbor like Lisbon, located just "around the corner" from the Mediterranean, the Portuguese had no choice to be anything but a seagoing people. One glance at the map of Portugal shows how Lisbon's harbor dominates the nation's Atlantic coastline, a coastline that forms a maritime highway for shipping moving in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, to and from the ports of Northern Europe. It's no wonder that, despite the cultural chasm created by religious differences, England formed an effective and long-lasting alliance with Portugal that gave it access to Lisbon's perfectly formed harbor in the estuary of the Tagus. Here's our ship docked at Lisbon...


Diane and I decided to take the "Walking Tour of Lisbon" which was led by Katerina, a delightful young woman who shared her knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Portuguese with us. One senses that the Portuguese are a more devout people than the people of Spain, although this observation of mine is based on a rather small and not so random sample: about a week in Barcelona a few years ago and three brief port visits this week. The Spaniards we encountered seem to be no more than "cultural" Catholics while the Portuguese seem to live their faith more deeply. I could of course be very wrong. It's happened before.

Here's a photo taken inside the beautiful church of St. Roque, followed by a few of other Lisbon scenes...





I was particularly impressed with the unique architecture of Lisbon, an architecture that seems to reflect its close association with the sea, a kind of sinuous, rope-like architecture present in some of its structures. The exterior walls of many buildings are covered with colorful tiles, another unique aspect of Lisbon's architecture. Viewing them from a distance I was captivated by the whole, by the intricate and colorful look of these buildings. And yet, I felt drawn to them. I wanted to approach them and examine the individual tiles up close. The following are a few photos of buildings and their tiles...



Diane and I stopped by a shop that specialized in the crafts of Portugal. Half of the shop was devoted to products made in the north of the country and half to products from the south. We bought a colorful wine pitcher (from the south) to complement those we had purchased on previous trips to Italy and Spain. I also bought a bottle of 10-year-old Port since it would be sacrilegious not to buy Port when in Portugal. As a result of this first, very brief visit, I believe I'd like to return and spend more time in this fascinating country.

Leaving Lisbon we entered the Atlantic and began our seven-day voyage across the ocean to Nassau in the Bahamas, and then on to Miami. Oddly enough, this is the part of the cruise I will enjoy the most. For me it is a time of relaxation and restoration. I will enjoy every minute as I work my way through the stack of books piled up on our coffee table. And I simply enjoy being at sea. Although we are now hundreds of miles west of Lisbon, the open sea here in the mid-Atlantic is almost glassy, with only a hint of a low swell. We can only hope that the weather remains pleasant as we make our way home. 

Here's a photo I just took with my trusty iPad -- from my chair in a deck 11 lounge overlooking the ship's bow. Note the calmness of the sea today.


I just heard that the Red Sox won the World Series. Several of my children, avid Sox fans, will be happy. And so I, too, am happy.

Blessings...


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sail Ho! Email No!

Wednesday, 23 October.

Tomorrow we depart for home on a two-week sea voyage. At about 10 a.m. we'll grab a taxi and make our way to London's Victoria Station where a motor coach will carry us and our huge pile of luggage to the port city of Harwich and the ship that awaits us. The Celebrity Infinity will carry us to Miami after a few stops on the continent -- one in France, two in Spain, and another in Portugal. We also visit Nassau before finally arriving back home. 

When it comes to cruises, my favorite activity is sitting on our balcony or in some other comfortable, relatively quiet spot on the ship and reading a good book. Every so often one of the crew stops by and asks if I'd like a drink. It's all very civilized, and extremely relaxing...just what I need after our busy two weeks in England. Dear Diane likes the shows aboard ship, so I'll no doubt attend many of these. And of course there's the food, the tempting food that I intend to sample only in reasonable amounts. I lost 20 pounds in the three months before our trip and I would hate to gain it all back again. 

Because cruise ships charge ridiculous amounts for only minutes of WiFi internet access, I will probably not post anything until we return. My small, but select group of readers will no doubt appreciate this and turn their attention to something more rewarding. Anyway, shipboard posts would likely be pretty boring and redundant...I ate, I read, I went to the show with Diane.

More exciting was what Dear Diane and I did today. We first walked down to the Parliament buildings via Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, and all the government buildings along Whitehall. The security at the Prime Minister's place -- 10 Downing Street -- was rather impressive. Here's a photo of the two of us outside the PM's digs...


Indeed London's finest were out in force today, presumably because of the scheduled baptism of little George, the royal baby. Inexplicably Diane and I didn't receive the expected invitation, which no doubt had trouble finding us in the midst of all our travels. We'll have to send William and Kate a little something for the little one.

Assisted by a helpful bobby, we managed to find Westminster Pier and used our London Passes to board a tour boat for the trip along the Thames to the Tower Pier. The trip, just about 20 minutes long, was enhanced by a young crewman who gave constant commentary describing all that we passed en route. And by the time we arrived the sun appeared for good, and we were given a truly marvelous day, sunny and quite warm. I've added below a few photos taken from the tour boat.







We arrived at Tower Pier and immediately entered the Tower of London grounds. We joined the crowd following one of the Yeoman Warders and listened to his descriptions of kings, queens, saints, sinners, executions, escapes, and tortures, all woven into wonderful stories of the Tower's infamous past. Here's the man himself, like all his colleagues a retired Sergeant Major... 


We then checked out the Crown Jewels, a rather ostentatious collection of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and gold...lots and lots of gold. I'd seen them back in 1985 but had forgotten how impressive they actually are. The building is guarded by this young man:


We strolled through the Tower grounds for a while enjoying the sights before taking the boat farther down the Thames to Greenwich. Below you can see two views of the oldest building, the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror himself back in the 11th century.



At Greenwich we first stopped for lunch at a pub called The Gypsy Moth. I couldn't resist the name since it was also the name of Sir Francis Chichester's sailboat when he made the first solo around-the-world trip back in the 60s. The food was quite good too, and for a change of pace I had another typical English pub dish, bangers and mash, while Diane had the soup. Good stuff! Oh, yes, and pretty waitresses.


After lunch we made our way, a long way that is all uphill, to the Royal Observatory. The view of London from this height is spectacular, especially on a day like today. We also did the expected thing and straddled the prime meridian with a leg in each hemisphere. Photos below, including one of the rigging of the Cutty Sark, the famous British clipper ship...




Back aboard our tour boat, we returned to Tower Pier and made our way to Fleet Street where we found the well-hidden house of Dr. Samuel Johnson, another of my heroes. Sadly we arrived just as they were closing for the day and were unable to tour the house -- a major disappointment for me...so we stopped by the gift shop where I bought another book. We walked a few yards to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of London's oldest pubs and a place frequented not only by Dr. Johnson in the 18th century, but also by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain in the 19th century, and by the great G. K. Chesterton in the early 20th century. I stopped in and had a pint. I could do no less. Photos follow: Johnson's house, the pub...




Finally we walked back to our flat via Foyle's Books, perhaps London's largest and best bookstore. On the way we passed the Aldwych Theatre where we had seen Top Hat yesterday and I took another photo.


Quite a day...and now time to pack and relax a bit. Oh, yes, one more little glitch. We returned to the flat but were unable to open the inside door to the apartment. We called Julian, our young Brazilian manager, who took the tube to help us. He arrived an hour later while we sat in the corridor outside our door reading books. Using a master key he let us in and still could not understand why our key suddenly stopped working. Ah, well, we really didn't mind too much. We are, after all retired with time on our hands.

God's peace.


Busy, Busy...

Wednesday, 23 October. 

We have only one day left here in London; tomorrow it's off to Harwich and the ship that will take us home. I realize I've been remiss since our arrival in the city -- so little time to sit down and write -- but hope to fill in a few of the blanks tonight once we return to our flat from what looks to be a very busy day. Here's a quick recap of the past day or two.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Monday was a bit of a bust because of the delay in occupying our flat. About all we did was grab a late lunch at a local pub and walk over to Trafalgar Square to enjoy the sights and sounds and people. That evening we walked to Covent Garden, but I've already shared photos of that adventure in my previous post. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) we just took a morning stroll up Regent Street and eventually made our way over to Hyde Park. Regent Street is decorated with banners celebrating, of all things, the NFL because of a game to be played here in London between the Jaguars and the Forty Niners. Poor Jacksonville will now get to be embarrassed in the UK as well as in the USA. (See photo below.)

Because it rained on and off all morning we really couldn't do very much. We did stop by "Speakers' Corner" at Hyde Park hoping to catch someone saying something interesting. Alas, it was empty except for us, so I said a few wise words to my audience of one who captured the moment with my camera.


We couldn't dawdle, however, because we had to return to the flat early enough to change for the matinee of "Top Hat" at the Aldwych Theatre on Drury Lane. I had bought the tickets online a few months ago, so the show was locked into our schedule. It was wonderful, a terrific revival of Irving Berlin's 1935 movie -- lots of wonderful dance numbers and old, familiar songs. The cast, too, were perfect. Dear Diane and I enjoyed the show immensely.


After our afternoon at the theater, we stopped by a nearby pub for dinner. It was crowded but we found a table next to a delightful Welsh couple in London for a holiday and a show. Our cute little Spanish waitress (Are all girls who work in pubs pretty?) took wonderful care of us. Diane had the roast and I ate the -- surprise, surprise! -- fish and chips. We've really developed a taste for pub food, along with the informal atmosphere that's so conducive to conversation.

After dinner we made our way to Charing Cross Road to see a few of the bookstores that specialize in used and rare books, but we're unable to find the one place I wanted to visit -- perhaps later today, after I look up the address. Again it rained off and on making our stroll a bit soggy. We returned to the flat and settled in for the night.

Today we plan to walk down to Westminster Pier, go aboard one of the sightseeing boats for a Thames River Cruise and see the city from a different perspective. Our London Pass gives us a free, hop-on hop-off cruise all day, so we'll probably stop by the Tower of London and then go on to Greenwich and straddle the prime meridian. I also hope to visit Dr. Johnson's house and have lunch at the famous pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. An ambitious day.

More later...blessings.




Monday, October 21, 2013

Comedy of Errors

Monday, 21 October - 8 a.m.

I suppose, given that we are sitting, quite bored, in a rather barebones room in a concrete bunker-like hotel on Drury Lane -- to be specific the Travelodge -- I can say only, "We are not amused." This displeasure originated yesterday morning, and so before describing our Saturday adventures in Bath, I must first jump ahead and relate more recent events starting with our drive from Bath to Gatwick airport. 

We left Bath yesterday, a few minutes before 10 a.m., for the two-hour drive to Gatwick. Every square inch of the car was occupied either by luggage or by us. This accumulation of "stuff" caused me to alter our plans to take the train -- the Gatwick Express -- into London's Victoria Station. When we arrived we would then have to take a cab -- a large cab -- to our flat a mile or so from the station. I simply could not picture the two of us physically accomplishing this, so I made a call and hired a car and driver to pick us up at the Avis site at Gatwick and drive us directly to our flat. The cost was actually about the same as the train-cab combination, perhaps £10 more. 

What a wonderful decision! Our driver, a middle-aged Pakistani who had lived in Germany for 20 years before moving to the UK (He prefers Germany.), ably negotiated the very heavy traffic and got us to our flat more or less on time. But before we arrived I used my cellphone to call Julian, the young Brazilian, who with his wife, manages the flat (along with a dozen other flats), and let him know our arrival time. That's when Julian told me there'd been a major water leak in the flat. Apparently a pipe connected to the boiler broke and flooded the apartment. He had a team of people working to get the place ready for occupancy so we could move in the following day (Monday, today) at 7 a.m. In the meantime he had made a reservation for us at a local hotel. 

When we arrived at the flat, located in Coventry House on Haymarket, Julian was there to greet us and asked our driver if he could take us directly to the hotel, a Travelodge on Drury Lane near Covent Garden. Because it was only a short drive, our kind driver agreed and off we went, accompanied by Julian. He, along with Ali, a hotel employee, helped us get everything up to our room. Believe me, it was a tight fit. The room was tiny and barebones functional, but did have a comfortable bed, so it was far better than sleeping on the street. It was, however, not at all comparable to the flat for which I had paid big bucks (or pounds). By the time we got settled it was past 5 p.m. and, once again, this aging couple were pooped. We grabbed a pizza in the hotel's cafe, went up to our room, and called it a night. Oh, yes, it was raining throughout all of this. Here's a common sign seen over here, one that sums it up well...


...and here's the door to Coventry House, the building our flat's in. Nice door. There's a steakhouse next door (note the sign). I might have to sample their offerings tomorrow evening.


Monday, 21 October - 4 p.m.

This morning, shortly after writing the above, Julian sent me a text telling us there'd been a change of plans. He would come to the hotel in a taxi to pick us up at 11 a.m., not 7 a.m., and take us to Coventry House so we could drop off our luggage. The flat wouldn't be ready until 2 p.m. Aarrrgghhh! Our plans for the day had to be shelved, perhaps scrapped is the better word. But there was little we could do about it so Dear Diane and I decided to roll along with whatever happened and try to make the best of it. We had a very bad buffet breakfast at the hotel, for £7.95 each, and made two elevator trips carrying all our luggage down to the lobby where we awaited Julian.

He arrived at 11 in a taxi as promised, drove us to Coventry House, and placed us in unit 17 on the top floor, not the unit we had originally rented. It is, however, comparable, and had obviously just been vacated since his wife was busy cleaning and readying it for us. And fortunately there's a lift, so we don't have to negotiate four flights of stairs. As I told Diane the night before, if our flat had been flooded, it would be several days at least before it could be occupied. I expected we'd be placed in another flat. It seems I was right.

We dropped off our luggage and took a walk, first to Picadilly, only a 100 yards away, and then to Trafalgar Square, just a few blocks farther. The sun peeked in and out all afternoon, and there was an occasional sprinkle, but we never had to use our umbrellas. We enjoyed a pleasant lunch at a local pub, served as usual by a pair of local young sweeties, both pretty girls. Once again, I overtipped. Photo of the pub below...


We stopped by a very nice bookstore -- at last count I think we've visited thirteen bookstores on this trip -- where I picked up a couple of books for the cruise back to the US: one on the Norman invasion an another on the Plantaganet kings. By the time we returned to the flat, it was almost 3:30 p.m., but everything was ready for us. And that's how things stand now. Diane's taking a nap but I'm raring to go out and get up close and personal with London.

I've included below a few photos of our late morning, early afternoon adventure. First are several photos of Picadilly, the over-the-top, touristy, honky-tonk center of London. But it's also a fun place if only for people-watching and window shopping. As you can see it was raining...




As we approached Trafalgar Square, we found ourselves outside St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church and took a moment to pay a visit. Here are some photos...




...and then, of course, the famous square itself, with a sandstone Admiral Nelson prominently poised atop his column of granite, and guarded by his four large bronze lions. It's all very British.




And finally two iconic London vehicles, the London taxi, or black cab, and the famous red, double-decker bus.


More later...

Monday, 21 October - 8 p.m.

At about 4:30 this afternoon Dear Diane and I stepped out again. This time we walked to Covent Garden to check out the shops, the food, the entertainment, the people, the whole experience. It's a fascinating place and almost 30 years since my last visit. It has changed. Here are some random photos...






Time for relaxing and a good book. I'll try to remember to tell you about Bath tomorrow.

What a remarkable world we live in. Thank God tonight for life...yours and everyone's. What a gift!