Thursday, September 25, 2014

Across the pond

Well, Sunday was the full day session for the writing group I sometimes manage to hang out with but….being realistic there weren't enough hours in the day (or days in the week) to cover all the to - do list for the six 'at home' days in between Europe and Nunavut. Or as a former safety officer colleague used to say in his French Acadian accent "you can't put ten pounds in a five pound mesh bag". So….I shall update the blog as my 'writing exercise' this afternoon. 

The past week the critters in their fur coats and I in my fuzzy sweater and socks sat in patches of sun streaming through the living room windows, the interior temperature was a balmy 65 F (or for those inclined to metric 18 c) which is not freezing but lower than the usual 22 c we enjoy, you can deduce that NO the shore captain had not gotten the hot water heater replaced. To recap - we have a R2000 house with super insulation which is heated by circulating warm hot water through pipes in the concrete floor. The warm water is heated by two energy efficient hot water heaters and is our primary source of heat although we have a propane fireplace for power outages and shoulder seasons when it's too warm to 'turn the heat on'.  While I was away working last May the two visiting dog walkers mentioned water on the floor in the mudroom and reported it to the occupant. When I questioned him on a video chat as to the significance of this event he stated "I took care of it". I discovered in August when the domestic hot water heating tank leaked as well (all three heaters were purchased at the same time of course) and that was quite a saga of several weeks of leaking, wet dirty towels, attempts to purchase an energy efficient replacement which would fit in the closet in the mud room etc that 'taking care of it' meant draining it and shutting it off as the heating season was over until the fall. Well…..autumn is here. So every day he picked up more pipe / tools and each evening there was muttering, banging and mess made - I did put my foot down at the use of the blow torch inside and sent him out on the steps with that - but still no success. He actually spoke of calling a plumber on Monday - I was shocked! But after all that,…'s working. Plumbing issues are at the root of divorce or worse I am sure. 

In reviewing the summer's postings it appears as if the blog is in danger of becoming a travel blog - a hazard of blogging by a transient person it seems. I spent most of the weekend unpacking from our 'across the pond' vacation and organizing and packing for flying out to my next contract. It was a bit more challenging this time to sort/pack as I wasn't able to store my northern stuff in the community i've been working in as a husband and wife team were hired full-time there this month so I will be working in Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine) where I did a contract in the spring of 2013. It's a bit larger, so more staff (less on call, less responsibility pay and less northern allowance) so not as lucrative, more southern issues  as it's closer to Yellowknife and the government housing is spread throughout the community so this means no 14 stair commute to work. But it will finance my trip to the tropical nursing diploma in December so I'm adjusting my back to work attitude. Since I don't enjoy panic packing at the last minute I packed everything (except the food which was purchased last and stuffed into the two action packers) into the duffle bag and knapsack - think eight week remote camping trip with uniforms and reference books. Since I'll be staying until November 20th I have to drag along my Canada Goose parka and LL Bean snow pants as it'll be 24 hours of darkness and cold by then. It's snowing there today at -3c . But enough talk of that W word. 

To recap our three weeks in Europe without being one of those tedious armchair travellers who yang on about their trip, I shall summarize as follows:

Overnight flight to London, wandering from Terminal 1 to Terminal 1 in Heathrow in the early morning, a pricey airport breakfast of bubbles and squeak and dramatic people watching at the TAP (Portugal's airline) gate with a full flight and restrictions on carry on bags. The life partner and I were seated about 11 rows apart (so no one even discuss this with) and as we were nose down on final approach to Lisbon airport at about 800 metres, we suddenly pulled straight up and with major G forces climbed back to cruising altitude heading away from Lisbon. Absolute silence on the plane then a few murmurs, worried looking flight attendants and no announcements. After what seemed like hours there was a lengthy Portuguese announcement of the situation followed by the English version which explained that as we were to land there'd been an emergency event involving two planes with fuel present on the runway and so we were diverting to Porto. When the seat belt sign went off I made my way up to the travel partner (turns out there was an empty seat next to him) to ask "where is Porto?" we decided it was north and we would simply rent a car there or try to find a flight to Faro for the Algarve the next day. Smooth landing in Porto, had to sit in your seat with your seatbelt unfastened (international law according to the flight attendant announcement) while the plane was refuelled, and we headed back for another try at Lisbon. Smooth landing there - thank you to the pilot for his great work as we departed - and the luggage had made it from NS so just a bit of a delay. 

Picked up the rental car - yes to the GPS and the chip for the toll roads - and we were off in
Pousada de Palmela
our little Leon to find Palmela. The roundabouts with rush hour traffic were not a good start but we were soon across the bridge and out on the Portuguese Autobahn where driving 140 km meant you were being passed by a stream of traffic. We had planned a short leg to the first night accounting for sleep deprivation and jet lag and so were thrilled to find the town in about 45 minutes. You can see the castello (castle) across the countryside as a landmark. We checked in to the Pousada (former monastery) and headed over to a newly opened tapas bar for a Portugese supper. A bottle of local red wine, local delicacies and great atmosphere were just the way to start our vacation off. We wandered our way back to the castle and crashed. The morning sun streaming in;
cork trees by the roadside
through the open shutters past the stone walls was our wake up call. A wonderful buffet breakfast and programming the GPS we were off to explore. We made out way through the hills to Sines (coastal town) to check out the wharves, fish plants and gear (of course) but also the markets, narrow cobblestone alleys and beaches. A late afternoon lunch at a family run roadside BBQ restaurant which was delicious! Through mountainous roads with breathtaking views, lots of cork trees and truckloads of harvested product being transported, a stop for some provisions for the apartment an finally out to the Algarve. We
discovered that Albufiera is NOT a sleepy little fishing village but a huge bustling tourist strip and so had to have some assistance with directions to find the resort but made it by 5 pm. 

Castello de Silves
Alfagar Village is a large family resort and we had a third floor balcony 1 bedroom suite. Pools, grocery store, restaurants, beach and lovely grounds - a great spot to use as home base to explore from. We ventured out on day trips to do a wine tasting outside of Estombar, visit a castle in Silves, drive in the mountains, visit Sagres, Portimao and other coastal towns and returned to veg out by the pool in the extended summer we enjoyed as it was sunny and warm every day - just a few sprinkles on the windshield during the early morning drive to Lisbon airport. 

Lisbon airport is very chaotic and we realized after several attempts that Air France tags your luggage at check in (not through kiosks) but finally were free with only knapsacks to have Portuguese breakfast pastries and await boarding. We flew through Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris and it's a very futuristic terminal with wi-fi and wine. A second short flight to Venice and we were soon landing over sea level islands at sunset. We decided against a private water taxi at 150 euros and instead opted for the vaporetto (public water taxi) at 15 each. A wait at the pier and we were soon making our way past the islands, other watercraft and even a swan in the dark before being deposited at Gugli stop in the Canareggio district (Jewish Ghetto) . When considering finding our hotel and making our way to the cruise port we had been concerned that we'd look ridiculous dragging luggage across the city, however there were so many doing so that we'd have look odd if we hadn't. We made our way past canal side cafes of people getting supper, stalls of masks and other trinkets, shop windows of jewelry, lots of Venicians strolling with their small dogs, and then up and over a bridge and
Sunday morning in Venice
across a square where we happened upon the street we were looking for with Hotel Guerrini. Great staff, immaculate rooms, free wi-fi and breakfast and a recommendation for a pizza shop for supper with a discount. What is not to like? Had a wonderful meal of antipasto, pizza and red wine and ambled back to crash. Sunday morning we awoke to church bells, cafes serving breakfast in the square and all that Venice had to offer. After a great hotel buffet, check of email and final prep for the cruise we made our way to the terminal via the People Mover train. We were deposited at the terminal and made our way to the MSC check in.

The MSC Fantasia is very swishy, extremely clean, has wonderful food and is…..very European. Most of the passengers were Italian, although passengers could embark/disembark at every port in staggered schedules as opposed to one departure port. Lots of families, many screaming children and top volume conversations - the buffet was particularly chaotic. We had a wonderful cabin steward from Indonesia who even tied the shore captain's tie in a very elaborate knot for him on formal night and our Head Waiter from Honduras was top notch. However, for the most part the staff appeared harried and disinterested, for ex. when returning from a port call we would make it all the way back to our cabin (through boarding, security, hallways, elevators and stairs) meeting various staff without being acknowledged or spoken to - as opposed to other cruise lines where you're told "welcome back, how was your day?" with broad smiles by every crew member you encounter.  We tried the speciality restaurant and it was an epic fail - expensive, food wasn't particularly good and the service was slow. The itinerary was very busy with a port of call each day and so we enjoyed our balcony before and after ports. Would we sail with MSC again? Will have to think about that and get back to you. 

Bari, Italy was a wonderful historic northern Italian city in the Puglia region. We strolled the cobblestone streets, visited the cathedrals and fort and had wonderful bruschetta and rose at the Knights of the Templar Cafe. Katakolon was the port for Olympus and it was a charming seaside town of about 500 residents, we took a shuttle bus to Olympia and toured the site of the first Olympic games and the museum - both over whelming in their antiquity and the heat - 34 c that day. A bit of shopping in Katakolon before heading back onboard. Santorini was a tendered stop and we did an excursion here so were transported by private boat to the shore and up winding mountain roads by an excellent bus driver. Our guide took us to a Minoan site (Akrotiri) much like Pompeii where the settlement was buried in volcanic ash and
preserved, then we stopped at Oia and Thera for some wandering and shopping. Santorini is extremely beautiful but filled with tourists so perhaps if you could escape the crowds….We also did an excursion in Athens with a wonderful guide and were taken to visit the only outdoor theatre made of marble then through the city to the Acropolis. We climbed the hill and I reinacted my school trip of 1972 where I managed to get some photos to match those of 42 years ago. In comparison Athens has expanded but has less smog, there has been more reconstruction done of the Acropolis and we were able to sit on the steps of the Parthenon decades ago. We visited the new Acropolis Museum which made us feel quite uneducated in our Greek history. A bit of shopping and back to the ship to decompress. Corfu was an attractive historic port city, very touristy and crowded, but we did enjoy a nice lunch of Greek food. Dubrovnik in Croatia was a beautiful stop, even though it rained as we began and ended our visit it would be a wonderful spot to spend a week or so. The walled city with its white stucco buildings and red tiled roofs next to the ocean is breath taking. Lots of cathedrals and markets in the narrow winding alleys and friendly, helpful locals and cheap prices. Still very immediate signs of the war in 1991-92 with craters in some of the columns and many of the roofs replaced. 

Back to Venice and a wonderful trip up through the city to the cruise port at sunrise. An orderly disembarkation, retrieval of luggage and over to the vaporetto for a trip to our San Marco hotel where we stored our bags and wandered as tourists. Stopped at a cafeteria for some lunch and met two ladies from Vienna on a tour, then took in the Doge Palace in all its splendour and finally did a prix fixee supper at a cafe on the edge of St. Marks square which was reasonably priced and good (neither is assured in Venice) before stumbling back to our hotel. Took a trip to Muarano and watched glass being blown, invested in some art and jewelry, wandered the colourful and less busy island and then caught the water taxi to Burano. This island is known for its textile industry and is even less crowded. We had a great lunch of pizza at a small cafe and shopped a bit. Took the vaporetta to Torcello which was
Murano glass blowing
very quiet with some cathedrals and retraced our steps back to St. Marks through a series of stops on our 12 hr. ticket - fantastic way to see Venice. Topped the day off with an over the top supper - will have to call it a birthday celebration to justify it - in a wonderful outdoor cafe. Our final day was spent having a gondola ride which was very relaxing, some might say even romantic and touring the Correo Museum to get ourselves straight on ALL the history. We finished up the day with a lovely supper at Aqua Pizza where we sat next to a couple from Florida. As I mentioned flying Air France back to Lisbon he said "Air France is on strike" and so as we sighed, made our way back to the hotel and searched for flights. We found a one way business class flight for double the cost of the return flight over. What could we do? 

Business class on TAP isn't as swishy as with Air Canada but at least we had seats. Chatted with a nice lady from Grand Cayman who was extensively top drawer travelled and heading for a Douro River cruise and Lisbon tour. In to Lisbon, finally sourced a cab and over to the Oriente Olissipo which is a very futuristic business hotel. Expedia came through again. Dropped the bags and out to explore the area a bit. Walked down to the aquarium, have to leave the interior for another visit but wandered through the fountain, paths and over to the cable car. Saw a lot of the skyline through the glass surround of the peaceful glide. Wandered along the waterfront and found a Brazilian steak house where we sourced supper - great buffet, seafood tray plus never ending cuts of meats - a carnivores happy place. We wandered back to the hotel and collapsed, awakening to a before 5 am alarm for check out and cab ride to the airport. The expected Lisbon airport confusion, unable to check in from the kiosk either, wait in several lines, told to go to check in, barred from the agent by a very self important 'little man' in a vest which read Check In Assistance who insisted that the kiosk be used. This obstacle was overcome by the old nurse firm voice insisting we WILL see an agent and finally dismissed with a frustrated wave of the hand. Nice check in agent (from Madeira) who checked us through to Canada, through security then fresh squeezed orange juice from the cafe and we're off. 

A rather uneventful (whew) flight from Lisbon to London. We enjoyed Terminal 2 (Queens Terminal) which had opened after we spent about 45 minutes making our way from Terminal 1 to 2 along moving sidewalks, up and down steep escalators and walking, walking. Some naps, movies and reading and we have arrived. I am not a city person but faced with that three hour drive after a long flight does make me envious of the locals. The sleep schedule was messed up with all the time zone changes an I found myself awake at 5:30 am and doing laundry - kind of frightened myself really, being up at that hour and not being paid for it. 

The final few days at home flew by in a rush of appointments (the Dr wasn't there after I drove an hour to the appointment which had been cancelled, I got my glasses adjusted and they put the lenses back right for left so I had to drive 45 min. each way to get them to fix it, nothing worked with all my last minute errands as what should've taken 2 hrs took 7 - yes, yes first world problems), unexpected visit of the oldest daughter, dog walks, helped a buddy with her project as she works her way through a course, ladies day trip and supper at German friends then with the summer neighbours. So an enjoyable but busy send off. Up at 2 am, drive to drop off the car, meet the taxi, to the airport, drag those heavy bags to be scanned and finally the departure gate. The flight is overbooked, tensions running high and we are off. Nap to Toronto, short stop at Pearson and off to Edmonton, more naps and reading and we're down and all 200 lbs of my luggage has arrived with me. Summon the shuttle, store the tote pans in the hotel cooler, check in for tomorrow's flight, a short walk and now time for supper. An early bedtime as the 6 am shuttle is booked for the flight to Yellowknife then on to Kugluktuk and……work.