Monday, November 23, 2020

A Delicate Balance

A Delicate Balance Is the name of a 1968 Pulitzer prize winning play written by Edward Albee. Hugh Cronin and Jessica Tandy were stars in the original performance of the production. This short tale of mine revolves around the events that took place during the evening that my wife, Barbara, and I and another couple saw that play in North Chicago about 15 years ago.

The reason for us being in Chicago with friends was the result of our travel itinerary to a ship’s reunion that was scheduled in Green Bay, Wisconsin. One of the Nicholson’s crew was currently the president of the Green Bay Packers organization and had generously invited our reunion group to Green Bay to see a game alnd tour the local area, including the fishing enterprises on the peninsula. We decided before leaving San Diego to make a short stay in Chicago and try to see a play while there. I went on the web and found that we could get tickets at this small theater in North Chicago for the night we would be there. It sounded like the right move so I bought four tickets and we made our way by air to the big city. After getting our car rental near Midway we checked into the Palmer House—pure luxury.--and parked the car in the hotel garage a block east of the hotel for $27 dollars a day. The car was basically for getting to Green Bay, not touring around Chicago.

After dinner the four of us got a cab outside the hotel for the trip to our theater, some ten or fifteen miles north of the Loop. The cab driver was an elderly black gentleman. On the way to the theater we got to talking to him. He was also a veteran of WWII and was a genuinely pleasant person to talk to. We traded a few wartime tales. He finally drew up in front of this very small theater in what appeared to be a residential area. I asked him what the fare was and he responded “ten dollars.” That didn’t seem enough for the long ride and was prepared to give him a generous tip. He refused the tip. Then I asked how we would call for a cab at this remote location after the show. He said, “Don't worry, I’ll be out in front to pick you up.”

The play was great—that’s another tale—and, sure enough, there he was, right out in front when we came out. He had learned from our earlier journey that my wife was born and raised in South Chicago and asked her if there was any special sight she wished to see before he dropped us at  the hotel. She said, “I would love to see Buckingham Fountain.” He said, “It’s late and the lights have been turned off.” She said, “that’s OK.” So he drove into Grant Park and circled the fountain before taking us on to the hotel. Again the fare for the four of us was ten dollars.


Tuesday, September 15, 2020

English Humor


English Humor

This is a rather long document, so be forewarned. However, having already met Ken Wootton in an earlier blog on Majorca you may not want to miss his observations chronicled below. There is apparently a deeply buried DNA component in the English psyche for unconscious humor. The old saw that Englishmen have no sense of humor couldn't be more wrong. Note the public display in Steven Fry, John Cleese, Katherine Parkinson, and shows such as The Pink Panther, Open All Hours, Dad’s Army, Rising Damp, Are You Being Served, and on and on. An example from the private sector will serve.

We were watching TV one evening in London when a short clip came on the news. It showed a modern suburban home in South London, one story with an attached garage. The garage door opened and out came a motorized overstuffed living room chair with a man seated in it. He turned right into the street and went speeding away. Apparently the gentleman takes a spin around the quiet neighborhood after tea each day on the quiet residential streets, unpatrolled, ,since his vehicle is clearly not street legal equipped. On to Ken Wootton...




(Word of explanation: I suffer from arthritic feet and legs, find it difficult to balance, and can only walk slowly. I use a walking frame for support but do not have a wheelchair. As can be seen from the attached correspondence, requests had already been made for rooms close to the lift or dining room etc. and, from the attached copy invoice, assurance had been given by your Leicester staff that, out of the 3 hotels to be used when returning across France, two were single-storey only – not true)

Wednesday 6th October Barcelona to Arles

As usual, met with long staircase from ship to disembarkation lounge, but Page & Moy staff very helpful and carried walking frame for me and helped me down again in the lift for luggage collection and boarding coach.

Lunch stop in Narbonne – coach stopped in centre of town and we soon found a French café for lunch within easy walking distance. So far, so good.

Arrival at Hotel Mercure, Arles (not Hotel Primotel as mentioned on invoice).

No porterage readily available and passengers had to empty coach of their own luggage. Entrance to hotel was by steep stairs and no handrail. Porter eventually appeared and by doing some private detective work, I found a small lift for use by the handicapped, so I rode up in style with my walking frame. Despite previous arrangements, room close to lift not allocated, but hotel kindly found an alternative.

Before arrival, courier had told us that dinner would be available any time between 7 and 10 p.m. and was part of the package. After a week of luxury and personal attendance on board the Ocean Majesty, it was a bit of a culture shock to find that we were now the “package tour poor relations”. We were to be served in a separate room with no choice on the menu – “eat what is put in front of you, or else…..” When the first people went down at 7 p.m. they found that they could not be served until the whole of the party had sat down together – they could not even order any wine to keep themselves going until the whole table had ordered. Where is Denise? Nowhere to be found, so members of the party had to rally round their fellow travellers and drag them into the dining room so that the ‘early birds’ could be served. And what a meal – something that looked like chicken swimming in a greasy mess. We had several diabetics on board, but there was no choice. We would all have preferred to have paid for our meal than have a ‘freebie’ that was unpalatable.

(N.B. A few weeks earlier, my wife had stayed in the Hotel Mercure in Evreux during a visit to Monet’s Garden. Again this was a small coach group who had their own menu but were served at any time during the evening in the main dining room and were given choices; (it can be done).

Thursday, 7th October

Morning tour of Arles – this was a walking tour, so impossible for me to join in. My wife, however, took herself off individually to find the town. Not too easy since the Hotel Mercure is on a derelict piece of land on the edge of Arles surrounded by a building site and a gipsy encampment. OK in daylight but not so good if looking for an evening meal out.

We have now become paying guests and what a difference. We can now eat in the main dining room with coloured tablecloths and napkins. It happens to be our wedding anniversary so we enjoy a pleasant lunch with a bottle of French wine.

Afternoon – coach trip to the Camargue area arranged; very interesting and, for once, I can join in.

Evening meal taken in main restaurant again of hotel.

Friday 8th October – Arles to Lyon

First stop, Avignon. Interesting town if you can get into it and can walk up steep inclines. We are dropped by the coach on the outside of the city walls, and Denise suggests I get in through a small gap in the wall to save walking to the main gate. This brings me to the back of the buildings, and I have no idea of where the centre of the town is or how to get there. My wife halts a passing tourist train – a ride on that looks exciting. The driver gives her a map showing where to get on the train but that is by the Palais de Papes, which is too far for me to walk, and he won’t let me board the train at this point. We have about 3 hours to waste in Avignon; we luckily find a small café and sit down for coffee; we then find the best public conveniences I have ever seen in France; and we then have lunch. Didn’t see much of Avignon itself other than the ‘Pont’.

On to Lyon and the Best Western Hotel. “This charming hotel is located near the heart of the city. Rooms have air conditioning, and the hotel has a lounge/bar and restaurant available for guests” – so read the notes given to us. The Best Western Magazine in the room goes even further, “This hotel is situated right in the city centre and benefits from an ideal location. The charming hotel upholds the Lyon tradition of hospitality and prestige.” What they don’t say is that the centre of Lyon is nothing but a building site due to the replacement of the tramway down the middle of the Cours Charlemagne. The coach driver has to pull up on the only useable side of the road and unload as best he can with heavy traffic flowing past him. Once again no porterage is immediately available and we all have to struggle in with our own luggage (not me, of course). My main trouble is to walk in through permanently revolving doors with a walking frame! Once inside I find there is a lift (so small that if a wheelchair or frame is put in there is just room for the user but nobody else to help open the door at the required floor - my wife had to find the stairs and they were outside – the lift states that it holds 4 people; obviously for midgets only) To reach the lift, however, there are 2 or 3 steps with no hand rail, so once again my wife and/or fellow passengers have to lift up my frame and also steady me. Also, of course, no room has been made available close to the lift as requested; once again the hotel obliges.

We are assured that there is a lower lift to the dining room for breakfast – yes, that is true but once out of it one is faced with two further flights of steps – at least there is a handrail this time.

Now for dinner in the “restaurant available for guests,” Today is Friday and meals are only provided on Mondays to Thursdays. The bar only serves drinks, and we are all in need of a meal. Where is Denise? – nowhere to be seen again. Those capable of walking further into town do so – they certainly wouldn’t want to go in any of the local bars along the Cours Charlemagne. What shall we do? From the bedroom window we espy a baker’s shop opposite and it is still open. How do we get there with all the building work in the middle of the road? I watch as my wife walks to the next junction, crosses one street through the road works using temporary lights; then crosses another and eventually after crossing 3 busy junctions there she is at the baker’s shop just opposite. This closes at 7.15 p.m. and it is now 7 p.m. The baker has just 2 small quiches left, which she kindly offers to heat in her microwave; she even provides two paper plates and with plastic cutlery purchased at the corner minimarket and paper cups from the bathroom. We eventually dine, in our bedroom. Why did no one know that meals were not available on Fridays and Saturdays?

Saturday, 9th October

Sightseeing tour once again on foot – no use for me. After another picnic lunch in our room, my wife sets off to find her own way round the city to see what alternatives there are for an evening meal. She has much more success this time (having obtained a map from the reception at the hotel) and discovers an old part of town full of lively restaurants, and this evening we have a taxi from the hotel and enjoy an excellent meal sitting outside in the cool of the evening. All of this with no help from Page & Moy!

Sunday 10th October Lyon to Rheims

Long journey so early start. No stop to be made at Beaune as planned, but we did find a suitable service station where several people bought sandwiches just in case! By lunchtime we had reached Troyes – another old town mainly pedestrianised but, being a Sunday, Denise had actually made some arrangement with a local restaurant for a meal. The coach driver managed to park quite centrally and, having learnt wit by now, my wife walks with the other disabled passenger in her wheelchair to the restaurant and then returns with an empty wheelchair for me. At last I am part of the party!

Soon after lunch the rain starts and by the time we reach Rheims it is pouring. The Quality Hotel is quite central (definitely not single storey) but once again I am faced by a large number of steps to the main door. The wheelchair passenger and myself are directed to the back of the hotel where there is a handicapped entrance – what they meant was go into the underground car park. The door is closed but there is a button on the wall which, when pressed, allows access – not for long though; by the time the wheelchair user and Denise have got in the door starts dropping down again and narrowly misses my head. Fortunately the sensor realises that my wife and I still have to get in, so up the door goes again ! We now reach the lifts but only one is working, and by now the porter is filling up

that with luggage, so we wait down in the car park for what seems hours. An “Out of Order” notice is found on the ground floor, but no one thought to put this on all floors.

This time Denise has already changed our room to one nearer the lift.

I quote from your details “Facilities at the hotel include air conditioning, telephone and TV in the rooms, a bar, and a gourmet restaurant”.

There are, however, two other coach parties staying at the hotel, and their organisers have already booked dinner – there is nothing available for us! At least this time, as mentioned above, we have had the foresight to buy some sandwiches, so once again we picnic in our room – at least we managed to get a tray of coffee from reception.

Monday 11th October - Rheims to UK

As I remark to my wife over breakfast (served, after gentle persuasion, in our room), “Tonight we shall be in our own bed, thank goodness”. However, there was one more day of turmoil and it turned out to be the worst!

Although the distance between Rheims and Calais is not overlong, we leave the hotel promptly at 8.15 a.m. for a Shuttle through the Channel Tunnel timed at 14.06. In praising us for our promptness, Denise advises us that we shall be stopping for coffee en route and may also have time at the terminal for any necessary shopping.

Despite passing at least two service stations with cafes etc. we do not stop en route. When passing through a peage area on the motorway, we are, however, offered the chance to use the facilities. Since most of us have used such places in the past, we decline the offer, thinking we shall be stopping shortly anyway.

On we go, non-stop, to Calais arriving there at 12 noon (over 2 hours before our schedule journey through the Tunnel). Oh good, now perhaps we can use the conveniences and have some lunch (having missed out on coffee). Oh no – Denise proudly announces that, because we are so early, we can go on the 12.30 p.m. shuttle. We can, however, have 10 minutes at the terminal building for the necessary toilet and purchase of our lunch – those people who were hoping to visit the duty free shop can forget all about that!

Back on the coach and on to the Shuttle arriving in Folkestone soon after 1 p.m.

Not everyone had used the facilities at Calais, so another request to stop at the services on the M20 (there is only one of these near to Maidstone and nothing more until Victoria Coach Station). Just as Jaime, the driver, attempts to draw off the M20 towards the services, people sitting in the front of the bus shout out “No, No” – the driver rather puzzled pulls back on to the M20 and we have all lost our chance of any relief.

The driver it seemed was familiar with the journey to Victoria Coach Station since he had often done this trip from Dover and, despite some traffic jams, made good time there. Several people by now are sitting cross-legged and have to make an urgent visit to the toilets while Jaime unloads the luggage for those people travelling home from Victoria. Once again, we are given 10 minutes; when I manage to reach the toilets, I am allowed in without payment as a disabled person (suddenly an advantage in being one!) but everyone else, including my wife, is asked to produce 20p to get in. She still only has Euros in her purse and is told to go to the Exchange Office for some English money; on tearing down the concourse to find this office, she is told that, unless she changes at least 20Euro, she will be charged commission – a very expensive visit to the toilet. Back she comes, and this time the attendant takes pity on her and allows her in (mainly to collect me).

Off we set again for Harwich. Denise has now left us remaining passengers in charge to get the driver to Harwich – he has no map and no English money. My wife and I were born and brought up in East Anglia and suggest to the driver that he return to the M25 the way he had come in (he obviously knew that route well). “Oh no” shout out other people – between us we probably had 6 different routes mentioned, and the problem couple in the front of the coach who had prevented us from stopping on the M20, take charge. He speaks no French or Spanish, and Jaime speaks no English. I have to admire the driver here – he kept his calm and took no notice of instructions shouted out to him in English and just carried on the way he had come in. En route we managed to find a filling station with shop and facilities, and the driver could now fill up with diesel (something he had been trying to do earlier near Maidstone).

At last we reach the M25 – but there is a further problem. We need to pay to go through the Dartford tunnel and Jaime, of course, has no English money (he had bought the fuel etc. with a credit card which cannot be used at the toll booths). Between us passengers we pay the necessary £1.80 and, by the M25, A12 and A120, we reach Harwich (a route completely unknown to Jamie) promptly at 6 p.m., the original estimated time of arrival. Had we not been caught in traffic and stopped at the filling station, we could well have reached Harwich before that time – what would we have done if the car park attendant had not been there to let us get our cars out? As it was, he arrived in his little van just as we did – our cars being the only ones left in the parking area.

It was obvious from the start of that day that Denise wished to get home as fast as possible. She had spent some time in Spain and was keen to get back. However, I do not feel that that was her role – she should have cared for her passengers and made sure they all arrived back safely at their final destination.

Of course, there was one other final problem to sort out – driver Jaime would need to cross the Dartford Bridge again on his way back to Dover. Another £1.80 had to be produced by the passengers. What a trip! Charlie Chaplin or Fred Karno could have made a wonderful film of it – I don’t think either of us has fully recovered yet, but we have made one decision never to use Page & Moy again for a coach trip. Stick to cruises in future – they are well run and comfortable, but don’t tag on any extensions unless you have done your homework properly.

Kenneth Wootton

End of Ken’s wonderfu l account. Barbara and I have taken package tours from England so we know a littlee about it. He is not exaggerating. It’s a hoot if you have a strong constitution and a broad appreciation of slapstick.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Magical Isle of Majorca


The Magical Isle of Majorca

Barbara and I often traveled on holiday with her first cousin, Ken Wootton and his wife Hilary. We have been on many trips with them, Scotland, Spain, the US and elsewhere. On one memorable occasion we took a two week trip with them to to Barcelona and the Balearic island of Majorca off the east coast of Spain, part of the region called Catalan, a section of Spain of which the inhabitants heartily wish they were not. The Barcelona part of the trip is another story—interesting but different.

We took a short flight from Barcelona to Palma, the capitol of Majorca and, I presume, of all the Balearics. It’s a bustling city of about 250,000, and is the primary destination of most of the tourists. They have all of the beaches and most of the hotels. Majorca has an area of only about 1400 sq miles but is very mountainous and heavily forested. The local population is a little over one million but during the holiday season it is literally overrun with English and Germany tourists, in about equal numbers. In some of the villages, for example, all you hear is German, in others English. If you hear the local language it is Catalan. If you try to speak Spanish they will correct you.

On landing Ken went to the rental car spot and got our Renault, an SUV, a very ;nice car. We loaded our baggage and took off for our resort rental at Binorella, 20 miles north of Palma. This was a hair raising experience since Ken was not used to having the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side of the car, and even worse, he had to try and stay on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Hilary nearly expired from fright. I didn’t do much better. Binorella is a gated resort with attached units, two floors, with two bedrooms upstairs and kitchen and living-dining area below.l We were arriving in September and the place was emptying out as people began returning to England to start school and return to their jobs. While unloading I asked Ken for the car keys to unlock the rear--and never gave them back--much to the relief of Hilary.

In the weeks time we had we drove about 400 miles in our sightseeing, most of it at fairly low speeds. Majorca is a mountainous island with a network of fairly slow roads. It’s been occupied by various civilized cultures for about 6000 years due to its obvious strategic location; Carthage, Rome, Etruscans, Moroccans.Cordovans. They have all left their traces. It’s an easily defended island since it seems to be all cliffs and rough approaches from every direction except at Palma.

We, of course, had to drive over the mountains to the north to the church and town where Chopin and George Sand spent three months in the winter of 1838. The locals all thought Chopin had TB. He did not but they were tired of hearing him cough so encouraged the two to leave. Which they did. But during those three months Chopin finished his most famous works, his etudes. Although no one wanted him there at the time now it’s a big tourist attraction. Over a million Brits have been to see the place.

The drive over those mountains was the most exciting part of the day. There were many very tight hairpin turns—21, 51, 41-- some number ending in one. One of my companions counted them on the way back. On each one I had to turn the steering wheel all the way to its stop to get arouond the curve.

One of our many expeditions was to the small town of Petra, very nearly in the center of the island. This place was of special interest because it is where Father Junipero Serra lived. It is also the center of the famed ‘Majorca Pearl’ industry. As we approached this town we saw a brightly lit modern building on the edge of town. Signage identified it as a pearl merchant establishment. We stopped and had a look at the jewels. It was all beautifully displayed and the quantity was completely overwhelming. We didn't buy anything. Majorca pearls are entirely artificial so it is not necessary for the makers to be anywhere near the sea.

The town center consisted of old buildings crowded right up to the road’s edge in most places. There were no electric poles. The wires were just strung from building to building. We parked at the curb where there was a no parking sign---there were no parking places anywhere—and had a very nice lunch. When we returned to the car we had a ticket on the windshield. I told Ken not to worry. We were leaving in a couple of days and they would never catch us. He worried anyway. Across the street from the restaurant was a museum. We specially wanted to see that since that was all about Fr. Serra. It was locked up tight so we went next door and roused someone. A lady came out and said she would open the museum for us. How much? Fifty pesetas each—two pesos total. We didn't have that small of amount so we made a donation to the museum. Inside we saw the tiny room that Fr. Serra slept in with the very plain bunk he slept on, almost like a camp cot. In another much larger room was a complete set of beautiful large models of all the missions that he established up the coast of California.

Before leaving we felt we should look out over the Med from the eastern most point of the island. There was good parking and a trail led up a steep rise to a special lookout. Hilary, as usual, was the only one with energy enough to make the climb. The rest of us gazed out over the sea from the parapet in front of the car.

I took some video but have only one still—a shot of Barbara waking up at Binorella, ready for another day. We did have fun. Oh yes==the ticket never got paid.