Friday, October 27, 2006

Day 14: Gettin’ wiggy

In the pantheon of this trip’s tacky touron geegaws (and believe me, it’s a pantheon – even near the Pantheon!), nothing is more ubiquitous – and stranger – than the hat-wig combo. It’s your classic tourist ballcap, the gaudier the better, with long strands of Wayne’s World-era locks sewn in. We’ve never seen anyone wearing one, or even considering one. Still, they’re everywhere. Guess there are a lot of follicle-challenged grandpas back home getting the souvie of their nightmares!

And speaking of wigged out, we had a dinner for the ages the other night. It’s the cruiser’s daily conundrum: where to dine among the ship’s dozen options. Traditionalists opt for the two “scheduled seatings” at the same table with the same tablemates every night of the cruise. The idea is you create a regular little social group for the length of the cruise.

Less-social rebels like us go for “anytime dining” – which means you can eat at pretty much any dining room whenever they’re open. And that can lead to some pretty darned interesting dinner conversations.

Thursday night, we were at a table for 10 that spanned the English-speaking world: A couple from New Zealand, another pair born in England but living in Canada, two Canadian buddies whose wives chose a different dining room, and four Americans: A husband and wife from Alabama and us Texans (for the moment).

Right away, our faves are the Brit transplants. Harry’s a retired surgeon, prone to rambling on a bit about history but a delightful conversationalist. Frances is almost 73, a former school board kingpin and self-proclaimed political junkie who starts the conversation by saying she won’t talk about politics tonight. Too divisive.

I, of course, immediately whip out the red cape to agitate the bulls.

One of the fascinating things about the trip has been the reaction to Americans. The war is hugely unpopular in Europe, and whenever we say we’re from Texas, eyebrows get cocked. Politics is usually not discussed, but when it is, the general tone tends to be strongly anti-Bush, but not anti-American.

Until you meet Mr. Alabama.

The guy’s straight out of Karl Rove’s central casting agency – a self-professed millionaire who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and now wants to convince the world his way is the only way. He’s like a cartoon – brash, obnoxious, pretending to want a conversation but really just wanting to hear himself crow.

Drawling like crazy in the seat next to Frances, he takes the floor: “Ah’d lahk tuh ask y’all one simple question: Do you believe in equal opportunity or do you believe in income redistribution – that’s called socialism?”

Remember in the Star Wars saga when Hayden Christensen finally goes over to the dark side? The eyes darken, the forehead furrows, a blood-red aura drenches his face.

Think of Frances as a 73-year-old-social-democrat-transplanted-from-Britain version of Hayden Christensen’s forehead.

Scary. And fun.

Mr. Alabama slaps the table. Frances pleads with him to be reasonable. Mr. New Zealand (whose wife bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs. Ari on Entourage) thunders, “That’s the craziest thing oy’ve ever hehd!” Mr. Alabama (whose wife has just fled in embarrassment) refuses to listen, then boasts about Bill Gates and “that Buffett guy” (Jimmy, maybe?) as iconic Americans voluntarily picking up the world’s needy.
Things escalate. Then Frances, the picture of decorum, turns to Mr. A. Asks, “Will you just shut the f*** up?”

And that pretty much shuts him up.


Day 13: Talkin’ smack over gin rummy on the Caribe deck

After a short day of shopping, drinking and dining in the nothing-much fishing town of Katakolon (“Gateway to Olympia!”), we’re quietly hanging out on our balcony, reading books and writing letters when a gang war breaks out next door.

Or at least that’s what this titanic gin rummy tiff sounds like. Gram (in her 80s) and Daughter (in her 60s) are throwin’ down cards and disses with the kind of reckless abandon that would make Tupac and Biggie cower. We’re seriously concerned that somebody’s gonna get capped.

Ten days into a 12-day cruise, it seems, folks are getting a wee bit testy. The buffet’s getting a little gamy, every Greek ruin’s starting to look like one more pile of rocks, and Toga Night is just a distant memory. (OK, maybe that last one is a positive development.)

Or maybe it’s just the hangover from Athens. Yesterday’s stop there went great – lengthy but entertaining walk to the train station (including this street corner in the port city of Pireaus, where they really DO let sleeping dogs lie), easy subway ride, impressive vistas, fascinating street life, stellar Greek salad.

But then we hit the Acropolis, which these days looks more like Uptown Dallas than the cradle of civilization. Apparently, the powers that be (Zeus? Hera?) got tired of all those rocks crumbling and decided to rebuild the whole darned thing. So it’s bristling with cranes, raw rock and construction workers. Add in the thousands of tourons crawling over it (including us), like ants on a glob of potato salad. De-lish!

Uh-oh. Gram’s just started her victory dance! Call it the icky shuffle.

PS: And the caption contest winner is... Mike Jackson, who contributed "Monkey see, monkey do-do." Strangest entry from Dave: "The dingo at my baby!" Mike'll get a luxe prize when we get back.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Day 11: Caption contest!

Today’s stop, the island of Mykonos, was photogenic but unremarkable. (Sorry, but we’re reeeeeally spoiled by Santorini.) The baklava rocked, but the Greek coffee lived up to our pal B’s description: espresso mixed with sand.

So let’s forego the travelogue to continue the remarkable series of scatological kitsch images. And here’s where you, dear reader, come in: Conjure up a caption for the “Mykonos monkey” pictured below on a painted tile at a local shop, and you’ll win a deeeluxe prize (NOT the “Mykonos monkey” painted tile, thank God). Just hit the comments button and let us – and the world – know of your witty brilliance.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Day 10: The 8th Wonder of the World

As we wandered through the amazingly well-preserved ruins of Ephesus on our only Turkish stop this afternoon, our guide Osmet (“call me Ozzie”) rhapsodized on the “8th wonder of the world.”

The leaning tower of Pisa, perhaps? Or maybe the Colosseum in Rome? Nah, had to be that clinging-to-the-cliff, donkey-decorated stairway in Santorini, right?

Um. No. He was talking about the mysterious bottle in his left-hand pants pocket.

The elixir inside? Coca-Cola.

Turkey actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Ephesus lived up to its billing as a top-tier dig, run out of business shortly after Saint Paul’s time by a silted-up sea channel and a killer outbreak of malaria. See, Paul was the rock star of the day, writing widely read letters and playing to huge Ephesian crowds at the 24,000-seat marble-decked amphitheater we sat in. Feeling the spirit, we pulled out our lighters and hollered, “Freebird!”

The port city where we landed, Kusadasi, luckily hasn’t been silted in yet. It is, in fact, the sunbelt boomtown of the eastern Mediterranean. English is everywhere – way more prominent in signage than in other cruise stops – thanks to the infusion of Irish second-home buyers attracted by the sun and the rock-bottom house prices. A 4-bedroom, two-bath penthouse condo goes for less than 100,000 Euros ($120k U.S.). Who’s in?

And in Turkey, apparently, every day is Last Call at Nieman’s. I ended up haggling like crazy and came away with a gen-u-ine Turkish rug for the soon-to-be-new digs. No idea if it was a bargain, but I did knock about 30% off the guy’s opening offer offer.

Plus, a visit to the seaside fish market proves that the octopi of Turkey kick the butts of those puny critters we saw in Naples.

And remember: Only 50 cent is enough to feel the Magic Atmosphere. (And where are this kid’s pants anyway?)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Day 9: We kick ass

Not startling switchbacks… nor ankle-breaking cobblestones… nor even steaming heaps of donkey dung could keep your intrepid correspondents from climbing the 600 “stairs” that reach from the sea to the idyllic town of Fira on Santorini. And not only did we make the ascent (a climb the ship’s crew warned against), we did it quicker than the beasts who had to tote less athletic cruisers up the cliff.

Humans rule. Donkeys drool.

Best day of the trip by far – partly because Santorini may be the coolest place on Earth and partly because we had a blast with our neighbor pals Dave & B, who just happen to be on a Crete-Rhodes-Santorini-Athens vacation.

They let us visit their cliffside suite at a joint called Hotel Ira (guess the Hotel Hortense was booked). A breeze rippled through the open windows of their three-level palazzo overlooking what seemed to be toy boats below. It was stunning – even moreso given the 85-Euros-per-night rate.

Best meal of the trip by far: Lunch at Café Parea. A bit off the beaten touron path. Grilled feta, Greek salads (no lettuce in the real deal) crowned with bricks of feta, unbelievably creamy dolmas, souvlaki, grilled lamb, pork chops, moussaka, fries topped with crumbled feta and a bottle of the local vino. Wow. We won’t need to eat for weeks.

Santorini was a bracing change after a day at sea that climaxed with Formal Night -- me in a tux and the better half looking waaay better in a lil black number -- and a visit to the disco. It's at the top of the ship's rear end, and dubbed Skywalker, probably because they don’t play a single song released after The Empire Strikes Back. Man, I hadn’t seen the Electric Slide done since Heatwave stopped riding on the Groove Line, tonight.

Sorry, gotta go. Lunch is wearing off, and the buffet beckons.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Day 7: Rockin’ and rollin’

After three days of relishing barge-like tranquility, we learned last night that we’re really on a boat. Gale-force winds and 15-foot waves combined to make this tub sway like Gilligan’s hammock. The better half was the greener half until she downed some ginger (who knew that was an herbal treatment for seasickness?) and then Dramamine.

On the up side, the rockin’ was making the dice roll nicely down in the ship’s casino. While the greener half recovered, I collected a nice pile of green. See how long that lasts…

Today’s stop was Naples, which we’d heard mixed things about (lotsa crime, great pizza). It is a weird place: There’s more construction downtown than in the Oklahoma highway system because of a subway expansion that’s gotta dodge a lot of historical foundations. And you can never wait for the green light to cross the street – just suck it up and leap into the maelstrom. They always stop. Or almost always.

The history was picturesque but middling – I really got into this major midtown street that felt like an alleyway lined with pushcarts. It began with more bookstores in two blocks than all of Dallas-Fort Worth, and then gradually included every possible retail product – clothes, fruit, mini-squid (pictured at left) and the most godawful baby dolls you’ve ever seen (too gruesome to photograph). Think the bastard children of Bratz and trolls.

No doubt about the day’s highlight, though: the pizza. Hit a joint called Trianon where nobody spoke English except the trio of crew people from the USS Eisenhower dining at the next table. Split a proscuitto/mushroom combo that had tastebuds dancing with abandon.

Rock on!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Day 6: Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” on the Lido deck at 8 a.m.

If that post title sounds like the results of a psychedelic hangover, you’d be half right.

Spent our 14th wedding anniversary yesterday kicking around Monte Carlo, specifically at le Casino, where I’d dreams of livin’ it up Bond-style. This could be the world’s only casino where you have to pay to get in (10 euros apiece). Honestly, though, it’s probably worth it just for a glimpse at the décor. Wow.

But the keepers of le Casino clearly don’t want the fanny-packed, buffet-bloated cruising hordes hanging around. They don’t even open the craps table until 5 p.m. – exactly when we were due back at the boat. Quel outrage!

Guess that buyout money I was going to lay on the hard eight is safe. I did sit down at the roulette table long enough to lose 15 euros and gain an appreciation for the utter disdain displayed by the tuxedoed dealers. Impressive.

The big news is the home team actually made a profit at le Casino thanks to a big video poker run by the better half. How big, you ask? 1 euro. Hey, a profit’s a profit! Take that, Bond!

Back on the boat, we celebrated over dinner at the Italian fine-dining (really!) restaurant with two bottles of Italian white.

Which only partly explains Lionel on the Lido deck. Sometime in the night, the ship’s computers decided to go on strike, and we awoke to find the a.c. out and the day’s shore excursions canceled (no Florence this trip – aaargh!) while they try to reboot.

So we bellied up to the buffet breakfast buffet – on the Lido deck, of course. And what greeted us but the dulcet tones of Mr. Richie.

Get me a bloody mary. Stat.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Straightforward and comedic

Soon, Ed Bark will be everywhere.

From the news release:, the leading online destination for women, has brought the straightforward comedic voice of Ed Bark, renowned television critic and blogger, to the site as a contributor. Once a week, Bark will write a column that will be featured on iVillage's popular TV Cocktail blog.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Day 4: Death dodged, we’re cruisin’

Not to worry: That fiery Rome subway accident today managed to avoid us. Was kinda strange, tho. We were strolling around town about 10 a.m. when I glanced in a café and saw a coupla dozen faces glued to the single TV screen. Their looks were strangely familiar – a very 9/11 vibe. So I went inside, saw the CNN International headline about the crash and then checked the news on my cel. (Wild, isn’t it, that I’m in Rome just a coupla miles from the site, and I check the net on my 214 area code celphone to figure out what really happened.)

We were already wavering about what we’d planned: A noontime subway ride to the rail station, and then hop a train to the port in Civitavecchia where our ship would launch. That $50 plan was way cheaper than the $125 hired-car ride, but the Rome subways are pretty notorious, both safety-wise and access-wise, for tourists with luggage.

This news sealed it. We’d nap in the back of a comfy van and hope to make the cash back at the Casino in Monte Carlo tomorrow. Yeah. Right.

The best part of the drive came when the driver – who didn’t even pretend to parlo Anglaise – slammed off his classic-rock-plagued radio and popped in what was clearly a treasured CD.

So we tooled up to the Golden Princess blasting Barry White’s Greatest Hits.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Day 2: Beyonce, a pint and a really big shoe

Duh moment of our first full day in Dublin: Halfway around the world, there's no escape from stateside pop culture. A full-page newspaper ad for Beyonce's show early next year. A poster slapped up near St. Patrick's Cathedral featuring the cardinal of country crooners, Kenny Rogers. And more pubs with awnings touting Budweiser than Guinness.

Speaking of the brown stuff, we sipped a bit at the legendary Guinness Storehouse, billed as Dublin's most popular tourist attraction. Inside its dull factory facade is a sparkling, high-tech tourist trap -- and one that hasn't produced a drop of stout since sometime in the '80s. Pretty much a waste of 14 Euros apiece, 'cept for the free pint, the exhibit of Guinness advertising through the ages and the sparkling view from its seventh-floor Gravity Bar.

Followed that up by staggering through the beautiful St. Stephen's Green, a park with the most verdant lawns this side of St. Andrew's. And then a quick spin through the National Museum revealed the completely bizarre "relic of St. Brigid's shoe": a wee, but highly hyped, metal casing that the original probably decomposed in.

Centuries from now, think they'll be venerating the "relic of touron Rick's pint glass"?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

What I Did on My Buyout Vacation: Day 1

The Odyssey (sorry, Homer!) has begun. And who better to dog us in Dublin than ... you guessed it ... J.R. Ewing.

First, the backstory:

The Better Half and I have been planning this adventure pretty much since we decided to take Uncle Belo's check. We left DFW Friday night at 7 on a nine-hour nonstop to London Gatwick. All went fine -- 'cept a certain luggage handler tweaked his back in the crazed ramp-up on Friday and nine hours of playing pretzel in coach were not exactly the best tonic.

Still, thanks to handy supplies provided by Big Pharma, we made it without incident and then weathered a seven-hour layover in London before jetting off to Dublin, where we'll be for the first two days of the trip. (By the way, the Gatwick-Dublin trip was the deal of the century -- cost us exactly 1 pound each, plus about 20 pounds of government surcharges. So we spent less flying from London to Dublin than we would've driving from Dallas to Wichita. Ka-ching!)

So after we hit the lil D (don't know if the Dubliners will like that moniker much), we took a taxi to our hotel, the Morrison, one of those cool W boutique wanna-bes. And after we say we're from Big D, what're the first words out of the cabbie's mouth? No "Wanna see Bono's hangout?" Not even a "Ready for a Guinness?"

No, he asks, "How's J.R.?" And then proceeds to ask all about Southfork, Sue Ellen, Bobby. You get the drift.

The same script we got on our last Europe jaunt, 10 years ago, from a Parisian cabbie.

Man, Dallas needs a reputation makeover...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Back in the saddle

Your faithful blogger's been out of commission for a spell at my mom's funeral back in Maryland. (Here's the obit -- not written by one of the family's journalists, by the way.) Was a tough but fulfilling time. And we managed to avoid milking any cows...

Next on the docket: A lengthy European tour that starts Friday the 13th. (Portentous, isn't it?) Stay tuned for updates.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Gray Lady sighs

RIP, Johnny Apple.

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