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Updated: Jun 14

The less tomorrow becomes thinkable, the more license to splurge today: a system’s impending demise may reveal itself in feverish hilarity. — Julian Bell

Earl Fowler

Getting there is half the horror

So yeah, there was Rekha’s and my 40th anniversary as a couple to commemorate, and daughter Kelly and son-in-law Marken’s 15th wedding anniversary, and my hitting the three score and 10 pre-tombstone milestone, and, most urgently of all, the inescapable fact that at age 16, the window on grandson Lake’s future participation in big family vacations is probably closing.

But none of these factors are really why I signed on to Kelly’s proposal for a once-in-a-lifetime Mediterranean cruise, with a few days tacked on at either end for good measure in Barcelona and Venice.

No, what motivated me most was the memory of my widowed dad’s unremitting remorse over a lifetime of scrimping and saving and never indulging in the travel and vacations he was now certain my mom would have enjoyed. He tortured himself for the rest of his life with “shoulda, woulda, coulda.”

Our plan was to have Kelly, Marken, Lake and his 11-year-old brother, Hudsynn, fly from their home in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to Barcelona, the starting point for the cruise, a day ahead of us. Rekha’s and my itinerary would take us from Vancouver Island to Sea-Tac Airport in metropolitan Seattle, then to London-Heathrow, and on to Barcelona, where we would share a boutique hotel suite in a restored Modernist building just 200 metres from the venerable Sagrada Familia and a stone’s throw (or three) from Sant Pau | Dos de Maig metro station.

What could gang aft a-gley? How about one (insert 11-letter compound word for debacle or fiasco that rhymes with “clutterbuck” here) after another? (Pardon my light Scots dialect.)

The short hop from Victoria to Seattle on a small Alaska Airlines jet was uneventful, notwithstanding their jaunty, insouciant motto: “We’ve got your back if a door blows out mid-flight: the extra legroom is complimentary!”

The 7,726-kilometre, nine-and-a-half hour flight aboard British Airways (motto: Sod off, you lowly colonial scum!) from Seattle to London was better than expected. The economy-class seat next to us in a row of three remained vacant, the chicken was cooked and the movies were terrific (highly recommend American Fiction and The Holdovers if you haven’t seen them; Killers of the Flower Moon not so much). The dazzling effulgence of the red sun rising somewhere between Iceland and Ireland was like witnessing a nuclear blast, which is sort of what it is.

And then, as for Oppenheimer, our troubles began.

I could write an even longer account of what went wrong, but the bottom line is this: We wound up arriving in Barcelona at 2 a.m. Friday rather than as we should have at 11 a.m. Thursday, by bus from Girona (100 kilometres northeast of the Catalan capital) instead of by air, without rather than with our luggage, at an extra cost of $996.30 as the price for missing our connecting flight. Off and rolling, then.

Sitting in the back row, we were coughed and sneezed upon for a couple of hours on a jet full of increasingly frustrated passengers trapped on the tarmac in Girona, who queued in increasingly desperate poses to use the washroom behind us as toilet paper supplies dwindled. I’m quite certain that one young woman wet herself about a foot from my face before giving up on the lineup and squirming back to her seat. You might find that disgusting, and I wouldn’t disagree, but I’m informed that there are sophisticated “gentlemen’s clubs” where you’d be expected to pay extra for that experience. Just not $996.30.

At some point on the cab ride to our Barcelona suite after the bus ride from Girona, I lost my reading glasses. Neither Rekha nor I had had a wink of sleep in more than 30 hours by the time we hit our pillows. And as well as being bereft of toiletries or a change of clothing, I was also without the blood pressure pills locked in my suitcase forlornly lost in some godforsaken Heathrow holding area.

In short, a ¡hola! lot of shakin’ goin’ on.

We slept into Friday afternoon, blowing the money spent on a tour already booked. Spent the rest of the day sightseeing in Barcelona, which is amazing by the way, and commenced stocking up on necessities.

Stopped to marvel at legendary architect Antoni Gaudi’s astoundingly colossal and monumentally terrifying something-strange-in-the-neighbourhood Sagrada Familia, the largest unfinished Catholic church in the world (the current goal is to finally finish the thing in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death).

Saw the 38-storey Agbar Tower, the biggest phallic symbol in the world (excluding Ron DeSantis in white rubber boots). Saw the stadium used for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which reminded me of the trouble I got into on the sports desk of the Montreal Gazette at the time for writing “Spanish Fly” over some clown on the high diving platform. I thought Spanish Fly was Herb Alpert’s little Spanish flea. A record star he thought he’d be.

Spent $200 plus on mediocre hamburgers for the family in the vibrant Plaça Reial, where wide-eyed tourists are mercilessly assailed by chanting Hare Krishna devotees (and spoofers) and amateur acrobats doing dangerous stunts and won’t-take-no-for-an-answer rose dealers (¿Lo quieres?) and pertinacious “friendship bracelet”-pushing African refugees all desperately seeking euros. (And boy, if I only had a euro for every time I heard buskers of no fixed ability butchering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” everywhere we went in Europe … and it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor falls, the major whiffs.)

On Saturday, when we should have been visiting such must-sees as the Picasso Museum or the Boqueria Market, we were obliged to shop for clothing and personal care products since it seemed unlikely that we’d see our suitcases again before the cruise began the following morning. That wound up costing hundreds of euros we hadn’t budgeted for (a euro being worth about a buck and a half Canadian). But on the plus side, I did wind up with three sexy tees for only five euros a pop that took me back to my days as an apprentice dancer for the touring Chippendales dance troupe. If only I could remember where I last doffed my bow tie and cuffs.

There was a somewhat cryptic message from British Airways in my email inbox when we returned to the boutique hotel in the late afternoon:






So back to the airport then, a 40-euro cab trip each way. Made our way through a painfully slow lost-and-found line, which was difficult to locate in the first place, only to realize a lifelong ambition by finally coming face to face with Manuel from Fawlty Towers. (He’s from Barcelona.)

After an hour or so of waiting while listening to entitled, half-drunk Americans from Utah and bitter Brits from Leicester kvetch about their freshly lost luggage missing from a flight that had just arrived, we were told to meet a man in a red shirt on the other side of the arrivals area. So now we’re into a Where’s Waldo? scenario. After another half hour of searching, we found the man in the red shirt: Manuel himself! Holding our lost bags! ¿Qué? ¿Cómo?

So to sum up all that’s happened so far, a quick recap: Because of runway departure congestion that held us up at Heathrow and exceedingly rare windy conditions that kept us from landing in Barcelona, a woman pissed her pants about a foot from my face. I think that about covers it.

Dante might have said it better: “The path to paradise begins in hell.”

But I have to go with “Dos cervezas, por favor!” Why not a little Spanish flea?

DAY 1: Ship of Tomfoolery

The Titanic, as everyone knows, was a massive ship — 883 feet long and 92 feet wide. It was 175 feet tall from the keel to the top of the four stacks (or funnels), almost 35 feet of which were below the waterline.

As the taxi that brought us to the port in Barcelona pulls away, we are standing at the aft end of the nine-year-old Norwegian Escape, a Breakaway Plus-class cruise ship operated by Norwegian Cruise Line. The Norwegian Escape is 1,069 feet long, 153 feet wide at its maximum and 20 decks high. I don’t know how many feet 20 decks translates to, but as mother ships go, it’s one big mother.

I’ll let the company’s promotional blurb take it from here:

The passenger accommodations on the 369,595,520-pound vessel include 407 inside cabins, 114 ocean-view cabins, 1,168 balcony cabins, 308 "mini-suite" cabins, and 82 studio cabins for solo travellers as well as 47 wheelchair-accessible cabins. Ninety-five additional suite cabins across two decks were designed with conjoining use of exclusive facilities. … The cruise ship is able to accommodate 4,266 guests, including a crew of 1,733.

The core of the specialty dining and entertainment venues aboard Norwegian Escape lies within an expanded three-deck complex positioned in the centre of the ship across the sixth, seventh, and eighth decks. It was first unveiled on (fellow cruise ships) Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway and is also accompanied by an outdoor promenade designed for al fresco dining. The complex includes numerous bars, restaurants, lounges, and a casino.

Norwegian Escape was also built with the largest water park in the NCL fleet at the time. The sports complex additionally includes a three-storey ropes cross and various other ball courts.

The water slides, mini-putt course, pools, hot tubs, basketball court/soccer pitch, video-game teen area, giant chessmen, bocce ball court — the kid stuff — are a major selling point for our grandsons. Hudsynn in particular, who makes friends easily, has the time of his life while playing whatever he feels like and eating whatever he wants pretty much the whole time we’re at sea.

Rekha and I had envisioned ourselves reading in the sun on our private balcony as the Mediterranean coastlines slipped by in the distance — a fantasy we ultimately indulge, though not as frequently as we would have preferred.

The compact balcony cabin for two (Hudsynn slept with us on the couch) cost about $6,200 for our 11-day cruise, not counting shore excursions, booze, etc. If you do the math on that and assume an average base price of about $3,000 a person and a capacity guest list of 4,266 (and certainly the ship appears to be full), you’re approaching revenues of $13 million before taking into account profits from the plethora of other services and facilities at work: the casino, the eight bars and restaurants where charges applied, room service delivery, the laundry service, the medi spa clinic, the masseurs and masseuses, the acupuncture clinic, the wine promotion, the art sales, the various Internet packages, the this, the that, and above all, the shore excursions at the various destinations.

Five restaurants/bars, by my count, are “complimentary” (that is, already paid for as part of the price of admission): the American Diner on Deck 17, O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill on Deck 7, Savor on Deck 6, Taste on Deck 6, and the Garden Café Buffet: the massive main dining area on Deck 16 where every conceivable type of food is available: standard North American and English breakfasts, lunch and diner menus, a burger bar, a pizza counter, East Asian food, South Asian food, cold cuts, fruits, desserts … you name it, with different specials every day. There doesn’t appear to be much of a dress code at any of these places, though Lake does get the boot once from the Garden Café for not wearing a shirt.

Cover charge or à la carte fees apply at eight up-scale restaurants, where reservations are advisable and 20 per cent gratuities are automatically added to the bill: Bayama (seafood, deck 8), Cagney’s (steakhouse, deck 8) Food Republic (deck 8, no obvious speciality that I can discern), La Cucina (Italian, deck 8), Le Bistro (French, deck 6), Moderno (churrascaria — i.e., Portuguese barbecue — deck 8), Pincho (tapas, deck 8), and Teppanyaki (Japanese, deck 6).

Being the notorious gourmands we are, Rekha and I paid for meals as part of our package at two of the restaurants where charges applied, but never made it to either. I cancel our Bayama reservation one evening when she crashes early after coming down with the cruise ship plague that spread throughout the Love Boat thanks to the omnipresent coughers and sneezers.

Love, exciting and new

come aboard. we’re expecting you ...

We would have been much smarter to have booked the drinks package on offer up-front instead of shelling out for the two paid restos we never visited. At the end of the trip, I wound up being charged almost $80 US for the three glasses of wine and single piña colada we shared at a couple of on-board shows. Worst of all, I’ve had that ear-wormy “if you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain” refrain stuck in my head for three weeks now. Write to me and escape.

I remember reading somewhere that two million Filipinos work overseas — and on the seas — to support their families back home. Of that number, about 1,700 are on this ship, constituting the great majority of the crew — hardworking, cheerful, solicitous, underpaid. Also exempt, one imagines, from many legal protections. They clear the tables and clean the rooms, weathering the occasional racist overtone or explicit hung-over rudeness from the mostly white (but increasingly Chinese) cruisers with their secret weapon — the ability to converse and joke among themselves about particularly egregious morons in Tagalog.

Hey. It’s a living.

COVID outbreaks on cruise ships in the early days of the pandemic dealt the industry a crippling blow — which accounts, I suppose, for the fanatical focus on hand sanitizing and washing that staff and guests alike endure throughout the voyage. Ebullient greeters with vats of sanitizer are permanently posted at entrances to the Garden Café. Their jolly “washy, washy” mantra is winsome at first, but quickly wears thin among the tetchiest diners, later heard to be darkly muttering “no washy, no ticky” or “stabby, stabby” — that sort of thing. Personally, I take some pride in the certainty that I washed my hands more in a two-week period than the entire cast of General Hospital spread over 61 seasons.

Unfortunately, other than asking for basic courtesy or shooting them withering stink-eyes, there isn’t much anyone can do about all the aforementioned coughers and sneezers, who happily spread their afflictions like rats carrying the bubonic plague.

But enough with the grippe and the griping. Look up from your mojito or your margarita (or my $20 piña colada) for a moment and you’ll notice that the Norwegian Escape is following the lead of the pilot boats out of Barcelona and heading for Mallorca (Majorca if you prefer), the largest of the Balearic islands, 250 kilometres to the south (about a third of the way to Algeria). You are travelling with thousands of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, Germans, Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese on all sides, a goodly portion of whom are stuffing their faces on the sun decks and already snockered (mostly the Aussies, but crikey, what did you expect?).

There is a vast menu of entertaining diversions and activities from which to choose, though not always on the same day. For example: Bamboozled, a “POWerful tabletop Escape experience” in which participants “join forces with other guests to help our superhero escape the ship to foil an evil villain’s plan before it’s too late”; a majority rules trivia game show; a disco party; karaoke madness; a splash academy for young kids; a teen program with counsellors called Entourage; a meet-and-greet mingle for solo travellers (with Stefan as your host); painting classes; supper club performances; Sudoku challenges; bean bag tosses; basic salsa dance classes; speed trivia; $2,500 jackpot and king and queen bingo; Cameo Rascale’s acrobatic juggling act; howl at the moon duelling pianos; classic rock and Motown parties; charades; an awesome ’80s and beyond dance party; the Salazar Magic Show (in which Hudsynn will eventually play a starring role); musical entertainment by the Golden Octaves, Quick Silver, Son Latino, mellow tunes with pianist Valentyna, classical music with guitarist Luiz; the Irish-pub themed Choir of Men; ping pong tournaments; sunrise trivia; origami lessons; movie poster trivia; a “Thriller” dance class where you can learn all of Michael Jackson’s dance moves; a musical game show; movie offerings on the big screen in the Atrium; fitness classes; Swarovski jewelry collection specials; ballroom time with DJ Joboy; family portraits; digestive health consultations; a first responders social; LGBTQIA+ gatherings; a barbershop; something mysterious called a Friends of Bill W. group … and I’m getting as tired of typing this as you are of reading it, but we’ve only scratched the surface.

Tonight’s highlighted entertainment: an Elton John tribute act. You’d want to get that out of the way early, though to many of the more seasoned passengers, this Mr. John appears to be “one of the new fellows.” What time does Benny Goodman come on?

While we carefree revellers chug south in obscene luxury and dozens of gulls circle above like lappet-faced vultures scanning the Sahara for camel carcasses, I can’t help wondering how many asylum-seeking migrants escaping from poverty, Islamism and inter-ethnic conflicts in the Dark Continent to the south are simultaneously venturing northward in crowded, unseaworthy vessels toward the same Balearic islands that will be our first destination.  No karaoke for them. No change of clothes. No documentation. No money. And that’s assuming their ragtag vessels even make it.

Better sign off for now. The Bernie Taupin lookalike contest is starting and I’m behind Door No. 3 at the $5,000 Jackpot Deal or No Deal wine cellar event. Could win a free Hair Recovery Therapy session with Elsa on deck 19. And I certainly want to be done in time to watch the showing of Crazy Rich Asians in the Atrium at 11:15 p.m after the party line dance class breaks up.

We have entered a bizarrerie of the ripped, the randy and the rarin’ to go. I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

DAY 2: Exploring Palma de Mallorca

Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird. I rise about 6 as the ship is pulling into Palma, with the city lights twinkling and the great cathedral and royal palace visible as silhouettes. Not another soul around.

Holy holy holy! Highs! Epiphanies! Way hay and up she rises!

So I should be writing about how Mallorca and the other Balearic islands (principally Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera) in this Spanish archipelago in the western Mediterranean Sea were first colonized by humans in the third millennium BC and how the Phoenicians (with Carthage as their principal city in North Africa) and the Romans (after the Second Punic War) and the Vandals and the Islamic Emirate of Córdoba and the Taifa of Dénia and the Pisans and the Catalans and the Allmoravides and the Almohad Moorish dynasty and King James I of Aragon and King Philip II of Spain and the Bourbon Dynasty all had their shots running this place, and how it was a Nationalist stronghold at the start of the Spanish Civil War and then reclaimed by the Republicans until they were forced to retreat by Fascist Italy in 1936 … but that’s what a degree in history is for. Or you could just glance at Wikipedia, as I’m doing right now.

Since the mid-Fifties, the advent of mass tourism has transformed the economy of Mallorca and, in particular, that of Palma on the south coast (population 420,000, including more than 60,000 non-Spanish foreigners, mainly German and Dutch and British). Of the “things to do” that were recommended by our cruise line brochure — taking a walking tour, enjoying the historic café Ca’n Joan de s’Aigo (which serves traditional island food and dates back to 1700), riding the vintage train to the town of Sóller or visiting the royal palace of La Almudaina — we choose merely to take a walking tour along the gorgeous Bay of Palma before hopping on a shuttle bus to the huge cathedral known as La Seu.

Built atop a mosque that was itself built atop an earlier Christian church (ever notice how the dutiful, God-fearing partisans of every major religion treat supposedly sacred sites like dogs vying for dominance by staking out claims to fire hydrants?), La Seu dates back to 1229, was finished in 1601 and saw legendary Catalan architect Anton Gaudi (him again) drafted to restore it in 1901. The Parc de la Mar, a lovely park near the centre of Palma, lies just to the south, overlooked by the cathedral, which sits above it on the city’s stone foundations. Between the two are the old town walls.

Like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, like all famous churches and cathedrals and mosques and temples the world over, La Seu is continuously besieged by legions of tourists in turn besieged by hucksters hawking garish trinkets and toys, sanctimonious bric-a-brac, pietistic merch and mementos, fast food and drinks. I don’t like this stuff, find the crowds oppressive (especially on hot, sunny days like this one), and have never been moved by the ornate interiors of Catholic churches in particular with their bloody fixation on fraudulent relics, saintly shams, rosaries, crucifixes, votive candles, incense and Christ’s suffering on the cross. What we have here, at least so far as I’m concerned, is a failure to excommunicate.

In any case, it’s the beautiful houses, storefronts and Mediterranean vegetation (the cypresses and the laurel, the bougainvillea and the bay laurel) that make a deeper impression than any religious iconography. Not to mention the simple wares laid out along the sidewalk next to the bay by a dozen or so African migrants pointedly excluded from the main action across the street.

On sale for a fraction of what you’d pay in stores are knock-offs of designer purses, bags and jewelry, sports jerseys, sunglasses, caps, hats, fridge magnets … most of it labelled as having been made in PRC. Takes a moment’s thought to realize that PRC, which we’ll see on almost everything at all the tourist sites on our trip, stands for People’s Republic of China. “PRC” is a tad obscure as to the origins of these goods, which is precisely the idea.

As Rekha buys a fetching sun hat (later abandoned in Venice) and the rest of the family picks up faux Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors and Hermès Matte Niloticus Crocodile 18K Diamond Himalayan Birkin 30 likenesses for the folks back home (OK, I made that last one up), you have to marvel at the Rube Goldbergian manoeuvres and machinations of 21st century capitalism: Counterfeit luxury goods made by Uighur slave labour in a plutocracy under the hammer of the Chinese Communist Party is sold to First World tourists by asylum-seeking economic migrants who fled failed states ravaged by colonialism on overloaded life rafts and unseaworthy dinghies that regularly arrive on these shores from Algeria. Adam Smith, eat your heart out.

I just wish I’d waited to buy Hudsynn that FC Barcelona jersey here for 10 or 15 euros instead of extravagantly spending almost 200 for one at an official store operated by the soccer team at a mall in Barcelona when we were panic-buying clothing.

Oh, and speaking of Hudsynn: Once back on the Good Ship Lollipop, we step out onto the balcony. The lady on the next one, whom we can’t see but can clearly hear, is making what sounds like an important business call. I’m ashamed to say that I am way more entertained than I should be by the loud fart noises Hudsynn starts making by blowing and flapping his lips on his arm, which the person at the other end of that important business call could not help but hear. Ever notice how the male sense of humour never gets any older than 11?

Then it’s getting windy as darkness covers the earth. The ship starts to roll. She rocks in beauty, like the night.

DAY 3: Catch-as-Catch Cannes

Here’s what we should have done. After going ashore via tender boats at this fabulous city on the French Riviera, best known for the annual film festival that would unfold a week after our visit, we should have strolled along the palm-lined Promenade de la Croisette to enjoy its picturesque beaches, restaurants, cafés, boutiques and luxury hotels. We should have toured Le Suquet, the old town, maybe visited the fortified tower, the Chapelle Sainte-Anne and the city’s celebrated Russian Orthodox Church. Or maybe just lounged on the beach.

Alors, we did a little of the former, enjoying drinks at a café, buying cheap pharmacy glasses so I could read again and, in an unexpected bonus, stumbling across the spot where Napoléon ended his exile in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1815 en route to marching on Paris with 1,500 men and reclaiming his title as emperor. (Bien sûr, things quickly went south for the little dictator a few months later in the bloody Battle of Waterloo.)

But instead of enjoying a leisurely morning and afternoon with croissants and specialty coffees, the way the Côte d’Azur should be experienced, we decide to catch a train to nearby Monaco (40 kilometres to the east), the second-smallest autonomous state in the world (after the Vatican) and certainly one of the wealthiest. We stroll along the Circuit de Monaco, where preparations are underway for this year’s Grand Prix de Monaco (ultimately won by Monégasque Charles Leclerc on May 26 in his Ferrari), gawk at the exterior of the Casino de Monte-Carlo (the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, and a setting for the Bond movies Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye), amble along Avenue Princesse Grace, fruitlessly seek a washroom in a high-end mall with marble floors (maybe that was just me), grab a cab near the adjacent prop roots of a gloriously expanding banyan tree in the Jardin Exotique, and hop on the train back to Cannes.

A few hours later, as we board a tender back to the mother ship (the Cannes harbour is too shallow to allow these big boats to get up close and personal with the shore), cruise line safety personnel are transferring an elderly man strapped into a gurney to Cannes ambulance attendants. He might or might not have survived; we never hear another word about him.

Not to go all Jonathan Livingston Seagull on you, but back on the balcony I find myself in awe of the simple grace of about 50 medium-size Mediterranean gulls and their slightly smaller cousin, the black-head gulls, as they sweep and swerve and swoop over the swell of the sea, the long gentle wake of the ship extending for blocks, the white radiance of eternity narrowing in the distance like train tracks on the Prairies. A few of them follow as the pilot boats turn back and Italy beckons.

Day 4: Come Explore the Beauty of Florence

With his new pack of cards that feature many of the highlights of Florence — the most staggeringly beautiful city I have seen so far — Hudsynn and I are playing War on the steps of the Basilica di Santa Croce. The basilica, consecrated in 1442, with the earliest construction dating back to 1294, is the burial place of a few men of whom you might have heard: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini, for starters. Holy mother of God!

Famous artists whose work is featured inside the church include Donatello, a couple of Gaddis (Agnolo and his dad, Taddeo), Giotto, Henry Moore, Vasari … again, just for starters. But right now I’m blown away to be sitting with my grandson at the foot of Enrico’s Pacci’s 1855 marble Statue of Dante Alighieri, the existence of which is one of history’s little ironies considering how much joy the great medieval poet took in consigning his Florentine enemies to various circles of hell in La Divina Commedia after refusing to pay a fine and being exiled from his home city for life at the turn of the 14th century. (A contemporary conception of the Inferno’s nine circles of hell, by the bye, would almost certainly include ridiculously crowded cruise ship elevators at peak meal times. I say that with some authority given that I’se the b’y that rides the boat and I’se the b’y that inhales her.)

As we sit there and Hudsynn invents rules for War that I’m pretty sure are dodgy, a woman with poverty etched onto her weary, creased face — straight from the pages of Boccaccio’s Decameron — hits me for whatever coins I have. It would have been cooler to be here in 2006, when Life Is Beautiful actor/director Roberto Benigni recited the whole Divina Commedia beside the statue, except I wouldn’t have understood a word.

We don’t have time, sadly, to get through the lineups to see the priceless Renaissance artwork in the nearby Uffizi Gallery or Michelangelo’s colossal David at the Accademia Gallery, but we do take in the replica David at the Piazza della Signoria, on the very spot where the original stood for more than 400 years.

The Piazza della Signoria/Palazzo Vecchio at the heart of the city — all of this is in easy walking distance, by the way, from the stop outside Piazza Station where the tour bus from Livorno let us off and then picked us up for the return trip to the port near Pisa — includes the Fountain of Neptune, the Gucci museum, various loggia del Lanzi statues that recall important events and myths in Florentine history, and that renowned 430-year-old bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I you’ve almost certainly seen in photos. (Equestrian statues have been monuments to the power of Italian rulers dating back at least to the famous statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome; thank heaven this didn’t catch on in Canada when Diefenbaker or Pearson were in the saddle.)   

A block or two’s walk past the adjacent Uffizi takes us to Ponte Vecchio, designed by Giotto’s student Taddeo Gaddi and finished in 1345, making it the oldest and most striking bridge in all of Florence. Both sides are lined with shops, mainly of jewellers and goldsmiths, who replaced the blacksmiths, tanners and butchers of old because one of the Medici dukes was fed up with the noise and the stench. Good call and who could blame him?

A few blocks to the north, the collective impact of the closely grouped Piazza del Duomo, la cupola del Brunelleschi, il Battistero, Porta di Andrea Pisano and Colonna di San Zanobi is absolutely mind-blowing. I won’t even try to describe them. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Who needs to know more?

At the south end of the Piazza Stazione on our way back to the bus stop, we look up at the Santa Maria Novella, a Gothic church built from 1279-1357 by Dominican monks. It’s best known for the fabulous stained glass windows in the Tornabuoni chapel. Stained glass and the 130 euros, that is, that I just dropped at a nearby sneaker store on pink Air Force 1 shoes for Lake, his most prized acquisition so far in his haul of fancy lighters and strange sunglasses.

The 100-kilometre trip through rural Tuscany from Florence back to Livorno — where the ship is moored and which itself is a many-towered, well-fortified gem whose glory years were during the Renaissance under the corrupt but cultured rule of the Medicis — would be better if the inconsiderate jerk behind us would at least cover his mouth during his coughing fits. There are no sightings of Diane Lane or Sandra Oh under the Tuscan sun, but I do descry what I believe to be a solitary white stork preening in a field.

Back on the ship, where I’m idly watching some inebriated imbeciles stagger by as Lake and I play a game with giant chess pieces and Hudsynn blackens his bare feet on the soccer pitch up on the 20th deck, Dean Wormer’s classic line from Animal House about how “being fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life” flashes through my head. Maybe not, but it will see you nicely through an 11-day Mediterranean cruise.

Strange how this artificial way of living, with its rhythms and its privileges, starts to feel normal after just a few days. Little kids, I’ve noticed, have started to lose their normal deference toward adults when it comes to dealing with the staff. Normally diffident children expect liveried men and women with their arms full of dirty dishes to make way for them rather than the other way around. Presumably because they do.

That there is a racial element to the on-board class system is undeniable. As Rekha, who was born in India, boards an elevator from the Garden Café with a glass of juice and a plate of fruit destined for our cabin, an older white guy asks: “Do you work here?” Maybe he wanted more towels.

Washy, washy, sahib slimeball.

DAY 5: Roman Holiday

Lake is the first to get it. The nasty flu that has been circulating on board the SS Minnow, I mean. His sluggishness in getting out of bed makes us late for our prepaid bus tour of Rome from the port of Civitavecchia, where we docked overnight.

So we improvise. Our teen idol with the Sideshow Bob haircut is a paler shade of green as we board a bus and then the overcrowded train that will take us the 60 kilometres to Rome, but none of us — least of all him — realize how sick he will become until he starts to tremble and shake and retch while leaning between the rest of us and the door that opens and closes at multiple stops along the way. Other standing-room-only passengers stuck in the entrance with us look on with alarm, fearing that he’s about to turn everyone’s bumpy ride into a full-scale vomit comet.

Fortunately, that never happens, but we bail at a station in Rome earlier than we otherwise would have. Once Lake has recovered sufficiently, partly thanks to the kindness of a unilingual official at the train station who lets him rest in a chair in her office for a time (the only word I understood her say was “ambulanza,” which none of us felt he really needed), we board a tram that takes us across the Tiber (I think) and drops us within a block of — veni, vidi, vici! — the Forum and the Colosseum!

Even though the funny thing that happened on the way to them wasn’t quite what we’d imagined, neither the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments and archaeological excavations that constitute the Forum today nor the Colosseum, the elliptical amphitheatre to the east, fails to absolutely wow wow wow the more than 4.5 million sightseers they attract each year (half of whom seem to have picked today to show up).

Wikipedia on the former:

For centuries, the Forum was the centre of day-to-day life in Rome: the site of triumphal processions and elections; the venue for public speeches, criminal trials and gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs. Here statues and monuments commemorated the city’s leaders. The heart of ancient Rome, it has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all history.

The Colosseum, for its part, is almost 2,000 years old (finished in 80 AD), gargantuan (believed to have accommodated up to 80,000 spectators at various points in its history), and must have been a stunning spot to watch gladiatorial contests, human executions, animal hunts, battle re-enactments, mock sea battles, dramas based on Roman mythology and the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Spathas Out! tour in 91 AD.

With Lake still sputtering and all of us wilting in the heat and eager to get away from the crush of thousands of fellow rubberneckers, we pause for drinks in a shady spot outside the even older Circus Maximus complex, where people not afraid of looking like dorks don virtual reality masks to visualize the ancient chariot-racing stadium and mass entertainment venue as it was as far back as the sixth century BC, when Keef (then going by Keefus) was just learning the iconic riff from “Honky Tonk Feminae.”

Unable to reconnect with the tour we’d arranged (the person at the 24-hour help line spoke only Italian), unsure of the distance and mindful of the 6:30 p.m. deadline for getting back to the ship, we decide to forgo St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel … too bad, I guess, but we have a sick boy and we won’t be the first people in history to, pardon my Scots, blow off the Vatican.

Arrivederci, Roma.

But not so fast. We have a quick lunch, shop a little, take the tram back to the train station and the train to Civitavecchia (meaning “ancient town”), of which I’d never heard and which turns out to be one of the unexpected gems of our travels.

The sea port on the Tyrrhenian Sea is dotted with the remains of Etruscan tombs and boasts a working harbour formed by two piers and a breakwater, on which stands a lighthouse. There’s an Etruscan necropolis in this important port, the main starting point for sea connection from central Italy to Sardinia, Sicily, Tunis and even Barcelona, going all the way back to the sixth or seventh century BC. The modern inner harbour rests on ancient foundations dating back to the reign of Emperor Trajan in the second century AD, when Mick was just breaking up with Marianne Faithfull.

Of course there is way more history to learn about Civitavecchia and it would be a fascinating place to explore at length, but what we really appreciate is the rocky beach and easy access it affords to the sea. An array of beachside kiosks with relaxed, friendly, no-pressure vendors selling all the usual stuff is a pleasure to stroll along after the noise and intensity of the centre of Rome. I guess this speaks to my weakness for cheesy kitsch and trashy kétaine, but Civitavecchia’s giant statue of a sailor kissing a woman delights me at least as much as the revered sculptures we saw in Florence.

So does the sight, once we’re back on the ship, of two women well into their seventies twisting to “I Saw Her Standing There” at the “Beatles Tribute with Quick Silver,” a four-piece band with a red-haired woman who sings her heart out, a drummer who looks like a young Dave Clark from the Dave Clark Five and a stone-faced keyboard player who looks like that kid in your Grade 11 class whose name you never knew but who went on to pursue a quietly fulfilling career in data entry at Federated Co-op. Oh, and I think there is a bass player, but he’s so shy and unobtrusive that he doesn’t trigger a switch in a single memory cell. Kind of an anti-Macca.

I’m wondering to myself how you can possibly have a Beatles tribute band without a single electric guitar when I look around and notice all the dear old flat-tops grooving up slowly with their ju-ju eyeballs blinking and their canes and knee braces tapping to “Come Together.” Hold you in their armchairs, you can feel their disease.

Shoot me.

Shoot me.

Shoot me.

Shoot me.

During a heartrendingly poignant version of “In My Life,” I find myself choking up over my $20 glass of wine, thinking about how many of the hundred or so people in this auditorium (with a median age of about 70) already have this song pencilled in on the playlist for their funerals, somewhere between “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”

A wave of sadness washes over me as the show ends (it was a no-brainer that the encore would devolve into a “Hey Jude” singalong) and what remains of the British Invasion generation shuffles its way to the exits, stooped and hobbled and having to pee. They started out on burgundy but soon hit the washroom stalls.

After an evening in Roma, do they take ’em for espresso? Yeah, I guess so. But most of this crowd is heading straight for bed. I crawl off to sleep in the bath.

DAY 6: Naples, Vesuvius and Pompeii

I’m out on the balcony at 1:30 a.m. The Big Dipper is about as high in the sky as it gets, scooping the gleaming of white foam from the dark unknowable, unfathomable sea as the big cruise ship strains toward Naples at more than 20 knots. Find myself awed by the thought of those old-time mariners, the Phoenicians and the Egyptians maybe, navigating by the position of the stars in single-log boats with cloth sails.

Sleep soundly for a few hours in the knowledge that limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns calls me on and on across the universe. Return to the balcony to watch the first folds and bands of colour beginning to appear in the east.

That Homer knew his stuff. Rosy-fingered dawn is breaking as we approach the caldera upon which the hubbub of bubbling Neapolitan life was built in the first millennium BC by the ancient Greeks, back when Charlie Watts was … oh, never mind.

Naples, with a population now exceeding three million, bills itself as one of the oldest continuously occupied urban areas in the world, so I guess it can be forgiven for the crappy combos of vanilla-chocolate-strawberry ice cream my mom used to buy at Safeway.

As interesting as the city appears (there’s the de rigueur showpiece cathedral and Roman ruins at the basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, beloved local dishes to try and the usual staggering collection of fabulous art and architecture), we’re on a guided bus tour out of town that takes us past Mount Vesuvius and along the unparalleled Amalfi Coast.

(Scusami, but you see, back in old Napoli, here’s a fun fact I hereby impart with amore: When Italy was still a kingdom back in 1889, the margherita pizza was named in honour of the then queen, Margherita of Savoy. If only the Brits would confer a similar honour on Queen Camilla with one of their signature dishes: spotted dick, say, or classic English toad-in-the-hole.)

The drive along the Bay of Naples takes us past Mount Vesuvius, which remains one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world and whose eruption in 79 AD destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, and several smaller settlements. We’ll of course get back to that.

In the meantime, those are the islands of Ischia, Procida and Capri that we’re seeing off the coast en route to today’s first destination, the picturesque town of Vietri sul Mare, where I would love to spend a few weeks every winter if only we could afford it.

Technically, Vietri is a comune in the province of Salermo, in the region of Campania, separated by the Port of Salermo by a harbour wall on the Bay of Naples. Though considered by many locals to be less charming than Positano or the village of Amalfi, it’s pretty darn charming to us. Particularly as home to the café patio where I sample my first limoncello, the region’s specialty liqueur made from the zest of lemons and essential oil droplets. The drink is traditionally served as an after-dinner digestif, but it also hits the spot at 10 o’clock in the morning. Magnifica! (That’s Vietri sul Mare in the background of the Griswoldian European vacation photo posted below.)

Next stop: Nearby Pompeii, a wealthy town thought to be home to up to 30,000 residents on that fateful day when an especially violent Vesuvius eruption buried it under four to six metres of volcanic ash and pumice, freezing the city in time and giving us a unique window on Roman life not long after the time of Jesus Christ and Brian Jones.

I’m going to assume that you already have a general sense of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but here’s a quick Wikipedia recap:

(Pompeii) hosted many fine public buildings and luxurious private houses with lavish decorations, furnishings and artworks, which were the main attractions for early excavators; subsequent excavations have found hundreds of private homes and businesses reflecting various architectural styles and social classes, as well as numerous public buildings. Organic remains, including wooden objects and human bodies, were interred in the ash; their eventual decay allowed archaeologists to create moulds of figures in their final moments of life. The numerous graffiti carved on outside walls and inside rooms provide a wealth of examples of the largely lost Vulgar Latin spoken colloquially at the time, contrasting with the formal language of classical writers.

Following its destruction, Pompeii remained largely undisturbed until its rediscovery in the late 16th century. Major excavations did not begin until the mid-18th century, which marked the emergence of modern archeology; initial efforts to unearth the city were haphazard or marred by looting, resulting in many items or sites being damaged or destroyed. By 1960, most of Pompeii had been uncovered but left in decay; further major excavations were banned or limited to targeted, prioritized areas. Since 2018, these efforts have led to new discoveries in some previously unexplored areas of the city, including a banquet hall adorned with rare, well preserved frescoes depicting various mythological scenes and figures.

I more or less knew all of that going in. What I didn’t know was: a) how deeply moving it would be to see faded frescoes of long-vanished faces of real people on the walls, b) that the Romans had a thing for warding off evil by carving and painting “good luck” penises and “this way to the brothel” phalluses into every corner of the city (paving stones of streets, doorways, houses, bakeries), and c) that some modern classicists and archeologists (check out Steven Tuck’s videos on YouTube) believe that perhaps 90 per cent of the residents managed to flee the eruption with their lives (about 1,200 human bodies have been discovered and surprisingly few horses and carts).

You have to be in reasonable shape, with knees and hips that can stand the wear and tear, to tackle the roughly four kilometres of trooping over cobblestones, cart tracks and rain gutters, stairs and uphill climbs that any basic guided tour of Pompeii involves. Without a cicerone, we wouldn’t have had any idea what we were looking at, so signing on to those group tours is well worth the expense.

The show stopper on our tour is the plaster-of-Paris body cast, exhibited under glass, of a slave girl frozen in her final agony. (We didn’t run across them, but other casts are scattered here and there, including at the entrance to Piazza Anfiteatro, where approximately 20 victims are preserved. Thirteen casts in the Garden of the Fugitives are thought to be the remains of an entire family.)

Maybe horseshoes or shamrocks would have been more effective good luck symbols than etchings of erect penises? Just a thought. Also, after spotting one such etching at a well-preserved ancient bakery, I’ve eaten my last custard-filled longjohn.

Still. If you’re well enough to make this trip, can afford it and have never done it, Pompeii is a bucket-list must-see. The Amalfi Coast is about as good as planet Earth gets. And you’re not getting any younger.

The world, as Wallace Stevens reminded us, must be measured by eye. Have a good look around.

DAY 7: Messina Is Yours to Discover (just not mine)

I’m in the pitiless gaze of the sun and feeling faint, courtesy of one or more of the bemuse-the-cruise flus.

We are standing in a crowded square in Messina, a harbour city in northeast Sicily separated from the tip of the boot of Italy by the narrow Strait of Messina (not to be confused with the Channel of Loggins). And we are looking up, way up, at the carillon show in the Bell Tower of the Norman Messina Cathedral (consecrated in 1197 before Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor), also known for its Friendly Giant-style Gothic portal, 15th-century windows and enormous astronomical clock on the tower featuring the 12 constellations of the zodiac. The current building is the result of extensive 20th-century reconstructions, which took place following the disastrous earthquake that devastated Messina three days after Christmas in 1908 and the considerable damage inflicted by heavy aerial bombardment by the Allies during the Second World War.

The 7.1 magnitude quake, which occurred in the strait 116 years ago and almost completely levelled Messina and its suburbs, killing at least 75,000 people, also heavily damaged the mainland city of Reggio Calabria and other locations in Calabria, resulting in an additional 25,000 deaths. The quake (together with the 40-foot-high tsunami generated by an underwater landslide it triggered) was the deadliest in European history in terms of lives lost, and yet most of us are more familiar with the volcanic destruction of ancient Pompeii or the 1755 quake that killed an estimated 70,000 in Lisbon.

Meanwhile, the daily 12-minute performance in the clock tower of the cathedral, which has a medieval sensibility but was actually inaugurated in 1933, showcases biblical and allegorical scenes linked to the history of the city. Here’s a brief description of what we witness that I pulled from the Internet, which is of course never wrong. If you go in for this sort of thing, knock yourself out:

Every day at noon the 200-foot clock tower of the Cathedral in Messina puts on a show. When the clock hits midday, church bells are struck by two ten foot bronze statues of the heroines who saved Messina during the Sicilian Vespers war. Following the chimes, a lion that represents the strength of the city waves his flag, wags his tail, turns his head to face the piazza and roars three times. As if aroused by the mighty lion, a rooster who represents awakening, flaps his wings, raises his head and crows three times. As Ave Maria plays, an angel appears bearing a letter for the Madonna, who is greeted by Saint Paul and a retinue of angels — each bowing in reverence as they pass.

I figured the cock crowing three times had something to do with Peter’s denials of knowing Jesus, but have to admit to some haziness on the War of Sicilian Vespers (something about rival dynastic claims to the throne of Sicily provoking 13th and 14th century battles involving the Crown of Aragon, the Angevin Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of France and the papacy).

Flattened by the flu like Sonny Corleone by a hail of bullets during that ill-advised stop at a Sicilian highway toll booth in The Godfather, I’m anxious to get back to the ship and lie down. The scariest bit of the Bell Tower performance — an animated memento mori — has the scythe of a Death figure claim a new victim with each sombre knell. Leaning on the nearby Neptune Fountain, a marble masterpiece created in 1557, I ask not for whom the bell tolls.

A darling old woman on the church stairs, a professional mendicant, unloads her cup to make it appear empty; she’s actually making out like a bandit. But other beggars with terra cotta eyeballs and blank, fuscous faces with distant, bewildered expressions are the real deal. Faces straight out of Bruegel. Straight out of Bosch. Hogarth. You could touch those eyeballs and they would not blink. Paging Marina Abramović. The artist is gone.

Messina — roughly the size of Winnipeg, I guess, if you include the metropolitan area — thrums with the ubiquitous urban backdrop of motorcycles and scooters, mopeds and taxis, the ceaseless succession, as in cities all over the world, of meaningless, quotidian, random events. A kind of poetry even. A feverish dream of sirens, thieves and fences, protection money, political favours, bribes, money laundering at the Banco di Sicilia across the street, quid pro quos, hoodlums, consiglieres and capos, severed horse heads in the beds of Hollywood movie moguls, renegade policemen, hot jewels to unload and guys named Vito and Vinny. Oh dear. I’ve seen too many Mafia movies and I’m starting to hallucinate. Fugeddaboudit.

Catfish are nibbling algae off the hull of the ship. The ship! We’re back, baby. I fall asleep to an inaudible message bing-bonging on the PA system, the white limestone streaks in the cliffs and hills we have passed and the red clay roofs of every place we’ve explored stretching out in my head like a graffiti-marred mural on some distant hoarding with words I can’t understand. I dream. As in so many Italian operas, nothing of consequence happens after this opening scene.

The nice man who cleans our room arrives and tells me that he’ll be heading back to the Philippines tomorrow for two months before returning for another 10-month daily grind. I magnanimously hand him a $50 US tip as if I were Conrad Black or something. Except Conrad Black would have demanded $50 for waking him up.

A few hours later, the boys and I are standing in a buffet line and Lake says to Hudsynn: “Walk in a straight line, you big oaf.” A man standing next to Lake thinks the comment was aimed at him and walks off in a huff, with nothing on his tray. This is what I live for.

White windmills wind slowly in the distance as the great ship departs.

DAY 8: Discover Valletta (but pass on the horse-drawn carriage)

If it’s Sunday this must be the Republic of Malta, a tiny country — an anachronistic city-state, really — comprising a small archipelago that sits between Italy, Tunisia and Libya. The inexpensive water taxis here in Valletta, the capital, feature ornamental stems and sterns that make me think of the Nile. Like I know anything about the Nile.

A bigger boat with four rowers and a coxswain pass by, training for one race or other. We’re drinking coffee and peering down from our balcony. A pair of Jet Skis generate crystal tangs of sea spray. A tug boat studded with old tires lumbers past, leaving a stippled wake. Loudspeaker announcements from other cruise ships echo across the harbour. The sea is aquamarine. Teal, maybe. I’ve noticed throughout this voyage that depending on the angle of the sun from the horizon and the intensity of the sky, the Mediterranean appears turquoise, indigo, aubergine, even pastel. Sometimes even wine dark or snot green, depending on which incarnation of Ulysses/Odysseus you prefer.

Since I (yet again) can’t improve on the Wikipedia summary, here’s everything I know (and quite a bit more) about this incredibly beautiful place:

Malta has been inhabited since about 5900 BC. Its location in the centre of the Mediterranean has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base, with a succession of powers having contested and ruled the islands, including the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and British.

While Christianity has been present since the time of the early Christians, Malta was predominantly a Muslim country under Arab rule during the early Middle Ages. Muslim rule ended with the Norman invasion of Malta by Roger I in 1091.

Malta became a British colony in 1813, serving as the headquarters for the British Mediterranean Fleet. It was besieged by the Axis powers during World War II and was an important Allied base for operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

The British Parliament passed the Malta Independence Act in 1964, giving Malta independence, with Elizabeth II as its queen. The country became a republic in 1974. It has been a member state of the Commonwealth and the United Nations since independence, and joined the European Union in 2004; it became part of the eurozone monetary union in 2008.

Malta is also closely tied historically and culturally to Italy and especially Sicily, with between 62 and 66 per cent of Maltese people speaking or having significant knowledge of the Italian language, which was one of the official languages of Malta until 1934. Catholicism is the state religion but the Constitution of Malta guarantees freedom of conscience and religious worship.

The economy of Malta is heavily reliant on tourism, and the country promotes itself as a Mediterranean tourist destination with its warmer climate compared to the rest of Europe, numerous recreational areas and architectural and historical monuments, including three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni, Valletta itself, and seven megalithic temples that are some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world.

The Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni (in case you haven’t switched to an episode of Green Acres on MeTV by now) is a Neolithic subterranean structure bearing the remains of more than 7,000 people. It’s thought to have been a sanctuary as well as a necropolis, dating back to 3300 BC, when Rod Stewart thought he had something to say to an older woman named Maggie May. Even then, the morning sun, when it was in her face, really showed her age.

It’s a more recent death — the 2017 car bomb assassination of 53-year-old investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia — that grabs my attention as we climb down from the uncomfortable and unnecessary calèche-style ride on which I have just blown 80 euros to get from the port to downtown, a 1.5-kilometre slightly uphill stroll.

A banner at a prominent memorial erected in Caruana Galizia’s honour calls for “Justice for Daphne,” an anti-corruption activist who had reported on Maltese connections to the Panama Papers and ferreted out government corruption, nepotism, patronage and links between organized crime and the country’s online gambling industry. Police arrested the owner of the Dubai-based company on his yacht in 2019 in connection with her murder, but there’s way more to the story. There’s always trouble in paradise.

Valletta is relatively young and the smallest capital city in Europe, with a population of about 5,200. Its 16th-century Baroque buildings were constructed by the Knights Hospitaller (I’ll spare you the convoluted history lesson on that one); the city was named after the French nobleman who commanded the successful resistance against the Ottoman Turks during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Not many tourists are overly invested in the history of the place, but few North Americans can be completely insensitive to the way the domes and twirling colonnades and vaulted cupolas convey a sense of Old World civilization and relaxation, unlike our clapboard bungalows and utilitarian boxes of rectangular ticky-tacky back home.

We’re surprised to see that most of the signs are in English, a legacy of the island’s turbulent history … and a sign that however brilliant the statuary and the paintings and the architecture, the whole Mediterranean region has been racked by millennia of war and social upheaval. Some of Malta’s most popular tourist attractions are based on past conflicts: Exhibit A being Fort Rinella and the Armstrong 100-ton gun, dating from the height of the British Empire; Exhibit B consists of the War HQ tunnels/Saint Peter’s Galleries complex, principally involving the vast underground labyrinth that served as home to the British Combined War Headquarters from 1940-1977.

Twice a day (except, apparently, on Sundays like this one), Valletta still shakes to the sound of ceremonial cannon fire. Forming part of the defences of the city since the 16th century, the Saluting Battery commands a lofty position overlooking the Grand Harbour, Fort St. Angelo and the surrounding harbour towns. It’s a crowd pleaser for sure, but I’ll bet it wears on your nerves if you live here.

All the talk of tunnels and guns inevitably puts one in mind of the horror unfolding in Israel and Gaza, just 1,000 nautical miles to the east. Goya wasn’t wrong about the sleep of reason begetting monsters.

Back on our balcony, head still pounding with the flu, I refract a passing yacht and a ferry and a military frigate through a glass of juice. Waves caress ancient breakwaters like bedsheets. The big ship creaks a little, like bedroom floorboards, as a vivid yellow butterfly dances drunkenly along the starboard side. Or are we on the port side? I never do figure it out. Rising sea levels are exceeding all expectations as the great ice sheets melt and fall away in Greenland and Antarctica.

DAY 9: Corfu Is Yours to Discover (but I’m hitting the books)

I make a big deal out of not wanting to be that guy on the bus who can’t stop coughing and blowing his nose, and that’s certainly true, but really, I just want to live out my pre-cruise fantasy of stretching out on the balcony and reading. The two books I’ve brought with me, Ian McEwan’s psychological thriller, Nutshell, and my friend Mark Abley’s The Organist both have sensitive fathers at their core, a coincidence that again gets me reflecting on why I’m out here in the first place. In any case, while the rest of the family hops on the bus that takes them to an Ionian beach for an afternoon of swimming, paddle boarding, plant identification (a passion of Rekha’s) and snoozing (flu-stricken Marken is as indisposed as I am), I settle in for an enjoyable morning of some much-needed solitude and literature in the very place where two writers I admire — Lawrence and Gerald Durrell — escaped the English weather and the buttoned-down, stultifying culture of 1930s Britain.

Before I sit down to read, I’m feeling a little stultified myself — and sick of being sick — while slumped over a bowl of cereal in the Garden Café. That accounts, I hope, for the churlish, uncharitable descriptions of some fellow cruisers that I wind up scribbling along the margins of the Freestyle Daily, a cruise newsletter dropped off at every cabin to remind us of where we are and what’s on tap in the way of entertainment and expenditure possibilities. I’m not usually this crabby, but just to give you a sense of how unkind I can be:

Old grubbers with floppy hats and sunken chests inside Florida Gators and World Series Champion Texas Rangers tees sidle past one another at the buffet counters like mucous membranes. Masses of wavering shapes, aromas of roasted meat and bodily functions. Forensic smears. Walking cremations. Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness.

Some have eyes flat as pieces of glazed crockery. Filmy surfaces on yellow corneas. Cataracts and macular degeneration. Floaters and retinal detachments.

Sporting oversized glasses and Shrek princess hairdos, the Mesomorph Sisters fill their breakfast plates high with bacon and hash browns.

The face of a frail octogenarian with a bolus of snot hardening in his moustache is locked into a permanent grimace. Hollow eyes, Biden shuffle, inane smile. Seems unable to close his mouth. Rotting lips and putrefying tongue.

Some of my overweighty mateys are sullen and silent. They seem to have finished saying everything they had to say to their bird-boned wives sometime during the Reagan presidency. Lovers with painted bisque cheeks, smears of lipstick on their teeth and thinning, flecking turkey necks, feel differently in December than they did in May. Since there’s no help, come let us pass the potatoes and fart.

At other tables voices are muted, some declamatory. Eros and Thanatos embrace in the exercise yard of dumb existence. The rise and fall of random epiglottic incidents. Now the leaves are falling fast. Nurse’s flowers did not last.

Inveterate cellphone tappers grimly determined to spend their lives missing the beauty that surrounds them. … Begone, begone, you bloody whoreson Gauls!

This is the way the West ends. Not with a bang but with a waffle. These fragments I have shored against my plate.

And yet. And yet. And yet. These thoughts are mean — I know them to be mean — unworthy of what this trip has been and meant to me. With my fat bald head and deep hollows under my eyes and bloody diarrhea and ridiculous Barcelona T-shirt and ill-fitting shorts, I am aging out with the best of them. Sic transit gloria mundi.

About that T-shirt: It’s one of the three I bought for five euros each in case our luggage never showed up. It features a young woman who looks like Disney’s Snow White in a low-cut outfit that ends at her shapely hips. She is blowing smoke from a hookah in a bar. XXX is written on one of her arms. The boys of my generation all fell in love with that face. But I’m getting too fat for the shirt. Goodness knows what the other Chippendales will think. Thank my lucky stars that I still have that standing (pilé-ing, arabesquing, pirouetting) offer from the Juul Haalmeyer Dancers in Edmonton. Lola Heatherton, who loves ya, baby!

Anyway. I’m the one calling out others for their appearance? Let’s get real here.

And then I remember another Latin phrase (this one courtesy of onetime slave Publius Terentius Afer, better known as Terence in English), born about 190 BC near Carthage: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

That is to say: I am human, and consider nothing human alien to me.

It’s kind of a gag in the play where it appears, but it’s the very core of humanism, of civilization. I get back to the balcony and am chastened through my Elton John pharmacy specs a few pages later when I come across this reminder in Mark’s book about the trials and tribulations of aging adults:

“He’s a human being,” Willy Loman’s wife tells her son in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

The sun is shining. My flu is lifting. I finish both books, both of which are terrific. When I pop by the café again to pick up a light lunch for the road, two members of the relentlessly cheerful washy-washy service squad break into a chorus of “You are My Sunshine.”

Once outside the ship, I dodge the omnipresent quayside tour and taxi pamphlet pushers by feigning an interest in the ropes thicker than my wrists used to help moor the ship. Tiny blue fish with streaks and Mediterranean damselfish shelter along the pier. To me, the play of light on the trembling water and the shimmering sand below is infinitely holier than pickled toes of saints or bogus pieces of the true cross.

A few feet from the pier in my blue heaven float cigarette packages, bits of plastic, Styrofoam cups, beer cans, even what appears to be a Christmas ornament. I fish out what I can and dispose of it in a trash can, thinking all the while about novelist E.M. Forster’s exhortation in Howards End about our obligation toward other human beings and the natural world: “Only connect.”

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down.

DAY 10: Say ‘Zdravo’ to Dubrovnik

There are still one or two buildings still standing, but not many, that predate the massive 1667 earthquake that destroyed this port on the Adriatic Sea at the southern end of Croatia, killing up to 5,000. There are still holes in and marks on some of the buildings in the spectacular Old Town that bear the scars of the seven-month siege of the city that began Oct. 1, 1991.

During the siege, the Old Town sustained 650 hits by artillery rounds as the then leaders of nearby Montenegro, allied with Serbian president and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, sought to pry Dubrovnik from the Republic of Croatia that had freshly emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the depredations were far worse, is just on the other side of the hills into which Dubrovnik is nestled. Who knew then that the conflict was just a warmup act to today’s blood-soaked campaign to put Humpty Soviet back together again?

The Croatian War of Independence, fought from 1991 to 1995, ended with a Croatian victory at a cost of more than 20,000 lives and $50 billion Canadian in damaged infrastructure, lost output and refugee-related costs. Palpable tensions remain between Serbia and Croatia, and our tour guide evinces his antipathy toward Serbia’s longtime ally, Russia, as we survey the magnificent 13th-century walls that surround the city. “One Russian lives here. That’s enough.”

Might as well get this over with for you Game of Thrones fans. Dubrovnik was the main filming location for the fictional setting of King’s Landing, and you can book a series-related tour to see such sites as the Pile and Ploče gate and St. Dominika Street. The city walls include the Bokar fortress and the Minčeta tower easily recognizable by avid viewers. We didn’t spot any flying dragons.

If you saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi — or even if you didn’t — Dubrovnik was used as the setting for the casino city of Canto Bight. I’ve even glimpsed clips of the city in such Bollywood offerings as Shah Rukh Kahn’s 2016 action thriller Fan.

As for Rekha and me, we have just escaped from a trip to God knows where (Volantis?) after briefly boarding the wrong tour bus and sheepishly forcing our way out the back door as it was closing. There are an awful lot of buses here and they all look the same.

Added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979 in recognition of its medieval architecture, centuries-old buildings capped by bright orange roofs, beautiful public beaches between awesome rocky ledges and the fortified Old Town, the city Lord Byron dubbed “the pearl of the Adriatic” has been ranked as the most “over-touristed” destination in Europe. According to the German online platform Statistica, which specializes in data gathering through surveys and analysis, Dubrovnik — with a relatively small population between 40,000 and 50,000 — annually plays host to 36 tourists for every local resident.

Our tour guide tells us that there is virtually no crime in Dubrovnik, save for the occasional car theft. It’s not clear to me whether he’s speaking specifically of the Old Town, the city or the whole country, but he swears that anyone caught begging is evicted for a whole year (this is apparently news to the bedraggled old lady who hits me for a few euros outside a church in Split the next day).

One of the surprising features of Dubrovnik’s Old Town — whose streets are glittering limestone, I believe, and not the marble suggested in our cruise line newsletter — is that the Jewish quarter, featuring one of Europe’s oldest synagogues (established in the 15th century, rebuilt in 1652 after the earthquake and still in use today), comprises bustling thoroughfares in the heart of the community. It’s not consigned to the margins as in so many other European cities.

Art, weapons and historic photos are on display at the Cultural History Museum in the Gothic-style Rector’s Palace. Bars, seafood restaurants and traditional eateries dot the area, and pedestrianized Stradun street is lined with souvenir shops and fashion stores. The Franciscan monastery boasts the oldest still-functioning pharmacy in Europe, which is kind of a weird claim to fame but fantastic news if you need a poultice or are running low on leeches.

One of Dubrovnik’s most famous landmarks is the Large Onofrio Fountain, a circular structure built in 1438 as part of a system that involved bringing water from a spring 12 kilometres away. The fountain was originally adorned with sculptures, but it was heavily damaged in the 1667 quake so that only 16 carved masks remain, with their mouths dribbling potable water into a drainage pool. Its sibling, the ornate but unimaginably named Little Onofrio Fountain, sits at the other end of the 300-metre main street of Stradun, which seems none the worse for wear after 56 grenades were dropped onto it 30 years ago.

There’s a lot more to see, but I ain’t Rick Steves. Let’s just say that besides the copious Game of Thrones merchandise, you can also purchase weird plastic ducks that seem to have bupkis to do with Croatian history or as many bobbleheads of Croatian soccer superstar Luka Modrić as you care to add to your collection.

Our guide’s rules for moving to Croatia — lest any of us feel the urge — remind me a bit of what you might hear in Quebec. Newcomers are welcome but should learn to speak the difficult language within a year and lose the ball-and-chain relationship to work that prevails in most of North America. Here on the Adriatic, family and friends come first. This is cappuccino and schnapps country.

The Chinese tourists clump together, with little mixing between us and them. I wonder how much of a tour in English they understand. So I’m pleased when a friendly older woman from Beijing asks me to take a photo of her in front of a statue of a satyr and a nymph just outside the Pile Gate, the Gothic entrance to the Old Town that used to have a wooden drawbridge pulled up at night. She asks me for an explanation of what the lustful Pan is up to and I start to blush, gesturing instead toward my waiting family. She shows me a photo of her beautiful grandkids. It’s one of those nice, insignificant moments that the travel gods occasionally bestow.

This is the first place on our trip that we’ve seen Soviet-style highrises dating from the Yugoslav era, before communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the series of interethnic wars broke out. It’s also the only place we haven’t seen a scrap of litter. You could eat off those limestone streets.

As ever, I dig the tall palm trees lining the avenues. I dig the ripple of hills with their patchworks of neighbourhoods sprawling over several square kilometres. The affluent types burrowed into fancy homes on the slopes. The Damon Runyon characters in seedy bars. The calmness of the feral felines.

Final glimpse of Old Town: A cat literally set among the pigeons, quietly grooming itself in the sun.

DAY 11: Splitsville

One last time, the cheerful self-effacement and genuine desire to serve displayed by the ship’s crew, with gusts to abject obsequiousness, makes me feel like Little Lord Fauntlemusk, 86’d from normal existence. Oh when will other people just ignore my comfort level and unreasonable whims again?

Decked out in various team uniforms during safety drills, the staff resemble nothing so much as, so much as … “Minions,” Lake observes, with his usual sense of precision and pithiness. “They look like the Minions.” Right. Which explains why I increasingly see Gru staring back when I stand before a mirror, brushing my teeth.

We eat on the balcony and listen to the sea. An early-morning Jadrolinija ferry slinks past. The surface sparkles with the bluish tint of freshly fallen snow on one’s way to school in 1961.

We accomplish disgracefully little in Split, the northern Croatian Adriatic port famously home to an ancient palace built for Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century AD. We skip the palace, another cathedral and café-lined promenades with views of the coastal mountains to shop instead for souvenir trinkets and tchotchkes at a lively market near the pier.

One of our fellow cruisers, a plainly exhausted man on a mission to bring his desperately ill wife as much happiness as remains to them both, struggles with her wheelchair. Her clothes are black, her hands twisted and her expression sorrowful. They have waited too long for this trip of a lifetime, but it’s human nature to think there will always be more time. Until there isn’t. Dad taught me that.

Marken and I are feeling better, but the flu has found its latest victim in Rekha. We’re back in our cabin by late afternoon and as she sleeps, I cancel our reservation at the ship’s seafood restaurant. Hudsynn is napping as well so I shut down the video game on his cellphone.

The man on the next balcony sounds like Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He is pleased to have secured business-class tickets for his flight back to the States for economy fares, but I find myself drifting off as well. Flash back to my grandmother’s home on Temperance Street. Three flights of stairs to the small apartment she shared with my great aunt. I am three years old and fascinated by the brown spots on their hands. Aunt Esther calls them liver spots. When I come to on a balcony in an ancient Mediterranean city on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, with ruins dating back to the Romans, I find that the liver spots have migrated to my hands.

“I got lucky,” the Tennessee Williams guy says. I couldn’t have been out for more than five seconds. I am 69 years old.

The ship is heading toward Trieste, in the northeast corner of Italy, our final stop. We take a pass on tonight’s final performance of Cameo Rascale’s acrobatic juggling act.

Good thing we got some sleep. The exodus from the ship is an absolute debacle. Hundreds of weary travellers debouch into the street to vie for a handful of taxis as unilingual Italian officials strive heroically but fail miserably to push everyone back to the curb with hand gestures, rolled Mamma Mia! eyes and, as a last resort, an eight-foot metal fence wielded as a sort of snowplow blade. My son-in-law almost gets into a punch-up with an American who deviously cuts in line with his wife in front of us, then pretends he doesn’t know what the fuss is about. Chinese tourists who had joined us for various English-language tours during the cruise suddenly don’t speak English and feign not understanding how lineups work.

Don’t see much of Trieste, except during the short cab ride from the port to the train station. But what I do see is gorgeous. And Trieste is a mecca for we James Joyce enthusiasts.

After leaving Dublin, Joyce spent 16 years in Trieste as a teacher, lecturer, journalist, clerk, singing student, translator and aspiring entrepreneur. This is where he either wrote or saw published all of his early works, including Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and where he began significant episodes of Ulysses. As we scramble into cabs, you can imagine Joyce singing in the background. 

The train trip to Venice is 116 kilometres and takes about an hour and a half, although it seems way longer if you’re sitting in a railcar with a voluble and recently graduated American doctor inordinately proud of his accomplishments. He’s on his honeymoon with a wife who has heard these stories a million times and seems to already detest him. He is oblivious to her boredom, but completely wins me over near the end of the trip when he surgically dissects and exposes the ludicrous Fox News views of a MAGA Republican sitting across the aisle. He then tops that with a story about two of his patients in a California psych ward, who both claimed to be Jesus, getting into a fistfight. “The tunics and the sandals were flying that night, I can tell you.”

Venice: Galumphing masses in motion

We’re all pretty much over the flu and I’m tucking into my plate of spaghetti frutti di mare at a relatively low-priced outdoor café across from the Teatro Italia, a ceiling-frescoed theatre converted into a supermarket, when my stomach starts to make noises like a flushing toilet on a widebody airliner. I know right away I’m in trouble.

Rekha and I quickly wind our way through the tourist hordes, over a bridge and along the Fondamenta di San Giebbe, where the three-level apartment Kelly has rented for the six of us is located behind a gate with a tricky lock I can’t open to save my life. I’m about to implode like an overripe tomato in the sun when the young man who runs the adjacent crepe café hears my distress and finesses the lock with the touch of a professional safecracker.

I get to the toilet just in time and spend the evening excreting my brains out, making obeisance to the porcelain gods and shivering naked on the bathroom floor.

So this is Venice — La Dominante, La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic, the City of Water, the City of Masks, the Floating City, the City of Canals, the City of Bridges (until being dethroned by Saskatoon) — the 2,000-year-old capital of Italy’s Veneto region built on 126 islands separated by canals (including a small brown one I just created) and expanses of open water, connected by 472 bridges.

I won’t argue with The New York Times’ description of Venezia, as most Italians call it, Venesia to the 250,000 people who reside in the Comune di Venesia themselves, as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” Florence still strikes me as a pretty close second. (And let’s not forget Brandon or Medicine Hat.)

Even if you’ve never been to Venice and never plan to go, you’ll be familiar with much of the Renaissance architecture and the art, its importance in the history of opera and as the birthplace of such Baroque composers as Albinoni and Vivaldi (who shortened his handle to Valdy in the early 1970s and came into town as a man of renown), the city’s history as an imperial power that helped bring down the Byzantine Empire, the pivotal role the Venetians played in the development of doge ball, the devastation of the city caused by the Black Death  in the 14th and 17th centuries, and the survival of the republic until it was conquered by Napoléon in 1797 and incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.

Or maybe you’re not, but you’ve surely seen images of all the colourful buildings (hint: there’s a reason those basement suites are so cheap) that line canals churned up by barge-like Vaporetto water buses, water taxis, fishing boats and gondoliers in striped shirts, scarves and classic boater straw hats cribbed from the classic Beach Boys Surfin’ Safari poster of 1964.

Whether you choose to view Venice as a priceless living museum or a money-grubbing tourist trap, and it is certainly both, tourism has accounted for a major part of the economy since the 18th century, when it became an essential stop on the Grand Tour primarily associated with the British nobility and other privileged young drunkards from the Protestant North.

I’ll defer to Wikipedia again while I pour amaretto and sambuca into a footed coffee mug:

In the 19th century, Venice became a fashionable centre for the “rich and famous,” who often stayed and dined at luxury establishments such as the Danieli Hotel and the Caffè Florian, and continued to be a fashionable city into the early 20th century. In the 1980s, the Carnival of Venice was revived; and the city has become a major centre of international conferences and festivals, such as the prestigious Venice Biennale and the Venice Film Festival, which attract visitors from all over the world for their theatrical, cultural, cinematic, artistic, and musical productions.

Today, there are numerous attractions in Venice, such as St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Grand Canal, and the Piazza San Marco. The Lido di Venezia is also a popular international luxury destination, attracting thousands of actors, critics, celebrities, and others in the cinematic industry. The city also relies heavily on the cruise business. The Cruise Venice Committee has estimated that cruise ship passengers spend more than 150 million euros ($193 million US) annually in the city, according to a 2015 report.

The downside of big cruise ships like the one we were on — aside from being full of unlettered, unpolished and unrefined goofballs like us, of course — is that the wakes they generate play havoc with the city’s fragile canals and natural environment. After several false starts and inconsistent court rulings, the Italian government has been diverting large cruise ships from Venice since 2021, a huge boon to the five taxi drivers of Trieste.

The long-term threat to Venice, though, is the rising sea level due to climate change. And we’re not talking that long a term. You might remember seeing newspaper photos in November 2019, when an unusually high tide flooded more than 80 per cent of Venice, damaging more than 50 churches among other tourist sites. At the same time as the sea is rising, the city is slowly sinking as tectonic plates shift along the Italian coast. Low-lying parts of the city (the Piazza San Marco among them) are at a particular risk. In a country that seems to have exhausted its entire organizational capacity during the Roman Empire, mitigation efforts to date have been paltry at best.

An even more immediate problem, for visitors and residents alike, is over-tourism. It’s hard to see all the fabulous sights when whichever way you want to move is being simultaneously converged upon by five other people. This is from a June 1 BBC story:

New rules banning loudspeakers and limiting tour group sizes to 25 people have come into force in Venice. The measures have been introduced to limit the impact of over-tourism on the Italian city, officials say.

The canals of Venice’s historic quarter make the city one of the most visited places in Europe.

Venice introduced a €5 (£4) daily entry fee earlier this year, after initially banning cruise ships from docking in the quarter in 2021.

Over-tourism is widely regarded as one of the most urgent issues for Venice, which has a population of around 250,000 people and saw more than 13 million visitors in 2019.

Visitor numbers have fallen since, but they are expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels in the coming years. Venice has seen an exodus of local residents over fears tourists could overwhelm the historic island city.

Ocio, a citizen’s association tracking housing in the city, said in a recent update that the historic quarter had around 49,000 beds for tourists to rent — more than the number available for residents.

The changes to tourism rules come after experts from Unesco warned last year Venice could be added to a list of world heritage sites in danger, as the impact of climate change and mass tourism threaten to cause irreversible changes to it.

Let me personalize that perspective with more of my usual inane impressions:

Sporting my trusty Montreal Expos cap and a Canadiens tee, tabarnak, I’m avoiding making eye contact with a yawning attendant at a Jehovah’s Witnesses recruiting stand outside a store selling wildly exuberant handmade papier-mâché Venetian masks (classic and modern) when a stranger comes up to me and says: “Go Expos! Go Habs Go!” (Later I’m puzzled when a one-handed beggar with a Commedia dell’Arte face says “Merci” rather than “Grazie” as I drop a few coins into his tin cup. I figure he’s French but it occurs to me later that he must have recognized the CH emblem on my shirt.)

Doesn’t take long to grok the meaning of “Vientato” on signs everywhere. Don’t sit here. “No pic nic area.” Everything is forbidden. Interdit. In stunning Saint Mark’s Square, Lake briefly gets into it with an officious security guard who tells him he can’t sit on the stairs. Clearly, the Minions have spoiled us.

At the restaurant where I pay 180 euros for a basic lunch for six, a group of British ladies in their 70s and 80s is animatedly discussing Keith Richards’s leathery face and whether Mick Jagger injects himself with whatever it is that they think he is full of. I buy Lake, who likes to vape despite our warnings, a fancy lighter with a dragon’s face. Then Goth sunglasses at a kiosk. Hudsynn gets a soccer banner (Manchester United). A baby in diapers takes her first steps. A Korean tour guide holding a flag moves determinedly through the crowd with grimly focused followers on her heels, moving briskly past superb gelaterias, Murano glass stores, trattorias and a Patti Smith doppelgänger smoking a cigarette in front of her clothing store, where Rekha and Kelly are shopping. She asks Marken and me to move because we’re blocking her display window. The real Patti Smith would have been more chill.

Men with booming voices, ignoring their surroundings and talking on cellphones in an amplified Babel of tongues, are a suppurating blight on the face of humanity. Pinocchios here, Pinocchios there, Marco Polo this, Marco Polo that. We didn’t have time to see Pisa on our stop at nearby Florence, but Venice, we notice, has at least three leaning bell towers of its own, not counting the big one that dominates the island of Burano. Somebody get these people a level and a tape measure.

In France they kiss on the main street. In Venice, they smoke. Man, the whole place smells like a newspaper office in 1977.

Gold door knockers and handles with heads of blackamoors (also seen in paintings and sculptures) are puzzlers, as are the tiny busts of turbaned moors with black faces on brooches in jewelry shops. Racist? You be the judge. Is it racist of me to point out that all the Chinese ladies are wearing pink?

We come across a big “Free Palestine” banner in a square. No one seems to be paying much attention to it. Good luck finding a spot on a bench to sit down. U.S. navy types swagger by in a boisterous group. Clusters of Boy Scouts with yellow scarves. Perfumeries, Bata shoe stores, outlets for Apple Swatches, Nike, Kodak. Gleeful veiled brides and their giddy attendants. Garbage cans differentiated into plastica and indifferenziata domains. There’s a McDonald’s and a KFC and a Dunkin’ Donuts ripoff place called Coffee Joint On the Go, where squirming tourists queue outside the washroom to do exactly that. Absolute essentials: The iconic, photogenic Rialto Bridge that spans the Canal Grande and what Byron called the Bridge of Sighs (his translation of Ponte dei sospiri), the 500-year-old enclosed white limestone bridge that offered convicts their last sight of the city before being taken from interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to their cells in the Prigioni Nuove (New Prison).

A Mafioso gangster gull swoops in and snatches a pizza slice out of the hand of a young woman who vainly chases after it as her friends collapse in laughter outside a church whose foundations go back to the 13th century. And by our second day, as we start to become familiar with surroundings, we start to look down our noses at the endless stream of newbies pulling their luggage over the uneven calli and salizada and fondamenta— Venetian names for the stone roads that would be known elsewhere in Italy as a via or a strada. Our own arrival the day before at the train station was a bit of a shocker. A porter who I would guess to be in his fifties, wiry but not a big man, loaded all of our luggage (six big bags and fleet of carry-ons) onto a cart that he jostled several blocks through narrow streets and alleys en route to our lodgings. No buses, cars or even bicycles, come to think of it, are permitted on the Floating City. Vientato.

Which, hmm, gets me wondering about how we’re supposed to get to the mainland airport at 6 a.m. in a few days, as I listen to some passing Canadians or Americans one could only describe as, ahem, bleach-blond, bad-built and butch, loudly bitching about how things aren’t arranged the way they are back in Minot or Moose Jaw. They are only too willing to helpfully offer sharp criticism to harried and underpaid staff with real-world problems, just trying to do their jobs as gracefully as possible. Fortunately, this Kulturkampfish speaking of empty minds by hideous men, with folds of skin loosely hanging about their jaws (like mine), and women whose faces bear deep marks of habitual dissatisfaction never takes long. It was ever thus, but you can’t travel far these days without noticing that the Trumpification and Marjorie Taylor Greene-ing of North America continues apace. Attention must be paid, whether we want to or not.

Of all the keepsakes and tokens, souvenirs and mementos on sale at all the kiosks in all the places we stop in Italy — the umbrellas and the bags, the skirts and full-frontal David aprons, the banners and the fans, the cups and the fridge magnets — it’s the 2025 Calendario Romano that takes the cake. The beefcake, that is. The calendar sandwiches information about the Vatican around photos of dishy young priests, on the model of those hot firefighter calendars that are themselves a sendup of the girly pin-up calendars of the Forties and Fifties. Don’t know what the country’s coming to, but in Rome do as the Romans do …

So on our last night in Venice, after Rekha and I trudged 12 kilometres through working-class parts of the city (during which she intimated once or twice that perhaps we were lost and that I have the sense of direction of a cavefish), we are sitting at a lovely restaurant table by the canal through which we’ll be ferried in a few hours by a water taxi to the airport. The sun is setting. From where I’m sitting, I can see a woman in a side street stroking her cat as she opens a third-storey window. For the first time in my life, I feel like a Renaissance man.

Still rocky from the bout of food poisoning, I play it safe and order lasagna — which I’m savouring as a man passing by pulls out a hankie to scoop up the huge mound of doggy-do his mutt has just dropped by our table. He then proceeds to take a few steps and hurl the whole steaming package into the canal. Plop plop, fizz fizz. When in Venice, never order the catch of the day.

The sun is rising the next morning as the water taxi drops us at the airport by 5:45. I drop 185 euros on that one. Another 60 on porters and a van that get us safely to the British Airways lineup, already 50 passengers long. Ciao time.


Splendid views from the air of the snow-capped French Alps and, later, the glaciers of Greenland. A six-hour layover at Heathrow and four more in Seattle. The flight attendants all sound like Adele or Phil Collins. They run out of chicken so we in the last row go vegetarian. All the way home, we fret about the revelation — learned while filling in a form British Airways says is needed to land in the U.S. (but actually isn’t) — that a pair of fraudsters have commandeered our passport information to acquire U.S. visas and green cards. It’s a shock to find out that we’ve been living and working in Mississippi all along; but who knows for how long?

Alaska Airlines gets us from Seattle to Victoria about 10 at night. Once again we’ve been up for more than 30 straight hours and are drooping from exhaustion. Shlep luggage to car in parking lot. Notice front tire on driver’s side is completely flat. Look away. Look back. It’s still flat. Remember that I needlessly removed the air compressor I normally keep in the trunk three weeks ago to make room for our suitcases. Shlep luggage back to taxi pickup area. Pay cabbie $70. Realize only as tail lights of taxi are disappearing around the corner that one of the wheels from the new hard-shell suitcase we bought a month ago for this trip is sliding around in his trunk.

Mistah Kurtz — he dead.

Dream fitfully of the weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. In the dark, I don’t recognize our bedroom at three in the morning. For days, it feels like we’re moving on a ship.

No one rushes for the bus the next morning when I ride out to Sidney, near the airport, with my trusty air compressor. Everyone is polite to the driver, thanking him wherever they disembark. The sun is shining. The killdeers in the fields by the airport are peeping. The white-crowned sparrows and the yellow-rumped warblers are singing. The wild grasses make like waves in the wind. The nootka roses and the daffodils and the Scotch broom and the yarrow and the camas and the last of the season’s pink fawn lilies are blooming and blossoming and buzzing with bees. Salt Spring Island’s Mount Tuam looms majestically in the background.

As the tire fills with air, long enough for me to get it to a garage, I finally realize what T.S. Eliot was getting at: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Occurs to me that Dad gave me the compressor more than 40 years ago, several cars ago.

On my way to the garage, Mungo Jerry is on the radio. Life’s for living. Yeah, that’s our philosophy.

And finally, lest I ever be tempted by another bakery longjohn, one picture from Pompeii is worth a thousand dietary proscriptions ...

366 views6 comments


We've lived through some of the same travel horrors as you but not as many and certainly not all on the same trip. It could put someone off travel for good. Fortunately we're made of sterner stuff. In your telling, for the most part it was the charming adventure that travel memories are made of. Congratulations on your sense of place, historical context and devotion to detail in your highly entertaining account. Like anyone with a passion for travel, you will agree it was worth the long flights and missed connections and will look back on your negative experiences as part of life's rich pageant. Best wishes, Larry & Sylvia.

Replying to

Thanks Larry. You two are far more sophisticated travellers than we'll ever be. Our next trip will be to Cudworth, gateway to Bruno. I hear they have a Co-op store.


National Lampoon’s European Vacation comes nowhere close to the 2024 Fowler Family excursion. Well done! Enjoyed every word. Thanks for taking the time and for spending the Euros to create so many memories of your trip. Will bring a bottle of limoncello next visit.

Replying to

Thanks Arla. You're on. Best drink ever.


A few hours later, the boys and I are standing in a buffet line and Lake says to Hudsynn: “Walk in a straight line, you big oaf.” A man standing next to Lake thinks the comment was aimed at him and walks off in a huff, with nothing on his tray.

Where was that kid when the large, loud lady chastising the staff over having an employee scan expensive items to prevent theft in the self-checkout line.

I’m not a thief!

Too bad, I think; as the staff gather round her and I weigh my cherries and bananas at the same time.

Replying to

I’m not a thief! she shrieked, at the worried looking Indian girl.

“Too bad,” I thought, as I weighed my cherries and bananas at the same time.

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