waiting to exhale

It might be the longest night for most in the northern hemisphere, but to us it is the shortest night. Determined to wring every last drop out of a brief New York City visit, we book late night tickets at the Blue Note to see Chris Botti, and get back to our hotel less than three hours before our wake-up call is scheduled.

Bleary-eyed at half past four in the morning, we lug our bags downstairs, say goodbye to the night staff and put ourselves in the hands of the limo driver.

An hour later I am sitting in the American Airlines club lounge, Virgin Mary in hand (it’s been an alcohol-laden few days) and a relatively healthy granola breakfast on the way. Orlando has opted for yet more eggs and bacon than you can shake a stick at. At this point it’s a case of whatever will get us on the plane still conscious.

We sit slumped in our exit row seats, ignoring Wolverine on the TV and the wonderful American Airlines in-flight service (a polystyrene cup of luke-warm tea is all we are offered in five hours) and fall into a coma. I wake about three hours into the flight and realise it’s almost time to ditch the fur-lined boots and woolly jumper for rather more tropical sandals and fresh linen.

The azure horizon changes and we can see the northern-most tip of Barbados taking shape.  I peer out and try to identify each beach as it emerges from the haze. Is that Dover? Or Worthing? Orlando doesn’t care: all he sees is an island he calls home.

Stepping out onto the apron at Grantley Adams International, the feeling of warm tropical air on my bare legs and arms is just perfect after two weeks of freezing temperatures, wind chill and thermal underwear. The air is laden with the perfume of the tropics. We scribble our landing cards hurriedly and I follow Orlando to the “Citizens only” booth, avoiding the growing queues of tourists.

The immigration lady gives us a formal “good afternoon” but her eyes are friendly. Minutes later we are in the cleanest taxi cab I have ever been in, diverting off the Tom Adams highway and taking the back roads down to Oistins. Beautifully kept concrete homes make way now and again for older, smaller weatherboard homes and the occasional brightly painted chattel house, all equally well presented. Occasionally a verandah or a front door is festooned with Christmas decorations, the tinsel taking pride of place on this sunny island. An odd snowman or penguin ornament looks out of place but cheerful enough in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Finally checked into our temporary home, we stand on our balcony overlooking a tiny beach, miles away from the main tourist centres, and finally start to relax. All we can hear is the sound of the Caribbean Sea pounding just yards from our door. The turquoise and blue of the water hurts my eyes after two weeks of weak winter daylight.

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A quick visit to the supermarket for some provisions, and just before sunset we finally make it into the water. The day has cooled down somewhat as we dip our feet into what feels like a chilly sea. Orlando dives straight in, whilst I stand and wait for one of the big rumbling waves to envelop me.

We bob up and down chest-deep in water, breathing in the warm evening air and watching the colours change in the sky. As the sun sets, a handful of teenage boys play a rowdy game of football nearby on a postage stamp of white sand as we give ourselves over to the water.

Later on the balcony the rum punch is strong and the fried flying fish going down a treat: that healthy breakfast seems like a long time ago now. The sun sets quickly in the end, leaving us in darkness with only the pounding of the waves and the trilling of the crickets to keep us company.

It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.

deck the halls

Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.

With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.

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In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.

There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.

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We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration.  Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.

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Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.

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The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.

A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.

the joys of time travel

There is something delicious about that last-minute seat upgrade, right at the departures gate. We’d started our long-distance journey with champagne in the Qantas first class lounge, courtesy of Orlando’s platinum frequent-flyer status. A dismal fifteen hours of cramped coach conditions looks less and less inviting with every sip. Then a flashing red light at the gate as they swipe our boarding passes. The Qantas lady smiles and says “There you are – some nice seats for you.”

We inadvertently do a victory lap of the A380 before finding our new home on the top deck in Premium Economy. It’s not the rarefied atmosphere of Business Class, but we stretch our legs and congratulate ourselves on our last-minute salvation.

We are good travelling companions, Orlando and I: on long-haul flights we rarely speak, communicating silently with the ease of those who have spent many hours in the air together. I always save the chocolate on my meal tray for him, and he knows the only place I drink apple juice is at 35,000 feet. I sleep a lot and later I can recall little of any entertainment I choose; he sits through a movie marathon and remembers every line.

This trip I am so tired I sleep through a good half of the Melbourne to LA leg, waking with just enough time for breakfast and a change of clothes before we land. Before long the LA skyline emerges from the clouds. I wave excitedly at the window. “Hi America! We’re back!”. Orlando shakes his head at my exuberance, but I see the smile in his eyes. He appreciates every milestone of our journey too.

The magic of the International Date Line means we arrive at LAX a good twenty minutes before we left the house in Melbourne. I love time travel. The ground crew hand us a big orange EXPRESS card as we disembark and we are whisked through immigration and customs in less than half an hour. The immigration guy is serious but courteous, and his smile seems genuine as he welcomes me to the USA and wishes me an enjoyable vacation. Seems the US Immigration Service has left behind their aggressive, suspicious and downright rude approach that used to mar every visit to the US in years gone by.

Before long we are sitting by our departure gate waiting for our last leg to JFK, mesmerised by the enormous high-resolution screens in the centre of the duty free mall, displaying a slow-mo wall of water one moment, then transforming into a beautiful clock full of synchronised dancing girls at the top of the hour. I am reminded of times when I was a child and my parents would exclaim at the sight of anything new: “It’s like America at home!”. Orlando, himself not known for his displays of wonder and excitement, nods approvingly. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Three hours later we share a taxi shuttle with three other weary travellers. As we emerge heading east from a spaghetti junction of freeways, the Manhattan skyline appears like a mirage in the distance. I can make out the green and red of the Empire State Building.

Through the country roads around Greenwich, Connecticut, the weatherboard houses look like something from a Christmas movie with their beautiful door wreaths, white garland lights and perfect outdoor Christmas trees. I chat to a fellow traveller, on a flying visit home to family from Tonbridge Wells in Kent. He points out his childhood haunts as we meander towards his home town of Milford, and swap food stories. I feel confident now about finding decent pizza in New Haven.

After what feels like forever we finally park outside our final destination. We are greeted by two small alarmed dogs, a wildly excited Englishwoman and an incredibly gentlemanly American man who hauls my impossibly heavy suitcase up four floors of stairs to a warm and welcoming flat.

The talk doesn’t stop for the next four hours, and neither does the rum or the red wine. Neither of us feel that we have just travelled for 28 hours flat. Until I finally give up and head to bed, that is. I sleep for ten hours straight, my body and mind finally relaxing after a marathon day and a strenuous five months.

Let the holiday commence.

the big barossa

A free hire car upgrade is always a good way to start a weekend away. Satnav on and away we go, out of Adelaide, up the Main North Road to wine country. Shiraz country, to be precise: the Big Barossa.

Once past the outer suburbs the landscape becomes more and more sun-scorched, all browns, ochres and straw-yellows. An hour later we round a bend in the highway and there they are: vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. “Hello vines!”, I call excitedly.

Off the main highway we meander towards the town of Nuriootpa. I welcome each winery sign like an old friend: Torbrecks; Richmond Grove; Peter Lehman. We locate our guesthouse and head straight to the cathedral of wineries. Penfolds seems the perfect place to worship on an Easter weekend.

I queue to buy some tawny, then join the crowd at the tasting bar. Never mind the pinots, or the affordable Koonunga Hill: I ask the pourer to start me on a shiraz-grenache-mourvedre mix. The first sip is divine, and so it begins.

On down the list I go, past an interesting shiraz-mourvedre and a very lovely cool-climate shiraz, but predictably it is the big Bin 28 that has my eyes rolling back in my head as the deep purple liquid hits home.

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The big hitters of 2010 – Bin 408 cabernet sauvignon and Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, the Baby Grange – are tempting. But it’s the last pour, the 2010 Bin 150 Marananga shiraz that is the very best of all. As the last drops trickle down, I thank the lord for those first pioneering Barossa winemakers who made their home here way back in the mid-1800s.

Back in our guesthouse, we open a bottle of the farm’s own 2008 shiraz and lower ourselves into the waiting hot tub on the verandah. We sit and gaze over the vines as the sun sets, moving on to a decent local tawny as we put the world to rights.

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Back inside we curl up on the sofa with a platter of local pates, cheeses and salamis as darkness settles and the countryside falls silent.

Another day in wine paradise.

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washington dc for dummies

Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.

I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.

The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.

Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.

The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.

Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.

Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.

Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.

It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.

Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?

return to christchurch

Twelve Red Crossers from all over the world – Britain, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Malaysia – have come together ahead of a Disasters In Developed Countries workshop in Melbourne. We visit our NZ cousins and hear the wisdom of their words following the tragic earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.

A flying visit to New Zealand takes us from Auckland, to Wellington, to Christchurch in less than thirty hours. On the hotel courtesy bus from Christchurch Airport we look at each other, trying to remember how long ago we met, and realise it was only the morning before. It already feels like we have been through so much more than that together.

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Things I miss

Things I Miss About Ireland

Decent sausages, bacon and white pudding.

Countless radio stations that play songs I actually recognise.

Coming home from a night out at 3am and finding the streets packed with cars and people.

The country shutting down for a huge celebration for every bronze medal won in the Olympics.

The way the landscape changes with every mile.

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