Monday, October 18, 2010

A really nice boat, but...

The MSC line has a romantic name for each of their ships, MSC Magnifica, MSC Splendida, MSC Fantasia, MSC Poesia and so on. Our incarceration was on the Poesia - Italian for Poetry - and each deck was named after a famous Italian poet. Famous Italian poet! - there's an oxymoron if ever there was one.

The Poesia was commissioned in May, 2008, and, at eighteen months old, was in first class condition. No complaints in that department. Unfortunately, that is the entire list of positive attributes I can come up with. The rest of the "package" was a recurring horror.
American based cruise lines have long since moved away from fixed seating dining - a regimen wherein there is normally two dinner times, 6:30 and 9:00pm for example, and the hapless inmates choose one or the other for the duration of their sentence. They are then assigned to a table seating from two to as many as 10 people - the same 10 people for dinner every night of the trip! Woe was us.
Assigned to a table for eight, we were cell mates with a pleasant couple from Antibes, in France, he German, she French along with four caricatures of everything bad about herd traveling. Two obnoxious sisters from Texas vulgarly flaunting their inheritance from Daddy and a veterinarian from the backwoods of Canada with ill fitting teeth complete with matching wife.

For my taste, give me meat and potatoes and 15 minutes, and I'm ready to move on. Not so for these excruciating waterbourne soirees.
Nothing was ever quite right for the Texan mamas. Hot tea was required with every course and its delivery never failed to elicit an imperious "Where is the honey?". The wine was corked, cloudy, too hot, too cold, veggies not cooked or overcooked - it was always something.
The hayseed animal molester was equally aggravating. Having left the epicenter of culture back in Calgary or wherever, these hicks were determined to get value for their money. They ordered every course - all six of them - at every meal but only after prolonged interrogation of the poor waiter over each dish, as they struggled to understand what it actually was. Whenever they had any doubt about what might turn up they simply ordered a second, different dish as a standby.

Now the restaurants open promptly at 6:30pm and purport to shutter their doors at 6:45pm to discourage latecomers. Our schedule thus was boxed in: beginning at 6:45, we endured a 45 minute pantomime while our companions haggled and argued over their selections. Then, waiting
patiently(?), while the Cheese and Fruit course was chomped to oblivion by the horse-dentured vetinerarian. Next up, with unabashed lethargy, he and his spouse would pick their way round the salad course which, once completed, was followed by soup which they slurped and dribbled through with the finesse of large Labrador dogs. Hooray - if all went smoothly, by 8:15 the main course arrived and five minutes later we had eaten and left. Can't think how we denied ourselves the experience of dessert, cheese plate, coffee and after dinner drinks, but we did.
Two nights of this were enough, and we determined to dine at the buffet instead. Error! Unlike every other cruise ship wherein the buffett is a 24 hour-a-day affair, seamlessly morphing from breakfast, to lunch, to afternoon tea to dinner to early morning pastries and back to breakfast, all the time maintaining a fresh fruit selection, desserts, beverages, ice cream, pies, custards etc., the MSC buffet closes completely at 4pm and then reopens one section from 8 to 11pm to serve - Pizza? No contest. Faced with more time at the trough with the sassy sisters and the dozy doc, the pizza won hands down. But wait! Obviously the Italians have never been to Papa John's or Pizza Hut to sample real pizza - here they were making genuine Italian pizza (as if there is such a thing ;o) ) that would be too far severe even for Weight Watchers. Oh well.

Breakfast was another daily debacle, no matter where one hid on the ship. At 9:30am sharp an abrasively plangent female read the ship's daily newsletter over the public address system at a volume ensuring that it could not be missed. Although this recitation took only 4 or 5 minutes to complete, that was just the Italian version.
The entire missive was then repeated five more times in German, French, Dutch, Spanish and English. Totaly exhausting.
As for the food, we skirmished with the chaos of the formal restaurants two or three times for breakfast and lunch - couldn't get cold milk for cereal, did get cold coffee; couldn't get crispy bacon, did get crispy egg - you get the idea. So as self-exiled dining room outcasts we were doomed to the buffet. Reminiscent of POWs in WWII movies, we quickly discovered the secret of restarting the beverage machine after it had been shut down by the guards, learned exactly when to strike at the pastry counter to snag the edible ones and even found the back door to the gelato machine. Eventually we even managed to bribe the jackbooted Maitre d' of the second main restaurant and were awarded a private table for two for the rest of the trip. Not too shabby.

When the ship finally entered US waters, the FDA swarmed on board, - well, maybe not swarmed, more sort of lumbered - inspected the facilities, promptly shut down all the kitchens and revoked landing permission in Charlotte Amilie. Pretty much everything came to a halt at this point for 12 hours or so while every crew member that wasn't dead or mortally moribund, scrubbed, polished, swept and sterilized every nook and cranny on the ship. Beyond smelling like a hospital for the next day or so, not much else seemed different but the redoubtable G-Men were satisfied.
Cleaning up the ship unfortunately, did nothing for the shameful condition of the two Unincorporated Organized Territories - possessions of the USA - that we were to visit next. These shabby communities presented a shameful introduction to America for the 2,000 Europeans on board.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Part II - A Brush with Disaster in Tunisia

Our introduction to Africa was not too propitious. Overall though, the day blended quite easily into the rest of the trip and thus passed with little notice. Having had our cab driver disappear for a nooner or whatever in the middle of downtown Tunis, when he finally reappeared his stunt driving efforts to get back on schedule ended with his cab totaled and us marooned in the middle of a freeway. When, finally we were rescued, the poor guy was
slumped against his wreck repeatedly mumbling "De firsta accidenta in thirty years".
By this time we were really late. The replacement cab and driver eventually arrived and he did his level best to complete the itinerary but, when we arrived back at the dock entrance, we discovered he was not authorized to enter so we had to leg it back to the ship. About halfway there the local MSC Cruise Line Agent screeched to a halt beside us, motioned for us to get in and fairly flew to the quay. Here, the last gangway was being hauled on board and the ship was about to leave. Abandoned in North Africa was a fate we were grateful to miss.

The Tunisian Republic is about the size of Washington state with a population of about 10.3 million - 1-1/2 times that of Washington state - and is both the smallest nation along the Atlas Mountain range and the northernmost country in Africa.
It is an Arab country bordered by Algeria to the west, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. With its name is derived from the capital Tunis, located in the north-east, the south of the country is part of the Sahara desert while the remainder is mainly fertile soil. It boasts nearly 800 miles of coastline.
This combination of arable land close to the coastline has played a prominent role throughout recorded history. First was the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, then came the Africa Province known as the "bread basket" of the Roman Empire. Later, during the 5th century CE, the area was occupied first by Vandals, then Byzantines in the 6th century and Arabs in the 8th century before being subjugated by the

Ottomans at which point it became the "Regency of Tunis". The Ottomans were driven out as the European scrambled to confirm their Empires in the 19th century, becoming a French protectorate in 1881.
Finally, after obtaining independence in 1956, the country took the name of the "Kingdom of Tunisia" until the end of the reign of Lamine Bey and the Husainid Dynasty. With the proclamation of the Tunisian Republic on July 25, 1957, the nationalist leader Habib Bourguiba became its first president and the modernization of the country began.

Today Tunisia is an export-oriented country, in the process of liberalizing its economy under an authoritarian regime controlled by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and masquerading as a procedural democracy. Ben Ali has governed as President since 1987 and has systematically diminished freedom of press and political pluralism while maintaining the charade of democratic elections.
In the September 2009 election his share of the vote fell to its lowest ever at, 89.4%, mainly because he allowed an opposition party on the ballot. If the opposition candidate had not been jailed during the run up to the election or had been allowed to give speeches or organize gatherings, it's possible he could have done even better than his 5% share, but that's just speculation! Pictures of the tour are here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Cruise from Hell - Part I

MSC - Mediterranean Shipping Company - is an Italian cruise line which operates about half-a-dozen vessels. Any country that has used up more than 60 governments since 1948 suggests that it might not be a paragon of organizational stability and, in hindsight, an Italian cruise ship was perhaps not our best choice. Even allowing for a bout of food poisoning following the first evening's dinner followed, of course, by 24 hours of Technicolor yawns, we have never been on a cruise before during which we actually lost weight! Yes, we both lost 3-1/2lbs - on a cruise ship. More of that anon.
The ship sailed on schedule, navigated its way through the Canale Della Giudecca past the island of Venice, across the lagoon and out into the Adriatic Sea. At sunrise next morning we were docked in the Adriatic port of Bari, on the eastern coast of southern Italy.
Bari has the unfortunate distinction of being the only city to suffer the effects of chemical warfare during WWII, unintended though it was. The Allies, fearful that Hitler might resort to chemical attacks as he was pushed to the wall, had stockpiled mustard gas on Bari dock - a highly classified strategy at the time. Bari was a key supply point for the Allies and, in a December 1943 air attack by the Germans, the stockpile was unwittingly bombed. Fatality estimates due to the gas vary from less than 70 people to more than 2,000, a confusion generated since neither the rescuers nor the medical teams had any idea what they were dealing with. Ignorance of the presence of mustard gas resulted in numerous otherwise avoidable casualties all muddled in with the conventional carnage wrought by the air attack. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the records destroyed and the incident remained a secret until 1959.
I did not visit the town, being too pre-occupied with puking and moaning and completely consumed with self-pity. Marian went ashore and took some snaps of the city.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A Mediterranean Quickie

I really need to do a better job in keeping this blog current. The previous post, made in April of this year, completed our 2009 Fall trip to England for our best ever pub crawl. Shamefully, this post is almost exactly one whole year after the event. However, with a few more paving stones on the road to Hell, here goes.
Suffering some serious boredom waiting for Thanksgiving to arrive, we cast about and found a nice little cruise that embarked in Venice, Italy and disgorged us, three weeks later, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We grabbed our bags and left.
A trio of tiresome flights and one day later we staggered out of Marco Polo Airport and took the bus to our hotel on the island of Venice. We had planned to take a night tour of Venice but it piddled down with rain all evening and we made do with a deplorably bad supper in a "genuine Italian family" restaurant next door to the hotel. We wondered if their family motto was "We may not be good, but we're not cheap".
Bright and early next morning we made a quick perambulation of the island trying to fill in gaps from an earlier visit. It was certainly interesting to see the city in the early morning and, although the weather was not too cooperative, the walk was refreshing. Snapshots here.