The blunt end of the FAB
There is some good news for my Internet connection. Because we’ve got iPhone roaming, we can get a phone signal in some ports and then use the hotspot facility to hook into the Internet. The FAB won’t like it because we’ll dodge the charge. And another personal matter: I’ve decided to stop shaving for seven weeks. So far, my face looks like a withering peach, but at least there are some signs of pepper among the salt.
If being bussed from the hotel to the wharf showed one thing last Saturday, it was the overwhelming popularity of mini cars in Rome. Every big city is heading in this direction, I suspect, because there isn’t enough room for all those family cars we used to think of as normal.
The mini car is cross between a quad bike and a car, most so small that you must sit on your own lap to fit in. The very smallest hold only one person, but most take two, with no room for freight. They are parked on the simple principle of there be being almost enough room. Parking restriction signs mean nothing. And if there isn’t parallel room, park them sideways, or on pavements, or on corners.
In stark contrast was the FAB, sitting in port waiting for its 2000 paying sailors. It awakened my apprehension when, at home, I’d seen similar vessels so huge they looked as though Circular Quay has arrived to tie up next to them.
Inside, the FAB public areas are exactly as I’d imagined, with powerfully coloured examples of every interior design extravaganza since the invention of the chair. But this is what the cruising sailors obviously like and who am I to question it? Cruising is a demand driven business. Speaking of which, paying for the cruise is like Bunnings, where low prices (far from low, actually) are just the beginning. Once the ship has encapsulated its 2000 fun seeking sailors, its attention is turned to how further monies can be extracted. Each day, each passenger is charged US$15 for staff gratuities, whether they feel grateful or not, after which they should flick across some more money to express their further gratitude to those with whom they have had direct physical contact. A 15% gratuity is also added to every item purchased. When we queried this philosophy, we were reminded that, for example, we should be grateful to the lady who puts soap powder in the ship’s washing machine even though we will never meet her and cannot tell whether she places the soap with scowling indifference or with a smile for the love of washing our clothes.
Surcharges aside, the ship is bristling with sphincter clamping prices for services like beauty treatments. There are special deals applying to eating and drinking too, where you can save by signing up now and regretting later. We have a drink contract where anything under $9 is free but if we venture into a $9.50 drink we get hit with the whole charge, not just the bit over our free allowance. Free or not, you cannot escape the 15% gratuity on every drink. All transactions, even when losing money in the casino, are charged to your multi-purpose plastic card, so you don’t know you’re headed to debtors’ prison until you can’t settle up at the end of the voyage and are marched off the paupers brig – unless you can arrange a mortgage on your house by Internet – which incurs further costs plus a15% surcharge on top of that because somebody down in the engine room looked at a switch to make sure it was working according to the manual.
Our stateroom, (it is a keel-hauling offence for calling it a cabin) is excellent, along with our designated personal assistant whose smile starts at one earlobe and finishes at the other. We have a generous space with a great television, a king-plus bed (two doubles pushed together), lots of cupboards, a full width private balcony (seven stories up from the water) and a decent bathroom with twin basins. The toilet is the airline deafening-suck-and-pop type and there is a separate, straight jacket shower fitted with a body-seeking curtain, plus a very small bath which is not recommended for large people, of whom there are many outstanding examples on board, because their buttocks could become vacuum-sealed against the bath base and would need to be craned ashore intacto for separation.
The public areas are vast and varied, some charming, it must be said. If you can’t find the solitude you crave you can book a quiet cabana where, for a fee pus surcharge, you are cordoned off from the riffraff. That contrasts to the two swimming pools. The large one is small and the small one is even smaller. During most of the day you don’t actually take a swim, but get into a family bath with up to 2000 people. There is also a swirling thermal pool which doesn’t attract as many people because it charges per wallow, but at least has a lower percentage of discarded bodily fluids.
13 May 2018
We birthed at Naples today with permission to go ashore, and the possibility of visiting Capri or Sorrento by ferry. We opted for some earthly experience in Napoli. Just outside the wharf we found a tram that offered a hop-on hop-off-of the city – with a warning that if you hopped off you would have to wait more than an hour for your next hop back on. Michelle has a fear of seeing the FAB on the horizon minus us. We decided to take a hopless journey, boarded, and then found that the tram was actually a bus impersonating a tram. It had a steering wheel and shuddering diesel engine that imparted an internal organ massage as it trundled us around the city and climbed the famous hillsides. Naples, like many famous European cities, has too many cars and not enough money to restore its magnificent ruins. To its credit, like Paris, it has not allowed new high-rise buildings to bugger up its charm. There is nothing over eight stories high and most of the grand, Italianate buildings haven’t changed over the last hundred years. That goes for their paint too.
14 May 2018
Ahead of us we’ve now got two days at sea – a time when the FAB comes into its own with fun and serious stuff to do while communication with the rest of the world ceases. At this time the FAB puts its best effort into keeping the paying sailors happily paying some more. For instance, we attended a detox and weight loss talk in the gym which gave good information but went down a plughole at the end when we were told the best way to retrieve our wrecked and wretched bodies was to submit to a body composition analysis (fortunately for us a machine and consultant was on board to take our measurements for a fee plus gratuity surcharge), followed by an upsell of six months’ supply of detox pills to enable us to conduct this essential process ‘externally’. We should also eat five times a day, poo thrice, drink litres of water and pee profusely, exercise the heart and muscles vigorously, sleep at least eight hours – all of which leaves about ten minutes to make a living. You realise that detox and weight loss on a cruise are oxymorons, even admitted by Mr Purebody doing the talk. After we received a grim warning that we’re eating and drinking ourselves to death, we give the man a polite round of applause and return to our irresistible march to the gallows.
We were invited to the theatre for a fact session with Captain Jürgen Von Wilhelmsen III who made himself available to lift the lid on how this ship actually works. I’m a bit of a sucker for this sort of stuff.
The ship is 50,000 tonnes, carries 1968 guests, 840 crew, hoons along at 19 knots (max speed is 23 knots) and is driven by two huge electric motors that swivel to provide rear steering. When they are turned fully in the opposite direction they can stop the ship in four ship lengths. There are five massive diesel engines that generate all the electricity to run the motors and the rest of the ship’s needs such as hair dryers and toasters. Three of the engines are at the stern and two at the bow in case either end gets flooded. Also at the bow are three electric engines either side driving propellers to steer from the front. The ship produces all its own water by either reverse osmosis or evaporation. Uneaten food is ground up and fed to the sharks well out to sea while all the garbage is sorted, recycled, and sold when in port. Water from showers, baths and laundry is recycled for use as grey water for the likes of washing. Sewage is also recycled but goes to the sharks who look upon it as wine. Actually, some of it is, when you think about it.
YERP 2 12 May 2018
Fear not. I won’t deluge you with blography, but we leave Rome tomorrow to board the Floating Apartment Block (hereinafter referred to as the FAB) and whilst at sea will be cut off from the internet. I’ll keep writing, though, so there may be a book sized blography at disembarkation time.
The organisers of FAB have put us up in the used-to-be-grand-in-1940 Mediterraneo Hotel not far from the train station. Jet lagged and confused, we wandered the streets last night looking for a local nosh. The trouble with Rome is that it is full of Italians and not enough of them understand Australian English. However, we did find a little well-linguisticed restaurant where Michelle got stuck into a spaghetti mountain and I into a cheesy pizza the size of a Ferrari wheel.
We got chatting to a couple in the next table and ma goodness! they were from Bondi, not far from where we live, and ma goodness again! they were booked on the same FAB voyage. How nice, we thought, as he told us his great love was to sing and that he used to have his own band but no longer gigged. However, we grew apprehensive when he said that whenever he saw a band he always offered his services for free – whether they wanted them or not, I suspect. From his pocket he drew a piece of paper with a long list of songs he could sing. They were all up-beat, feet-aboppin howlers that I particularly dislike. He dashed off a few samples, much to the immediate discomfort of his wife who told him to put it away – a comment usually reserved for other unwelcome activities. I feebly muttered that my father used to sing ‘bye bye blackbird’ which set him off again. As he stood to leave, promising that we’d jam on board, I realised that we may have come across a Tourette’s singer. Maybe this wasn’t his wife with him, but a carer armed with a chunk of wadding and a syringe for a bad attack. We wrote down their cabin number so we could spend our time at the other end of the FAB.
During the night some urgent knocking on the door awoke us from travel-drugged sleep to find a room boy standing outside offering an empty ashtray he said we’d requested. I’m suspicious of that, especially on a non-smoking floor. Are we being investigated? I’ll be extra vigilant.
The Roma Growler
A big moment at breakfast: my first hotel toaster upon which to report. The Roma Growler stood before me on three original and one rear prosthetic leg, its interior glowing and growling with expectation. But as the sign says, it will only accept sliced bread. That must have history. Did a past diner try to roast prunes in there, or maybe a whole loaf of bread? I obeyed the sign in case the toast captain was watching, and submitted two slices. Quite a bit of time and growling later warm bread slid into the out tray. Since it took another pass to make it into toast, I give the Roma Growler six and a half out of ten, having deducted half a point for the prosthetic leg. Tough, I know, but I’ve seen Derek Breadchamber disqualify a toaster altogether just for unruly crumbs.
We took a walking tour of the Jewish quarter in the morning. Part of it was a stop in at the main synagogue, a magnificent building that could become a Catholic cathedral with a simple makeover of statues, red lights, more candles and a few puffs of smoke. While our guide recounted the dreadful treatment of the Roman Jews during the Second World War, what struck me was that the end of the war did not mean unqualified redemption. In many ways, the suffering went on. Today there are only 16,000 Jews living in Rome and its suburbs which have a total population of around five million. And here’s the real irony of Rome: this city, which glorifies Roman Catholicism, and was conflicted with Judaism, adoringly worships a man called Jesus who was a Jew.
Last night, a special moonlight tour of The Colosseum with dinner had been organised by the FAB for its upcoming sailors. However, it morphed into an unspeical tour of the Colosseum by hot afternoon light along with about half a million other people who had come for unspecial tours of their own. I interpreted this as a FAB fitness test in disguise. Because most of our group are of surplus years, many with aids such as flashy adjustable walking sticks, there is a possibility that some them may actually be unfit for travel and expire during the voyage, their bodies having to be committed to the deep. Better to have them fail on a route march around the Colosseum, including a few sets of punishing steps. To their credit, our sailors survived the Colosseum, but then had to pass a final test of steeply sloping cobbled streets and multiple stone staircases to get to the restaurant. Again, they came through and were rewarded with an excellent Italian meal, including wine.
Today we set out by bus to go to the port where the FAB awaits its passed-fit sailors. Lurking among them is the Tourette’s singer, but also the promise of very interesting people.
Near the synagogue is Not The Trevi Fountain. It has replaced the horses with tortoises, the water is not blue but beige, the male appendages are bigger, and there is a bowl at the top instead of a huge bloke with a beard. Apart from these differences, Not The Trevi Fountainis identical to the Trevi Fountain. Both accept three coins, unlimited wishes and swimmers on a hot day.
This is the beginning of a long journey, because it will last seven weeks – provided I don’t expire from over-eating spaghetti in a tiny restaurant run by a rotund, aproned wife and failed tenor husband. This trip is to Yerp – Greece and Italy to be more exact – wherein Michelle, my guide and carer, has mapped out visits to legendary cities and other bucket-list places. There’s also a cruise on a floating apartment block where I will be able to establish intimate friendships with about two thousand people. I’m a bit apprehensive about that, but we’ll see how many I can get through.
Along the way I intend to continue my insightful study into hotel toasters and those brave souls who have been placed on this earth to design and run them. I will be sending the findings to my very good friend, hotel toaster critic for the New York Times, Derek Breadchamber, and will delight in his responses – which I will pass on.
Being at the pointy end of my life Michelle has convinced me to fly at the pointy end of aircraft, hotel rooms, trains and restaurants so that my bank account will also head towards a pointy end.
This resolve began with our flight from Sydney to Singapore. For years we’ve been squirreling away enough points (e.g. we bought two cars on Amex) to go not just first class but in a Singapore first class ‘suite’. If Bill Gates went on a commercial aircraft (doubtful, I know) this is where he’d sit. A new A380 with the latest suite configuration sat loading up on the tarmac at Sydney International as we were ushered into the suite lounge where suite-trained whispering people administered extreme pamper.
The aircraft is similarly staffed. They are devoted, and deeply in love with the six occupants of these just-built studio apartments. The chair and bed are separate. The television screen is enormous. The tray table is like a partners’ desk. The grog is the kind you see locked in glass cases at Dan Murphy’s. I warmed up on vintage Dom and downed a rare Vodka with my Beluga caviar. The bathroom may have been modelled on Lucille Ball’s dressing room: all bright lights and space. However, this is an aeroplane and for design reasons it can’t help placing the toilet bowl on the sloping wall of the fuselage, meaning that urinating men must retain balance by jamming their heads against the ceiling. Very short men would have to sit down.
Taking off is a new sensation compared to other aircraft seats I’ve flown in. The studio apartment has two portholes through which one may observe the distant airport slithering past as the A380 gathers speed. But that doesn’t seem to deliver enough oomph to take off. There is no lung-emptying acceleration. It just rolls along in relative silence and then rises for no particular reason.
The suite also bestows upon the passenger a pair of Lalique pyjamas (after several flights you have enough to stock a pyjama department) and a gift box of other Lalique treasures. To my recollection, Lalique made designer, collectible glassware, but Singapore Airlines has obviously signed up the brand for other handy gift items such as body lotion, a cake of soap, a tube of lip balm and a scented candle – which I was not allowed to light on the aircraft. Maybe if we get a smelly hotel room I’ll fire it up. As a nod to glassware, my goodies included a very small, strikingly blue fish that lives in a black bag. I don’t know what I am supposed to do with it.
The studio apartment chair is worth a special mention. It seems like a cross between a dentist’s chair and the kind they used in old movie electrocutions. One arm rest opens to reveal a mini controller and a touch-sensitive screen to operate the chair and the television. I must admit I’m not good at coordinating these high-tech devices but the crew, gathered around and almost in tears because a suite occupant was not experiencing joy, didn’t do much better. There were prodding fingers coming from everywhere. One arrow swung the television out from the wall but then turned the chair in the opposite direction, so I couldn’t see the screen without kneeling and looking over the top of the chair. The reclining button didn’t like me paying attention to the television either. And sometimes the television got in a huff and turned itself off altogether – especially if I got the chair right. With practice, I’ll get better at this stuff but, in the meantime, I’ll treat it like a board game.
In order to stay with A380 suites, we spent many hours in the Singapore suite lounge, where you are compelled to whisper. No singing under the shower, either. You sit and dine to pass the time while waiters stride about with bottles of 2009 Vintage Dom which they pour as though it was water. This is like being in intensive care without being sick.
At about one in the morning it was time to quit the whispering gallery and board our next A380 suite to Zurich. Ah, old style, unfortunately. These 14 suites look like a line of half-finished children’s fun train carriages being built by an unsuccessful carpenter. They do not have the space of the new suites, but give the impression that the incoming passenger is an intrusion. When bedtime comes, an attendant asks you to go for a walk around the block while he re-configures the furniture. I our case there were only three out of 14 suites occupied. Hence, we were a little over-serviced. Plates, cutlery and dishes came and went after every move I made. At one stage they took away everything except two knives and then served me yoghurt. I called the beautiful female attendant and gestured at the imbalance of cutlery, trying to indicate by pointing that I couldn’t eat yoghurt using a knife without cutting my tongue off. She hurried away and returned with a third knife.
Room with a view
Today we come down a step towards reality with an Al Italia business class (points again) flight from Zurich to Rome. Going through security in Zurich taught us something about what you can’t take on board in Yerp. Forget our rule about liquids of less than 100 ml being allowed. The security office hoiked out every container in our carry-ons, made a pile of it, and then informed us that, in addition to the 100 ml rule, we were only permitted to take what would fit into a small plastic bag which she produced for the purpose. To her credit she helped us squeeze in as much as possible, but we still had to leave behind various preparations of goop essential to the preservation of our skins.