Wednesday, January 1, 2014

29th December – Marina, Wife and Dog @ Vicenza (or Palladio town)

Everyone has now gone their own ways leaving Julie and I to ourselves
for the next few days. This is more the norm for us, its fairly rare for us to travel in groups. Julie had done the research (as usual) and decided that we needed to visit Vicenza, a town famous for being the home of 16th Century Architect Palladio. Basically any building that has columns and a dome roof can be attributed to him e.g. the White House, the Queen’s house, Russian palaces,  market kiosks (just joking)…

We started the day chatting to a couple from Adelaide on the Verona station platform. The Aussie accent is pretty distinctive and Italian train platforms are a great place to meet as one puzzles over whether the next train is really yours. We learnt the hard way that you really have to be careful not to mix the fast trains with the regional ones heading to the same place. We once had been wrongly directed to a regional train by an attendant, running with luggage between platforms to find ourselves on the slow train to Florence. Anyway they had spent Xmas in Innsbruck, just over the border from Ortesei, but had no snow at Xmas, so I guess we were very fortunate.

It was a rainy Sunday morning in Vicenza, with the town nearly deserted (that would change later). Headed to the tourist office and found just how much Palladio dominates the town. We started by walking up the main street, Corso Palladio to the theatre designed by Palladio, we then took the Palladio walk to visit each building designed by Palladio. Inside one we stopped for breakfast. I thought I might log onto the wifi as we had no Internet in Verona…password was “Palladio”.  Then went to the Palladio museum, bumped into a statue of Palladio in the central square on our way to see the Basilica Palladiana which dominated the square.

Villa Rotunda ... Inspiration for the White House and more...
We decided as the weather was clearing to walk out to the famous Villa Rotunda designed by guess who? He actually invented the Villa! It was a pleasant walk but not a lot of signs. Met a kind couple Marina and his wife who were out walking their dog, who quickly changed the direction of their walk to guide us to the Villa. We told Marina that we had come all the way from Australia to see this archetype villa that had been the model for so many famous buildings. He said that they only lived a few hundred metres away but had never been inside!  We regularly meet travelling people while walking our dog around the local caravan park. It was interesting to hear that their last dog had only recently died when this stray dog just magically appeared at their doorstep! 

Back in Verona that night I took Julie to the restaurant that was recommended to me when I was here 18 months ago. At that time I tried to order the stewed horse and Polenta but was told it was a winter food. So here I am back in winter and that’s what I had. Julie ordered the barbequed horse with vegetables. We found it very tasty if not a bit chewier than beef (I guess horses run around more)

Horse meat Stewed (below) or barbecued (top)

Warning – Long Sidebar – Eras of travelling

Aussies are avid travellers and we are no different. Travel has become easier over the years. When I reflect back on my travelling experiences there are three definite eras….BC (before children); WC (with children) and AC (after children). BC is travelling on the cheap in hostels and cheap hotels; WC is more expensive and invariably requires family sized accommodations. AC is more comfortable. The accommodation is better and usually the food as well, as we only have to cater for ourselves while we spend the kids’ inheritance.

Julie and I did quite a lot of travel BC. Before partnering up I had made my first overseas trip and had my first ‘away from home’ Xmas in Asia, flying to Malaysia on a cheap student flight with a couple of mates. During that trip we endured a 42 hour bus trip on muddy back roads to Bangkok and then back down to Singapore staying in cheap hotels all the way. Yes in Singapore’s less pristine days there were cheap hotels in Bencoolan st, and Boogie St was a gay bar buzz of street markets and she-hes. Oddly enough they insisted on males having short hair. I had the 1970s long hair style of the day and it took two trips to the barber to meet the standard. The last haircut was given by a barber located at the border crossing from Malaysia! Julie had done the outback tour through the back of Queensland, NSW and South Australia. We had then both independently done the New Zealand back backer thing, hitch-hiking around both islands (in the days before back packer murderers) and staying in cheap youth hostels or just camping out in our $30 cheapie tents.

A little later in our WC days I had the bight idea that we should re-discover that experience with our then teen-aged children. They were both studying languages at school and I was sure that in a few years time they would become independent back packers as well. Here was a chance for them to practice their language skills and we would also save money by staying at pack packers around New Zealand. We didn’t go so far as to try and hitch hike, but I did find a good rental deal at “Rent-a wreck” (it really only did break down once in Dunedin). Well in hindsight I was right about them doing the back-packer thing but the early exposure was a #fail! You should have seen the shock on Erin’s face when she heard that we would have to actually share a bathroom with strangers. Even worse some backpacker had mistakenly set up in our room….how could you even think about sharing a room with complete strangers! On our last day of the trip we arrived in Christchurch to see the backpacker hotel that we had booked into. As was typical they were basically un-renovated old hotels in the centre of town (usually on the edge of the red light district). This one however was about 3 centimetres from the bell tower of the church in the centre of town….and it was ringing away as we approached.  They all turned to me and said in unison…”we’re not staying there Dad!”. As it turned out the NZ tourist industry was suffering from the loss of Asian tourists because of the Asian bird flue epidemic. We managed to pick up a luxury apartment for not much more than the back packers. Erin was in heaven luxuriating with her own bath and Gav was likewise happy to be surfing the cable channels. I noticed on the recent footage of the Christchurch earthquakes that the hotel and church had been extensively damaged….so I guess both will now have to be renovated…can you get sound-proofed bells?

As a couple Julie and I had done a few long road trips in Australia before heading off to Indonesia and Bali and then our big European and Japan trip before Erin arrived. … our last BC trip. It was also our first mini-experience of mixing business with pleasure. The Director of the research lab I was working in felt that our remoteness in Australia constrained us and therefore he was always supportive of researchers travelling and sharing experiences overseas. At the time I was managing the IT facilities and he was happy to support a few lab visits while I was passing through Japan. In those days company sponsored overseas travel was a real privilege and the travelling executives quite pampered. Julie and I rocked up to the front desk of the 5 star Palace hotel just across the road from the Emperors gardens, with our back packer gear, and perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised when they ‘couldn’t find our booking’. Eventually  however we heard “arrh…Mr and Mrs Rock Ree…yes we have you here!” After many weeks of cheap hotels and even a night in a train station on the boarder of Spain and France, it was good to finish up in luxury.

The next morning I was to meet our local Japanese representative, who would be accompanying me on the visits, in the foyer. I did think for a minute as to how he would recognise me….but perhaps he would hold up one of those name cards that the Japanese like to do. I was all decked out in my newly purchased Oxford St London business suit, so looked just like very other Asian business person in the lobby. I was waiting a fair while when I looked up the stairs to see Julie pointing to me and then a smiling Mr. Weda coming toward me.  Obviously Mr Weda was used to hosting white Anglo Saxon  executives…and my  strong Aussie accent on the phone gives not hint to my heritage! While a very respectful Japanese gentleman Mr Weda had worked in Australia and was a little more adventurous than the typical Japanese businessman of the time. He was concerned about Julie getting around on her own, but I assured him that she was a seasoned traveller, but he was still extremely relieved to see her when we met at the end of the day. We were obviously different to his usual charges from Australia and he took to us enough to invite us to his home to meet his family…. something that I later learned was a rare privilege in Japan. We were pleased to be able to return the favour several years later and continue our friendship on some future business trips I made to Japan.

I have been fortunate during my working life to be able to travel extensively abroad as a researcher, consultant and in the last decade as a guest lecturer. With Erin arriving and Gavin on the way it became just me travelling. For me it was an exciting time, touring the world and learning about new artificial intelligence technologies. Overseas phone calls were horrendously expensive and I was never sure what was an ‘acceptable expense’ while away. It was easy to forget what Julie was going through with a toddler and Gavin on the way. I guess the gender balance is still somewhat biased toward the males. The company had a policy of providing a “spouse appeasement” allowance for staff travelling away from home for extended periods….it was never enough and I still regret not making a bigger effort to call home more regularly. Of course today with cheaper calls and Skype this is no longer an issue. Both Erin and Gavin have lived abroad…and Erin still is, but we can keep in regular contact via Skype.

Work life balance has never been my strong point but after that first long business trip we made more of an effort to try and mix pleasure with business by tacking holidays onto the end or during my business trips.  I can still recall when the kids were pre-school and Julie decided that they would come and stay with me in Sydney once. I had always thought that it was a big waste staying in fancy hotels all on my own. So here we were at the Rocks in the fancy hotel. Julie had planned her day out with the kids around Sydney. This was their first experience in a hotel room and they were excited. They found the mini-bar, both exclaiming “…and look what they give you!”. We had to do a quick lesson in mini-bar economics….one small packet of chips = four happy meals at McDonalds … what would you prefer? They then settled into the bed and turned on the TV. TV in bed...what a treat!

Over the WC years I probably visited some 20 countries. It wasn’t always easy to do the ‘tack on” thing with school holidays and all, but we did manage a good one when one trip ended in Orlando just before Xmas. Disneyworld here we come! I was waiting in Orlando for Julie and the kids to arrive from a 30+ hour trip from Oz. Julie looked pretty shot when they arrived but the kids were excited and buoyed by the fact that United actually served McDonald’s happy meals to the kids. They were hungry when they arrived and wanted to get room service. I warned them about American serving sizes, but they insisted on ordering their own “Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches”. We dined out for days on the leftovers! After a fun time in Florida it was off to New York for a ‘sleety’ Xmas, then San Francisco and a brief cross-over meeting with the Chris, Margo and their daughters (Chris is joining us later on this trip). One thing that kids miss is playing with other friends so it was good for Erin and Gavin to be with Katie and Amanda, even if only for a day. On this trip we also drove up to Lake Tahoe and their first experience with snow (well not actually for Erin....but she was only 14 months old the first time and can't remember it).
Erin's first experience with snow - 14 months old. Second was
in Lake Tahoe,  California at 8 yo and first serious exposure here in Italy.
It was then home via Hawaii. The kids got to play with other kids of a work colleague of mine for a day as well there. We even got a free 4 day layover in Hawaii when the airline had to cancel our flight….how good was that!

My overseas travel was most mostly contained to one or two trips a year during the WC years. Domestic travel was often 2 to 3 nights a week, but I was always home on weekends. I do worry about those fathers or mothers who are living away from home for weeks at a time. Gavin has just started a 3 weeks on/1 week off job in the west. I’ve heard that 75% of people working in mines in WA are now fly in fly out. Some of his friends who have children are already doing this. While the money is great I would be concerned about the long-term effects on family.

 Our AC travel has been somewhat more relaxing. It is often said that an overseas trip can make or break a relationship. Julie and I travel well together even though we have quite diverse interests. Julie trained in Art and so the European galleries are her nirvana. I trained in Metallurgy and Computer science, so seeing the first Bessemer Iron making furnace in the Smithsonian in Washington or the Turing machine was what gave me a buzz…but alas there are far more art galleries around than science museums. We managed to find a workable compromise though. I was happy for us to visit as many art galleries as Julie wanted to, we just had to go through them fast! Our other major difference is toilet stops. I can often last most of the day. Julie needs to go every couple of hours or more. We are forever looking for toilet money for her in Europe. And I’m starting to get a complex about loitering outside ladies toilets. I even started taking pictures of them on one trip, thinking that I could compile a book on “The Ladies Toilets of the world” but have found there is already an iphone app for that.

Our AC travel has also seen us regularly meet up with our children overseas, mostly together, like this time, but sometimes apart. Over recent years my annual Italian conference trip has been followed by a weekend away with Erin for her birthday. This year it was Stockholm, last year Budapest.

When Gavin was also in London he decided to do a one man surfie tour of Western Europe. As parents you naturally worry about a son buying an old van and driving alone through unknown territory …. crazy Aussie surfer. Sounds just like a young Rosario driving alone to Perth across the Nullabour and then to Darwin … not without incident and as it turned out it was the same for Gavin.

Gavin bought a cheap van and just took off. Kids these days don’t know as much about cars as its hard to fix them now without special equipment. However that doesn’t excuse running out of petrol on his way to Southampton to cross the channel. Also I got a text message from him when he hit France…”Hey Dad what is French for Diesel, is it sans plomb”’….”no Gav…don’t touch that pump” was my swift response. I managed to do a “tack on” so Erin and I decided to fly from London to meet him in Morocco. Gav had his Lonely Planet surfers guide to Europe and had picked out an itinerary. Gav picked us up at Marrakesh airport in his van, which  seemed to be going well other than feeling each bump on the road. When I asked him what tyre pressures he had he said around 70 psi! “How did you work that out? It should be about half that!....”I just read it on the side of the tyre….” …. ”Gav I think that is probably the tyre size not the tyre pressure!”. Oh well, a quick stop at the next service station and that was all fixed.

In one small coastal town we called in on the recommended hostel to be told that they were full. They did say however that they had another place closer to town and that we should look there. It was only a small village so we decided to walk. On the way we saw this impressive new apartment block renting apartments so I suggested we look in there. Looked wonderful, several bedrooms with their own televisions, fully air conditioned and two modern bathrooms….and at a very attractive price. I was ready to stay here but we thought we better look at the other place as they were expecting us. We arrived at the town site…a quirky brightly coloured building on the waterfront and yes right in the village. They showed us the room, which was just that, one single room with three single beds and a small window facing the ocean. No internal bathroom, you had to walk outside and down the hall to the shared facilities. When we learned the price was the same as the previous apartment we looked at, so I declared “this is a no-brainer”. “Yes they responded in unison, we’re going to stay here!…who wants to stay in a boring apartment!”… how times had changed since the New Zealand fiasco!

That trip was notable for another memorable event, Julie and my 30th wedding anniversary. People are impressed when I tell them that I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary in Marrakesh and then amused when I tell them Julie celebrated it at home in Belmont….that one cost me a big spouse appeasement gift. Anyway Julie left shortly after to join the kids travelling through Spain on her school holidays while I was back home working in Belmont.

We were happy to be able to raise our kids without any need for any overnight hospital stays. However, in the space of a few years they were both to experience overnight stays in hospitals overseas, not to mentioned being named in the local newspapers. Erin had the misfortune to be in a bus crash in Cuba with her good friend Elisa. She managed to get away with a broken collar bone. Elisa less fortunate with some cracked vertebrae and a medical evacuation back to Londion. Thankfully no lasting damage for both. Gavin had two episodes. The first was being concussed while snowboarding in Austria  (he survived unscathed this time). The second was somewhat more spectacular. I knew he was planning to run with the bulls in Pamplona, so I texted him to see how he went. “Got massively knocked out….but ok now” was the response. I thought nothing of it as Gavin as a child was known to bullshit a bit (like his Dad)…but then I got a text from Erin saying “did you hear what happened to Gav?”…followed by various links to news articles and a you tube video entitled “Guy gets wiped out by bull at Pamplona”... 23,000 hits so far!. He’d chosen the front stage being the very first group to run into the stadium in front of the first bull on the first day of the festival. He was tripped over in front of the first bull coming through.  His mother was at the time on her way over to meet them in Spain. She made him have a brain scan…we was a bit put off by the travel insurance not covering it, but we explained that perhaps they had a condition about running with bulls being a bit dangerous!…anyway was covered by the Mum and Dad policy. If Julie had her way Gav would be wearing a helmet permanently!

Julie is also a travel planner. Her first read in the weekend paper is the travel section. Prior to this trip our dining table was strewn with lonely planets with post it notes sticking out. For me I’m an easy traveller. I’m happy to soak up the local culture and experiences. While I do make an effort to see the highlights I tend to not stress too much over that special meal or gallery/museum. I do like to take photos and video, but I also learnt early on not to force Julie to look at the ones that she wasn’t part of….she’s frankly not that interested! On the other hand on my shorter lecturing gigs in Hong Kong and Malaysia she has managed to get time off for “smash and grab” shopping expeditions (she likes to pick her own 'spouse appeasement gifts these days!' and yum cha of course.

We have however managed to travel to many other countries beyond my work destinations, some triggered by work connections, like Rosario and Maria’s wedding in South Africa,
which was a real treat. Two more this trip being Israel and Jordan. The world is such a big place, we feel we are only just scratching the surface.

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