Heat, health and hygiene: first impressions of Tokyo

It felt very odd arriving late at night in Tokyo when my body said it was lunchtime. Of course it was impossible to sleep, so we spent the our first hour trying to understand the rather threatening appearance of the lavatory. It has so many flashing lights, pipes and buttons that we hardly dare to sit on it, and in common with most public ones, has a permanently heated seat. (And so have the seats on the metro. It makes for an uncomfortable journey on a crowded train.)

The space age bathroom fits, I suppose, with the obsession with health and cleanliness which is evident in all areas of life. I have never seen so many people wearing face masks, both outside, where you might suspect it’s to avoid the worst excesses of pollution, but also indoors when meeting people at security at the airport, for instance, or on a reception desk in a museum. It all looks as if we’re part of some gigantic operating theatre.

It’s common practice to offer customers hot cloths to wipe hands and face before dining in a restaurant, but there are hand disinfectant dispensers at the entrances to almost all buildings. You wonder whether the Japanese of the future will learn to build up resistance to bugs and viruses.

But travel broadens the mind, they say, and life would be very dull if all people had exactly the same customs. At the moment, I’m enjoying Japan very much, but am surprised at how many contradictions there are. Watch this space!

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Planning the Grand Tour:Japan and Australia

It’s a long time since I saw my sister who lives in Australia, so it’s time for a great journey to the other side of the world. As I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, we’re going there first en route. Well, I know it’s not exactly on the way, but after the promise of a trip to Japan for my birthday when instead Bill bought tickets for New York (perfectly good, but not the same) this time, it’s all booked.

It seems a lot more complicated that I imagined. When I began diligently reading guide books, I discovered that Kyoto looks far more interesting than Tokyo where we were planning to stay for 5 nights. Instead, I’ve now booked for the bullet train and a night in Kyoto, but I’m not at all sure that I can negotiate the complexities of Tokyo station, or finding the correct place to stand on the platform when the train only stops for seconds – literally – and the numbers are only written in Japanese.

Thoughtful friends gave us books on Japanese for Christmas, and they provided a lot of fun trying to speak essential phrases, (not sure how useful “Don’t touch my moustache” will be!) as well as working out how to order dishes in restaurants. We’re determined to be independent, so will go out of the hotels for meals. Interestingly, our hotel is near the Tokyo Tower which is an exact copy of the Eiffel Tower, but nowhere near as high as the new Sky Tree which we won’t be investigating.

I’m looking forward to the museums, shopping, modern architecture, shrines and palaces and the food. It will be the most challenging adventure we’ve ever had, but luckily once in Australia we can recover and relax.

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Lunch with Venetian Nobility

If you were to drive through the tiny village of Vanzo and blinked, you would miss one of the most beautiful villas in the Veneto. It is the home of Count and Countess Giustiniani who are descended from a 17th century Doge of Venice, and who live in a white Palladian-style villa designed by Longhena who was the architect of the Salute Church on the Grand Canal in Venice.

I found myself there recently, invited for lunch to discuss the history of the family and villa so that I can write an article about it. We ate in the kitchen, the former wine cellar but now a lovely characterful space with brick columns and a huge fireplace, as well as a resident snake which curls around a pipe for warmth in winter.

The main rooms are frescoed, and in particular the winter garden room is stunning because it is painted as if you are in a loggia, looking though to a series of conical hills, clearly the Colli Euganei, extinct volcanoes about 10 miles away.

The gardens and avenue of lime trees take up a lot of time and effort. Count Lorenzo says they get up at 5 am in summer to work on the rose beds before the heat of the day.

Now they’re thinking of opening their home to the public. It will be a treat to visit, especially since visitors will get a personal guided tour including prosecco!

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11.11.18 the Armistice 100th Anniversary

This was an event worth participating in. In the week before, we drove through Yorkshire to see all the villages decorated with knitted, yes knitted, poppies, hundreds of thousands of them. At Fountains Abbey it was raining too hard to walk to the abbey, so we went to Ripon Cathedral instead. Again there were knitted streams of poppies flowing through the nave, but in the transept was quite another memorial. Mud brought from the trenches had been spread out, and as it dried, ghostly figures of soldiers were emerging.

The portraits of soldiers raked in the sands on 30 beaches were amazing, given that at ground level it would be impossible to see how the works looked. When the tides turned, all the images  were slowly erased.

In Newcastle city centre I was impressed by the crowds, thousands of people, many hundreds of soldiers, two bands and a long marching procession. The only way I could see any of it was to stand on a litter bin to see over the 8 deep crowd. It was moving, and I felt proud of all my fellow Geordies.

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A weekend on impulse in Poland

I’d never heard of Wroclaw, but with amazingly cheap Ryanair flights from Newcastle, and a promising guide book lent by a friend, we decided to go.

First impressions were not good. The airport bus took us through depressing suburbs of ugly soviet blocks of flats, but the hotel was fine and we tried a self service restaurant nearby for our evening meal. This was a good idea because there was nothing in English, but we could see the food on offer. Payment was simple: the plates were weighed and we paid accordingly.

The next day, having mastered the trams, we discovered what a truly lovely city Wroclaw is. The lovely old town is surrounded by a moat. There are fine buildings, museums and churches everywhere, and prices are ridiculously cheap. The number 2 tram took us to the outskirts, to the Centennial Hall, which when it was built in 1913 was the biggest (concrete) dome in the world. In its time it has played host to Nazi rallies, soviet propaganda, and a gathering of intellectuals including Picasso to tell the audience how wonderful communism was.

Next to it is the Museum of Contemporary Art. It looked as if a Henry Moore sculpture was suspended in mid air, and indeed it was, being put into position for an exhibition which opened the next day. We were invited, and enjoyed the champagne and canapés (Poles obviously don’t only eat sausages) as well as the terrific exhibition.

Will we return? Yes!

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Storm Ali: a nightmare journey home

I had no idea when I left Venice’s Marco Polo airport that there was a violent storm sitting over the British Isles. Even when the captain told us that it would be a bumpy landing in Edinburgh, I thought nothing of it, and caught the airport bus to Waverley Station.

What greeted me there was a mass of people and a departures board with the word CANCELLED written across every section: in other words, no trains at all were running. What to do? I joined a lengthy queue at the one information point, but when I reached the front I was told that there was no information, and it might be as well to find a hotel for the night. Easier said than done. Of course everything I tried was fully booked, and to make matters worse the station closes overnight. I had visions of roaming the streets alone with nowhere to go.

Feeling hungry, I went into M&S for a sandwich and asked the boy on the till if he had any suggestions. “Why not try the LNER staff office round the corner?” What a godsend! I left the crowds milling around outside and was soon in the capable hands of  Kevin Conroy  who thought it would be a good idea to try the outlying villages for accommodation as there was nothing left in Edinburgh. Finally he found their last room in a pub in Currie, and told me how to find the taxi queue to get there.

It was miles away, but I had a warm welcome and a comfortable night, no thanks to the station who could have given support and help to the estimated 4,000 stranded passengers.

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Speaking at a Book Club: weird but wonderful!

Yesterday I found myself in the strange situation of being an invited speaker at an American book club in Italy, talking to a group of strangers who knew more about my life in Italy than I do.

I was invited by the excellent librarian Caralyn at the US Army base in Vicenza. She had read an article of mine and had traced me via the Internet, then persuaded all these good people to read my book before I arrived to field their questions, though in truth they didn’t need me there because whilst I tried to remember which character they were talking about, or where a certain misadventure took place, someone in the audience could always supply the answer.

Their hospitality was boundless. A member with as I thought the exotic name of Aleesha (actually Alicia) had gone to the trouble of baking a mud cake to commemorate my near- death experience of a mud cure in chapter two. I was presented with home made jam, and a ridiculous tee shirt from a gym in Vicenza, as well as two Vicenza mugs for my tea addiction.

It was a very hot evening. I drank at least a gallon of water and offered tips about where they might like to visit, or warnings about what not to do, like never take a mud cure, or drive with Jack Daniels as a companion.

I loved hearing that they had laughed out loud at favourite bits of my book. In fact they have inspired me to do two things. One is to try to make an audio book, and the other is to keep on writing and add to the five more chapters languishing in the memory of my computer.

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Torrential Storm stops Padova Shakespeare Festival

We’d learned our lines (from The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Falstaff had bought a very bushy beard from a joke shop. Just as two years ago we were performing an excerpt from Shakespeare in his own language amongst lots of Italian thespians, we were at it again.

The trouble was, it’s an open air theatre. Every evening we’ve been here has been balmy, bar one. What a pity – there were miniature lakes everywhere and no chance of laying cables across them. I’d been looking forward in my role as Mistress Quickly to hitting Falstaff with a carpet beater and hurling at him some of the best insults in the English language.

So we packed up our costumes and did what all Italians would do in similar circumstances: went to a trattoria and had a jug of prosecco and a very good meal.

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Able was I ere I saw Elba!

I remembered this palindrome from my school days as we caught the ferry from Piombino to Portoferraio.  It had been a long rail journey, not made any easier by the ticket inspector admonishing us for having a ticket for Piombino instead of Piombino Marittimo (which I didn’t know existed, and which was in any case the same price.)

Elba turned out to be a wonderful place for a holiday. It’s a small island, only 17miles long, and very mountainous. The roads have hundreds of hairpin bends around precipices and far too much traffic. We took local buses which are too long to take the corners. A toot at a blind bend was all that saved us from head on collisions, but we loved, in retrospect, the adventure.

Our hotel was perfect: family run, and with its own private beach, and garden. All the meals were cooked on the premises and eaten on the lovely terrace overlooking the sea.

The Napolean connection is everywhere, even though he was only on the island for 300 days. His two villas are worth a visit, especially the hunting lodge with its strange arrangement of the original quite modest house sitting on top of a grander classical base, a later addition.

The highest mountain has a cable car, the cabanovia, which is no more than a metal basket holding two people standing up. It leaves its terrified passengers suspended over rocks and forests, but they’re rewarded with views to Corsica in the distance, and the nearest town, Marciana, has the best restaurant on Elba to reward intrepid travellers.


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Italy through the eyes of a 10 year old.

I’ve just spent the week of half term with my lovely grand daughter Matilda (whom my Italian friends all called La Bella Ragazza.) It was a week of non stop activities, from running ahead of me in the maze so that it took me a further 20 minutes to reach the central mound, to climbing cobbled streets in intense heat, and having endless stamina for all that Venice has to offer, including the campanile of San Giorgio where we were deafened by the bells at 4 o’clock.

I keep a visitors’ book, and it was interesting to read the 3 pages she wrote, with her top five experiences. The best, apparently, was the visit to the deepest pool in the world at Montegrotto. The prospect of breathing underwater for an hour with heavy complicated equipment was more thatn she could bear, but she turned a disaster into a triumph and did free diving to an amazing depth of 12m, and I watched it all though a glass tube which runs through the middle of the pool. There was quite a crowd watching as she swam through the bubble rings created by her instructor Nico. Then of course she had to learn how to make bubble rings herself.

I somehow feel she’ll be back!

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