In Vino Veritas 16

 

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At primary school I used to gaze at the big world map in the classroom. For some reason, perhaps sheer scale, the image of Russia never failed to impress. Later this was reinforced by reading the great Russian writers, researching the history and climate, and, of course, the rich musical tradition.
As there was some speculation in the air about when we might return to the antipodes to meet respective families, it seemed like a good idea to pop over to Russia, then have a jolly little scenic journey down to Athens in order to get a ride home on a Boeing 707.
No problem. I had a little chat to our newly acquired Esmeralda of the advertisement about all this and I found her re-assurances comforting. BUT… Her clutch WAS fading.

Bookings were made with the Russian ‘Intourist’, and other more rudimentary preparations put in hand.
At this stage Brezhnev was in charge of that vast country and the Cold War was colder than ever. Speaking of which, the start of our journey was January/February, coinciding neatly with the Russian winter. I know why the French and the Germans failed.

First off to the Hook of Holland, then north to Hamburg, thence to Copenhagen, a ferry to Gothenburg in Sweden. Then a goodly drive through a rather bleak countryside to Stockholm. ‘Headlights’ was a misnomer for Esmeralda’s night driving kit, a warm glow would have covered it. Some of the villages seemed terribly isolated, and being shrouded in freezing fog didn’t help. A winter spent here would not appear in one of those ‘Best winter breaks’ that regularly appear in the Sunday comics.
From Stockholm we got the ice- breaker ferry (hmm …a warning) to Helsinki.
Finland’s relationship with its huge neighbour has always been uneasy, war between them breaking out in the 1940’s. By the time we got there Finland was independent but had to cede territory to the Russians in the process. A warm welcome was not part of the Helsinki Hotel package. It sort of had a police state feel to it, the booking procedure seemed almost clandestine, as though big brother was not far away. Bloody cold all round.
But not for the first, or the last time, a clue for the metaphorical chill could have been to do with the car. She had German transit number plates, this was not good.

Off to Russia! A quick spin along the Gulf of Finland coast road, (Sibelian memory music playing in my head) and, at last, the Russian border blocked our path.
We stopped abruptly. We had to. In a trice, the car was surrounded. We were ordered out.
With a flurry of strobe-like activity, door panels were removed, the petrol tank plumbed, under car mirrors produced, and ‘open the boot and the bonnet!’
The latter occasioned some mirth…’where was the bloody engine?’ (my translation).
The guards were obviously not familiar with Beetle engineering.
We were bundled into the reception area… a sort of college educated cow shed.
Documents were produced and given a thorough going over by the minions. Their grasp of English was slender, Ronda had thoughtfully brought a stack of her mothers letters, which were being read upside down. I kept my humour well concealed.
THEN! BINGO! Rather in the manner of the massive peroration that closes Sibelius 2, our rummage squad hit the jackpot. A COPY OF DR. ZHIVAGO! no less. OH JOY.
The commandant was summoned. After an eternity, a sworn document was produced that would make sure we would take the book home with us. Off we we went to Vyborg.

By now the encircling gloom had given way to a freezing fog which obscured the craters lurking in the Russian road. It was as though the Luftwaffe had just left.

Pitch black. We drove into a claustrophobic menacing forest. Then…

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The distress flare blaze of an intense light screamed into the car. We stopped. More lights appeared, bobbing about, rather like torches. A crash of gears. An army truck pulled in front of us. WHAT WAS THIS?
A load of squaddies spilled out of the truck and opened the car doors. Were they clutching fully loaded AK47’s? NO? They had handfuls of crisp rouble notes and they wanted to do a bit of late night shopping. Would one believe it?
The list was the usual….pens, chewing gum, cigarettes, booze, chocolates. American dollars. Even my jeans! We traded as best we could. It was all good natured and they left.

They could have just as easily dumped the car in a ravine in the forest, throttled the life out of the occupants and taken anything they wanted. Who would know?

A salutary thought.

In Vino Veritas 12

Episode 12

Our penultimate stop was the very pleasant Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The visit was modestly interesting, mildly dignified by a good look at a huge oil refinery. Seen one you have seen them all. But lo!, said oil refinery is still in the news up to this very day if the splendid ‘Curacao Chronicle’ is to be believed. It seems that an American oil outfit has lifted the sanctions it placed on the refinery which has been operated by a Venezuelan state owned company. The Venezuelans have agreed to pay compensation to the tune of 2 billion dollars. One’s mind boggles at how much that would be in Venezuelan Bolivars, what with the current rate of inflation! If it was paid in cash, it could be conveyed in an oil tanker. Quite appropriate.

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After an eternity, Southampton vaguely emerged into view. Well, a thin, grey silhouette of it did.
Low cloud, drizzle, murk. A green and pleasant land lurked somewhere behind the shower curtain. Next stop London, and of course, more precisely, Earls Court. This was a well established Australian ghetto.
I wonder if the sobriquet ‘swinging London’ was, like the ‘ploughman’s lunch’, invented by an advertising agency. A ‘youth driven cultural revolution’ no less. One was attracted by the female look, ‘a mini-skirt, long straight hair and wide-eyed lovelyness’
Gosh. I certainly missed that wide-eyed bus alright. AND…a ticket to this fun- loving hedonism in a ‘shiny epicentre of style’ needed loads of crinklies. My financial epicentre lacked both shine and style.

Getting gainfully employed started on a rather low rung. Not to be confused with Dirk Bogarde, I did a spot of night portering. My movie was rather prosaic and very tiring. At 3 in the morning subservience did not sit well, never more so than with a battalion of South African guests.
Those, of the aristo variety, were cavalier, previously servant supplied and arrogant to the point of loathing. Their baggage seemed to consist of huge bags of recently minted krugerrands which had to be lugged up 5 flights of stairs. They never tipped.

Yet, moments of delight and great fun occasionally appeared.
Again, very late one night, a couple of postbellum Americans lobbed in. I dubbed them Rhett and Scarlett. Rhett glowed with a Jack Daniels tan and desperately wanted some ice for his bourbon. I explained that we had grief in our chilling department and no could do. He pressed on and on. Meanwhile Scarlett emerged from the bathroom crowned by a clutch of hair rollers whose wiring would break German radio codes. Rhett banged on AGAIN.
‘Right’ I said to him, ‘let me give you a simple questionnaire.’ ‘OK,’ he replied.
I went on , ‘If you take the **** out of ‘ice’, what do you get?’ ‘That’s easy,’ he said, ‘there is no ****in ice’. ‘That’s what I have been trying to tell you!’
He roared with laughter.
‘OK’, I said, ‘stay loose and, like general McArthur, I shall return.’ Which I did, clutching a bucket of ice which I nicked from a neighbouring hotel.
His gratitude was far more than a weeks wages, but beyond that a kind of friendship developed during their stay. As he was about to leave, with the oven -ready Scarlett, I presented him with a bottle of Haig’s Dimple. Quite right too.

In Vino Veritas 11

Episode 11

 

100 shades of nothing much.

Never mind the sun being over the yard arm (as I ordered the first rinse of the day) the sun was scarcely over the gunwales when Spiro produced one of several cold beers. Not to forget the wine. The consumption of alcohol as an antidote was not terribly clever. Where have I heard that before?

As for the good reader contemplating a tasty bookstore bodice-ripping romance, disappointment awaits. The blanket of boredom was ubiquitous, even enveloping the morose Latin lovers. My new best friend (aka Ronda, she the Kiwi of table tennis fame) was also a pretty savvy poker player. These were unexpected skills from an infant teacher.
It was 50 years, almost to the day, that I savoured the deep joy of victory in the table tennis endeavour. Meanwhile, other on-board friendships, not quite so predicated on an increasing friendly rivalry, also developed.

The boredom cavalry, cleverly disguised as Tahiti, at last made an appearance.

The island will forever be associated with Gauguin, the French painter. He is, or was, the very embodiment of the truism ‘Death is a great career move’. A concept that his part-time mate Vincent would have also understood. Of course, there was the unfortunate ‘lend an ear’ incident. Oh dear.
I can still imagine Gauguin, in his youth, trying to sell tarpaulins in Copenhagen. He was not aided much in this endeavour by his inability to speak Danish or the Danes did not want to know about his wretched tarpaulins.
His biography has been constructed along the lines of the Russian landscape…
Interminable. Suffice to say, one of his final paintings seemed to encapsulate our sailing predicament. The title is : ‘WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHAT ARE WE? WHERE ARE WE GOING?’ Amen to that. Somebody less charitable than me has suggested that his work as a painter would have been just as good, if not better, had he stayed in Brittany. Shame on them.
The stopover consisted of a few drinks with the locals in a sort of ethnic watering hole.
The natives were friendly, but they had that sort of posing and world-weariness together with the unspoken assessment of ‘just another sad load of tourists’.

Next stop Panamá, or more precisely, Colon, the city at the other end of the canal, so to speak.
The canal (first considered as a possible goer in the 1500’s) was finally completed in 1916 by the Americans.
A momentous piece of engineering, it’s cost in lives was around 6,000
I imagine some TV gardening guru, with his wheelbarrow and spade, chatting to his allotment audience. With a confident wave of the arm, he announced he was about to shift 150 million cubic metres of soil so as he could start planting next week.
Colon was founded in 1850 as a rail head and faster route for those going to California in the gold rush days. In those days, writing copy for tourist brochures for Colon would have been a nightmare. How would you avoid words like ooze, booze, swamps, alligators, poisonous insects, floating corpses, pimps, prostitutes, hoodlums and dictionaries crammed with notes on tropical diseases. I can just see a gaggle of excited SAGA tourists lining up at the tourist info. office, itching to make a start.

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When we lobbed in, the first thing spotted was lots of pock- marked holes on the Spanish Mission walls. Was this some kind of indigenous insect nesting site? The natives were friendly, if not effusive. We certainly presented no problem, underscored by the fact that they were armed to the teeth. The insects were obviously made of lead.
It seems there had been recent disputes with the Americans over the sovereignty of the canal. At the other end of the canal lies Panamá City, acres of steel and glass, a sort of Central American Dubai. I wonder if there are any air b and b’s in Colon…

Back to the good ship Ellenis. Let’s go! Not l o n g n o w…. . .

In Vino Veritas

Episode 10

Episode 10

By now I was getting used to the funny ways of my little cabin. Basic, yes, but also slightly problematic. When I first arrived, I noticed that immediately beyond the cabin bulkhead, the steel walls seemed to converge somewhat. The purpose of this marine architecture soon became apparent once we got underway. The sound of the waves slapping against the bow was a bit disconcerting at 3 in the morning.
I guess the likelihood of colliding with some unexploded ordnance or the odd ice-berg would be pretty remote in these latitudes. Accordingly, I took out some medicinal insurance (in 75 cl. bottles) to keep me warm in case I had to swim across the Tasman Sea.
My suit hung forlornly in a makeshift wardrobe. I was musing upon this apparent purchasing miscalculation when an invitation fluttered through the door.
The captains cocktail party no less! My mind fancy flew. Again.

AAAAHHH….The moonlight rippling across the gentle water, the air filled with the saccharine strings of Mantovani’s band …and… and… a young couple holding hands and gazing wistfully out to sea.
A Hollywood hologram no less.

Sod all that.
The reception area for the party was in an architectural style known as ‘EARLY GYMNASIUM’. Retsina and Ouzo seems mercifully absent from the drinks list. There were loads of olives and feta and all things Greek. The calamari was not a million miles away from a bicycle inner- tube. And, of course English and Greek are not the happiest linguistic bedfellows. Although glamour and chic had not caught this bus, it was agreeable enough.
Unhappily, my suit seemed to be a huge hit with the First Officer. Oh Dear.
At some point during the proceedings somebody picked up the communal boredom baton and indicated, inter alia, the good news that our ship had a table tennis table.
My ears pricked up at this. I was pretty hot stuff at this kiddie. The following day a group of us gathered for a few games. I felt like kicking off by handing out a good old fashioned thrashing.
So the score rattled along. 6-2, 8-3, 12,5 16-8, 20-12, 21-13, GAME OVER,
JOB DONE, THRASHED!

I got the 13.
She was bloody good.

AND STILL IS.

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In Vino Veritas

Episode 9

Episode 9

The lopsided passenger ratio on our luxury liner was accounted for by the high percentage of the sons of European emigre’s (mostly Greek and Italian) returning for a visit to their ancestral homelands. The gunwales were almost awash with these handsome lads, AND they oozed charisma to boot. Gloom. I had a couple of contingency plans up my sleeve, but I had not counted on being outflanked by this lot of Latin lovelies.
For some inexplicable reason (and one never to be repeated) I had kitted myself up with a suit! Not any old suit but a nice little pale linen number. The ensemble was given added glamour by the addition of a matching tie and classy suede shoes. When would I get to play this card? If at all?

Another such irresistible lure (or so I thought) was my genuine interest in the current vogue of existential philosophy. It wasn’t so much the goings on of Jean -Paul and Simone and their writings, but reading the novels of Albert Camus.
‘The stranger’ was impressive. When things were becoming unglued, I loved his concept of ‘the glorious indifference of the universe’. (my translation, others call it benign) [Editor: or “the tender indifference of the world” if you’re a Guardian reader!]

Hmmmm… Perhaps a bit heavy for a chat -up line. Of course, this combination of couture/ culture could backfire. Perhaps I might be approached by a woman of a certain age, of academic appearance, and clutching the complete oeuvre of Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. These books would choke a horse.
She would be thrilled at the prospect of intellectual exploration and exchange of ideas that our relationship would provide for the next 30 days. I went to the library and got out a copy of ‘The Cruel Sea’.

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Back to life on the ocean wave. The good ship Ellinis only stopped at five ports on this mammoth journey. They were Auckland, Panama City, Curacao, Tahiti, and Southampton. The happenings at one of them had fairly lengthy implications, to say the least…

In Vino Veritas

Episode 8

A year of working in the theatre was drawing to a close. It was time to move on and go and see, for real, the artworks that I had been studying. Theatre life had been good, not only the painting, but also doing behind the scenes drawings of touring dance companies, the Russians in particular.

Working on a pantomime was great fun and was to have later repercussions. This one was all about the sea, with submerged wrecks, sea creatures, all manner of sailing ships and, of course, lighthouses.
Some things still stay with me.

1. How to get a dead level horizontal line running across 10 metres of stretched canvas.
I bet Raphael and his mates did this in Renaissance times. Simply attach a cord to the correct height at either end, ‘chalk’ and tension said cord. Stand in the middle, pull the cord back like a bowstring and let it go. SNAP! There is your line.
2. Painting scrims was also fun. This involved painting on an open weaved fabric (difficult), but when completed, if it was lit from the front it could be a brick wall, lit from the back it virtually disappeared.
3. My last theatre experience. This was at a different theatre and consisted of a one- man show of the most withering satire on Australian life. This guy was stunning, a class act. His name? Barry Humphries.

OK. How to get to Europe? The Boeing 707 was well and truly around by now, but pricey. The next cab off the rank was the good ship Ellinis. If one thumbs through the current crop of cruise liners, at jaw dropping prices, it might be tempting to put the Ellenis in this class. Not quite. Somebody less charitable than me described it as 8 million rivets sailing in formation. Unfair and untrue.

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Prospects of loads of female company for the best part of a month lent a certain sense of anticipation to this sojourn. What diminished said keenness was, to put it mathematically, the male/ female numbers ratio.
It was lopsidedly male.
WHY?