Journey – 2011

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Diary of a trip to the Mediterranean – Part One

Ho Hum – another exciting trip to exotic places!

It is easier to write about Hell than it is about Heaven. 1  When we encounter stories about trouble, or danger, or human problems either met or narrowly averted, we humans sit on the edge of our seats, biting our nails.  But stories about peace, and tranquility, of good things without end?  Well, more often than not they just put us to sleep.

The pages that begin here are about Heather’s and my recent trip to the Mediterranean.  My goal in writing stuff like this is to entertain you, but the trouble is, our trip was as close to flawless as anything could be!  And, who wants to read about a flawless trip?  Where is the tension?  Where is the suspense?

Okay, there was some tension, particularly at the beginning.

Would we even get there?
a brochure and map of Venice
One of the many brochures we looked at while planning the trip
The core of this trip was an ocean cruise – our second in the space of less than a year. 2  We had bought tickets on the Star Princess, which was to pick up her passengers in Venice on October 9, and sail from there to a number of fascinating and exotic ports in Croatia, Greece, and Turkey, ending up at Rome on October 21.  All we had to do was arrange to get to Venice in time to board the ship, and then to get back to Winnipeg from Rome.  Simple!

Our daughter Rachael is an Air Canada flight attendant.  As her parents, we have the privilege of flying on that airline very economically.  Obviously this would be the best way for us to arrange getting to and from the cruise, right?.

However, our parental discount requires us to travel “standby,” which means that if there are no seats available when we wish to travel, we don’t go.  Standby passengers sometimes wait at an airport for hours, or even days, before they are able to board an aircraft.

Making matters worse, Air Canada doesn’t actually fly to Venice.

Accordingly, there were several long discussions in the family about whether I would just make things easy, and buy full-fare tickets on an airline that flies to Venice, or cobble together a complex travel plan that could save us as much as $1,800.00 – but risk unexpected delays and possibly even cause us to miss the departure of our ship!

We chose to try and save money.  Wouldn’t you?

Here is the plan: we would fly standby to London, England, and buy a regular fare ticket on an European airline to fly from England to Venice.  Same with the return journey: fly regular fare from Rome to England, then standby back to Canada.

What made the plan even more complex was the fact that there are no direct flights from Winnipeg to London.  Thus we must first fly standby to Toronto, then fly standby on a separate flight to the U.K.  To do all this – given the fact that with standby you can’t always fly when you want – we would have to set out several days early, in order to allow for possible delays.  If everything went smoothly, we would have time on our hands in Toronto and in England, but if we were “bumped,” either in Winnipeg or in Toronto, we hoped that we had built in enough of a buffer that we could still be in Heathrow airport on time to catch the flight from England to Venice that would get us there in time to board ship.

As soon as the decision to go standby via Air Canada was made, I purchased tickets on an Alitalia flight that was to leave Heathrow at 7:30 AM on Sunday, October 9.  That time was now fixed.  Miss it, and we’d be in trouble.

This plan, complex as it was, did have some extra benefits: the pauses in Toronto and England might help to reduce the effects of “jet lag,” and, if there were no standby delays, we would have time to visit family in Toronto, and to do some touring in England!

I’ve used the word “if” quite a lot here.  Our money-saving plan had introduced several variables that might not turn out too well, so as the day of departure drew closer I began to feel a little stressed.

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Then in mid-September the staff at Air Canada voted to go on strike.  It began to look as though our worries about “standby” travel would become completely irrelevant, because there would be no Air Canada planes flying at all!

With two non-refundable Alitalia tickets from London to Venice in my possession, I needed a back-up plan to get us to London.

Do you know that in Minneapolis there are fifty flights headed for London every day??  Some go via New York; others via Boston, or Chicago, or other American cities; but sooner or later all fifty of them get to London.

Heather and I decided that in the event of a strike at Air Canada, we would drive down to Minneapolis, leave the car there, and catch something headed for England.  At whatever cost.

How were my stress levels at this point?  Not too good.

Meanwhile, Heather’s law practice got unexpectedly very busy.  There were days when we wondered if she could get away at all; and there were other days when – although we knew that she would be able to travel – I was making frantic arrangements for her office to have access to her at all times, even when we were the middle of the Mediterranean!

Well, I’ve already told you that the whole trip was flawless, so there is not much point in trying to build up the tension any further.  The strike was averted, and Heather managed to get all her work under control; but I assure you that my stress levels were at a pretty high level by the time we left home.  Indeed when we showed up at the Winnipeg airport for the very first step in the journey, my fears were confirmed: only one seat was available on our chosen flight to Toronto.  What should we do?  Send Heather along ahead, and I would try for a single seat on the next flight?  What about all the cruise-ready luggage?

At the very last minute, an off-duty Air Canada staff member said that he would give us his seat!  Not that he was going to miss the flight, mind you – he was merely choosing to sit up in the cockpit in the “jump seat.”  Still, his considerate courtesy was a great relief to both of us, and soon we were on our way... together.  Well, not sitting together, but we were on the same plane!

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Are we having fun yet?
Our time in Toronto went according to plan, too.  We had a boisterous family get-together over dinner (where Heather and I for the first time met a young man who has recently caught Rachael’s undivided attention).  The next morning, Heather made it to her favourite Toronto store (they sell fine-quality fabrics that we can’t get in Winnipeg).  And we also spent some time with my young cousin, Suzanne Harwood-Jones, 3  and her family.

All of this was very very enjoyable.

three cats at Ariel's
Cats, at Ariel’s
The only fly in the ointment came from some cats belonging to my older daughter, Ariel.  We usually stay with Ariel and her husband when we’re in Toronto, and they have quite a number of cats.  I am generally allergic to cats, but I can normally survive short visits there despite those felines.  On this visit, however, there was chaos among the cats, because a new kitten had come to live with them.  This cute and energetic little thing wanted to play, and to tear around the house, and to eat the other cats’ food – all of which tended to get the other cats’ dander up.  Literally.

Possibly my allergies took a beating, though I didn’t think so at the time.  A couple of places on my skin were itching something fierce, but then as an elderly white man, my skin often itches.

Then, out of the blue, Rachael called my cellphone.  “You better get over to the airport right now!  A friend of mine was just there and she says it’s pandemonium.  Best to make an early start trying to get on tonight’s flight to England!”

Rachael’s friend was correct: there was indeed pandemonium at the airport.  Security inspectors were “working to rule,” and the whole screening process was slowed almost to a halt.  Lines of people, patiently waiting, snaked back and forth along the entire length of the giant terminal.  Fortunately for us, all those people were attempting to get on domestic flights.  The checkpoint for international travelers didn’t have very much of a wait at all!  I suspect that this was because most overseas flights were to leave well after dinner, so international passengers hadn’t yet begun to arrive in any numbers.  We did notice that our line, which was moving very slowly, got much longer about 20 minutes after we arrived.

Anyhow, we got through in good time, and were able to board the flight that we had hoped for.  All was well.

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Cambridge, England

The plan was: if we were to succeed in getting on the first available flight to London – we would spend the extra time in England going up to Cambridge.  We have friends there, and it has been a lifetime dream of mine to visit the chapel of King’s College, home of one of the finest and most famous church choirs in the world.

So, with about four hours sleep (interrupted for me by an increased amount of scratching), we managed to put ourselves and our luggage through British customs, then wander the vast halls and tunnels of Heathrow Airport until we came to the Central Bus Terminal, where I was able to purchase a couple of return tickets to Cambridge.

Shortly thereafter we were on the bus.  “We succeeded in getting on the first plane available,” I said in a text message to our Cambridge friends, “we’ve landed at Heathrow and caught a bus; and we should be in Cambridge in about an hour and a half.”

Three hours later....

a tiny shopping street in the heart of Cambridge
Cambridge, England
... nothing was going to spoil our time in Cambridge.
We explored, we walked, we admired...
Google Maps had said that Cambridge was only an hour and a half out of London, but our bus must have taken a zig-zag route, stopping at all sorts of tiny towns and hedgerows along the way.  Finally it pulled up in Cambridge, and we went to see our friends.

All of the stress leading up to the trip, the stress of the narrowly averted strike, the stress of getting Heather away from her active practice, the stress of “standby,” the stress of wrongly calculating my bus travel times – and the stress of travel generally – had now built up in me to an extremely high level.  And the way it showed itself?  I was now itching like mad, with little red welts all over my body.

Thinking it was just an allergic reaction to my daughter’s cats, I jumped into a shower almost without saying hello to our hosts, and Heather washed all my clothes.  But it had no effect.  And, when I showed our hostess some of the welts, she said, “I had hives when I was a kid.  I think that’s what you’ve got.”

I’m certain now that it wasn’t the cats – though they may have been some sort of trigger.  As far as I’m concerned, it was stress, pure and simple.

We bought antihistamines and salves in Cambridge, and four days later the welts and the itching were gone.  They haven’t ever come back.  But for those few days I must say that I suffered quite a lot.

But I wasn’t going to let constant itching spoil my time in Cambridge.  We explored, we walked, we admired, we ate at a famous pub, and we enjoyed the company of our friends.  Best of all, we went to a service of Evensong at King’s College chapel.

The place was astonishingly full for a Friday evening prayer service.  There were at least fifty people in attendance.  Unfortunately for me, the complete choir of men and boys was not present on this occasion.  It seems that the boys had an evening off, so the music was presented by the men alone.  But it was perfectly done, and soul satisfying.

the exterior of Kings College
Entering King’s College Cambridge Chapel for Evensong, October 7, 2011

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Next: Arriving in Italy, and the beginning of the cruise


1  The seed of this thought comes from C.S.Lewis, when he was evaluating John Milton’s Paradise Lost and comparing it to the same author’s Paradise Regained.  The first poem – about the Devil – is still recognized as a great work of English Literature, while the second – about Jesus Christ – is seldom read or quoted any more.  Unfortunately, I can’t find the actual quotation by Lewis, but the principle has resonated with me all my life.
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2  Our first being a cruise of the Caribbean in January 2011, which you can access by clicking here.
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3  Suzanne’s son, Brandon, is the one who had a terrible accident with his eye a year ago.  He had a cornea transplant in February, 2011.  We learned on this visit that Brandon now has excellent vision!  It is nothing short of a miracle.
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