Baked, but bored to tears

There we were. A spirited game of oldtimers’ recreational hockey done for the night. Sitting around cutting everybody down to size – who botched what pass, who couldn’t score if his life depended on it, or, which tender let in the worst goal. Then, not surprisingly, the conversation shifted to comparing planned or dreamed-about vacations in the South. There was this pool-side service or that all-inclusive price or this best beach for just lying in the sun. And I couldn’t resist.

“Yes. Sounds OK,” I said. “Then, what do you do after that?”

Anybody who’d heard my snide comment looked at me as if I had horns growing out of my head. Of course, the answer was: “After you’ve had a day in the sun, you do the same the next day and the next day.” But some of my friends have grown to expect my cynicism about vacations in the South. They know that I’m not the escape-from-the-Great-White-North-to-the-Sun-Belt kind of person. It’s partly because I’ve always looked at down time as a time to do things. A time to be invested in exploring, physically doing something, keeping the synapse in my brain firing. Not just lying around.

Years ago, my parents bought a condo in a gated community on the Atlantic side of Florida, near a place called Pompano Beach. It was nice as an escape to a place with pools, some recreational distractions, and minutes by car to Hwy. U.S. 1 that was home to some fun restaurants. But, again, after a day or two of that, there was nothing to do. One of those rare times we were down there, I found out that a travelling exhibit of Titanic artefacts and memorabilia had just opened in Miami. I couldn’t wait to buy a ticket and take in the exhibition. Anything to get away from just lying around, baking.

Another time, at my wife’s suggestion, we decided to do a little exploring inland away from the ocean-side resorts on the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast. She was actually looking for an equestrian facility where dressage competitors had gathered. I was certainly game to check it out. So, we got a map, gassed up, drove away from the coastal green of hotel resorts, golf courses, inland waterways and palms, toward the Everglades. I was amazed.

“Not only is there nothing to do here,” I editorialized, “but it’s flat as a pancake.” I mean there was nothing. Not even trees or hills. Yes, periodically there was evidence of the inland swamp, where water and a bit of sawgrass interrupted the skyline. But otherwise, as far as the eye could see, was empty, flat horizon. Is it just a coincidence that Florida is as flat as it is boring?

All right, so what’s so good about doing things here this time of year?

Well, I happen to think there’s lots. A few weeks ago, I was up the highway to Bancroft for an evening presentation. On the drive up I listened to an astronomer on radio talk about that night’s first display of Geminids. They’re the once-a-year meteor showers from the asteroid Palladian. Anyway, after midnight when I was headed back south, I stopped a couple of times to watch for the shooting stars. I didn’t see that many Geminids. But the chance to see the winter northern hemisphere of stars away from light pollution farther south, was worth the drive. They’d be impossible to see anywhere else.

A lot of us wimp-out in the winter. “Ah, it’s too cold to do anything outside.” Maybe. So why not do things indoors? Why stand in line at all those expensive movie theatres at those vacation spots in the States, when you can see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” at the Roxy right here in town? Or, forget about going all that way to see Lightning hockey during your Tampa holiday or Heat basketball while you’re vacationing near Miami. I know they’re not winning a lot this year, but why not get out and support the Bruins? The hockey’s often more spirited. Even better, if the temperatures moderate at all, maybe there’ll be some pond hockey out there for us. Or, there’s the next best thing…

Last week, while the kids were still out of school, we found out there was ice time available at the arena for public skating. And I’ve been encouraging my city-dwelling daughter to get her boys out on the ice. They both seemed a bit hesitant; they’re not the athletic types. But one of the boys was suddenly curious enough. We found him some skates that fit. I laced them on. And he took his first ever strides on ice skates. And I was there to prop him up and witness it all.

No. I won’t win any friends in Florida tourism circles, but escapes to the sunshine state, for me, border on humdrum. When it comes to winter getaways, for my time and money, it’s got to be more than waiting for the sun to burn me to a crisp.

Death by more than old age

Sunrise at St. Mark's Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.
Sunrise at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where neither the hustle of tourists or tour boats have stirred the city.

We arrived before the city was awake. The sun had just slipped above the eastern entrance to the lagoons of Venice, where our cruise ship was met by a speedboat bringing the required harbour pilot to guide us into port. Minutes later, we passed some of the historic sites of the city – the Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Someone beside me on deck noticed how few people there seemed to be walking along the canals or through the campos (squares).

“Seems so peaceful and untouched,” he said.

“The really big cruise ships haven’t arrived yet,” another traveller commented sarcastically.

Skyscrapers of the sea.
Skyscrapers of the sea loom over the Venice skyline.

He was right. Our ship, M/V Aegean Odyssey with a modest complement of perhaps 300 passengers, hadn’t been moored at the Marittima Pier at the western edge of the city more than a couple of hours, when suddenly it became surrounded by a fleet of recently arrived cruise ships – Silver Wind, Celebrity Sihouette and Sovereign Pullmantur, to name a few. With lengths as great as that of Titanic and a passenger capacity of 4,000-plus, these floating hotels at first seemed the lifeblood of the city’s vital tourism industry. But according to a lecturer aboard Aegean Odyssey, the large ships may ultimately be contributing to Venice’s demise.

“Venice is now attracting as many as 30 million tourists a year,” said Gregory Dowling, a professor at the University of Venice. “The city has the highest tourist-to-resident ratio in Europe.”

Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark's Square becomes a mob scene.
Once the cruise ships discharge their passengers, St. Mark’s Square becomes a mob scene.

Why is that such a bad thing in a Europe struggling to right itself after the economic crash of 2008? Well, among other things, the rising tourism in Venice, Dowling pointed out, has overwhelmed services (including such basics as public toilets), closed schools and driven residents from the city.

In 1951 Venice was home to 175,000 permanent citizens; in 2012, that number had shrunk to 58,000. That’s not to say that the trend has gone unnoticed; last year, local demonstrators swam in the canals and marched on city squares protesting cruise ships using the historic Giudecca Canal as a highway. The city responded in January, reducing by 20 per cent the number of ships weighing more than 40,000 tonnes.

But the invasion of Venetian canals by so-called “skyscrapers of the sea” is not the only assault on Europe’s antiquities.

Earlier during our recent tour to the eastern Mediterranean, we visited the Acropolis. The iconic mountain top above Athens has stood since the 5th century BC as a symbol of Greece’s “golden age” of enlightenment, democracy and architecture. But it too has suffered from centuries of popularity. As recently as when I was a teenager, in the 1960s, my parents took my sister and me to visit relatives in Athens, where my dad’s cousin led us throughout the Acropolis; back then, we were allowed to wander among the ruins of the Temple of Athena, the Porch of Caryatids and every metre of the Parthenon itself. Not today.

Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.
Tourists by the millions have worn the marble path atop the Acropolis to nothing.

“We are restricted to stay within the fenced pathway,” our Athenian guide told us on our recent visit. “They are very serious about this.”

Indeed, when I ventured to the top of an ancient stone piece to photograph our group (seen here), one of the volunteer guardians of the Acropolis blew a whistle at me shouting at me to get down. As I walked the marble pathway, which I remember being jagged and coarse in 1964, I realized the surface is now worn so smooth as to nearly shine in the Athenian sun. And all around the ancient Grecian ruins are cranes and artisans working to repair and restore some of the Acropolis’s former glory.

“The Parthenon took six years to build [in 5th C BC],” our guide informed us. “Restoration has been going on for 80 years; there are still 40 more years to go before it’s complete.”

The Parthenon took six years to build, but 120 to restore.
The Parthenon took six years to build, but will need 120 to be restored.

The restorers of Europe’s antiquities are serious in every respect. As well as restricting movement among the ruins, in most basilicas, churches and mausoleums we explored recently, there were prohibitive signs posted everywhere. Visitors cannot touch, lean on or photograph with flash any of the religious icons and frescos. Clearly the free-access attitudes of the past are gone. Exhibitors, guides and museum curators all fear the damaging potential effects of their attractions’ popularity.

As far as preserving the Venetian canals, I noticed the day after we left the city once dominated only by gondolas, that Italy’s transport minister has clamped down even more.

Are these the last of the skyscrapers of the sea to visit Venice?
Are these the last of the “skyscrapers of the sea” to visit Venice?

After civic petitions and celebrity press conferences (involving Michael Douglas and Cate Blanchett), Maurizio Lupi, announced further restrictions on the mega cruise ship invasion. Soon, no ocean liners over 96,000 tonnes will be allowed to sail the Giudecca Canal in front of St. Mark’s Basilica.

“[It’s] our duty to remove the skyscrapers of the sea from the canals of Venice,” he said, “safeguarding a world heritage city … [while] protecting the city’s economy so linked to cruise tourism.”

But is it a case of fiddling while Rome burns?

That which endures

Completely intact and with old cement attached, this Coca-Cola bottle emerged from the dust of another era of renovation.

It surfaced a few months ago. We found it along an old, stone foundation during some renovations at our house (built in the 1920s). And while this piece of history wasn’t nearly as old as the house, it dated back nearly that far. It was an empty Coca-Cola bottle. You know, those short, stubby ones, sometimes made of blue-green glass, but more often clear – the ones that were a perfect fit in your hand. Our artefact came from an era when the Coke slogan (c. 1938) was: “The best friend thirst ever had.”