Monday, 12 November 2012

Aegean Odyssey: Dancing on the Queen Elizabeth

The Queens Room dance floor
The Yacht Club dance floor
There are two awesome dance floors on this ship. The main ballroom floor is in the Queens Room, on deck two midship. The easiest access in by stairway B. Most evenings music is by the Queens Room orchestra but on other evenings either the band Changez, or the combined orchestras of the Queens Room and the Royal Court Theatre play. In between sets there is excellent strict tempo precorded ballroom and Latin music so one can dance A LOT if you have the energy!

Upon deck 10, the Yacht Club has a gorgeous circular dance floor.  Mostly the music there is played by a DJ although the band plays there as well. So this is an excellent ship for a dance cruise.
On this particular voyage there are four dance hosts on board for ladies without a dance partner.

Mykonos and Delos

Ruins at Delos
The first port of call on this Aegean Odyssey cruise was at the stunningly beautiful island of Mykonos. It is one of five major islands in the Cyclades, lying between Tinos, Syros, Paros and Naxos. Nearby is the island of Delos, possibly the most important Greek island in classical times. Venerated in the 7th century BC as the birthplace of the God, Apollo and his twin sister, Artemis or Diana, it later became a major trading and commercial center before it was destroyed by the Romans.
After returning on the boat from Delos, I walked round the old harbour of Mykonos, to the shuttle bus which took us back to the ship in the new port area.
Opting for the early dinner seating at six, by 7:45 we were in the Queens Room where strict tempo Ballroom and Latin music was playing. At 9:30 the Queens Room orchestra  under the musical direction of Maurice Williams, with vocalist Paul Christopher, played more Ballroom and Latin music. Lots of quicksteps - my cardiovascular capacity is improving rapidly!

Friday, 9 November 2012

Aegean Odyssey. Embarcation day.

about to board the Queen Elizabeth in Piraeus
Athens, Monday morning, the first day of the transit strike. My priority other than getting to the Port of Piraeus was to buy some Greek stamps so I could mail postcards. So I found my way to the Post Office a few blocks down from the hotel.
When I entered, there were two counters open and one customer at one, two at the other.
I went to wait behind the single customer. Suddenly there was a shout that sounded like "numeraki, numeraki", and everyone was staring at me. I realized I had committed the sin of not taking a number. Looked around- could not see any machine with numbers. Then a lady beckoned to me  from the corner, and showed me this box tucked inconspicuously away. I retrieved a number, and by that time there were no other customers and the number I had just drawn was flashing! So I went back to where I was standing and bought my stamps. That's bureaucracy at work.
Our transport to the Port ended up being in a mini-bus with  several other folk going to board the QE and other cruise ships. Embarkation was quick and efficient, and by the time we had gone up to the Lido buffet on deck 9 for a light lunch and I had returned to my cabin, my suitcase was already outside my door. The Queen Elizabeth was looking better and better by the minute.
After unpacking I went on an exploration of the ship.  I will post pictures in my reviewfromthehouse travelblogue when I get time to write it.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Aegean Odyssey Day 1. Athens Exploration

Me about to get on the Red Bus
The weather in Athens has been unseasonably warm and dry so when i woke with the sun streaming through the hotel window I anticipated a very pleasant day exploring the city. After walking through some of the the narrow streets in the Plaka, and picking up almonds and walnuts from one of the stores, we decided to take a Hop-On Hop-Off Red Bus and tour the city.
The Acropolis was on winter hours and closed at 3, so at the Acropolis stop we got off the bus.  For reasons that were unclear, admission was free today. Lucky us!
We walked around the Parthenon, which is still undergoing restoration work, and also visited the Erecthion.  From the summit  the panoramic view of Athens was amazing - the city stretches out for miles in every direction. I believe the population is around 6 million people.
From the Acropolis you can look down on the oldest theatre in existence. This ancient open air theatre in Athens is where Greek drama originated and is really the birthplace of the modern theatre that we enjoy today.
We got back on the bus to complete the city tour and then wandered up to Adrianou Street which is restaurant row. It was jam packed with people dining. No sign of a failing economy and people saving their euros.
We had dinner at Kuzina, which had been recommended to us. Enjoyed a good meal and then wandered back down the hill to the hotel. It was already dark by 6:30 but Greece is already on daylight savings time unlike North America which has just changed this weekend.
With the transit strike we have to figure out how we are getting to the cruise ship. Another adventure.

Aegean and Adriatic Odyssey 2012

View from rooftop patio at my hotel in Athens
Just arrived in Athens for start of a cruise round the Greek Islands, to Istanbul and Dubrovnik.  The full stories will be posted in but as I am so busy "living it" that the "writing it" gets behind, this will be a brief daily log of my travels to update you all about where this journey is taking me.

This picture was taken last night from the rooftop patio agt the hotel where I am staying before heading to Piraeus to get on the cruise ship.

Today I plan to walk around Athens, a city I last visited more than 20 years ago. Tomorrow when I leave for the port, a two day transport strike is in the works so getting there will be an "interesting" experience.

Monday, 2 July 2012

No More Pigeons - A scene from "JillCSI"

I should have listened to my friends - see my previous post - An inadvertent Avian Grandparent. First I could not addle the eggs. Then once the baby birds were born I did not have the heart to destroy the nest.

So off I went on my babysitting duties for my real ie. human grandchildren in California - and then home via a quick trip to Toronto to help my daughter finalize her move back to Vancouver.

Came home to find my patio a pigeon-poop biohazard area, and a pigeon having wedged itself behind one of the metal strips.  Phoned Wildlife Rescue. They don't come out to get injured birds- you have to take it to them.

Well I am a bit too squeamish to handle flying things (no doctor jokes please!) and I was not sure if I was dealing with a dead bird or not. I thought that the area was a definite biohazard, so got a-googling for biohazard cleanup in Vancouver.

A most helpful man from Trauma Scene Biohazard Cleanup Services called me back, and I booked an appointment for them to come here today. Punctual and efficient, Chantelle and Jacob arrived,  suited up and got to work while I escaped to the gym to be tortured by my great trainer, Cale. He was not too hard on me today as I told my tale of woe so I could think mean thoughts about pigeons instead of him.

They were marvelously efficient and shortly after I got back from the gym they were done.

So with a spotless and biologically clean patio -  and a much emptier bank account, I will be absolutely ruthless if any future pigeons try to land at Hotel Jill.

Friday, 1 June 2012

An Inadvertent Avian Grand-Parent - that's me!

Mummy or daddy?
Some days after I returned home after the Wine Country Cruise from LA to Vancouver, I realized that a pigeon pair had made a nest in one of the unused planters on my patio. Mea culpa for tempting them. I should have put in my summer plants before I left.
In this nest were two small perfect white eggs, and the pigeon parents were very diligent about sharing the "egg-sitting" duties.
At a dinner party that evening my friends, more pragmatic than me, emphasized the importance of not letting these eggs hatch in my planter. Dire consequences as bird droppings fouling  my patio, and the parents thinking that this could be their permanent residence for annual reproductive ventures, were proposed and I was warned to either remove the eggs, or shake them to addle them.
And the grand-kids
Unfortunately I romantically anthropomorphized these creatures to the extent of imagining their anguish when the eggs disappeared or failed to hatch as they should, and as the days passed I just could not bring myself to do anything.
"Well"  announced my house-guest, "you are now an avian grand-parent." And there in the nest were two little yellow balls of fluff. When I attempted to approach to take a peek, the parent bird flapped around so violently that I feared she would injure herself, but several days later when the nest was empty of a parent guardian I managed to take a picture.
This has been my year for pigeon encounters - see Let Them Eat Pigeon - Unless I win the Lottery! But unlike my previous experience, this has been interesting to watch- so far. But hopefully it will not be long now before the babies can fly and my planter will  be my own once again.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Vancouver Culinary Delights

Leek and bacon quiche at Cachet

It's Tuesday, May 1st, the day after the A to Z Challenge officially ends. This is my first day at attempting for once to be consistent in daily chronicling of significant events in my day. I am a disaster at keeping a journal. My cupboard is full of journal starts that last at the very most a couple of weeks. But this time, maybe an electronic record will work.
A taste sample at Dockside
At noon today I met a friend for a lunch and a news catch up at Caché , a fairly-recently opened restaurant on Hamilton in Yaletown. The service was excellent and the food perfect. You can read my full review at Supping In Vancouver: Caché Bistro and Lounge.

Later I took the Aquabus ferry across to Granville Island and walked up to the Granville Island Hotel to the Meet the Chef event. Intended to introduce new Executive Chef of Dockside Restaurant, Simon McNeil, it was  a great way for me to meet the Food and Beverage team, and fellow Food Writer/ Photographers, while enjoying samples of Chef McNeil's menu items and wine from Joie in the Okanagan.
Tonight is Dancing with the Stars: Results show - while I fold laundry and start packing for my upcoming California trip. This year there are several really good dancers among the Celebriies. I don't know who I like the most.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Z is for Zebra and Zinc

Z Zebra and zinc - what could they have in common other than the letter Z?
Picture from Wikipedia
Zounds! I can't believe I have actually made it through this challenge, sticking to my themes of travel, food, culture and dance. For this last posting however, I will let my arty, creative Gemini inner twin take a well earned rest and let the scientific twin have at least one chance to be heard- or rather, read.
Zebra, to me, does not conjure up images of striped animals grazing on grasslands in Africa but rather brings to mind an aphorism used to teach medical students to consider common diagnoses before the more interesting rare disease they may have just learned about. "When you hear hoofbeats behind you, expect a horse not a zebra." It is a more polite way of saying KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).
In keeping with my concept of me learning something with each post- here is my summary of Zebra. Part of the genus Equus, together with horses, asses and donkeys,  these mammals are characterized by having long heads, a mane, and a legs ending in a single ungulate or hoofed toe.  Unlike the domesticated horse, zebras are rare and some breeds have been hunted to extinction.  Hence the hoofbeat aphorism. Zebras have black and white stripes which have distinct patterns for each animal. This makes Zebra a really easy animal for toddlers to recognize and name. In the same way, rare diseases are so much more interesting than the things one would see every day, so they would first pring to mind when asked to identify a spectrum of symptoms.
And finally Zinc:
Zn Atomic number 30 Atomic weight 65.38 was the subject of my  first research project and first presentation as a Medical Biochemistry resident at a scientific conference, many many moons ago. I was studying zinc deficiency in a neonatal intensive care unit in premature babies who were being fed intravenously because they were too tiny and sick to tolerate feeds. That project started me on a lifetime of research in the nutritional and toxic biochemistry of trace elements, the biochemistry of infants and children, and pregnancy, and led to an all-consuming and fulfilling professional career. Sometimes when I look back on my life in medicine, I think of a humor column writer way back in my youth in South Africa, whose favorite signoff was "it's all a matter of zinc."
And thinking about what got me to this point in my life, a retired medical professional writing an Z to Z Challenge blog - indeed it was all a matter of zinc.
Au revoir till next year's challenge - but keep reading AtJillsReviews for brief snippets of where in the world  Jill is now, and also what's happening on www.reviewfromthehouse .com, Ciao!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Y is for Yogurt

Y Yogurt with almonds, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, sometimes with strawberries and blue berries, comprises one of my two usual breakfasts.
my favorite yogurt
The other is an omelet with chives, mushrooms and parmesan cheese. Both yummy and a great start to my day.
As for yogurt, I eschew any flavoured forms, preferring to add my own fresh fruit to the mix. I also shun the "healthy" non-fat yogurts which taste thin, acidic and often a bit slimy to me. My favorite yogurt right now is one from La Belle Provence. Quebec's Liberte, who have been producing cream and cottage cheeses since 1936, make the absolutely most delicious plain yogurt shown in the picture. It is smooth and creamy, almost a dessert on its own.
Yogurt is of course a milk product produced by the fermentation of milk by bacterial cultures. They break down the lactose or milk sugar to produce lactic acid. The milk is first pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria and then cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, are added to start the fermentation process. When the amount of live bacteria present in food is sufficient to have a biological effect, such as preventing antibiotic related diarrhea or digesting lactose, the product can be labelled probiotic.
Because the lactose in yogurt has been broken down, yogurt is a great source of calcium for people who are lactose intolerant and otherwise would avoid milk products.
Well I am off to enjoy my yogurt, with nuts, seeds and berries, and a large mug of steaming coffee.

Friday, 27 April 2012

X for X-ploring the X-Factor in Java

Made with my frother and K-Cup system
X X-factor.  As a follow up to my J for Java post I was interested in delving into that indefinable factor that makes different coffees appealing for different tastes. And (yet another confession) I used to avoid ordering coffee at places like Starbucks because I was completely intimidated and confused by the terminology. So I figured it was time to seize the coffee cup by the handle so to speak and get over this intimidation.
In June at the upcoming Eat!Vancouver Festival, I plan to go and observe the Western Canadian Regional competition of the Barista Championship so I really want to be able to appreciate what I see.
I found a couple of resources. Ironically one was the Starbucks website. Another was a post on coffee terminology by Jason Haegar that I found on It turns out that it is not as complicated as I thought, its just that people seem invent their own terms for the same thing.
Anyway for coffee naivetes like me, here is my summary extracted so to speak from the resources cited above. Espresso is a beverage made by high pressure extraction of a little water forced through very finely ground coffee compacted into a puck. Haegar defines the "body" as the weight of the liquid portion on the palate, the "heart" as the complex flavour of the coffee and of course, there is the all important "crema".
Americano is espresso diluted with hot water to consistency of drip coffee but with crema;
Macchiato is espresso with foam or frothed milk.
Mocha is espresso plus chocolate, steamed or frothed milk and topped with whipped cream- yummy.
Cappuccino is one third each of espresso, milk and foam and latte is milk with a little foam and a little espresso.  Skinny means made with skim milk.
 As to the all important coffee roast: The roast can be Light (Blonde at Starbucks), Medium or Dark, and I think Extra Bold means more ground coffee used in a brew, at least that's how the K-cup people define it.
Well I think I am ready to order a coffee at a real coffee shop- if I can only figure out what word to use for small. I think at Starbucks "small" gets you a Tall (12 oz) when what I want is an 8 oz so you have to ask for a "Short"- and then there is a medium size which is a Grande  Spanish for large). Go figure. Maybe I will stick to my home brewer after all.

W Wanderlust or "where in the world does Jill still want to visit?"

Digital World by Petr Kratochvil

W Wanderlust or "where in the world does Jill still want to visit?" It is really fascinating to me - yeah I guess I find a lot of things fascinating - to talk to my friends about their wanderlust.  People's motivations for travel are so different. One friend wants to wander around India and Nepal on her own. Not on my travel bucket list at all. Another friend does volunteer travel - working in parts of the world where she can use her skills in writing and teaching to help others.  Yet another friend is all about wild animals- Africa and safaris feature prominently on her list. Then there are the oenophiles who want to visit vineyards, the cyclists who bike around Europe and Asia. and those who enjoy leisurely river boat cruises.
My ideal BIG travel adventure if I could find the time and resources to do it properly would combine a "round the world cruise" picking segments from cruise lines with Dance hosts like Cunard or Crystal, with land tours of great New World wine areas like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, with cultural stops for theatre in London, culinary explorations in Europe and Asia, and maybe a n intensive visit to Argentine to work on Tango and improve my Spanish at the same time. Also on my list is to cruise the Norwegian fjords, and the Baltic area. I promised another ex-student of mine from Moscow that I would visit her one day and its time to keep that promise.
What tops your list?

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

V for Vancouver - my beautiful home town

V Vancouver, British Columbia is for me the best place in the world to live.  No matter how beautiful or exciting the destinations to which I travel may be, when I find myself driving home from the airport, I say a silent thank you to be coming home to this gorgeous place. Here are some of my favorite pictures:

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

U for Urban Poling

U Urban poling is one of the the activities that I credit for getting me moving more rapidly after the surgery, that I described in S for Sciatica, Surgery and Samba. I was introduced to the Activator Poles with the stable Boot used for people with balance issues or to facilitate rehabilitation post- surgery or other trauma. Early in the morning after my surgery the previous night a physiotherapist appeared and said  "Out of bed- we are going to get you walking". I was amazed but she got me up, tubes and all, and next thing I knew I was shuffling around the ward.
Two days later I was summarily sent home,  with a newly bought pair of Activator poles. With my son who had come to Vancouver to help me over the surgery, I started walking along the sea wall near my apartment. A little further and a little longer time every day until I was comfortable walking by myself with the poles for support.  They really helped improve my posture - which was scrunched over from months of back pain and then the operation.
By 14 weeks post op I was ready to switch from the Activator Poles to ordinary Urban Poling. Mandy from Urban Poling came over to show me how to switch the Boot around and change my walking technique. The attached video is a brief clip to illustrate this point. Hope it works.

Monday, 23 April 2012

T Tango - three ways

T Tango was the dance that kind of scared me the most when I was learning my International routines for the gold medal test. The step sequences and the footwork just seemed more intricate and hard to remember than for the other dance routines I was learning - waltz, slow foxtrot and quickstep.
There are many different forms of Tango but for the purposes of this post I will consider just three - the International Tango, The American Social Tango, and the Argentine Tango.
Tango originated as a bar or club dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there it spread to Europe becoming popular in Paris, London and Berlin.
Ballroom tango, International or American, is characterized by connection in the hip and upper thigh area in contrast to the chest area connection of Argentine tango. Tango is a very dramatic dance, and most of us have seen the different styles on TV. The striking things that most people notice are the flicks and intricate footwork of the Argentine style, and the head snaps seen in ballroom tango.
My next major dance cruise will I hope be in South America from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro.  A pre-cruise stay in Buenos Aires with Argentine Tango lessons is planned. I am quite excited to participate.
In the mean time I need to practice my moves back here but "it takes two to Tango". Are there any potential Tango partners out here in Vancouver? Let me know?

S Spinal Surgery, Sciatica and Samba

S Spinal Surgery, Sciatica and Samba
Today being April 23rd, I am supposed to be blogging about T for Tango but it is fortuitous that i am one day behind schedule. I just looked back at my April 23rd 2011 post in my saga of Sciatica to Spine Surgery. Titled "Almost normal - week 8 spine rehabilitation milestones" I write about my recovery process 8 weeks after having major spinal surgery. My definition of "nearly normal" was being pain free, being able to walk around the downtown area albeit slowly but I was still struggling with little things like putting on socks.
By 8 weeks I was back in the gym starting twice weekly workouts with my trainer.  Left alone I would have been too scared to try the exercises that he started me on, but gradually y confidence came back and my mobility increased further.
My next step forward was to take my IPod into the gym and gradually re-introduce my dance workouts. At first 15 to 20 minutes of dancing was a much as I could take but gradually I was able to work up to an hour alternating fast dances like chacha and jive with slower waltzes that really required my  to work an strength and balance.
In week 16 post surgery I walked into the Ballroom where I took dance lessons and had my first lesson in over 8 months. I started private Pilates workouts and gradually felt my core strengthening and my posture improving. 
Now, 1 year and I month after surgery, I feel younger and fitter than I have been in years. My back stood up to the 16 night ballroom dance cruise - on many days I had 2 hours of a lesson,  a dance workshop and then more dancing in the evening. And my back felt just great.
I am now able to do energetic dances like the samba, and have finally figured out how to open my hips so I am starting to resemble a real samba dancer. 
So thank you to the surgical team and all who helped me work through my spine rehab so I can samba now with the best of them.

R Risk, restaurants and chefs on TV

R Risk is a  concept that has always fascinated me but it became of special interest in the past few days as I partially tried to overcome my jet lag, by zonking out on my couch and watching the Food Network shows, "Chopped" and "Top Chef Canada." There are many dictionary definitions of risk but I define it as the potential for a chosen course (action or inaction) to lead to an adverse result. I had just watched Brene Brown's YouTube TED talks on vulnerability and shame, and thought about the fact that "psychological risk" may be scarier than "physical risk" - as in my P for Pirates post.
In my previous professional career there were numerous times when I was challenged to take on a role or an assignment that was way out of my comfort zone. Confronted with my own vulnerability, I inevitability took on the challenge,  telling myself that confronting the risk  would be "good for my soul."
So what has this got to do with my A to Z Challenge theme of travel, food and theatre? On the two TV shows I mentioned, I watched those chefs who are obviously passionate about food and proud of their culinary skills,  risk the often-times devastating reviews and criticism of the competition judges as they battled to prove their skills.
As I walk two neighbourhood streets that I call "restaurant row" for the cafes, coffee shops and fine restaurants that line the three blocks on each street, I note on the window of the fine establishment that recently closed, a sign advertising a new restaurant opening there shortly. Like phoenixes arising from the ashes of failed dreams, a new dining place seems to open every few weeks. Talk about risk!
This week I saw two wonderful shows, a play called God of Carnage and the opera, Aida. And again I thought about the risk a performer takes, each time putting his or her ability out for the world - and reviewers (see N for Naughty or Nice) to criticize.
But taking risks makes the difference between a safe, boring, maybe stultifying  existence. Its so easy to stay within your comfort zone. To me RISK is the spice that makes the adrenaline flow, the difference between living and just existing. What do you think?

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Q Queen Mary 2 World Cruise segments

Q Queen Mary 2 is the Cunard ocean liner on which I just cruised for 16 nights from Hong Kong to Dubai. This trip was part of the 2012 World Cruise - which I believe was over 100 days. Regretfully I did not have the time to do the whole World Cruise - though something like that is on my travel bucket list for the future.
The QM2 is famous for having the largest ballroom afloat and so serious dancers really like to cruise on this ship.  Cunard has two other Queens currently. The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria, which also have great ballrooms.
I am trying to catch up with completing my Travelblogue, Dancing to Dubai, and have just posted two stories, one of which has my YouTube videos of Kathakali (the ancient Indian dance form - see my earlier post on K for Kathakali) and the ancient martial art form of Kalariyapattu.  You can check the Kathakali videos out at Kathakali scene and Kathakali elements.  There is also a link to my video of the famous cantilevered Chinese fishing nets of Cochin - " technology" that is apparently more than 1000 years old.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

P Piracy on the high seas

Area of pirate activity
P Pirates
Pirates and danger were the last thought on my mind when I signed up for the Hong Kong to Dubai cruise. I had read about intrepid or stupid sailors in small boats being captured by Somali pirates, and vaguely also remembered a reading about  pirates attacking a small cruise ship a couple of years ago  but a ship the size of the Queen Mary 2 - it never occurred to me that it would be a serious risk. But Cunard took this seriously.
The first indication that there was any concern about pirates in the area was the two crew members stationed on each side of one of the upper decks, each with some kind or equipment - I think it was radar - that would enable them to detect any boats approaching our ship.
Then there was the announcement  by the Captain and a written warning that as we traverse the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden, a high level of security would be enforced  to counter the rsk of piracy. We actually had a passenger drill  about what to do in the event the ship was attacked.
You can read more about this in my travelblogue. I will add the link later.
But foolish or not, I must say I appreciated the precautions and never felt at risk. Here when we think of Pirates, the first thing that comes to my mind is Johnny Depp. Unfortunately in too many parts of the world, pirates are not creations of Hollywood and Disneyland rides - but the real thing - vicious and dangerous.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

O Outliers – can practice make perfect or is talent more important?

O Outliers – On a previous vacation when I could not read my book on my IPad in the sunlight, a friend lent me a REAL book – yes, one printed on paper. They still exist. It was Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a truly fascinating read in which he explores the factors that create outliers, extraordinary successful people who stand out from the crowd – whether professional athletes, performers or scientists.
In his discussion of talent, hard work and timing, he quotes from a 1993 article in Psychological Review, in which Ericsson et al, show that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is the "magic number" for success. As I had  wondered for a while where this 10,000 hour statistic  came from, I found the original article on line and it is most interesting.
What, you may wonder, does any of this have to do with my theme of dance-cruising, travel, food and culture that I chose for the A to Z Challenge? Well I guess in my own way I would qualify as an outlier among women of my age (and I am not specifying what that is) in that I took up ballroom dancing as a passion on retirement from my profession. And despite or perhaps because of my recent back surgery, I am in reasonable enough shape to dance with energy for several hours a day. 
But though I quote my instructor - "practice makes perfect"  - I figure it would take me the next 13 years at 3 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year to achieve 10,000 hours of dance practice. And natural talent? Well I think strength and musicality are strong points for me, but lack of flexibility and an innate introversion are definite negatives for performance. So as perfection is clearly beyond my reach, I will have to settle for steady improvement and hope I can continue to dance for the next 13 years.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

N Naughty or Nice - critics and reviewers

N Naughty or Nice - critics and reviewers 
One of the hardest aspects of writing theatre reviews is deciding what to write when you really don’t like what you have seen. Sometimes the acting is really good but the script is not compelling. Other times a really interesting play can be ruined by a poor performance. Or one bad actor can spoil excellent work by the rest of the cast.
It is especially hard when you are reviewing a show by a young or new theatre company, who really need people to be encouraged to see their work. Yet you, as a reviewer, have a duty to be forthright about your take on the show.
Similarly when writing about the rare BAD restaurant or culinary experience, or travel travails, how scathing can you be without just sounding mean or bitter?
Fortunately most of my experiences are more positive than negative, and it is rare that I find absolutely nothing good to say. When I find myself agonizing over what to write, I think about the comment from a wise friend who tried to ease my concerns by urging me to remember that “its only your opinion and others may have very different opinions to yours, and that’s ok.”
BUT others are not necessarily sharing their opinions in a format that can reach a large number of people – on line or in print – and influence their decision whether or not to go out and buy a ticket or make a reservation at a restaurant, or even take a particular cruise itinerary or choose a cruise line.
Those rare times that things go bad are when I wish I had the wit to couch my criticisms in cleverly ambiguous forms of the “performs his duties entirely to his own satisfaction” variety but alas a rapier wit is not a characteristic I can honestly claim. So I will just have to continue to be me. WYSIWYG and call it as you see it.
After all an honest opinion is really what most people want to receive. What do you think?

M is for Me and the A to Z Challenge

M  M was going to be about Mambo and a discussion of beats and rhythms in various dances but as we are about half way through the blogging challenge I thought an explanation - or better  yet an apology to my fellow bloggers was in order. The apology is for not having been active in reading, commenting on and following many other blogs until now. So this post is about Me, and the reasons for my lack of sociability are several.
Until now I have been traveling- first on a cruise ship in Asia and the Middle East and then in a hotel in Dubai. Internet connectivity has been VERY expensive and not too reliable so it was as much as I could do to get my posts up and I could not spend much time cruising through other blogs.
Arrived home yesterday after  15 hours of flying time interrupted by a 6 hour layover, so I am still trying to figure out what day it is and what the time is for me, biologically speaking. But in between unpacking and getting laundry done over then next 2 days, I plan to visit as many  of my fellow Challengers as I can and get to know you, specially those who write about culture, food, travel and the art of writing.
As well since most of my on-line writing is for  my web site,  I have been struggling a bit with the Blogger interface, and need to spend a bit of time figuring out the various functions and how to use the system to the best advantage.
So see you in Cyberspace, real soon!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

L Likes and dislikes - our unique individual tastes

We humans are a fascinating species. Just think of the diversity of language and cultures that have evolved in different parts of the world. One thing I find fascinating is the question of tastes – and taste. For example I have a strong aversion to olives, yet I enjoy tasting different olive oils.  I absolutely loathe cilantro, one of the most widely used herbs in South American foods, yet I love anchovies on pizza and in Caesar salad – a choice that causes some of my friends to throw up their hands in disgust.
One of my friends and regular reader of said “enough with the cilantro already- we know you hate the stuff”. But as the sole anti-cilantro diner in our group of about 12 foodies, I feel strangely compelled to justify my aversion.
So here goes with some cilantro factoids.
Some revered chefs hate cilantro too. Julia Child is famous for her remarks in a Larry King interview that she dislikes cilantro so much that she picks it out of a dish and throws it onto the floor.
It seems that there is a biological reason for the anti-cilantro brigade to loathe the stuff as much as we do. Two genetic polymorphisms that occur in about a quarter of different populations, confer the trail of tasting a nasty soapy flavour when the dread herb enters the mouth. Twin studies also suggest strongly that cilantro-hating is a genetic characteristic. 
I bet that if anyone cared to look for it, there would be genetic polymorphisms that  contribute to the anti-olive and anti-anchovy brigade too.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

K for Kathakali - ancient Indian dance form

the female character showing facial emotion
K Kathakali is the classical dance drama of Kerala in Southern India, first developed in the 17th century.
The stories come from Hindu mythology and the art form blends literature, music, painting, dance and acting. The characters do not speak, at least not vocally. Everything is conveyed through physical acting, facial and hand movements, and the narrative is sung.
The stories are full of violence. The segment we saw involved some hero killing a female demon by slicing off her breasts and then flicking away the blood from his sword. This is not theatre you would take your grandchild to see...
the male warrior
We watched a brief demonstration of the elements that comprise Kathakali.  The segment we saw featured two characters, a male and a female, who performed to music sung by a male vocalist, and accompanied by percussion instruments.
The instruments are the Chenda (a drum played with sticks), Maddalam (drum played with fingers), Chengila (gong) and Llathalam (cymbals). One of the female characters demonstrated nine different emotions by subtle movements of eyes and eyebrows. The next demonstration was of the 24 mudras that make up the alphabet of Kathakali. These are like a sign language, so you need to be able to read the minute alterations in the position of the fingers and the hands to fully understand what is being conveyed.
This was the most fascinating to watch. The bit we saw was relatively short. I gather most performances last several hours and I don’t know that I could endure that.


Tuesday, 10 April 2012

J is for Java - and coffee addiction

J Java - I love it.
Yes I do love my coffee. Fortunately though, caffeine later in the day keeps me from sleeping, so I discipline myself to have no more than one or two cups of the real thing, early in the morning. I specially love the variety of coffees I can brew with my Keurig K-cup coffee machine at home. And as I sit here at 6 am in my cabin, having ok coffee from the Cunard Queen Mary 2 buffet, I really miss my home-brewed mugs of coffees.
One of the things that makes my home brewed coffee so appealing is the $12 milk frother that I acquired at the same time as I got my Keurig coffee brewer. It is a small battery-driven device that whips milk into a frothy foam in seconds.
Here is my morning ritual at home.
I am an early riser so I programme my machine to start heating at 6 am. By 6:05 when I pad into my kitchen to make my coffee the water is heated and ready to go.
First I pour half a cup of lactose-free 1% milk into my mega coffee mug, heat it for 25 seconds in the microwave and then froth the milk till it is almost twice as high in the mug as it was before. Then I put the first of the K-Cups in for a 4 oz. brew followed by a second K Cup brewed with 6 oz. of water.
Voila, an inviting steaming-hot coffee that I call my cappu/latte. I carry it into my study, and look out over the waters of False Creek while I take my first sip. And I think, “ a new day has begun” - Carpe Diem. 
So here while I sip my very average cup pf Java, although I miss my cappu/latte, I look out over the sea to the distant horizon and I am filled with gratitude to my family, friends, doctors, trainers and dance teachers that made it possible for me to be dancing to Dubai, and I think again "seize the day."

Indian Port of Call

I India - Cochin in the state of Kerala, to be precise.
The Chinese Fishing Nets of Cochin
The itinerary from Hong Kong to Dubai involves one port of call in India. In Kochi, aka Cochin (the colonial name) in the state of Kerala on the West coast of India.

 I took an excursion from the ship that included a demonstration of Kathakali, the classical dance from of the Kerala area, and Kalaripayattu, parent discipline from which other martial arts were derived.
According to the very informative tour guide, “Kochi is a Mayalam word meaning “small lagoon. Mayalam is the local language, derived from a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil.
Our tour stopped briefly for a walk around the area of the Chinese fishing nets.  Located at the narrow entrance from the Lakeshadweep Sea to Vembanad Lake and the harbor, the Chinese Fishing Nets were probably brought to India by Chinese traders from Kubla Khan’s court more than a thousand years ago. 
The system is still in use today. People were lining up to buy the fish that had just been brought up in the nets.
From the picturesque but very smelly fishing area, we were taken to the 5 Star Vivanta hotel to watch the performance of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu. Learn more about these ancient arts forms  under K for Kathakali. 

A nice touch that I have never seen at a hotel before, was the presence of a large box at the front desk, containing reading glasses, for arriving guests who may have misplaced their own.

Monday, 9 April 2012

How NOT to behave on a cruise ship

H How NOT to behave on a cruise ship is the thought that keeps popping into my mind as I observe certain human behaviours. On the whole and in most circumstances people are polite and friendly and it has been really interesting meeting folks from all over, from Australia and New Zealand, to various Asian cities, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok,  and different parts of Britain, Europe, Canada and the USA.
But there are two circumstances on this trip that seemed to turn normal outwardly civilised people into angry mobs. One, believe it or not, is the use of the self-serve laundry. Cunard generously provide free use of washers and dryers, and even free detergent.  Unfortunately though, they are in constant use and  people tend to line up to get access. So when the unthinkable occurs - namely a washer or dryer load is finished and NO ONE IS THERE TO EMPTY IT IMMEDIATELY, tempers tend to get a little frayed. I have heard a couple of sharp exchanges between people waiting and those who saunter in to take out their loads that finished quit a while earlier.
The other circumstance is the really poor system that the ship staff have for dealing with the various immigration requirements. Both in Hong Kong and in Cochin, India, there were long lineups of irritated passengers waiting to get though various formalities, when a little better planning on the part of the ship's organization could have made the process go more smoothly.  It was actually quite funny to see how agitated people were getting at the prospect that someone might get slightly ahead of them in the queue. But the chorus of boos when the Captain made an unapologetic announcement about the reason for the mess made me understand how mobs get violent.
So my advice is just chill out, hang loose, go with the flow or whatever calming mantra you prefer. It all works out in the end and your cardiologist will thank you in the end for not making his life harder.
The running joke at the moment after the Cochin lineup mess is that Cunard should really be called QueueNard. Perhaps that's an indication that guest feedback should be taken seriously.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Gentleman Hosts on Board

G  Gentleman hosts - may they continue to dance across the seven seas.
It is a sad fact that many more women love to dance than do men. Go to any function where there is dancing and you will see women looking wistfully at the couples on the floor while their significant other, if they have one, complains of having “two left feet” and won’t get up to dance.  In fact often when there is club and disco music being played women will form groups on the floor and dance with wild abandon. However it is much harder to do that in the context of ballroom dances which by definition are partner dances.    
So imagine a ship like the wonderful Cunard ocean liners, where they have their great Queens Room Ballroom, often with big band music being played. Women traveling solo or with female friends sit and watch from the sidelines, wishing they had someone to dance with.
Enter the gentleman hosts. They are aboard to dance with any of these women who want to venture out onto the floor. I chatted to some of the dance hosts on previous Cunard trips (Dance Hosts on Board) They come from all over, have varied background, but they like to dance and they have congenial personalities and enjoy meeting new people.
Hosts have to pass a screening process before they are hired and are expected to adhere to clearly defined standards of conduct.
Unfortunately not many cruise lines provide dance hosts, and if you are not traveling with a dance partner you are out of luck, as I found on my recent Celebrity Cruise.
One of the top items of my list of things to do this year is to find out which Cruise lines beside Cunard currently have a host program and try out a cruise to see how they work
In the meantime my dance cruising has been with Dancers At Sea who provide both male and female dance hosts depending on the makeup of their group on a particular cruise. Dancing one in three sure beats sitting on the sidelines every night.   

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Food on board - A culinary log

Thai smoked salmon
F Food is one of the all-consuming (oops forgot to mention I like puns) aspects of life on board a cruise ship. It poses of course a particular challenge for those of us already challenged calorically, to be able to resist the plethora of great sounding dishes offered on the menus each night.

I decided for the purpose of this current travelblogue, that I would separate out the food aspects from the rest of the cruise writing - not that I seem to be getting much time to write at all.

So I will be combining my food pictures into a couple of culinary logs for this trip.
Readers of my travel and food writing know that I tend to like to have appetizers more than entrees, and I like the opportunity to taste a variety of flavours.

I will be curious to see when I review my log, whether I am just deluding myself when I say "I never have dessert!" And that I usually have appetizers rather than main courses.

Here are pictures of two of the appetizer selections on the QM2. When I post the first Culinary Log I will add the link to this post.
And here it is. Culinary Sampler Part i.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

our elegant group on the QM2
E  Elegance is the word that comes to mind as I look around the restaurant  on Formal Nights on board the Queen Mary 2.  The men are handsomely attired in  black or white tuxedos. The occasional dress uniform may be seen on military men, complete with ribbons and medals. And every now and then a Scot will proudly wear a kilt in his clan tartan.
But it is really the women who turn the dining room into a palette of colour, from pale pastels to jewel colours, often glittering with threads of silver and gold. Many women chose to wear ankle length gowns; others wear evening pants or shorter dresses.
The picture shows our dance group dressed for a formal night. That's me in the green dress.
After dinner there will be a Ball held in the magnificent Queens Room ballroom, the largest ballroom at sea. Some of these Balls are themed: the Black and White Ball, the Raj Ball as we approach India or the Oriental  Ball. You can read my more detailed description of the Black and White Ball in my Travelblogue at Let the Dancing Begin and The First Formal Night.
I love the elegance of these formal evenings.  How often does one have the chance to wear formal gowns and dance to a ballroom orchestra at home? I never do.  So as long as Cunard hosts these wonderful evenings, I am going to keep on cruising on their wonderful Queen ships, QM2, Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Victoria.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Dubai: city in the desert

D Dubai is a place I had only read about and never really thought I would visit. But now as I cruise on the Queen Mary 2, it will be the destination at which I disembark. Apart from the 16 nights of dancing on board ship as we cruise from Hong Kong, one of the reasons I had for choosing this cruise was the chance it will give me to visit with one of my past students, who is now a department head in the adjacent emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Not knowing much about that part of the world I had to do a lot of reading, so here is my brief version of Dubai Introduction 101. If there are any errors in my summary please feel free to  comment and let me know
Dubai is one of the 7 emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates, on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Emirates, each governed by a hereditary emir are Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
Dubai, also known as the Golden City,is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, with modern skyscrapers, soaring from a desert land.
It is a city of contrasts from the old city al Bastikiya area, where wind towers provide the "air-conditioning" to the modern luxury of the Burj al Arab Hotel. The Palm Jumeira area where the world's largest three man-made islands have been created, seems to be a "don't miss" area. Other areas of interest are the Gold Souk, the Jumeirah Mosque - stunning moderm Islamic architecture and the Sheik Zayed Road, the "Manhattan" of Dubai.
I will be spending two days in Dubai and two in Abu Dhabi so the full stories and photographs on will only be posted midway through the A to Z Challenge, but this is what I am looking forward to seeing.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cruising the Seven Seas

C  Cruising the seven seas  while ballroom dancing is how I plan to spend my vacations for the next while as long as my budget and body hold out. But the question is "what are the seven seas?" Strictly speaking what I really should be saying is "cruising the seven oceans or the hundreds of seas".
The seven oceans are the Arctic, the South and North Atlantic, the Indian, the South and North Pacific and the Southern oceans. But the use of the term the seven seas has differed through the centuries from the ancient European grouping (Adriatic, Arabian, Black, Caspian, Mediterranean, and Red seas and Persian Gulf) to modern usage  (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Arctic Ocean, and the Mediterranean, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico).
So how am I doing? Right now on this trip from Hong Kong we transited the South China Sea on the way to Vietnam,  passed through the Gulf of Thailand on the way to Bangkok, and will head back through the South China see to Singapore. From there we pass through the Andaman Sea to visit the island of Phuket, then cruise the Bay of Bengal to Cochin in India, and finally go through the Arabian sea to arrive at Dubai. Right now we are anchored at the port of Phuket in the Andaman sea, and I am about to go ashore to explore the island.
For me, cruising is the ideal way to travel. You embark, unpack your stuff in your cabin, and then visit all sorts of places without having to pack and unpack your suitcase, and get into a plane or bus to the next destination.This trip I am on now is one of the segments of the Queen Mary 2 2012 World Voyage.
This world cruise takes 108 days from Southampton back to Southampton. It is not strictly speaking a world cruise as it doesn't quite circumnavigate the globe. It goes to the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, to Asia, Australia, back across the India Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and returns to Southampton. So it misses out South America - a destination that is next on my list.
Although I cant imagine spending so long  away from home, at the moment there are at  least 350 people on board who are doing the whole Southampton to Southampton trip. I have actually met several, in the do-it-yourself laundry, and in other places on the ship. They all seem to be loving it. One couple have done four full world cruises. Wow.
What do you think? If money was no object, could you see yourself cruising around the world for four months straight?

Monday, 2 April 2012

Ballroom Dancing - from samba to salsa

B Ballroom  dancing was the number two priority on my Top Ten List of Things To Do when I retired. But I had no idea of the range and variety of dances that the term implies. Most people think of couples in tuxedos and beautiful ball gowns whirling around in a Viennese waltz but there are so many more dances to learn. So here is a brief introduction.

 The first distinction that I discovered was that there are two major styles of ballroom dancing. These are the International – Standard and Latin, and the American – Smooth and Rhythm. International standard was developed in England and is the major style taught and danced in Europe and Asia. International standard style is danced in closed hold only - think the image of the waltzers I mentioned above. Smooth permits open positions and solo dancing. Both include foxtrot, waltz, tango and Viennese Waltz while the quickstep is unique to the International syllabus.
International Latin and American Rhythm  are also somewhat different. The dances comprising the Latin syllabus are chachacha, rumba, jive, samba and paso doble while the American rhythm has chachacha, swing, rumba, mambo and bolero.  The international rumba emphasizes straight legs whereas Cuban motion, stepping onto a bent leg, is more pronounced in the American style rumba – although the two styles seem to be merging more.
After four years of learning International standard and Latin, I went on my first ballroom dance cruise where I encountered the social dancing that is comprised of American smooth and rhythm and club dances.  I loved the freedom of the open smooth style but it was a big adjustment. I even had to adjust my counting. For example in the International rumba one steps on 2,3,4 while in American style it is 1,3,4.
Initially I found that I could follow different partners much more easily in the American style than the International style, possibly because my muscle memory in International was trained to expect certain sequences of steps from learning routines for the medal tests, and also because I had danced mainly with my instructor  with little opportunity to practice with different leads.  It would be interesting to see if that has changed with the switch to social dance and the fact that on these cruises there are different dance partners so I don’t get used to any one person’s style.
Apart from the dances already mentioned above, I have discovered the joys of West Coast Swing, East Coast swing, hustle, salsa, Argentine Tango, country –two-step and night club two step.
My usual answer to the question “what is your favorite dance?” is “the one I am dancing at the time” – but I confess that I am developing a strong partiality to Bolero- when danced with a really great partner. Do you have a favorite dance?
So that’s B for Ballroom 101, as I understand it. Questions and comments are welcome, and as I am on a dance cruise I can consult an expert before I reply.