A pickpocket in Rome.

I’m reluctant to tell this story because it’s a bit embarrassing. I always thought I was too careful and too street-wise to be pickpocketed, but I was marked and was a fleeced of my wallet by a little gypsy woman.

In the Rome Metro there are regular reminders on the intercom to beware of pickpockets. I only had 3 stops from S. Giovanni to Termini. As I bought a ticket from the machine I noticed a couple standing beside me. I put my wallet in the right hand side of my cargo pants and domed it up. For some reason my ticket didn’t work in the turnstile but I managed to push through the barriers. The couple who where standing at the ticket machine had gone through the turnstiles had stopped, and they looked back at me, why? On the way down the escalator a guy asked me if I was going to the Termini, why?
I waited for the train to arrive, the doors opened and I entered on the right hand side but a woman squeezed in beside me, on the right hand side. I thought it was odd, why didn’t she enter the train to my left where there was more room. I turned to pull my trolley pack onto the train and she moved around me, I assumed she wanted to move on down the carriage somewhere. She was fussing around, it’s all so obvious to me now.
It’s always a bustle getting on a crowded metro. The doors were about to close and she suddenly ducked off the train, she turned and looked me in the eyes, a look I will never forget. The doors closed, I felt down on the pocket of my cargo pants and my wallet was gone.
She was good and I think she was part of a team who had marked me when I bought my ticket at the machine.
I lost some Euros, a debit card and my driver’s license, luckily my credit card and the bulk of my cash was safely in my pack.
Ever since then I have been so careful, always vigilant, slightly paranoid really and I don’t put my wallet in my cargo pants any more.

 

Guitar nerdsville.

The new Gibson Garage in London has every Gibson in every flavour with friendly staff who are keen to hand you another guitar and another guitar, to strum and plug in. This is more fun that visiting another old church or art gallery – any time!

There are two conveyer belts suspended from the ceiling slowly moving beautiful guitars around the room, it’s quite impressive.
I found my absolute favourite, a 1959 Les Paul Re-issue, a relic guitar made to look worn, scratched, chipped and tattered even though they’re brand new. Only £8,700 (NZ$18,600), and it was just so easy t0 play. I played it though a MesaBoogie amp which is routed through headphones. It was a big, rich, well-rounded tone that makes everything you play just sound so good – and the neck is the perfect shape for my hand. I always thought Les Paul’s were too heavy, weight-wise, but this one was very comfortable to play.
The shop has a display of plain wood blocks, just pieces of wood were you can select the type of ‘tiger texture’ wood grain if you were wanting a new-build. Every option is available from the neck shape, frets and hardware. And then you can choose from a selection of cases; heavy duty road touring to basic gig bags.




Next, the Gibsons acoustics room. I’ve always wanted a Hummingbird and they had a beautiful one that is technically new, but it’s artificially aged  even the top varnish is. They have a facility in Bozeman, Montana where all the Gibson acoustics are made, called the Murphy Lab. It’s a department where they slowly heat the guitar to rapidly dry the woods and then treat the varnish to have that aged look, you know, where the varnish has those thin surface cracks. But there’s more to it than that and the methods are all secret.
Gibson Murphy Lab Acoustic Guitars have taken the world by storm because they have all the qualities of an old guitar without having to pay collector’s prices.
My favourite was the 1952  J-185 re-issue, which is the same shape as the big jumbo J-200 (that Pete Townsend plays), but smaller. It still had a big bright sound, and it looks amazing. £5,000 (NZ$10,700), which sound like a lot of money, but that’s nearly what Auckland Council will charge me for consent to put on a bathroom in the garage, ridiculous – the world is all out of whack. No wonder people are screaming out to streamline the consent process.
Anyway, another guitar that I didn’t like the look of because it was too shiny and new was called The Songwriter Standard, but it actually sounded incredible.



There was plenty of merch to buy and not just T-shirts, but I thought about it, and really, I don’t need another T-shirt as tempted as I was.

London, part 2.

Here’s some more about my last wonderful days here in Brixton and the Portobello Rd.


My old flat, 12 Colville Terrace, now painted green. I was so lucky.

 
Tonight we went to East Dulwich to a pub to see Pat & Jane. Such a wonderful night with Pat, the author, who signed his book, The Redemption Cut, a fiction based on the Irish ‘troubles’, with Jane, his wife, who I know from our days back to that Villa Rd squat in Brixton we shared back in the 80’s. Back in those pre-internet days I lived there for a few months  because I soon found a flat in Notting Hill, and thank heavens, living in West London was a much better place than South London, in my opinion.

Has London changed?

London is a seething mass of humanity and I wonder if I could live here again – because compared to when I lived here 30 years it  seems to be more intense – but it’s interesting how I slip back into it, as if I never left.


Why do Londoners close their eyes when on the Tube, here’s Leo and Saul in local’s mode on the way to Green Park. We walked from there along Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery to see the works of  Yinka Shonibare CBE, a Nigerian/Englishman who wraps statues in colourful African fabrics in a challenge to colonialism. He has created a whole library of books covering every war that humankind has ever been engaged, again with the theme of colonialism. On the way we saw a fox chasing a squirrel – cool.


Last night I went to see a band at The Camden Club, The Kendall Connection, and today I went to Portobello Market, my old stomping ground. It as changed in many ways but it’s still the same  at least, for me familiar feelings from 30 years ago come back – and Rough Trade records is still there.
It’s the evenings that I find strange, especially in Brixton and Camden – they’re seething with people, so many more people than I remember, or perhaps it’s me coming from France and Italy where there are crowds of locals and obviously all the tourists. Here in London it seems to be all locals and there seem to be so many more drunks; people with mental health issues shouting out, others talking to gibberish to themselves, some passed out on the ground, and groups of young guys busily mooching about. All the bars are full, the shops are busy trading, the restaurants have tables with plenty of customers, and everyone is out on the streets.
I think London is the most vibrant city I have been in on this trip so far – and to be honest, it’s all a bit exhausting.

Yup, as a guitar nerd I had to get a shot of the pedalboard – it’s a research trip after all!

Au revoir La Marais.

I’ve visited seven cities over the last four weeks but if I could pick one place to live for a few months it would have to be La Marais in the 3rd Arrondissement of Paris.

       

So many wonderful little boutiques de vêtements, boucheries, boulangeries, an outdoor food bazaar called Marche De Enfants Rouges, a low cost fresh salad bar at FranPrix supermarket, and of course, the numerous cafe’s on the sidewalk. But it’s more than that, people are nice and respectful of one another, there’s a sense of shared community. I get the feeling waiters, shop owners and residents are all keeping a casual eye on things, I felt safe.
I had many short conversations with locals, they all have time for a chat. I was tempted to buy all sorts of things because the standard of clothing worn by local people is quite high, but I’m already carrying quite a bit of weight, so I resisted, although I did go to the local Uniclo.
I avoided the big galleries and went to see the Monet’s at L’Orangerie, and the Picasso Musee, which conveniently, is in La Marais.
It’s becoming difficult to get around the city pre-Olympics, there’s masses of fencing everywhere blocking much of the Champ de Mars, and they have reduced traffic lanes for the runners and cyclists competing soon. I would not want to be there during the Olympics  – too conjested, too crazy!
Elo suggested I take a Lime bike with my pack and backpack to Gare du Nord, only 20 minutes, a bit wobbly and top heavy, but . . , I made it.

 

Eurostar from Gare du Nord to St Pancras in 2 hours.

My first day in London was so much fun, a social time catching up with Leo, Saul, Bill, and bro Guy. London has such a different atmosphere, especially coming directly into Brixton. More crazy people shouting out, more shabby, more earthy, it’s London, the whole world is here.
We bought wine and snacks and watched England beat The Netherlands on the telly, the final is on Saturday, tomorrow, and it’s going to be madness!
The best pub lunch I’ve had for a while, in Islington; steak pie, mash, cabbage and gravy!  Such a pretty area, and again, another side of London. Guy and I did a guided tour of The Barbican, a part of London I never really explored although I did play with an Australian bass player who was at Guildhall School of Music where I put a notice up way back in the 80’s, and we did a few café gigs together.
The tour was so interesting, a residential complex that’s been so well designed, would I live there? – sure, why not.

 

 

Relais de l’Entrecôte.

Here’s a great idea for a restaurant, how about just having one dish, there’s no menu because there’s no choice, there’s no vegan option, no gluten free, it’s perfect, it’s brilliant, it’s steak and chips with an amazing sauce!

And people line up every night there and the place is always packed. For decades the Relais de l’Entrecôte formula has ensured it’s success; a green salad with walnuts, tender sirloin accompanied by its famous secret sauce and its matchstick fries.
The line was long and took me an hour, fortunately, I arrived early and was able to get a place in line so that when Elo arrived we would be ready. A waiter came out to the line and said, how many are you? I said ‘deux personnes s’il vous plaît’, and followed her in, briskly manoeuvring between the tables crammed closely together. We arrived at the table and I explained in basic french that my friend was arriving soon. Not good enough – and she indicated that I should follow her back out.
So, there I was back in the line again, but at least I was at the front. Elo arrived a few moments later and we got a table, actually in a much better spot, with a view outside.
They have been serving this single meal since 1959 and I guess it’s now in every guidebook – there were many Americans in the line moaning about having to wait, but never-the-less, they stayed there in line.
Elo explained to me there are only women waiters. They all wear their smart matching outfits and many work there their whole lives and are paid very well, and apparently, many of them live together in the same houses. To get a job there you need to be in the network . They are all super efficient serving up the steak, it’s on your plate within a few minutes of sitting down, it’s a well-oiled machine.
It was a nice surprise to see they do a double serving. Once you finish your steak, and wow, that sauce!, they put another steak on your plate and a heap more fries.
When it comes to desserts there is some choice, and what desserts they are.


Negroni é buonissimo

Just a few thoughts before leaving Milan, and Italy.


That Negroni was huge! And the free bar snacks, olives, pretzels, crisps, and only €10, then I was off to the rooftop of the Duomo, will load those pics later ‘coz I’m tight on time, train to Paris this afternoon and want to visit the famous Peck deli this morning.
Firstly, must mention I am so grateful to orthopedic surgeon Simon Mills who did my ankle fusion operation 4 years ago. Without it I would not be able to walk around for hours in these cities. My left ankle used to ache after half an hour but now I barely have a limp, even in regular shoes, and in trainers I’m 100% good, and there’s never any pain.
Secondly, I have been in close proximity to thousands of people everywhere and have not not any covid or flu symptoms that have hit me in previous visits to Europe. I will never know for sure but I believe it is not insignificant that I have been fully vaccinated and had the latest flu shot. Yay to modern medicine!
Thirdly, despite what many say, cash is not dead. I have been travelling nearly exclusively using Euros, I keep most of it in my pack and pull out €100 every couple of days. The credit card is used only when there’s no other option. I’m thinking of getting rid of the CC when I get home and just using a Debit card in the future.

Finally, it’s so great to be in places with so many people out strolling, chatting, enjoying the company of others at outdoor trattorias in the warmth of the evenings; where they don’t mind if you just hang out, there’s no waiters coming up every 2 minutes to ask stupid questions like, ‘Is there anything else you need?, Are you enjoying your meal?, etc.
Here, if you need service you put your hand up, simple. And they leave the plates at the table, there is no pressure.
It is good to be away from NZ where so many people seem to want to talk about retirement home options and aged-care, crikey! Sometimes I think NZ is turning into one big retirement home, and when I hear about 56,000 people net migration a year (that’s minus the number arriving), so that’s 1,000 people leaving ever week,  why?

Mi dispiace, tutto esaurito.

All sold out: Teatro alla Scala with Puccini’s Turandot tonight and seeing da Vinci’s Last Supper at Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie – well, they would be, the place is packed with tourists . . like me.

But I did manage to visit alla Scala and watch a ballet being rehearsed. No Nessun Dorma for me tonight, there was an option to line up for an hour to ‘register’ for a ticket at 1pm, return at 5.30pm to re-confirm, and then wait until 6pm to see if there are any seats left in the gods. That seemed a bit much for me. So I whizzed off to the Last Supper, but sold out.
Managed to book a slot to enter the Duomo, in 5 hours time at 6pm. They charge €18, and that’s the cheaper option.
So, here is the plan for tonight, my last full day in Milan; return to the hostel, (I’m in a two-bed dorm room but the room to myself, nice), have a snooze, go to the famous Bar Basso where the Negroni was invented (well, that’s their claim to fame), then the Duomo with my ticket for 6pm.

As an aside, there’s no ticket office for the Duomo, you use a QR code to buy it all online, even if you’re standing there right outside, so modern, and yet, so stuck in the past, to enter the Duom0 women must cover their bare shoulders and bare legs with a piece of (plastic) cloth, which is not re-usable, just trashed, so much waste.
Anyway, after the Duome I’m going to have a pizza at a guidebook suggestion; DryMilano , I’m in Milan, I will probably never come to this city again, so I’ll put on my best T-shirt and get amongst it.

Tomorrow afternoon I train to Paris.


A 33 string geetar!


The dress designed by Giorgio Armani for Maria Callas – incredible!

Yup, there are fashionable people everywhere, and those shops!
I saw a nice shirt in a Gucci window-display,  hmmm.

Bologna’s portico’s 

More organised and smaller than Florence, Bologna might not have the big cathedrals or the artistic history but it has real class and sophistication, and it’s safe – so easy to walk around within those wonderful porticos.

 

It’s a big academic city with the first university in the world and the streets are full of young people of all nationalities. The footpaths are all under the porticos which makes strolling about very pleasant.
 

I stumbled into Piazza Maggiore which had a massive outdoor cinema screen; they say it’s one of the most famous outdoor cinema settings in the world and a perfect spot with buildings on all four sides and cafes. Outdoor hanging about and strolling la passeggiata. I checked the free show for the night, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, I’d never seen it but knew it was Scorsese’s big debut and where we first see Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel – young punks on the edge of the mafia world. There’s some brief nudity in it so I guess that would have made it R18 back in 1973. Has a cracking opening sequence with Jumping Jack Flash by the Stones. I took a bottle of Chianti bought in the Conad Supermarket on special for €4 and a €8 takeaway Pizza Diavola (that’s the one with the pepperoni!), and had a thoroughly good night in that lovely warm evening air.

The train from Florence to Milan goes super fast, my guess, as we went alongside the motorway, going twice as fast as the cars, about 180km, and the journey only takes an hour, for €20 – amazing.
But not so impressed with Milan, it’s like any city, you could be in Melbourne, maybe that’s just the high-rise part, but immediately I missed the charm of the once walled medieval city of Bologna.


dBTechnologies in Bologna.

Some people want to help and some people just don’t want to know, and I ask myself if I am one of those people, as a local, who would go out of my way to help strangers who are obviously foreigners.

The Italian people I have encountered are generally helpful and ready to offer some time to an older geezer who muddles his way through a few Italian phrases and is ‘mi sono molto grato’. Some other nationalities just can’t be bothered or they regard you with suspicion. The worst are other travelling Kiwi’s – they all seem a bit closed off and self-contained and taking this travelling thing a little too seriously, ‘best not talk to strangers . .’
Hotel staff might seem to be helpful but they have often given me urban transport advice that is plain wrong.  ‘Just take any bus from the corner, they all go to the Stazione’. But not mine.
Luckily, an older Italian women who had no English managed to communicate to me that I should get off this bus at a certain stop and take a tram to the Stazione, using the same ticket. I was catching my train from Florence to Bologna but who knows, without her help I’d probably still be sitting on that bus touring the distant outer suburbs of Florence.
I always leave an hour up my sleeve for situations like this because all the train stations have good cafes and a place to sit down and hang out.
The Metros are easy but buses are so hard to figure out, for example, I might get on the right one with the right number but if I was on the wrong side of the road if takes me in the opposite direction. I must get a good bus app for my phone.

   

I was going to write about the fascinating time I had at the dBTechnologies HQ hear Bologna. Marco, their Senior Application Engineer, spent about 6 hours showing me all the gear, we had lunch and he dropped me back at my hotel with VIP tickets to the concert that evening in the Parco delle Caserme Rosse where they are using two of the  big dBTech VIO line array systems, of course.

Marco travels the world giving technical support for the dBTech systems and I learned so much about the world of live music and technology today – and we had some great laughs. He talked about how so many of the mayor artists these days like Dua Lipa and Justin Timberlake just use backing tracks now. They might have musicians on stage bouncing about but they’re just there as props, all the real work is being done by an operator sitting in a soundproof truck back stage, running all the music cues. The front-of-house engineer just has one fader for the vocals and all the rest of the music is managed from the back stage truck. Marco shared this pic of the technician handling the Justin Timberlake. Tragic really.


Although, there’s still plenty of guitar bands that are authentically live and since covid people are keen to get to concerts again. The fact that Spotify and Apple Music are dominant means there’s no money in recorded music anymore. Sure, CDs and Vinyl sales are there but not in the sheer quantities they were, the major money is  now in the live scene, everyone knows that – and it’s booming all throughout Europe.
If you’re interested in all this, there’s a very recent Rick Beato podcast about music making  and music consumption on YouTube, linked here.

 

Walking, walking walking

Florence deserves more that two nights and I can see why people love it, there’s an easier pace and it’s so pretty and easy to get around.

 

Just two nights in Firenze and a lot of walking (and I got a blister on my foot, damn!), there’s less vehicle traffic and it’s very pedestrian-ised, well, at least in the central areas.  I found the Central Food Hall with a mad number of sizzling Bistecca. It’s by the outdoor market with Indian guys hustling, I hate being hustled and pressured when I’m simply ask the price. And they’re all selling exactly the same leather goods, hundreds of stalls with the same stuff, so I decided to go to an actual shop and I met an Italian guy who’s family have had the same business for 50 years. He said tourist numbers are down! Really?,  – the streets are heaving with people, he said the French and Germans don’t buy anything, only the Chinese and Americans spend money and there’s less of them.  He said it was because political and financial instability in those countries, and the wars.

What’s happening at home? I just read on RNZ that the number of businesses filing for bankruptcy has doubled in the last year compared to the year previous – wtf!

Bistecca Firenze.

After having endless pasta and pizza I finally sat down to a square meal with meat, potatoes and dessert, and it was the best meal in the nicest piazza yet.

     

Florence is so different from Rome, it seems more ordered, it’s flat for a start, the distances between things don’t seem so far, and the buildings and streets a lot tidier. Rome’s streets are covered in graffiti and the pavings are random and broken; in Florence it’s all a bit smarter.
Luca texted me to say I should go to his favourite restaurant south of the river; Trattoria Gustapanino in Piazza San Spirito, and linked me to the owner, Pasquale, who greeted me like an old friend, he remembered Luca because, apparently, ‘he came here many times. . . .’.
I was told to order off menu, the bistecca, it was probably the best steak I have ever enjoyed; large, super tender, rare and covered in a kind of creamy buttery, mustard, sauce with capers – served with patate (roast potatoes). An Apperol Spritz to start, the recommended Montepulciano and tiramisu to end  – all in a big piazza with no cars or scooters, and none of those annoying street-vendors bothering you with their trinkets – and the place was packed.
I crossed the bridge at dust on my way back to the hotel and it’s impossible to not pause here and just soak up the light the openness and sheer beauty of this place. The busker was playing classical-style folk music on a classical guitar amplified with a piano backing tracks, just right, no Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl or Hallelujah, here.

This 3 star hotel has a charming open-air breakfast area and a free breakfast! Today is my only full day in Firenze so it’s going to be the Uffizi, and apparently I need to get a biglietti from the man square. No Lime scooters here, it’s bus or walking. Ciao.

It’s too darn hot

Early evening when the heat has dropped and everyone is out walking about is a wonderful time and this moment, pausing on Ponte Garibaldi made a sub-optimal day worth it.

Btw, if you’ve had enough of these blogs or you think it’s all pointless, or egocentric or something, please do unsubscribe, no hard feelings. It’s just a rough journal for me and something to do in the evenings to reflect on my day, it’s not compulsory viewing.
People sometimes ask why I’m not travelling with my wife and I think the question says more about the person asking – the assumption that once you’re married you must travel with your partner. I think the question says more about other people’s values. I listened to Suzy Ferguson on RNZ interviewing Lisa Blair who sailed solo around the Antarctic and has a doco out called Ice Maiden screening at the DocEdge film Fest, and she was never asked, “Why don’t you take your boyfriend with you?” It’s because it’s her journey, her challenge and her adventure, and I feel the same way. Travelling on my own focuses my concentration and allows me to pause at things that take my interest and meet new people. So often I see older couples sitting at restaurant tables, both staring off to the middle distance  . . with nothing left to say.
On the other had it can go wrong some days. I had a plan to walk a few km of the Attica Antica, the first purpose-build Roman road, but I gave up. The temperature was 36 degrees and I was over-whelmed. I took a Lime bike into the area where the Road begins but its ‘out of zone’ which means all the power cuts out on the bike and it’s like pedalling a heavy analogue bike except harder. I really needed a hat with a decent brim too – it was all too hard. I found some shade, drank my nice cold water, poured half a bottle over my head and re-grouped.
Later I decided to see some live music but the band wasn’t starting for another 3 hours and they were playing rocked-up versions of the Bee Gees, called The Free Gees, not my cuppa, so I Lime-biked to Trastevere near by and had the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten.  The restaurant I wanted to go had a long line so I went pot-luck, and lucked out.
Time to head back to Appia Nuovo and that lovely air con.
(Sorry about all the pics, they all look smudgy to me, maybe I need to clean my phone lens?)

 

Giardino degli Aranci

Every day is full of surprises and around every corner is another delight; Rome is wonderful, and even thought the temperature got up to 34 degrees yesterday and forecast for 37 today, it’s good to know there’s air-con back at the hotel – phew.

   

Yesterday the plan was to post some gear back home that I won’t need (I overpacked), visit the Pantheon and then Trastevere for lunch. All went to plan and I reduced my luggage by 4kg.
It still amazes me how many tourists there are at the touristy spots, funny that. All the outdoor trattoria’s in the popular places like the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon are full, business must be good, but eating on a busy street with scooters and cars racing by doesn’t appeal to me – I prefer the shady back street places.
It’s surprisingly cool inside the Pantheon and it’s such a beautiful round room, no extra bits leading off anywhere – just one big curved room with a big hole in the dome open to the sky, what a clever way to ventilate.

Nanarella in Trastevere served me the best carbonara I have ever had with big chunks of bacon and no eggy slop, a generous amount of parmesan to make it thick and tasty, I was tempted to ask for a second helping.
The La Feltrinelli Bookshop is huge with books in all languages, I was looking for antiquity style maps and a place to chill out for a bit  – it has the best air-con I’ve come across by far!


On the Lime bike back to the hotel I turned off my route and wound up an interesting looking hill to Parco Savello which seems to be thee spot for weddings. Giardino degli Aranci has views out across Rome and the photographers use the distant St Peter’s Basilica as a backdrop for the nuptials.

Must mention I’ve switched over to my Italian TIM sim card. Vodafone/One in NZ charge $8 a day roaming which adds up, for example, 4 weeks would be $240, instead I paid  €20 (NZ$35) for 100Giga bytes of data (yes, 100!) and unlimited texts and calls. The was nothing to update or change and my WhatsApp just stayed as it was  – magic!  The wifi is patchy just about everywhere I stay, in Naples it went down completely for two days at the place I was staying. I seem to get much better connectivity hot-spotting to my phone – yup, loadza data.

Train strike!

It’s 22h10, and it’s 22 degrees but it feels warmer and it’s been a long 8 day in the heat that ended up in Pompei instead of Herculaneum because of a sudden train strike – but I go with the flow.

 

  

Crickey, there’s so many words to remember, so many place names, so many stations, so much Italian, I wish Luca was here, he remembers this stuff, me, they just go in one ear and out the other, thank god for the iPhone. I carry two power packs and a second phone.
Today I wanted to go to Herculaneum, a new alternative to Pompei but the train strike meant limited services, I sat at the station reading my book for an hour wondering if this strike would end. Took a stroll through the local market with all that food out in the open, there don’t seem to be any flies, but NZ H&S would definitely be shutting this down, pronto. Could not believe there’s wine for NZ$2.50. Some Treni services did commence, but Pompei was the only option, no stopping at Ercolano for Herculaneum.
It’s overwhelming walking through Pompei, it seems much bigger than when I last visited with Julia 30 years ago. I wonder what was really going on here pre AD79. There’s a new exhibition focusing on the underclass, the slaves, and it’s no surprise that it’s easy to build an empire if you have the benefit of free labour. Infant mortality was 40%. Yes, I did stumble upon those fresco’s. I also visited a grand house just outside the Pompei  walls, where they made wine, and I chatted to the people working there. Generally, the people of Naples see themselves as separate to other Italians, it’s mentioned often. I eves-dropped on a few of the audio-guide people, but who needs that? For me it’s all about enjoying the moment, of just being there, gulping down water and wondering how long I can last.

Forgot to mention the bike tour, not quite what I was expecting, mainly on urban roads with wine session under the pergola, but a friendly bunch of Sarf Africans, Brits and Norwegians.

Vomero is it.

I’m over galleries and basilica’s so I took the Funicolare to visit the Castel S. Elmo at the top of the hill and discovered there’s fewer tourists up there, and a nice local vibe.

It’s an area called Vomero with the massive Spanish fort dominating the skyline. The Spanish had a big hold on this part of the ‘Italian’ peninsula for quite some time. These days Vomero has a different atmosphere than down on the lower streets full of crowds, I found a nice record shop with a restaurant and bar playing good jazz, we got talking.
I found a rare release of a pre-Ziggy Stardust album on vinyl with demos and out-takes, not sure what’s on it actually, the cover is a bit vague,  but it’s clearly collectable.
Once up top on St Elmo I walked along the turrets of the fort, glad I took the binoculars because  . . . whoa!, I could see all the way to Sorrento, Capri and Pompei  – was up there for hours, absolutely knock out 360 degree views of Napoli and beyond.
I realise now that a scooter is the only way to go in Naples and I’m planning to hire one for Wednesday, my last day. Tomorrow is Tuesday and my 4 hour pre-booked e-bike tour. Hope there’s not too many hills.

Streets of Napoli

I had booked a seat for Donezetti’s Maria Stuarda in the magnificent Teatro San Carlo which was just 5 minutes walk from my digs, but I still managed to be late.
 

Maria Stuarda is tragic opera with a story loosely based on the lives of Mary Queen of Scots (Mary Stuart) and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, [1]and although they confront one another, the two Queens, in fact, never met. Sung in Italian there are plenty of references to Dio. They spent most of the Second Act asking God to get involved in one way or another; for redemption, for forgiveness, for permission, will he accept her in heaven, will Liz change her mind about the execution – of course she won’t. It’s a bit like watching the Titanic movie, you know what’s going to happen. But no blood or gore in this show, not a chopping block or axe in sight – it’s all about the pathos – it’s pretty dark, and I loved it.
Interesting how they use microphones for the orchestra and singers, about 20 tiny condensor mics scattered about, lots of those super expensive NEUMANN KM183s – only NZ$1,200 each, (this is a research business trip, remember)
Naples is a wonderful place to wander around, a labyrinth of alleyways, it’s a bit filthy and run down, but so charming and this morning I went out for a coffee and returned 4 hours later thinking I should get a  Maradona shirt, but on the other hand, it might be one of those things you look at when you get home, and think,‘ . . why the hell did I buy that?’

Barberini & Cabaret

Weaving through the cobbled streets and alleyways of Rome on a Lime e-bike is the best fun, and in this heat it’s cooler than walking because you get the breeze.

  

All the Caravaggio paintings are at the Barberini Gallery, it is the principal national collection of older paintings in Rome with Raphael, Filippo Lippi, Bernini, Borromini and many others, and it occured to me there was plenty of blood and gore in ancient times, sudden death was an everyday part of life.
That evening I found a last minute Jazz Club with singers performing the American Song Book that I enjoy, only 20 euro admission and a glass of vino for 8 euro in a part of Rome I had not visited before. The singers had incredible voices, huge stage personality and flair, and absolutely delivered – they sang traditional Italian pop songs and opera, quite a show.

Let’s eat . .

There are so many little trattoria’s everywhere it’s hard to know where to sit down, but I really like CONAD, the supermarket with everything.

Sorry this blog is a bit shit, I can’t figure out how to make it look all classy and cool, I think you need plug-ins and a bit of time to figure it out – I’ll get there. I used to resize all the pics but now I just cut’n’paste, bit like rock’n’roll.
I’ve figured out a pasta and a glass of wine is about  15 euro in a restaurant, and a visit to Conad getting flatbread, some meat, a salad or fruit, some cheese and a bottle of wine (going for the specials) comes to 15 euro as well.
Conad has a wall of prosciutto, a big display of (uncovered) seafood, (I really hope people are buying it), and a ton of cheese including those big ones the side of a small coffee table.
After a morning out to visit the Barberini Galleria Nazionale with all the Caravaggio paintings and a whole lot more, I Lime-bike back, it’s hot with blue skies and after an hour or two on the streets, I’m done. Back to the aircon on 22 degrees, ahhhh (-;

Road trip Costa D’Argento

Would you like to come up the coast in the Audi and catch the train back to Rome tonight?

 

How could I refuse. After the car ownership business had been done Jack invited me to join him in his new car for a trip two hours up the coast to a beautiful part of Italy where the people of Rome go for their holidays in the picture-postcard village of Porto Ercole. He was visiting his aunt Judy and her husband Phil in Orbetello; she originally from Dublin and he from Seattle, but they had lived and worked in Rome for decades before retiring to the idyllic seaside on the Costa d’ Argento.
Jack had spent the summers of his youth with his family in this area for years and knew all the best swimming spots. We drove through the village and were soon picking our way down the gravel steps to Spiaggia L’Acqua Dolce – and the water was divine. Jack is a fountain of local knowledge about the Spanish forts that sit high on the hills, and we visited Braccio Beach and breezed through the town of Porto Ercole.
Finally, a Vermentino on the roof terrace with Judy and Phil before catching the train back to Rome Termini.

Audi Long Term Parking

Guess how much you’ll be charged for 6 months parking at Fiumicino Airport?

Well, I’m too embarrassed to say but it’s over a NZ$ grand – ouch.
We bought the Audi when we had exciting Italian plans back in October but a few spanners were thrown in the works. Luckily, a buyer appeared, Jack from Dublin, he saw my ad on Subito, an Italian used car website and the process began. Meanwhile, messages in Italian from the car park people said La meccanica non funziona  – which doesn’t need much translation. And more spanners; the car park company we used had gone broke and this one had inherited their cars – and their rates were ‘different’ and they were talking ‘penalties’. So, as I sat on the plane to Rome I had all sorts of questions on my mind about the condition of the car and the cost of parking. And Jack had paid a deposit. Would I have to refund him?
Hey, there’s a happy ending, I managed to get a shuttle to AIR CAR Parking, which took a while because I was waiting at the ARRIVALS area by  the Terminal and they pick up from the DEPARTURES level, who would have guessed!  We poured some petrol in the beast and started the car with jumpers. A young Italian guy there helped me. I bought a new battery, washed and vacuumed it at the local ESSO and headed into Roma Centro repeating to himself ‘Just keep right, keep right . . .’
Italians drive fast, they crowd in close, they toot if you’re too slow, and there’s a lot of them packed-in on the road. Temperatures are in the 30’s, but 40 minutes later I arrived at my hotel in San Lorenzo, and luckily, found a park. The next day I was to meet Jack Mulcahy and change the ownership papers, but for the evening, I went for a wander around the local parks and breathed a huge sigh of relief . . so far so good.

The Cosmic Debris vinyl album.

Pressed and printed, and ready for posting.

All the vinyl is now shipping off to the various reviewers, record stores, friends, supporters and collaborators. There’s only one hundred hand-numbered copies available, and that’s it. I just listened to it all again (after listening to the tracks zillions of times in production and mixing). Still soooo happy with the result, plenty of ooomph in the mid/low range kick.


I’m calling it psychedelic funk because it has a free-jamming element to it. When played live it can go anywhere – very funky, very open and easy to  improvise on because many of the tracks are just two chord jams, or four chord jams – it’s easy . .   I’m looking forward to playing it loud and live.

The song that I hope will get some traction is called Floating In The Air. Here’s a link to the audio on Soundcloud  click on the link and have a listen.

And my favourite on the album is She Wants To Be, because its so slow at about 94bpm and that gives it such a deep earthy groove, real slow funk like Prince used to do. This track could be a perfect contender for a drum & bass remix – are there any producers out there who want the multi-track stems to have a play?

If anyone is a friend and receiving this blog and wants a copy, just email me.

Studio time

Last year during lockdown I refurbished the garage into a studio and during this latest lockdown, I have produced one track after another and released them on all platforms including Spotify.
I am producing ‘full band’ pieces using any number of rhythm tracks, sometimes up to 8 layers of drums; a loop, a programmed synth-drum, a regular (software) kit drummer, and a (software) percussionist for crashes, stabs, bongos and shakers. I use a midi keyboard to access literally thousands of keyboard sounds from grand pianos, organs, synths and choirs  – so much. Then I physically play electric and acoustic guitars and bass – and sing.

 

I use Logic Pro X version 10.4.6 and am too frightened to update my MacOS from Catalina 10.15 because I have a funny feeling, and from reading some forums, that the upgrade will cause issues with this version of Logic – so I just avoid the updates. Also, the new version of Logic is just so complicated – sometimes I can’t be bothered keeping up with technology – I just stick with what I know does the job.

The weakest link and something I can’t do much about is my voice, plans to get a vocalist in to do sessions, so in some ways, all these tracks are just really demos. But I do my best, I use Melodyne to correct the pitch and I also use a new plug-in called GreenHAAS that is nothing short of voodoo. I have only a vague idea of what it does – they have blended a number of effects together; saturator, spreader, flanger, overdrive and harmonizer and all I can say is that it enriches, fattens, compresses and colours everything it touches.

Finally, I have a subscription to a website based in Toronto called LANDR that masters the tracks. This brings them up to broadcast quality using multiple compression treatments, tames the bass, boosts the whatever, and gives that finished polish. Then after I have mastered it about 10 times (it takes a while to upload and download these big .wav files) – and after going slightly bonkers from having heard the same song for two weeks, about two thousand times – I kiss it goodbye by sending it to my DRM (Digital Rights Managers who do the uploading for me), and I move onto the next one.
I’m so grateful to have had this time away from my day job as an audio production manager setting up live events – grateful to have this cosy studio that isn’t actually very sound-proof as I thought it would be, and the tools to create music. Creativity is only limited to my imagination and I’m learning a lot about those limits – and I keep pushing it to get things done faster, but for me recording is a slow and painstaking process, and sometimes after hours and days of work I realise it’s ‘all wrong’, like too slow, too cute or too lame, and I start over. Time is the greatest luxury – surely.

7 albums in 7 years?

This time last year, in September 2020,  I was wrapped in merino and pretending to be a builder. I had loads of power tools and took daily trips Bunnings as I renovated my damp, mouse-infested garage into a studio and office. The concrete floor was on a slope so the first job was to make a level floor. I had crisscrossing string lines and lots of those little bubble level things. Maybe I will do a blog showing the work in progress because I took pics of each stage all the through the build.

It was mid-winter and I am probably the slowest builder in the world. I set up a gazebo to cover the workbench and hauled all the rimu boards from out under the house that I had stored after the bathroom renovation a few years ago. It took over 4 months in the rain and cold – and as I was doing it I was planning the music I was going to make. 

The walls were all insulated to reduce the sound but that has obviously has not worked out –  I get complaints late at night when I’m tracking bass guitar and mixing. As I said, while hammering, drilling and endlessly measuring things I was making all kinds of plans for the music projects I wanted to do, and I still have the original inspiration I wrote on a white piece of plastic board with a vivid marker board to remind myself.

1. Live – funk set, originals and covers. I often go out and play in local bars and try out different styles but have settled on playing one style with an electric guitar and a looper – it’s better to work up one good set, so it’s funk, built around Aretha’s Respect.

2. Protons – a remix and release of a track. My first proper band back in the 80’s that unfortunately never found it’s groove – and an experience that I would sometimes rather forget about it – especially the disastrous  stage experiences that traumatised me as a live performer for years afterwards – something that I have now managed to overcome. I’d still like to release just one totally mashed up remix of a track to finally put it to bed on a positive note.

3. Carnival Din – recorded live at Cosgroves Bar in the Cambridge Hotel in the ’80s Chris Cullinane.  I have mp3s taken from the quarter inch tape master that Adam Gifford won’t sell or give to me (why not Adam? – it is my tape, you are holding stolen property, by the way). He found the tape in a garage sale, apparently . . . and it has my handwriting on all the track listings, musically a wild and loose night, but there’s a couple of nuggets in there.

4. The Hormone Experience – a new project idea, an instrumental set made especially for live jamming: Adrenaline, Cortisol, Estrogen, Testosterone, Serotonin, Oxytocin, Melatonin, and Pheromone (which is similar to hormones but works outside of the body). I will need to swot up here to get the right groove for the right hormone – but it’s a project I’m looking forward to.

5. Finally, although probably the real priority for me right now and already well underway, release 7 albums in 7 years in 7 genres. 

This was inspired by Troy Kingi who has gone for 10, 10, 10 but I’ve got less time than him and the big difference is that I’ve decided to get a little more colourful with my genres and to be location-specific. 
• South Auckland Soul
• Lyttleton Folk Club
• Dunedin Shoegaze
• Aro Valley Reggae
• Henderson FM
• K Road EDM
• Songs For Losers.  (this one is a big maybe .  .)  it’s not a genre it’s more of a theme really, but in these days of Instagram when it seems everybody is having a beautiful life, except you, it will be my whimsical antidote to all of that. It would include Ray Charles’s Born To Lose, Chet Baker’s Born To Be Blue, I’m a Loser by The Beatles, Creep by Radiohead, Beautiful Loser by Bob Seger, Fought The Law by the Clash, and there’s plenty more. 

NZ On Stage

NZ on Stage is a proposal to re-allocate a big chunk of NZ On Air music funding into the development of live music venues all up and down the country – lots of them, with good lighting and sound, and in-house techs on salaries – a community music scene with live music every night of the week.

The music business has changed so much in the last few years but unfortunately the stuck-in-the-80’s NZ On Air music mandate has stayed the same. They say it’s still all about getting more local music on radio and they continue to throw funding at CD and music video production but those mediums don’t count for much anymore. CD sales have dwindled and there’s no money in video clips that only get niche viewing on crowded platforms swamped with content.

Instead of funding CDs and video we should be focusing on the one really exciting growth area of the music business – live performance. It takes a lot of practise to create a great live show. Ask any touring musician where the real business is and they will point to the stage and they’ll be putting all their creative energy into their live show – and that’s where our funding resources should be focused. Helping Kiwi acts develop the skills to deliver on the big festival stages.

Cutting it live-on-stage and having the performance skills to deliver the goods is now more important than ever, and it applies to all styles of music-performance.

NZ on Air money simply passes through the musicians to the recording studios and the video companies who’ve done very nicely for years with this arrangement but it’s so frustrating because the musicians themselves get very little from it – maybe sell a few CDs at their gigs and have an expensive video out there . . somewhere.

This proposal suggests we shift about a third of the current music funding of $3.7 million to establishing some new live music venues: the aim is to help bands and performers develop the stage skills they desperately need.

The Detail, in brief.
A proposal is for a string of venues that are open every night of the week, for example, Monday night is for folk and acoustic. Tuesday for roots and reggae, Wednesday for underage bands, Thursday for the heavy rockers, Friday’s for regular pop, rock and punk bands, and Saturday could have the touring bands, Sunday could be for anything that presents itself; choirs, blues jams, hip hop, experimental or Girls Rock Camp reunions. All these diverse music communities already exist and all have a keen following and they desperately need places to play – especially for the under age audiences.

NZ on Stage venues would be busy places that could be open much of the day for recording sessions and band rehearsals and then on into the evening with the live gigs – a great scene for sure. The sound system would be fantastic with full monitoring, the back wall would be a big LED screen and the lighting rig suitable for any genre or mood, from the folk club to the party bands. NZ on Stage venues would become an exciting place for music makers, music creators and supporters.

In terms of staff, each NZ on Stage venue would need to employ three full-time people and a few part-timers. The three full-time salaried positions would be a front-of-house manager, a technician, and a marketing person. Fun jobs that many in the hospitality industry, music schools and media arts colleges would be flocking to fill. Part-timers would be security, cleaning, maintenance and additional technical support.

How much?
In an attempt to define the costs I estimate, aside from the purchase price or lease of premises, it would require about $500,000 in the first year for the fit-out for each venue, and for the second year and on-going years, it would cost about $250,000 in salaries and operating costs per venue. This is not much when considering the funds currently being wasted on dead-end media. In the last financial year, NZ On Air paid out $3.7 million on music funding: CD and video production, and trying to get ‘hits on the radio’ which is clearly a pointless exercise in 2021. Instead, a re-allocation of a third of that resource, about $1.6 million in the first year and $750,000 every year after that for three great NZ on Stage venues. In the long-term, I would suggest half the NZ on Air music funding should be directed into these purpose-built live music venues.

In David Byrne’s book How Music Works, he writes about the importance of a ‘scene’; a place where people gravitate to and want to hang out knowing there will be like-minded people, new bands and a creative energy. It’s exciting to be part of a scene, a scene creates gossip and new connections and soon has a life of its own. Byrne was, of course, referring to the small basement in New York known as CBGB, but the same could be said of The Cavern in Liverpool or the Kings Arms in Auckland.

Pubs are the past.
The Spinoff recently had an opinion piece, ‘No city for live music: Auckland’s gig problem and how to fix it’, by guest writer Anthony Metcalf who focused on the lack of live music venues in this UNESCO City of Music. The article offered a range of solutions including Council policies and more late-night buses but its only value would be to prop up the jaded brewery-dominated pub music scene. Besides, they prefer DJs and bands that sell alcohol – otherwise, it’s just not economic. Meanwhile, there’s a whole demographic of people who enjoy live music and no longer relate to the way pubs do it. The problem is a lack of interesting, well-designed live venues of the right size with great technical specs and good facilities for the performers.

A recent Guardian Online feature quoted Dave Brooks, who covers the concert industry for Billboard, said, ‘For most artists, touring is the biggest revenue generator’, and ‘the touring industry is generally estimated to generate between US$50-$60bn worldwide, aided by expanding markets in Eastern Europe and Asia.’

Why is NZ on Air still pouring so much money into video clips and ‘singles’? MTV is no longer a thing and while there’s YouTube, this platforms is so massive and diverse the odds of your uploaded music video making an impact are very low unless there’s some serious marketing muscle behind your content. Meanwhile, for many musicians nothing is coming back and their box of CDs is collecting dust under the bed and the HTML link to their expensive NZ on Air funded YouTube video might get a few random clicks – but it’s all going nowhere, so let’s get back into live music. And besides, anyone can make a video clip on their phone these days and edit it up on your laptop.

The number of music festivals around the world is increasing in all genres of music but many Kiwi bands just seem to lack the stage experience to deliver on the big festival stage. Just to play your songs is not enough – you need the deliver a show. Professional performers sometimes get help from choreographers and creative directors while others just make it all up on their own. To gain the skills and confidence to ignite an audience takes practice – gigging and more gigging. The NZ on Stage venues would nourish a whole new generation of stage-savvy performers with the kind bands that people would want to see.

A circuit of fully-supported live venues would enable artists to transform their live skills and get those hours up. The result would be the creation of a vibrant local scene in our cities and a rejuvenation of our bands and soloists. Kiwi bands could be working all year on the international festival circuit. Currently, there are only a few Kiwi bands successfully working this circuit but there could be so many more. These bands probably don’t bother anymore trying to get hits on the radio. NZ on Air has been banging their head against that wall for years but tradie-radio stations only really want to play classic rock hits and perhaps throw in some old Kiwi classics to fill the voluntary quota – which sadly, still only comes to 18% after all these years. The NZ on Air model is outdated and has become irrelevant for touring bands because, for them, it’s now all about the ticket sales and the merchandise.

The greatest challenge for this proposal is finding the right venues. I suggest initially three NZ on Stage venues in Auckland before the model is duplicated in other regions. Commercial premises are too expensive in the CBD so the best locations would be in the inner suburbs on the North Shore, East Auckland, and West Auckland.
The venues would need to be bought outright wherever possible to avoid the vagaries of the commercial real estate market. For example, they could be tired community halls, old churches, warehouse spaces, or even retail buildings. Soundproofing would be required along with a major re-fit including the building of a stage, office space, green rooms and of course a great sound and lighting system.

Liquor licensing is not a requirement, in fact, best avoided in my opinion. Selling alcohol brings with it a whole set of regulations and complications. One-off licenses could be applied for, for private functions and special events, but these venues would primarily be unlicensed. Do people today expect a bar to be operating at every entertainment event they attend? Is serious drinking still such a big thing? Researchers have identified sharp declines in drinking by young people in Europe, North America and Australia. In New Zealand, licenced bars have become a normalised partner of arts-community but would the public miss it? Sometimes the dog starts wagging the tail as the alcohol suppliers start calling the tune with their sponsorship. Are they more inclined to support events with good turnover at the bar? We all know why the band we came to see at 8pm eventually came on stage at 11pm, it was, of course, all about selling more drinks. Instead, we need to create safe places to enjoy live music and we need to encourage underage audiences. NZ on Stage venues would avoid all the problems that come with alcohol, it’s worth a try – it can be all about the music for a change.

A re-allocation of funding will allow musicians to up-skill while at the same time providing a hands-on environment for the support people who love working on the technical and promotional side of live music production – it’s such an exciting place to be. By creating several fully-funded, fully-managed venues throughout the country we would bring together musicians and cultivate new audiences. Let’s get out there and play.

It’s time to open a conversation about this brave new approach to funding New Zealand music to give it the boost it needs. It’s a whole new perspective for funding but the effect will bring back the fun and energy of bands touring up and down the country and create a vibrant local music scene in towns and cities, while at the same time, creating some cool new jobs for young Kiwis who would love to work in the entertainment industry. The difference this time is that’s it’s the musicians and the music lovers who will benefit rather than the breweries, the wine merchants, the recording studios and the video production companies who’ve had their golden run as the real beneficiaries of music funding.

After attending festivals all around the world I reluctantly admit that when Kiwi bands come on stage they often disappoint me – always a bit dull compared to overseas acts who really know how to work an audience. There are a few exceptions, bands who are on tour much of the year and know how to work a big stage and how to put on a show. But generally, it’s an area where New Zealand music is falling behind.
By creating fully-funded purpose-built venues in every major city in New Zealand we would invigorate the music scene for all kinds of music and create a place where punters will want to go. The music scene will be ignited again with energy and creativity.

Auckland, home #25

Just a final reflection on my six week journey to six different cities, firstly I have to say it was wonderful to breathe some clear, cool air again – such a relief. I think I’m more suited to this temperate climate and it’s really great to be home – no wonder so many people say they would like to live here if they could. The 23 hours of flying was so arduous but I did some yoga stretching in the crew areas and that really helped.
People ask me what the highlight of the journey was and I think it’s that first time I step out and stroll around a new city. This is after the usual business of finding the accomodation and dumping off the bags – after that I can relax, grab the essentials: phone, glasses and wallet, and wander around with no plans and no schedule just soaking up the atmosphere. Everything is different; the money, the language, the signage, the shops, the clothes people wear, the transportation and the architecture – it’s my favourite time.
First impressions on returning, New Zealand feels like a real first world country coming from Israel. We are so lucky, it’s a little bit like Stockholm in that it’s modern and well-maintained, although with less bikes on the streets. I know there are all sorts of problems here but there’s also a consciousness, an awareness, and dialogue – and a great contributor to that openness I think is Radio New Zealand National. I listened to it wherever I went and the level of journalism was always so refreshing. In a way, I think RNZ is helping to shape the hearts and minds of society here in the same way as Fox News and CNN were shaping the minds of Americans. I also listened to the BBC Radio 4 but it’s hit and miss with re-runs of the (unfunny) Goon Show and such-like, but also with wonderful specialist shows and comedy like The News Quiz. My main news feed was The Guardian.
I’ve made all sorts of resolutions but one priority is to keep walking because I did so much of it while overseas – in Auckland it’s too easy to jump in the car to go everywhere – so must keep the walking up and it helps that Julia already has a good routine going, and we’re planning to do more fitness things and hiking and getting around the country. It’s also a relief to take a break from sightseeing and get back into doing practical things, back into some routines and the business of running a production company.
So, signing off for now . . .

Rehavia, Jerusalem #24

Rehavia has got it all, an orthodox neighbourhood with lots of young mums pushing prams around. The little village of shops was just a 100 metres from my accomodation and has a bakery, a mini-market, Tommy’s burger bar, a hardware & plastic goods shop, women’s clothes, hairdresser, a news agent, laundry, money changer, ice cream shop, and a Post Office where I sent a postcard to mum.

Now I’m near Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion Airport with a few hours to spare before check in because I needed to check out of my Airbnb – but my flight is not until 8pm but I just couldn’t handle another day of getting hot and sweaty walking the streets of the Old City before a long flight. I feel I’ve seen as much as I want so for the morning I sat in the shady garden Rehavia playing guitar and drinking tea. Above I described the little neighbourhood of Rehavia that I got to like, and below, I’ll relate the things I learnt from talking to people here about the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Alon, our guide to the Dead Sea outlined the political situation in Israel from a completely factual position. He purposely commenced this topic at the end of our tour as we approached Jerusalem because he said it’s a can of worms and people bring all kinds of half-baked ideas, prejudices, out-of-date news, and various entrenched positions to the discussion. This is what he said; broadly, there are 5 groups in Israel; the Zionists who created the place and secure it with compulsory military service for boys from the age of 18 for 3 years, and girls for 2 years. The Orthodox Jews who wear the various big hats and coats and curls – he said they don’t need to serve in the military, they just study the Torah and don’t really care about the state of Israel, they just want to live in the Holy Land. The population of Israel is 9 million, of that 6 million are Jews and only half of those are religious, so that’s the 3rd group, non-religious Jews. Then 4th, 20% of the population, nearly 2 million, are Israeli Arabs, and the 5th group, about 5% are non-Jewish ancestry who are family members of Jews, Christian non-Arabs, and Muslim non-Arabs.
 Alon went on to explain the West Bank is divided into 3 parts, it’s called the ‘occupied territory’ and was once part of Jordan but when Israel was attacked on three sides from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon in 1967, Israel won the war and occupied the West Bank. The Oslo Accord of 1995 created the ‘green line’ and it was agreed at the time to be divided into 3 parts; Zone A, which includes a part of Jerusalem and all of Bethlehem and Ramallah, and is controlled by the Palistinian Authority, Zone B that is mainly empty desert is controlled by both sides, and Zone C that is controlled by Israel where the settlements are being established. The West Bank is not recognised internationally as part of Israel and as a result Israeli expansion into Isreali controlled Zone C is contentious. 
On the train I met Raphella with her younger brother, she was 19 years old and has recently commenced her compulsory military training. She chose the combat military division of the IDF serving her 3 years (usually 2 but she wanted to be in a combat division so is signed up for 3 years). She’s an ex-Australian whose family moved to Israel very recently and spoke English like a regular Australian. She looked a bit like Amy Winehouse, kind of cheeky but very smart and with plenty of attitude. She calls herself a Zionist, ‘Without us there is no Israel’, The Orthodox Jews?, ‘We hate them, they’re useless, and without us they wouldn’t be here,’ and she showed me a video on her phone of some Orthodox Jews being dragged away at a recent protest. What about the Arab Israelis? I asked, ‘We’re fine with them, there’s no problem there.’ She said some kids don’t like the military, others do, she likes it but the pay is only about NZ$100 a week. Netanyahu?, ‘We hate him, he’s a liar’. She then explained all the different uniforms; dark blue is the Police, green is the military and grey is the border control. Interesting.

One of my lasting memories of Israel and Jerusalem is the piles are rubbish – there’s plastic bags and empty water bottles scattered everywhere. I guess this will change in time. Here’s a pic with Mount Zion and the Temple Mount in the distance beside the entrance to the walled olive tree garden of Gethsemane.

The Dead Sea #23

Doing the cleansing mud thing at The Dead Sea beach resort. Taken by Hannah Krausa

My last experience before returning home was a nine hour tour into the Judean desert. A group of five on the Masada Sunrise Tour with ex-Orthodox Jew, Alon, in his car. We left at 3.30am to be up the mountain in time for the sunrise, on to Ein-Gedi the desert oasis, and finally a dip in the Dead Sea. It’s also a chance to be in the desert and drive the length of the Dead Sea along the West Bank. The climb up the hill to the Masada fortress created by King Herod takes about 50 minutes and is where the rebel Jews fleeing the Romans made their last stand around 74 CE (AD has now be replaced with Current Era), and the siege took years. Finally, the Roman legion of about 8,000 plus slaves spent two years building a ramp to get up there where they erected a tower and started battering the wall, and you know the story, the 900 Jews all slayed themselves rather than becoming captives and slaves to the Romans, first they started with the women and kids . . . gruesome.
It’s a tough walk to the big plateau at the top, but there’s free chilled water on tap up there and I made the most of it. The temperature was about 28º and rises later to about 33º, and apparently we were lucky – it’s usually much hotter at this time of year.

Sunrise from the Masada fortress looking East towards Jordan across the Dead Sea.

On to Ein-Gedi the desert Oasis that’s been used to supply water since ancient times, a few of us got into the waterfalls, actually, it was mainly the Norwegians I met there, none of the coach tour crowds, but, wow, they were really missing out, it’s such a relief to bring your body temperature down – at last, I remembered what it’s like feel normal – the heat makes you half dopey – (soporific ?).
Next stop, Qumran on the Dead Sea, the wierdest beach resort I’ve ever been to. The Dead Sea is 600 metres below sea level and 33% salt, and one tiny drop in your eye really stings and soon I was heading for the fresh water tap to rinse it out. I decided to put my sunnies on to avoid more slashes and floated around for a while with the two Dutch guys in our group chatting about how weird it is. It’s such a funny feeling with the ‘water’ pushing you up, putting your head under is totally out of the question, I’m sure. All my little cuts and scratches stung. I did the obligatory coat of the special soft mud they say is full of minerals, and now my skin is all soft and lovely – awww!

Tomorrow is my 21 hours of three flights to get home to Auckland, not straightforward flying out of Isreal, it’s Istanbul then Bangkok with stop overs of 4 hours then 3 hours, making it a 28 hour journey plus the usual security checks – oh, well. This may be my last posting.
Today I’m heading back to the Old City to see Gethsemane Gardens where according to some, Jesus spent his last night before being arrested – you know the rest of the story, but there are olive trees there over two thousand years old – well, my brother and sister-in-law have a field of them that are about 4 years old – and theirs are also doing very nicely.

Tel Aviv and Bethlehem #22

While having a coffee in Old Jaffa at the southern end of Tel Aviv, I asked the waiter to take a pic and he gave me the fez and a stick, and I tipped him a few shekels, very good coffee too.

Two big day outs – travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv yesterday and Bethlehem in the West Bank today, all on public transport, sometimes going in the wrong direction but I get there, there’s buses going everywhere constantly. No point asking bus drivers anything many don’t speak English, all the signs are in Hebrew and Arabic, and it’s hot, but I’m in no hurry – it’s all a challenge. The main issue is which side of the road to stand on because the 72 bus, for example, goes in both directions, lucky for me people are very keen to help an old white geezer in shorts head off in the right direction. Everywhere looks like chaos when I exit the station or step off the bus, but there is a system to it all, I tell myself – it’s just that I don’t know what it is. Asking the price of food is often tricky, I often misinterpret 15 for 50 because they put the emphasis on the last syllable, fiff-DEE which sounds to me like fiff-teen, and lunch ends up costing me 50 shekels, because I’m used to hearing the emphasis for fifty placed the first syllable – which is about NZ$20 instead of $6 – so no big drama.
Tel Aviv is an energetic cosmopolitan city full of people from around the world doing business, shopping and hanging at the beach and there’s no hustle going on as far as I could see, although it was suggested I avoid one of the bus stations that has alot of ‘North Africans‘ hanging about.
So, getting back to the beach, you buy a ticket from a vending machine to hire an umbrella and seat that’s been set up on the beach, about $7 for ‘beach equipment’ as it’s called, but I didn’t use it. There’s fresh water showers, lockers for a 5 shekel coin and everything to drink and eat – it’s the Med, and yes, I did remember to bring my togs! I returned on the train to Jerusalem sitting with IDF guys holding machine guns, it all feels pretty natural, really.


Three buses and a tour through some new looking Isreali settlements and suddenly I’m in the West Bank in Bethlehem and step off the bus to have three Arab taxi drivers trying to do a deal on me – quite intense. It went from 50 shekel to 20 shekel as I walked away in the general direction of the Nativity Church, but soon I was sweeping down narrow ancient streets with a Palestinian cab driver. There’s a long line of people waiting about an hour to touch the supposed spot where Christ was born. I didn’t bother but I did manage to get a pic of them at the point when they exit after arriving at the sacred spot – I’ve really had enough of churches, it’s the cultural and street life that I’m more interested in. The walk back to the bus stop was much shorter than the taxi ride and a couple of hours later I’m back in Jerusalem having a nice cuppa tea in my little room in Rehavia.

The lovely cool, quiet and leafy district of Rehavia in Jerusalem