Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big Day Out 2009

If you’re looking for a comprehensive review of the Big Day Out for 2009, this isn’t one. For one thing, it’s impossible for one person to see even a sizable proportion of the acts on offer. For another, even for the acts you do see, your average punter doesn’t tend to know more than half the songs. Any review is therefore going to have gaps all over the place, nevertheless, this is how the day went…

The first thing that was notable about this year’s BDO at the Flemington Racecourse was that there was plenty of grass. The organizers had apparently spent about $1.6 million on making sure that the areas around the stages didn’t resemble the dustbowl conditions of last year’s event (not that I was there). This meant that we could spend a good deal of the day doing what you should be doing at any decent outdoor festival, i.e. lazing about.

The second thing that was notable was the sheer volume of red, white and blue that could be seen about. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to display my patriotism – even on Australia Day – indeed I’ve always felt it to be peculiarly un-Australian to be going about brandishing the flag. But apparently I’m part of the last generation to do so; no doubt we’re only a few years from some unsuspecting overseas artist stage diving into a giant replica of the Southern Cross, only to be swallowed up and never heard from again.

Anyway, we arrived around one and spent essentially the entire afternoon hanging around the Green Stage. First up were the Ting Tings, bringing a fair contingent of girly-boppers along with them. Their pop-rock sound is probably better suited to a smaller venue but they did an admirable job nonetheless, putting new spins on radio-friendly hits such as ‘Great DJ’. Their best effort, however, was set list closer ‘That’s Not My Name’ – a song I once considered laboured, but which, in the second half of the tune, turned into something of a freakout.

Somewhere in the middle of the Ting Tings’ set, a guy in a colourful wig jumped on top of the tent that was housing the sound equipment. Once there, he became the target for a bombardment of bottles, including one bottle of sunscreen, which for some reason he believed to be a good idea to open up and drink. Decent effort by the chap, even if his day did end at about 3 of the clock.

New Yorkers TV On The Radio sauntered onto stage next, and proceeded to prove that black guys can even out-indie us white folk. Their set list was somewhat confounding – who opens up with two songs that are not on your latest album? – but their energetic performance more than made up for it. Indeed, their sound was somewhat more aggressive than on their records; even a mellow song like ‘Shout Me Out’ was transformed into a veritable wall of sound. Best of all though was ‘Staring At The Sun’, which no longer sounded like sunspots, but more like a star gone supernova.

We were sitting over in the drinking area when My Morning Jacket appeared, and their laid-back brand of rock fitted perfectly with swigging down a Tooheys Extra Dry. ‘I’m Amazed’ confirmed that it was a song built for a field full of people, while the downright bizarre ‘Highly Suspicious’ actually made some sort of sense when accompanied by the sight of dudes bashing away on guitars. MMJ finished off with the eight-minute ‘Touch Me I’m Going To Scream’, which though excellent, gave a hint of the sound problems that were to plague the next act. That act turned out to be Melbourne’s own Cut Copy, who sounded like they were being transmitted through a faulty radio. A real disappointment given that they produced my favourite album from last year, but hopefully I’ll get to see them in a more sympathetic venue sometime soon.

It was then over to the main stage for UK superstars the Arctic Monkeys. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why I only like, as opposed to love, the Arctic Monkeys, but now I think I’ve hit upon the reason: Alex Turner’s voice. Well, that and the songs have no melody. Nevertheless, if you’re a Monkeys fan you would have been psyched by their performance, and I still tapped my foot along to their best songs like ‘Brianstorm’ and ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’. And I did appreciate the synchronicity of them playing ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ as the sun was setting. 

With it now dark it was time for the BDO’s headline act, Neil Young, to make his way onstage. Unless you own all of his 30 or so albums there’s going to be a lot that’s unfamiliar to you, but he’s still an outstanding performer and you still find yourself enthralled by his biggest hits no matter how many times you’ve heard them. Apparently he finished off with a cover of The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’, but I can’t tell you anything about that since we were already gone, driven away by the chill that had descended. An incomplete end to an incomplete day, but I guess if you want completeness you’re better off having a Big Day In instead.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tennis Australia Unveils Plan to Turn its Women Tennis Players Into Russians

Faced with mediocre results and budget cuts, Tennis Australia has unveiled its radical new plan to return to world supremacy by turning its top female players into Russians.

The scheme went into action during the week when the newly-rechristined Samantha Stosurova was seen warming up on the practice courts and sipping from a hip flask of vodka. There have also been reports of Casey Dellacquaova sporting shoes made by up-and-coming Russian manufacturers as she wanders Melbourne's streets.

One player that may be exempt from the makeover is Jelena Dokic, who has made it through to the quarter-finals of the women's draw. However, a loss tonight may result in her being housed in a babushka doll for the remainder of the week.

Tennis Australia hopes to have at least five blond-haired blue-eyed women in the top 20 by the end of next year. Rumours are also afoot that, if the plan is successful, the tennis authority may have similar plans to turn its professional male players into Frenchmen.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rod Laver Arena Devastated By Djokovic ‘Whoopee Cushion’ Prank

Half of Rod Laver Arena was today destroyed by a massive explosion, which was later revealed to have emanated from a giant ‘whoopee cushion’ left in the stadium by world no.3 Novak Djokovic.

Authorities were initially confused by the source of the blast, but the cause soon became apparent when Djokovic broke into guffaws at his press conference.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about…,” he began, before he could contain his snickering no longer, “ha ha ha I’m sorry… hee hee… I got you a good one, didn’t I? Did you see it? Kaboom!!!”

A reporter asked if he was concerned at all about the human casualties of his prank. Djokovic shrugged, ‘Well, I think that a lot of those people were barracking for that little French kid during last year’s final so I don’t feel too bad about it.’

The rest of the conference proceeded as normal until another huge explosion was heard outside the press room. All eyes turned to Djokovic, who was again engulfed in hysterics, “Ha ha ha I’m sorry,” he said, waving his hands in apology, “I think my little brother has just taken out Hisense.”

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ivanovic: Smashing Live Kittens the Key to Success

In a candid press conference, Serbian uber-babe Ana Ivanovic has revealed that she sometimes uses live kittens as tennis balls in her practice sessions.

‘Of course, I prefer using real tennis balls, but you can’t always find them and they’re quite expensive,’ said the world No.5, ‘In cases like those, you need another small bit of fluff to smash about.’

Ivanovic was sketchy about how long ago she adopted the unorthodox routine, but sources say that she would often whack small turtles around the disused swimming pool she used to train in as a junior.

Flashing her gorgeous smile, Ivanovic was all too happy to expand upon the aerodynamics of various felines. ‘I find the tabby cats are good for groundstrokes, but for developing sheer power nothing really beats an overhead smash with a siamese.’

Fellow Serb and current No.1 Jelena Jankovic was unsurprised when she was told of her rival’s technique, ‘How else do you win the French Open if you’re not willing to spill some kitten brains along the way? She had all of you fooled. Nobody can be that nice.’

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Roddick Stunned by First Round Exit in Wii Tennis Open

In a shock reversal of their Australian Open result, US tennis star Andy Roddick was bundled out of this year’s Australian Wii Tennis Open by Sweden’s Bjorn Rehnquist in a tough-fought five-gamer.

Rehnquist’s Mii character, Rehny, teamed up with a computer-chosen player to topple A-Rod and A-Rod: 0-Game, Game-30, 40-Game, Game-15, Game-40.

‘I’d been practising with a twin A-Rod attack throughout the break, but it just didn’t work for me today,’ said an understandably dismayed Roddick, ‘I’d like to blame the Wii sensor or the fact that there was a lamp standing waaaay too close to my remote, but the truth is, I didn’t bring my A-button game and I paid the price.’

Rehnquist gave a sly chuckle when quizzed about his victory. ‘I saw that the A-Rod at the net had a tendency to jump up and swing at fresh air, which didn’t give the A-Rod on the baseline enough time to get into position,’ he explained, ‘All Rehny needed to do was not try anything fancy and let the A-Rods beat themselves.’

Roddick was not consoled by his thrashing of Rehnquist in the first round of the Australian Open. ‘In the non-virtual Open, I have to run up against Federer or Nadal at some point,’ he sighed, ‘I feel like that this was my best chance to win a title. At least I always have Pong to return to.’

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tennis Stars Ask For Next Australian Open To Be Pushed Back to 2013

Recent reports that tennis' top players wanted the start date of the Australian Open pushed back a month have been proved false, when it was revealed that many of them were actually favouring changing the start date to 2013 to help them recover from their heavy workload.

'It's a long flight to Australia', said reigning men's champion Novak Djokovic, 'Delaying the start date for four years would give players a better chance of making the journey over'.

Three-time women's champion Serena Williams agreed. 'My schedule is pretty full up for the next three Januarys,' she explained, 'I expect the clothes sales will continue on until at least 2010, in 2011 I plan on take some minor roles in Broadway musicals, and then in 2012 Venus and I thought we might take our Dad back to visit his family on Mars'.

Russian player Marat Safin favoured that the Open be played every second year, to coincide with how often he brings his game to Melbourne Park.

Even players that would be expected to favour an earlier start date were surprisingly reluctant. Roger Federer, for whom winning the Australian Open would help in his quest to pass Pete Sampras' record for the most Grand Slam wins, said that, after gifting Nadal a Wimbledon title last year, he now expects to win there 'until at least the year 2018'. Meanwhile, local hero Lleyton Hewitt said that, given his current ranking, he thought the summer months may be better used to play kick-to-kick with the football.

'Injured' women's star Maria Sharapova, last seen in an Hawaiian beach resort, was not available for comment.

Tour organisers are considering the alternative of 40 matches of strip tennis between glamour couple Fernando Verdasco and Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic, a great fan of tennis in Australia, is reported to be supportive of the idea, but only if the telecast is exclusive to her website.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Troublesome Beauty of Bon Iver

As mentioned previously on this blog, Bon Iver was Rough Trade’s #1 album of 2008. The other sticker on my CD cover shows that Uncut and Mojo both gave it five stars and proclaimed it ‘Album of the month’, while the quote from the Guardian makes the quasi-religious claim that ‘every moment not spent listening to the Bon Iver record has seemed wasted’. In short, Bon Iver has received the kind of plaudits that music critics only hand out to new artists about, oh, every couple of months or so.

Bon Iver’s first album ('For Emma, Forever Ago') is essentially the work of one man, Justin Vernon, who recorded it in a hunting cabin in Wisconsin over the winter of 2006-07. There is no denying that his voice is beautiful, the kind of voice that you would happily give your right arm and Xbox 360 for. Iron and Wine’s Samuel Beam is, I think, the most apt comparison (based on, like, a review I read and the one song I’ve downloaded that is by him), but Vernon’s vocals are even richer and more varied. They drift and resound in a high-pitched whispered croon, lifting up at various moments (most notably on ‘The Wolves’) to create an air of spine-tingling wonder. For much of the record, Bon Iver seems less like the work of a man than of a community (or at the least, a band of very talented vocalists).

But therein lies the problem – that voice is so beautiful, so overwhelming, that it becomes hard to remember what is actually said. When trying to write about this album, the only lyrics that I could clearly recall were ‘I am my mother’s only one’ (‘Flume’), ‘my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my’ (‘Skinny Love’), ‘what might have been lost’ (‘The Wolves’) and ‘would you really rush out’ (Blindsided’). And I still had to look up the liner notes to double-check those. No doubt some will say that the songs reward effort, that instant satisfaction is the domain of mindless pop singles, that you need time to discover the meaning of albums like these, and so on. But I’m sure that the young uni student who watches the regular guitarist on Thursday nights at the local bar would make those claims as well. Devotion can make for some rewarding experiences - some of the best you will ever have - but you do need the inclination for it.

All of which is not to say that you shouldn’t buy the record; after all, it does sound beautiful, and I think it would be the near-perfect soundtrack for lying in the park, or contemplating a lake. It’s just that it’s a particular type of record - it presents rather than moves, creating and inhabiting its own little space. Like a cool breeze in the forest, it’s pleasurable for the forty or so minutes it takes to listen to it, but then it moves on, leaving you calmer and more contented than you were before, but also, in a way… untouched.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Economics of Change

One of our frustrations during our trip to Egypt was that very few people seemed to have the correct change. This was not just the case in tiny market stalls, but also in restaurants, hotels, and believe it or not, major tourist sites. The reason for this was something that has puzzled me ever since, so much so that, late last Friday night, I ended up asking a woman behind the bar if she had the answer (she didn't, but was polite enough to indulge my drunken ramblings until she spotted another customer). As far as I can work out, there are three explanations:

1) The locals were using a professed lack of change as an excuse to try and sell us something else. I can see that being the case for stalls and even restaurants, but I don't know that hotels and tourist sites would have much to gain from this strategy. And really, market sellers will try and get you to buy something else whether they have change or not.

2) The businesses are too small to have the correct change in a lot of situations. If you think about it, how often, in a transaction between two individuals (for example, between you and your friend) do the buyer and seller have the correct change? Maybe it's better to think of the Egyptian economy as predominantly consisting of a collection of individuals. Yet the businesses in China were often tiny as well, and we had few problems getting change there. Is there some critical mass of medium-sized businesses that you need to keep the change flowing?

3) Perhaps there exists some optimal relationship between the denominations of the notes and prices in the economy, and the Central Bank of Egypt has not found it. But this seems unlikely - sure the 200 pound note is a pest to break, but there seems to be plenty of 5 pound notes and 1 pound notes floating around, just rarely when you need them. (Admittedly, the half-pound and quarter-pound notes were harder to find.)

Verdict? I think number 2 is the most likely explanation, although I think number 1 may have a little to do with it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Top Fifty Highlights From Our Trip Through Europe and Egypt - Part Five

10. Chocolate ├ęclairs from the patisseries in Paris. Words can not describe the awwwummmmahhhh!!!!

9. In a weight-for-weight matchup, the National Gallery in Britain would probably be outpunched by the Louvre, but in some ways it had the advantage – it has a good sample of works from each period and it gives the paintings it does have more space. (Plus, it’s free.) Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael all make an appearance, as do Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Constable, Turner, Renoir, and Van Gogh.

8. Probably the most remarkable thing about the Colosseum in Rome is that it is still standing, given the dilapidation of the Forum nearby. More impressive stadiums have been built since, but few (if any) will still be standing in two thousand years time. A clever feature of the restored stadium is the half-covered arena, which allows you to see both the surface on which the battles were staged, and the labyrinth of cells and passageways below.

7. Crystal Palace v Bristol City at Selhurst. There were six goals scored, including two absolute corkers in the first half, and we were two rows back from the fence. (Meanwhile Chelsea and Newcastle played out a scoreless draw.) Given the age of ground rationalization in the Australian leagues, this was a reminder of what suburban football is like.

6. The Pyramids of Giza would be a strange sight anywhere, let alone on the outskirts of a city with forty million people. Over the centuries the outer layers have been worn away, leaving row upon row of massive blocks as a testament to the thousands of man-hours that went into their construction. The main downside of the site is that there are camel riders and the like roaming around, continually disturbing your contemplation of these peculiar objects.

5. On our first night of Venice, we decided to join in the ‘shadowrounds’ – a Venetian tradition in which you hop around from bar to bar and sip a ‘shadow’ of wine at each of the places you visit (think a classier pub crawl). The shadows of wines soon turned into glasses, which soon turned into bottles and carafes, and then it all becomes a little hazy… Still, this was definitely a cultural tradition I could get behind. It would be number one on the list, but I don’t want to reveal how much of a drunk I am.

4. The Tower of London told me all that I needed to know about the history of the British royals, and a fair bit more besides. An enthusiastic yeoman warder (aka beefeater) took us on a quick tour around the site, after which we went to see the not-so-White Tower, and the torture instruments in the Bloody Tower. And there was Henry VIII’s codpiece – clearly a man who likes to leave room for his most precious parts.

3. Michelangelo’s David, which stands in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, makes most other works of art seem slapdash and insignificant in comparison. Even heterosexual males have to marvel at the grace of David’s expression and posture. How could anyone doubt this guy could take down a great hulking Philistine? Also of interest are Michelangelo’s unfinished slave sculptures that line the hallway leading up to Dave, which appear as if they are struggling to break free from the blocks of marble that encase them.

2. Essentially the whole of Egypt is based around the Nile River, and it was impressive regardless of where you viewed it from. In Cairo, boatloads of dancing people parade back and forth along the river banks. Further south, in Aswan, feluccas drift around in the afternoon sun. We spent one of those afternoons on a felucca ourselves, zig-zagging across the Nile’s wide expanse (the night with the makeshift toilet was not quite as serene). And floating upon the Nile was one place in Egypt where we could (almost) be sure that no-one would try to take our money from us.

1. While most art galleries are pleased with having a few well-known paintings in their collection, the Louvre in Paris has wall after wall of heavy hitters. ‘Mona Lisa’ is of course the most famous, but in truth Da Vinci’s masterpiece has been reduced to a site for tourists to gather and take pictures of themselves (me included). For someone who likes to sit down and contemplate their art there are several paintings that are far better to see, including David’s ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’, Gericault’s ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, and Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. All of these paintings are huge and dramatic, and therefore, in all of their cases seeing the reproduction is no substitute for seeing the real thing.

Who The Frak Is The Final Cylon?: Further Musings

Last night I dreamt that I had bought the final season of Battlestar Galactica, and for some masochistic reason I skipped through to the following two scenes:

1) Lee Adama is arguing with his father. 'You're king of the Cylons. Shouldn't you be with your people?' Turns out that the man we knew as Bill Adama is actually Peter Adama, and he raised Lee after his brother was killed in some mid-air crash or something.

2) In the midst of all the activity on the ship, Bill Adama hears music. He enters a secluded room to find some respite, and when he re-opens the door, he sees the rest of the Final Five standing outside. Tigh says: 'I'm glad it's you Bill'. 'What?' the Admiral asks, confused. Tyrol says: 'You're the final Cylon'.

OK, neither of those scenes really make sense - why would a Cylon have a brother, and why wouldn't Adama realise he was a Cylon when he heard the music, like the others did? Yet... the clues suggest that the final Cylon was not with the fleet when Three was 'unboxed'? That would point to Adama and Roslin as suspects.

But I'm also starting to warm to the theory that Zak Adama is the final Cylon. It does fit with the major clues I can think of:

1) Zak is not in the 'Last Supper' promotional photo posted yesterday. And Lee Adama appears to be pondering the absent space - thinking of his lost brother perhaps?

2) It doesn't contradict Leoben's claim that Adama is a Cylon.

3) Zak is not in the fleet when Three is unboxed, and Three would know that Zak wasn't in the fleet.

And revealing Zak to be the final Cylon would pack an emotional punch for at least three of the major characters. So my revised order of likelihood:

Zak Adama
Tom Zarek
Bill Adama
Laura Roslin

By the way, someone else has posted odds as to who the final Cylon is. Their assessment was someone different to mine.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Who The Frak Is The Final Cylon?

As Battlestar Galactica reaches its final season, eleven of the twelve Cylon models have been revealed. So who is number twelve? Here's a quick (and highly speculative) rundown of who is most likely to be humming 'All Along The Watchtower' this year.

Bill Adama

He's certainly a big enough fish to be the final Cylon, being the Admiral of the fleet. Suspicions were raised about him back in season one, with Leoben claiming that 'Adama's a Cylon'. On the other hand, the fact that Adama has managed to reproduce would seem to count him out, since Cylons have apparently only recently gained that ability. That is, if Lee Adama really is his son, which leads us to...

Odds: 6-1

Lee Adama

Perhaps the Adama that Leoben was referring to as being a Cylon was the younger one. Otherwise there is not much reason to suspect the new President relative to the other characters.

Odds: 12-1

Gaius Baltar

Baltar has been wrestling with the question of whether he is a Cylon or not ever since his beloved Six revealed that she experiences similar hallucinations. But apart from being too obvious, Baltar would probably be relieved to be a Cylon, and he doesn't tend to get what he wants. Also he is far more interesting as a human traitor than a Cylon conspirator.

Odds: 8-1

Laura Roslin

Hallucinations? Check. Big enough fish? Check. No children? None that I can remember. Religious zeal? Check. Add to that the fact that, due to her cancer, she is teetering on the brink of life and death - an important theme in Cylon lore - and you have a strong candidate for the Toaster Supreme.

Odds: 3-1

Kara Thrace

She is the child of destiny, and that destiny may be to lead the Cylons rather than the fleet. Kara being a Cylon would help to explain her reappearance after it looked like she had died in an explosion. But it would also be guaranteed to annoy a sizable portion of the fanbase (myself included) if the cigar-chomping Starbuck was a machine all along. Some chance, but not the most likely candidate.

Odds: 10-1


All of these fleet members are a possibility. And most of them would fit with the theory going around the net that the final Cylon is not in the above picture. Still, for dramatic effect, it seems more likely that the final Cylon will come from the Big Five.

Odds: 20-1


Well, it would give new meaning to the phrase 'deus ex machina', wouldn't it?

Odds: 50-1

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My Top Fifty Highlights From Our Trip Through Europe and Egypt - Part Four

20. More proof that history works in funny ways: Tutankhamen was a relatively insignificant pharoah, but he is probably the most famous one today thanks to the discovery of his tomb early last century - the only one found so far that was nearly intact. The treasures of display at the Egyptian Museum include his golden death mask, his inner sarcophagus, his outer sarcophagus, the thing his outer sarcophagus was in, the thing the thing his outer sarcophagus was in was in, the thing the thing the thing ... The death mask and inner sarcophagi in particular look very spiffy, as if they were just constructed yesterday.

19. On one side of Sacre Couer, the side on which we were staying, the area around Montmarte is relatively poor and crowded and full of Afro wig shops. On the other side however, we found a peaceful little hill that overlooks the city. We arrived at Sacre Couer in the midst of the evensong, which was pretty enough to almost make my other half turn Catholic. But just in case the scene seemed too idyllic, there were the street sellers there chanting: 'I must be crazy to be normal...,'

18. Amongst the shops and restaurants of Rome, the Fontana di Trevi seems like a relic from another age. Which it is: who in the age of reduced urban space and global warming would build a multi-level decorative fountain that churns over enough water to irrigate a small farm? The fountain is so grand that you hardly notice the tourists lined along the front, endlessly flipping coins over their shoulders.

17. It is hard to pick a favourite ride at Paris Disneyland, since my favourites all belonged to the 'rollick-along-in-the-dark' genre. Space Mountain 2 was another version of my favourite ride at the LA Disneyland, eschewing the height of its precursor for curves and loops. Rock 'N' Roll Coaster avec Aerosmith was similar, with its highlight being the rapid take-off and loop and a half that immediately follows it, although you do have to listen to Aerosmith. Crush's Coaster is a bit different in that the tortoise-shell carriage fits only four people and spins around on the track, so that you spend a good proportion of the ride travelling backwards. This would be higher on the list but I don't want to reveal what a big kid I am.

16. Italian pizza is a bit different to the pizza we get back home, and is better for it: it is less tomato-based and the cheese is runnier and juicier. By the time we left Rome I was consuming a pizza a day, along with the requisite half litre of beer.

15. A gondola ride in Venice is more enjoyable if you can share the not inconsiderable expense. With four people it came to twenty euros each for a half an hour ride. We spent most of our ride in the smaller, narrower canals, with our gondolier dodging bridges and telling us how best to distribute our weight. Unlike our last gondola ride on the Yarra River, there was no champagne and chocolates to accompany us.

14. The paintings in the Uffizi gallery in Florence can be categorized as thus: Madonna and Childs, Coronations of the Virgin, Annunciations, and everything else. One of the paintings in the last category was Botticelli's excellent La Primevera, which defies both categorisation and interpretation. Overall, it had probably the best collection of art in Italy, with one notable omission...

13. On one level, Avenue Q, which we saw at the West End in London, is an adult version of Sesame Street, with Bert and Ernie-like roommates dealing with homosexuality, a monster that is addicted to porn, and cute little bears that encourage all-night drinking games. However, on another level, it shows how much young, post-college adults have to learn about the way the world workers. And with numbers like 'Everybody's A Little Bit Racist', it's much funnier than ol' Les Mis.

12. I bought 'The White Tiger' from an English language bookshop in Rome, and ploughed through it in a few days, even amongst the sightseeing. Why is India not yet a superpower? Aravind Adiga's satirical novel appears to provide some of the answers.

11. As a wedding present we had high tea at the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner. The menu was a glass of Kir Royale, a pot of tea (Cinnamon Star in my case), quiche, sandwiches, cakes and scones. A piano player provided the ambience. A most agreeable change from pub food and Beyonce.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

My Top Fifty Highlights From Our Trip Through Europe and Egypt - Part Three

30. There is not much to do on the Eiffel Tower, but it does give you a view of the whole of Paris in all its cream-coloured, seven-storied glory. What made it even better was having to wait less than two minutes to buy the entrance tickets (travel in winter, folks!) But Hollywood has lied to us... we couldn't see the Tower from any of our hotel windows.

29. On a cold night in Venice, the warm taste of grappa in our throats was a toasty way to end the evening. Our mischevious waiter followed that up with a complimentary shot of limoncello. You can see why Venice is considered to be so romantic.

28. Provided that you are not claustrophobic, the Cabinet War Rooms of Winston Churchill are worth a look. Many of the rooms are still set up as they were left at the end of the Second World War, giving you a good idea of what life was like at the heart of the British resistance (minus the bombs of course).

27. At the Prime Meridian in Greenwich you can stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other foot in the Western hemisphere. This would be higher on the list but I don't want to reveal how much of a dork I am.

26. The Doge's Palace in Venice has the grand rooms and pretty ceilings and all the trimmings you would associate with the seat of sovereign rule. But it also has a dark underbelly - the cold stone prisons cells which used to house the wretched souls pf the condemned. The officers' rooms were not much larger or warmer, although at least they would have been high enough to avoid the floods.

25. On the ceiling of the Dome in Florence is a painting of the Last Judgment, with images of Hell occupying the lower circles and images of Paradise splashed across the top. This could be an allegory for ascending the dome itself, as you climb over 400 steps through narrow stone passageways, finally emerging into the blue sky surrounding the roof of the dome, from which you can gaze down on the city below. Fortunately, although the climb was tiring, it didn't take us long to get to the top (travel in winter, folks!) - one can imagine that in summer the hot, airless corridors are filled with the bodies of the damned.

24. There are two thoughts that we had when we saw the head of the colossal statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine:

I) How freakin' big must the statue have been?! (10 metres tall apparently)
II) Big heads are cool!

23. On the subject of all things old and big, Constantine had nothing on the Egyptian pharoah Rameses II, who erected four giant statues of himself outside the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. The mountainous temple is fascinating for two other reasons: first, the carvings inside, and second, the fact that it was moved from its original site to avoid being swallowed up by the nearby lake. On the downside, it's a hassle to actually go out and see the thing - it's three hours drive through the desert from Aswan, and you have to join the tourist convoy by 4am in the morning.

22. Having seen the colossal David in Florence, we were prepared to be similarly overwhelmed by Michelangelo's other ultra-famous work, The Creation of Adam, which lines the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Instead, our immediate reaction was 'where the hell are we? are we in the right place?' - turns out it is just one of a number of panels that run across the length of the ceiling. Once we got over that surprise, however, the paintings were quite beautiful to look at. Also in the Vatican Museum was Raphael's 'The School of Athens', which shows various famous Greek philosophers - it must have been the ultimate in nerddom during the Renaissance.

21. Seeing the Roman baths in Bath inspired us to have a thermal spa of our own. We were lucky enough to get the room to ourselves, which put a crimp on my business dealings, but gave us free rein to whack each other with the foam 'noodles'.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Top Fifty Highlights From Our Trip Through Europe and Egypt - Part Two

40. You know you are on holiday when you are sitting by the port of a Greek island (in our case, Aegina) sucking down cheap beer. For us, this had the added bonus of avoiding the riots that were going on in Athens that day a few blocks from our hotel.

(On the subject of Greece, one might wonder why, when this list is done, the Acropolis did not crack the top 50. While we did see the Acropolis, it being on a hill and all, when we got to the entrance we were greeted with a sign saying that, due to a strike, the archaeological site would not be open today. Lousy Greek labour...)

39. Best restaurant we went to: Inn The Park in St James Park, London. More expensive than we are generally used to, but well worth it.

38. Only once did we hail a London cab, but it was a revelation in what late-night transport could be. Although we didn't need the room we could have fit a small drinking party in the back, and the driver actually knew where he was going. And the cabs, with their sleek black beetle-like design, look far more elegant than the yellow people-pushers we see back home. They are almost an excuse to go out drinking in themselves.

37. I don't know what Sally Lunn puts in her buns but they sure go down well, particularly with a chicken, bacon, cheese, and mayo filling (and potato crisps on the side). Surely someone should be making a fortune off that recipe if nobody is already. Bath isn't that remote.

36. The Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice is an interesting building in itself, with its multi-dome roof and detailed ornamentation. However, its real highlight is the balcony upstairs, from which you can look down at the square on one side and out at the sea on the other.

35. The Arc de Triomphe stands as a monument to the battles fought by the Frenchmen of yore. More fascinating though are the modern-day battles being staged on the roundabout that surrounds it - several cars wide, no lane markings, cars on the right turning left, cars on the left turning right - it's an interesting study in how order emerges from apparent chaos. (Of course, in Cairo every intersection is like that, however, you enjoy the sight less when you have to walk across it.)

34. In Luxor I finally got to suck on a sheesha pipe. What makes it so relaxing? Is it the tobacco? Is it the minty flavour? Nope, apparently it's simply the act of breathing deeply in and out. Typical Egypt - charging you for something you should be able to do for free.

33. While wandering around Paris, trying to find St. Germain Boulevard, we stumbled upon what appeared to be the Latin quarter. Whatever it was, it was the trendiest part of Paris that we saw - a collection of narrow streets filled with various cuisines, jazz clubs and bars with lengthy 'happy hours'. If I go back to Paris, I intend to seek out the Latin quarter and spend a bit more time there. That is, if that was the Latin quarter.

32. The Roman Forum is less notable for what is there than what is not there; over the centuries the Romans have dismantled the ancient city, leaving only shards of what was once the hub of the Empire. On a cold, rainy day the scene seems even more desolate - shattered, lifeless buildings left to the elements. As I looked down upon it from the Musei Capitolini I was reminded that most things, no matter how great, disappear eventually.

31. The Basilica of Saint Peter, and the plaza that lies before it, were much larger than we imagined, dwarfing even the major churches that we had seen. Its high ceilings seemed like they were designed to make you feel small in comparison to the might of the Catholic church. In contrast, the tomb of the last Pope, John Paul II, was relatively modest.