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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bmag July 19th 2011 - Frustrations of a tourist

How do you prevent niggling little frustrations from getting under your skin? What’s your strategy?

A former ABC boss, Chris Wordsworth, once offered these words of wisdom: “Let the cr*p wash over you”. In other words, save your energy for the important things in life. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Unfortunately, on our recent family holiday in Europe and the USA, several incidents caused me to waste energy being frustrated.

What most of these examples have in common is they occurred because we weren’t in familiar surroundings.

As I run through them, think about visitors spending time in our city and the little things we do that they might not instantly understand.

In New York, I learned that you can’t take a bottle of water into the Museum of Modern Art. I offered to drink the water so I could later reuse the empty bottle. No, insisted the security guard. Even empty bottles were banned!

I’ve since learned that a controversial art work was damaged by a protestor throwing chemicals from a water bottle.

Later that day, leaving a coffee shop, I handed my empty paper cup to the cashier and asked if he would put it in the large bin behind him. “No”, was the curt reply. “The trash is over there”. As I walked off, he laughed with the next customer: “Obviously not from the U.S.”

A New Yorker friend of mine later explained that my mistake had been to expect “courtesy and common sense”.

For Independence Day, the 4th of July, I took the family on a Hudson River fireworks cruise. When we boarded the boat the first thing we saw were dozens of plastic fold-up chairs stacked on both sides of the deck.

As we started to unfold and set out the chairs, security staff – dressed in those clichéd black tee-shirts with the word SECURITY in bold white capital letters – informed us they were not to be used and we had to stand up for three hours.

After a near riot, with one woman almost physically dragged off a chair by a security officer, they backed down. It probably helped that several other passengers had started filming. For the life of me, I still can’t work out why the heavy-handedness. There was no shortage of chairs or space.

Still in New York, when I left $100 of my wife’s shopping in the back of a cab, we were told minutes later by our hotel concierge there was no point even ringing the cab company. “This is New York,” he said. “The next passenger will have just picked up the bag”.

Perhaps I’m looking at this through maroon-coloured glasses, but I’m pretty sure that if that had happened in Brisbane, I could have tracked down the cab and its back-seat contents in no time.

It wasn’t just New York that tested our patience. After missing a connecting flight in Frankfurt, our airline gave us a hotel room for the night. Unfortunately, the taxi took us a similar sounding hotel in another city!

When we eventually arrived at our lodgings, armed with $90 from the airline for dinner, the hotel wouldn’t let us spend the credit on its a la carte menu.

To order from the menu, we would have to use our own money. So, the smorgasbord it was. I can tell you there is no way we ate $90 worth of cold meat, soup and salad that night!

Okay okay, I know I’m starting to sound like Eric Idle complaining about the tea in Monty Python’s Travel Agent sketch: “They don’t make it properly do they? Not like at home!”

My point is this: When tourists spend time in Brisbane, what are the little things we do – probably unthinkingly – that cause unnecessary frustration? Let me know if you have examples and suggested improvements.

Let’s face it, no matter how fantastic a time you have on holidays, you always remember – and tell other people about – the things that go wrong. That’s just human nature.

Whether it’s spontaneously offering to take a group photo, asking if someone needs directions, or just saying “G’day” in a shopping centre elevator, we can all play a part in making sure tourists love our city as much as well do.

Panic present buying

It’s confession time. I bought a panic present.

I was sitting at JFK airport in New York, about to fly home to Brisbane after four weeks in the UK, France and the USA, when I started to remember people for whom I hadn’t bought anything.

One last look at the airport souvenir stand and $85 later, I had a bag full of random goodies!

I was chuffed with the I-heart-New York pewter cow key-ring for 612 listener and farmer “Lord” Julian of Boonah.

But I really don’t know how my radio producer Anne Debert will react to her present, which I shall reveal to you shortly and give to her tomorrow.

The business of gifts from overseas holidays is tricky. Do you buy for someone only if and when you see something perfectly suited to them? Or do you make a list beforehand and make sure everyone on the list gets something?

The range of place-branded items is astounding. Oddly, I didn’t see spoons or thimbles anywhere but there were coffee cups of all shapes and sizes, fridge magnets, cushions, baseballs, beach-bags, photo frames, coasters, pens, shot-glasses and all manner of clothing.

Snow domes remain a constant – just ask Liam Renton from Brisbane’s community radio station 96-Five who has one of Australia’s biggest collections.

There are desk models of iconic buildings such as the White House, Buckingham Palace and the Eiffel Tower.

You can even take home a miniature set of a city’s public transport or emergency vehicles.

To get an idea, pop into one of Brisbane’s souvenir shops next time you’re in the city or at the airport. They have much more than just clip-on koalas these days. You can probably even buy a mini City-Cycle play set by now. If not, someone can have that idea for free.

One thing you can get at Brisbane souvenir shops is kangaroo jerky.

Before we went overseas, I asked my 612 Breakfast listeners for gifts ideas from Brisbane. Someone suggested roo jerky so I bought some and we taste-tested it live on air.

I have to say that it might be a fun novelty gift, to be consumed with alcohol and washed down with lots of laughter, but roo jerky is not the sort of thing anyone should have to eat on the radio at 5.20am! The smell alone!

Still, I gave a packet to BBC Radio 2 Breakfast presenter Chris Evans after I’d spent some time with him in London. Sensibly, Chris said he would take it home and try it later. I haven’t heard how – or indeed if – it went down!

I suppose for the most part, souvenirs are bought for oneself as a reminder of places visited.

On this recent trip, I bought five tee-shirts including one from London’s “Dr Who Experience” and another from the Calvisson Barrel Organ Festival, as well as New York and Washington fridge magnets, a New York photo frame and theatre programmes from “Spiderman—Turn Off the Dark” and “Much Ado About Nothing” starring former Dr Who stars David Tennant and Catherine Tate. (I did tell you I was a Dr Who fan, didn’t I?!)

We’ll see how many of these survive the next spring clean.

On previous trips around Queensland, I’ve proudly returned with a small pottery sheep (from Cunnamulla), a scrap metal dog (Blackall) and a 750ml beer “tally” somehow stretched to about a metre (Central Highlands).

We still have the sheep and dog but the beer bottle – which I always regarded as artistic genius – has gone to a better place!

Which brings me to the panic present I bought at JFK for my radio producer Anne Debert.

No, let me withdraw that word. I didn’t panic. It made complete sense at the time! It’s only in the hours since that I’ve started to panic – about how she’ll react to such a random workmate gift!

You see, Anne’s husband Len is from St Louis, Missouri. And at JFK airport, sitting in the middle of all the fluffy toys marked “New York” was one bearing the name “Missouri”.

I rifled through the toys. There was no other “Missouri”. This was clearly a mistake and just as clearly, in my mind at least, it was meant to be bought for Anne.

So next time you call in to the breakfast show, ask Anne how she likes her very cute, bright green and purple, floppy-earned puppy-dog!

What’s the best and worst souvenir you’ve ever bought yourself or someone else? It’s confession time!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bmag July 5th 2011 - South of France

I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be a wine and olive-fed writer based in some exotic location like Morocco or Italy or France. So, I’ve come to the small French village of Calvisson, population 3000, just to the south-west of Nimes and 20 minutes drive north of the Mediterranean Sea, to find out.

In truth, the Howsons are here to stay with my mum and step-dad, who have recently retired and moved from Brisbane. The village they have chosen is hundreds of years old and well off the beaten track. There’s not much English spoken but Mum and John studied French for five years before they came and the locals can tell. Try some French on them and you will be rewarded with a little English and somehow you manage to connect.

It’s 11am and I’m sitting in a secondfloor bedroom window with a notepad and coffee. The stone walls of this fourteenth century terraced house are so thick I have plenty of space in the window to plonk myself down and write. It’s 32 degrees. The sky is blue and without cloud. The sun is hot but a breeze flows up the street and it’s very relaxing just watching people walk past. Look, it’s the postcard image of a man carrying two baguettes! The streets in Calvisson are so narrow I could almost hold hands with someone across the road. There’s a musty stone informed smell everywhere but somehow that adds to the romance.

By 1pm I’m sitting outside the bar in the main square. With shops closed from midday until 3pm, this is where locals are drawn. A round of five drinks costs me just $10. I choose a shiraz from the local winery. Light, but perfectly refreshing on this warm summer’s day. The bar is such a focal point that whenever you go past you look to see who’s there. I might not have met them but I already recognise the regulars! You instantly take a liking to the barman, Roget, who’s dressed in white and has the sort of well-worn face you just want to photograph. His eyes smile and both his nose and bushy moustache are pronounced. Almost cartoon-like. I suspect Roget likes a drink himself.

Now it’s 3pm and I’m on the beach at nearby Aigues-Mortes. It won’t be dark until 10pm, quite the novelty for someone from Brisbane! I’m on a sunlounger, under an umbrella, with a waiter offering me a drink. This time, I opt for a juice d’orange.

At 5pm I’m in a café in Nimes just metres from a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre. Christians and lions once “met” inside these walls. The history is breathtaking. I down a pint of lager. On the way back to Calvisson, I pick up a couple of baguettes (or as we would say, “French sticks”). These are consumed with a dozen cheeses, sensational rosemary-dipped olives and a bottle of wine – this time a merlot – again from the local winery.

It’s 8.30pm and we’re at a street party thrown by the “high quarter” of the village. It was still light as we walked the 300 metres to a covered market square where 100 or so locals are eating and drinking at three long rows of trestle tables. The Howsons don’t speak any French but, in no time, Nikki and I are in a Conga line. And leading the celebrations, dancing next to the DJ on a stage too small for the two of them, is the barman Roget! He is the life of this party and of the village!

It’s 11pm and this time I’m writing at the dining table in mum’s kitchen. Again, glass of wine in hand while Nikki contemplates a gin and tonic to finish off the night. At this time of year, there’s something happening every day in Calvisson. Last night, it was a bonfire – with tapas and wine – to celebrate St John. Tomorrow, we’re invited to a luncheon and a dinner. That’s after we’ve been to the fresh produce market in the morning. Frankly, I don’t know how all these writers find the time to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). There are too many olives to eat. And is that another cork being opened? Sorry, must go…