Norah Jones does battle in Vienne

Take one easy-listening songstress, mix with a chilled-out French jazz vibe and blend in a unique ancient venue and surely you’ve got the perfect recipe for summer concert success?

I had high hopes as I made my way through the winding streets of Vienne to see Norah Jones headline the town’s renowned annual jazz festival. Despite tickets priced at a punchy €45, the event was a sell-out, with touts lining the route to the venue: Europe’s largest Roman amphitheatre.

Those in the know had clearly arrived early to secure a seat, while the rest of the 3,000-strong crowd – my party included – clambered up the narrow steps to a high-altitude area or simply perched precariously on the crumbling walls. But as the sun set behind the stage and the more well-prepared members of the audience tucked into their cheese and wine picnics, it became clear that the real star of this show was the venue.

Norah’s innocuous strumming and dulcet tones were little more than background in the cavernous semi-circular amphitheatre. Even her most adoring fans must admit that she seemed somewhat dwarfed by the occasion – and her rudimentary French didn’t help engage the crowd.

Although her big hits – Come Away With Me and Don’t Know Why – were pleasingly familiar highlights, she was never going to emerge completely victorious. Norah lives to perform another day, but it was Vienne’s spectacular amphitheatre that held us enthralled.

Solution to casual attire catastrophes

Picture the scene. You’re on the way home heading towards a fairly casual evening event – maybe dinner with friends or the cinema. You step off the tube and you realise…oh no! My casual attire has a stain on it! Perhaps you’ve spilled your latte or dropped some soy sauce during your sushi lunch. What do you do? There’s no time to go shopping. It’s a casual attire nightmare.

Or so you thought.

Until the staff at South Kensington station installed just the thing to deal with the problem at the end of platform 1.

emergency gap jumper

Back to telling it like it is

You turn your back for one blog posting and before you know it six months have whirled by and lots has happened.

Still, that is all by the by, as my mission here – which I have woefully neglected recently – is to tell it like it is. And this I will endeavour to do from now on. It’s good for the soul (not yours, mine).

I will merely recap my past half a year in pictoral form. Here’s a selection of what went down:

orange

villa

parc des princes

prague

unicum

windmill

That’s that – normal service will be resumed shortly.

A “positive connection”

tube ticket machineNext time you’re in a London Underground station buying a Travelcard or topping up your Oyster using a credit card, take note of the instructions on the machine:

“Insert your card until you feel a positive connection.”

Eh?

So, don’t just shove it in as far as it will go and hastily type in your PIN – stand there and wait until you feel some kind of Zen-like affinity with the QuickTickets machine. How long will that take? Is that why there are always such long queues at South Ken? It’s someone desperately shoving their card in and out of the slot and looking longingly into the screen muttering, “I just don’t think we connect…it’s not you, it’s me…”

Cigars and jellyfish

cigarsHow long do you think it takes to learn to roll a cigar? Can’t be that long, surely. A few weeks? A month? Nope. How about nine months. Nine months. And that’s just the basic training.

At the Partagas cigar factory in Havana the trainees are all down in the basement making cigars that, if they don’t make the grade, will end up getting recycled. If you’re up to scratch after nine months – and can produce the target amount per day, which depends on size and complexity – you get to go upstairs. There were people there who’d been working in the factory for more than 30 years. That’s a lot of cigars.

There’s also someone whose sole job it is to arrange cigars in order of colour on a long table, from lightest to darkest. The point of this is so that when you open your box of Habanos they are all exactly the same shade. Like lining up your set of 40 colouring pencils when you were a kid. But a bit more tricky. And she had nine months’ training just to do that. Everyone seemed pretty happy. They were eating a lot of ice cream too.

Now, where better to enjoy a nice, hand-rolled cigarillo (because I am a lady) than on the deck of your very own beach hut on a small island off the North coast of Cuba? Probably nowhere. And perhaps a nice swim afterwards. Or not, if the water is full of Physalia Physalis. Aka Portuguese Man of War, aka weird-looking and very poisonous jellyfish. There’d been a storm the night before and there were hundreds of them washed up along the beach, plus the little navy blue whatsits that follow them around. So no swimming, but some interesting photos. They look a bit like they should be pursued by Sigourney Weaver and a flamethrower.
Physalia Physalis on Cayo Levisa Cuba
Physalia Physalis on Cayo Levisa Cuba

A world of two halves

goose.jpgWhat’s the difference between Zurich and Havana? Zurich doesn’t rhyme with Copacabana of course!

Well, the mammoth travel escapade is complete. The second phase of the gastronomic world tour started with a forgotten passport halfway to Heathrow and ended with a near-fainting episode in Havana airport. But…there was lots of good stuff in between. I will be recounting some snippets here, but first, the Switzerland to Cuba transition…

One minute you’re guzzling cheese fondue like some kind of foie gras goose on skis and the next you’re staying in someone’s house for $25 that doubles their monthly income. It was a bit odd. I could say something about the roulette wheel of birth etc etc, but I won’t. Instead I will mostly be sharing some fascinating insights into cigar factories and jellyfish.

Moonwalk this way

Although I had a busy time of it in the US of A, I did find a few spare seconds to impress the locals with my moonwalking skills during an ice fishing (yes, ice fishing) trip. Behold the wonder:

And here are a couple of ice fishing pictures.

A frozen canal is a cold place to hang out. (The sign says “Do not drill holes in the ice.” Note large ice drill on the left of the shot.)
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We used goldfish as bait. Poor Nemo:
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Burritos and bathrooms

View from the Empire State Building on 16 February 2007Phase one of the gastronomic world tour (GWT) completed. Phew. Spending ten days in close proximity to your immediate family can be tough, especially when some of them – sorry dad – are not experienced travellers. Seems it is possible to run a successful business yet not be able to use a hotel key card or calculate a tip. Still, it was a lot of fun and I will be posting highlights here over the next few days. Two quick bites:

On the food front, the US really is the land of plenty – and variety. I reckon good old Bennys Burritos in New York’s East Village is hard to beat. I had a delicious chicken chipotle burrito and some very nice mojitos. The 24-hour Skylight Diner was a great find too – a huge menu, great service, bargain prices and mammoth portions. The diners are a mixture of NYPD’s fattest finest and local crazies. Brilliant.

One thing that did strike me, between chugging bottles of Miller Lite (only 3.6 grams of carbs according to the label), is that American engineering has really let itself down when it comes to their bathrooms. They may have made incredible skyscrapers (see above view from top of the Empire State Building taken last week), huge bridges and miles of continent-spanning freeways but it seems creating a proper toilet cubicle door is a step too far.

Why is the door always a foot too short at the bottom and so low that you can see over the top? Why is there a 2cm-wide gap all the way round the door frame? You might as well hang a scrap of net curtain in front of each cubicle. Strange.

Deer are nice

Nowadays if we’re looking for entertainment we pen some people who were once famous in an enclosure then sit back and watch their painful demise. We call it Big Brother.

Back in 1637, before Channel 4 existed, Charles II penned 2,000 deer in a park surrounded by an eight-mile-long wall so he could ride around on a horse and hunt them for fun. We call it Richmond Park.

Perhaps unlike BB, the deer have endured and you can still see them today. They’re kinda nice. Posing as a tourist, I took some photos with my phone.
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