Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Italy Day 10 - 5th September 2009

Back at Lake Como in Northern Italy, for that is where I left off last time, we woke to another glorious morning and the view from my bed was one I doubt I could ever get used to. This isn't a great photo but I wanted to show how it really WAS from my bed !!

Once up and about, we all posed with each other taking photos on our long balcony which covered both rooms and as you can imagine, we didn't want to leave the place even though we had half the trip to go with plenty of places still to visit. As a few kind (mad) people have told me I should include more photos of myself on these posts, here we go.

We then went downstairs and although the hotel was small, they had put on a decent spread for breakfast. As usual Daphne photographed it and, with her permission, here it is.

Then it was back to our rooms to finish packing and set off for Venice. Of course there was still time for one last balcony view of the lake before we left and it helped when a decent sized boat came into view to break up the otherwise empty waters.

We went down to the rental car and I think we all took photos looking back up at the hotel and our rooms, which had afforded such wonderful views over the lake. I didn't want to spoil this photo by adding in a large arrow showing our rooms but if you really want to know, they were on the 2nd tier and 2 and 3 in from the right end. You can see those windows (glass sliding doors actually) are close together and led to the balcony.

We drove the few miles back south to the town of Como where we explored a bit and then went to the lake shore to get one of the many ferry boats which criss crossed the lake. We picked one that had several stopping points up and along both shores as we felt that would give us a good overall view and as it lasted an hour, it was also excellent value for money.

Daphne took this 'up close' photo of me soon after we set off.....

And not to be outdone, Stephen took one of me around the mid point of the trip.

And that's more than enough of me for one blog post. Well maybe one more at the end !

The ferry took us past a lot of beautiful private homes, public buildings and grand structures which fell into both categories. We never did find the home belonging to George Clooney, mostly because we weren't looking for it, but if he did indeed have a home on the slopes overlooking Lake Como, he should spend more time there and forget about LA. He'd be sure to get more peace and quiet there.

Stephen took a great view from the back of the boat and must've used a wide angle setting on his camera.

Back on shore in Como, we had lunch and then set off on the 200 mile drive to Venice which involved heading south towards Milan and then going due east to Venice. He didn't want to arrive in Venice until the next morning so we decided to get to about an hour from the city and then find a hotel.

The drive was pretty dull and certainly uneventful which after the tyre blowout from a few days earlier, we didn't mind at all. We stopped along the eastbound A4/E70 for a mid afternoon snack and then we stopped for the night just outside the town of Vicenza, at a Jolly Hotel.

I'm not describing the atmosphere at the hotel, simply the name on the sign outside. It was actually the NH Vicenza and very nice it was too. Modern without being soul-less.

As it had a lovely restaurant "ensuite", it saved us having to leave to find one. We settled into our rooms, freshened up after the drive, and went down for a meal. A meal so unpretentious that even with 3 photographers at the table, no record exists of it. Shame on you Daphne !

Speaking of photographic evidence, we come to the last photo of the day and another one of me ! Once back in my room, I was captured, albeit with my full knowledge, nicking the hotel toiletries. This is something I do everywhere (they were particularly good in Italian hotels) so be warned if I ever pay you a visit.

So never mind your daughters, it's your toiletries you need to lock up !

Arrivederci fino a la prossima volta as they say in parts of Yorkshire.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Oldies v Walmart

I know I go on a bit about the oldies down here in Florida but they really don't help themselves much by their actions. I think it's because I'm just not used to being around so many of them as due to living for most of the year in a 3rd world country, we don't have many ! If you live beyond 55 in the UK, it's because you have private medical insurance or are a member of the Royal Family.

Having said that, even by American standards, there are a LOT of old people in Florida. God's waiting room and all that.

And active ones too. They drive, in a fashion; they golf, from a cart; they breathe oxygen, from a canister and they pee, mostly into a bag. Yep, they're active alright.

We were going into our local Walmart one day last week and as we approached the entrance, a wrinkly was on her way out, driving one of those scooters reserved for the disabled and the aged but usually snapped up by the obese and basically anyone on welfare. It had a wire shopping basket on the front and hers was almost overflowing with choice retail products. She managed to cross the stupid area just outside the exit which looks like a section of the test track used to put Volvo suspensions through their paces and didn't have a single item bounce from her basket.

And what's that all about anyway ? Do they really believe some crazy paving will slow down anyone and their cart from legging it out of the store with a frozen chicken stuffed up their t-shirt and the cart loaded with a 58' plasma tv ? Well it might jiggle the tv circuitry a bit, I suppose, but the chicken would be past caring.

So her next obstacle was negotiating one of the bollards used to deter ram raiders from putting quality products ONTO the shelves ! Oh my, a little bit controversial again. Shame on me.

Well we just knew what was going to happen next and sure enough, like a moth to a flame, our motorised granny went straight for it. As we stood transfixed, she actually stopped about a foot from the bollard and quite frankly, I was a bit disappointed. I felt a huge let down.

With the phrase "nothing to see here" going round in my head, we prepared to move along when she suddenly flicked the scooter lever into 'forward' again and smacked right into the bollard.

I almost felt like cheering. I know, I'm going to hell but it won't be in a handbasket.

I plan on going in style - in a Walmart scooter !!

It was then that I noticed a few others taking in the scene and one of them was the Walmart 'greeter' who proved yet again that her one role in life is to annoy the hell out of incoming shoppers and do sod all to help those leaving. I guess the clue is in the title.

Anyway she watched this all taking place with the same sense of inevitability as the rest of us - probably more so as she must've seen it on a daily basis. It was only when the poor old lady got flustered and couldn't work the reverse lever that the greeter swung into action and went to help her. Much as I would've liked to have stayed to watch what followed, I felt like a peeping Tom or an accident rubbernecker and so we went on in to do our shopping.

I mean we had a whole store of 'Walmart People' to look out for and if you click to watch the video, I'd advise you to mute the "music."

I miss Sainsburys.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In The Tropics, Things Are Stirring !

Today was a gee-elle-orious day in Buttonwood Bay, Sebring, Florida and I'm adding those geographical details because there are 2 other Buttonwood Bays near here, relatively speaking, and I'd not want to give the impression that I'm in one of them.

As one is in Key Largo and the other is in Belize. I guess we're the boring one of the trio.

Nevermind. I bet they don't have bocce ball . Hah !

With the arrival of the hot, sunny weather on which Florida builds it reputation and financial stability, the park is finally showing signs of regrowth after the awful winter weeks since Christmas when the temps dropped to freezing on many nights. The tropical vegetation and orange groves didn't like that one little bit and most went all 'withery' and then went belly up, as we'd say back in Yorkshire.

Now the palm tree fronds are green, the oranges are orangy and the critters that have been absent most of the winter have reappeared. We were out on a golf cart ride this afternoon and going along Swan Drive, I had to swerve violently to avoid running over a large snake which, if anything, seemed even more terrified than I was at the time. As it was almost squished flat by our golf cart, that was fair enough.

How did I not see it earlier, I hear you ask.

"How did you not see it earlier ?"

See, I knew you'd ask !

Well it was close to the grass verge and at first I thought it was a squiggly crack in the road. Then it moved like a sidewinder on steroids and gave me quite a turn. A pronounced turn to the left, as it happened, and with all the skill of a slightly older Jensen Button, I only just avoided it.

Further along we came to the lake and saw a small gator at the water's edge, warming itself in the hot afternoon sun. We went on down the canal path and spotted another, much larger, gator casually floating along, watching out for any tasty stray poodles, shitzus and grandchildren.

Back at the house I fixed a sandwich, got a cold pop out of the fridge and, grabbing my camera, zoom lens and monopod, headed back to where the smaller gator had been. It had moved a few yards but was now almost on dry land and was just about comatose in the hot sunshine.

As such, it allowed me to get very close to it and I didn't even have to use all of the 200mm of the zoom lens to get its head filling the frame. It was that fact that made me suddenly realise that I was maybe a bit too close and so I backed off and let the lens do the work !

While I was taking these photos, a pure white bird appeared in my view and was slowly wading along the edge of the lake, stirring up the silt to flush out food. As it got closer to the motionless gator, my mind went to all those nature programs I'd watched where crocs almost climb up a steep bank to maul careless and, quite frankly, stupid wildebeest. I felt like a budding Attenborough as I waited for the carnage that would occur when the bird waded into the range of the gator.

Luckily for the bird but sadly for this intrepid cameraman, nothing of the sort took place. The bird continued wading and the gator continued........well, doing sod all. It did give the gator a few looks in passing but I guess it instinctively knew there was no danger.

I'm glad, as it was, and still is, a pretty bird.

Then along came a resident who clearly didn't think the rules regarding the non feeding of animals applied to her. She rolled up in her cart, opened a large bag of peanuts and within seconds, was surrounded by dozens of squirrels. I told her that feeding squirrels wasn't allowed by park rule and there were signs all over the place stating that very rule. She informed me that she'd always fed the squirrels and so I guess that made it ok in her mind !

I made no attempt to hide the fact that I was photographing her feeding the squirrels and so she drove away, only to return a while later when she thought I'd left. She left again and shortly after that, so did I.

I know it's not right to feed these and other animals for many reasons and one of those is that they become almost tame and will come right up to you. This might only be a slight nuisance when it's a squirrel but I can tell you it's no joke when a gator tries it !

At one point I almost felt sorry for a squirrel that had obviously been used to getting more than one peanut from this woman and now looked like a restaurant customer who had been promised a nice meal and was wondering what the hell was keeping the waiter from delivering it.

And so ends this tale from the river bank.....or lake bank I suppose. I left the bird, the gator and the squirrels to get on with their lives, safe in the knowledge that I would never want to eat any of them. Well I couldn't, could I ?

I mean, I was having salmon for supper !

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kids Do The Funniest Things !

Last Tuesday, during the Raver's Day events in The Grove at sunny Buttonwood Bay, there were some grandkids for whom Elvis, or pseudo Elvis, just didn't cut it. While the main man was belting out the songs and walking off the pounds (see previous post), these kids were walking along the edge of the lake, looking for anything of interest.

At one point I went back to the house for my zoom lens and in doing so, I passed one of the young boys who was eager to show me his 'find'. He had a tiny gecko (well I call these little lizard critters that anyway) in his hand and unlike most of them, it wasn't bothered about scooting away when he let go of it. I think he'd been holding it tightly for some time, as kids do with small live animals, and it was probably half squished and certainly traumatised by the time he held it up for me to see.

Then he played his party piece and placed the gecko near his ear and sure enough it snapped it's tiny, but sharp, teeth onto his lobe and dangled there like a living version of a Bet Lynch earring. (Bet Lynch being a character in the long running UK soap, Coronation Street, who was infamous for her long dangling earings, amongst other dangling things !!)

Click to enlarge the photo a bit and see it properly.

I'm thinking of sending the photo to Geico Insurance so they know what their spokescritter is up to when not promoting the company and that he might need some PTS treatment when he returns !

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Elvis In 'Da' Grove

Yesterday we had Raver's Day here in sunny Buttonwood Bay and as anyone who regularly reads this blog will know, this park, given the average age of its inhabitants, isn't known for its ravers.

That's not to say we don't have our fair share of exhibitionists here ! I'm not sure if it's because 99.99% of the park population is American/Canadian or if it just comes with advancing years, but in any case, there are few shrinking violets when it comes to most activities. If there is ever a call for volunteers from an audience, hundreds of little wrinkled hands go up as fast as their arthritic elbows joints and catheter tubes will allow.

Raver's Day is the park owners way of 'paying it back' by organising an outdoor shindig to thank us, the residents, for paying THEM a lot of money every month to be here. They have no need to do this, of course, and so we accept our invitations with gratefully open arms and, as free booze and food is provided, suitably empty stomachs.

So at 11am yesterday morning, an incognito alien visiting from some distant galaxy, would have watched with growing fascination as about 700 wrinkles descended on The Grove area of the park, arriving by foot, bicycle, car and truck...but mostly by golf cart. Despite there being no Germans here, most of the picnic tables had been covered for days as people reserved their spots. We just took our folding chairs and sat with our friends in one of the spaces between the picnic tables.

The first order of business was food and this year, the entree was pizza. We used our tickets to be in the food line at the correct time and with a smoothness matched only by the Swiss railway system, I arrived at the serving table at dead on 12:15, the time specified on my ticket. I was handed my plastic utensils and a plate, closely followed by some oreo cookies, a bowl of salad with Italian dressing, and a huge slice of just cooked pepperoni pizza. I then decided to pick up my ice cream bar although I could have got it later and on the way back to our shady spot, I got a couple of ice cold cans of coke.

Looking like a contestant from Crackerjack (Crackerjack !!!), I wobbled my way to my chair and proceeded to tuck in. There was also unlimited beer for those that wanted it and most did.

Once everyone was fed and 'watered', the call went out that there were seconds and basically the pizza became all you could eat until 2:15pm when either the mobile pizza wagon ran out or else everyone was stuffed. My guess was the later.

Free pop (and beer) was available until the event was over at 4pm but so far I've not heard any stories about wild drunken orgies or any mindless desecration of property afterwards - well no more than is usual on a Tuesday afternoon here.

And now to the entertainment.

Lined up near The Grove, on the grass by the edge of the lake, was a collection of vintage cars to get my camera lens well and truly activated. I know nothing about such things but they did look pretty in the brilliant sunlight and being set up in a retirement park, each car was being closely examined by people who probably had a similar one when growing up ! My challenge, therefore, was to try and get a photo of each car with as few 'golden oldies' as possible climbing all over them.

My favourite was a stunning 1930 Packard Model 740 (ok I read the sign) which could seat 7 gangsters in comfort with a couple more on the running boards with machine guns a blazing. It didn't take too much imagination to 'see' Bonnie & Clyde on board being pursued by the local police and a few dozen scriptwriters wanting the movie rights.

Another photographic challenge to overcome was the fact that the cars were lined up very close to each other and many were in the shadow of nearby trees. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Back in The Grove, once we were all full of stomach and even fuller of bladder, it was time for the lights to dim (the sun went behind a cloud) and the stage music to be turned up several notches. This confused the hell out of several hearing aid wearers who just assumed their units had malfunctioned and could be seen smacking themselves on the side of the head. Not a good idea for people already likely to have dodgy carotid arteries.

We had a quick burst of Thus Spake Zarathustra (the opening music from 2001 : A Space Odyssey) and then the intro music for 'the' main man himself.

With hundreds of screams, dozens of hot flashes and a couple of boos from the partially sighted at the very back, Elvis entered The Grove ! Now Elvis never had the distinction of meeting me when he was alive, but since his death (and I do believe he IS dead), he has met me several times. Or at least 'copycat Elvis' has met me several times. Some have looked a lot like him and a few have even sounded a lot like him but none have both looked AND sounded like him.

Yesterday was no exception.

Oh yes he had the threads and most of the moves. He certainly had decent karaoke backing tracks and he even looked halfway good from a distance.....like Georgia. But up close was a different matter.

But we didn't care. Remember the free beer ?

Even I had had 2 cokes and an oreo by then so I was away with the fairies on a sugar high. Elvis rocked my world, people.

With a technological ability the original Elvis would've been amazed by in the 50's, pseudo Elvis was able to wander off stage and mingle with his adoring fans all the while singing like the true professional he was. He even draped some of his sweaty silk scarves around the necks of a few lucky pensioners, one of whom almost passed out when he walked away and forgot he was still holding on to the other end. Thankfully no lasting harm was done and she was soon revived by the combined wafting of smelling salts and a slice of uneaten pepperoni pizza.

But even a copycat Elvis should be capable of generating an air of mystery and sadly this one went downhill after his first set was finished. He gave us the big closing number but then, instead of walking off to screams for more, he just lingered around at the side of the outdoor stage, fiddling with the machinery and presumably making sure everything was in place for his next set.

And so it was, with your intrepid cameraman hidden behind the sound equipment, I caught Elvis in an oddly disturbing off moment. Sans glasses, sans microphone and looking more like Bob The Builder in a fancy suit than one of the most recognisable stars of the last 100 years.

After we'd been entertained with some 50's and 60's tunes by a couple of excellent singers from the same bunch that provided Elvis, the great man, who had thankfully changed costume somewhere behind the scenes, returned in his leather gear. Now as you've seen already, this was a copycat of Elvis in his later years, after the burgers and pig's feet had taken their toll and so our leather pseudo Elvis was more like an ageing overweight Harley biker than the Elvis of Blue Hawaii. Less "Viva Las Vegas" and more "Viva Health Spa"

But like I said before, we didn't care. We were full of pizza, and if not on a sugar high from the free pop, we were all 'happy' from the free beer. Add to all that an average age of 137 and Elvis himself couldn't have had a better audience. A forgiving audience. Hell, lets face it, a forgetful audience.

And so we had a great Raver's Day and I know they won't be reading this 'review' but I'd still like to thank the park owners and staff who worked so hard to set it all up and were rewarded with a wonderful day, weatherwise. So wonderful in fact that I got a wee bit sunburned as I forgot to slap on the factor 75. Am I red faced ??!!

As with most events in this park, 30 minutes after it was over, you'd never have known anything had taken place in The Grove. The area had been cleaned of the little amount of rubbish that hadn't already been placed in the numerous bins, the picnic tables had been repositioned and silence had once again descended on the shady location at the edge of the lake.

But as I walked beneath the trees sometime later, I spotted something moving in the wind near the concrete stage. A false set of sideburns !

Pseudo Elvis may have left The Grove, but he'd left more than a memory behind !

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Tale Of Double Celebration.

One of the sweet old ladies in the park celebrated her 90th birthday today and as often happens on such occasions, lots of her friends and relatives arrived to give her a great party.

Her name is Esther and I don't know her. But that's ok as I don't know a lot of people in the park but it doesn't stop us waving at each other when we pass or getting a handshake or a hug depending on the sex of the person at the time. Or I guess at any time. They don't tend to change sex when they're senior citizens.

But Deb knows her and so she went off to say happy 90th to her at the party and I thought that would be the end of it.

A bit later we went on a golf cart ride as we do just about every day. When it's 78F in the shade and the house is getting a bit warm despite all the windows being open, it's lovely to feel the breeze as you tootle along in the golf cart at the park maximum speed limit of 10 mph. We ended up down by the lake and noticed that a small crowd had gathered.

There in the water was a guy on a jet ski. It turned out he was Esther's grandson who is a jet ski professional. I'd no idea one could make a living out of riding a jet ski but what do I know !?

That was rhetorical so don't be adding any of your smart remarks in the comments section ! You know who you are.

Anyway he was performing his stunts for the crowd out on the end of the pier so I dropped Deb off and rushed home for my camera. It only took me a few minutes but it seems time is short when it comes to doing stunts and so by the time I returned, his show was almost over. I did see him doing a few somersaults as I walked out to the end of the pier but by the time I got there and was set up, both he and his jet ski had run out of puff and no more somersaults were performed.

Here he is somehow managing to go sideways........

Then he shot past us a few times showing total control of his craft and did little bunny hops, rising out of the water on each occasion.......

Then his jet ski developed some sort of overheating problem and he called it a day. In the meantime, I'd finally seen Esther as she was there, proudly watching her champion grandson.

If you click on the photo and look closely, you'll see images of Debby reflected in Esther's glasses as they were having a right old chit chat. Esther obviously has other grandchildren as I also saw a great grandson, Liam, and here he is looking a bit like Mater from the movie "Cars" .....

Just before we left the area, I took this shot of Deb, for no other reason other than I could and it links nicely into the second celebration.

These storylines aren't just thrown together you know !!

If you think she looked happy in that photo, you should've seen (and heard) her a couple of minutes later when we continued on our golf cart ride. We were passing through 'The Grove' ( a lovely shaded picnic area at the side of the lake ) and I went further into it to have yet another look for a very expensive (cause I bought it !) blue topaz bracelet she'd lost there last Sunday at the chilli fest. Now we'd both searched the place several times on the day and on many subsequent days and found nothing.

Within seconds we both spotted it at the same time and before I could stop the cart, Debby was out and picking it up. It was virtually undamaged and when I took this photo using her droid phone, I didn't notice the sun glinting of one of the topaz links. It seemed fitting as that's how we'd spotted the bracelet lying on the mossy, leaf covered ground in the first place. This image was up on Facebook in seconds and I hope Debby doesn't mind me using it again here !

We celebrated by going out for a slap up meal at Mrs. Miggins Pie Shoppe, otherwise known as Ruby Tuesdays, with enough food left over and brought home to enjoy again tomorrow.

Eee it were a grand day right enough and I hope we, and Esther, have many more of them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

When A Last Gasp Really Isn't !

With death and Mother's Day thoughts still in my mind (yes I'll let them go soon), there is one funny/bizarre story to tell about my mum's death back in 2003.

As I've said before, I was in America at the time and got a phone call on our return from church on Easter Sunday. It was from an aunt telling me mum had slipped into a coma and was not expected to last long. I needed to get there asap.

Now you try getting a specific flight FOR Easter Sunday ON Easter Sunday and I can tell you it's not easy. Anyway we (and I'll never ever be able to thank Debby enough for coming with me) got a flight, hightailed it to Detroit airport and, due to the time difference, arrived in Belfast early the following morning.

Given the long travel time (over 12 hours), at the Belfast car rental desk I remember being in the strange position of not knowing if my mum was dead or alive ! I used the agent's phone to call the nursing home and found out she was still alive but not expected to be so much longer. The agent, overhearing this conversation and seeing my mix of relief and despair, got the car and the paperwork sorted in double quick time, told us to keep it as long as we needed and gave us a deal that meant we practically rented the car for the cost of the petrol we used. Thank you National Car Rental, Belfast airport.

We drove to the nursing home of course, despite being beyond tired. Three of mums sisters were at her bedside keeping vigil and as they were leaving the room to give us time with her, they told us she wouldn't know we were there. I sat by her, held her tiny, cold hand and said a few words. She immediately smiled, which sent the departing aunts into a frenzy of excitement with phrases like "oh it's a miracle" and "she must know it's his voice" and so on.

We stayed a few hours and when tiredness overcame us, we let the aunts return to their vigil and we left to stay at mum's house back in Ballymoney. That in itself was a very strange experience as in all my 18 years growing up there and in the many times I'd visited since then, I'd never spent a night in that house without mum being in 'her' room just a few feet away.

Because she had moved into the nursing home a few weeks earlier, her bedroom was pretty bare of personal possessions. It was the 2nd biggest room in the house and as Debby was in the largest bedroom, the guest/Pope bedroom (!!), it would've been a natural room for me that night. But I just couldn't sleep there. No one had slept in that room apart from my mum and dad in over 50 years and despite the fresh bed linen, it would've been too weird for me at any time and certainly not with mum lying on her deathbed a few miles away.

So it was back to the little bedroom for me and when I say little, I mean a bedroom not even worthy of being in a French hotel ! I'd spent my first 18 years in that bedroom and so, with the house being only a couple of weeks from not being ours anymore, I'd come full circle.

I don't know about Debby but although exhausted, I didn't sleep much. We got up, had a meal somewhere and went back to the nursing home late in the afternoon. We talked with the various friends and relatives who came to basically say goodbye to mum and by night time, Debby and I were left alone with mum as I think we all knew the end was coming soon.

We sat by the bed talking with mum as we were sure she could hear us. We seemed to be the only 3 people in the world as, where normally you could hear movements and coughing from the other old residents, a strange silence enveloped the home that night. Then in the early hours, when Debby was in mid sentence, I heard a very slight change in mum's breathing and sensed her time, and ours, had come.

We drew close and with tears pouring down my face, as indeed they are right now even after 7 years have passed, I told mum I loved her so much but as I knew she now wanted to be with dad and she was in no pain, I let her go to him. Mum's breaths became much slower and as we were alone with her with no previous experience of such things, we weren't quite sure if every one was indeed her last. At the time it wasn't funny of course and actually it was rather upsetting never knowing when to finally be sure she had passed away and our grieving could begin. We'd think that was it and about 30 seconds later, she'd breath again !

Finally no more breaths came and agreeing that she was now gone, the floodgates opened for both of us and we hugged for support. I said I wanted a little more time with mum before we went and informed the nursing home staff, even though she was no longer with us. It's obviously only for ourselves at this point, but while a dead body is before us, we still feel comfort in talking. It's the physical manifestation of that person, a person who in this case gave birth to me and had always been there for me over the previous 51 years. I wasn't ready to leave just yet.

About 10 minutes later, I was ready to inform the staff. Debby and I were sitting on chairs as we had been for many hours with mum's body just below eye level due to the height of the bed. Suddenly, as I looked along the blankets over her body, I saw her chest slowly move up and down. If I hadn't been sitting down, I would've fallen down !

Had we got it all terribly wrong ? Was she still alive and had been shallow breathing for the last 15 minutes or so ?

If it wasn't time to get a staff member before, it was now !! I went and found a nurse and she came in, did her tests and agreed that mum was gone. I asked about the chest movement thinking I'd get some medical mumbo jumbo about air being trapped in the lungs so that a few involuntary breaths were normal shortly after death but the reason was much more mundane.

We were told that mum was given a special motorised bed with a device under the mattress that ran it's full length and gently moved the mattress up and down to aid sleeping and help avoid bed sores.

Oh NOW you tell us !!! Holy crap.

So what we'd seen wasn't mum breathing but the mattress moving like a slow wave breaking on the shore. Then I felt guilty for the relief I felt knowing that was the reason !

Unlike many sons, I'd had time to say my goodbyes to my mum and I know she heard them. That gave me such comfort in the days and weeks that followed and I was left with few regrets. There was so much to remember about that time, from the hectic rush to get a flight home on Easter Sunday to sorting out mum's house and affairs as the executor of her will before flying back to America.

Sure there was great sadness and outright grief at times; I'd lost my last parent and I'd never again set foot in my Ballymoney home. Returning to America, as our plane climbed above the Belfast clouds and broke out into clear sunshine, for the first time in those 2 stressful weeks I had nothing to do but think and reflect for 8 hours. It was the end of an era. If I ever returned to N.Ireland it would be as an out and out tourist with no home base. For the first time in over 53 years, someone else would be living in 'our' house. They'd make the place theirs and all traces of our life there would be erased forever.

But in my mind it will always be my house, my home. It's where my mum and dad lived their often hard life, without complaint, and raised two sons who I hope have been a credit to them. (But I do think the Pope has missed out on his chance to sleep in that guest bed !)

Paint and wallpaper can cover walls but not memories.

Death Is Not The End

Being the hip and groovy dude that I am, I like to glance at the UK's Top 40 Albums chart every Monday. Sadly it's been a very long time since I knew most of the acts in the album charts and nowadays, I'm not even sure if I'm reading the name of the artist or the song ! Long gone may be the days when a beat combo name started with 'The' but even back then we had our share of freaky names.

Remember Pinkerton's Assorted Colours ? Or Engelbert Humperdinck, T.Rex, Lord Rockingham's XI, Showaddywaddy, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Hedgehoppers Anonymous and Mariah Carey ? Oh yes 'we' had the weird ones too.

Now we have artists with special characters in their names. Ke$ha and 3OH!3 so it's nice to see the tradition is in good hands.

Anyway I looked today and thought I'd somehow gone into a wormhole and was back in my yute. There was old red eyes, Dean Martin, resurrected after all this time, thus proving that a lifetime of boozing really can have a pickling effect on your body even after you've left it.

A little further down the chart comes my personal favourite crooner, Matt Munro. Yep, dead too.

Further down still, Gracie Fields. Dead 31 years for goodness sake and that alone must set some sort of record....for a record !

Then there are artists who, while still alive, have been dead to the charts for several years. Artists like Boyzone and Simply Red. Boyzone actually entered at No.1 and proved again that the death of a band member doesn't necessarily mean the death of his career.

So what's going on ? Why are all these oldies and not so goldies in the current Top 40 ?

Well, Sunday was Mother's Day ! Nuff said.

Is it too early to pre order Wham's Last Christmas ?

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Card That Goes On Giving.

My friend Daphne wrote a blog post yesterday about Mother's Day (ok it was about Mothering Sunday to be precise) and it got some interesting comments.

My mother died in 2003 and my dad, 17 years earlier in 1986 and even after all these years, I'm not really sure how I feel about Mother's Day (and Father's Day). I suppose since 2004, it's just been another day and since I'm nearly always in America when it takes place in the UK, I'm not even aware of it these days. I was very aware of it in 2004 of course, being the first one after mum died, and I didn't like the feelings of sadness and sense of loss that it invoked.

Walking along the rows of speciality cards in any store, I usually laugh at how the greeting card companies have just about covered every eventuality, event and personal relationship that we could possibly have or celebrate. We can wish everyone from our parole officer to our pets a Happy Birthday. We can send Christmas Greetings to our local Rabbi or Mullah and we can even send a Wishing You A Successful In Vitro Fertilization card to the spinster down the road.

Right now it seems that most Americans are claiming Irish ancestry as the shelves and clothes racks are full of all things St. Patrick and I can tell you that seeing someone dressed in a 'wife beater' t-shirt and raggity shorts in mid Florida wearing one of those oversized green felt top hats with a large shamrock on it, is just plain bizarre.

Although most events may have pre dated companies such as Hallmark and Clinton, I still think of them now as just greeting card company events, designed to make money for them and riddle us with guilt if we don't fall in line by, at the very least, sending one of their cards.

Take this test : think back to your last card and apart from reading the signature and the personal message from the sendee (if they actually wrote one), did you bother reading the rhyme - especially at Christmas time when a dozen or so land daily on your mat or appear in your box ?

But back to Mother's Day and if yours is still alive, of course your feelings about the day will be formed by your relationship with her. In my case, my mum lived in N. Ireland and I live in England (mostly.......in case homeland Security is reading this) so needing to actually buy, stamp and post the card was enough of an effort to sometimes lead me to just take 'the easy option' and ring her. I told myself this was really a better option anyway as surely hearing my voice had to have pleased her much more than getting a card, no matter how wonderful the rhyme inside !?

When mum developed macular degeneration to such an extent in her later years that she was registered blind, my phone call option became the norm and I kept the guilt at bay by telling myself she couldn't read the cards anyway. Then when she died and I was clearing out her house, I opened a drawer and found a large tied up bundle of Birthday and Mother's Day cards from me going back several decades. I asked her sister, who looked in on her most days, about the cards and she told me how mum would treat the arrival of each one like a lottery win and have my greeting read to her over and over.

As I held that bundle of loved memories in my hands, the tears flowed again. Yes it was only a few days since she'd died and I was standing in her home of 52 years going through her most personal possessions, collected and treasured over my lifetime, so it was an emotional time anyway. But the knowledge that a seemingly impersonal and crappy Hallmark card from me had meant so much to her and that it was now too late for me to do anything about it, was just overwhelming. My sense of loss was taken to new heights and mingled with added regret and guilt.

So yes, my feelings about such card sending events are mixed but after my experience with my mum, I think the deciding factor should always be, what effect getting a card will have for the receivee ? We sometimes never know until it's too late but there are usually signs, if we are open to picking them up. Often they are confusing signs ("oh I don't like getting cards" and then the cards are up on display for weeks !!) so we have to do a bit of work to get to the truth.

I think my final thought would be, make and send your own card. This way you can make the greeting 100% personal and the twee rhyme and greeting inside can at least be your twee rhyme and greeting.

That way you have the win/win situation of letting the receivee know you were thinking enough about them to make this effort AND you reduce the profits of the greeting card companies !

Happy 15th March Day to all my readers. And before you ask, none of you will be getting a card.

P.S. I published this post and then decided to add a photo of my mum as she'd have been tickled pink to think she was on the internet. This was the last one taken of her, less than 4 weeks before she died, and I was happy that I used the self timer and took it myself so we were the only ones in the room. She'd just gone into a nursing home as she couldn't look after herself and she loved it there and wished she'd 'moved in' earlier ! I believe she then realised she had no reason to remain on this earth or be a burden to anyone. After 17 years, she effectively gave up on life and after slipping into a coma, she got her dearest wish; with me holding her hand and whispering a final goodbye, she went to be with dad.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Home Sweet Home

I love Google Street View and have used it over and over to explore many places around the world at street level from my armchair. It's also been invaluable for getting previews of places I'm going to, even to the point of knowing what a new friends house looks like before I get there !

The UK now is pretty much covered by Street View, 96% road coverage I think, but part of the missing coverage were always large parts of Northern Ireland, the country of my birth and where I solidly spent the first 18 years of my life, returning often until 2003.

I went looking again the other day and was delighted to find that things had moved on and N.I. is mostly available for Street View access. Even my little home town of Ballymoney is well covered and I can zoom along the streets and roads that are still so familiar to me while sitting with a cool drink in my armchair in mid Florida.

Gotta love the internet.

Sadly the part of the famous Antrim Coast Road that goes past my old boarding school is still not available and I wonder why coverage just stopped so abruptly along a main road - maybe the camera van ran out of petrol ! Hopefully it will be available soon.

Anyway back to Ballymoney. My parents moved into their first real house there together just before I was born, a rented council house on the north west side of the town. That would've been around 1950 and as the house only changed hands when my mother died in 2003, it had been my "family home" for 53 years !

I've just travelled it's length via Street View and to be honest, when I got to our house, it brought a tear to my eye. The outside hasn't changed a bit since I last saw it back when I was over for mum's funeral and in fact it hasn't changed much since 1952 when it first became my home. Understandably, I just can't think of anyone else living there and all of my family would think the same.

As I headed back down the street, which for any years now has had a mix of council and private houses on it, I had a few major nostalgic moments. The tune of an ice cream van coming along the street will always take me back to my childhood as my brother and I would listen for it and then charge outside to join the small band of other eager kids lining up by the van to pick a cold treat on a warm summer's day. If the money was available and we'd been good, we could look forward to a 99, locally produced ice cream in a cone with a chocolate flake stuck into it. The awesome version in this photo would've been unknown to us and the stuff of dreams for a 10 year old.

As you can hopefully see from the interactive Street View image below, someone now owns an ice cream van on the street and actually parks it on his short driveway close to my old house. You may have to move the image to the left to see it. (X out the white address panel and move around inside the image using cursor keys).

What I would've given for that about 45 years ago !! A neighbour with an ice cream van business. OMG.

View Larger Map

Accessing Street View can be a 5 minute process if you just have a specific location you'd like to explore at the closest level possible or, as is usually the case with me, it becomes an all day process taking me to different streets, different towns, different countries.

Or as happened today, different memories.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Faulty Pipework Causes Distress

Here in sunny Buttonwood Bay, the start of the week long Springfest events has coincided with a return to more normal mid Florida weather and I've taken the opportunity to get out and about and enjoy both.

Yesterday I went for my walk at 5:30pm when the temperature was still in the mid 70's and the darkening sky still held enough blue to keep me happy. My mp3 was playing "Glee" songs and I was as happy as an Irish fiddle player in a pub full of tourists.

And speaking of fiddle players neatly brings me to the subject of this post - annoying music.

Over the last few days our neighbours here have dusted off their karaoke machine and entertained us for hours by singing along to country & western songs. I use the words 'entertained' and 'singing' very loosely as karaoke county and western is up there alongside having my eyes poked with a sharp stick and eating a pickle on my list of "disturbing experiences I'd prefer to avoid."

After my walk, I decided to head back out to capture a lakeside sunset. The wispy cloud formations seemed promising but it was such a lovely early evening that I didn't care one way or the other. Just to sit down by the edge of the lake at sunset, any sunset, would be wonderful with the still warm temperature and hardly a breath of wind.

As the sun was setting behind the tree lined horizon across the lake, I took a few photos but I soon realised that none would be spectacular as it just wasn't going to be one of 'those' nights for sunset photography. I put the camera down and got ready to simply enjoy both the peace and quiet and the scene before me.

Now I've mentioned before that in this park we have a few creatures that are best avoided at all times, like snakes and gators. Last evening another creature was added to that list for me - the Lesser Kilted Scottish Bagpiper.

There I was, slowly swinging on my rocking bench at the edge of the lake, taking in God's wonderful sunset before me, when suddenly the peaceful atmosphere was rudely shattered by the the noise of 100 cats collectively having their tails stood on. Or to put it another way, the skirl of a set of bagpipes.

I think I've mentioned this piper before on my blog. When he decides to grace the lakeside area with his presence, we can hear him inside our house with the windows closed. That's bad enough and we can always drown him out by putting on the tv, but when he is only a few feet away, it's another matter altogether. Sure as Scotch eggs are Scotch eggs, when the sun finally dropped below the horizon, he opened up with "Amazing Grace", a tune so over used by songsters and musicians everywhere that it's long since lost all its original meaning and certainly its grace.

I walked towards him as I'd already decided that I would blog about him and this time I wanted a photo to go with the description. Now I know that there are some people out there who like the bagpipes, even some non deaf people. A few of them were sitting in their golf carts near 'our' piper last evening and were encouraging him not to stop playing ! These people are dead to me !

After his first encore, I was close enough to ask him to move further down the path so he would be standing in front of the now set sun as I felt that if I was going to actually take his photo, it might as well be a decent and relevant one.

"Do you want me to play ?" he asked, thus managing to annoy me twice with one question.

"I'd rather you didn't", I replied, seeing as I hated his playing AND I was holding a still camera !

And so this is the result :

I was going to put a line across his eyes like you see on tv photos when they want to provide anonymity for not-yet-guilty criminals but I've tried this guy already and believe me, he's guilty.

Yes I know it may not be fair to have written this post making fun of this old guy who obviously has proud Scottish roots and loves the bagpipes. But I'm of the opinion that no form of music should be forced on others and I'd have been equally upset if someone had set up their boom box and started body popping on the grass by the lake. Not very likely in Buttonwood Bay I hear you say but then who'd have thought we'd have to listen to bagpipes at sunset either ???

So there you have it. I've outed our lone piper and those that like the noise/sound of the pipes can have a pop at me. It's a free country, even this one.

I'll just leave you with a final photo because like wanting a candy after having tasted something nasty, I don't want to close this post with a photo of him.

You can look at it and play Amazing Grace if you want to. Just not on the bagpipes, eh !

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I'm A Celebrity.......No Really, I Am !!

When I shut the laptop lid last night (which drops it into sleep mode), I forgot that I've got it set to do a scheduled virus scan at 12:30am every Tuesday morning. As a result it decided to kick into life when I opened up the lid at 8:22am and trying to stop a scheduled virus scan is like getting an English speaking help desk person. It may be a possibility but not one I've yet come across.

So as a scan takes 6 hrs and really slows down my system, I "took a hammer to the problem" and rebooted.

One of the first programs to come up was my digiguide, an excellent interactive TV guide that I can't live without in the UK. Before shutting it down again (not much use for me here in Florida), I looked to see what was on tv tonight in my area back home. Oh dear.

I'm really not sure how the BBC and ITV get any viewers at all. Filling the peak time slot, all I saw was the usual collection of reality shows, soaps and, dear God almighty, even more 'celebrity' programs. How I hate this celebrity culture and there seems no end to the ridiculous shows they dream up for them and inflict on us.

And who ARE these celebrities ? We're used to reading about A-list celebs and even B-list celebs, people we might actually know about without having to resort to doing a Google search. Then with a plethera of shows to, in most cases, introduce them to us, we found more and more classifications for these people and suddenly we were in danger of not having enough letters in the alphabet to deal with their imagined status.

Tonight there is a show on BBC1 at 9pm called Famous, Rich And Jobless.

Glancing at the 4 names involved, I would class the last word as probable, the middle word as dubious and the first word as downright libelous.

Four celebrities put unemployment in the spotlight by agreeing to swap their fame and fortune for a world of joblessness, job hunting and living on the poverty line and benefits.

Why ? Why on earth would anyone want to see such a thing ? If I was jobless, on benefits or on the poverty line, would I tune in to see how a celebrity would cope, living my life for a while ? No, as I'd probably not have a tv in the first place !!! Oh wait, I'm on benefits so I'd probably have a 62" Sony plasma on the wall. Silly me. But I'm living the life so why would I want to see anyone else dealing with it ?!

And who are these four celebrities ?

Actor Larry Lamb, television gardener Diarmuid Gavin. interior designer Meg Matthews and (drum roll please) model-turned-mechanic Emma Parker Bowles.

I know, I know. Do we have a letter beyond Z ? Z minus or something ! Even with Google search I was hard pushed to find them. I think model-turned-mechanic says a lot about a career progression and television gardener has to be somewhere near television chef in a list of people on tv who should only be seen at 6am on a Sunday morning.

I don't watch Eastenders so even a photo of Larry Lamb didn't help much but at least it ruled out Larry the Lamb, a slightly more famous celebrity who I'd have quite liked to have seen living on benefits for a while !

So there we have it. Educational prime time viewing at its very best on the national channel that I'm helping to pay for. Except that right now, I'm not. Every year, just before coming over here for 6 months, I contact the tv licence people and say I'm leaving and so I'm not going to pay my licence fee till I return. They say that's fine and then send me a letter every month because, according to their records, there is a tv in my house and yet they're not getting any money from me to watch it. The letters get more and more threatening until finally they threaten me with a personal appearance by one of their employees. The following month an employee does indeed appear at my house and leaves a card saying he has done so and if they don't get any money from me, they'll huff and puff and blow my aerial off the roof.

But I'm on cable, so HA !!!!!

I get this every year and every year when I return home and read the letters and see the card, I ring to both let them know I'm back and will therefore start paying my licence fee again AND to complain about the letters. In this little game of playing silly buggers, they always give the same reply.

"Oh it's just a computer thing so you can ignore the letters."

Great, and so I continue to ignore them from 4,000 miles away and wonder why a small part of my licence fee isn't used to get someone to write a better computer programme that can cope with a situation where it's possible for a house to have a tv set but as it's empty for 6 months, it DOESN'T NEED A TV LICENCE.

So as I'm neither in the UK now or able to watch BBC1 anyway, I guess I shouldn't get steamed up about programs like Famous, Rich and Jobless. Except that I do.

Because I just know that when I return, such shows will STILL be on tv and these useless so called celebrities will STILL be appearing on my fully licenced tv screen.

I think they should all be rounded up and sent off into the jungle. Oh wait........

Friday, March 05, 2010

Extra ! Extra !

Watching BBC America the other day, I think I may have discovered what Howard Brown is doing these days.

Brown, you may remember, was the HBOS customer services employee who went on to fame and (presumably) fortune as their singing, dancing, spokesperson on tv adverts from 2000 until the campaigns featuring him were dropped in 2008.

I know that his wikipedia entry says he's still with the company in their PR dept but I think he's doing a bit of moonlighting for the BBC.

I know if I have to see him on tv at all, I much prefer him in a speaking role - and seated !

Thursday, March 04, 2010

(Don't) Be Still, My Beating Heart !!

On this date last year, I blogged about the 16th anniversary of my having my one and only cabbage. The fact that I never want to experience another one has more to do with masked men and sharp knives than with having an aversion to a specific vegetable.

"Having a cabbage" is a quaint way of expressing the acronym CABG which stands for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft and on 4th March 1993, I came face to mask with a roomful of men (and possibly a few women) who cut me open and tinkered with my ticker, as bypass surgery was simplistically explained to Homer Simpson in Series 4, episode 11 when he too had a heart attack.

I remember I got a bit more detail than that when the surgeon came to have a chat with me but I was a bit traumatised by the whole thing and didn't really take it all in. I do remember him saying he had a 98% success rate but being a 'glass half empty' type of character, I was left to fret about being part of the remaining 2%.

The fact that I'm typing this 17 years later shows that I'd nothing to worry about and that I added to the 98% stat instead ! Of course no surgery comes with a guarantee and I don't know about the lifetime of an artery graft but one thing is for sure; its lifetime pretty much ties in with my lifetime !!

I was, at 41, by far the youngest on the 'ward' and after a day and a half, I was running and jumping along the hospital corridors like a spring lamb. Well no actually, I was slowly stumbling a few feet from my bed with the help of a physiotherapist but hey, I was alive and my ticker was ticking. They'd taken a vein from my left leg to use for the grafts and ironically, that was the only painful area on my body. Never mind that my chest had been opened, my rib cage split apart and my heart had been exposed, stopped and then started again by the operating team; my bloody (and stapled) leg hurt !

With the surgery behind me and with plenty of blood rushing along my newly constructed pipework, I quite enjoyed the next few days in the private hospital. I wasn't quite ready for glazed donuts and pate de foie gras sandwiches but the food was excellent. The physio was hard work but necessary and when I was eventually told I could go home, I did have a strange reluctance about doing so. I was content in the warm and comforting surroundings of the hospital, where experts were at my beck and call to deal with my hypochondriacal symptoms.

Every chest twinge, every chest pain, led me to think that something was wrong inside me and I was used to a nurse or a doctor telling me it was perfectly normal and all their tests were showing I was going well. Once home, who would reassure me ?

Of course as the days became weeks and the weeks became 17 years, I've worried less and less about such aches and pains around my heart. It's just a muscle after all and now and then it'll send out a pain to tell me that I've overdone it. After the surgery I came to an agreement with it that I'd do my best not to exert it and it would do its best not to stop working !

So far we've both kept to the agreement although of course you won't be hearing from me if it lets me down.

That's the thing about hearts. They can be described in many ways - faint, broken, strong, pure, big, happy and so on - but the only description that really matters is....beating. Mine beats about 26 million times a year (thanks to beta blockers and other medication) and I'm very grateful for every beat. I don't mind an occasional missing beat or an even less occasional extra beat but I try not to think about a complete lack of beating.

I can do without cabbage as a vegetable.

And although, 17 years ago today, it saved my life, I can do without it even more as a surgical procedure.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Italy Day 9 - 4th September 2009

We left our intrepid tourists (that would be me, Daphne and Stephen) in Piacenza on the evening of Day 8, recovering from the trauma of the tyre blowout on the way north to the Italian lakes.

That evening, we pulled off the A1 autostrada in our 'new' rental car and found a lovely hotel for the night which had a restaurant within it's walls so we didn't have to go out again. It also had cute covered parking areas outside each ground floor room but as you can see below, the weather was wonderful again so we, or the car, didn't actually need protection.

And please, no jokes about being in Italy without protection !!

It was (and still is, I assume) only 75 miles from Piacenza to Como but as we were taking the scenic route where possible and also having to negotiate cities like Milan and Monza, by the time we got parked in Como, it had taken us the best part of 3 hours. But 3 wonderful hours with views of green valleys, snow capped mountains and classic small Italian hill towns.

It was lunchtime when we reached Como and I have to admit that we just wanted a quick meal and then get on with exploring the town....so yes, we went to a McDonalds ! The upside was that this was a McDonalds just a few metres from the edge of Lake Como. The downside was that it was overcast and it WAS a McDonalds !

I'd been anticipating Lake Como (and promoting it to Daphne and Stephen) ever since we started planning this trip and so I was really depressed with the weather. I wanted blue skies and bright sunshine and on arrival we found only cloudy skies and a dreary dullness. After eating, we walked around part of the town before heading for the lake itself. Once again I loved the buildings and the narrow streets and I couldn't imagine anywhere more removed from the tourist trap towns that we have in 'our' Lake District.

Given the weather, we decided to return to the car and drive up the narrow lakeside road to the town of Bellagio, another of the highlights for me ever since seeing the Vegas casino that was inspired by it. Yes I know that's a bizarre reason for wanting to visit any location but if you've ever been to The Bellagio in Vegas, you'll understand.

The SS583 from Como to Bellagio has to be the most stunning yet dangerous 20 mile stretch of road in Italy, and that's saying something. Stunning because of the continuous lake views and dangerous because of the local idiots who regard the road as their own race track. It's narrow, very narrow. Only room for 2 cars to squeeze past in most places and even then you risk a meeting of wing mirrors. You can easily spot local cars - they're the ones with broken or missing wing mirrors.

So we drove along, trying to enjoy the views while not going so slowly that we'd annoy anyone behind us. Anyone but a local that is. They'd zoom up behind us with horns blaring even if we were approaching a corner ! Didn't matter, they wanted past. Brow of a hill, they wanted past. Short tunnel or arch with room for one car, they STILL wanted past. You either put up with the continuous noise and angry gestures from the car behind or you actually have to pull over as best you can and let them past, accompanied by even more horn blaring and unique Italian hand gestures.

Heading north with the lake on our left, we stopped half way up the road at a particularly scenic spot which had steps to the right leading up to some of the many homes which are built into the mountain side. Part way up the series of steep steps, I turned around to face the lake and couldn't believe what I saw. It was as if someone had pulled the clouds away like a quilt and left behind the blue skies and bright sunshine that I'd been hoping for.

It was glorious. It was like switching to a full 3D high definition tv view and so with spirits lifted, we started looking for a hotel somewhere along the road. Minutes later we shot past a concealed hotel entrance on the left which meant the hotel might have lovely views overlooking the lake. Risking life and limb, we did a U-turn (well more like a 15 point turn) and drove back to it. The narrow driveway curved down towards the lake and we managed to park near the hotel. We couldn't see the lake !

Inside we met a very nice owner and as the rates were reasonable considering the location, we booked for the night. We went up to our adjoining rooms and upon opening the door, we entered to darkness. After dumping our cases on the beds, we went to raise the very effective full length window shutters.

OMG I don't think I've ever been so overcome by a surprise view in my life. As the shutters were raised, we were temporarily blinded by the sunlight streaming in to overwhelm the darkness. Once our eyes became accustomed, we looked out onto a long balcony beyond which was a view so unexpected and so beautiful that we stood there with mouths open.

Suddenly all my hopes for Lake Como were not only realised but surpassed and what a dramatic way to have them surpassed. A photo just doesn't do it justice. It only took us seconds to decide we wanted to stay there 2 nights and I went down to reception to book another night but was told there was a wedding party booked in the next day (it was a Saturday) and they were full up. Sighhhhhh.

Once settled and having had enough of the view for then, we set off back up the lake road to Bellagio. We parked just south of the town as I'd wanted to see the gardens of Villa Melzi, the inspiration for parts of the Bellagio Casino interior in Vegas. Sadly it was just 20 minutes from closing time so we weren't able to enter. I did take this shot from the main entrance and I guess I'll just have to return someday ! Imagine the lake being just out of view to the right, as the gardens skirt the waters edge, and you'll see why exploring these gardens would be a delight.

We then walked the short distance into Bellagio and again the classic Italian lake town was everything I'd hoped it would be and we spent the next few hours just walking around the main street which came to a point where the lake was almost all around.

It was all so beautiful on this perfect Italian evening. Ferries were arriving and departing to and from various parts of the lake but these were small, almost personal ferries so the town was never swamped with cars or people. There were several large imposing hotels at the end of the town, all vying for the best locations overlooking the lake. Just after sunset, we found a lovely restaurant which had an outdoor seating section across the narrow one way street, accessed via a pedestrian crossing which seemed more like a carpet leading to our table.

While we ate, we watched visitors enjoying early evening walks around the town and by the time dusk had removed most of the colours from view, Bellagio became even more enchanting.

I'd never eaten pizza in a more scenic and magical location and when the restaurant lamps came on, the view towards the lake from my chair will live long in my memory.

We strolled back to our car and just before I got in, I wanted a last shot of Bellagio as it looked on that September evening. I've not had much experience of taking night scenes so just picked a random time of 15 seconds and this was the result.

The drive back to the hotel was less dangerous as we could at least see the headlights of cars before they'd come flying round the corners and being late, we rarely had a car right behind wanting to overtake us. We could therefore take in the views across the lake with the mountain side homes creating a blanket of sparkling lights for our enjoyment.

What a wonderful day we'd had to help us 'recover' from the previous one. Lake Como and Bellagio were spectacular locations and I hope my long winded account of our vist to them hasn't put anyone off. If you're planning a trip to Italy, you must, I say, must, go to them both.

I know I'd like to do so again one day.

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