Mama Farmer’s Arrival, Take Two

We roused ourselves the next morning in Sorrento, barely making the cut-off for breakfast in the light and airy breakfast room. I’d forgotten those Italians mistake tar for coffee! But the tea was great, and we had a full buffet of pastries, juices and hard boiled eggs to fill us up.

The prior evening, Derek had finally reached Mama Farmer in her hotel room in Paris – she and Candy were sound asleep. We learned that their missed connection had resulted in the airline putting them up in a passable hotel with a small room, and that they’d ventured by train into Paris but didn’t explore much beyond the station. Despite their foggy brains, we managed to make a plan that we thought would work: they would take a cab from the Naples airport to the Circumvesuviana train station (adjacent to the main Naples terminal), where we would meet them at a specified time (which I can’t remember, but it was around noon).

That morning we decided to take the train into Naples a couple hours early, so that we could explore the city a bit before meeting them. Once we disembarked in Naples, we wondered if we’d made a mistake with the meet-up plan – it wasn’t all that simple to get to the Circumvesuviana platform. There was construction, plus multiple entrances. Hmmm. Mama Farmer and Candy might be in trouble.

That aside, we made our way through the crowded streets and bus terminals outside the station, following our very basic map toward the main cathedral (Duomo di Napoli) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naples_Cathedral, which was supposed to be quite impressive. Our route took us on the edge of what appeared to be a bit of a rough neighborhood – broken glass bottles everywhere, with cheap flea market vendors peddling goods. We’d heard petty crime in Naples was a problem, so we just kept our bags close and wits on alert.

We were generally impressed with the cathedral, which is tough to accomplish given the number of cathedrals we’ve seen. It was also interesting to traverse the narrow streets in that neighborhood to get a feel for the city. Overall it seemed crowded, unkempt and a little shady. Maybe it’s just where we wandered. Lots of clothes hanging out to dry.

The streets were confusing, and we didn’t have a lot of time to get back to the station. So our traipse around the city was short-lived. We were barely on track to get back in time to meet the ladies. And we had no idea where they would be lurking.

That question didn’t go unanswered for long. We hoofed it down to the ticket office for our train to see if they were there. No go. So we took the escalators back up to the main level, and seconds later we literally bumped into them. [Big sigh of relief.]

We got our tickets, had a snack from the vending machine and then waited to board the train. Destination: Pompeii (half way to Sorrento).

Everyone was hungry when we got off the train a half-hour later, so we gladly accepted an invitation into a mostly-tented restaurant right outside the Pompeii excavation site. There we had paninis and hot tea, trying to warm up before our adventure back in time.

I’d been to Ostia Antica – another archeological site near Rome – on another trip to Italy, but Pompeii is really much more impressive. The former is spread out and not as restored, which means your feet really take a beating and you have to use your imagination. In Pompeii, you really get a feel for how people lived, and they’ve done an impressive amount of restoration.

The weather was excellent (for January), so we enjoyed tromping around in the afternoon sun to the various points of interest. Then we headed back to the train for Sorrento.

The gals checked into the hotel, and then we headed into town for shopping and dinner. (This was a preview of the amount of walking they would do during their stay with us.)

Since we’d scoped out the stores and a restaurant the night before, we headed straight for the purse boutique, only to be derailed by, oh, at least five limoncello stores, all handing out samples. Mama Farmer was especially enamored with stores that had both limoncello AND painted pottery. It seemed that a platter was on her list of things to buy. My favorite was the creamy sort of limoncello, while Mr. Farmer preferred his straight-up. (Candy later gave us a recipe for the creamy kind, which we have yet to make.)

After a good amount of shopping time, we found a pizza/pasta place on the second floor above some boutiques and ordered ourselves some wine and pizza. We were sitting in the make-shift canvas room near the door, which meant we just about froze. Dinner was nice – but Mr. Farmer and I agreed that we liked the atmosphere of the previous night’s place more.

Sometime during the evening we stopped to take photos of Christmas lights.

Then it was lights out.

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Where’s Mamma Mia?

We had a very early morning flight from Athens to Naples (via Rome), and we were set to meet Mama Farmer and her traveling buddy Candy at the airport, as they were arriving a couple hours after us – so we thought.

Our flights went flawlessly, and we sat around and had paninis while we waited. But as we stood outside customs watching the last passengers from their flight exit through sliding doors, we started to wonder if they’d made it. Finally I caught the attention of someone who looked like a tarmac worker with an orange vest, and thought it became clear that he only spoke Italian, he got the picture of what I was asking: “Is there anyone left back there?”

Unfortunately the answer was “no.” So we boarded the Curreri bus for Sorrento without them, hoping they would get us a message somehow. Clearly they weren’t coming right away.

We enjoyed the scenic drive, which at times hugged the coast. We finally reached Sorrento, where the bus dropped us at the train station and we grabbed a cab to Hotel Desiree’ on the outskirts of town.

Sorrento is most situated on the top of cliff that drops straight down to the sea. Our hotel was small and quaint – could almost be called spartan. But it was clean, fresh and had the main things we were looking for: a bed, an ocean view and breakfast. Oh yeah, nice staff. So nice, in fact, that they were waiting with a message from Mama Farmer that they had missed their flight in Paris and would be arriving on the same flight the next day.

It was pretty chilly (given that it was January and we were on the water), but we ventured the mile or so into town on foot to explore. Our overall takeaway: it’s a Christmas tourist hub! Lights and decorations everywhere, along with lots of Italians strolling the streets, popping in and out of a mix of high-end shops and tourist-grade specialty boutiques hawking purses, scarves and lemoncello. The main square had a huge Christmas tree of lights. All very festive.

I was especially enamored with one of the purse boutiques, but refrained as usual from buying anything since our packing space was at a premium.

We walked the main streets, then down a side street to an overlook of the sea.

We about froze – it was cold, damp and windy. The good news was that we saw a cute pizza place and made a mental note to come back later for dinner. Our final stop en route back to the hotel was a low-end cafe that appeared to have internet access – except we had to have our passports in order to use it, which we didn’t have along. So we settled for coffee and a pastry.

Later we walked back downtown for dinner, and it didn’t disappoint. It was one of our favorite restaurants in Italy, and the pizza, salad, wine and cozy casual atmosphere were just what we needed. Then it was off to bed.

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Bravo! A Performance at the Sydney Opera House

Our last day in Sydney happened to be a Saturday, which was to our advantage because there was actually a concert at the opera house that we wanted to see – and there were still a few tickets available in the choir loft. The Whitlams (a popular rock band that I’d never heard of) were playing with the Sydney Symphony.

The concert was in the evening, so we had time to see more of Sydney during the day. The boys went back to Darling Harbor to a maritime museum, while Mom and I wandered around shopping in the Queen Victoria building complex. It was an area bustling with Christmas shoppers, and the building itself was magnificently redone.

After a short rest back at the condo that afternoon, we walked back to the Opera House. My first goal was to get some photos with the building behind us, trying to recreate the shot that they took of us and tried to get us to buy during the tour a few days prior. Unfortunately the time of day wasn’t great – the sun was in our eyes.

The other three were plenty annoyed with me by this time, but I still wanted a group shot. I had something like this in mind:

So I asked a guy to snap the photo, and here’s what I got, with his idiot sidekick in the background.

We were quite early for the performance, so we meandered around the lobby facing the harbor until they let us in the auditorium.

It was fun to watch the auditorium fill from our birds-eye vantage point.

The concert was quite good – phenomenal sound, even sitting behind the musicians. The band was a cross between U2 and Harry Connick Jr., with the lead singer on piano.

When the concert was over we walked back toward the condo along the same street that we’d been walking all week, but this time we got a treat! It was our first pass in the dark, so we hadn’t seen the buildings lit with fancy lights.

The evening was a great wrap to our trip with Mom and Dad. The next morning we cleaned up the condo and headed for the airport, where Derek and I got through check-in much faster than the other two (our flight was sooner, so check-in was already open when we arrived). So as we waited for them to meet us at our gate and say goodbye, I ran over to the bookstore to get dad a copy of the Warren Buffet biography and something to drink. They called for our flight to board, and they hadn’t yet arrived. I was getting worried…and weepy. Finally, at the very last second, they came around the corner and we said goodbye before heading on 14 hour flights in different directions.

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An Opera House Tour + Manly Adventure

Touring the Sydney Opera House was tops on our list, and we’d purchased tickets for the hour-long tour online. We had selected the 10 a.m. timeslot, so we set out shortly after 9:00 to complete the 45-minute walk to get there on time.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s an astounding piece of design, architecture and acoustics. Brilliant. Read all about it HERE.

The tour guide gave us a brief overview of the design competition in 1955, won by Danish architect Jorn Utzon with just some simple sketches of his “sail” concept. The venue was completed almost 20 years and over $100 million later – 14 times the cost and 10 years overdue. Utzon was booted from the job midway through and never returned to see his finished masterpiece in person.

Here are the things that had the biggest impression on me:
1. I didn’t know the roof is ceramic tile, and the tiles are a mix of matte and gloss finish. There are about 1 million of them.

2. When you look at the structure from the water (like you normally see in pictures), it’s as if you’re standing at the back of each hall. The stages are on the other end. The benefit of this placement is that there’s a large social space that almost hangs over the water, where you can have a drink before the performance and take in the views.

3. The common area behind the stage has a really interesting wood ceiling. This is the place where most people enter the venue, emerging from a dark underground tunnel. This was deliberate in the design, adding drama to the first steps one takes into the foyer.

4. The people watching outside is phenomenal.

After the tour we walked to the neighborhood called “The Rocks” at the head of the Harbor Bridge. I’d equate this to the original colonial neighborhoods in Boston, with lots of old red brick buildings and cobblestone streets.

There were a couple of restaurants recommended in our guidebook, and we chose the wrong one – the food was marginal, and the pigeons were all over us once we were done (we were sitting on the back patio).

From there we jumped on a ferry to our second major destination of the day: the suburb of Manly, which is on the ocean. We’d been on the water going to the zoo the day before, but this longer ride was big on Dad’s agenda. It took almost an hour. And we were greeted by a cute seaside town like you’d see on Cape Cod.

It was pretty windy that day and not all that hot, but we enjoyed sitting on the edge of the beach watching people and commenting on the large waves.

We took a little walk through town before returning back to the ferry.

Back in Sydney, we decided to stroll through the Botanical Gardens on our way back o the condo, which is where we encountered a (flock? swarm? herd?) of fox eared bats hanging in the trees! They looked like big black cocoons. https://gallopingtheglobe.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/bats-and-santas/

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Perusing the Harbor

Fortunately the water was back on by morning on our first full day in Sydney. We’d stopped at a grocery store the night before to grab breakfast fixings, so after a couple pieces of toast with peanut butter and some instant coffee, we headed north towards the harbor and the famous Sydney Opera House.

It was quite a long walk – about 45 minutes. We passed by plenty of interesting sights on our way, including St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was just completed in time for the Sydney Olympics. Just as interesting was the huge underground aquatic center, which was evident above ground mainly by the silver metal walls you see in the photo below, which sported a few windows to look down on the human fish splashing around.

(Doesn’t it seem strange for early December? Sunny? Swimming? What?)

The church was pretty impressive, and Dad took us back through the next day to have a look at a painting that particularly struck him. Beyond that, we navigated through the Japanese tourists who briefly filled the sanctuary, got the required photo and then leaped back on the A/C bus waiting outside.

From there we walked alongside the Botanical Gardens and finally saw the grand sails of the Opera House.

It is truly impressive. Much more impressive than in photos.

The famous harbor bridge was across the way, and we could make out the crazy people walking along the top of it.

We lurked around the area for a few minutes, then walked the promenade full of restaurants and tourists in search of a cheap meal. (Ha!) We did manage to find a good one, to our surprise, in a food court just across the street from the harbor. I continued my trend of eating Thai beef salad, while the others spread out to sample other fare. This meal among the corporate workers of Sydney reminded me that normal people actually do have jobs.

After that we boarded a ferry to the Taronga Zoo, which was across the harbor and closer to the sea. I guess I didn’t realize how far up river downtown Sydney sits – I was under the false impression that it was right on the ocean, but that’s not true. It’s quite a few miles to get to the crashing waves. From the ferry we got great views of the Opera House.

I think the others were a little ho-hum about going to the zoo in the first place, but Dad was excited to get out on the water to look back at downtown. It didn’t take long to get to the entrance of the zoo, which was at sea level, and we opted to take the gondola to the highest point, given that the zoo is on a hill that is quite steep.

We’d missed many of the animal demonstrations because we’d come in the afternoon, but the Birds of Prey show was the final show of the day and was on our agenda. We were all hankering to see koalas, which were hilarious and cute as they sleepily munched eucalyptus. We spent quite a while gawking at them.

Then it was on to the reptile house and finally to the amphitheater for the bird show.

My photos don’t do the show justice – it was amazing how the host could call in those huge birds and get flocks to do what she wanted them to!

After sitting in the hot sun for about 30 minutes, we grabbed a drink and then wound our way down the hill, stopping to look at the meerkats, tigers, elephants, kangaroos and sea lions, among other animals. It was a great outing.

By the time we took the ferry back across the harbor and walked to the hotel, our feet were killing us and we were pooped. So we got take-out from the Thai place in our condo building and called it a night.

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Chopstick Adventure

I’m a fan of Asian food — Vietnamese, in particular. But this fondness developed after college. Before that, my experience of Asian food was limited to bland canned La Choy on Minute Rice.

My first taste of Vietnamese food was in New York during my first year out of college, when I was visiting a friend I’d met in Germany. We’d decided to take a load off for dinner and order take-out. He asked if I liked Vietnamese. I said, “Sure”, though I had absolutely no idea if I’d be eating dog, kidneys or otherwise. (Fortunately their staples are normal cuts of chicken, beef and pork.)

Let’s face it: in Kansas, there are few places to get authentic Asian food outside of Wichita, Lawrence and Kansas City. So you can see why I didn’t learn to use chop sticks until I was 28, when I moved to Chicago and my college chem lab partner introduced me to sushi. (Which I also really like.)

On our first night in Sydney, Mr. Farmer and I decided we should take Ma and Pa to Chinatown for an authentic Chinese food experience. It didn’t occur to me that they’d probably never eaten Chinese food except at the Chinese Kitchen take-out counter at Dillons, which hardly counts.

We didn’t have any particular restaurant on our radar, so once we crossed through the ornate red and gold dragon gate into Chinatown, we meandered by two places, then were nabbed in the middle of the street by the proprietor of a rather large establishment with seating on two floors plus tables out front on the sidewalk.

He took us upstairs to a large dining room, and he handed out the menus, which prompted a deer-in-the-headlights look from both of my parents. This was the “Western” version of the menu, devoid of chicken feet and other undesirables, but we could see that we were still going to have to make a recommendation in order for their faces to unfreeze. So it was lemon chicken for Mom and sweet and sour pork for Dad.

When the egg rolls arrived with chopsticks as the only eating utensils, Mr. Farmer gave a lesson in how to use them, which he’d learned from his Korean college roommate, who was also to blame for his keen appreciation of kimchi. Here’s how it went:

The main course arrived with a fork, to Mom’s great relief. Dad, on the other hand, proceeded to gobble down the whole plate with chopsticks. Mr. Farmer was shocked. Perhaps it was his overdeveloped skills with pliers and wrenches that made him a natural.

Chinatown is really close to Darling Harbor, so after we finished eating, we ambled on over. It reminds me of a much nicer Navy Pier (Chicago), with more attractions, better shopping and just a nicer overall ambience. From here we first experienced the spectacular Sydney skyline. We walked the promenade (with McDonald’s ice cream cone in hand), passing by the many fountains, ending up at the harbor itself. From there we called it a night.

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Our Digs in Sydney

For the first time on our trip, we were actually glad to be leaving a place and moving on to the next. Our morning stop at McDonalds in Alice Springs was enjoyable, and we made our way to the airport for our flight to Sydney.

Though I’d spent quite a bit of time researching accommodations and neighborhoods in Sydney, I hadn’t pulled the trigger on accommodations until we were in Trinity Beach – only a week in advance of our stay. It was tough to find a two-bedroom condo in our price range in a decent location, but I managed to nab one that looked ok in pictures. I corresponded with a woman at the management company to make arrangements. She told me to call her from the airport once we had our bags, and she’d meet us at unit to let us in.

We had no trouble finding the address via cab, but when we arrived at the front desk, we ultimately figured out that most of the condos were managed by the company that manned the front desk. Ours was one of the exceptions, so we sat around the lobby and read brochures for attractions while we waited 15 minutes for the woman to show up.

Suddenly a 40-year-old hippie-like Eastern European woman swept through the door, shook all our hands and took us up the elevator to our home for the next few days. She chattered on and on – oversharing, in my opinion. The unit looked kinda like she did, worn around the edges with faded 80s décor. See the unit HERE.

We had a bit of a private laugh at the condition, but ultimately it had plenty of space and everything seemed to be operational. Finally the woman left us in peace.

Really the place was fine for the price. It was located on the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which meant that we were on the edge of the tourist district, but it was interesting to see more of the “real Sydney” in action.

That night, however, right after I turned off the light and crawled into bed with Mr. Farmer, my dear man was trying to recount what I’ll call the “water incident”, and he was literally laughing so hard he was sobbing. I think this is the only time I’ve seen Mr. Farmer cry.

Why all the fuss? When we’d come home from our evening at Darling Harbour, someone tried to take a shower and realized there was no hot water. We tested the bathroom and kitchen faucets, and they were both cold, too.

So Dad began to give the whole thing an examination to see what the issue was. At this point I called the condo manager and left a message, and then went down to the front desk to report the issue, asking if we were the only unit without water. They had no clue. So back up the elevator I went to wait.

We didn’t hear a peep from anyone, and the water was still off when we went to bed an hour later. That’s when Mr. Farmer had his breakdown.

After a minute of watching him cramp from laughing so hard, I figured what he was dying to tell me had to be really juicy. Boy was I disappointed! Or maybe you just had to be there. To this day we can’t remember exactly what happened, but apparently Dad was futzing around with the plumbing. He flushed the toilet to see if what he’d done had worked, and upon suddenly realizing that there was now no water, he exclaimed, “#*$&! Now what have I done?!?”

Fortunately the water problem wasn’t our fault, and by 8 a.m. it was back on.

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