Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter 7

I didn't pre-order it (lazy me). I didn't wait on line. And I didn't knock over any children desperate to get their hands on the final tome of this 7-book saga.

I also didn't see the books when I walked into the store.

I popped out of work on this sunny Sunday morning to pick up a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There was a skip in my step as I approached the bookstore. Expecting to see the windows filled with HP book covers and fans in lines down the hallway, I was a little surprised to find the shop nearly empty - and devoid of a visible stack of HP hardcovers.

Afraid of the answer, I asked timidly if there were any copies left. A chipper sales lady replied, "Oh, sure. We're just opening another box," and dipped into a cardboard box with BLOOMSBURY printed on the side. I'd found my stack, at last.

In Israel, where American movies and ice cream flavors tend to put on a belated appearance, Harry Potter arrived on time and in no hurry.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Crossing the Line

There is a woman who cleans our building's stairwell every Thursday morning. We live on the second floor. Each time she comes she rings our bell incessantly so that we can let her in to dump her bucket of dirty water in our toilet and refill it with clean water. This would be a nice thing for us to do, because otherwise she has to go back down to the bottom floor to the faucet to get more water to clean with. But she always rings when we're asleep in bed, in pajamas or less, and she annoys us to pieces with her nonstop ringing.

Usually what happens is, she rings the doorbell, wakes us up, and I get the dog ready to go out. I end up taking him down while she's finishing up. She always says something along the lines of "have a good day" or "bless your soul" - that kind of thing.

Yesterday, she was still cleaning when we got back. And as I passed her in the hallway, she said, "So when are you having kids already?" I was so shocked I just looked at her. How had the cleaning lady managed to poke into my business more than any friend or member of my family, grandparents included? And it didn't end there. When I didn't offer a satisfying reply, she kind of shouted, "What? Aren't you at least thinking about it?" I mumbled something I hoped was sufficiently indignant and went upstairs with her still yelling after me about my nonexistent babies. What I was thinking in my head: "Maybe I would, if you would leave us in peace and quiet!"

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Cruise Update No. 2

Day 3: Redeeming the cruise ship

This was going to be my post on Day 3, when the weather brightened and the ship stabilized and all was well with the world. I thought: time for a cruise-neutral post. An apology of sorts for the last one.

However, since I am writing this entry 1 week post-cruise and 30,000 feet over Lyon, France, I can say in retrospect that it is impossible to redeem cruising as a method of travel unless your idea of a vacation is two weeks in a geriatric ward. More on that later. In all fairness, though, our fellow cruisers seemed to agree that PrinCESS was a line for the elderly, while the more youthfully-named Carnival was perhaps more suited to young people. That and the length of the cruise contributed to the absolute lack of night life or buzz aboard the boat: young people prefer shorter cruises. They haven’t yet amassed the life savings that will make those longer trips possible later in life. And another thing. Vacation days are easier to come by after retirement.

Day 4: Sea legs!

Once the raging wind had died down and the top deck was no longer being thrashed with mist from morning till night (and one could jog on the track without lurching around like a drunken sailor), life on board settled into a routine.

The daily drip

For many people, my brother Achim among them, the day started invariably with coffee. At first it was the buffet brew, made ever-so-delicately from syrup. This bitter, sour, watery caffeine drink was given but one charitable second chance. By Day 2 it had already become clear that this was not merely a chance encounter with the dregs from the bottom of the tap but rather the coffee was made this way – how shall I put this? – intentionally. Freshly brewed stuff – lattes, mochas and the like - was soon discovered (for a fee) in a specialty café at midships on the 5th floor. And then there was the regular drip coffee, nearly free, and not bad at all. Especially compared to the stuff on tap at the buffet.

After that first cuppa, it was time to go upstairs to the breakfast buffet on Deck 12 and join whichever family members one could find. At times, because the café was huge and U-shaped, several of us would end up scattered at different tables around the room, not knowing that the others were just around the corner in the parallel universe that was the other side of the U. We learned to scan the area first and eat second (unless solitude was the goal, in which case we ate at a very small table in a corner). Then, in a nice transition to lunch, and at tables still littered with the remains of bagels and lox, toast, muffins, cereal, fruit, milk cartons and juice cups, ham and bacon and sausage and bologna (!), the cruisers commenced to play relaxed games of scrabble or poker. Once in a while, the waiters would ask a card player or idle shmoozer to vacate the premises so that the table could be used for someone who was planning to actually eat. This was unpleasant. But most of the time, breakfast just melted into lunch, which melted into dessert and then tea at 3:30 (more on that to come), and then – voila – it was 5:45 and time for dinner in the main dining room.

If one managed to detach oneself from food, one could spend the day sunning by the pool on Deck 12 or running outdoors or working out in the underwater and windowless gym. And there was the odd entertaining PrinCESS activity, such as the competition to build a boat that would sail 24 cans of beer across the pool and back (the Lyon sisters won 2nd place) and the on-deck ice carving show. At night, there were several empty bars to hang out in. And a theater filled with an audience watching a show that was much like an overacted high school play.

See? Lots to do on a ship.

"Rolling Scones"

My favorite part of the day was tea, the best-kept secret of the cruise. For one hour, the main dining room was filled with tea napkins and dainty dishes; small sandwiches and bite-sized cookies; Lipton tea and – of course – tiny delicious currant scones with a side of jam and cream. We happily managed many hushed and polite yes pleases and no thankyous, despite the caffeine that was flowing into our system as more tea kept arriving with our scones.

We couldn’t get enough of the little scones, which were perfectly crunchy on the outside and good and sconey on the inside. And we weren’t the only ones. The international dining staff loved the word and couldn’t stop repeating it. “Scones?” they would offer frequently, singing to themselves “scone, scone, scone, scone, stone scone, rolling scone” as they held their trays high and navigated the rocking aisles with ease.

Cruise survival kit

Tea gave us an opportunity to sit and talk in a quiet environment. On deck and in the bars and lounges there was almost always music, often played to audiences of zero (except when Dancing Hannah was around). we were hard-pressed to find a quiet moment outside of the stateroom. The ship had several grand pianos; at tea, however, there was only a man playing keyboard music (poor thing), which could be escaped at the other end of the room. Headphones went a long way toward cutting out the noise; there are two other items that were not in our packing guide and should have been:

1 Walkie talkies. It’s a big ship with no cell reception. Either bring a pair of walkie talkies or spend countless hours wandering around looking for someone who might be right there in the next room.

2 Power strip. There is one outlet per room. One camera can be charged, or one computer plugged in, at a time. One. Bring along a power strip and you’ll notice a marked improvement in your lifestyle.

The great outdoors

Finally – after five days at sea, we were back on land! And yet, somehow, all our adventures still involved water.

In Hilo, a small picturesque town on the island of Hawaii, Achim, Deb, Ronit and I rented a car (by a fluke, we ended up with the overly luxurious Chrysler 300 instead of the Dodge Neon we had reserved) and headed up the coast to Akaka Falls State Park. Along the way, we stopped in a tiny town for victuals (local beer and sandwiches) and the post office. The drive was beautiful and so was the short hike through the rainforest to the waterfall lookout. We saw many Banyan trees and tropical flowers and plants, including bananas. A little disappointed that the waterfall itself was so far away, we headed for a small beach park, whose turnoff we missed twice due to the car’s inability to make quick, comfortable turns. Big laughs. At the park, a river rushed to the sea in a scenic rocky area surrounded by forest. Children swung over the river on a rope swing, but our desire to join them was overcome by rumors of an infectious bacteria in the river. We had lunch, rested, and, overflowing with mirth at our fancy Chrysler 300 tooling around in the rainforest, made an impromptu Borat-style commercial promoting it.

A few days later, we landed in Honolulu, Oahu. It is difficult to describe the experience of pulling up to shore on a cruise ship and being face-to-face with modern skyscrapers after days of ocean horizon followed by the little down of Hilo. Up on Deck 12, we watched the city approach at an interesting angle. Achim and I looked at a map and decided to walk a few miles from the port to the famous Waikiki Beach. The walk was uneventful (except for the Duck Butt Cafe) – we passed a lovely, spacious white beach and we were passed by a convoy of Harley bikers. Mouthwatering smells wafted up from the waterfront, where Hawaiians had set up family BBQs every few meters. Pleasantly tired out, we arrived at Waikiki, sunscreened up, and stayed there for a while. This beach was so packed with tourists that the hot sand was barely visible. Catamarans waited to whisk tourists off on a speed tour. Nearby, the International Market sold overpriced local souvenirs. After dipping in the water, we met dad, Jane and Hannah for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Jane and I hit Macy’s. And then we took Hannah to get her ears pierced for her 7th birthday. At a body piercing joint.

Nawawili, Kauai, was our next stop. Verdant mountains greeted us as we anchored in the harbor. Kauai is home to Mt. Waialeale, the rainiest spot on earth, now sheathed in cloud and inaccessible except by helicopter. The five of us – me, Achim, Deborah, Ilana and Ronit – had consulted a guidebook and found what sounded like an exciting, challenging and satisfying waterfall hike. We hailed a taxi to take us to the trailhead in Kapa’a, and proceeded, surefooted in water booties and sandals, to seek our way in the forest.

The book may have been old; the trail, unmarked, may have changed. After 10 minutes of hiking by the book (and one crazy rainshower), we were lost. The directions read something like this: Begin at the water tower at the end of Kahuna St. in Kapa’a. At the remains of an old cement dam, the trail will lead to a hidden water hole. Do not go there. Instead cross the river. To your left will be a pleasant swimming hole" (was on our right). "Continue up the other bank and after a short while in the bamboo forest, the path will lead steeply uphill. Do not follow the path that way. Walk up the river some 40 feet past the rock face" (what is a rock face? Had I ever seen one and would I recognize one if I did?). We were forced into the river and had no idea how or where to continue on the path, when along came our fairy godmother. Or fairy tourguide, as luck would have it. Peter happened to be doing a quick hike of his own when he heard our voices and came to our rescue, leading us forth. We never did make it to the waterfalls; we hiked about 1 mile in 4 hours and in this terrain – rocky rivers, muddy cliff edges and mosquito hell - probably needed 6 to 8 hours for the trip. But we did see ginger and shelf fungi and stop at a lovely water hole before turning back, and the sun graced us there for a few minutes.

We returned to the ship wet, muddy and ridden with mosquito bites. It was great.

The last Hawaii stop was in Lahaina, Maui, where we dropped anchor 10 minutes from shore. Once again, Achim and I explored the town on foot, winding up at the cute little Lahaina Train Station (all aboard!) and finally the picturesque Kaanapali Beach. When you picture Hawaii, Kaanapali is that image. White sands, turquoise water, a few scattered palm trees breezing in the wind. We took in the beach and headed back to the ship.