Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Let there be light!

We may not have snow or chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but Brisbane does know how to put on a Christmas light show.

For the second year, some friends and I joined the crowds in King George Square to watch the Brisbane City Hall transform into a Christmas wonderland.

This year, the projected light show tells the story of the Nutcracker.

With the facade of City Hall as the stage, there's a lot going on.

When midnight strikes, young Clara's enchanted Christmas gift leads her into a wonderous world.

With the valiant Nutcracker by her side, Clara defeats King Rat and his giant mice, and journeys to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets.

There the Sugar Plum Fairy bids everyone to dance in her honour.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Fake festive scenes

The fire is roaring and it's snowing outside.  The scene couldn't be more idyllic.

Importantly, I haven't let the fact that I'm sitting in a unit without a fireplace in the middle of summery Brisbane stand in the way of my desire for a white and wintery Christmas.

Once again, Netflix is delivering where Mother Nature, geography and wealth has not.

Imagine my delight while scrolling through Netflix's Holiday Favourites to discover Fireplace For Your Home.

Yep.  That's 60 minutes of flames.   Well, actually 3 x 60 minutes of flames as you have three options (complete with their provided descriptions).
  • Crackling Yule Log Fireplace
    • This edition includes a crackling yule log set to holiday favourites such as Joy to the World and We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • Crackling Fireplace
    • This instalment includes an old-fashioned wood-burning fireplace.  enjoy the bright and cheery flames and the real crackling of the fire!
  • Crackling Fireplace with Music
    • This program offers the next best thing to a cheery, crackling fire, enhance with a tasteful accompaniment of music to set the right ambience
I like the fact that there are captions - just in case there's any confusion about what's going on.

I also like the fact that there are options without Christmas music.  After all, pyromaniacs need something to watch during the year don't they?

Sure, it was pretty exciting when that other piece of wood caught fire about 13 minutes in, but for my money I pick the Fireplace For Your Home's stable mate: Winter Wonderland for your Home - snow scenery for your television.

No prizes for guessing what this one's about, but as the description reads:
Setting a wintery mood has never been so easy.  Snowy background scenes appear every few minutes and are accompanied by holiday music.

Wait for it... a scene change!

It's full of "surprises" and "action" as it shifts from a range of snowy scenes.

Oh, the river

And then the mountains

And the lake
Why all this snow at home is enough to make me want to cancel my upcoming ski trip.  Why leave my living room when it's all right here?  I must be mad!

Finally, should you be feeling a little bit "bah humbug" about the whole season, then there's some other non-Christmas options for you:
  • Aquarium - Goldfish
  • Cascade Mountain Stream
  • Aquarium - Saltwater Reef
Netflix.   It just keeps giving.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Caught between a rock and a hard place

It could be my perfect hermit home.

Tucked into a fissure in a Welsh limestone cliff, you'd need to know the tiny building was there as it can barely be seen from land or water.

And even if people did somehow decide to drop by, they'd need to navigate the 52 slippery and uneven stairs down.
My new home?  St Govan's Chapel

Importantly, St Govan's Chapel was previously home to another hermit so you know it's fit for purpose.
St Govan's Chapel tucked in a small cliff fissure

Consisting of a single room measuring about 6m by 4m, St Govan's Chapel must be one of Pembrokeshire's tiniest churches.   But what it lacks in stature, it makes up for in quirkiness.

A home with a sea view

It clearly wasn't built to manage the Christmas and Easter worshipping hordes.  In fact, you could swear it's pretty much designed to keep people away.  You can see the appeal.   If it had windows, doors, heating and wifi I'd be moving in.
Inside St Govan's Chapel 

The little chapel dates back to the 13th Century and is apparently built on the site of a cave that was once sanctuary to St Govan.

As the tale goes, St Govan was an Irish monk travelling to Wales when pirates attacked him.   The cliff magically opened up and left a fissure big enough for him to hide in.   The pirates left, but St Govan stayed on to live in the small cave.

Like all good stories there's plenty of conjecture about whether his body (or his silver bell) is buried here, but otherwise the chapel itself is a blank canvas.   A small well nearby, now dry, was also believed to have special healing powers.

The well (now dry)

But maybe St Govan's Chapel isn't as quirky as it sounds.  You see in this corner of the world, churches seem to come in two sizes: super small or super big.

A little further west are the ruins (and a modern remake) of the small St Non's Chapel.  It marks the birthplace of St David, who, as patron saint of Wales, is a fairly big deal in these parts.   In real estate terms, it's a fixer-upper, but to you and I it doesn't have a roof or many standing walls.

Ruins of St Non's Chapel
Just steps away is a modern remake of the Chapel.  You could probably get married or have your funeral here, just be sure you don't have many friends as it's pretty small.

The rugged Pembrokeshire coastline

The modern version of St Non's Chapel
In complete contrast is the mammoth and ornate interior of the nearby St David's Cathedral, in the town of St Davids.

The imposing St David's Cathedral
Inside St Davids

Despite its size, it's mostly hidden from view because it was designed to be tucked away in a valley below the village to hide it from marauders (don't they just sound annoying!) sailing along the coast.

Tucked away in the valley

St David's bones are also believed to be kept here, adding to the allure of the place over the centuries.

Shrine that's home to St David's bones

St David's Cathedral seems ridiculously large given the size of the tiny village it sits in, but in medieval times this was one of the most important shrines of medieval Christendom.

Back then, two pilgrimages to St Davids was equivalent to one to Rome.

Either way, it's a long haul for this antipodean hermit but well worth the hike.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Bring me Bota Bota

It seems everyone's in the same boat, and that small boat it leaking, taking on water fast and very, very slowly making its way towards Christmas.

With any luck, we'll all make it to shore alive on 25 December... maybe without having tossed a few people over the side along the way (either to lighten the load or just because we feel like it).

It all gets a bit frantic and crazy at this time of year doesn't it?

This weekend, I was craving some time out, but felt even flopping on the bed just didn't cut it.

I needed a place where I could go for a few hours and completely switch off.  I needed a place like Bota Bota.

Bota Bota - a boat with so much more

Sadly, Bota Bota is in Montreal, Canada, but that won't deter me from torturing you and myself reminiscing about this amazing place.

Bota Bota is a day spa, but so much more, located on an re-purposed boat permanently moored in Montreal's Old Port.

The boat itself is a black beast of a thing, sitting among the old industrial port that is gaining new life as an urban recreation wonderland.

Stepping aboard Bota Bota
Sure, Bota Bota has massages, treatments and all the usual trappings of a day spa, but what I signed up for was the Nordic bath circuit.

In short, this is a self-paced rotation through dry saunas, steam baths, cool plunge pools and outdoor hot tubs.

This circuit is ridiculously relaxing, with the hot and cold treatment melting tense muscles and leaving me slightly light headed.

You can spend as little or as long as you want in each place - no one is there telling you to move on.

In fact no one is saying much at all.

Bota Bota with downtown Montreal just steps away
One of the rules at Bota Bota is that talk is to kept to a minimum (a tick of approval from me already).  Any mobile phones, cameras and other electronic devices are left in the bowels of the boat along with your clothes (you are wearing your swimmers and a white fluffy robe).  

So no one's taking selfies, and no one's talking on the phone to friends.   It's peaceful and quiet.  Just bliss.

In between sweating in the sauna and freezing in the plunge pool, I take some time out in some of the indoor and outdoor spaces throughout the boat designed to chill out, relax, or in my case pass out and sleep.  

One of the chill out areas - the lounges on the deck
What makes this place so phenomenal is how utterly relaxing it is - all while being just footsteps away from Montreal's Old Town.   I can see the bustling city right in front of me from the bubbling hot tub, but I feel so detached it's as though I'm watching it on a giant television screen.

Even more amazing is the price.   This isn't a lifestyle retreat with a hefty price tag.

You can lounge around for as long as you like for as little as $45 for three hours.      There's also a bar and cafe on board should you want to make a day of it.

If I had my way, Bota Bota would pull up its anchor and motor on up the Brisbane River.  I'd be there every weekend.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

All the glitters is not gold

Netflix is on it's way Down Under and the locals are excited.  And so they should be.

For years, our best TV option was Foxtel, which, like most monopolies, kept a tight reign on the channel packages and pricing.  It's no coincidence that the whiff of Netflix coming to Australia sent Foxtel prices tumbling.

After more than a decade of devoted Foxtel channel flicking, I ditched it a few months ago in favour of Netflix.   While Netflix has yet to launch in Australia, it seems about 200,000 Australians like myself have been getting Netflix by subscribing to the US version and working around the geo-blocking.

Now I'm no tech head, but I found it all surprisingly simple using the instructions outlined here.

So apart from being much cheaper than Foxtel (I'm talking a total of $13 a month total compared to Foxtel's previous $60), there's more content than you can poke a stick at and it's available ad free and on demand.

As I've delved into Netflix, I've loved the choice and freedom, but I've also discovered that just because it's on Netflix doesn't mean it's any good.

A prime example of this is the horrible/addictive TV viewing that is Bridalpasty.

Yes, this show is a bad as it sounds.   I think you can guess the premise: it's part Extreme Makeover, part Bridezillas and part Survivor.

Originally screened in 2010 (and surprisingly never commissioned again), Bridalplasty is a US reality TV show where 12 engaged women compete to win a dream wedding, complete with plastic surgery procedures.

The husband-to-be of the winner does not see his fiancee for months until the wedding day, by which time she has been nipped, tucked and sucked within an inch of her life and is probably considering an upgrade in the life partner department.

Each week, the engaged ladies compete in a series of challenges of questionable importance: flower arranging, cake selection etc.  The winner of each of these challenges gets one of the many plastic surgery procedures they want.

Given the lengthy surgery wish list each of the participants have, from breast enhancements through to liposuction and nose jobs, you'd mistakenly think you were dealing with some of the world's most hideously deformed women.
This is Cheyenne, her before photo and her surgery wish list

Each week, the bottom two losers are up for elimination, with the the remaining contestants choosing who should stay by "RSVP-ing" and siting at their bridal table during the brutal elimination ceremonies.

Once the most unpopular wannabe bride is identified, she is sent away sans cosmetic enhancement and accompanied by the cutting final words of the show host: "Barbara, you'll still have your wedding, it just won't be perfect."

You could do a thesis or two on the terrible messages this show sends: from perceptions of beauty, body dysmorphia, the role of a wife, narcissism, and what constitutes a perfect wedding these days.

Still, it's a highly addictive show thanks to the inevitable tantrums, back-stabbing and constant stream of contestants being wheeled back from the operating theatre.

Looking good!

Bridalplasty not only serves as a great reminder of how not everything on Netflix is cinematic gold, but also how, just like with free-to-air television, if you're not careful you can easily get sucked into watching pure and unadulterated crap.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Global travel mysteries

Call Jessica Fletcher, the Famous Five and Sherlock Holmes because there's a pile of travel mysteries just waiting to be solved.

They've been burning away in the back of my mind for some time now, but having just returned from a work trip to Melbourne I've been reminded of some of the inexplicable and baffling things we often face while travelling.

Grab your magnifying glass and finger print kit, and let's see if we can crack some of my top five travel mysteries.

Mystery 1:  Why do hotels still charge for wifi?

It's like they're operating in 2004 and a reminder that if they could find a way to charge for soap and sheets they probably would.   Worse still, it seems the more you've paid for your hotel room, the higher the internet access fee.  I've been in Moroccan desert camps and Vietnamese jungle tents and still been able to access free wifi, but check into anything above a three-star hotel and you could be charged more than $20 for 24 hours.  

Mystery 2:  Why are there phones in some hotels' bathrooms?
Who are you desperately wanting to talk to on that corded phone hanging next to the loo?   And who on earth wants to take your call while your in the middle of doing your business.  No one.  That's who.

Mystery 3:  Why does the Australian accent sound so ocker overseas?
Is it something to do with the atmosphere in other parts of the world?  Sort of like an aurora borealis, but for sound?  No matter where you are in the world, you can pick out an Australian before you see them and everyone suddenly sounds like Alf Stewart from Home and Away.  Stone the crows Shelia!  It's just not right!

Mystery 4:  How do some people make it out of their front door, let alone out of their country?
Recently I was on a flight from Australia to London and sitting next to this German lady who had started her journey home from New Zealand.  She had no idea about the onward flight to Berlin she had been booked on, including which airline the flight was with, and from which terminal or time the flight left. So when we arrived in London she just started asking anyone official looking when the next flight to Berlin was.  How on earth did she make it to New Zealand and did she know she was in New Zealand when she was there?

Mystery 5:  Why don't people fill out their immigration cards before they're standing at the front of the immigration queue?
There's a reason why airlines hand out those immigration cards on the plane, often some ten hours before you land.   But you'll still see those people standing in the immigration queue at the final destination, frantically riffling through their bag trying to find their passport number, count how many kids they have and work out how long their staying in the country.  

Mystery 6:  Why do Australians sprint to the duty-free shop after landing?
You'd think the shop was on the verge of running out of rum and cigarettes the way some Aussies run from the arrival gate and into the store.  As international tourists stand by wondering what all the commotion is about, inside the store it's reminiscent of war-time rationing where desperate hordes clutch their new-found bounty like it's the last loaf of bread.  It's best to remember that it's duty-free goods, not free goods.

Sadly I feel some of these travel mysteries will never be solved.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

What leaders leave behind

The leaders of the G20 countries have breezed into Brisbane this week and, for those who didn't abandon the city for the coast, spotting these celebrities has become the new sport.

Obama's moved into the Marriott,  Putin's holed up at the Hilton, and Merkel's somehow found her way to Caxton Street.

It's safe to say it's unlikely we'll see such a collection of world leaders bobbing around Brisbane again in the near future.

No doubt in the days, weeks and months ahead, many will be pondering: was it all worth it?

After all, leaders are ultimately judged by what they leave behind.

We saw this recently with the passing of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Premier Wayne Goss.  Australians' outpouring of grief and accolades for their achievements is something unusual when talking about our politicians.

At risk of bandying around the phrase "they don't make them like they used to", it does seem hard to believe we'll put on similar displays when the current batch's time is up.  For some I think we'll struggle to remember who they were at all.  Or worse, remember them for all the wrong reasons.

I'd like leaders to be painfully aware of the need to leave a positive legacy; that they've somehow left the place in a better place then when they found it.

And for those leaders who can't do that, perhaps their best bet is to leave behind a massive tomb so people simply can't forget you.

Napoleon's tomb
The tomb of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte provides the perfect example.  

Napoleon was originally interred on Saint Helena, where he was exiled, but today lies in Les Invalides, Paris, in a big red sarcophagus that sits in the centre of a expansive and decorative hall.

The man himself... subtle
Hopefully the grander the tomb, the more fondly you'll be remembered.  Right?

The dome ceiling under which Napoleon now lies
While few history books cast an overly glowing light on his rule, today he can rely on the soft sunshine streaming in from the golden dome under which he now lies.

Napoleon's clothes on display
Given one of the many things Napoleon is remembered for is his short stature, I can't help but wonder if there's some overcompensation at play in the grand display?

Let's hope the leaders of today won't need to resort to such tactics.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Watching the Wall fall from afar

As unlikely as it may seem, ripples from the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago today were felt as far away as the tiny town of Warwick in Queensland.

At the time, we had Karsten, a year 11 German exchange student, staying with us.

As if the shock of landing in the middle of regional Queensland wasn't enough, it came at a time when this massive, history-shaping event was unfolding back in his home country.

A remnant section of the Wall
Watching the Wall come down on TV, you could see Karsten's disappointment grow.

I can imagine friends asking him today where he was when this major national event took place: "Did you go to the Wall to help smash it brick by brick?"

"No.  I was in Warwick," he'd have to reply, probably with a tinge of bitterness and regret.

The history of the Berlin Wall has always fascinated me as it always seemed to me like one of most absurd concepts in history: completely encircling and shutting off an entire part of a city.  An act that immediately divided families, blocked people from their workplace, and suddenly made it deadly to get to a part of the city they may have once roamed.

Fast forward a decade or so and I was desperate to track down any remnants of the Wall while visiting Berlin for the first time.

One of the Wall's former guard towers

It was the early 2000s and Berlin had clearly had enough of the Wall imposing itself on the city and were happily forging on with the future.

Dozens of construction cranes loomed over former East Berlin, particularly over the strip of land that the Wall formally occupied that was now valuable inner city real estate.  On the way out were the drab and decaying Soviet-inspired buildings to make room for new shiny glass towers.  Capitalism had arrived.  

An outline of where the Berlin Wall once stood
However, I could find sections of the original Wall.  Miraculously, these sections hadn't been smashed up and sold to tourists.  

I imagine the Berlin Wall has become like Jesus' wooden cross - there are enough alleged "original fragments" sitting around the world to recreate these objects a thousand times over.

Thankfully, a campaign to save Wall remnants was beginning to gain ground.
The campaign to save parts of the Wall
One of the most poignant reminders of the Wall was a simple row of white crosses, then located on the Tiergarten fence, near the Brandenburg Gate.   It's a memorial to those died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall.  

Chris Gueffroy was the last person to be shot trying to make his way to West Berlin - just nine months before the Wall came down for good.

An original carnation of White Crosses memorial