Night, night Barb

I always get a bit melancholy when someone I know passes on, no matter what the circumstances. It’s part of the circle of life, I know, but it serves to make the ticking of that eternal clock just a little louder. So it’s been very sad to have returned tonight from a weekend away and received news that Barb Dickson died yesterday morning in Folsom, California. She was Anna’s foster Mom when an exchange student back in the 70s and, although I only met her a couple of times, I’d grown fond of her. I’m glad that we spent time with her and Irv in California last summer and I’ll miss her.

Travel well, Barb.

A Kiwi proves my point

This is a picture of The Kev, a good friend from New Zealand who’s just gone back after quite a few years providing good-natured company in Sweden. His lovely family go later this year. He was never intimidated by the weather and loved being in the snow as much as my dear departed dog, Bonz, although those two facts are not related. I miss Kevin a lot and look forward to a yarn and putting the world right again – our major pastime – in Aukland. Now, if water goes down the plughole in a different direction does beer taste different under the Southern Cross?

A Spring in your step or somewhere…

We’ve just walked around the village for an hour; it’s light later in the evening now, birds are singing, the air is warmer than it has been of late and Mission Control said she thought Spring in England was wonderful, that it made you feel so good. It’s true, of course – it does. That’s why we wanted to walk, because it was so pleasant; it made us feel so alive. But that started me wondering about the effect that the weather has on people and the psyche of different countries. Just this week we’ve received notes and a call from friends in Sweden and they were still down in the dumps about piles of snow on the ground and temperatures in single figures. In England we look forward to Spring with such joy; daffodils and Easter eggs; baby lambs and chocolate bunnies. In Sweden, they look forward to it with dogged relief; lighter mornings with no ice on the roads; going out without a down-filled anorak; no icicles on your nose-hair – you get the picture. We’re elated; they’re depressed and Swedes do tend to suffer their winters with an attitude of long-suffering forbearance.

Now look at those Oil Sheikhs, which I’ve done a lot of. In the Middle East it couldn’t be more different from Sweden but, more or less, you only have two seasons to deal with. In summer it’s just bloody awful, very hot and very humid. You have sand-storms. The sun is so bright that the world glares back at you angrily whereas in winter, it’s just a less-hot version of the same only with winds and some torrential rain. There are pleasant days of course but mostly you combat the climate rather than embrace it. And, not surprisingly, these guys have ended up with attitude, too. OK, it’s taken the form of religious navel-gazing and it’s affected the type of clothes they wear but, nonetheless, intolerable heat, humidity and dust outside would make anyone choose to sit inside and philosophise. It’s little wonder that they take something of a more introspective line in their dealings with other people. They don’t have much of a sense of humour either – try making a joke about their women.

I thought that perhaps the reason the Swedes are so serious and analytical of events and, well, life is because they spend this long period in perdition each year, looking out at dark, damp days, waiting for lighter, brighter mornings and the ice to melt. You can’t do much outside at all in winter as it’s dark and frozen so it gives them more time to sit around. Sure, they work at technical innovation, distil berries, make jam and analyse stuff but the point is they have to sit it out and have a lot of time on their hands. Idle hands and all that. Swedish TV isn’t that great either and, unless you’re under 25, making babies is out too. Bottom line is, they come out at the other end of winter with a lot of frustration to get out of their systems and summers in Sweden are not very long. Does anyone know any funny Swedish jokes?

I don’t detect this current of underlying frustration in the British and the Peoples of the more temperate and Mediterranean countries. The principal common denominator has just got to be the weather. Look at Norway and Finland, where drinking oneself into oblivion is an art-form. [I once spent a very long weekend in Tromsø and despite there being posters everywhere showing the range and variety of locally available fish – and there were a lot – every dish on every menu in every restaurant had lobster-tasting sauce all over it. What kind of message does that send out?] Speak to a Russian; scratch that – watch Russians in a shop or hotel and you can taste the lack of humility. Now think about those Russian winters – they’re worse than Sweden’s.

In England when winter is approaching and the weather starts to close in what do we look forward to? A log fire, warm beer in the snug of the local hostelry, good company, mulled wine, warming stews, hot water bottles, Horlicks. We embrace it, enjoin with it, go to the pub and we just love discussing it. Our trains stop running and roads become impassable; telephone services and electricity supplies collapse but it’s all OK because we are again all at war with a common enemy – the weather. We abuse it, admire it; we speak of it in awe or in hushed voices but we exorcise it. Maybe we blame the Government but we deal with it! That doesn’t make us better but it does, somehow, contribute towards a national psyche that doesn’t bore the rest of the world.

Ernest Hemingway felt like I do – The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself’.

Day 22 – 17 March – LHR and Spring in England

Well, not a bad flight despite the awful food. Spring is on the way – it’s the first time we’ve seen England without some snow on the ground in 2010. Looking forward to a catch-up-on-sleep-day as I rarely get any on planes. I have this recurring nightmare that the pilot faints or is taken ill and the flight attendant rushes through the cabin asking for help and I’m asleep. The only guy awake is the fat one at the back, the one wearing dirty sneakers, shorts from his holiday and still smelling of beer. But then, if he has Flight Simulator on his Playstation he might just get us home…

Day 21 – 16 March – Across the highlands to Orlando and LHR

We strolled the area around Hutchinson Island this morning and walked through the golf course that forms part of the Marriott Hutchinson Island Resort, where we stayed overnight. The location is superb, on the Atlantic Coast but separated from Stuart by the Lucie Inlet. The beach is white, long and steep and the Atlantic breakers were dramatic in a cold, north-easterly wind. The weather held, too, with clear skies and some high cloud. There were Gannets and Frigatebirds fishing offshore and areas set aside for turtles to breed.

The region is less manic than the south near Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach. It’s less crowded and we felt less exploited; local folks actually do seem more friendly and happier. The guy who prepared our Tuna salad bagels at Big Apple Bagels had all the time in the world and spoke fondly of Stuart and the ‘Old Florida’ feel that it exudes. I’m not sure what ‘Old Florida’ really means aside from a commonly-held and ill-defined nostalgia for a place that maybe wasn’t quite as wonderful as people would have liked. The only definition I’ve been able to find describes ‘Old Florida’ as ‘the way it was at least two generations ago. The 1950’s and earlier with roadside attractions, hamburger stands and other reminders of a yesteryear that are quickly vanishing’, although there are other obscure references to the 1920s and a land before development, which more or less makes my point. The place we know as Florida was probably first settled about 12,000-10,000 years ago but wasn’t put on the map – according to Europeans anyway – until 1513 when that guy Juan Ponce de León [the same one who discovered Sanibel] landed near what is now St Augustine. He named it La Florida in honour of Spain’s Easter flower festival. On a subsequent visit, this time to the southwest part, he and his settlers were given a bloody nose by the natives so an enduring settlement wasn’t established until 1565, in St. Augustine. The Spanish had little trouble with the natives after that, settling into a sort of comfortable, armed stand-off. But while they were looking the other way in 1586 Sir Francis Drake looted and burned what was then still only a small village. We Brits finally got our hands on Florida in 1763, when we swapped it with Spain for Havana – wasn’t life so much more simple then? [I wish we could swap Lincolnshire for Andalusia] That only lasted for about twenty years and then, what with Spanish interests growing again and some typical French duplicity Florida was lost to us forever, despite its continued loyalty, at the end of the War of Independence. Having resolved issues of colonialism the settled Europeans, mostly Spanish by that time but rapidly becoming what we now know as Americans, turned their attention to ridding the place of the Native Creek and Miccosukee people. It wasn’t until around the 1840s that white Floridians had clearly established supremacy. Statehood was achieved in 1845 so I guess whimsical references to ‘Old Florida’ relate to the period subsequent to that. Interestingly, I haven’t heard any nostalgic references being made to the Native American and Seminole heritage that appears to exist only in names on the landscape today. Those that are left [and not all are native Floridians] live on reservation lands, fishing, farming, hunting and running gambling or tourist-related businesses. None of it very ‘Old Florida’, eh? But the bagels were superb.

We drove to Orlando along the Florida Turnpike – clear, fast and providing superb views of the Martin County landscape. It is mightily impressive and open and we’ll come back for a more detailed look. It was also a thrill to count armadillos – at least 15 – along the roadside and see Sandhill Cranes and Crested Caracara.

Virgin Atlantic is a good airline to fly with and, to be fair, we’ve never had a bad experience with them but we’ve just had exposure to their all-new call centre in India. Yep, as well as it being almost impossible to understand the accents of the eager-to-please operators [OK, I accept that we don’t speak Hindi but then we don’t aspire to provide a service to Indians either] the telephone connections were bad and they managed to screw up the seat allocation. Why is it almost always like that with these guys? Despite knowing that the people on the service desk at Orlando would be so helpful and good at what they do and that it would all be sorted out I scratch my head and wonder why it has to be that way as soon as you pass the 68E parallel. I received an e-mail in my inbox confirming that Anna was travelling alone and was checked-in. But neither of us had checked-in and where was my booking? Well, when we arrived at check-in our booking was, as expected, screwed, but also as expected the staff were great. We had a good flight that was a lot more comfortable than we’d expected, aided by the plane being only half-full. Virgin is suffering from the general financial malaise though – the food really was piss-poor.

Day 20 – 15 March – Up the coast to Stuart and Hutchinson Island

The drive up US1, over the bridges and across the islands, is as much a part of visiting the Keys as seeing the sun go down at Key West. We always enjoy it. This time the journey had the added zest of not having to end at Miami International, as it usually does. The single road allows no alternative route and always throws up an unexpected delay such as road works or the police stopping traffic because of a local fund-raising event. Inevitably, you end up making a mad dash for the airport and changing in the car park. We had changed our flight to leave from Orlando and would stay overnight in Stuart, on the Atlantic Coast north of Palm Beach. So it was OK to take our time and OK to stop for coffee in the comfortable sea-facing armchairs in the Cheeka Lodge and Spa on Islamorada. This place describes itself as the most luxurious on the Keys and is home to the Presidential Sailfish Tournament. This reflects the long-term affaire d’amour that George Bush Senior has with sports fishing; he is a constant visitor and the halls are decked with photographs of him growing older far more graciously than his idiot offspring.

The route north was clear and easy to drive until we hit the afternoon rush-hour at Fort Lauderdale. The traffic was moving and, I expect, was normal but when you see all those cars, four lanes across and bumper to bumper for mile-upon-mile you just have to wonder where all the fuel is going to come from. Most of the vehicles – maybe 80% – had only one occupant and the car pool lane, which we gradually moved into, was virtually empty. Often there were no cars in sight ahead or in the rear-view mirror.

We took the Florida Turnpike on from there and followed it up as far as Port Salerno, which is just south of Stuart. In two words – pretty and sleepy, especially the part beside the coast. I had the strongest impression that the world could pass you by without a murmur if you lived out your life here.

We checked in to the Marriott and were recommended a place by the river to eat. It was rather imaginatively called The Prawnbroker because, I found out later after some intensive detective work, it specialises in prawn dishes. Although prawns are shrimps in America and Shrimpbroker doesn’t quite catch it, does it? I had ribs anyway and cold Sunset Ale. The place was actually very pleasant and the staff more so.

Day 19 – 14 March – Bahia Honda, some last birding and sunset

The weather has continued to improve; the wind is dropping and it’s pretty warm in sheltered places. Just what we flew all this way for, really. Anna wanted some time on Bahia Honda but I needed to catch up with the LBJs that the wind had kept in the undergrowth. I dropped her off at the beach and headed for Long Beach Road on Big Pine. It was quiet, pleasant and rewarding.

Birders have some funny ways about them – actually, some of them are really weird but that’s for another time and when the laws of libel are more relaxed. One of the funny things we do is called ‘pishing’. It’s a noise you make that is onomatopoeic and, with mixed success, attracts small songbirds as it apparently sounds like a distress call and causes them to investigate. Someone has even published a book covering its subtleties. It will sometimes have spectacular results when it might seem that there were no birds nearby – I’ve had birds of six or seven species suddenly appear in previously unoccupied woodland. On other occasions simply nothing happens. For me, today, it worked and I never cease to be thrilled by the attention of a White-eyed Vireo or Black-and white Warbler that has come to within inches to investigate the sound. Long Beach Road has changed over the years. The development has remained about the same but the ravages of several hurricanes have resulted in the loss of some big trees and changes to the beach itself. It still has a significant growth of mangroves at the end and some is protected as part of the Key Deer Refuge so the birding, though limited, is always rewarding. It was worrying, though, to see that my favourite area down at the end of the road had new utilities installed and I wondered if it would still be accessible next time I visited.

OK, upward and onward. Or westward, to be correct. The sun was shining, the weather was warmer and Spring break was thinning out so a sunset at Mallory Square beckoned. A quick shower and sandwich, top down, Keyzee on the radio and we were cruisin’. Key West was, as expected, a little quieter as the raucous and sunburned element was on the way home to Mum and Dad, yellow school buses and American history. We took up our usual position on the deck, margarita in hand, while the boats sailed past and Skimmers loped towards their roosts. The sunset did what it was supposed to do and, at last, we were rewarded with a green flash. It doesn’t show on the pic though.

Day 18 – 13 March – Hawkfest on No Name Key

After the rain yesterday a fine day was promised – heaven knows why but we watch the Weather Channel all the time in the States – and we woke to clear skies and sunshine. The wind was predicted to change from westerly to easterly so I went down to No Name Key early, out to the west of Big Pine, to see if the change in weather made any difference to the birding. It did; the air was filled with migrants taking advantage of the change and I spent a very enjoyable few hours looking up.

The haul included Purple Martins and a Bank Swallow but it was the raptors that counted. Bald Eagles, Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Broad-winged Hawks and a dark-phase Short-tailed Hawk. There were also Red-shouldered Hawks getting excited about all the activity and the Turkey Vultures overhead were joined by a single Black Vulture, which was the first I’d seen in the Keys and is an uncommon bird here. The wind was too strong for much else so looking for warblers and LBJs was a washout. I heard an early Black-whiskered Vireo singing and possibly saw a Mangrove Cuckoo disappearing into the depths of the undergrowth.

It remained windy and there was a chill so we decided that something warm was required. After driving out to Big Torch Key to watch the sun go down through the mangroves [with a cold Key West Sunset Ale, of course] we went over to Boondocks for dinner. As so often happens in the Keys it was a special evening, with the Teenie Weenie Wednesday hotdog eating contest taking place and my favourite internet radio station, 1FM, in attendance. The steak specials were good and the evening really enjoyable. The bar was invaded by pirates; they were a bunch of fundraisers who were authentically dressed, kept saying ‘arghhhh!’ and one of them eventually won the hotdog eating contest. The favourite, a skinny Spring Breaker, threw up early on much to everyone’s amusement and loud cheering. But most entertaining were two local guys, replete in Keys attire comprising cap, ponytail, tee-shirt and denims who were so drunk they were wandering about with no clue what was happening, what the noise was, what all these people were doing here and what it all meant.

The wind had dropped a fair bit when we went back to Little Torch [thankfully next door and just about driveable after such a ‘social’ evening] and the sky was black, with pin-sharp stars. A very distant thunderstorm was highlighting clouds with silent flashes of lightning on the horizon and fish were splashing out on the water. The mosquitoes were out in force, too.

Day 17 – 12 March – Wastin’ away again…..

Back in the late 70’s Jimmy Buffet wrote a song that goes –

Nibblin’ on sponge cake
Watchin’ the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin’ my six-string
On my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp they’re beginnin’ to boil

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…

…and Key West couldn’t be a more appropriate location for a grill and bar that he has established and which bears the name. It was our first call after driving down in weather that spotted heavy, warm raindrops on and off and promised worse. By the time we got there it was hot and humid so the first Sunset Ale didn’t touch the sides.

Key West is one of those places you have to see, just for the sake of it and it’s OK if you don’t like it. We never tire of visiting although it has changed and hasn’t kept the qualities in the same measures these days that made it unique. As the southernmost part of mainland USA it has a special tropical quality that’s not quite Caribbean and not quite Colonial but is, for all its faults, original and irreverent. It has the dubious distinction of being the only town in America that was once the richest and once the poorest. Key West today shows glimpses of both; there are some supremely restored townhouses, most of which are given over to hotels or guesthouses, together with some authentic shanty housing tucked away beyond the main drags.

The main drag is Duval Street, which runs across the island. You can start your day watching the sunrise from the Southernmost Hotel on Duval Street and then see it set, usually spectacularly, at the other end on Mallory Square. The sunset is something of a Key West ritual, where we gather with dozens of others, drink frozen margaritas and watch the newbies applaud the disappearing sun. Strangely, I haven’t ever heard of anyone who watched it come up – at that time people are either asleep or in a coma. In between these two events we participate in the Duval Crawl, which is many things to many people. Duval holds the art galleries, tee-shirt shops, bars, restaurants, drag shows, tattoo parlours and Key Lime Pie outlets. All day long the Crawl comprises a continuous stream of pedestrians, cycles, motor scooters, pedal taxis, Harley-Davidsons – almost anything. We watched one guy ride a motorised coolbox down the street as we arrived. There was also a dog wearing shorts. Really. We had to collect a new Conch Republic flag for the pool in Sweden and make our traditional pilgrimage to Fast Buck Freddie’s, the main store on Duval.

The bars are world-famous; Sloppy Joe’s and The Hog’s Breath Salon are infamous, Rick’s Bar and Margaritaville are cool places and Irish Kevin’s is mayhem. Spring Break was at its height so the streets and bars were full of young things in sun dresses, flat shoes and sunburn while the bars were full of grey-faced, spotty youths on the verge of blowing chunks. It’s all part of the local character and whilst I adore the place I’m very, very glad I don’t live there.

The weather was closing in with heavy clouds threatening to ruin our sunset so we repaired to the Hard Rock Café for a classic burger and salad to debate whether or not we should go to Mallory. Despite a few drops of rain we decided we’d chance it, seduced by the ever-changing floor-show that drifted past in both directions. When we got there the margarita was as good as ever but the rain came, torrential and drenching everything. It eased up for a while and then came back so we abandoned it and drove back up to Little Torch. It was the first time we weren’t able to watch the stars overhead on that drive that we could remember. We weren’t as disappointed, however, as the Jewish couple who had planned a sunset wedding. As guests and wedding party huddled under sunshades for shelter on the deck the deluge arrived. The canapes were stacked and the drinks were queued ready for an unforgettable occasion. They won’t forget the weather that day.

Day 16 – 11 March – Catching up with the Keys 2

The weather’s improving so another day just enjoying the laid-back feeling that this place engenders. Warmer again but still windy. We went over to Bahia Honda, a key just back up the road a bit that boasts the best beach here. In fact, it was voted the best beach in America once. But it’s Spring break – a new phenomenon since we started coming here – and was a bit crowded. I can’t quite understand what this generation sees in tattoos. More youngsters that not have them, but the majority appear unsubtle, clumsy and horribly trendy. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable place and we walked the main area and old bridge with an ice-cream. It was still fairly windy but warm if you got some shelter.

The beach has white sand and the sea is a variety of blues that are out of a holiday brochure. When we first spent time here it was less crowded and we parked ourselves under a dead tree on the beach that had been bleached by the sun and worn silky smooth by the wind. Several hurricanes later the tree and most of that beach have been washed away but it was nice to see that we’d sat in the same place as Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford when they filmed Up Close and Personal here. Today it was windy but warm when you sheltered from it.

Our favourite watering hole in the Keys was a place called The Sandbar, along the road from Parmer’s on Berry Avenue. After driving down from Miami the first time and arriving at Little Torch Key, dry, hot and suffering sunstroke [the top was off the car then, too] I was reluctant to go anywhere far when there was a bar that I could walk to. When I did later that evening I found the barmaids in short, actually very short, shorts and they were on roller-skates. My request for a large, very cold beer was met with a litre can of Foster’s lager. It was a match made in heaven, reinforced by getting to know the owner, Banks Prevatt. The Sandbar was the preferred place of residence for a host of ‘Old Keys’ characters in caps, tee shirts and ripped-jeans shorts and we subsequently spent many a contented hour there. Our last evening in the Sandbar was historic with some of our family, victuals, music and dancing. Just after that Banks was made an offer by a couple that he couldn’t refuse and our Sandbar was sold – only to be renamed Parrotdise. Yes, I know. Gingham tablecloths replaced sodden beer mats and the authentic rustic decor was brightened up with tropical colours and palms. Needless to say prices went up, local characters disappeared and the customers changed to people who liked being served by men in colourful shirts with cute mannerisms.

How to replace a beloved bar? Having tried several over a few years I like The Boondocks on Summerland Key the best. We sat at the bar today and had quesadillas, jalapeños, cheese stuff and minced meat of some kind, all washed down with more cold beer than it was legal to drive after. Great music, great atmosphere – and barmaids.