Music At Sea June 20 - July 2 Celebrity Mercury and The Rocky Mountaineer

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 33rd. ‘Music at Sea’

An Alaskan/Rocky Mountains adventure onboard

“Celebrity Mercury” and the “Rocky Mountaineer”.

June 20 – July 6 2010

Vancouver, Canada - Inside Passage - Icy Straight Point, Alaska

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska - Juneau, Alaska – Ketchikan, Alaska

Inside Passage - Vancouver, Canada - Kamloops, Canada

Banff, Canada - Lake Louise, Canada - Calgary, Canada

Arriving in Vancouver, I expected to find a city still nursing a hospitality hangover from hosting the winter Olympics. Instead, I encountered a welcoming, vibrant and courteous community inhabiting a metropolis which is living proof that building construction and nature can co-exist in perfect harmony. Despite enormous development, Vancouver, its shores washed by the Pacific Ocean and its air filtered through the Rocky Mountains, is no concrete jungle. This respect for the environment is immediate on debarking the plane, for the traveller enters an airport terminal containing flowers, plants and trees which add to the sense of tranquillity pervading the building. This was one of the quietest terminals I have experienced leading me to wonder whether the floors were covered with sound absorbant material. There was certainly none of the noisy marble flooring so common in European airports.  If only more airports were like Vancouver!  So stress free - even the officials were relaxed, welcoming and seemingly unflappable! 

Despite the sunny, summer weather, snow still lay on the peaks of the Rockies and, sinking into the back seat of a taxi I felt a surge of excitement at being back in Canada.

I prefer being driven to being the driver. The passenger has time to look around, enjoy the scenery, and sometimes spot quirky street signs, shop names or even warning notices which can be amusing in their imaginative attempts to catch the eye. Examples from the past include a fish restaurant named ‘Chish and Fips’ and a second-hand furniture shop called ‘Junk and Disorderly’. Earlier this year I drove past a sewage tanker sporting the slogan ‘We’re number 1 in the number 2 business’.

“Oh,  get a life” I hear you murmur – but sitting in the back of taxis IS part of my life so don’t begrudge me this harmless pastime!  And its not just confined to taxis. Last year I happened on this in a Quebec restaurant:

Sometimes there’s a weird syncronicity with these slogans. En route to JFK, I passed a pottery shop named ‘Mud, Sweat and Tears’. Neat, but it gets better.  After take-off I opened the inflight magazine at an article on mountain cycling - but it was the heading, ‘Blood, Sweat and Gears’, which raised a smile.  My suggestion for the Wall Street Journal’s next editorial is::  ‘Fudge, Debt and Arrears’ – I bet they won’t!

Before leaving my Vancouver hotel to board ‘Mercury’ I spoke directly with my wife Ann in London through an excellent WiFi internet video link on my laptop.  Wow! How things have changed since my first Alaskan cruise 35 years ago! Then,  ship-to-shore communication was a time consuming nightmare. One went to the radio room (they’ve gone the way of the Dodo!) and waited for the radio officer to have a free slot. If he was having a bad day he’d tell you he was busy and to try again tomorrow! However, if he was not having a bad day he would call the nearest shoreside receiving station on his shortwave radio. Then, (assuming the shoreside operator was not having a bad day) the shoreside operator, through various other land based operators would attempt to get your number to answer and only then (and if) that connection was made would the ship’s radio room be linked in with the call. That was the easy bit! This is where the stress really kicked in for, in order for you to speak, it was necessary to press a button on a microphone which was suspended on a long wire emanating from the ceiling. The voice of the person you were speaking with was routed separately through a loudspeaker on the wall.  Unfortunately only one person could speak at any one time so if you pressed the Speech button whilst your party was speaking you cut them off! Timing was everything, and, with the radio officer monitoring every word, privacy impossible.  

Today we think nothing of taking out a cellphone, pressing the speed dial and, bingo,  that’s it – we’re connected, and, with the exception of government eavesdroppers, its private! Well, let me qualify that! I write that its private but how many of us have been forced to listen in as somebody close by gabbles at high volume into a cellphone, broadcasting intimate secrets to all and sundry?  Its embarassing. We’ve all been through it. We’re not willing eavesdroppers we simply have no choice.  I was placed in this position – along with approximately 20 fellow passengers - on the Vancouver SkyTrain as a woman – seemingly unaware of her captive audience – loudly dispensed intimate advice into the mouthpiece of her cellphone, winding up the conversation with ‘Now, don’t tell anyone I told you this’, at which my fellow travellers burst into laughter and the red-faced caller exited at the next station!

Every cabin on Mercury has a television displaying satellite news channels coming through 24/7. We would only have dreamed of that thirty-five years ago as there were no televisions onboard the ship! News junkies took their shortwave radios, antennae fully extended, and hung over the rail at the back of the promenade deck, hoping to pick up a signal. Sometimes they’d be lucky and, hidden amongst the crackles and whistles, would be the dulcet tones of the BBC World Service. imparting more news and information in a 15 minute bulletin than todays TV channels manage in an hour. 

And how about our attitude to the environment? Then we could happily sail up to the glacier in Glacier Bay, and watch the calving.  In fact, there were times when the Captain would give a blast on the ship’s whistle to help the ice on its way! Today the number of cruise ships entering the bay is strictly limited – and no Captain would give the order to sound the ship’s whistle unless he had a desire to rest awhile inside a penitentiary! To think that we considered it routine to dispatch a lifeboat, gather a chunk of ice, return to the ship and have the kitchen staff create an ice carving for that nights midnight buffet! I’ve no idea whether we could secrete the ice today but why would we bother? The midnight buffet has gone the same way as the radio room and the Dodo – Extinct!

Enough of memory lane and back to the present. This 35th Music At Sea was to be in two parts. A 7 day ‘Mercury’ cruise to Alaska followed by a 5 day land tour in Canada including 2 days onboard the Rocky Mountaineer in Gold Leaf Service and an overnight at the legendary Chateau Lake Louise. The big attraction in that part of the world is, of course, the scenery, and therein lies a potential spoiler which we are all powerless to control - the weather! When it rains it’s misty. When it’s misty there’s limited visibility and when there’s limited visibility one cannot see the scenery! If I told you we had had sunny days throughout our trip I would not be telling the truth so I’ll level with you. Dear reader, it did rain and it was frequently misty and, sad to report,  this must be one of the few times that the sun did NOT always shine on the righteous!

Not that the rain dampened the spirits of the Music At Sea group! Heavens No! Even the news that a man had been killed by a bear in Alaska a few days earlier couldn’t deter the more adventurous. One of our members hired a boat for fishing – (but caught nothing! It must have been the most expensive ‘non fish’ of his life and to save his blushes I promised not to mention his name. Bruce, your secret’s safe with me!) Carter went on a sled drawn by huskies and showed me the photo to prove it. He was loving it – the huskies looked pretty happy also! Two of our more intrepid members, Pris and Wes, went Zip Riding! Hello? Zip Riding? They loved it, coming back so exhilarated that the more sedentary amongst us – self included – knew we’d missed out on something special but couldn’t quite work out what it was! They said it was ‘cool’!  OK, I’m not disagreeing – How could I when they so obviously had a fabulous time – but the attraction of extreme, life threatening activities completely eludes me.   Zip Riding? Bungee Jumping? The world’s going crazy – for me crossing the road is more than enough excitement.  I recall a colleague, the great Beni Mason, giving his take on bungee jumping. “That’s when you go helpless into the unknown with only a cord attached to your waist. I only tried it once – its called BIRTH!”

Mercury sailed to the Hubbard Glacier - an anomaly in this time of global warming as, far from melting, it has continued to expand during the last 100 years! In fact, in May 1986, the forward surge of the glacier blocked the outlet of Russell Fjord which, unable to excape into the sea became an ever expanding lake! Throughout the summer the lake grew and grew until the inevitable happened, the icy dam gave way and in the second largest glacial outburst in history, the fjord’s waters cascaded towards to the ocean. 

I stood on the deck as we approached the glacier and could have been forgiven for imagining I had fallen into a giant bowl of sugar frosted rice krispies! Around me, a sea of thawing, miniature icebergs were giving vent to the Alaskan version of ‘snap crackle and pop’ as air, imprisoned inside for thousands of years burst into the 21st century.

The Hubbard Glacier

Fellow guests are always good for amusement – and within the group we’ve always had the ability to laugh at ourselves as this dinner-time story illustrates. A tale of childhood abuse centered around a banana! (Its OK – perfectly safe to read on!) As a little girl, the raconteur was given a banana – a fruit she had never seen or tasted - by a soldier newly returned from the front in Africa. Dear reader, I write the word ‘banana’ but, truth to tell, this was no ordinary banana!  This was a well travelled banana, a genuine ‘road warrior, frequent flyer’ banana, which had survived bullets, bombs, and all manner of trials and tribulations before coming to the (comparatively) safe shores of England’s green and pleasant land. In the past soldiers have returned to their homeland with great works of art, diamonds, gold and other precious gems but this soldier had brought something which, to him, was more precious. Yes, I’m still referring to the aforementioned banana. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, if the banana had any defects this beholder was blind, deaf and impervious to them such was the awe, wonderment and devotion with which he regarded his beloved banana. 

Now had come the moment to reveal this pride and joy to the assembled throng of well wishers gathered to salute our hero. As the treasure was unveiled, his onlookers oohed and aahed with unabashed joy. "Isn't it Ohhh! Isn't it Ahhh! Isn't it absolutely Wheee! etc. etc. ………except for one little girl – now an adult and our storyteller - who, not unlike her counterpart in the Hans Christian Andersen fable didn’t ohhh and ahhh at all. The eye of this beholder saw no beauty!  It saw the banana for what it was. A black, foul smelling over ripe health hazard which,  having been squashed at the bottom of a knapsack for two months and now released into the fresh air, was omitting a pungent odour .  The banana was OFF! ……. BAD!.....DECEASED! - But, amongst the onlookers was the little girl’s mother and when the soldier, tenderly and lovingly presented the little one with this banana her mother commanded ‘Eat It’! so ‘Eat it’ she did (and promply threw up) because she was from a generation of children who did what that their parents told them to do!  Our narrator solemnly assured us that this hideous childhood experience had so traumatised her that from that day to this no banana had touched her lips.  “In fact’ she concluded ‘to this day I she can’t bear to even look at a banana – not even in the fruiterer’. So enthralled were we by this tragedy our food lay uneaten as as we digested the magnitude of our colleague’s distress.  Meanwhile, the erstwhile victim, having divested herself of her wretched tale, was now quietly regaining her composure with the aid of hearty swigs from a cocktail glass which, before our eyes, was emptying with a similar speed to Russell Fjord breaking though the ice all those years before.  There was an awkward silence and I noticed our raconteur examining her vacant glass with the sad intensity of one who is baffled by the disappearance of its contents.   Chivalrous action was called for.  “Do let me get you another” said I “What are you drinking?’ The raconteur awoke from her dream like state. “Oh…..Thankyou ……… it’s……. a Banana Daquiri” 

AHA – the secret must have been a hidden ingredient!

I was at the breakfast buffet when a man handed an empty plate to the server behind the counter. 

“Right” he said with the confidence of one who has come with an agenda and is determined to see it through. “Two fried eggs”.

Two eggs were cracked, fried and plopped on his plate which was proffered back to him. The would-be breakfaster looked affronted.

“Not so fast, ………..we’ve not finished yet”.

His eyes flickered over the generous display.  

“I’ll have some of that,” (finger pointing) – some of that.” (finger pointing) – “some of that,” (finger pointing) 

The ritual was repeated as pork sausage, chicken sausage, bacon, mushrooms and corned beef hash, joined the two fried eggs on the plate. “Anything else Sir?” asked the ever polite server.

The hungry man pointing to a dish containing flakes of red and white. “Whats that?” 

“Gratinated carrots with crab Sir” 

“I’ll give it a try – and that? 

“Today’s Special Sir – Caramelised Pears.”

“OK, I’ll have some of them” 

The server looked at him with interest for, in his home country, there was enough on that plate to provide his wife and three children with breakfast for several days but, if those were his thoughts, he disguised them. “Anything else Sir?” 

“Got any baked beans?” 

“Certainly Sir – shall I put them on a separate plate?’ 

“No” – indignantly – “Put them on top of the sausages” 

Surely the hungry man had done. But no, his eyes were still darting around the food counter like searchlights at a prison camp. What was he looking for? 

“You don’t have any fried bread’ It was a statement rather than a question.

“No Sir – but we do have toast?” 

Sir, furrowed his brow for all of a nanosecond: 

“2 slices” 

Two pieces of toast were added to the already congealing mass of comestibles gathered to mount this dawn assault on his internal organs. “Anything else Sir?”

“No, that’ll be it”.

And with the care and precision of a balancing act in Cirque de Soleil the server handed the man the grossly overladen plate. The breakfaster, oblivious of the stares from other guests, turned triumphantly towards me, face flushed from early signs of blood pressure and eyes sparkling with anticipatory happiness at the gastronomic pleasures to come.

“Now that’s what I call a breakfast” he said. 

He seemed to require a reply - so I gave him one. 

“That’s what I call a heart attack.” 

He chuckled happily. 

Can you believe it?  He genuinely thought I was joking!

Of course the joke is frequently on me – it’s become a group sport! One of our guests, Carter approached in thoughtful muse: 

“When you play the piano you remind me of someone”.

Who did he have in mind? Liszt? Chopin?  Well, No, Carter has had these thoughts before and the ‘someone’ turned out to be Thomas Jefferson who, although not famed for his musical prowess, was a founding father with a good wine collection. Who was Carter thinking of now.  Could it be another great leader - Roosevelt, Churchill – surely not  Napoleon? I had to ask. 

“Who do I remind you of Carter?”

I should have noticed the gleam in his eyes. I had swallowed the bait.

He continued innocently:

“That fellow in the Christmas thing”.

My thoughts immediately went to White Christmas. Danny Kaye…… Bing Crosby? (this would have been an improvement on Thomas Jefferson)  but Carter looked at me as though I’d lost my marbles.  

“No, no, no.”

He scratched his head. 

“What’s it called now? Come on Brooks - it was written by one of yours. Got it. …….. Dickens”

I was puzzled – Oliver Twist,  Nicholas Nickleby -  definitely not. Ah….. ‘A Christmas Carol’ – who on earth could I resemble in that……then it dawned on me.  Oh NO  

“You don’t mean…… SCROOGE!”

Carter looked as one might after after scoring three home runs. 

“That’s the one” he contentedly replied. “Alastair Sim  - 1951 – We’ve got the DVD at home – you remind me of SCROOGE” 

On a more serious note, one of our guests, an engineer from Canada,  permanently wore an iron ring on the little finger of his left hand and, from my enquiry as to its significance, came this explanation. In 1907 a bridge being constructed over the St. Lawrence at Quebec collapsed, killing 75 workmen.  From this came the Canadian tradition to present all graduating engineers with a small iron ring – originally fashioned from the iron of the collapsed bridge - which they wear both as a tribute to those who died but also as reminder to themselves to uphold the highest moral, ethical and professional standards. Following the catastrophe it was also decided to draw up a code of conduct for Canadian Engineers and the man charged with the task of writing it was ….Rudyard Kipling. I bet you didn’t know that! -  and before we leave the subject here is a piece of specialised knowledge which could make you money!  Kipling also wrote the lyrics for the Whiffenpoof Song!  So next time you hear the slurred sounds of:

We are poor little lambs

Who have lost our way,

Baa! Baa! Baa! Etc. etc. 

Have a wager with the happy carolling inebriates on whether they know who wrote it – you might make a fortune!

Canadian Engineer’s ring worn in memory of the Quebec bridge disaster

Back in Vancouver the group and I temporarily parted company: they to the luxury and splendour of the Rocky Mountaineer and myself to a cheerless piano studio in Vancouver where I was to put the finishing touches to the upcoming concert at Lake Louise. (Yes, they got the better deal!)

Rocky Mountaineer on Canyon Bridge – (Rocky Mountaineer web site)

In my studio - part of a suite of rehearsal and teaching rooms situated on the fourth floor of a large music store - I couldn’t help but notice the incredibly high percentage of Asian names featuring in the lists of prize winners proudly displayed on the wall. Within China there are claimed to be over 30 million piano students and this astonishing popularity is clearly mirrored amongst Vancouver’s large Asian population.  Another poster had the exhortation: ‘No laughter – No Learning’ I so agree with those sentiments that we could make it a motto for Music At Sea. But then I spotted another poster on the wall – clearly aimed at parents debating whether to shell out hard earned cash on music lessons – which gave me food for thought so I took a photo to show you: 

Sign in Vancouver Music Studio

What do you think? I’ll be frank. It makes me a trifle uneasy. There’s something missing in the above. Do you see anything about a love of music? Do we have to make excuses to study it?

After a few days in Vancouver I flew up to Calgary where the centrepiece of each luggage carousel had exhibits showing ‘How the West was Once”. So here I was, at last, in the old Wild West, scene of so many grainy cowboy films dimly remembered from youth. Driving over to Banff I half expected a horseriding posse led by John Wayne to come galloping out of the distance. Would I see Mom and Pop sitting in rocking chairs on their veranda – and just as that thought crossed my mind a pickup truck with an old rocking chair in the back drove past! Syncronicity! The scenery was intoxicating and in my heady state I recalled a childhood joke – ‘How many ears had Davy Crockett?’  (Answer: Three: A left ear, a right ear ………and a Wild Front Ear) and then the Rocky Mountains loomed ahead signalling journey’s end.

The National Park in which Banff is situated was created to protect the scenery and the wildlife with the government investing a small fortune on building special bridges so the animals could cross the highway safely. What a thrill it was when my driver pointed out a Grizzly munching flowers in a field. In Banff there were the usual touristy ‘souvenirs’ such as Rocky Mountain Soap (were cowboys noted for their cleanliness?) and, of course, a Grizzlys Restaurant - though whether Grizzlys were the Patrons or on the Menu was not stated. I had a little spare time and found myself in a Wild West shop. Amongst the Stetson Hats and Cowboy Boots were notice boards instructing ‘out of towners’ like myself in useful gems of Wild West logic such as:

No Cussing – you might offend the Horses.

Don’t Steal – The Government doesn’t like Competitors,

Alimony is Like buying Oats for a Dead Horse.

If in the Spring your thoughts turn to the opposite sex you’ve been wasting the winter.

Trail riding is not a life or death matter – its more important than that. 

‘Yes’, they were for sale but ‘No’ I didn’t take one home! 

I settled into the Chateau Lake Louise – what a magnificent hotel - and dining  that night in the Fairmont restaurant had a strange experience. A woman I had never seen before came up to me and said “Oh – You’re dining alone – I’ve been dining alone – If I had known you were dining alone I would have come and joined you”!

I’m so glad she didn’t! Is this the way people behaved in the old Wild West?

The next day was July 1st which every Canadian knows is Canada Day. The terrace of the Chateau came alive with happy people celebrating the national day. Included in the events were canoe races and bathing in Lake Louise but with the temperature having dropped below freezing the previous night it was an Eliza Doolittle response from me -  (Not bloody likely) - but some hardy folks plus a dog splashed around! I played our final concert on a vintage Steinway in the tranquillity of the Fairmont room with its stunning views of the lake and glacier and then we trouped into the brilliant sunshine to pose for our group picture.

The Group at Lake Louise, Canada Day (July 1) 2010.

Later that day, my route to the airport took me back through Banff where the main street was lined for the parade. I was witnessing the real Canada, the soul of Canada. So many families with children, waving the national flag, their faces painted for the occasion and wide eyed with excitement. One could almost feel and touch their genuine sense of community and pride in their country. We don’t do anything similar in the UK and are the poorer for it. 

But now it was time to bid ’Farewell’ to this sleeping giant called Canada, taking with me memories of its breathtaking scenery and quietly spoken people steeped in gentle thoughtfulness, good manners and kindness. May I be fortunate enough to return soon. 


Athens July 25 2010