Thursday, April 28, 2011

Things are Getting Ugly

It's that time of year again and everywhere in Monaco things are springing up seemingly out of nowhere.

No, I don't mean fragrant spring flowers, little chicks peeping from eggs and a gentle warmth to the air, I mean scaffolding, chain link fence, barricades and noisy paving machines! 
An Ominous Sign

It starts slowly and creeps up on you like a head cold.  First come the barricades and the plentiful "No Parking" signs sprinkled everywhere.  Then come the paving trucks and then it dawns on you.  Uh oh.  A quick peek at the calendar and dread sets in.  Yikes, it's that time of year again!  The Monaco Grand Prix!

Since 1929, thanks to the Automobile Club of Monaco (ACM for short)  the Principality transforms from  a lovely and pretty village to an ugly Formula 1 racetrack.  As you can guess by my tone, I'm not a fan of the Grand Prix even though Uncle Jim really enjoys it.
I can definitely say that I'm not alone. The construction of the racetrack makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to navigate the normally pleasant streets.  Even a simple outing can become an exercise in patience, perseverance and agility.

Just last week I helped a woman in tears trying to push her baby carriage around the port where the racing pits were being set up.  What should have been a pleasant afternoon stroll with her baby became a nightmare.  We struggled together to lift the pram, baby and all over a metre high barricade because the builders had not made any provision for pedestrians let alone for anyone pushing a baby carriage.
And then there are those fun seekers who seize the moment only to have it all end in tears:   a few years back in the middle of the night, some daring dodo went roaring through the circuit's only tunnel at 100 km/h, double the normal speed limit but only about one third of the speed at which the skilled F1 drivers zoom through. 

Predictably, he crashed, even though  ironically, the tunnel is one of the few places during the race where the F1 drivers can floor it. Luckily he survived.  His Ferrari didn't.
Seventy-eight times around the circuit the brave and daring drivers zoom, sometimes reaching speeds of up to 280 km/h.  What isn't evident from looking at a map of the circuit is that it's not flat - as it winds through Monaco it climbs and descends hills along hairpin curves making it the most challenging and dangerous of all the F1 circuits.  I guess this explains why it's so popular.

Week One
Even though creating the circuit and preparing for the race is annoying for those of us who live here, I truly appreciate what an engineering and logistics miracle it is.

During a span of a few weeks, like tireless ants and nimble monkeys, 100 or so skilled workers construct seating for 22,000 people, erect safety barricades that line the entire length of the 3.34 km circuit and install literally thousands of tons of safety features.  

Week Two
The volume of equipment they need is mind boggling:  18,680 km in length of crash barriers, 6 km of 2.5 metre high chain link fencing, 28.7 km of cabling on top of 1,700 posts, and just for added measure, 6,750 rubber tires so cars can bounce instead of crumple if they crash. 

Week Three
Mr Maamar Farhi, the man in charge of setting up the circuit said in a recent interview with the local newspaper, Nice Matin,  that it's a challenge because the set up is done amidst busy streets and sidewalks with cars and people circulating about.  He should know.  He's been doing it for 35 years.

If you'd like to see the race you're better off watching from the comfort of your own living room unless you can afford the hotels and restaurants who  unfairly inflate their prices to make the most of the increased demand.  If this doesn't deter you then go for it - you can expect to shell out $2,200 for a prime seat near the pits or if you happen to have a good set of binoculars and don't mind standing on a hillside surrounded by weeds, $63.  Add $6 for ear plugs.

No doubt about it, The Grand Prix is a huge money-maker for Monaco.  Tens of thousands of visitors arrive to the tune of millions of dollars injected into the local economy each year.
Here’s a fun fact:  if you're in Monaco when it's not set up like a race track and you want  to know where it runs just look down.  Permanently installed in the pavement that lines both sides of the circuit are rectangular plates, each about 20 by 10 cms.  Pop off the plate and you'll find a hollow metal cylinder in which the set up crews insert  metal tubing to mount the framework for posts and barricades. After the race, it all comes down, even faster than it went up and things return to normal.
Between races, all of the equipment is stored in a giant warehouse in France until the whole thing starts over again next year. 

As for me, I'll be fleeing the craziness as I do every year.  You'll find me  in Canada watching the race on TV with my dad, from the comfort of our living room with a mute button and a plate of cookies, trying to spot Uncle Jim in the crowd.  I must confess though, seeing Monaco on TV from that far away does make me a little homesick....

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rule Brittania. An Old Friend Sails into Town

An old friend arrived in Monaco this morning and took me by complete surprise.

I was just setting out on a morning power walk, descending the first of 2 long staircases.  When I arrived at the bottom I turned a corner and there she was, the Queen Mary 2, a formidable presence anchored in the harbour.

I have fond memories of the QM2 and they came flooding back when I saw her.  Ages ago when we were all young and had no wrinkles, Uncle Jim and I took the Maiden Voyage from Southampton to Ft. Lauderdale. Please walk down the gang plank and into the Auntie Time machine......

On January 12th, 2004, along with about 2,600 other lucky passengers, we boarded the shiny new QM2.  We were sizzling with excitement and anticipation.  After we had unpacked, we joined everyone on the upper deck to watch the fireworks, drink Champagne and enjoy being part of an historic moment.  After an hour or so, the thunderous steam-powered ship's horn sounded, we threw some confetti around and off we sailed into the night for our 14-day adventure.

We had a great time on board.  We drank cocktails with our fellow ship mates and new found friends, dined lavishly, and spent quality time at the spa (me) or in the largest library at sea (Uncle Jim).  There was never a lack of things to do.  We could chose between a theatre, cinema, planetarium, casino, pub, gym, shopping arcade, champagne bar,  wine bar, nightclub, book shop, art gallery and an outdoor pool.  Even the dogs and cats had fun:  the QM2 has room for 12. 

Evenings in the Queen's Grill dining room were glamorous:  gowns and tuxedos were mandatory and everyone wore beautiful jewelery and smelled nice.  After dinner there was dancing into the wee hours in the ballroom and performances in the theatre.  Dame Shirley Bassey was one of the entertainers.  I couldn't help thinking through a champagne-fuelled haze that this was what it must have felt like to be on the Titanic's maiden voyage before it sank.

I loved the way everyone welcomed us at the many ports of call.  Arriving in Funchal, Portugal before the sun was up we were greeted by what appeared to be fireflies everywhere but were in fact camera flashes set off by the thousands of people who turned out in the dark to greet us and take pictures of the ship.

The QM2 is a sturdy and robust ocean liner, much more so than a cruise ship. It's built with a massive and deep hull, able to withstand rough seas during perilous transatlantic crossings.  And a good thing too.  Mere days into our voyage we encountered massive swells that sent everyone to the ship's doctor for seasick shots.  As a precautionary measure, centrepieces and glassware were removed from the tables in the dining rooms, cupboards were secured, sick bags were hung on strategically placed hooks throughout the ship and restaurants were on limited service.  If we had been on a cruise ship we would have been much worse off or capsized.  As for me, I was on a treadmill in the the gym enjoying the ride.

Christened by her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the QM2 was named after her grandmother, Queen Mary of Teck or to be more precise, Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, Empress Consort of India.  Whew.

Just like Queen Mary's full name, the QM2 was too big to moor at Monaco's Digue, a man-made dock where most cruise ships rest when they stay in Monaco.  Throughout the day, little boats that popped out of the hull  tendered passengers from ship to shore and back again.

Well, a lot of time has passed since we were on the Maiden Voyage of the QM2.  I searched my computer's photo directory for some snaps to share with you but alas, it was before digital photography and cell phone cameras were popular so just like everyone else did in the stone age, our photos were safely pasted into an album that we bought on board with "QM2" stamped in gold on the cover.

Maybe some day we will jump on board the QM2 for another adventure but I'd better pack my bags soon:  a Hong Kong fortune teller once told me not to go near deep water when I'm 55. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

You Lucky Duck - Part II, The Jumbo, ElGordo and Other Big Ones

Have you ever wondered what it's like to win the lottery?  

Well, if you believe the testimony of some of the lottery winners on the American TV show, "Winning the Lottery Changed my Life," it's not a pretty picture. First, your long lost relatives arrive in droves looking for a handout.  Then you're stalked by crazy people.  Then you wind up living in a trailer, having spent all your loot on silly things like trips to Las Vegas and pony farms.  Not a pretty picture!

The dangers of winning big in Italy are different - the police advise lottery winners not to reveal their identities in case criminals show up on their doorsteps.
Well, chances are you won't have to face any of these problems because despite what the commercials and posters depict, the odds of winning are against you.

Here are the bubble bursting facts:  the odds of you winning let's say, the 6/49 in Canada are 1:13,983,816.  In Italy, your odds of winning the SuperEnalotto are 1:622,614,630 In France's Loto the odds are 1:1,906,884.  By contrast, according to the U.S. National Weather Service, your odds of being struck by lightning in any given year is 1:700,000 but if you live to the ripe old age of 80, the odds increase to 1 in 6,250.  If you're holding an umbrella, the odds are even higher.

Well don't let all of that discourage you because we all know that you're one lucky duck and Big Daddy will tell you how to invest your winnings.

So let's push aside all the dangers and impossible odds and just go for it.  The big question is, just how do you choose which numbers to play?  Well, let's rely on the wisdom of a past winner.  In 1992, "Mr Lucky" aka, Dennis Sanfilippo won a whopping $30,000,000 in the SuperLotto in the United States.  He  said that he chose his favourite numbers, "7" and "11" and just for good measure, he bought the winning ticket along with 11 other tickets at the 7/11 convenience store at 11:00.  So that's the secret!

If you'd like a more modern approach to choosing numbers, Apple offers a free iPod app that generates random numbers that fit the format of each of the world's 9 biggest lotteries.   I downloaded it the minute I learned about it.

If you're ever in Italy buying SuperEnalotto tickets and you need some help picking numbers you need look no further than your  own dreams.  Wherever  you buy tickets in Italy you will find Cabala Sogni Lotto pictograph posters in which 90 numbers correspond to 90 different images.  For example, the number "3" corresponds to a cat.  Since I often dream of cats I usually include the number "3" as one of my 6 numbers.  Taking a page from "Mr Lucky", I include "11", coincidentally, a mouse.

Italian Lottery Tickets.  Auntie Lost...

Ever the realist, Uncle Jim  gave me some number picking advice:  I would have as much of a chance of winning the lotto with consecutive numbers like 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 as any other set of numbers.  That was a bit of a buzz kill.

The largest lottery prize ever won in Europe was from Italy's SuperEnalotto.  The winning ticket was purchased in August of 2009 in Bagnone, Tuscany at a little neighbourhood  hole-in-the-wall called the "Biffi Bar."   The prize money was an unbelievable €147,807,299.08.  The prize was  claimed but the winner has yet to be identified, probably following the advice of the local police. 
A Tokyo Chance Center
Despite the sky high odds against you it's hard not to get caught up in all the fun. In Tokyo recently, I blew 30 on a package of 10 "Jumbo"  tickets because I liked the fun looking guy on the posters and there was someone enthusiastically yelling into a bullhorn drawing crowds to the nearby "Chance Center."  I had no idea what the tickets cost, what the prize was, how to claim it or when the draw was taking place but I thought, what the heck?

When I got home I asked my Japanese friend to help me find the winning Jumbo numbers on the Internet.  Sadly, I lost but as a charming gesture, everyone who buys the 10 pack gets ¥300 (about $3.50 US) as a consolation prize just for playing.  Now I have another reason to return to Japan, as if I needed one.
Japan's Takara-Kuji "Fortune" Lottery Tickets.  Auntie Lost...
Even though I lost the Jumbo I now know what all the fuss was about:  with a total payout of $1.14 billion, the Jumbo has the highest payout in Asia - the second largest in the world.  The prize money in Spain's gigantic ElGordo tops the list.  

Hmm...we haven't been to Spain in ages....