Friday 31st August NYC

2pm

After less fuss than it could have been, Simone and Richard are packed and ready to leave. It takes a couple of trips in the lift to get all the bags down to the lobby so I wait downstairs and mind the bags. I finger the door key in my pocket. With damp eyes, she steps from the lift with a dog in her arms.

‘I had to say goodbye,’ she explains. The white fluffy dog is clearly missing the sobriety of the moment as it moves around in her arms. The doorman wedges open the door and starts to roll the bags out to the curb. I take the smaller ones and roll them out also. Richard requests an Uber and stands by the curb looking up the street towards the Queensboro bridge. We corral the bags to take up less pavement space. A light breeze is keeping the morning cool and my sister wipes her eyes.

Minutes later a dark sedan pulls up and the driver eyeballs the amount of luggage. He pops the boot open and starts the game of Tetris that is packing the bags into the car. Cars start to bank up behind and the horns start. No one rushes and eventually the cars manoeuvre into the next lane and around.

‘You’re a real New Yorker now,’ I say. Last hugs, tight and held, and they’re in the car. I wait til they pull out into traffic before I turn to go inside. I pat the outside of my pocket to feel the key safely tucked inside. The streets are quieter this morning. It’s a Friday at the start of Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer. Richard’s favourite coffee spot two doors along is even closed. I turn, enter the lobby and go to wait for the elevator. Well, the one that is working anyway. The superintendent told me there’s little chance of getting a repair man out this weekend.

Back upstairs in the apartment, I take stock. I stack the dishwasher and open the fridge to see what might be consumed in the next 24 hours before I leave and what should be thrown out. My suitcase is mostly packed. The long-sleeve tops and cardigans haven’t even made it out of their packing cells since I arrived. I choose loose denim trousers, a black singlet and a black top. With a bit of make-up and some bling, I’m ready to hit the town. Well, a small section of it anyway.

I grab the bag with some of Richard’s leftover clothes on my way out the door. I’m heading for the goodwill store on 62nd and 1st. I’m determined not to get my phone to look at the map. Most of the pedestrians seem to be tourists this morning and I’m even able to give directions to one. Feeling quite chuffed, I saunter along and jay-walk with more confidence.

It’s mid afternoon when I make it to The Jeffrey. It’s a bar I’ve walked past many times and this time I’m going in. The front bar is buzzing and I’m grateful to arrive before it gets too busy. I locate an empty seat away from the door and swiftly the bar staff hand me a drinks menu. I open it up and instantly regret not bringing my glasses.

‘What can I get you?’ The pretty blond barmaid asks me.

‘I forgot my glasses so I’ll have to ask you for some recommendations.’

‘Here, borrow mine.’ The woman next to me hands me hers.

‘Oh, that’s very kind. Thank you.’ The prescription is so strong that I can’t make anything out. Meanwhile, the barmaid asks, ‘what kind of beer do you like?’

I lower the glasses.

‘All kinds. I’d like to try something local-ish. Something hoppy?’

While I’m poured a couple of tasters, I hand the glasses back to my neighbour. She reminds me of someone though I can’t place who. Tight grey curls ring her round, warm face. A bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers sit on the bar in front of her next to a glass of prosecco.

‘I’m Karen,’ (say this in your head long and drawn out). I introduce myself. She smiles and nods. ‘Ah, I recognise that accent. A coloniser.’

‘A coloniser?’ What am I missing here?

‘I’m from Jamaica. One of Britain’s colonies.’ She laughs and smiles and takes another swig of her drink.

‘Oh, no. I’m not a coloniser. I’m Australian. I’m a fellow colonist,’ I explain and take a gulp of my cold beer.

Letter to my mother’s diabetes.

Dear diabetes,

I’m well, thanks for asking.

I’m not going to ask how you’ve been because I don’t care.

I wish I’d never met you.

You’ve robbed my mother of her sight. Not all of it, mind you, but enough to suck some of the sweetness out of life. I can picture her, many years back, sitting on the couch next to dad, crocheting a toy or blanket for one grandkid or another. Now she just sits on the couch, staring ahead at a fuzzy pattern of shapes and colours, hands idle in her lap.

Thanks to you, my sister and I have now inherited the abandoned craft supplies. The crates of fabric from under the stairs went to my sister who sews. My daughters and I happily received boxes of wool, knitting needles and crochet hooks. Yes, the cats do love chasing the wool but I am also relishing the chance to teach my daughters crochet.

Mum, like her mother, was always happy to let us kids have a go at craft. I can even see Nana sitting in her floral chair by the window so she would catch the natural light, knitting needles in hand. Somehow, she never was short with me as she attempted to figure out what on earth I’d done with the wool. It usually involved a drop stitch or three. So I’m not being sarcastic when I say thank you. The craft supplies that have been passed on to us means that we, too, allow our children to play around with creating.

The ability to have a go and fail is something my mother encouraged in me from a young age. She is not the type to take the pencil out of my hand to draw something for me. She would suggest I walk around it, pick it up and get to know the thing I wanted to draw. Her time at art school in the 60s was not wasted. Her paintings and sculptures filled the house growing up. But once again, thanks to you, diabetes, she can’t even paint. The half-finished canvases rested against a wall in the garage, blank faces poking out under a layer of dust and cobwebs, until they too came to live with me.

As a child, I remember my grandfather had a shed that smelled of wood shavings and engine oil. His tools hung neatly on shadow board which lined the walls. I recall stories of Papa making a home brew system from discarded fuel tins. My mother inherited her ingenuity from her father. She also inherited his diabetes, developing it late in life as he did. So damn you diabetes for cursing my Papa as well.

Whilst reducing my mother’s sight so that she can no longer drive, you have tried to curb her independence but you did not succeed. My mother simply upsized her phone’s display and downloaded a public transport app. So once again, I must thank you. Thank you for nudging her into the modern world. Buses, trains and trams have replaced her own car but she will not be hobbled. We are both viciously independent people and though you may try, you will not limit our wanderings.

It’s not just diet and insulin production you impact. You effect the eyesight, feet and healing ability of people who get too close to you. The strong genetic link looms over my life so I’m actively working to remain free of you, damned diabetes. I exercise regularly so that you can’t catch me. I eat well, so that you’ll not join me at my dinner table. I have inherited many things from my mother – my body shape, my love of creating and my independent streak. But I will not inherit diabetes. I will not inherit you.

72 hours on the little blue planet

You may only think of Earth as being a planet with a convenient climate devoid of too many terraforming activities. Well, it’s much more than that. With improved inter-galactic transportation, now is the time to see what this pretty little blue planet has to offer. We’ve done the hard work for you, organising an indulgent, first-class long weekend. So sit back and let Earth seduce you.

Saturday

Paris

Grab a strong café au lait and a pain au chocolat or almond croissant and let’s hit the streets. This is not the Galleries Lafayette or the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. This is back to basics shopping. Paris is undoubtedly a city rich in history and you deserve the chance to take a piece away with you. After all, the word souvenir is from the french ‘to remember’. Spring and Summer are the best seasons to spend hours trawling through the plethora of sidewalk stalls. Diversity is the name of the game here. Items range from high to low end and all points in between. Flea market finds are just as likely to unearth vintage postcards and antique buttons or a unique set of alabaster cufflinks.

Smiling translates the same in every language and it is a great ice-breaker as you rummage through dusty, crammed boxes shoved under tables, searching for that one perfect item. Talking of which, don’t get hung up on one particular thing as curious wonders and oddities abound at every stall. Most likely an early 19th century armoire will not fit into the carry-on.

A couple of important points to remember: wear comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Leave any valuables at home and dress like a local to avoid being singled out by pickpockets. Above all, arrive early to secure the best bargains and haggling is perfectly acceptable.

Why not grab an Auto-Uber and travel a little further afield to get the better bargains but bear in mind it’s buyer beware and it’s not always easy to tell a genuine piece from a replica. Finally, just like the rest of the planet, it goes without saying, bring your own bag because you won’t find any plastic bags here.

Audrey Hepburn was right when she said, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’

Austria

With all that bargain hunting, you’ve no doubt worked up a thirst. Now’s the time to pop over to Austria and check out wineries as they should be – all rolling hills and glowing fires – and the reason you’re here is to sample some of the country’s finest Gruner Veltliner wine. Dry, savoury and very food friendly, it gives Romulan ale a run for its money.

Of course, that is if you can drag yourself away from Vienna and its cobblestone streets, original trams and delicious traditional foods. Austrians have an understandable pride in their heritage – so proud of St. Stephens cathedral, in fact, that Haas Haus was built opposite with a mirrored façade to increase visibility of the cathedral within the tightly built up city. Do as the locals do and grab a restorative coffee and cake to see you through the afternoon. Visit Café Sacher Wien, all dark wood and worn leather chairs and sample Sacher Torte which they’ve been serving consistently for the last 150 years.

Self-drive vehicles mean no one has to be the designated driver, so let the vine-covered hills unwind in front of you. Lower Austria is one of the most under-rated wine regions on the planet. Small, progressive, organic producers sit beside large scale wineries, both of which welcome the wine professional as well as the enthusiastic amateur.

Grape growing in the region dates back to at least 2nd century BC and the vineyards have survived both Roman occupation and phylloxera, a disease which devastated grapes across Europe in the late 19th century. Connection to place, or terroir, is expressed most elegantly in Gruner Veltliner, the variety of which accounts for the country’s greatest production. Gruner means green-picked and it is this under-ripe picked grape that produces an audacious but balanced profile wine. The region’s cool climate lends the wine excellent acid retention, adding structure and ageing capability. Grab a Reidel wine glass, still the leading wine glass producer on the planet Earth, and let your tasting journey begin.

TASTING NOTES – GRUNER VELTLINER

• Think savoury pear plus hints of talcum powder – it can have the texture and body of a Pinot gris but other examples have the spine of an off-dry Riesling

• Works as an aperitif but can also be matched with poached weisswurst, or cold pork terrine on a picnic rug in a stemless Riedel on a mild spring afternoon but that’s another story…..

• Ideally served at 7 degrees it has a moderate alcohol content of around 12-13%

Say ‘auf wiedersehen, Austria’ and ‘ciao, Italia!’

Italy

You could start at the toe of Italy’s boot, board the train at the reputationally-suspect Reggio Calabria station and head northwards. Hugging the rugged west coast, weaving through numerous mountains and even hitching a ride on a ferry, the Italian rail network provides many options. This time, however, you should head straight to Modena. Situated on the south side of the Po Valley, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Modena is the home of Italian sports cars.

Tonight though, you’re not here for sports cars. You are here to sample some of the most unmissable food on planet Earth. Once you’ve had your fill of palaces, cathedrals, museums and other historic buildings, it’s time for a little aperitif. You can go past the ever-popular Aperol Spritz. Featuring Aperol, the bitter orange aperitif traditionally made in nearby Padua, a spritz is low in alcohol and refreshes your palate for the onslaught that lies ahead.

Recipe

3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda. Ideally served in a large wine glass or tumbler with citrus slices of your choice.

Your perfect dining spot this evening is Osteria Francescana, where chef Massimo Bottura showcases the best that the Emilia-Romagna region has to offer. Balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano each play their role in the 9 course tasting menu. Self described as both contemporary and traditional, Bottura’s menu travels from house-cured culatello aged 42 months with mustard fruits to oyster water and cider sorbet. If you’re fortunate you may even be served cotechino, a fat, juicy sausage made from the less popular cuts of pork, including the head. Traditionally served with lentils layered over a rich reduction of pan juices, the legumes represent coins and it is said to bring good luck. Whatever the intended fortune, no description does it justice. It can only be understood through by taste. It’s just damn delicious.

All those cliché catch phrases apply here – seasonal, locally-sourced, farm to table – as lawyer turned chef, the obsessive Bottura explores food as memory, his own and his customers’. Inarguably, food is the collective memory of a people. It is the result of hundreds of years of habit and farming tradition and yet it is the personal dishes that tell the greatest stories. Deeply embedded in the Italian lifestyle, there is no such thing as a rushed meal. Hours pass over antipasti, pasta for primo then secondi, or protein portion (usually something lighter such as fish in the South through to heavier meat in the North) alongside contorni, or side dishes, and always finishing with sweet dolci. Robust conversation is part of the deal with politics and sex causing less uproar than ‘who has the best ragu recipe?’

Perhaps this degustation asks too much of the diner, you should probably give it a go anyway.

Buon appetito!

Sunday

Africa

A culture filled day yesterday in Europe is the perfect way to start your whirlwind long weekend here on Earth, and today you hop on over to Africa. After your degustation dinner last night, you’ll need to step out and grab some fresh air to blow away the cobwebs. Spending the morning on an African safari is the ideal solution. Join a kayaking group and let the gentle flowing waters of the lower Zambezi river whisk you away. As you float past sheer rock faces, you’ll need to manoeuvre around sunbathing crocodiles or herd of hippos feeding on grasses in the shallows. Wildlife vastly outnumbering humans, now’s the time to get up close and personal, though not too close, these animals aren’t holograms and hippos can be extremely aggressive when threatened.

From one kind of wild animal to another, it’s time to jet over and visit New York City.

New York City

There is no such thing as an American cuisine. The American dining table groans under a diversity of dishes, influenced by hundreds of years of immigration and its plentiful natural resources. Fear not, fast food nation is not what you’ve signed up for here.

The ideal solution to such over-whelming choice of options is, of course, found at a cocktail and pie bar. Located in Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan, Little Branch combines unmissable cocktails and home-style pie – what could be more American? America embraces pie of all varieties from pumpkin pie, coconut cream pie, pecan pie to apple pie and everything in between. Cocktails established their foundation ironically both during and after Prohibition.

Like all the best parts of New York City, there’s a touch of the theatrical to this bar. The first act being discovering the unmarked door, making your way past the burly bouncer and down candle lit steps. Dark and moody with low ceilings, this speakeasy is the perfect spot to catch some live Jazz on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Let the sartorially splendid bartenders tailor their mixology just for you. Quintessential American apple pie is the perfect partner to a Manhattan – a sublime balance of vermouth, whiskey and bitters in a low ball. These killer cocktails are worth waiting for.

In a city that never sleeps, Dorothy Parker once said “As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.” Good to know.

Monday

Australia

You’ll be double dipping in this sprawling country this morning but it’s worth it, trust me. Australians have a well earned reputation as laid-back and carefree and the White Elephant Café in Margaret River, Western Australia epitomises this attitude. Sprawling vistas over pristine shoreline are the perfect accompaniment to your breakfast fare. Ordering from the eclectic menu, you’re just as likely to get a deconstructed soba noodle salad as eggs Benedict or smashed avo on toast. It doesn’t get any more authentically Australian than this.

Possibly a symbol for the region itself, endless fields of golden wheat sway in the coastal breeze. Biodynamic farming methods foster strong connection to the land as much as literal deep crop roots. Bread has been much vaulted and philosophised over and again. Bread is wheat transformed into flour, flour transformed into dough and ultimately dough transformed into bread. It is often called the staff of life and rightly so. Grain from the field nurtured just so becomes bread.

After all that philosophy, you deserve a coffee. Melbourne, Victoria has to be the next stop. Still the home of hipster coffee, track down a converted shipping container cafe in an un-named laneway. Hour-long lines are not the only barometer of quality. Single origin, cold drip or straight forward espresso, your barista is the gate-keeper of coffee knowledge. Coffee, like wine, has its terroir and equally strong advocates. Your three-quarter flat white never looked or tasted so good.

Caffeinate up and let’s hit our next destination – Bali, Indonesia.

Bali

Monday afternoon is as good as any time to visit Bali’s 24 hour market In the heart of Denpasar. Buildings stacked high with every possible variety of food, fabrics, souvenirs and spices, the number of stalls multiply yearly. Weave your way through the labyrinth to find that perfect Indonesian memento.

Bali is one of Indonesia’s more than 18,000 islands that make up the archipelago. One of the most densely populated islands, its towns vary from sleepy to bustling. The people are a mix of mostly Hindu and Muslim, temples sit check by jowl with mosques with a catholic statue or two squeezed in. Visitors to this island range from scuba enthusiasts, sun-seekers or surfers, culture junkies to shopaholics.

After all that shopping you deserve to ease the tension with a serene spa visit. The Legian Luxury Retreat is just the spot. Recently refurbished using local materials crossed with sleek interior design, wooden balconies lean out over the shimmering blue waters below. The in-house spa mixes classic treatments such as facials and hot stone massage with more new age therapies like chakra realignments and holistic reiki healing rituals. Your most difficult decision will be between the plunge pool or your own private beach.

Let’s finish off your long weekend here on Earth and catapult yourself to Tokyo. The only way to experience Tokyo is at 120 percent.

Tokyo

It’s too easy to get lost in this megalopolis but it’s worth exploring Tokyo’s many prefectures, whether you want to go shopping in Shibuya, get your fill of shrines in Asakusa or visit Harajuku’s many cosplay cafes. However, for your last night here on Earth, head to Shinjuku and visit one of Kabukicho’s robot bars. Notorious but not dangerous, this red light district allows you to slide up next to salarymen unwinding after a long day at work before they retire to a ‘capsule hotel’ to steal a few hours sleep.

List of a few Dos and Don’ts

• Don’t engage with the street touts if you want to hold onto your wallet.

• Don’t loiter out front of the adult stores regardless of how tempting these multi-floor shops are with their videos, dolls, all sorts of dress ups and toys. Either go in and shop or leave.

• Do get off the main strip and visit a maid café which vary from maids as school girls to old school air stewardesses. For a moderate amount, you buy a beer and a minute of the maid’s time. They’re not hitting on you; flirting is all part of the transaction.

• Do grab a Suica card and hop on public transport. It’s a cheap and efficient way to get around.

• Do ask the price and what you get for it. Hostess clubs vary widely, but you can be treated like a king for the price of a cigar or a glass of whiskey

Finally, you have to hit the barely shoulder-width bars of the Golden Gai. Each with their own personality, bars in the Golden Gai are not cheap but the cover charge at least gets you a simple bowl of soup or a few hot dumplings.

As the locals say ‘It’s not over til the rooster crows.’

Don’t leave Tokyo before you try these –

Donburi

Essentially a scaled-down version of an entire meal, it is the quality of the rice that is the most important. Perfectly cooked, separated grains but still sticky enough to pick up with chopsticks, topped with unagi (eel) or yakitori skewer, toasted nori and a condiment. Each dish comes in a unique bowl, as Japanese culture values the aesthetic as much as the food itself.

Yakitori

A range of skewers from chicken ribs or heart to shiitake mushrooms, each yakitori master applies their own glaze with a recipe containing soy and mirin. All parts of the animal are used in this dish and yakitori varies from a simple snack to an extravagant feast. Basted frequently and grilled over fanned charcoal, the skewers obtain a smokey edge to balance the sweet glaze.

Dumplings

Dumplings are basically mini flavour sensations made concrete. Often pork based, the filling should be firm but moist. Dumplings are a welcome addition to any Japanese meal.

Don’t forget to complement these tastes of Tokyo by sampling a locally brewed sweet potato beer from Coedo or Hitachino’s red rice ale.

Whether it’s the romance of Paris, the sybaritic indulgence of Italy or the raw visual spectacular that is Africa, Earth is bound to get its hooks into you. Don’t fight it, just surrender.

What you need to know before you go

• Leave your filter mask at home, Earth has a naturally breathable atmosphere. Take the opportunity to breathe fresh air thanks to the 21st Century moratorium on destructive air-polluting activities.

• That 24 hour-in-a-day construction actually makes sense here, thanks to ancient Egyptians. Appreciate your work guys!

• Don’t forget to pack your charge card for all those unmissable purchases. However, you’ll still need to pack some cash (yes, cash) as that virtually extinct custom of tipping still exists in the United States of America – 20 % no less. Maybe one day soon, the minimum wage bill will be passed (along with the Equal Rights Amendment) eliminating the custom.

• Remember to pack your babel fish, there are over 4,000 languages spoken on Earth.

• Virgin Earth offers a range transportation options for every budget. To make your reservation, visit http://www.virginearth.ea