Saturday, 19 November 2011

Holocaust Tourism: Auschwitz and Phnom Penh

As luck, or fate, or low-cost airline schedules would have it, I ended up in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, about three weeks after I visited Auschwitz near Krakow in Poland.

To quickly summarise 20th Century history:
  • Auschwitz is the site of the largest concentration camp used as part of the Nazi holocaust of about six million people in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
  • Phnom Penh was the centre of the Khmer Rouge’s holocaust of at least one million Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s.
The closeness of the two trips was coincidental. I was in Krakow with a friend because we wanted a break from the expense of travelling in Western Europe (have you ever tried to get drunk in Rotterdam? Well, I have, and it’s extremely bloody pricey), and everyone raves about Krakow (which is warranted – it’s a lovely place. Medieval castles and cheap beer).

I was in Cambodia because I stuffed up booking the connection between leaving Bangladesh and arriving back in Sydney (by, like, a week, because I’m just that hopeless), and Air Asia offered me a cheap and easy way to re-brand myself from “possibly illiterate, definitely incapable travel organiser” to “intrepid south-east Asia adventurer!”

There is a lot to do in both Krakow and Phnom Penh aside from visiting the sites of and memorials to massacres. Fun, life-affirming stuff (take note, Switzerland). Krakow has a castle, a salt mine (no really, trust me, all kinds of cool) and a museum with a handbag exhibit.

Phnom Penh has a royal compound with bright and shiny treasures on display and more temples than you can waft an incense stick at. Moreover, it has that spark that I sometimes find absent in ancient, eroding Europe; Phnom Penh is still recovering and reconstructing, and people move from place to place with purpose and urgency. They’ve got stuff to do - rebuild their city and do aerobics in public squares and start really awesome fashion lines that they sell out of their Dad’s garages (I, ahem, may have shopped).

So Krakow is more than a place near Auschwitz, and Phnom Penh is more than Khmer Rouge collateral.

But.

I'm unsure about what to write about the actual visit to the Auschwitz camp and the exhibits. It’s unsettlingly familiar, partly because you’ve seen it before on TV and at the cinema, and partly, for me at least, because the duplicated buildings and institutional layout reminded me of a primary school.

There’s lots of other people there and you don’t actually look anyone in the eye but everyone goes out of their way to be polite and behave respectfully. You lower your voice and hold doors open for other people and just try to be good.

Trying to be good, or at least better, is, I think, kind of the point of Auschwitz as a museum/memorial/monument. Or, as Seth Freedman writes when talking about the Holocaust Industry in Poland, the continuing existence of the place is “a necessary course of treatment for humanity”.

Unfortunately, as Freedman points out, Auschwitz as a memorial and a warning, whilst absolutely necessary, is a treatment rather than a cure. Holocausts have continued to occur since the end of World War II. Which brings me entirely too neatly to Cambodia.

As with Auschwitz, I’m not sure what to say about the actual visit to the Cambodian memorials. The first place I visited in Phnom Penh was S-21, a former school where the Khmer Rouge detained and tortured political prisoners. It still feels like a school, and as with Auschwitz, visitors behave like very well-behaved students. Heads are down, you speak only when spoken to and read every sign and leaflet or plaque conscientiously, as if there’s an exam at the end.

Several classrooms are now galleries, full of mugshots of people killed there. At first glance (before you register the bruises and the cuts and black eyes), the photos could be reprints of all the images taken one year at a particularly busy passport photo booth, or a big company’s database of photos from employee identification badges. There are people with freckles and pimples and bad haircuts and sometimes, somehow, people with smiles on their faces.

From S-21 I followed all the other tourists out to Choeung Ek (Holocaust tourists, even the Intrepid South East Asia Adventurers like myself, move as 12 little girls in two straight lines), a Killing Field on the outside of Phnom Penh. It’s exactly as described – a field where 17000 people were taken to be killed, and about 9000 were buried in mass graves.

Not that I would have been able to recognize the mass graves, if they hadn’t been signposted. Choeung Ek now features buildings developed since the site became a memorial, but there’s little obvious structural evidence of what happened there. In the years since the killing stopped, the man-made traces have faded and trees and grass have grown in their place.

And I guess that’s why I’m glad my dwindling budget and my woeful attention to detail led me to both Auschwitz and Phnom Penh; because tourists - as nosy, ignorant and loud as we can be – will help keep Auschwitz and the Killing Fields memorials going, long after the physical evidence has eroded.


Sunday, 23 January 2011

Well, that was different: Bangladesh

I went to Bangladesh in July 2009 to visit my friend Lyrian, who spent a year there as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development. I was there at the same time as Sally, Lyrian’s best friend and a good friend of mine, too.

I’ve been trying for to write cohesively about my trip to Bangladesh for almost 18 months now. Then I decided that cohesion (and structure, and narrative, and order, and control) and Bangladesh were un-mixy things.

But I still wanted to write about my trip to Bangladesh. Firstly, because, well, really, I went to Bangladesh and I want some travel-blogger-credibility for it, thank you very much.

Secondly, Bangladesh is impressive. It should be written about.

On a map Bangladesh looks like it’s held in a protective embrace by Grandmother India. Or slowly smothered. Depending on your perspective. It is a small land area (and ever-diminishing, thank you global warming/rising sea levels/crazy weather) filled with a large (and ever-increasing, thank you, um, reproductive activities) number of people.

And all those people, so crowded together, live in a pressing, dirty heat, dressed in life-affirming Crayola colours. Like Melbourne through the looking glass.

So, rather than an actual composition (with a rational beginning, middle and end), you’re getting a list. In no particular order, a list of things I can’t forget about Bangladesh:

1. Getting on an overnight bus from Rangpur (in the north) to Dhaka (kind of in the middle), and being video-taped before the bus set off so they could identify our bodies if we crashed.
Bangladeshi highways are narrow, lined with pedestrians, cluttered with rickshaws and other slow moving vehicles and just terrifying. Bangladeshi bus drivers are very young man who don’t own X-Boxes/ Wiis/ Sega Master Systems IIs and as such must unleash their aggressive speed and overtaking urges in an un-simulated environment. Un-simulated environment in this context meaning my bloody real life when they are responsible for my very mortal flesh and blood body.

2. Learning to love squat toilets. Learning to love the amazing healing powers of Gastrolyte. Learning to accept that some food is going to treat your digestive tract like a nightclub dance floor.
Bangladesh: the country that made me finally open my travel medicine kit.

3. Having a rikshaw driver turn around and stare at Lyrian and I (his passengers) for an entire unblinking minute.
I've been told that most Bangladeshis go through life without ever seeing a white person in the pale, veiny, freckly flesh. I suspect they only see a scattered few on screens and in print – there’s still far more concern about everyone living in rural areas having access to clean drinking water, rather than access to broadband internet.

I’d probably stare (and take photos, and exclaim, and point and laugh) too. I get it. If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other (almost as poignant as Groove Armada's other great social observation, "I see you baby/shaking that ass").

And at first, I sort of enjoyed being nominated as special. I’ve always been a bit of an attention whore. I remember leaving Dhaka airport in a crush of men, all clambering for our attention, and giggling at how absurd it was.

And then, after about a day, I began to feel like a different kind of whore. The rickshaw driver is the incident that stays with me; we were quite vulnerable, and he was so close.

In retrospect, the catcalls on the street and the groping on the buses were actually no worse than you’d get in King’s Cross on a Saturday night. The difference is that on Sunday morning in Sydney you walk through the Cross and no one makes eye contact with you or even acknowledges you and you get to hide in the bliss of anonymity.

I did find the unrelenting attention difficult to deal with. Leaving the house was sometimes a bit of an effort.

But leaving the house was always worth the effort. And our novelty factor was also a door opener. We were let into museums outside of opening hours and mosques that aren’t actually ever open for visitors. We were taken into a Hindu temple that had been built within the root system of an ancient tree. We wandered into an enclave of houses after tramping across muddy shipyards (cooler than they sound, actually) and my feet were covered in gunk and a woman gave me her soap and instructed me to use the village’s one clean water pump to clean them and her kindness was probably more confronting then all the staring put together.

4. Visiting Little Bangladesh, a selection of Bangladesh’s tourist attractions, duplicated as miniatures, and collected in one handy location.
Those of you familiar with Leyland Brother’s World will understand the concept. Little Bangladesh negates any need to travel around Bangladesh, and thus avoid unsettling bus trips as described in Item 1.

Ironically, the thing that stays with me about Little Bangladesh was the sense of space and freedom – we were there on a very quiet weekday, and it was the only place we were able to run around and not be stared at too intensely. You can’t really see Bangladesh for the Bangladeshis. Who, of course, are Bangladesh. It's all very confusing. Where's your philosophy now, Groove Armada? Huh?

5. Squashing into a local bus, perching on the back of a flatbed bicycle taxi and lazing on a ferry raft in order to visit an extremely isolated temple.
Feeling quite proud of ourselves for being such extreme tourists, when two coach loads of Indian teenagers turn up, obviously bored out of their iPods on a school excursion.

6. Having a better latte than I’ve ever had in the UK at a new café in Dhaka called Barista.
It is hard to explain exactly how out of place a café in Dhaka is. Dhaka does not have a Starbucks. Dhaka does not have gutters or footpaths.

It is difficult to buy Diet Coke in Dhaka. It can be difficult to buy bread in Dhaka.

I still keep the cafe owner’s business card in my wallet, because his enthusiasm and optimism impressed me so much. I cannot imagine what he went through, importing everything, sourcing the location, training the staff... Apparently, no matter where I am on Earth, I'll always be the daughter of small business owners.

Obviously there’s a leeedle bit of cultural homogenisation at work here, but I say embrace it. I like my coffee like I like my healthcare – universal.

7. Speaking of healthcare, passing a hospital with an open sewer at its entrance.
I asked the ex-pats at the Australian and US Embassies what they do if they get really sick. The answer is “hop a flight to Bangkok or KL”.

Life in Bangladesh is hard. Which is a woefully inadequate thing to say, but, yeah.

8. Visiting the Australian, US and some typically immaculate and well-organised Northern European Embassies.
Walled-in compounds with swimming pools, tennis courts and margaritas. It was all a bit Rudyard Kipling.

9. Leaving Bangladesh
I love airports. I love that they’re full of book stores and food outlets, and that you’re not allowed to do anything other than read and eat and sit-around. It’s enforced slothfulness, and it’s awesome.

But arriving back at Dhaka airport, ready to leave Bangladesh, I realised I also love airports because I love rules and regulations and systems and the reliable environments they create. Like the dozens of other airports I’ve been to around the world, at Dhaka airport I had to line up and check-in and pass security and it was so comforting and predictable after all the curliness and squeezing-five-people-on-a-rickshaw-designed-for- two of Bangladesh.

Not that I wanted to leave Bangladesh desperately – I loved the clothes and the kofta and how sharing a toilet and weak western stomachs made Sal, Lyrian and I that much closer as friends (there is nothing too gross between us anymore. Nothing.).

And I loved that Bangladesh is like a Jackson Pollack painting – at first you’re all confronted and confused by the colours and the mess and the noise, but you keep looking and you start to feel less trapped and you see more and you see differently, and it makes you look at every other painting in the gallery and every bit of graffiti on the train differently.

So I guess why I was really excited to leave Bangladesh was so I could begin seeing every other city and country differently.

And also, so I could buy some more Gastrolyte at the pharmacy at KL Airport. Seriously, that stuff is manna from heaven.

Monday, 11 January 2010

An Open Letter to My Brother, on His 39th Birthday

Dear Big Brother,
Congratulations on not quite being 40!

To celebrate, I hear you are going to tour the Margaret River wine country. An excellent choice for someone as interested in fancy booze as yourself.

I also hear that you will be joined on this sojourn by our esteemed parents.

A brave choice.

It’s not often that this flighty, dependant, head-in-the-smog baby sister is able to offer her steady, dependable, even-tempered elder brother advice. However, having met our parents this past July in London, then travelled with them to New York, then reverse-Titanic-ed the Atlantic with them by cruise ship, then toured southern England with them, I feel uniquely qualified to pass on some words of advice.

To prepare you, some might say.

To warn you, some others might say.

#1 The Mother is Not a Quiet Woman
The Mother is a generous, warm, caring woman. The Mother, however, is not without un-generous, un-warm and un-caring thoughts. Such thoughts are regularly articulated at the top of the Mother’s voice.

The condition of being a guest in another’s country does not remedy this behaviour.

For example:
"Are all English people this ugly?" Paddington Station, London
"Americans are fat, aren’t they?" Times Square, New York
I did not join the Parents on their trip to Paris, but I imagine she broadcast “Gee, the French smell funny!” from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

#2 The Father is Not a Stranger to Vanity
The Father is a very masculine man. We know this because he has a large moustache and (it is whispered reverently, if rather vaguely) once played rugby at Quite a High Level.

The Father is also a bit of a girl.

For instance, the only thing the Father loves more than clothes is shoes. In London, the Father spent many happy hours wandering through the menswear sections of Harrods, Marks and Spencers, Liberty, Selfridges, a different branch of M&S… He would lovingly caress the brogues, nuzzle the knitwear and throw out phrases such as "that’s rather dapper, isn’t it?"

In New York, we almost missed the boat because the Father was having A Moment of Perfect Happiness in Brooks Brothers.

To style his beloved sartorial purchases correctly, the Father will also spend BLOODY HOURS dressing and grooming himself. Our 6 night journey on the Queen Mary included 3 Formal Dinners, 2 Cocktail Events and 1 Casual Night (jacket and tie still required, of course). This gave the Father more opportunity than he ever dreamt possible to fuss over his appearance, and explore the answers to some of life’s most challenging formalwear questions, including, “is my new houndstooth tuxedo scarf too short?”

Yes, Brother, I seriously had to try and formulate an answer to that question. Start practising now.

#3 The Parents are Spoiled Brats
Obviously, the Parents spoiled we Children during the 80s and 90s. Our lower-middle class domestic splendour was sprinkled with such luxuries as recycling-only wheelie bins, televisions in both the lounge room and kitchen, and a dinner choice of mince meat served three different ways (Dinner Winner, spag bol, and because we were always taught to embrace multiculturalism, tacos).

Whilst spoiling us, the Parents were careful to continually remind us that they had no such luxuries in their childhoods, and that they worked very hard to be able to give them to we Children (these reminders were particularly loud after the Father returned from a “Ski-Conference” at Thredbo, and when the Mother won especially big as part of the horse gambling ring she ran with the couriers at her florist shop).

As such, I approached the sections of our trip that I was in charge of booking with a degree of financial caution. I’m a hostel/kebab style traveller myself, and whilst I knew shoving the Father onto the top bunk of an 8 bed dorm room wouldn’t be wise, I googled hard to find good deals at solid four star establishments.

For instance, I was delighted with the hotel I booked in London. It was in the City, an ancient yet thriving section of London. It had an elevator, air conditioning, and our room even had self-catering facilities. I checked in the night before they arrived, and to my sleeping bag/lice infected pillow eyes, the place was actually pretty plush.

The Parents did not share this opinion. The room was too small (the room was a good 5 x 5 metres, bigger than your average flat in London). There wasn’t a spa (the Mother once famously slipped in a hotel spa, and spent months in physiotherapy afterwards repairing the damage). There wasn’t a mini-bar (there was a fridge, and a 24 hour supermarket 100 metres down the road). There wasn’t enough hanging space in the wardrobe (there was, if certain Fathers had not brought their entire wardrobes with them). There weren’t enough mirrors (and after all, who are the fairest Senior’s Card holders of them all?).


For you reference, Brother, they also don’t like:

  • To wait for anything
  • To sit too near the toilets on the EuroStar
  • To sit too far from the toilets on the EuroStar
  • To travel anything less than Business Class
  • To walk more than 30 metres at a time
  • Hire cars that are not Mercedes (“A Saab? Is that really Luxury?”)
  • To go more than an hour between coffee breaks. And We don’t do Starbucks, apparently


#4 The Parents Are Obsessed with The Grandchildren
As you are probably aware, Brother, the (Elder to me, Younger to you) Sister has reproduced twice over the last half decade. The Parents, whilst never overly fond of we Children (eg, the infamous case of the electric guitar, balcony, and the Menopausal Mother), think their Grandsons are ace.


To the point where they never stop talking about them. Ever.

Example:
Scene: The Contemporary Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. The Parents and the Baby Daughter (actual age: 28) are confronted by Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living . This piece takes the form of a dead shark swimming in formaldehyde. The Baby Daughter is a little nervous about the Parents’ reaction. Whilst the Parents would probably class themselves as Arty Types (the Father, after all, had a fine collection of dogs playing snooker hanging in the Billiards Room), they’re not really Taxidermy Types.

The Mother (decidedly): Well, Toby wouldn’t like this. He hasn’t been fond of sharks since Finding Nemo.

The Father (chuckling): Little Rory would love it, though! He’s got a killer instinct, that one!

Baby Daughter (trying desperately to draw attention to herself): You know, a skull covered in diamonds by the same artist recently sold for $80 million.

Pause

The Father: So we can’t buy one to take home for Little Rory, then?

#5 The Parents Love the Father’s Oxygen Generator More Than You
Yes, even you, oh their blessed Boy Child. To be fair, whilst we Children have proved a bit useless so far, the Oxygen Generator allows the Father to breathe.


With every movement, the location of the Oxygen Generator will be questioned, confirmed, reassured, discussed and regretted. The Oxygen Generator has feelings too, you see. Or, at least, it has a five figure price tag and isn’t covered on Travel Insurance.

#6 The Father Has This Weird Thing About Buying the Music Being Played in Museums
Plus, the museums actually have the CDs available for sale. Who knew?


Do not make fun of this habit of the Father’s. You will be forced to listen, and critically respond to Museum Muzak.


#7 The Parents Might Be Gambling Addicts. Both of Them.
Ah, the Queen Mary. A ship created to let the Middle Class die as they imagine the Upper Class live. There is a morgue on board that slowly fills with sequin-clad passenger corpses, as inheritance-spenders give in one-by-one to the temptation of a private tango lesson too many.


Not for the Parents, however, the attractions of cabaret nights or Othello (abridged) productions or How to Write Your Memoirs workshops. They didn’t even fall for the charms of the onboard “Nite” Club, where the margaritas were always blue and the DJ would play Daft Punk’s One More Time one more time if you asked nicely (the DJ and I shared the same not-very-ironic sense of irony).


No, every night, without fail, the Parents could be found in the Casino.


And not for them, the thrills of the Blackjack Table or Roulette Wheel. No, night after night the Parents could be found sitting happily in front of a Garfield poker machine. They somehow managed to turn inserting money and pressing a button into a two-person operation, and would stay happily occupied for hours on end, hoping to see five Odies in a line, or even nab a Lasagne Bonus Feature.


The Mother also developed a secondary addiction to Bingo. As I share this addiction, no fun will be made of it.


#8 The Parents Are Ridiculously Generous. Take Advantage!
Aside from paying for my planes and hotels whilst I was with them, the Parents would insist on buying me anything that I expressed even the slightest interest in. Because of this impulse, I now own a pen shaped like a lipstick. To be fair, I also acquired some Very Nice Things.

I entreat you, Big Brother, to alleviate some of my sibling guilt by letting the Parents buy you something expensive. My sincere gratitude, etc, etc.


Please, Big Brother, feel free to contact me for clarification on any of the above points, or any questions. Please also feel free to have a fabulous birthday, great trip and amazing 2010. Thank you (along, of course, with the Big Sister) for keeping the Parents safe and occupied with Lotto syndicates and clean skin wine. I’m only able to be irresponsible and carefree in the Northern Hemisphere because my amazing siblings are all responsible and care-laden in the Southern.


With all my love,
Pen

Monday, 3 August 2009

Cities in a single sentence

So. I’ve been on the road since early June and only now am getting around to blogging about it. There are a couple of reasons for my slackness (other than my general, all-pervading laziness, which is a big factor, to be honest):

  1. I haven’t been the sad lonely single female traveler. Yes, I’ve had friends! I do have friends! I promise!
    What this means is that I don’t have to save up all my, ahem, witty observations throughout the day and then unleash them onto the keyboard at night, Instead, I get to unleash them immediately on my poor travel companions. Who get to try and respond to statements like, “if Amsterdam was a song, it would totally be Amsterdam by Coldplay”.

    Be thankful for that extra filter the act of writing provides, gentle readers. Be very bloody thankful.


  2. I was initially traveling in Western Europe. I have run out of things to say about Western Europe. This is not Western Europe’s fault. It more reflects my limitations as a writer.

    Just to seem slightly less like a total Philistine: I really like Western Europe. Stone Churches? Gorgeous! Old Masters’ Masterpieces? Masterful! Turkish food outlets? Delicious!

    I just don’t have that much more to say on any of these topics. Except for kebabs. Mmm, kebab.


  3. Other people have said fascinating and insightful things about Europe, and I don’t enter competitions I’m not going to win. Seriously, kids. Go read A Room With A View (or watch the movie, it’s adorable). Watch the televisual oeuvre of a certain Mr Clive James. Read the lyrics to Adam Ants’ Young Parisians (They are so French/They talk nothing but French!).


However, I’ve recently traveled to places that I do want to write about. At length. But I don’t feel I can write about them until I cover what I’ve left untold in here. So, basically, here’s my experience of nine European cities I visited during June, squashed into one sentence. Meaningful observations abound, obviously.

Amsterdam – Amsterdam would be awesome if the ubiquitous tourist crap didn’t make it seem like Van Gogh had vomited sunflowers over the entire metropolitan district.

Rotterdam – In a city of amazing, revitalising architecture, we stayed on a boat that had been converted into a hotel, because we’re perverse, apparently.

Delft
– So pretty.

The Hague – I lost my Rough Guide here, and I suspect it was stolen by the local tourist bureau in an effort to stop us from escaping this, erm, city of enigmatic attractions.

Brussels – A tiny statue of a little boy peeing is a garden water feature, not a tourist attraction.

Barcelona – Fabulous lives lived on streets crowded with Gaudi’s awesomeness – I love it more than shoes.

GranadaThe Alhambra gave me the chance to imagine being a Moorish princess, which is all I really want out of life.

Malaga – Loved it, because European beachside resorts give Aussies a rare chance to feel superior and be condescending (You have pebbles! How quaint!).

Madrid – Barcelona’s more serious, but still ridiculously beautiful older sister.

OK, so now we’ve got Western Europe out of the way, you can look forward to future blog posts on topics like traveling with lung disease and Auschwitz. Fun stuff like that.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Munich – A German Tale (with a smattering of Greek)

I went to Munich to visit an old friend from school. I’m going to go with a pseudonym, and call her… Nike… mostly because she probably doesn’t want her business in my blog. And because I’m staring directly at my sneakers right this minute.

Plus, I just finished reading The Secret History, which is all about cover-ups and Greeks, so it seems appropriate.

Also, I just like the word pseudonym.

Anyway, Nike and I studied German together in Years 9 and 10. Frankly, Languages Other Than 4 Unit Maths were never going to be a priority at our school, and the 10 or so of us who kept up German after it was mandatory were allowed to potter away several hours every week watching Derrick and planning German food days.

When I abandoned German for the exciting world of Business Studies, I was a bit like one of my favourite Germans, Sergeant Schultz, in that I knew nothing, nothing.


Me and Sergeant Schultz. Only our mother could tell us apart, etc...

Nike, however, kept going with German, and got quite good at it.

Nike and I also happened to live within about 10 houses from each other, and used to travel home together quite regularly. Because we lived in The Land that Public Transport Forgot, this used to be quite an odyssey (more Greek!), involving buses and walking past a chicken farm. Walking past a chicken farm on a daily basis is the kind of thing that cements a relationship, I feel.

Nike I were good friends, and it’s a shame that we lost touch after high school. However, thanks to the wonderful word/evil-civil-liberty-sucking-vortex of Facebook, we’ve recently been back in touch. Nike has had a very romantic post-high school life, and is now married to a Lovely German Boy, and living in Munich. They were my amazingly generous and accommodating hosts in Germany.

Honestly, I wish more of you would go away and live in faraway places. Visiting people makes for the best times. First with Joe in SP, and now with Nike and Lovely German Boy in Munich. I love seeing a city as someone’s home, rather than as a checklist of tourist attractions that you have to tick off.

Which is not to say that we didn’t hit some tourist attractions. Nike and Lovely German Boy, and, blessedly, their car, took me to see:


*Neuschwanstein. This amazing fairytale castle was an absolute folly built by a crazy king that helped bankrupt the government. Or at least history has labelled him crazy. From my point of view: Primal desire to build + belief that bigger is better + totally unrealistic budgetary expectations = Average visitor to New Homeworld, Kellyville.

*This gorgeous white church kind of between Neuschwanstein and Munich proper. It had this wall of letters and photos and cards and drawings from people who had visited the Church, and subsequently had benefited from a miracle of some description. I spent the entire time wishing we could get customers to write user testimonials like that.

* A monastery with a beer hall attached. The beer hall was fantastic and fascinating. You’re allowed to bring your own food in, and regulars can even store their own beer glasses and tea towels in a locker there. Why, I'm not sure, but it was just cool anyway.

Without Lovely German Boy’s influence, Nike and I had a rather hilariously unsuccessful day of touristing around the Munich inner city. We attempted the following:
*To visit the Pinakotheks. Two closed for the day. One was open, but it was too late to enter by the time we got there.
*To visit a Kandinsky exhibition – Closed for the day.
*To visit a Disney exhibition – Had closed forever 2 days before.
*To have a drink in Munich’s “Australian” pub, as it was Australia Day – THE PUB WAS CLOSED. THE TOKEN "AUSSIE" PUB. ON AUSTRALIA DAY.

Plus, we were bad and ate ice cream sundaes for lunch. And it was a totally great day - Nike and I are both chatters, and she very kindly accommodated my desire to go into any store selling chocolate, clothes or books.

The other nice thing about staying in someone's home (especially Nike and Lovely German Boy's gorgeous flat) is the food. When traveling, I tend to survive on yoghurt, tomatoes and bananas when I'm feeling virtuous, and cake, hot chips and ice cream when I'm not (ie, 99% of the time).

Nike and Lovely German Boy decided to feed me traditional Bavarian cuisine. I ate white sausage and pretzels and cold meats and cheeses and mustard with everything and that was just breakfast. It was like being back in those German Food Days.

I was, I have to confess, a bit heartbroken to learn that most Munich-ites (Munchen-kins?) don't really eat like this anymore. I kind of had hopes of Germany being the last hold-out against the whole Stepford Supermarket thing that's taken over Europe, where everywhere you go you can buy Danone Yoghurt, Haribo Gummy Bears and Lays Crisps.

Or perhaps its just that I seem to find myself buying Danone Yoghurt, Haribo Gummy Bears and Lays Crisps wherever I go. And, come to think of it, I really appreciate being able to get a decent Pad Thai everywhere I go. And watching the Simpsons. And drinking Coke Zero.

So, on second thoughts, as you were, globalisation.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

A Bookworm in Budapest

Oh my golly the Bratislava entry was obscenely long. Which is ironic, since I have been applying for web content coordinator roles all week with sentences like, “I understand the importance of using as few words as possible when writing for the web”. Which is a really badly constructed sentence, come to think, and probably why I didn’t get asked for an interview.

In any case, the Budapest entry is going to be a model of well-written web content. Maybe. OK, it’s totally not going to be, but I needed to acknowledge that this blog’s been fairly impenetrable lately. Sorry!

Budapest has long been my I-have-absolutely-no-idea-European-history-geography answer in Trivial Pursuit (I know, most people prefer Helsinki). So I was quite excited to actually learn some stuff about it. Which is why I spent most of my time in Budapest talking to Australians and reading novels. Doh, etc.

First up, Budapest is not at all Eastern Bloc-esque. Unlike Bratislava, it doesn’t have a whiff of the Soviet about it. It’s far more imperial – like a Vienna or Buenos Aires or Paris.

Secondly, because Hungarian is so linguistically obscure, I thought the whole place would feel far more foreign than the rest of Europe. Nope. It’s all castles and gelato and H&M. And turkish baths, I’ll concede.

Thirdly, Budapest is very cool, like (once again) Paris or Buenos Aires is cool. Locals are not impressed or excited by tourists, even tourists from Koala!Country. They are all very well dressed, and have some awesome local designers and really cool stores. You need them more than they need you.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like Budapest, and wouldn’t go back in a second. It was unspeakably pretty, and, I suspect, extremely liveable. Plus, me and the girlies from my dorm (all Australian. Oops) went to this fab bar one night, in a (I think) falling down office block, and if the tourists can find an awesome bar with actual, like, atmosphere, then goodness knows the awesome-ness of the places that the locals are drinking in.

Because I’m a total geek, the thing I remember most fondly about Budapest is actually Red Bus Books. I really relish the reading opportunities that travel creates. In fact, the efficiency of European rail travel kind of annoys me sometimes, because you don’t get those six hours delays that happen in other parts of the world (Air Canada should totally change its slogan to "We give you enough time to read The Complete Dickens!"). Still, by the time I got to Budapest, I’d already devoured everything I’d brought over with me, as well as a few things I’d gained in crappy one shelf hostel book swaps.

Actually, I’ll pause here and give two quick book recommendations:

A Household Guide to Dying – I bought this because I knew it was set in Sydney, and I’m always interested to see how other people describe my hometown (and whilst I’m digressing, IMO the two best “Sydney” books I’ve read are Playing Beattie Bow and Looking for Alibrandi. Both ostensibly kids (well, young adult) books, but I’ve always loved how familiar LFA’s Sydney is – she works at the Parramatta Road Maccas, for goodness sake – and PBB is The Rocks for me, really). However, it brought to mind a much more specific home than the Bridge and Opera House. It reminded me of my Steel Magnolias/Beaches obsessed family.

My mum and my sister will both absolutely adore this book. My sister, especially. In fact, if there was ever a book written for my sister, this is it. Melodrama and autopsies. But not too melodramatic. Nobody declares "It is my name, and I shall never have another!".

Bit of a Blur – Alex James from Blur’s autobiography. As hedonistic as you’d expect, but also kind and mature and reasoned and neither guilt-ridden nor judgemental. He’s either a genuinely lovely person, or an excellent fiction writer who has created this fabulous persona. Maybe both.

Anyhoo, back to Red Bus Books. It’s a second hand English language bookstore where travellers and expats drop off and pick up books. It has the biggest and most reasonably priced collection of English books I saw in continental Europe, and I left with as many goodies as I could possibly fit in my already over-stuffed bags (The Line of Beauty, which is AMAZING, and even better than the BBC mini-series, and, erm, two of the Gossip Girl novels, which I don’t find nearly as compelling as the TV series, actually. Not enough Chuck.)

What I liked most was seeing the books that people choose to take on holiday with them. There’s A LOT of repetition on those shelves. There’s an entire Harry Potter section, for instance. More Da Vinci Codes than you can point an albino monk at (I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, and still I know about the albino monk. Sigh). 9 St 12 lbs of Bridget Jones. And a much larger than expected self-help section, which made me laugh, because it’s so something I (and Bridget, for that matter) would do – decide that this holiday is going to be a major turning point, where I read up and get ready to return home thinner/more assertive/less single/a better cook. Then get to the holiday destination and decide I’d rather eat cake and go to awesome bars set in falling down office blocks instead.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Bratislava, Slovakia: Giggle City

Bratislava is a funny place. Both funny-strange and funny-haha.

Funny-Strange
According to the Lonely Planet/Rough Guide, “You meet all kinds of people when you stay in hostels.”

This, of course, is a lie. You meet the same kind of people over and over again in hostels. Young, middle class people. You can probably further divide that group into “young middle class people who want to experience every different kind of alcohol available in Europe (AKA Australians and the occasional token Irish)” and “young middle class people who really earnestly want to experience every different kind of culture available in Europe (AKA Canadians and the occasional token Yank)”, but really, it’s a fairly homogenous group.

Except for Bratislava. I felt horrendous when I arrived in Bratislava. I still had the sinus headache of doom. Getting a bus from Vienna to Bratislava (60 km. World’s closest capital cities, for the trivia devotees) was harder than it should have been. Then I couldn’t find a working ATM, and had to walk from the bus station to the hostel because I had no Slovakian currency, then when I got to the hostel I found out that since January 1 2009 Slovakia’s currency has actually been the Euro, of which, of course, I had heaps (well, enough for the tram fare between the bus station and hostel).

So checking into the hostel, I asked for a place in a smaller dorm, making a guess that it would probably be empty, since most people opt for the cheaper, larger dorms. And I was right, and I had one glorious night where I coughed and sneezed and generally recovered to my heart’s content.

And the next day, I got out and had a look at Bratislava, and felt much better and more cheerful. Plus, I bought a massive packet of paracetamol for 40 Euro cents, and of there’s one thing that makes me happy, its cheap drugs.

I arrived back at the hostel about 10pm. And I had a room mate. She was a middle aged woman, and was unpacking her things on the bunk opposite mine. I walked in and said hello. She kind of grunted in return. No problems, I thought, and went about plugging my phone in to recharge, and generally getting ready to shower.

After about 15 minutes of silence, she spoke.

“They tell me you are Australian.” Indiscriminate European accent. Big on piercing, unsettling eye contact.

“Yep! Although, actually, I’ve been staying in England…” My enthusiasm for relating my life story and recent adventures was quickly dampened by her withering look.

“Australia. That is where the English sent their thieves and murderers, is it not?”

“Um… some of them, I guess.”

Really long silence.

“I do not want to have to call the police. But I will, if you make me.”

“Um….” I am genuinely confused at this point.

More silence. Unsettling eye contact.

Finally, I get it.

“Um, I’m not going to steal from you, if that’s what you mean. Is that what you mean?”

“Of course that is what I mean. Do not act dumb.”

I kind of tried to laugh at that, thinking it was some kind of elaborate joke. Yeah, it wasn’t.

First she tried to accuse me of stealing her coat hanger when she went to have a shower. Then she found her coat hanger, and for some really illogical reason, that made her trust me enough to talk at me for 2 long hours. During this monologue, she claimed the following:

*To be Slovakian (actually, she claimed to be Czechoslovakian, and I wasn’t about to argue the Velvet Divorce)
*To be Finnish
*To be Swedish
*To be a high stakes gambler
*To be a casino attendant
*To be a forensic psychologist
*To be a child psychologist
*To be a narcotics officer
*To be unemployed
*To have just moved to Bratislava
*To be very high up in the Bratislava police force
*To not trusting any police force anywhere in the world, as they have all been infiltrated by the mafia
*To be on a book tour promoting her work in child psychology
*That it was impossible that neither of my parents were English (“but you are white!”)
*That the English had caused World War 2
*That no Australians had fought in World War 2
*That there is a conspiracy of extremely wealthy people who run the world
*That the reason they run the world was because no one is made to study philosophy any more (actually, to be far, she could have been any number of opinion writers at that point)

She also kept asking me the time, saying her watch had been STOLEN (meaningful eye contact). I kept checking my phone to tell her the time. Then she unplugged my phone from the room’s only socket, saying I had been using it long enough. I tried to make the best of the situation, and asked why she didn’t use her phone to keep track of the time. She exploded at me, asking what sort of idiot thought phones displayed the time.

It was at this point that I made the decision to sleep with my keys in my hand.

In hindsight, I really should have asked to move rooms, but I was kind of… enthralled? And then it got kind of sad, when she mentioned that she had a son, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with her (I mean, who knows if its true, but it was still sad), and when she showed me a draft of the book she was “promoting”, which was an A4 display book with about 5 pages of pictures of sad looking children printed off the internet. And at that point I would have felt guilty for fleeing, so, I erm, stayed.

Funny Ha-Ha
Because of the exciting mix of delusion and paranoia in my dorm, I made an effort to spend as much time out on the streets, experiencing Bratislava, as humanly possible. And what Bratislava offered was a little bit less development then most European cities (not sold on kerbs and gutters, for instance), but a much better sense of humor (ARE YOU READING THIS, SWITZERLAND???).

For example, it has the most random statues I’ve ever seen. And the ugliest bridge. And the locals will point out the ugly bridge, and say, “isn’t it the ugliest bridge you’ve ever seen?” and not be embarrassed or apologetic but kind of impressed by the hideousness. And I went and saw an exhibition of suggestions for improving Bratislava, and someone had taken massive photos of important landmarks in Bratislava, and just Photoshop-ed in Bret and Jemiane from Flight of the Conchords, and it was strangely BRILLIANT.

Bratislava is also home to the Slovakian National Gallery, which is a bit if a non-event, as far as the art goes. But the curators obviously realize this, and instead just try to make you laugh. So, in the “Slovakian Gothic Art” hall they had all these religious paintings and panels that had been removed from Gothic-era churches, and then had a series of black canvases with little skulls. And you think, well, it looks like it was painted by a Cure fan as part of their Year 10 Visual Arts project, but it certainly is Gothic, and I’ve no doubt its from Slovakia, so, um, yeah, why shouldn’t it be in the Slovakian Gothic Art hall?

And then in the Baroque hall, there was a massive canvas showing St Peter at Heaven’s Gate, with cherubs and clouds bustling around, and next to it, someone had installed an indoor climbing wall, and labelled it “Stairway to Heaven”. And, once again, all I could think was BRILLIANT.

Basically, I think Bratislava may have always suffered from not being Vienna, and not being Prague. And I think that it does what many have decided to do when they’ve suddenly realized they’re not the most beautiful or most intelligent of the group – to be the funny, or quirky instead.
So, basically: Bratislava = Central Europe’s Jan Brady.