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.

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.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Vienna. Very Nice.

Well. The desire to blog escaped me yet again, and I left you all stranded about 4 cities back. That kind of neglectful behaviour is precisely why I plan to never have children.

So, from Zurich, I headed to Vienna.

The coffee in Vienna is excellent. And that, really, is enough to make me love a city, especially after living in the United “We’re really more about tea, here. We’re not totally convinced that coffee isn’t still foreign muck” Kingdom.

I am so renaming this blog Foreign Muck.


Vienna is a grown-up place. Stuff has happened in Vienna. I wandered through the most picturesque flea market on a Saturday morning, and everything that the stalls were selling impressed me, just because of the age and… Europeanosity. There were gas masks that people must have needed during… some war (my European history remains as sharp as ever). There were boxes of black and white photos and postcards and cutlery and crockery and it seemed like it should all be in a museum rather than propped up on rickety table with badly behaved children running around.

Then I went to an actual museum, the fabulous MAK for applied and contemporary art, and it had even better stuff than the flea market. I’m about to give it roughly the highest compliment I can give a museum: it reminded me a lot of one of my favourite places on Earth, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It wasn’t quite that fabulous (didn’t do fashion), but man, I spent hours there. In fact, I stayed till closing time, which meant I didn’t get a chance to go to the Belvedere and see Klimt’s The Kiss (Mum, that's the painting that's repeated all over the furniture in the back bedroom of the Horizon display home. That's how I knew it was classy).

What really hooked me at the MAK was a temporary exhibition on the restoration of artwork and objects stolen by the Nazis to Jewish victims of the Holocaust and their heirs.

Much of the art had been acquired by the state-sponsored museums and galleries. I’m using the verb “acquired” very ambiguously; certainly, the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing, and meticulously catalogued everything they stole. After the war, however, its totally plausible to imagine curators and, in some cases, the public, growing to love the pieces without realizing their origins.

As well as examples of the art, the exhibit included video interviews with the people to whom the pieces had been returned. So many years after the end of the war in Europe, many if the recipients were two generations away from the Holocaust, and they spoke about how the return of these objects had restored their grandparents’ status to people who loved particular, specific and beautiful things, not just people who survived (or didn’t survive) the Holocaust.

So, of course, I stood in the middle of this ornate museum, in a carefully curated exhibition, surrounded by beautifully pulled together Austrians, crying my eyes out, wiping my snotty nose on my coat cuffs. And no, for those of those of you who have asked, I haven’t attracted a boyfriend on my European vacation. You’re shocked, I know.

But all the ideas suggested by that exhibition – about what we owe the past, and how objects and buildings and clothes shape our identities and relationships – are a perfect fit for Vienna, which seems kind of weighed down by this beautiful old town and everything that’s occurred in it.

Vienna had such an impression on me that I even…wait for it…enjoyed the opera. Those of you who have watched me sleep through an entire season of operas in Sydney will express some disbelief.

I really want to enjoy the opera. It seems like something a smart person would like, and I really aspire to being a smart person (almost as much as I aspire to be the sort of person who gets “too stressed out to eat”). But I find it repetitive and strangely disjointed and struggle to suspend my disbelief at some casting choices. And despite what Richard Gere says in Pretty Woman, I haven’t learnt to appreciate it either (that’s not actually the worst lie that Pretty Woman tells its audience, obviously. The whole “being a prostitute is a really good way to snag a billionaire” is probably quite a bit worse).

But I lined up for over an hour to get a standing rooms ticket to Boris Godunov at the Vienna State Opera House, mostly because at 4 Euros, the ticket was cheaper than paying for the official tour of the Opera House. And I loved it. It might have been that it was in Russian, so I could actually understand one word out of every 50 without looking at the surtitles. It might have been because the subject matter was very Macbeth Goes to Russia, and I have a soft spot for Macbeth. It might have been the absolutely splitting sinus headache I had (a result of being outside in temperatures hovering around the -5 mark for several weeks), so I had real empathy for every character and their pain.

So that was Vienna. Coffee pain museum history pretty opera coffee.