Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

In keeping with my impromptu "monuments in the rain" series I picked the greyest, wettest day of my stay in Prague to visit Prague Castle.  The castle is actually a massive palace complex perched on top of a hill overlooking the city.  Since time immemorial (about 870AD actually) there has been a fortification of some sort on the site.  Successive rulers (over the years dukes, kings, emperors, presidents and, briefly, a reichsprotekor) have lived and worked there.  It is still the official residence of the Czech president.

Anybody visiting the castle hoping to see examples of late ninth century architecture are going to be disappointed.  Like most building complexes that have been lived and worked in for over a thousand years there has been a fair few changes.  Various rulers have torn down, built up, renovated, subtracted from and added to the castle.  That's before we get into the fact that different parts of the castle have burnt down, been blown up and on at least one occasion hit by lightning (there is a five story tower which used to be a seven story tower before the lightning strike).

The weather did fine up long enough for me to watch the changing of the guard at midday it was very impressive although it didn't quite have the machine like precision of the guards at Buckingham Palace.  I wandered around the breathtaking cathedral of St Vitus with an equally breathtaking interior, carefully placed ropes made getting good pictures of the inside difficult.  I visited the old royal palace and checked out the window made famous by the defenestration of Prague (technically the second defenestration of Prague.  Apparently tossing people out of windows is the standard Czech method of registering a protest against government policy).  All three victims on this occasion survived the seventy foot drop with only minor injuries.

There are some nice paintings in the picture gallery with a couple of works by Titian and Tintoretto to name just the artists I've heard of but sadly most of the magnificent collection built up by Emperor Rudolf II is scattered to the winds as a result of looting by Swedish soldiers at the end of the Thirty Years War (which was precipitated by the previously mentioned defenestration, what goes around, apparently, comes around).

The view of the city from the castle walls is amazing which is the reason the castle is where it is although the original builders were probably thinking in terms of "fields of fire" rather than "photo opportunities".

With the wet gloomy day turning into a wet gloomy night naturally I decided to hit the town.  I went to the Black Light Theatre to see "Aspects of Alice" a piece that takes Lewis Carroll's character as an adult and puts her into a series of scenes showing her the most important emotional moments of her life against a backdrop of Old Prague.  It was very well done although I didn't realise Alice was a lesbian until that point.  Strangely the theatre announcements were made in English and Italian but not Czech, still I guess they know their audience.

No restaurant that even pretends to serve Czech food will be without goulash with potato dumplings.  I've eaten it about three times so far.  If you see a restaurant offering "Czech and Mediterranean" food that means goulash and pizzas which I'm less certain about.  The waitress at my first restaurant kindly offered me the choice of sparkling or stale water.  I went with the stale water, it wasn't very tough.  On my way back to my accommodation I saw a man walking his tortoise.  Berlin, your sparrows have just been trumped.  It was moving at a pretty decent clip for a tortoise too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I'm walking everywhere in Prague.  Well when I say everywhere I mean somewhere.  Sometimes I walk to the same place twice, occasionally deliberately.  Walking is definitely the best way to see Prague especially if you can't figure out the public transport and a helpful German has made you petrified of taxis.

Today I walked to Josefov near or possibly in the Old Town, the signage isn't explicit.  Josefov is the old Jewish quarter or it was before a city development at the beginning of the twentieth century demolished most of it.  Bizarrely what was left was preserved by the Nazis who intended it to be the centrepiece of a "museum of an exotic and extinct race" and shipped Jewish memorabilia in from all over.

I visited the Pinkas Synagogue which now serves as a memorial to Czech holocaust victims.  The building is virtually empty inside but the walls are covered in writing.  The lettering is black, red and gold and has quite a visually pleasing effect from a distance.  Up close you can see it is just a list of names.  All the nearly eighty thousand Bohemian and Moravian Jews who perished in the holocaust are given by name.  As I said the walls are covered in writing.

On the way out I passed through the old Jewish cemetery.  It was cool and dark and absolutely crammed with gravestones and memorials.  Some people think cemeteries are creepy but compared with the synagogue where death had essentially been reduced to a telephone directory I found it a peaceful and even happy place.  Death, the ultimate act of life, had been given the respect it deserved.  You had to leave the synagogue via the cemetery and I rather think that was deliberate and very appropriate.

I'll try and be funny next time OK?

Travelling Hopefully

I left Berlin on what must have been the shabbiest looking train in the Deutsche Bahn fleet.  I was very glad of a first class ticket, I suspect second class were helping push.  Still it was functional enough, we rolled smoothly through eastern Germany on route for the Czech border.  On the way we passed through Dresden which didn't impress from the window of a train carriage.  For the record eastern Germany looks like a slightly less well maintained version of western Germany.  Also at Dresden we picked up a river which would be our constant companion for the rest of the trip.

I haven't really got used to crossing borders with no ceremony whatsoever.  I looked up and we were in the Czech Republic.  I did notice differences though, for starters there was forest.  There was forest in Germany too but it looked as though the Germans had dusted off the trees in preparation for visitors.  The Czech forests were just there.  The border region has mountains or, at least, overachieving hills which is probably the reason it was the border in the first place.  Also in the Czech Republic I saw factories belching smoke into the sky.  It was the first time in my trip I had seen anything that looked like industry.

Conversations with Thomas having convinced me that all Czech taxi drivers were going to beat me to death and sell my organs on the black market I decided to walk from the train station to my accommodation.  It wasn't a long walk and I barely got lost.  Taxi drivers notwithstanding Prague has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  You don't need to visit any of the main attractions, just wander around the streets in the city centre and you will encounter a breathtaking array of magnificent old buildings interspersed with the occasional palace or church which stand out even against all the other buildings.

I want to take a moment out from the glories of Prague to address a very important social issue.  Who the fuck decided that segways were a good method for touring a city?  In both Berlin and Prague I encountered clutches of giggling tourists rolling around on these ridiculous things.  No wonder drivers in Berlin are pretty relaxed about bicycles, trying to sight see while at the same time zipping down the streets on a segway strikes me as possibly one of the most stupidly dangerous things you could do.  Let's get something straight, the segway has only one legitimate use; that is to provide mobility for a certain type of American to fill the gap between when they're too big to fit in the pram but not yet obese enough to qualify for a mobility chair.

I strolled through the Old Town and parts of the New Town of Prague.  For the record the New Town is old and the Old Town is really, really old.  In the Old Town you have the opportunity to marvel and the breathtaking diversity of tourists Prague has to offer.  There are also more cafes and bars than can be reasonably expected.  My favourite cafe was called Cafe Rybyka a small, comfortable place inhabited by the most honest people in Prague.  I know they're honest because the guy next to me left his dope on the bar while he went out to buy tobacco and rolling papers and it was still there when he got back.  I decided not to try the same trick with my iPhone however.

Tuesday was museum day.  I visited the Museum of Communism.  I was going to say something funny and smartarsed about that but they've thought of all the good lines themselves.  My favourite; a post card announcing "The Museum of Communism:  Above McDonalds and across the road from Bennetton.  Viva Imperialism."  The Museum itself would benefit from better lighting and a more efficient display of their exhibits so I guess they're really capturing the feel.  Down at the Charles bridge (about which more later if I can be bothered) I took time out to wander through the Museum of Torture which took me back to a better, simpler time before psychotropic drugs and "enhanced interrogation techniques" when all a torturer had were some simple tools and his imagination.  Various implements of judicial persuasion were laid out each with a little card explaining exactly how they could ruin your day.  Amusingly the English language version of these cards had syntax that was, shall we say, a little tortured?

Dinner at the Crazy Cow Steakhouse which had a Texas theme to it.  Not exactly Czech I know but how can you go past a steakhouse called The Crazy Cow?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

You know the old saying, "One mans trash is another's museum exhibit".  The Museum of Things on Oranienstrasse takes that to its logical conclusion.  Since it was only fifteen minutes walk from where I was staying I trotted along to take a look at Kei's suggestion.  The museum exhibits standard household objects from the late 19th century until yesterday.  Genuine is contrasted with fake, tasteful with kitsch and functional with overblown.  The walls are lined with cabinets containing homely domestic objects from the last hundred 
years or so. I'm pretty sure I recognised a pair of shears that were still doing sterling service in my parents house up until recently. Think of the place as a midden heap in the making. Future archaeologists are going to have a field day with this place when they dig it up.

In the centre is the core of the exhibition which was sourced from the Deutsche Werkbund an unholy alliance of artists, designers and industrialists who "endeavored to forge a new understanding between product designers, manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers by establishing “ethically pure” design principles such as quality, material honesty, functionality and sustainability." They were, according to the museum "pushing for a cultural utopia achieved through design and way of life reforms at the beginning of the twentieth century". All of which I must confess I find rather disturbing.  

The Werkbund fought a relentless war against kitsch as an example of form over substance (and a pretty hideous form at that), that they were completely opposed to. Personally I think they're wrong, when some illiterate slob nails some plaster ducks to his wall he is plugging into the same motivation that inspires someone else to spends thousands on tasteful interior design. Function by itself isn't enough, we need embellishment as well.

But that's enough of Berlin for the moment.  I took a train out to Hamburg to meet Thomas and Prue for lunch.  After various petty difficulties relating to missing trains by a minute at every single opportunity I slid out of Berlin and hurtled towards Hamburg.  On the way I thought I saw deer in a field.  They looked like deer or at least they looked like what I imagine deer to look like.  It's possible they were miniature, emaciated cows.

Hamburg presents a distinct difference to Berlin.  In Berlin I worried if I was about to get mugged. In Hamburg I was afraid I'd be refused entry to the city for failing to meet the dress code.  Prue and Thomas met me and we went to lunch.  I bought socks (not for lunch) and we took a tour of the town hall which is huge and manages to make Sydney's look small and quietly understated.  During the second world war when the allies literally bombed Hamburg flat and killed some forty thousand of the inhabitants the town hall escaped unscathed with only one bomb dropping nearby which didn't explode.  They have the detonator on display.  I find it slightly embarrassing that we trashed the entire of Hamburg and still didn't take out the politicians.

After the town hall we went to the planetarium where we saw a documentary on stars narrated by somebody who Germans think is Whoopi Goldberg.  It was  very interesting if slightly interrupted by the man behind me snoring.  In his defence it was dark and the seats reclined.

That was pretty much the end of my stay in Berlin.  Next day I headed to Prague.  So it only remains to thank my beautiful and talented host Jah and her delightful sister Yip who made my stay so enjoyable, showed me things and translated for me in shops when it became obvious that my German wasn't even up to the task of ordering donuts.  When the time came to leave I didn't want to.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

What happens when a city is remarkably short on pigeons?  Well in Berlin the niche is filled by sparrows.  These little lumps of brown are everywhere.  Should one even think about food one is swamped by a horde of sparrows.  It looks like a remake of The Birds for midgets.  By sad comparison it has to be reported that Berlin has the most wretched, scraggy looking magpies I have ever seen in my life.  I suspect that the sparrows are beating them up.  Every magpie I have seen so far looks like it has been dragged through a drainpipe backwards.

But enough of things corvid.  Its time to get on to things Prussian.  I wandered past the victory column in Berlin which celebrates (with hindsight, prematurely) Prussia's victory in various wars.  The string of victories ended abruptly towards the end of the nineteenth century.  Midway through the twentieth century Prussia ended abruptly as well.  I trotted down to Potsdam to see Sans Souci the summer palace of Frederick the Great.  For those who don't know Frederick was the guy who really put Prussia on the map (Stalin was the guy who took it off again).  When Frederick came to the throne Prussia was a modestly sized German kingdom of no great account.  With a combination of military skill, organisational talent, breathtaking moral bankruptcy and sheer blind luck Frederick transformed his nation into the leading kingdom in Germany and a serious player in the global power politics of the day.  In his down time he played the flute, hobnobbed with literary arse kissers like Voltaire and built Sans Souci.

It took me half an hour to go through the palace but over three hours to find it.  Getting the train to Potsdam was the easy part.  Once there I stepped off the platform and strode confidently in the wrong direction.  After a while the distinct lack of palaces clued me in to my mistake and I retraced my steps and tried again.  Eventually I reached the park which contained the palace.  A sign at the entrance said "Beware of the caterpillars" (I am not joking) but I laugh in the face of danger so I went in anyway.

The gardens are absolutely huge and have the usual trees, grass and bits of pseudo classical statuary that monarchy seem to insist on decorating their lawns with.  After much wandering I spied a large and impressive building in the distance.  Exhausted and desperate I stumbled towards it.  On arrival the man at the information desk informed me, rather condescendingly in my view, that I had arrived at the New Palace which Frederick had built for his guests and that Sans Souci was at the other end of the path about two kilometres away.  Have I mentioned it was pissing down rain all this time?

Two soggy kilometres later I arrived at Sans Souci at 1pm (having left the flat before 10) to be informed that the next tour was at 2.15.  I almost went home but decided to have lunch instead.  Through sheer coincidence I had approached Sans Souci the right way.  There is a road which will take you right up to the palace but the best way to approach is through the gardens so that you come across the vine laden tiers that form a series of terraces leading up to the palace at the top.  It's also probably better if the wind isn't blowing the rain into your eyes.

Sans Souci is actually quite small as palaces go.  There are only about eighteen rooms (excluding servants quarters and other trifles of that nature) and none of them are terribly large.  This was Frederick's palace away from palace in the Summer months and despite somewhat overheated comments by the guides probably was never meant to be Prussia's answer to Versailles or Schonbrunn.  Sans Souci doesn't look like it was built by a narcissistic megalomaniac and it doesn't even have the sheer mass of Buckingham Palace (which, if the queen didn't live there would probably be demolished for crimes against architecture).  It is light, elegant and beautiful if slightly over rococoed.  The palace is supposed to be one of the greatest examples of the rococo style in Germany.  I'm not sure what rococo is (I suspect it might be an icecream flavour) but apparently it involves a lot of tendrils of gold crawling everywhere on a light background.  It makes the building look like its veins are exposed.  Sans Souci was a lovely little palace but if I were him I would have built it a little further away from the carpark.

On my overcrowded train on the way back the woman behind me announced in three languages that she was about to vomit which added a pleasing layer of suspense to the journey.  Fortunately I changed trains before she made good on her threat.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Subtitle: Let Me Tell You About the Boars and the Bees

There have been claims in recent years that bees are vanishing.  Apparently our stripy, buzzing friends have been making themselves scarce.  This is a total lie.  The bees aren't vanishing, they've all moved to Berlin.  Fortunately I'm quite partial to bees.  It's odd, if a fly were to crawl all over my glass while I'm drinking from it I would be disgusted but I have no such problem with bees.  In fact one of them actually fell into my drink without prompting anything more than concern that the little fellow might drown.

For the non apiarist Berlin still has plenty to offer.  I have totally fallen on my feet in regards to accommodation with my hosts turning out to be delightful and welcoming people.  Living in a flat where the owner has made all of the furniture out of recycled bits and pieces is quite interesting too.  I'm hanging out in Kreuzberg which is quite an interesting part of the city (fewer hipsters than around the centre and fewer murders than Neuk├Âlln).  Plenty of Turkish places to eat and at least one restaurant of every other nationality that has ever so much as dropped in on Berlin for a visit.  There's even a Sudanese restaurant.  The last time I looked Sudan didn't even have food.

I visited the holocaust memorial which is very modern, which is to say there is nothing to indicate that it actually relates to Jews or death at all.  It comprises a large area of different sized pillars forming paths you can walk through.  From a distance it looks like a maze, once inside it is actually rather creepy and foreboding which indicates that the artist did know a little about what he was doing although the effect was rather spoiled by the children playing hide and seek there.  Once through I succumbed to total tourist stereotypes and sat amongst the bees and had a currywurst.  Berliners seem quite taken with what is basically a sausage with curry powder on it.  They even have a museum dedicated to the currywurst which I made a point of not seeing.

After dining sumptuously on the local delicacy I strolled down the Wilhelmstrasse (with a silent nod to the memory of Erich von Stalhein) and then the Unter den Linden which was quite a disappointment as it is currently a construction zone.  I went past the Bugatti dealership to see what they had to offer.  The salesman liked me so much he offered to knock a million off the price of their latest model.  I told him I'd think about it.  While I was thinking about it I fled back to Kreuzberg where the presence of a Bugatti would prompt a police raid.

My hosts in Kreuzberg are an artist whose name is Jah and her flatmate Chris, Jah's sister's name is Yip.  I mention this so that when I say "Yip took me to the flea market at Mauer Park" you won't think I've lost my mind.  Helpful family members need not chime in at this point.

I have never seen a flea market that sells furniture before.  There was stuff a purchaser would need to bring a flatbed truck to haul away.  The best thing about the flea market was the karaoke.  An outdoor amphitheatre (on a modest scale) provides the setting for people determined to embarrass themselves in public.  The very first song I heard as we arrived was "Jessie's Girl".  I swear to god that damned song is following me around.  The most fun about the karaoke is seeing the performers really putting on a show.  Callum for example wasn't just a drunken yob from Glasgow who butchered "Proud Mary" he was a drunken yob from Glasgow who butchered "Proud Mary" while also performing, dancing, interacting with the audience and generally putting on a great show.  We applauded him like crazy.  Particularly when he accidentally danced on and broke the bottle of beer he was drinking from.

The next day dawned grey and wet so I took a bus tour of the city.  We rolled past the home of the German president and embassies from definitely more upmarket nations than the ones I had seen in London (I even saw the embassy from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg).  The Tiergarten is a patch of sort of forest in the middle of Berlin.  Apparently it has been maintained since ancient times as the Prussian kings liked to go boar hunting without travelling too far from home.  The guide on the bus assured us there were no boars there now although apparently there are quite a few in the forests around Berlin.  If, while strolling innocently in a forest around Berlin, one should encounter a boar apparently the best thing you can do is talk to it.  After first freezing to the spot of course.  Apparently the local boars have learnt to identify the sound of human speech and if you talk they will realise that you're probably something whose death would have severe consequences.  I got this information from a tour guide in the middle of the city, on the top of a bus, next to a park where there are definitively no boars, so you know it must be good advice.

Checkpoint Charlie is really just a checkpoint.  Basically a sign indicating that here would be a good place to stop if you didn't want to be shot by someone.  However there is a museum next to it dedicated to the Berlin Wall, the events surrounding it and people who succeeded (and failed) to get past it.  They were selling little bits of what was supposed to be the wall but since it came down two decades ago and millions of tourists visit every year I'm a little suspicious about that one.  Its rather like believing that every Victoria Cross is still made of bronze from cannons captured in the Crimean War.  I saw a part of the wall still standing and was a little let down.  In my mind I had imagined some huge medieval fortress type thing but its just a wall.  Sufficiently high so that people can't comfortably get over it before the border guards have had an opportunity to swing their machine guns round and that's about it.  The real barrier was in the bare "dead zone" behind the wall and the guard towers and dog patrols behind that.  If you actually managed to get as far as the wall you had actually got further than most.

For those of you who have read this post in an agony of suspense allow me to assure you that the bee that fell in my drink at the start survived and managed to struggle out of its own accord.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I've never been through passport control at a railway station before.  The experience was slightly surreal a feeling only heightened by the frequent announcements over the public address system that property theft was a priority crime for the British Transport Police.  "Oi constable, stop investigating that murder, some woman on platform 4 has had her handbag snatched."  They seem to be taking it pretty seriously though, the police I saw were wearing flak jackets and carrying automatic weapons.  Possibly Britain has some hard core bagsnatchers.

My Eurostar train was rather shabby looking on the outside (although its possible that "dirt" was simply their livery colour) but was very comfortable within.  After a brief trip through (and frequently under) the English countryside there was a period of darkness and then I was in France.  For the record France looks very like England only more French.  Shortly after entering France I entered Belgium.  Belgium seemed much like France only more, well you know.

Brussels was only an opportunity to get my Eurail pass validated, a process that took approximately ten seconds once I had spent twenty minutes looking for the ticketing office.  Like many major railway stations (and all airports) Brussels Midi is essentially a shopping mall and seems a little embarrassed that anything as plebeian as a train should actually be mentioned.  With my pass validated I hopped on a train to Luxembourg.

Luxembourg greeted me with a massive downpour, fortunately my hotel was just down the road.  A road that seemed to get narrower and more ill maintained with every step.  Finally I found my hotel (just past the strip club and across the road from the all night kebab shop) which turned out to be simple but perfectly comfortable.

The old town of Luxembourg is beautifully preserved and maintained a situation which is certainly helped by the fact that almost nobody lives there.  It has the Chamber of Deputies, various government departments and a dinky little palacette which is the official residence of the Grand Duke (the Grand Duke doesn't actually live there, its just his office when he's in town, which he wasn't).  The front of the "palace" is guarded by about half the Luxembourg army.  I took a photo of him as he marched up and down.

Luxembourg used to be a fortress with such massive and awe inspiring defences that one noted military commander called it "the Gibraltar of the North".  Another point of connection with Gibraltar is the fact that Luxembourg used to be ruled by Spain but isn't any more.  Luxembourg's fortifications were demolished in the 1870s as a result of the Treaty of London which required their destruction in return for the major powers guaranteeing Luxembourg's neutrality.  Two world wars later Luxembourg decided neutrality wasn't really helping them much and they joined NATO and raised an army (albeit quite a small one).  They have also started to rebuild some of the fortifications particularly the ones (as my tour guide informed us only half jokingly) that face towards Germany.

One thing it is quite difficult to see in Luxembourg is any Luxembourgers.  The entire country only has a population of half a million and 40% of them are foreigners.  Your chances of seeing an actual Luxembourger are probably only slightly greater than your chances of seeing a Monegasque in Monaco.  My tour guide was a Luxembourger so I can say I've seen at least one.  Incidentally the national motto of Luxembourg is "We wish to remain as we are" which is quite laudable but in my view implies a level of uncertainty as to whether others will in fact permit this.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

The last of my British holiday is behind me now.  A whirlwind visit to Hampshire in the company of my ex-father in law was the last little item on my plate.  Naturally Herry lives in a ridiculously charming home, part of a converted coach house which is comfortably older than many countries.  He lives in the little village of Stockbridge on (and in some places over) the River Test.  Stockbridge is one of those places which seem to have been designed solely because they look good on postcards of rural England.  Ancient buildings, charming countryside, a well stocked river (best trout fishing in England Herry informs me) plus a marsh (which probably helped to limit urban expansion) and almost as many pubs as there are houses.

Herry lives in part of the old coachhouse.  Stockbridge started as a way point for herdsmen driving their herds (if they were driving flocks they'd be flocksmen wouldn't they?) to market.  The coachhouse made for a handy stopover.  It is more centuries old than I care to consider and according to Ayako has only one relatively easy going ghost.  Which is good because I am so tired of those attention seeking ghosts who toss stuff at you and make the walls bleed.  You're dead, get over it.

Herry was a more than charming host although it was amusing watching him attempt to explain the presence of a blond forty year old male with nail polish to his neighbours.  England has countryside, quite a lot of it.  In fact if you look in certain areas you could make a good case for claiming the island is deserted.  Trees, rolling fields of something (do I look like a farmer?) meandering rivers and very little in the way of actual dwellings.  Herry tells me much of the population lives in trees but I'm not sure I believe him.  I rather suspect that England is actually one massive housing development that is kept back from the roads in order to fool visitors.

In keeping with the accidental wildlife motif I seem to be following I can proudly claim I have seen trout in their natural habitat (water).  Wacking big trout they were too.  There were ducks swimming on the surface and I feared for their life.  Down in the marsh people were walking their dogs and grazing horses.  A cheerful sign warned people that if their dogs got in amongst the livestock they would be shot.  I asked Herry if horses counted as livestock but got an ambivalent answer.  Still there were no gunshots disturbing the crisp morning air so I'm assuming any irate farmers held their hand.

Later that day Herry drove me to Winchester (where my monstrously expensive train was leaving for London) and gave me a quick tour.  We visited his old school (somehow it doesn't surprise me to learn that Herry went to the same school as Sir Humphrey Appleby) and checked out the house occupied by the Bishop of Winchester.  As flats above the shop go its pretty good.

Tomorrow I leave on the Eurostar for Brussels.  In a rare fit of commonsense I have booked into a hostel across the road from the station and in the shadow of St Pancras hotel which I can only assume was built because the owner felt there weren't enough mock castles in England.  I can't imagine that it makes a profit but it certainly looms magnificently over the tube station and early morning rush hour.

Now all I have to do is wake up in time for my train.  If not I might be swimming to Brussels.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Freestyling this one.  Normally I write a draft and then transfer the result with appropriate polishing and removal of stuff that could get me sued onto this blog.  However the opportunity to use a real live internet cafe couldn't be passed up so here it is.

The last couple of days could be broadly described as improving my mind should that decaying organism be deemed capable of improvement.  I have been to Covent Garden (essentially a shopping mall), the London Transport Museum and (with my sister in law, Kei) the Tate Britain art gallery and the Victoria & Albert museum.  It also rained.  Not much, just enough to interfere with my washing.

The London Transport Museum has a fascinating story to tell but in my view not really enough space to tell it.  As one can imagine, trains, buses and stage coaches make for rather bulky exhibits and tend to clutter the place up if you don't have a lot of floor space.  In contrast two things which don't lack for floorspace are the Tate and the V&A.  Guided by my own personal Virgil I strolled through the Tate marvelling at things I couldn't create and probably couldn't really appreciate although I certainly did my best.  There were a number of paintings of the eruption of Vesuvius and at least one of Armageddon and at one point I'm pretty sure I got them mixed up.  I'm going to blame the artist.  All of them were pretty good though.

I saw at a conservative estimate about a third of what was on offer at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Next time I come to London I'm going to have to book a room across the road.  There was jewellery, statues and my personal favourite plaster casts of some of the most incredible pieces of architecture and statuary you have never seen.  They have a plaster cast of Trajan's Column for gods sake (cut in half because even the V&A doesn't have a roof high enough to contain the entire column intact) plus a cast of St George killing a rather small dragon.  Kei and I agreed that if the choice were ours we would rather be known as "the Dragonslayer" rather than "the Large Lizard Butcher".  It just doesn't have the same cachet.

We enjoyed a late lunch in Soho.  Or at least I did.  Kei drank tea and disclaimed any need for food.  I spoke to her sternly about eating until she threatened to feed me something at which point I shut up.  In her defence she did pick up a pork bun from Chinatown later.

I keep tripping over embassies.  Usually embassies from very dubious countries.  So far I have encountered the embassy for Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Sudan (it appeared closed) and Venezuela.  All of them in much nicer parts of London than one could really expect their nation to afford.  Competition for a diplomatic posting to somewhere like London must be intense if only because it provides access to decent shopping and a functioning hot water system.  Exactly how much diplomatic interplay can Equatorial Guinea have with Great Britain?  I would have thought an email address would be more than sufficient.

Drinks with my host (and ex boss) on Friday with my current boss (over here to sort out details for our upcoming merger with SJ Berwin, its been announced so I'm not spilling any secrets) and a couple of my soon to be colleagues.  Topics of conversation encompassed work, nail polish, work, idiot partners we have known, work and hawala networks.  That last one was infiltrated by a young woman looking for a cigarette.

I promised Hampshire but sadly I cannot deliver as I haven't gone there yet.  I'm actually posting more blog updates than I intended (its easy when you don't concern yourself with whether you have anything interesting to say) so that will have to wait for next time.  Still really haven't worked out wifi yet but hope I will before I leave behind the helpful folk in England who have supported me so far.

Sky is grey and feet are sore so wandering back to sit down, drink coffee and read.  Getting a kindle was a brilliant idea.  So far I have only bought two new books that I now have to cart around with me.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I am in a house guarded by a lion.  Its a stone lion but that's ok because its a stone house.  Edward and Britt (plus their two delightful daughters Audrey & Evelyn) are perfect hosts and seem to be taking the presence of a wild eyed, travel stained interloper in their stride.  The house seems to have been designed by Enid Blyton with a full catalogue of twisting staircases, multiple stories, big old wooden doors and foxes in the garden.  Just to prove that last point a fox sauntered up the garden path and paraded itself before me just as I was looking out into the garden for foxes.  I haven't found the secret passage or the group of annoying adolescents (plus pet) looking for hidden treasure but it surely must be a matter of time.

Over the course of the next few days I managed to explore bits of London.  I toddled along to St Paul's cathedral where I wandered around guided by a magic talky box in my ear.  I can't say St Paul's filled me with a sense of the majesty of God but if anybody wanted to start a cult worshipping Sir Christopher Wren I might be persuaded to sacrifice a goat or two.  The interior of the cathedral is amazing; a vast, still space surrounded by paintings, mosaics and stained glass.  All very nice but to cap it off I wandered down to the crypt where a bunch of famous people are buried, or at least memorialised.  Wellington is certainly there although how they got his coffin in without a backhoe I don't know.  There was a cafe in the crypt as well because nothing makes me hungrier than being stuck underground in the company of corpse.

I had scones with jam and cream and was reintroduced to the British inability to provide a cafe at a tourist attraction that can provide anything like service.  I suspect the organisers thought something along the lines of "look you came here to see the damn cathedral, who cares if the service in the cafe is dreadful?".  Some people might think that the French provide worse service than the British but they're missing the point.  The French are trying to be unhelpful.  When the British girl at the cafe in the crypt tossed a scone in my general direction you could see that she honestly had no idea that scones could be served in some other way.  I asked for butter and she looked at me with such sincere perplexity that I started to think I would have to explain what butter was.  Another question I have to ask is, who has stolen all of Britain's teaspoons?  I will admit there are reasons why someone in a cafe might hesitate before handing me anything with an edge but I simply fail to understand the reasoning behind replacing teaspoons with a thin strip of plywood.  They're lousy at stirring and you can't fit as much sugar on them.

I had dinner in Kew with my beautiful and charming sister in law before wandering down to Hampton Court the next day to see how the other half lived.  The other half in question being Henry VIII and his court and how they lived was apparently, nervously.  They say that uneasy lies the head that wears a crown but that is nothing like the unease of the heads who lived near the crown wearer.  In some cases the head was lying some considerable distance from its body, a silent testimony to the fact that the concept of no fault divorce was still in its infancy.

Still to come; Rain, Covent Garden, London Transport Museum and Hampshire.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

So my next few blog entries (how many depends on the frequency with which I can scrounge the use of someone else's computer) will detail my somewhat hapless attempts at tourism as I wander vaguely around countries other than my own.  Overseas travel is supposed to broaden the mind although I suspect it just as frequently reinforces prejudices.  My own travels will encompass Britain where I have friends, Luxembourg (for no good reason), Berlin, Prague and Vienna.  Hopefully I shall write something useful and interesting about each place although frankly I wouldn't hold my breath.

Air Travel or How to Cram the Frustration and Exhaustion of a Six Month Journey into 36 Hours

And so it begins.  Fortified by several cups of coffee from Velvet Garage I wandered along to Mascot in the hopes of flagging down a plane going in my direction.  Despite an absence of several years Sydney airport was pretty much as I remember it.  That is, it was Purgatory but it was the sort of Purgatory that makes one think a well managed Hell might be an improvement.

Airports are generally a bit of a twilight zone, they are one of the few places thousands of people go to in the hopes of leaving as quickly as possible, but Sydney airport manages to be utterly bland and simultaneously creepy.  One's first thought on seeing Sydney's gateway to the world is "How dull" followed rapidly by "I'll bet everyone here is a serial killer".

There was a time when you could turn up ten minutes before your plane took off and dash onto the flight.  Now one has to turn up about a week before the plane leaves and by the time the airline staff start permitting boarding they are mobbed by a crazed, red eyed gang one step away from cannibalism.

With the clawing, biting and trampling of the sick and the lame behind us those who survived took our places after first storing in the overhead lockers all the crap the airline staff had thoughtlessly left on the seats.  Stewardesses strolled back and forth handing out warm moistened hand towels either as a touching welcoming gesture or a gentle hint to keep our filthy paws off their nice clean aeroplane.

Preparations completed our aircraft lurched skyward with a thunderous roar and enough charred hydrocarbons to change the climate by a season or two.  I was on my way to England although rather to my surprise the first stop would be Bangkok.

Part 2

I'm writing this entry because I'm too sleep deprived to focus on the television.  Having ground my way through about a dozen episodes of the Big Bang Theory I am now at the point where it took me five minutes to figure out how to use my pen.  This is despite paying 22 dirhams for a coffee at Dubai airport.  I no longer even pretend to know what time it is or what day it is or what my name is.  I left my boarding pass on the plane and had to beg for another one before they let me back on again.  Otherwise I would have spent my entire holiday in Bangkok airport. 

By the time I got back on the plane in Dubai I was semi delirious and only keeping myself going by fantasising about the shower I was going to have once I arrived in whatever country was my destination.  I passed the time watching Star Trek: The Latest Milking For Money where the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch made up for the presence of everybody else.  By the time I had finished watching that and snapped out of the subsequent fugue state we were approaching Britain.

Two trains and a brief walk later I was banging on the door of my charming and gracious hosts where I walked in, grunted and dived for a shower.  Still the flight wasn't too bad really, yes it was wearying, ghastly and annoying but it was well within acceptable parameters for that sort of thing.  All in all I'm quite impressed with Emirates, it might become my new favourite airline if they don't lose my luggage or drop me into the sea on my way home