Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Like Coffee for Guppys

Well the final wave of my holiday has tossed me spent and broken upon the rocky shores of my employment.  Gasping and spitting salt water I dragged my carcass up to level 60 and collapsed panting at my desk.

My pleasure at seeing my colleagues was only slightly marred by the fact that they had obviously managed to get along perfectly well without me while I was away.  I do like to think that the team benefited from my return and I'm trying to ignore the vulture perched on my desk divider.  I'm proud to say that I buckled straight down to the tasks at hand without even bothering to remove the seaweed from my hair or the condoms from my stomache.  My colleagues were divided into roughly three equal groups; those who didn't realise I was gone, those who thought I'd been fired and those who thought I'd died.  All were surprised to see me especially the third group.

The team guppy was pleased to see me.  At least that's the interpretation I'm going to put on his swimming in circles at my presence.  Apparently while I was away certain nameless team members attempted to kill him with neglect.  Our guppy, however, is made of stern stuff.  Shortly after we acquired him he was involved in a tragic bowl cleaning incident which resulted in him spending fifteen minutes on the floor under a colleagues desk.  I'm also pretty sure he was heavily involved in the untimely demise of the other team guppy who used to share his bowl.  Officially it was an accident but none of us have been game to buy a replacement.  The survivor (his name is Bullard by the way) swims happily in splendid isolation and defies us to purchase another fish.

So as you can see a little thing like not being fed for a week isn't likely to bother our boy.  The only visible change was that the water in the bowl was uncharacteristically clear and that was probably due to the fact that I hadn't been rinsing my coffee cup in it for six weeks.  No wonder the guppy was so pleased to see me.  He was probably desperate for a caffeine hit.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

I'm scared of heights.  I don't know why.  I wasn't as a child and in my youth I went bungee jumping without more than the appropriate level of terror associated with jumping off a three hundred foot high bridge with an elastic band attached to my ankles.  Sometime between then and now it has developed into something approaching a phobia.  For this reason I decided to eschew visiting the Belvedere Palace and instead went to the amusement park at the Prater.  I thought I would face my fears by taking a ride on the massive ferris wheel they have there from which one can see beautiful panoramas of Vienna if indeed you can take your hands away from your eyes.

So off to the Prater I went and, taking my courage in both hands (so it didn't run away), I bought a ticket for the big wheel.  If nothing else the locals could be amused by the sight of a middle aged man weeping hysterically in a corner.  My frame of mind wasn't improved by the sight of a workman wandering around carrying what looked suspiciously like ferris wheel components over his shoulder.

After all the build up it turned out to be a bit of a bust from a "facing the fear" perspective.  The compartments are fully enclosed and big enough to walk around in, I think I've been in smaller railway carriages.  So my fears didn't get properly faced but I did get great views of Vienna.  Or at least I would have if I hadn't chosen an overcast and rainy day to visit the Prater.  As it was I got great views of mist.  I took photos.

Of  course there were many other far more dramatic ways I could have faced my fears, rollercoasters, spinning towers and the like but on reflection I decided "screw it" and went on the miniature railway instead which was pulled by a baby steam engine.  I took photos of that as well.

Still on the subject of outdoor activities, the Augarten was conveniently close to my accommodation so I went down there for a look.  The Augarten is a public park which is rather like saying the Titanic was a boat.  Tipping the scales at over fifty one hectares there is plenty of space in the Augarten for one to stretch out and relax, walk ones dog and admire the porcelain factory which for some reason is situated there.

Looming above the ornamental flower beds and dwarfing the rows of handsome trees are the flaktowers.  The flaktowers date from World War 2 when the Germans turned most of the Augarten into a military base with bunkers, armoured vehicles and flaktowers.  These two monstrous constructions mounted batteries of anti aircraft guns to protect the city from allied bombing raids.

When the war was over and the Austrians decided to stop being German and start being Austrian again the Viennese reconverted the Augarten to a park and attempted to eradicate all evidence of the German presence there.  However the flaktowers were so solidly constructed that they quite literally defied demolition.  There they are and there, for the foreseeable future, they stay.  I must admit I didn't mind them.  Yes they spoil the look of the park and they are quite monstrously ugly but it does no harm at all in my opinion to have a few reminders of darker times around us, particularly in the middle of beauty.

That's pretty much it for my visit to Vienna.  I saw quite a bit, I didn't see an immense amount more but now I have to make my way home and bring this somewhat tedious collection of self indulgent travel ramblings to an end.  Somehow I don't think Mark Twain will be shivering in his bed.  Many thanks to Stefan and Zuzanna who lent me part of their home and were gracious and welcoming hosts.  A special thanks to Stefan (and his father) for their fine gift which I greatly appreciated.  All that remains now is to see if Emirates can be as efficient at dumping me back in Sydney as they were in depositing me in London.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Strolling along the Ringstrasse is a very Viennese thing to do.  Or at least most foreigners think its a very Viennese thing to do.  Therefore the Ringstrasse is permanently clogged with tourists kidding themselves that they are behaving like the Viennese.  The other day I was one of them.  I picked a good day, it wasn't raining even a little bit, the sky was clear and the sun was shining.  Of course it was cold, very cold actually.  My Christ it was cold!

Still stereotypical imperative demanded that I stroll along the Ringstrasse and stroll or rather shiver I did.  The Ringstrasse came into existence at the command of the emperor Franz Josef.  We seem to be hearing a lot about him but his presence is ubiquitous in Vienna.  Until 1857 the inner city of Vienna was still circled by a huge belt of fortifications designed to keep out the Turks.  By 1857 the only thing they were resisting was efficient commuter flow.  Franz Josef's orders saw the walls torn down, the moat filled in and the whole replaced by a broad boulevard circling the inner city on three sides (the Danube Canal occupies the fourth).  This new ring was liberally endowed with parks, squares, statutes and not infrequently all three.  Very soon lavish buildings began to rise there as the wealthy and the high born seized the opportunity to compete with each other to see who could build the most overblown building in the desirable new location.

The prize must be awarded to the imperial government who threw up (I use the term advisedly) a colossal building to house itself.  It was here that the two houses of the imperial parliament gathered to scream at each other.  It fulfills the same purpose today for the federal government of Austria although as far as I'm aware without the emergency clause in the constitution which allowed Franz Josef to ram legislation through while his parliament was gainfully employed hurling inkwells at each other.

A close runner up in the "Architecture that doesn't know when to stop" awards in the town hall of the city of Vienna itself.  This was another building I mistook for a church.  It is really unfair though to single out these two buildings, the entire ring is adorned with buildings, some beautiful, some elegant but all imposing. Together with the parks and squares they truly are an ornament to the city.  The Ringstrasse must count as one of Franz Josef's most enduring and valuable contributions to his people and it is a little churlish to point out that an ulterior motive behind the Ringstrasse was the fact that it is very difficult for the urban mob to build barricades across an eight lane motorway.

I walked the entire ring (not as impressive an achievement as it sounds) and strolled along the Danube canal to my starting point.  By this time the afternoon sun had warmed the air to the point where hypothermia was a mere possibility rather than a definite fate.  I loved it in Autumn, it must be amazing in Summer.

Travelling Hopefully

Getting to Schonbrunn Palace required venturing onto Vienna's excellent public transport system.  The Ubahn metro system deposited me so close to the palace not even I could get lost.  There was a little pictorial sign next to my seat on the train telling me who had priority seating.  As near as I can tell I had to give up my seat to fat women with pointy breasts, men kidnapping babies, women with scythes and scary looking pensioners strung out on heroin.  The pictures may have gained something in translation.

So to Schonbrunn.  Hop off the U4 at Schonbrunn station.  Do you see the imposing grey building before you?  That's the erotic cinema.  Turn right, stroll down the road a short way and you are at Schonbrunn.  Another ten or fifteen minutes strolling will bring you to the entrance.  At the entrance is a sign saying "Attention Pickpockets!"  Having got their attention however the sign fails to tell the pickpockets what it wants them to do.

By this time you are probably thinking "Please shut up about the goddam signs and tell us about Schonbrunn" or possibly "I wonder what's on television?".  You may even be wondering if I bothered to go inside.  The answer is "Yes, yes I did".  If I had to find one word to describe Schonbrunn that word would be "big".  If I was feeling expansive I might go with "really really big".  Also yellow.  Schonbrunn is big and yellow.  It is quite the largest yellow thing I have come into physical contact with.  It isn't a bright glaring yellow but rather a soft easy on the eye yellow.  At any sort of a distance the colouration helps the building blur into the background a bit helping to disguise how really big it is.  This is an impressive trick because as I may have mentioned Schonbrunn is very big indeed.

Schonbrunn also has grounds.  Of course it does, what sort of country house doesn't have a garden.  The grounds can best be described as "big".  They are so big you could fit a few more Schonbrunns into them and still have room for a tennis court and possibly a football stadium.  There's a water feature of course, what self respecting garden doesn't have a water feature?  To get a bigger water feature they would have had to build Schonbrunn at the bottom of Niagara Falls.  The grounds have a maze that I wandered around in happily for half an hour or so and a zoo that I didn't visit.

For the record Schonbrunn was built, or rather commissioned, by emperor Leopold I as the Habsburg answer to Versailles which had recently demonstrated exactly what can be done if you want to loot half a continent to build a summer house.  The building was then completely remodelled at the command of Maria Theresia and was used as the Habsburgs summer palace ever since (until 1918).  Schonbrunn is famous for, well, for being Schonbrunn basically.  Emperor Franz Josef I died there in 1916.  He was also born there much earlier, there are some primitive cave paintings which celebrate the event.

Out of Schonbrunn and back along the road to the Ubahn station pausing only to take in the latest offering at the Maria Theresia Memorial Porno Palace and we're heading back towards Vienna.  Actually we never left Vienna.  Schonbrunn may have been in the countryside when it was built but now it is slap bang in the middle of suburban Vienna.  The neighbours must have a hell of a time keeping up with the Joneses.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Vienna doesn't just have palaces and churches, my word no.  Vienna is a fully rounded city, it also has museums.  Actually it has museums and flaktowers but more on that later.

I dropped in on the Museum of Fantastic Art (at least I think that's what Phantasten Museum means) largely because it was situated between Stephansdom and the Hofburg and I was on my way from one to the other. The museum charts the course of the Viennese school of fantastic realism from its inception in 1946 (where if you believe the museum they were instrumental in returning civilisation to the war torn European lands) up to the present day.  In so far as I can tell (which isn't very far) fantastic realism developed from surrealism with an emphasis on "old masters" style clarity of depiction with a surrealistic approach to subject materials and interpretations.

I'm not sure if I understood a single word of the previous paragraph after the first sentence.  In my defence I cribbed most of it from wikipedia and a handout provided by the museum.  Anybody with more knowledge on the subject (ie anyone at all) feel free to correct me.  All that I can really say is I rather enjoyed it.  From now on if anyone asks me what my favourite style of art is I'm going to say fantastic realism.  I hope it's a real thing.

After the Fantastic Art museum I visited the Austrian Army museum.  In actual fact I visited this museum a few days later but I'm trying to build a narrative flow.  The Austrian army museum is situated, appropriately enough, on Arsenal Strasse in a huge domed building I thought was a church.  The ceilings decorated with paintings depicting famous Austrian victories (there were some), famous Austrian defeats are less in evidence.

The Austrian army really started towards the end of the Thirty Years War.  Albrecht von Wallenstein had raised an army at his own expense for emperor Ferdinand II.  At the end of the war (and after Wallenstein had been conveniently murdered) the emperor (by this stage one of Ferdinand's successors) decided to retain some of the regiments Wallenstein raised on a permanent basis and pay for them himself.

There are weapons, armour and uniforms from all stages of the army's history.  They also have regimental standards captured from Frederick the Great's Prussia and Napoleon's France (as well as a quiet acknowledgement that not all these wars necessarily turned out the way Austria might have preferred). There is quite a bit on the wars with Turkey although not as much as I expected.

The three great military heroes of the empire; Prince Eugene of Savoy (who joined the imperial service in a fit of pique after being rejected by Louis XIV), Archduke Charles (a local boy and a Habsburg to boot.  He is famous for defeating Napoleon; once) and Field Marshal Radetzky (who got a march named after him) are all well represented of course with paintings, busts, medals and other whatnots.  A blizzard of lesser military luminaries in Habsburg service are also there.  The army as a unifying force in the state is also a theme given heavy attention in the last decades of the old empire.

For an English speaker the museum is a little confusing as there aren't many English captions on the displays and the audioguide is a little substandard but it was interesting nonetheless.  I particularly liked their motto; "Because wars belong in museums".

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

Continuing my sojourn through the Hofburg I wandered through the silver room.  This is a collection of cutlery and crockery.  Don't get the wrong idea.  It is called the silver room but not all the pieces are made out of silver.  Quite a few of them are made out of gold.  Porcelain and crystal are quite well represented as well.  Also linen, apparently no dinner at the Hofburg was complete without intricately folded table napkins.  My audioguide bemoaned the fact that napkin folding is becoming a dying art.  I'm sure its tragic but there are a few other dying arts I might try and save first before leaping to rescue napkin folding.

Most of the silverware isn't actually that old, dating from about the 1830s despite the fact that the Habsburgs had been eating for a least a century or two before that.  The reasons are simple, firstly as the silverware got old and battered from use it was melted down and refashioned into something else but the main reason is the Napoleonic wars.  During the wars the empire was (as usual) desperately short of money and all the silver in the empire was called in to be melted down to pay the soldiers (badly).  The emperor Franz set a personal example by having his entire dinner service melted down.

Moving past various imperial eating utensils (one set of which is still used by the Austrians for state dinners, I wonder what the Czech and Hungarian ambassadors think of that?) we come to the Sisi experience.  It is safe to say that Vienna has a Sisi fetish or at least that the people who visit Vienna and spend money have a Sisi fetish.  I breezed swiftly through that taking in portraits, jewellery, accessories and quotes from her not particularly good poetry.

For the record Sisi was the empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef.  They were possibly the most spectacularly mismatched pair imaginable.  Sisi was beautiful, emotional, neurotic, impatient of court etiquette and possibly the worst choice of partner for a staid, workaholic emperor of limited imagination.  Apparently he adored her.  Whether she returned those feelings is open to doubt but it is probably fair to say she was fond of him and wished him well.

Unable to bear the routines of court life and the behaviour expected of an emperors wife Sisi got away as much as she could travelling almost compulsively more for the journey than because of any particular destination.  She rarely settled in one place for long and was usually longing to depart pretty much as soon as she arrived.  This eventually led to her death as she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist on the shores of Lake Geneva while she waited for a ferry.  After her death the Viennese, who had never liked her much when she was alive, idolised her probably because she was beautiful and tragic two things which are always guaranteed to draw a crowd.

Lest the record seem entirely negative Sisi did render her husband two valuable services.  She helped reconcile him with his Hungarian subjects (Hungary had risen in revolt at the beginning of his reign.  The revolt had been brutally crushed and Hungary had existed in a state of sullen resentment ever since).  Sisi fell in love with all things Hungarian, learnt the language and generally helped make Hungary and Hungarian people more acceptable at court and also made the monarchy more acceptable to the Hungarians.  The second thing she did was introduce Franz Josef to an actress named Katarina Schratt who eventually became the emperors "special" friend although there was no physical aspect to their relationship.  Katarina Schratt could provide the sort of domestic homelife Sisi was utterly incapable of and give the emperor some companionship while his wife was roaming the globe.

Franz Josef's apartments were the real reason I took the tour.  It actually didn't take too long to go through them because in a huge palace complex Franz Josef lived in about half a dozen rather simple rooms one of which was an audience chamber (anyone could get an appointment and drop in on the emperor).  The most important room was the study, Franz Josef spent most of his life there working at his desk.  He logged a twelve to sixteen hour day, seven days a week for sixty eight years.  He even took work on holiday with him. His last words were apparently "wake me tomorrow at four".

Next to the emperor's apartments were the apartments Sisi used on those rare occasions when she was in Vienna.  On her insistence the Hofburgs first bathtub was installed for her use.  Franz Josef, of course, disdained such newfangled things and to the end of his days washed by being sponged down with cold water.

The Spanish Riding School is also in the Hofburg.  This is where the famous dancing horses are trained.  I know they're there because I saw a sign telling me so.  That's as close as I got though because my interest in horses begins and ends with the likelihood of them winding up in my soup.

As if one Habsburg palace wasn't enough the next day I was off to Schonbrunn a little place in the suburbs where the Habsburgs could get away from it all.

Travelling Hopefully

I must admit I think I am suffering from cathedral overload.  How often can one stare at soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, and magnificent artwork before one says "enough"?  Still I had to go to Stephansdom, the cathedral church of Vienna.  It has soaring ceilings, stained glass windows and magnificent artwork.  It also has the sarcophagus of emperor Frederick III.  Frederick was an early Habsburg emperor who spent much of his time being chased from one of his territories to another by various enemies.  He eventually beat them all by the simple process of outliving them and taking their lands after their deaths.  Frederick didn't have much success on the battlefield but he had a certain amount of political rat cunning.  He was frequently accused of indecision or procrastination but when it is crowned with eventual success I think we can give it the term, patience.

Having visited one dead Habsburg I decided to drop in on a hundred or so more.  The imperial crypt situated below a very modest Capuchin church contains the bones of a hundred and sixty or so dead Habsburgs including a number of emperors.  The most magnificent, of course, is the joint sarcophagus of Maria Theresia and her husband the emperor Franz (who was only a Habsburg by marriage).  By contrast that of their son, emperor Josef II, was very simple indeed as befitted a monarch who tried to make all his subjects get buried in tin boxes as a public health measure.  The reaction of the public for whose health he showed such concern was a universal "like Hell" and Joseph was forced to back down.  An emperor can annoy the aristocracy as much as he likes but it is very unwise to piss off the peasants.

Old Franz Josef is there of course, flanked by his wife and son both of whom predeceased him (being associated with Franz Josef didn't appear to be good for the life expectancy).  The sarcophagi of his wife Sisi and his son Rudolf are surrounded by fresh flowers and little gifts.  Nothing but a single modest bouquet (dating to 2011) adorns Franz Josef's austere sarcophagus but that dull, dedicated man would not expect to be rewarded simply for doing his duty.  If he were capable of irony he might be amused by the fact that all the bouquets have been given to two people who avoided theirs.

Having wandered around a room full of dead Habsburgs I decided that I might as well go through their stuff as well so I visited the Hofburg.  The Hofburg is the palace complex where the Habsburgs hung out when they were in Vienna.  There are arches, large buildings, wildly overblown statues and open spaces where the preceding can be comfortably surveyed.  My first stop was the treasure room.

Anyone who has read something of the history of the Habsburg empire knows that it spent a good deal of its existence teetering on the edge of bankruptcy so it came as a slight surprise that the treasure room is rather well stocked.  There are gorgeous robes, brocaded cloth and jewellery including an emerald quite literally as large as my fist (its the largest single emerald in the world).  There is the crown, orb and sceptre of the empire of Austria of course but there is also the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire including the crown, a cross set with pieces of the true cross on which Christ was crucified and the spearhead from the lance that pierced his side.  You can take the last two with as many grains of salt as is necessary to choke them down but they have been objects of veneration for over a thousand years.  There are gods from legitimate religions that aren't that old, they're practically sacred by osmosis.

Oh yes, they also have the holy grail and a unicorns horn (pass the salt again please).  The "grail" is a huge bowl carved from a single piece of agate.  As near as anyone can tell it was probably made in Constantinople in the third or fourth century AD.  That would make it early Byzantine or late Roman depending on your point of view.  How the Habsburgs got their hands on it is anybody's guess but they were nothing if not acquisitive.

I think my favourite piece was a Hungarian holy relic which was supposed to be given back to the Hungarians as part of the divorce settlement between the two nations at the end of the first world war.  The Austrians duly handed it over and it turned out to be a forgery.  It had been given to a jeweller sometime previously for restoration and rather than restore it he had made a copy, returned that to the Austrians and sold the original on the black market.  Subsequently the treasury museum managed to buy it back, what the Hungarians think of this was not recorded.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Travelling Hopefully

If there are two visuals I will take away from both Prague and Berlin they will be crutches and dogs.  Every second person seems to be hobbling around with the aid of at least one and sometimes two crutches.  One can't help wondering if central Europe has a terrible outbreak of foot disease.  In between the cripples dogs wander in and out.  Lots of people have dogs and they take them everywhere; trains, restaurants, supermarkets, you name it.  The only place I saw dogshit on the streets however was Luxembourg where the canine presence was much less ubiquitous.

Prague has no end of cafes, restaurants and nightspots.  Sheer curiosity almost tempted me to enter one place which offered something called "Techno House Jungle Rap".  However they severely damaged their techno house jungle rap credentials in my eyes by naming the place "Disco Duck".  I went elsewhere.

At the entrance to Prague railway station I was accosted by three Slovakians all of whom tried to sell me aftershave and one of whom also tried to sell me women (in his defence I'm pretty sure he was only offering to rent the women).  I can only assume the women he had access to liked a man who smelled nice.  Deeply offended by the implication that these women (who were nowhere in evidence) would reject me on the basis of my odour I refused their kind offer twenty or thirty times and fought my way inside.

Leaving Prague I shared my compartment with a young honeymoon couple from Mexico and an elderly couple from Argentina who proceeded to barricade us into the compartment with their luggage.  Fortunately we didn't have to evacuate the train in a hurry.  The other two couples chatted happily away in Spanish, occasionally breaking into English for my benefit.  Once again I felt like an ill educated slob for being monolingual.  Even the panhandling perfume pimps at the station had spoken English.

Prague is behind me now and Vienna beckons.  Much thanks to Nigel who was my host and a damned good one.  Rolling through the beautiful Czech countryside we slid into Brno which appeared shabby, gritty and industrial although I will confess that the window of a train carriage probably isn't the best vantage point for a fair description.  All I really know about Brno is that it is the birthplace of the eponymous bren gun.  The Czech role in the Second World War seems to have involved designing a lot of high quality military equipment which was used by other people after Czechoslovakia itself was occupied.

Late Sunday afternoon is not the best time to arrive in Vienna.  Much of it appeared closed.  On the plus side I only got a little bit lost on my way to my accomodation and only had to make one panic stricken phone call to my hosts asking where on earth they were.  Eventually I arrived and climbed the 105 steps to my cosy little room.  In fairness my hosts did warn me about the steps in their airbnb guide so I have no reason to complain.  I do wonder what my host Stefan was thinking as he attempted to explain about the room while I lay on the floor gasping like a landed fish with black dots dancing before my eyes.  Eventually I decided not to have a heart attack and prepared to take on Vienna the next day.