Bringing the learning home (Australian Learning & Teaching Council)

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‘Cool story, hansel’

– Olaf, Zoolander

The train trip from Prague to Berlin was nowhere near as long as Norwich to Prague, but it was both uncomfortable and turbulent. The good weather from Prague was continuing and the train had little or no air-conditioning, so it was BOILING (33 degrees is now intolerable for our acclimatised thermoreceptors) and it seemed, despite our best efforts, that we couldn’t help sitting in seats that had been reserved, so people kept boarding and telling us we had to move. We later discovered it may’ve been some kind of German holiday, which could explain the remarkable density of passengers on the train. But it was so irritating that there was no way of telling which seats were reserved and which weren’t, because both times we had to move we’d picked seats that didn’t say they were reserved. I thought the Germans were supposed to be efficient! Must’ve been the Czechs’ doing …

After a couple of relocations, the conductor told us to go to first class, where we were allowed to remain undisturbed until we reached our destination, and where the passengers provided some amusement. In our first couple of hours in Germany we witnessed no less than three heated exchanges, the first one being on the train.

 ‘They’re breakdance fighting!’

An older couple were sitting across the aisle from one another in what were ostensibly available seats when a younger woman, probably in her early thirties, boarded and informed the gentleman that she had reserved his seat. Instead of leaping up apologetically as we had done, the gentleman asked her something in German. I couldn’t believe the exchange that ensued. In my world it would’ve been, ‘Oh, excuse me, sorry, but I think you’re in my seat.’

‘Oh, am I? Are you sure?’

‘Yeah, I think so. I’m pretty sure it says on my ticket. Hold on, I’ll just check … Yep, it does.’

‘Oh, so sorry! One second.’

‘No, don’t worry about it!’

But instead, after he asked if she was sure, she got all pissed off and rifled through her bag with exaggerated motions, unfolding a piece of paper and reading it out triumphantly like a petty child saying, ‘Mum said you have to give me a turn.’

The gentleman conceded and she sat down. Soon she was asleep without a care for the man probably thirty years her senior who had to stand for the remainder of the journey. Of course if you’ve paid for and reserved a seat in first class you’re entitled to use it; it was just the way she did it.

There was also an old Australian guy talking really loudly to someone about the percentage of Australian land classified as semi-arid. We never saw or heard his interlocutor say a word, which made us wonder if the Australian was just overenthusiastically chewing the ear off some poor mild-mannered European too polite to stop the one-sided conversation.

Our hostel, the Amstel House, was adequate – nothing terrible, but nothing spectacular. It was overrun for the duration of our stay with sixteen-year-olds who we speculated must’ve been on a school trip. Talking to one of them in the elevator, or ‘Schindler’s Lift’ as we called it, we learned that he and his class were Year Ten students, reportedly the senior year of German high school, on a final, celebratory school trip.

It was so strange to see them drinking and smoking, which is legal at their age in Germany. They looked like children, little boys with hands too small for the oversized Berliner Pilsener bottles they were drinking from. Of course Australian sixteen-year-olds drink and smoke, but you don’t see them doing it so conspicuously, and certainly not while talking to their teachers. Even eighteen-year-olds weren’t allowed to drink on our Year Twelve trips and functions.

When we first arrived the only other person in the room was this guy napping in his underwear. Or at least we thought it was just a nap. Every time after that we came into the room he was sleeping. We got up at ten one morning and when we came back that night he was STILL in bed. Human koala or what.

Customarily we took a New Europe free walking tour on our first day in Berlin. Apparently they had unusually large numbers that day and we had to wait around for ages while they found another guide.

 

Amusing ourselves while we waited.

 

 Kept spotting these contraptions around everywhere.

Looking over the potential guides like cattle, Til somewhat superficially expressed a desire not to end up with the ‘albino loser.’ To be fair, he did look like a bit of a loser, even though that sounds really harsh. It was in the mid-thirties and we’d all been standing in the sun too long, but he was bright red and sweating profusely. Of course, we did end up being assigned to him, and he ended up being very cool and hilarious. So despite all the fascinating things about Berlin’s history we learned on the tour, you could say the most valuable lesson of all was that sometimes, people who look uncool are actually just Irish.

And just to ram the lesson home, he was actually probably the best guide we’ve had so far. The guys who maybe were a bit more traditionally ‘cool’ in Amsterdam and London sometimes seemed like they were only being friendly because they had to, but this Berlin guide was really genuine.

The city itself kind of echoes the adage about books and covers in that it is not a beautiful city, but it is SO INTERESTING AND COOL. ‘Poor but sexy,’,as the city’s mayor is supposed to have said, unintentionally coining its unofficial motto (the other great quote of his we heard was his statement just before an election: ‘Yeah I’m gay, who gives a fuck?’). The city is supposed to be in a massive amount of debt, hence its relative ugliness, but this I think is also what has made it ‘Europe’s coolest city’ – the shabby-chic quality.

  ‘I give you … DERELICTE’

And what other city in the world has been literally bisected for any amount of time, let alone nearly thirty years? In one century it was the capital of a nation that instigated two world wars. It saw a federal monarchy, a totalitarian dictatorship, a socialist republic, and two separate federal parliamentary republics, and swung radically between the poles of the political spectrum. That’s the kind of turmoil that isn’t recovered from quickly or easily, but it’s also the kind that, once over, yields great works of art as its people try to work through the emotional damage.

Some of the most interesting things we saw on the tour were the unique and controversial Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the deceptively unremarkable carpark occupying the space above the bunker where Hitler committed suicide; the remnants of the Berlin wall, which was, somewhat ironically, fenced-off; the uninspiring Checkpoint Charlie and, perhaps most importantly of all, the balcony over the edge of which Michael Jackson infamously dangled his baby.

Our guide telling us about the memorial.

  The Hitler carpark.

 The cheesy ‘last American soldier’ sign looking into East Berlin.

 

The notorious balcony.

Berlin’s second rate rip-off of ‘Iamsterdam’: ‘be Berlinternational.’ Next it’ll be ‘London’t ever leave’ and ‘Belgood Belgrade’ or something.

  Building extension by the same guy who did the Louvre’s glass pyramid.

 

 Some cool statues.

After the tour we went for drinks with the guide and some others from the tour, which was fun. Some of us went on to have dinner as well, at this cool little noodle house where I was able to find a dinner without any vegetables, thus avoiding E coli and consequent death. Subway next door had stopped serving tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber altogether.

Once we were done we were faced with the task of working out how the hell to get back to our hostel from where we’d ended up. To further complicate matters, I hadn’t brought the DSLR case with me, the better to quickly take the amazing shots you see displayed throughout this blog, and it began POURING in such a way as we haven’t seen since we left Australia – they only get pissy rain in England. We got soaked, but with characteristic quick wits, I resourcefully acquired a Subway bag in which to store the baby.

Huh … Two faux-arrogant jokes in one paragraph, there … Good one.

Drowned rat.

Totally artistic picture of Til from inside the Subway bag.

On our second day we planned to visit Sachsenhausen, the site of a former Nazi concentration camp and then a NKVD special camp but we had no idea how to get there. Not eager to repeat the Versailles incident, we realised we needed to access the internet to get directions.

The directions are IN the computer!?

However, exhibiting a travelling trait we’ve only recently discovered in ourselves, hostel patron’s reluctance (HPR), we spent the entire morning looking for an internet cafe rather than just going back to the hostel where we knew there was free wireless. Whether HPR arises from a deep-seeded subconscious loathing for the poor-to-average accommodation the sufferer occupies, or sheer illogical laziness, we don’t know. We do know that it affects millions of people every year, and you can make a difference …

Travelling has made me mourn the decline, so soon after its swift rise to prominence, of the internet cafe. I’m sure everyone who opened one of these grimy little nerdhavens thought they’d grow rich and corpulent out of the enterprise, so forward thinking was it. It combined the ancient appeal of the cafe with the futuristic concept of the internet – the cafe of tomorrow! But they didn’t foresee the meddlesome intervention of wireless, with the additional blow of the smartphone, which rendered them so obsolete. Travel, however, has proven that they aren’t obsolete, through the innumerable times I’ve needed to search all over a city to find one in which to access and print off an online boarding pass or some such. I really think that, if not provided by the private sector, local governments should ensure points of public internet access are available. Our society is so dependent on the internet and all our gadgetry that public, possibly local-government funded kiosks providing internet access terminals and recharge stations for phones and stuff shouldn’t be an outlandish idea.

It literally took us hours to find an internet cafe, with many mirages along the way. People gave us directions to cafes with wireless, mistaking our meaning, and one sign must’ve been referring to one of the (lamentably) many closed-down internet cafes.

Finally though, we got our directions to the camp and made our way there, in spite of the directions’ cutting off once you reach the right train station and very helpfully telling you to ‘follow the tourists.’

As is to be expected, it was disturbing, depressing, and fascinating. It was sobering to realise, as I roamed around the site, how physically exhausting and uncomfortable it is simply to live, let alone to live as a prisoner under the Nazis or GDR. I was constantly thirsty, hot, and tired; all I wanted to do was sit, and that discomfort was only a millionth of everything the former inhabitants of the camp had to go through. What was also interesting was contemplating and observing how Germany has dealt with its history in the forms of these camps and memorials. Usually when historical sites are advertised elsewhere, it’s with invitations to fascinating historical insight, or appeal to patriotism, or even with a degree of insouciance permitted because of the historico-temporal distance of the event, as with a medieval torture museum or something, but for obvious reasons none of these options are available for German history of the twentieth century. The Sachsenhausen website, accordingly, is threadbare. It simply calls the memorial ‘an uncomfortable reminder of the past.’

 ‘Work sets you free.’

 

Reconstruction of the death strip.

I remember when I found out one of my best friends Jenny was of German descent in Year Four, I was like, internally, ‘But they were the bad guys … Awkward!’ I had to ask my parents if Germany was still bad now. But in my adolt (adolescent+adult) life I’ve always observed in Germans a profound, sincere graveness when it comes to their own recent history. When my sisters’ class had to write a speech on an influential historical figure/hero and someone wanted to be a smartass so they did Hitler, the class’s German exchange students reacted by asking how they could joke about something like that, which is unusually mature for an average sixteen-year-old. In Germany, we learned, it is illegal to do a Nazi salute, and a Canadian who did it outside the Reichstag as a joke for a photo a few months ago is still in jail for it.

All of this, I think, shows the world that Germany is serious about this issue. And it’s comforting that in a world where nothing’s sacred, something can be treated with such near-universal reverence by a nation. I’m glad it’s not like what I’ve heard the British history curriculum is like (from my friend Kim), awkwardly skipping over the fact that the British Empire screwed up the world wherever it went, or like in Australia where we learn about what we did to Aborigines (up until more recently than World War II, might I add, and to a lesser extent in continuation), but it’s not really treated with any reverence, perhaps because we learn SO MUCH about it that we’re kind of desensitised.

And that’s something that was interesting about the Jewish memorial saw on the tour. It wasn’t didactic. It actively discourages desensitisation through its subtlety – it doesn’t proclaim itself even to be a memorial. It is something to be happened upon and wondered over and investigated at leisure. Like all good art, it invites the viewer to wonder what it is saying and thereby think about the issue. It doesn’t smack you over the head with numbers that are so tragically large as to be incomprehensible. It also cleverly sidesteps the debates and issues surrounding the holocaust – namely who that term refers to, whether or not its victims deserve more attention and memorials than other victims, and (it’s sad that this is even debated, but) whether or not it actually happened. It simply cuts to the issue.

 

 

And yet, in another way, it is desensitising. It encourages you to just incorporate this blight in history into your everyday life, perhaps without even thinking about it. It looks almost like a gigantic playground, labyrinthine, the kind of place kids would want to run around and play hide ‘n’ seek in, the kind of place you would want to lie down in the sun with a book. ‘Oh, I’m just taking the kids down to the holocaust memorial for a picnic; I want to finish my book and the kids love it down there,’ you might say. It seems this was the artist’s intention, but the authorities have since imposed restrictions that contravene it. I’m not sure how I feel about it. It works as art, but does it work as a memorial if it encourages laughter and games and, indeed the removal of emotion from the equation? But then I think, there are plenty of normal memorials. Why not let this one be different as it was intended? Why let the artist go ahead with his design and then change your mind and make ‘no laughing’ rules?

After a day or two, we came to realise the suburb we were staying in was kinda crappy, and we wanted to see the famed trendy, artistic side of Berlin we’d heard so much about.

The front window of a sports betting place in the suburb we stayed in. How homoerotic is it? I think it’s something to do with the fact that they’re all so close together whilst kneeling. And where the guy is holding the other guy in the front.

We found out that the art culture of the city was concentrated in the area of Mitte, so we headed there. Of course the trendy, artistic part of town is always accompanied by hipsters, so when we weren’t sure whether we had reached Mitte or not, we started looking out for signs of hipsterism. First we saw a girl wearing a flanno, then a guy wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses. All of a sudden there were art installations in the street and we knew we were there. Funny how reliable the hipster indicator can be.

As a result of this, we drawled as we walked around, our own version of The Bedroom Philosopher’s ‘Northcote (So Hungover)’ featuring lyrics such as ‘Riding around on the U-Bahn. So hungover. Gonna go down to Friedrichstrasse, do some graffiti.’

In Mitte we visited Tacheles, a block of buildings where artists have been squatting since 1990, selling their work and constantly fending off eviction notices. It was pretty grungy but cool.

We had dinner down the road from Tacheles and watched the prostitutes stroll by. We weren’t ready to go home afterwards though, so we went looking for a cool bar to have a few drinks in. It came to us in the form of X-Terrain. It was an old coal cellar which the owner restored and renovated himself over four years, furnishing it with artwork he’d made himself. It had an amazing ambience, but was strangely empty. Probably just ’cause it was a weeknight or something.

 As soon as I’d walked into the seating area, a Canadian woman in her fifties pounced and began a conversation with me. She was there with her husband and I got the impression they’d been sitting there in silence and she was desperate for a conversation. They were a really nice couple, though, and we probably ended up talking for about an hour.

The next day we’d arranged to meet Tilly’s UEA flatmate Carina, a Berliner, to hang out and go around town. It was cold and rainy, unfortunately, but we didn’t mind. After all,

‘moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty …’

First we visited the Berlin Wall Eastside Gallery, an open-air series of murals painted on the Berlin Wall, in the rain, then went through some cool courtyard shops, including the appelman one, the store devoted entirely to the distinctive East Berlin traffic light man. We also came across this guy making massive bubbles and regressed to our respective childhoods in wonder.

 

 

The next day we left Berlin by train for Amsterdam. We had a breakfast of fruit salad and yoghurt in cups on the train, which we’d bought from the station from a woman who assured us there were spoons in the bag. BUT THERE WEREN’T. I bet she’s some bitter old witch of a woman whose only comfort in life is telling people their spoons are in their bags when really they aren’t and going home to cackle to herself about the thought of their predicament when they are left yoghurtful and spoonless on the train. I know you’re out there, old crone, laughing at me.

Laughing and lying and laughing!

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Bohemian rhapsody

Luke from UEA in the UK here with a post about mine and Tilly’s trip to Prague!

The bus trip from Norwich to Prague was our longest yet: TWENTY-FIVE HOURS.

Trepidatious anticipation at the journey’s beginning. We were gonna get a disheveled ‘after’ shot as well, but couldn’t be bothered by that point.

But it actually wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It was fine except for when the coach had to stop for whatever reason and the air-conditioning would stop too. We had excellent weather during the trip, in the thirties and sunny every day.

However long the journey was, it was worth it to be in Prague. It’s an incredibly beautiful city, simply a nice place to be. We did a lot of that thing tourists are s’posed to do where you just walk around not doing much but absorbing the atmosphere.

 

  

 


 

 It was the perfect place to visit to augment my nascent, Grand Designs–inspired interest in architecture; the styles to be seen are multifarious: medieval, neo-classical, cubist, art nouveau, Modernist, postmodern, everything!


Prague Opera House.


The one on the right looks like it’s made of bubble-wrap, or … you know … glass bricks …

 
 A glimpse of art nouveau.
Cubism: they look like snub noses.

Thought this looked like a grand design abroad in progress.

And there are just nice touches everywhere. As with so many European cities, Prague is a testament to its people’s value of the nonessential. The bare functionalism of so many elements of society, of so many minds in Australia has been brought into contrast for me by my trip to Europe. I’ve been made to feel really defensive about my appreciation of art and my choice to do an arts degree by the attitude at home, so now whenever I’ve been coming across relevant quotes I’ve been writing them down, like these:

‘The fact is, while we’re on the subject of cheese, and it’s a bit like wine, and it’s a bit like love: there are things in the world that are not necessary for survival. And it is one of the paradoxes of being alive that it is only the extras that make you want to keep on living. We don’t really embrace the world because there is water and warmth. They are the necessities without which we cannot live. But actually, what we can’t live without are the extras; wine and cheese.’ – Stephen Fry

‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.’ – Dead Poets Society

People in Australia are always talking about the uselessness of art and arts degrees, but you find less of that attitude over here, and their attitude shows up in the extra, nonessential details of their cities, like the legs of public benches, the lampposts, the gates, the fountains everywhere, which I can never help myself walking up to and taking a photo of – I’m obsessed with water (features)! I’m beginning to wonder if the human race has evolved to find water beautiful and therefore want to live near it, because all the people who thought it was ugly wandered off into the desert and died.

 
Oh and also, they have COLD-WATER PUBLIC BUBBLERS.
 They’re YEARS ahead of us!

We found our way to the St Christopher’s hostel without a travel mishap or disaster to be seen. The hostel was really swanky, perhaps the best we’ve stayed in. We wondered if maybe the St Christopher’s chain spends the same amount on every one of its hostels, and they just got more for their money in the Czech Republic, which I should say was refreshingly cheap. The hostel was really environmentally friendly as well, which I thought was fantastic. It runs on 100% renewable energy sources, recycles shower water for use in toilets, extracting heat from that water beforehand and putting it to use, and it has automatic lights to conserve energy. If they can do it, why can’t everyone?

We didn’t know when we arranged to come to Prague, but fortuitously our stay coincided with the last four days of the Prague Fringe Festival, so there was plenty for us to do. The lady who told us about it recommended some events to us, two of which we attended on our first night. Funnily enough, both performers were Australian, as well. The first one was a musical comedian named Merry-May Gill, the conceit of her show being that, along with the timid local librarian (who bore a remarkable resemblance to UOW Creative Writing lecturer Chrissy Howe), she was on a quest to learn what she could from the cultural hubs of Europe so that she could turn the rural NSW town of Moree into the cultural capital of the world. The show was pretty funny, but most of the humour was based on poking fun at Australia and Moree which, while different and new to the Europeans in the audience, was nothing we hadn’t heard before. She had an astonishing voice, though. Incredible.

The next event we attended was an intimate show with Australian songstress Phebe Starr, another incredible voice. She had a charmingly sincere dialogue with the audience, and Til and I and two Canadians we’d met (the dudes in the foreground of the above photo) had a chat to her after the show. The Canadians’ names were Matt and Luke, which was funny  (Til’s family often calls her ‘Mat’) because they said the other people they’d met on their travels and gone around with were also named Matt and Luke.

Next morning we went on yet another New Europe free walking tour with the Canadians, eh. Highlights included seeing the Kafka monument and the stories about the Czechs’ subjugation by the Soviets.

Looks like something out of a story my friend Sean would write.
Our guide telling us the (New Europe Free Walking Tour–compulsory) final story of citizen uprising when the people of Prague gathered in the central square dangling their keys to demand democracy.

 

In addition to the Chrissy lookalike from the night before was this guy who reminded me of (another lecturer) Joshua Lobb, pictured here with his friends desperately trying to answer the tourguide’s question.

 

Pick me, teacher, I’m ever so smart.

(picture from blog.chinesepod.com)

 

And after the tour we had a beeeeautiful, cheap-as-chips gourmet, al fresco lunch at this place around the corner.

Like I said, we spent a lot of time just wandering around. One afternoon we wandered our way to the super-cool Lennon wall.

Someone hilariously profaned the Lennon wall with Rebecca Black lyrics.

 

We also came across another one of those lock-bridges we saw in Paris.

 

Stalky stalky stalky.

 

And an art gallery with these anti-consumerist statements crawling around outside.

 

David Černý’s Babies.

Reflected in an artwork.

 

That night we went to another two Fringe events. The first was called ‘Glue’, a spoken word event by British poet Annie Moir. It was nice, but bizarre. It was in the tiniest room imaginable (the kind you walk into and instantly realise there is no escape from, causing you to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into), with a small audience mostly comprised, I’m fairly certain, of the poet’s friends. She was a grey, steatopygious woman who mostly read poetry about … y’know, love and children and getting old and housework and twee things like that, with a healthy helping of cliché in between. There was the usual discomfort of a spoken word performance, where you don’t know whether what you’re hearing is just the poet addressing you, or if it is supposed to be a part of the performance. But it went to a whole new level of weird when, to accompany her poetry, Moir drew different objects, images and toys out of a box onstage and arranged them on a table or stuck them on a big board like some kind of Play School presenter – there was a definite sense of the pantomime about her. Furthermore, in each transition between poems, her husband standing at the back of the room (about thirty centimetres away from the front) would play twenty seconds of some tenuously relevant song, to which the poet would halfheartedly and awkwardly dance.

 

But I mean, it’s a fringe festival – what else do you expect. It was weird, but her poetry had moments of poignancy and beauty, and I think sometimes that’s what art and poetry are about. Even though the style may not be your preference, you actively experience it, you hurl your intellect up against and into an artefact, a performance, a text, and see what you come up with, see what it makes you think about. I didn’t regret going at all; she was a lovely, warm woman of some talent who I was glad to support with my presence and entry fee.

In between the poetry performance and the next event Til and I had another delicious dinner and I discovered how AMAZING Pilsener Urquelle is. No wonder the whole city is obsessed with it – it’s to Prague what Bintang is to Bali. Possibly it’s so good because the Czechs, apparently, INVENTED lager, and have the highest beer consumption rate in the world per capita. So if you’re in Prague and you go to a Pilsener restaurant bar and have the Urquelle in the proper glass at the proper temperature (12 degrees), you won’t be disappointed. Even Tilly liked it and she hates beer!

 

Hesitant initial sampling.

 

The next performance was this highly recommended (by Matt and Luke) play called 7th Circle about these magician charlatans that accidentally summon a demon and have to complete three tasks or the world will end. With hilarious results. It was funny, but it felt a bit like a band three or four HSC Drama group performance to me. I think the Canadians might’ve been more easily impressed than us, or perhaps had lower expectations beforehand. Either way, I personally enjoyed the subtle equation of charlatan magic with religious practice.

 

Onstage antics.

 

The second challenge was a dance-off against Michael Jackson.

 

Til and I stayed in different dorms throughout the trip, because it was cheaper that way. My dorm was supposed to be mixed, but I swear it was eighty per cent annoying American girls. That night, just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, two of them came in and started YELLING to each other. I couldn’t BELIEVE it. SO RUDE. I feel bad judging Americans on these girls; I know all nations have their idiots, but the incidence seems to be higher in Americans in my experience of hostel life. At first it was like, ‘Oh my Gahd! Where’d you go!? Did you go to the big club? We were so wurrayed’ and then it turned into a half-hour discussion of the top ten most inane topics in the world. And then, just when you think it’s over and they’re finally going to sleep:

 

‘Oh, I forgaht to aask you if you like guacamole.’

 

‘Whut?’

 ‘D’you like guacamole?’

 ‘Why, do you have guacamole with you?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘Well why’re you aasking me that?’

 ‘It’s from Step Brothers.’

 ‘Oh, raight.’

 ‘Have you seen it?’

 ‘No.’

 ‘What? Why naht?’

 ‘I have started, I just never finished it.’

 ‘Gahd, get with the times.’

 ‘I’ve seen most of it, I just never saw the whole thing!’

 And it’s like oh my God SHUT UP! Learn to express more than one single unit of meaning in each utterance. Every notion of your speech does not have to be given the maximum dramatic space and effect! Your conversations just devolve into these long, vapid exchanges of nothing, that way. No wonder the world hates America.

 

On our last full day in Prague Til and I went to look around the grounds of Prague castle, from where there are great views of the city. We had lunch up there with one of these views, then came back down to go to one last Fringe event. But alas, we could not find it in time and gave up (something that happened frequently on the trip). We did, however, find a Gloria Jean’s, whose iced coffees I’ve been missing desperately. That was a treat. One of the (few?) positives of multinational corporations.

 


 

The inviting entrance to Prague castle.


A view of the castle at night.

 

Joy!

We rounded out our exploration of Prague with another stroll, a venture down to the water’s edge, a stint in the Kafka museum shop where I bought a copy of The Metamorphosis, and then a mouth-watering pizza dinner.

 

 

That night was the last of the Fringe Festival, with Belushi’s, the bars on the ground floors of all St Christopher’s hostels, hosting the final party, so we hung out in there, me enjoying my last Czech Pilsener Urquelle.

 

Next day we departed Prague for Berlin by train. Here’s hoping we don’t catch E coli and die in Germany!

Cheers,

Luke

PS. All these blog posts and I still haven’t worked out the formatting … No idea why the font changes halfway through, or why there’s such big paragraph gaps sometimes and other times no gaps, but sorry about that.


Wow … such lies

Hey. Luke Bagnall from UEA in the UK here, and if you read my last post about Amsterdam, you’ll know why I’m so pissed off about the blatant lies told by O’Reilly in the video above. Everyone knows those North-Western/Scandanavian progressive, secular, liberal, expensive welfare-state European countries have the highest standards of living and the lowest crime rates anywhere in the world. So how can he get away with just lying like that? Now I’ve experienced for myself what I’ve always heard about Fox.


I am sterdam (and nothing’s gonna colour me)

As far as I’m concerned, Amsterdam is THE greatest place on Earth. That I’ve been to, anyway.

 

It’s difficult to explain how instantly I fell in love with the Netherlands. Every time I encountered something new, discovered another fact about it, talked to another person, I was only convinced more of its utopia. Wherever we went I was clutching onto my idyllic conception, just waiting to come upon some rude local, some druggo, something that would make the city sink, even an inch, in my estimation. But it never happened.

 

Tilly was asleep when we crossed the border from Belgium on the bus, and I didn’t pay much attention. The next time I looked up from my book I instantly saw two people on bikes and knew we were there. I love the fact that they all ride bikes. It’s so romantic and environmentally friendly, as well as preventative of judgement of those that don’t drive (haha). I love how they ride them, as well, with such good posture. And I love how every road has like, seven lanes for traffic, trams, bikes and pedestrians.

So … many … bikes.

I loved the scenery as we drove towards the city – flat green fields divided by irrigation canals and dotted with windmills, the old ones beautifully nostalgic, the new ones proudly green. I loved how beautiful the city was – the canals and the old leaning buildings.

 

Beautiful Amsterdam.

I loved the weather, and the afternoon sun dappling through trees that shed millions of seed pods, which fall to the ground like snow, gathering in the gutters like piles of Cornflakes or woodchips. Tragically, the DSLR was out of commission for most of the visit, but hopefully that won’t show up too much in the photos.

 

Seed pod storm.

Seed pod fun.

Til dejected after coming under seed pod attack.

 

 

I love that every ten metres is another sculpture, the mark, I think, of an advanced, cultured society (I can’t believe the prevalence of the view in Australia that art and arts degrees are ‘useless’ – utilitarianism of this kind is for cavemen). In the same way, I love that even their corporate buildings are architecturally fascinating. I love that, in a world I’ve only recently realised is almost completely authoritarian right (in other words, evil) they’re so libertarian left. And that’s without even having mentioned the people themselves yet!

 

It was such a change to be in a place so welcoming after Paris. I think the Dutch have the best attitude to tourists – they have the perfect mix of retention of their own language and culture but being open to anglophonic tourists. So many times during our trip we would just be standing somewhere and a local would go out of their way to approach us and ask if we needed help. While Til was waiting for me outside the toilet, someone showed her the information desk in case she needed it. Later on the tram a guy nearly forced us to take his seat for our massive bags. And again, when we were a bit lost, a guy came up to us and asked if he could help.

And trams! We don’t have them in Sydney, obviously, and I never really liked the idea of them before. But now I realise they’re the perfect mix of the above-ground, light-filled, visible accessibility of buses and the fixed-track, reliabile predictability of trains.

I think one of the things that makes the city so good is that it has a small population for a world city, despite the fact that the Netherlands is the most populous country in the world for its size. They must just be more evenly spread, or something, because Amsterdam only has somewhere around 700,000 people, where Sydney has around 4 million. I don’t think people should live in huge numbers – it makes them callous. There’s simply not enough time to be courteous to everyone; friendliness is impractical. Too many people are vying for too little resources. Like the song goes, ‘Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.’

There was only really one place left to stay in Amsterdam by time we booked – The Van Gogh Hostel. Presumably this was because of its low ratings on hostelworld, but after some investigation you could see that the low ratings were only because it is brand new, a fact that shows in its facilities. It felt almost like a cross between a hotel and a hostel – the room was as nice as a decent modern hotel room and each room had its own beautiful bathroom, the only difference being that there were six to eight beds in the room.

 

When we first arrived we found in the room some luggage and three pairs of Crocs. From this, Til deduced that we were either staying with Asians or people middle-aged or older. We went back out and when we returned once more it proved to be the former. We walked in on three Asian girls huddled around a chair.

‘Hi,’ I chirped.

They looked up, seemingly stunned. They said hi back, then burst into giggles and turned back to the chair, where I pretended not to see them removing some wet pairs of underwear they had just been laying out. Later I found out they had been told it was a girls only room, hence their surprise.
We had dinner that night in a really cool restaurant where we were serverd by a guy so friendly it almost made me cringe. AND we got free bread and garlic butter. I LOVE free stuff – how did they know!?

Free bread!

So in case you hadn’t deduced, the title of this post is a modified version of a Grates song that I kept getting in my head because ‘Iamsterdam’ is Amsterdam’s tourism slogan.

 

The much-photographed ‘Iamsterdam’ sign from a different angle, wearing a crown for Queen’s Day.

And it turns out I was being ironic when I included the lyric ‘nothing’s gonna colour me’, because something did colour us. That colour was orange, and that something was QUEEN’S DAY! Queen’s Day is like the Netherlands’ Australia Day, except instead of laconic barbeques, picnics, beach expeditions and Sam Kekovich ads, they have a MASSIVE street party in honour of their royal family, the house of (ta da!) Orange. Wearing orange is a requisite of Queen’s Day celebrations. The entire city turns orange. It’s not a very common colour; I’ve never seen so much in my life!

It’s interesting to see how much the Dutch love their royals compared with the Brits.

 

 

 

 

 

We started out at the markets in Vondelpark, where there were lots of talented children dancing and playing instruments for money, games involving throwing eggs at people, and junk to buy.

There was also zorbing for kids! Jealous!

After that we ventured to a supermarket for alcohol. Our plan was to get a large quantity of potent, delicious, refreshing, alcoholic, orange drink that the two of us could drink in the park with some nibblies, and we ended up concocting a mixture of rosé and juice which fit the bill perfectly and got us nicely, mildly inebriated.

 

 Magic nectar.

 

 

 

 

 After that we had a wander into the center of town.

  On the way.

 

 Love  the sign.

 

 Street market.

Inner city Maccas devastation.

In town we found some more alcohol and a few dance parties to join in, lunch, a little park in which to laze full of lizard statues which we conjectured might be to discourage birds from eating the bulbs planted there, and then a pretty little canal to sit by.

A man dancing effeminately outside the lizard park, attracting quite a crowd.

 

 

 From the side this guy’s helmet looked like a gigantic splodge of toothpaste.

We also found a toilet for Til, the use of which she had to wait for for like half an hour. It was easy enough for me, ’cause they had these additional open-air urinals everywhere.

 

They were extremely convenient, but it was a bit weird being so in the open, and they STANK. It seems to be the attitude over there, though – they have permanent versions of these around where you stand in like a giant metallic coil, but only the mid-section from your shoulders to knees is screened and you have a view of the outside. The first time I saw a guy using one I thought he was a homeless guy pissing in a phone booth or something.

 

Later, on the free tour we took of the city, our guide pointed out the devices below, which are apparently installed solely to stop people pissing on buildings. If you try to, you find it splatters back considerably. After telling us about them our guide jokingly told us to touch it and I did just to shock everyone. He said he’d remember me as the only person ever to take him up on the suggestion haha. I reasoned that as a piss-deflector it was probably actually the safest place to touch, but he assured me their main victims are drunk people in the dark. Whatever, urine is sterile haha.

 

After sitting by the canal and drinking another litre of rosé-juice concoction, we were feeling the drawbacks of wine – it works fast but makes you sleepy, so we reasoned that if we headed back to the hostel for a nap we would be reenergised to party on that night. Unfortunately, as Amsterdam newbs, we didn’t realise that the Queen’s Day celebrations commence on Queen’s Night, the evening before Queen’s Day, and continue on through the night, meaning that by the end of Queen’s Day the party is dead. We headed back out and couldn’t work out where everyone was. We missed the end of Queen’s Day!

Sunday we visited Anne Frank’s house, a really moving and depressing experience. Even so, it was a shame because it was so busy that you felt like you had to press on through to the next room to let the next people in. It was surreal, but I couldn’t really reconcile the information I was reading in the pamphlet, that I was hearing from the TV displays, with the fact that I was actually standing where it all happened. I saw the posters she put up on her wall, but while reading about it I couldn’t appreciate that fact. There was a room at the end of the tour outside the house which was devoted to Anne Frank’s older sister Margot, which I thought was so beautiful and touching. They had a video of one of her school friends saying what a beautiful, intelligent, kind young woman she had been, and how the friend felt a bit bitter that it hadn’t been Margot’s diary that was found, that it was Anne who got all the fame. I thought the room was a nice gesture towards redressing that disparity.
After that we really needed to cheer up – it was so thoroughly disturbing. We got ourselves some frozen yoghurt and consoled ourselves with the beauty of sitting on a canal. The frozen yoghurt, by the way, was a thousand times better than Snog!

 

The aftermath of Queen’s Day – a broken dinner table in the canal.

 

We were further consoled by coming across Lijnbaansgracht, the most beautiful street in Amsterdam, and where we will write our novels when we’re rich. Take a look and tell us if you hink it’s worth $800 a week (for a crappy apartment) or $2800 a week (for a nice one), as we discovered later on a real estate site:

 

Ducklings in the adjacent canal.

 

The residents of Lijnbaansgracht dancing on their boats. I’d be dancing too if I lived there.

The next day we did yet another free New Europe tour. At first I was hesitant about our guide because he had such an annoying American accent, and when I overheard another guide ask him for his email address I heard him spell it out with a ‘to the’ between each letter (eg ‘L to the U to the K to the E, etc) and I didn’t think it was ironic. In retrospect it must’ve been, because he turned out to be pretty cool and funny. And the accent was just a result of having gone to an International school.

The tour went through the Red Light District, which was surreal. I can’t believe those girls just stand there in the window until someone comes along and picks them up haha. He stopped us at one point to show us the artwork below that just appeared overnight in the street which the council considered vandalism and removed until the locals complained and it was reinstated. Thought that was cool.

 

Our tourguide telling us about the most famous ‘coffee shop’ in the world.

More nonsensical Queen’s Day aftermath: a ski boot?

He also explained to us why all the houses along the canals lean so drastically. The ones which lean sideways, he said, were accidents due to the fact that most of the Netherlands is reclaimed land and the foundations have sunk, but the ones that lean forward are by design. Apparently, in order to fit the highest number possible of merchants into the city, there were restrictions on the widths of houses, meaning they were all really tall instead. But with such narrow, tall houses, the staircases were too tiny and winding to transport goods to any of the higher floors, so they would winch them up to the top floor using a pulley system hanging off a pole at the top of every house. Because Amsterdam is quite windy, though, this could get dangerous when hauling up heavy loads that could blow around and damage the property. To remedy this problem, houses were built with a forward lean so that the goods could be hauled up and be far enough away from the house not to bash into it. Our guide did tell us, though, that they later realised they could just build a longer pole at the top and get the same effect.

On our way from the end of the tour into town for lunch we came across a super cool novelty shop where we thought we might find some good souvenirs for people, but we could only find ones that would be good for us, like coffee bean-shaped ice cube trays that you’re s’posed to fill with coffee-water to put in your iced coffee so it doesn’t get watered down as the ice melts. Ingenius! I also came across a card I consider to be very relevant since I managed to get upgraded to business class on the flight over here, and am hoping for the same on the way back:


After that we had the most serendipitous, delicious, inexpensive lunch at this place called Broodje Bert.

Blew this picture up because of the unfortunate woman in the bottom-right corner that I managed to catch at the wrong moment.

 

 

Our good friend Gilly, of ‘A vindication of the rights of sloth’, ‘Winchester II: return to gilly’s’, ‘Winchester III: darrel’s revenge’ and ‘University of east anglia: a crytoscopophiliac’s dream’, formerly lived in Amsterdam, and gave us a lot of advice about where to go and what to do. She was the one who told us about Queen’s Day in the first place. She said one must-see in Amsterdam was this old-style cinema called the Tuschinski. It was really beautiful. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t take any photos in the lobby, and we were seeing True Grit, which had come out quite a while ago, and consequently wasn’t in the main cinema, which was the only old style one. Still worth it, though. Good movie, too.

The next day, all too quickly, we had to leave and embark upon a massive coach journey back to Norwich. Amsterdam, though, is without a doubt our favourite place that we’ve visited so far, and we’re resolved to go back very shortly and have a long weekend with Gilly and our other UOW friend on exchange in Spain, Elisa, and do everything we didn’t get a chance to do on our first visit. It’s gonna be awesooooome!

 

Cheers,

 

Luke


Au francais day! Camus! Calais!

“‘Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy.”

Greetings, reader. Luke from UEA in the UK here, writing about mine and Tilly’s trip to Paris.

I mentioned parts of our journey from London to Paris in ‘Three wollongongers do London: the longest post ever part one’ so I won’t say much about it here, except that despite its being eight hours long, it was surprisingly pleasant. I slept the first two hours, in the middle was a scenic ferry trip from Dover, and the last two hours were spent watching the beautiful French countryside at sunset.

 The White Cliffs of Dover.

 

 Calais, my favourite place, onomastically speaking.

 Compiegne, where Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians in 1430 (HSC Exthistory major project knowledge YAYUH!)

… And a statue of Joan we came across later in Paris.

One of the highlights of the journey was Til pulling the face below and looking exactly like her brother Riley:

 

Family resemblance.

We stayed in Paris for a week, on one of the St Christopher’s Hostels one-week deal things. The hostel was pretty awesome. It was purpose-built, so the rooms weren’t cramped or anything, everyone had massive storage lockers, and each bed had a curtain around it. The staff were really friendly, too. We had these two English roomates who’d cycled from Dover to Paris. We were talking and when I mentioned I was doing this blog they wanted to know if they’d get a mention in it and I was like, ‘You might need to make more of an impression.’ And then they kept trying to think of ways to get in, including making Til sit through this weird video they’d taken on their phone the night before. Hey guys, if you’re out there!

Obviously one of the best things about Paris was the food culture. We pretty much had baguettes at every meal, and camembert, and cherry tomatoes, and this AMAZING JUICE that I drank litres of at a time, and wine, and also Pringles, which I’d taken to calling ‘Pwong-glaze’ in an exaggerated French accent. They sure take their bread and dairy seriously over there, which results in incredible food. One supermarket we went to had TWO AISLES of yoghurt. We thought this one was funny, though:

Til getting Japanese with some Flanby because it sounds like a Pokémon.

‘Flanby Flannn.’

(an amalgam of images from http://www.proxilivre.fr and ‘http://fc06.deviantart.net)

Every night there were groups of picnickers lined up all the way along the Seine, and this community of Jews would congregate around this one street corner. It was so cool:

 Our accommodation on the left (not the huge one).

 

Sounds like something out of the first line of an American short story: ‘When I was a boy growing up in Paris, all the Jewish men in the community would congregate on the corner of [something something] and Rue [something] on Saturday nights, dressed in black and white, while the wives and mothers [something something]. Me and my cousin Schlomo would always [something something something] …’ Obviously I don’t have the actual knowledge to furnish the story, but you get the idea.

After the events I think Tilly might be planning to write about in a blog post of her own involving a lost passport, we went for a relieved walk along the canal and got  some snaps. The next day was Easter, and I was desperate for some Cadbury, but it seemed they don’t have it over there. We decided to spend the day doing another one of those free New Europe tours, which was great, but perhaps not as good as the London one. Where it started up there was this group of exhibitionist Brazilian dancers, and this little white-as French kid was trying to join in:

The tour took us all over Paris, to heaps of great spots. Our guide Jenny told us about the bizzare Metro entrance signs. Apparently they were done in the Art-Nouveau style at the turn of the twentieth century, and they used to have big glass cases as well which scared the people of the time, new to underground trains, because they looked like giant monsters (which I think is understandable):

   A special commemorative Metro entrance.

We also saw on the tour a bridge that Jenny calls the world’s first Facebook photo album because it’s covered in sculptures of the drunken attendants of a royal party. Apparently the king had his sketch artist walking around taking comical likenesses at the bridge’s opening party to be sent to the guests, but he then decided to have them turned into sculptures and displayed on the bridge for all to see instead, hence, Facebook.

The other cool bridge was the Ponts des Arts, or the Arts Bridge, which crosses the Seine between the Louvre and the Académie française, and which is one of those places where lovers attach locks and throw away keys. I awkwardly asked Jenny if she had one on there and she said she did, but it was gone now and so was the boy … Overstepped the bounds of tourist-tourguide familiarity, I think.

Jenny telling us about the Académie française in the background. I’m abivalent about the concept. I like that they value their language enough to defend it so militantly, but I also don’t think language should be regulated in such a way. Pretty funny though, that when something new is invented they have to decide whether it’s feminine or masculine in French. Apparently it took ages for them to decide about the iPod.

A guy painting on the Arts Bridge. He’s ACTUALLY WEARING A BERET!

I love the way the French value art. At one point we stumbled upon an orchestral group just performing in public, just for no reason. There were so many people just sitting playing instruments and singing in the streets or along the Seine in the evenings, without anything to put money in. They were just doing it for the love of it. Amazing:

 By the end of the tour we were once again weary, worn and dusty.

Dusty feet while listening to the last story of the tour – the Parisian resistance in World War II.

We wandered lackadaisically into Parisian suburbia in search of food and stumbled upon what was to become our favourite French bakery, the Boulangerie/Patisserie Julien. They sold pre-filled baguettes which … words fail … They were PHENOMENAL haha. BEST EVER. We went there like, three times over the week, sometimes crossing the entire city just to get there.

The next day we set out needing to purchase deodorant, thongs, and shorts for me, and supportive shoes and some other crap for Til. Typically I had all my stuff within the first hour or two, but it was more difficult for Til. I bought a pair of ten euro thongs from Marc Jacobs, where shorts cost 700 euro, then got to walk around with the bag all day pretending I was rich. What we really needed was a shopping centre, but not knowing where any where, we stupidly ended up on Champs-Elysees and, as we know,

‘The Champs-Elysees is a busy street’

and not the best if you want supportive girl’s shoes and not high heels, haha. It was a bit of an ordeal, so we eventually had to go and have a Julien-aided laze in a nearby park, which resulted in my first of three park siestas during our trip.

 

You know you’re near Champs-Elysees when …

We had another picnic that night on the canal.

On Tuesday we visited the Musée d’Orsay, the foremost French Impressionist art museum. It was really great. The line to get in was astonishingly intestinal. We actually couldn’t find the end because it had coiled out beyond the rope barriers. We found what we thought was the end but was actually just a bend and I left Tilly there while I went to see if I could find the end anywhere else.

Where, where, where, where’s Tilly (wah-a-wah-a-wah-a-where’s Tilly?)

By the time I came back she’d been osmosed into the queue and we’d accidentally cheated the system, but we weren’t complaining.

Wednesday was a biggun. We went to look at the Eiffel tower in the morning, then went on a tour of Monmartre in the afternoon.

Graffiti near the tower. For some reason it’s hilarious to me that French gangs do this too. Oh yeah, Villejuif boys. You’re real hardcore.

Start of the Monmartre tour.

 

 Van Gogh’s apartment block.

 

Sacre Coeur.

 

 An amazing street performer.

 

The cafe from Amelie.

We went to the Louvre that night, which was obviously fantastic. Although, to be honest, we were a bit museumed and galleried out. We’s seen the National Gallery, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Musée d’Orsay all in the space of a week. Although I know there’s not really any alternative, I really believe that the amassing and displaying of art in huge collections is not the best way for it to be experienced. It’s the same principle as a single person’s death being more affecting than thousands – too much and it’s an overload, we can’t appreciate it. I think the only way you could fully appreciate these great galleries would be to live locally and explore them bit by bit over a series of visits.

The Victory of Samothrace, one of my favourites.

 

 The obligatory, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Eugène Delacroix’s beautiful La Liberté guidant le peuple, or Liberty Leading the People.

 

Me with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s The Murder of Agamemnon.

Til enjoying her favourite, with a title as long as the painting is big, Jacques Luis-David’s Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804.

 

 Jean-Baptiste Regnault’s The Education of Achilles by the Centaur Chiron

Aphrodite of Milos, or the Venus de Milo

 

Athena’s all like, ‘Whatever, Zeus.’

‘This is for Works and Days, Hesiod!’

Homer.

Nip in the bud.

 

 Tearin up the D-floor with the Louvre statuary.

For our last day in Paris, we planned to take a picnic to the Palace of Versailles.  Unfortunately it was a disaster. It’d been remarkably clement up till this point, blazing everyday, and we’d been wasting it inside at the museums. We really should’ve saved one of the museums for a rainy day and taken advantage of the sun while it was there. We didn’t really know how to get to Versailles, and we kind of got lost. We were on a train we thought was taking us there, but then there was an announcement in French and it stopped and everyone got off and I was wearing shorts and thongs and FREEZING so we just decided to turn back.

We ended up eating our picnic on the train back. Because we’d been picnicking almost every meal, we were forever in need of cutlery. There was this one supermarket up the road which had a torn open packet of plastic knives in it, so I kept stealing them out of there. We ended up calling them Subtle Knives because of the subtle manner in which I’d taken them.

The Subtle Knife.

(an amalgam of images from http://writerspet.files.wordpress.com and http://www.acepackagingsupplies.co.uk)

Unfortunately, the Subtle Knife shattered on the journey back from halfway-to-Versailles whilst dealing  with some particularly stubborn butter:

 The scene of the accident.

 

The extent of the damage.

But the Subtle Knife will live on forever in our heavy hearts and our buttery, buttery hands, and also in the epilogue to the His Dark Materials trilogy that Phillip Pullman is sure to write, Shards of a Broken Knife:

(an amalgam of images from http://www.webstaurantstore.com and http://www.amazon.com)

And so our trip to Paris ended in failure and tragedy, but that couldn’t tarnish the amazing, though somewhat travel hungover from our previous escapades in London, time we’d had. Vive la France!

 

Cheers,

 

Luke


Three wollongongers do london: the longest post ever part two

Luke here, continuing on from my last post.

The last thing I said was about how we kind of poorly timed our trip because we missed the Royal Wedding, but one way it wasn’t poorly timed was meteorologically. The weather was spectacular. Last time we were in London it was grey, bleak, positively Russian, but it couldn’t have been better this time. Compare the pair:

December

 

April

Actually, those two pictures probably don’t really demonstrate the difference that much. Except for the leaves. That was just the only thing I took a picture of twice. 

After the tour, lunch and Snog we returned to Trafalgar Square to go to the National Gallery (yet another free attraction – although we did donate), but first we saw the performers outside:



That second guy was such a wanker. There’s pumping the crowd up and then there’s gratuitously wringing them for all they’re worth. I swear he took half an hour just to get through that stupid tennis racquet. It’s not even impressive; you’re just skinny …

The National Gallery was good, but we weren’t really up to it after the walking tour and all. Our feet were killing us so we ended up surrendering and going for cider and wine in St James’s Park. I love that you can drink in public here! They’re not, however, very big on screwtop lids, so getting to our precious liquid required some ingenuity:


Kirb using Til’s fake plastic key; I favoured my metallic phone case.

After that it was more predrinks in a bar and then back to Jamie’s Italian for a delicious, inexpensive dinner.

 Predrinks at Verve.


 Til being counselled by our (pleasantly) surprisingly knowledgeable waiter.

 

Til’s truffle tagliatelle


 My lemon curd.


Kirb’s raspberry chocolate brownie


 Til’s walnut slice.


What looks to be an authentic Crapper’s toilet!

The next morning we visited Westminster Abbey. Of course, the first thing I did when I got inside was get the baby (DSLR) out to get  a photo of the amazing stained glass windows. Before I’d even gotten the lens cap off, this waspish old bag in an absurd green cloak had blustered over to me and snapped, ‘There’s no photography in here!’

‘Oh, sorry’, I said, immediately repentant. I was a little embarrassed. ‘Really?’ I asked, suddenly finding it astonishing that you wouldn’t be allowed to take photos of such an iconic attraction.

‘Well there’s notices everywhere!’ she snarled, as if I’d just whipped it out and started pissing on Chaucer’s grave or something.

I looked around, genuinely looking for a single one. ‘Well I don’t see any, and that’s a really nice way to speak to someone, isn’t it? Very Christian. Turn the other cheek, love thy neighbour and all that.’

Except by the time I’d turned back from looking around she’d already stormed off, probably luckily, or I really would’ve said that to her and then gotten kicked out of the church. But what a bitch. It was just the way she spoke to me, and the fact that we were in a church and that she was presumably Christian. Sorry if I was so distracted by the magnificent historical splendour around me that I didn’t notice one tiny green sign prohibiting photography. As if I’d walk in and blatantly take a photo right in front of her if I’d seen the sign. Besides violating her Christian beliefs, she was also not living up to her job description which, according to the Westminster Abbey website, includes ‘[h]elping visitors to feel comfortable in the Abbey and not to be daunted by the building.’

Now, I’ve been to a lot of churches and abbeys and cathedrals since I’ve come to Europe, and at first I did feel a bit guilty taking photos in a place of worship. It felt disrespectful somehow. But I’ve since come to the conclusion that it’s not me turning them into a tourist attraction – it’s them. They’re the ones charging a seventeen pound entrance fee, hawking cheap religious merchandise, trying to elicit a few more pounds out of you by deliberatley funnelling you past the coffee stand which, I might add, is sitting ON TOP OF PEOPLE’S GRAVES. But oh no, we wouldn’t want to defile the sanctity of the church by cheapening it into a mere tourist attraction with our photos. I’m sorry, but if you’re selling it like a tourist attraction, the tourists should be allowed to take photos of it. Also, you can’t forcibly dominate one and a half thousand years of human history without surrendering some privileges; it’s part of the bargain. When a culture or institution gains a certain amount of supremacy in the world, it relinquishes control of the institutions and constructs it previously commanded and enforced so that, today, many of the irreligious celebrate Christmas, and Christian relics such as abbeys are of as much, if not more historical importance than spiritual.

But anyway, I am glad I didn’t get kicked out, ’cause the church was really cool. The audioguide was narrated by Jeremy Irons! I was having inappropriate Lolita flashbacks. Saw the graves of lots of famous people. Sure wish I had some photos. Haha. We saw one grave of some guy named something like ‘Baganoll’, and we were going to get a cheeky picture, but then we remembered a fact from Dave’s tour: that Britons are the most watched people in the world, with some ridiculous amount of the planet’s surveillance cameras situated there. So we thought maybe not. Also we’d had the fear of the ‘greencloaks’, as I’d taken to calling them, struck into our souls.

 ‘No photos!’

We did get a few photos in the cloisters, which I later discovered you were allowed to do anyway, but whatever.



In the cloisters was the coffee shop I mentioned above, and the delicious pastry fragrance wafting from it wasn’t helping the fact that I was starving. I refused, however, to give any more of my money to this evil institution (haha), so we finished up in the abbey and since I LOVE them and Kirbie hadn’t tried one yet, went in search of pasties. Usually it’s not that difficult: there’s a Cornish Pasty Co every five seconds in this country but, like Starbucks, you can never actually find one when you want one. 

Next up was the British Museum (free once again!) which was, ironically, having an Australian exhibit that we, needless to say, didn’t see. There I got to see a lot of old friends from Ancient History, plus some other cool stuff.


 Cool roof.


 

 Me with the Rosetta Stone.

 Only mention of Hatshepsut I could find.


 Lindow Man.



Once again, after the museum our feet were dying. Kirb went back to her hostel to get ready for the pub crawl that night while Til and I dropped dead in the nearest cafe to be replenished by some surprisingly good (by European standards) iced mochas. 

Known for their restorative properties.

After a minor travel mishap which involved me running all over London looking for an internet cafe, we were reunited with Kirbie for a speedy Maccas dinner and the pub crawl. I was neg-vibing on it a bit at first, due to exhaustion, but it turned out great.  There was one crazy Western Australian guy who must‘ve been on drugs, and a Swedish girl who challenged us and a Canadian guy list ten famous people from our countries, only to list brands when we turned the tables on her.


Crazy guy



It kind of became evident as the night went on that the pub crawl was more of a singles-fest than anything else. By the end of the night it was kind of just the guys passing around the girls, which was funny and gross to watch, but we left around that point.

The next day was Kirbie’s last in London, and I had high expectations. We were going to the Tower of London and to see Lion King, two things which I’d really been looking for. And as always, ‘when a man get something he wants badly he doesn’t like it’ (VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street). I did like them both, I just had such high expectations that I was slightly disappointed.

That’s one major lesson I’ve learned from my exchange experience so far. It’s been a fair while since I’ve made new friends – everyone I’m close to at home has known me at least since the startof uni. So having this intense experience of becoming close to people in a period of six months has been a kind of checkup on what I’m like as a person right now. Everyone else I know has preconceived notions of me, but the people I’ve met overseas have nothing to go on but what they’ve discovered for themselves in the last few months. In a way, their opinion of me will be the most unbiased account of who I am, perhaps not wholly, but currently. And it’s interesting because two of the people I’ve grown closest to over here, Sam and Kim, have both said I’m a very cynical person – which is something I don’t know many of my friends at home would call me.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and learned from it. I think the best way to be, in this respect, is to have the acuity to be able to perceive things as they are with all their faults; the disposition to not be bothered by those faults; and the social awareness not to come across to people as a critical asshole who can’t be pleased by anything. I think I had the first two to begin with, but I was never aware of the need for the third until now.

I think I have a higher tolerance for faults than other people. Yes, I can pick holes in something and point to the parts of it that I didn’t like, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it otherwise. That doesn’t mean I dislike it all together. I have an exacting standard of perfection, but not an exacting standard of enjoyment. So yes, I can be disappointed by a whole lot of things in Lion King: the fact that the lines were rushed and said without conviction, that the additions to the show weren’t of the same quality as those from the original, that Simba’s accent was far too posh, that Nala kept making the same ridiculous gesture with her body and so on and so forth, but still come away from the show having loved it.

I love language, and think it’s our best medium for communication, but even so, it’s so inadequate. There is no way to economically modulate it enough to accurately convey the middleground, the liminal, the grey , the inbetween of human experience, and you can see this in the way we think. It’s difficult to list the faults of something without it seeming like you didn’t enjoy it because language forces us to make assertions in relative polaritie, with only clumsy adjectives and things as modifiers. That’s why you get all these people saying in their Facebook ‘About Me’s that they’re ‘a walking bundle of contradictions’ and ‘so random’, because when called upon to give an account of themselves in words, they find it difficult to reconcile any words which contradict one another, they are ‘unable to hold in their minds … two contradictory ideas’ (Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance – you can tell I’ve just been studying for a Postcolonialism exam, can’t you?). They go to write that they’re quiet, but then they remember that, when they’re with a certain group of friends they’re really boisterous. But what? Quiet AND boisterous? No! God, I’m just sooooo random! 

You’ll notice how long and dense (and boring?) all my posts are, and how full of relative pronouns (which etc) they are. This is because I’m trying to accurately represent my experience, and that requires modulation. But people don’t like picky people (everyone hates professional critics), and it’s my responsibility, not theirs, to control how I represent myself. I think sometimes I’ve got to just hold my tongue and say I liked something instead of saying I liked it, except for all these things, but I still liked it. Lesson learned.


 Insecure, much, Henry VIII?



After the Tower of London, we went to this really bizarre restaurant. It wasn’t overtly weird, it just kind of built up in strangeness so that by the end, I was convinced it had been started by this family who had everything except the chef, and they finally found one to work for them, but he was like, ‘All right, but we’re gonna do things MY way’, and from then on the family lived in terror of displeasing the chef by violating any of his punctilious rules. First, they didn’t have eftpos. Then they wouldn’t take our order until Til had gone to the ATM which they said sometimes didn’t work, they wouldn’t let Kirbie have two toasted sandwiches instead of one (without getting two entire meals), and they gave us paper coffee cups for our Coke. They had a whole page of restrictions on the front page of their menu, essentially saying things like ‘no alterations’ and ‘too bad if your food comes out at different times’. Do you see what I mean? How it was all so self-oriented instead of customer-oriented. Like, NO we don’t have EFTPOS even though it would be really easy for us to get it because we’re in the middle of the city next to a gigantic tourist attraction; NO we won’t take your order yet because we don’t want to be inconvenienced if the ATM doesn’t work; NO alterations, NO food out at the same time, NO proper glasses because we don’t want to wash them up! It’s like, it’s called the hospitality industry for a reason …

 Coke in a coffee cup.

The bill said service wasn’t included, but there was no way we were tipping, so we just left the exact money and sketattled.

Sadly that night Kirbie left. It’d been so good having her there; we probably wouldn’t have done half the things we’d done if she hadn’t been there to energise and motivate us – we were leaving the hostel at nine in the morning and not coming back till eleven, twelve, or one every night. She really made our visit.


Kirb being swallowed by a sea of tube commuters.

After Kirbie left, Til and I walked around Covent garden and watched an amazing busker for a while before heading home.


Our last day in London turned out to be a return to all our favourite places without us meaning it to. We started out at the National Gallery, this time in the Portrait Gallery, where we saw some very cool familiar faces:


 Anne Boleyn

Charles Darwin.

Charlotte Bronte.


Ted Hughes.


And guess who else we saw? That’s right, Mandalf!:

‘JUST, KIDDING’.

It was this guy:


(image from http://www.life.com)

After that it was a return to St James’s Park and Snog:

 BAMF once more.



And then finally we revisited Covent Garden, my personal favourite, for some chorizo and chicken rolls which were AMAZING. It was the perfect way to  end our stay in London.

Cheers,

Luke Bagnall


Three wollongongers* do london: the longest post ever part one

*I think ‘Wollongoners’ is the most suitable demonym for Wollongong. Better than Wollongongian or Wollongongite or any other suffix combination, anyway.

This is Luke Bagnall from UEA again, writing on our trip to London.

As I’m writing this, which will probably be a long time before it’ll go online, Til and I are lounging in the indoor deck of the Pride of Kent, crossing the English channel to Calais.

I love that word. Calais. If it didn’t sound so much like a wankified version of ‘Kelly’ (à la Ja’mie from Jamie), I’d want to name my future daughter Calais. Sounds kind of Elven.


‘Illué alloay Arwen. Callathee allathar cathai calais.

We’re sitting next to a depressingly nuclear American family who talk (in especially annoying accents, no less) to each other like they’re from 7th Heaven or something. It’s all très bourgeois (getting my French on), so I’m distracting myself from their twee blather with what will probably be an epic blog post.


Where do you go when the world won’t treat you right? The answer is Calais, evidently.

We arrived in London from Norwich last Sunday, and stayed in what looked like the fairly posh suburb of Pimlico, judging from the beautiful olden-day apartments and the concomitant rows of Audis, Mercs, BMWs and Alfa Romeos parked outside them.



Our hostel itself wasn’t so posh, offering what a website tactfully describes as an ‘iconic view’ of the hideous Battersea Power Station. We had to stay in separate male/female dorms ’cause everything else was booked out, and that wasn’t fun because the types of people to deliberately book all-male dorms can easily be the creepy fifty-year-old kind who stand eerily in the corner of the room over the sleeping body of another guy for hours on end (this only happened once, but that was enough). 

And I’m not even just exaggerating to fit this picture into this vague LOTR motif – the dude really kinda looked like Gollum.

The showers would be more adequately described as dribblers (not that showers ‘show’), and there was a fifteen minute walk to the nearest tube station. But on the upside, it was very cheap, the service was friendly, which is rare in England, the pub downstairs was cool and played good music, the fifteen-minute walk kept us out all day and burning calories and, best of all, despite the first being low quality and the second being of the Pepsi-not-Coke variety, we got free breakfast as well as free softdrinks whenever we wanted.


My cousin Kirbie was also in London at the time after attending some scientific conference or seminar or workshop or something in Dublin a few days before, so we made plans to meet up at Jamie’s Italian on our first night. Amazingly, it wasn’t outside the restaurant that we met, but in one of five or six elevators at the tube station – we just happened to get in the same one at exactly the same moment. Things like that keep happening, I’ve found. Like Jean-Paul, the only other person on our Topdeck tour to Les Deux Alpes, happened to be staying in Kirbie’s hostel as well, and we ran into him there one morning.

We postponed Jamie’s Italian in favour of something less busy,  which ended up being Spanish restaurant La Tasca, where we supped upon delicious (and expensive) sangria and incredible paella.


 


During our stay we came to feel like regular Londoners, spending almost a hundred pounds a day, passing iconic places like Pall Mall, The Strand, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Coventry Street, Piccadilly and so forth on a quotidian basis (but unfortunately not passing ‘go’ and not collecting $200) and expertly swiping our Oyster cards with the utmost nonchalance on public transport of at least two kinds. Sydney really needs to get something like that. So much more efficient than stupid prepaid bus tickets and weekly/monthly/yearly Shityrail passes.



I started out loving the tube because you can just go down there at any time, wait three minutes at most, and a train will arrive. But a couple of travel disasters later I was over it. I don’t understand how people use that thing every day, in BUSINESS SUITS. It must be awful in summer. They should really be air-conditioned.

The first thing we did on our first full day was the free walking tour where you just tip what you think your tourguide is worth. It’s clever, because knowing you don’t have to pay makes you want to pay more, provided you had a good guide, which we did. And it encourages the guides to make an effort too, I’m sure. Ours was a pretty cool guy named Dave, a musician.

I love the kind of stories they tell you on these tours – anecdotal, urban legendary. It’s rooted in historical fact but not always accurate, and it doesn’t need to be. I think it harks back to that primal act of oral storytelling or something.

Anyway, we started out in Hyde Park Corner, where we heard about Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, apparently an arrogant, elitist, sexist war hero. His mansion was right across from the park (at the awesome address of ‘1 London’) and he had a mounted statue of himself erected there, reportedly so he could see it from his windows whenever he wanted. This not being enough, he built his own Arc de Triomphe in the park as well, after he defeated Napoleon, with another statue of himself on top. Apparently Queen Victoria hated the statue so much she replaced it with another one as soon as he died.



Next stop was Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard. It was madness. I think London was just brimming for the impending royal wedding, so there were so. Many. People. Dave said he’d never seen it like that.




Outside the palace, Dave told us some pretty hilarious stories about people who broke into the palace. One did so wearing a Batman costume and stood on the balcony for hours; others, German tourists, wanted to go camping in Hyde Park, saw the trees over the walls of the palace and assumed they’d found it. They jumped the fence, set up camp, and were only discovered the next morning when they asked a guard how to get out. There was a standout about a drunken homeless Irishman, but it was different to the account I found online. The gist of it was that he ended up on the end of the queen’s bed in the middle of the night, chatting to her for about ten minutes after having consumed half a bottle of her wine. And afterwards, some quirk in the legal system meant he couldn’t be charged for trespassing on public property, so he was just charged for stealing the wine!

Next we walked up Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, where we saw the hideous Olympic countdown clock and the monument to Nelson.


Here Dave told us about the legend that the term ‘stiff drink’ comes from when sailors preserved the body of Nelson in a barrel of brandy during the three-week journey back to England, but once they had exhausted the ship’s alcohol supply, they proceeded to drink some of the brandy with the body inside (stiff = corpse, therefore ‘stiff drink’). He also told us how they reduced the number of pigeons living in Trafalgar Square – by putting birth control chemicals in the pigeon feed. Just as he finished the story, a lone pigeon swooped JUST over our heads, as if to say, ‘Yeah, but we’re still here!’ and I caught it on camera.


 

We were then led to the Admiralty Arch.


Til and I had seen it on our previous London visit, but we hadn’t noticed its nose, which sits embedded in the wall for no known reason.



The tour ended at the Houses of Parliament and the Clock Tower (which we now know is only called ‘Big Ben’ metonymically for the bell within). It was really worthwhile hearing all the little stories you’d never know about otherwise. I always think it’s interesting the way you learn the geography of a city – Sydney, Norwich, London. You start out knowing enclosed individual areas, but not how to get from one to the other, and as you wander around you’re always surprised when two areas separated in your mind link up. I think it’s the same way with knowledge, in this case of history. I know separate historical facts about the history of Britain’s royalty, but it was great having them unified by the stories on the tour – learning that so and so was whatsisname’s grandson, etc.

Tilly had heard before coming to London that frozen yoghurt was the latest craze. 

  The frogurt is also cursed.

 So we headed to the place she’d heard about, ‘Snog’, which was admittedly pretty cool. I didn’t think the yoghurt itself was that great, but the décor was interesting. And the concept is clever. And the lighting was sensational! (Just kidding. But seriously, it was).





Our timing of this London-Paris-Amsterdam trip was a bit out, really – we probably should’ve made sure we were actually in Britain for the royal wedding. 


Okay, so this one was a bit contrived.

But seriously, it would’ve been great to go to an ironic student party, or play The Royal Wedding Drinking Game. As it turns out we’re in the Netherlands instead, for a different (better) royal event – 


 Sorry, couldn’t resist!

(Picture from http://www.squizzas.com)

I actually meant Queen’s Day – but more on that later. So while we won’t be in London for the party, we did get our fill of tacky wedding merchandise. It was in every shop window! Walls and walls of poorly Photoshopped, terrible photos on tea towels and plates and keyrings and such.


Who buys this stuff!?


Everyone’s trying to cash in. Glad someone called it. 

Due to its unwieldy mass, this post will continue above.