Monday, August 31, 2009

In Which Bice is Immature, Despite Being Mistaken for a Dane

Not much to say about Copenhagen. It's nice enough, with weather that makes sense to me (17 at the end of summer feels about right), and it's strange how much more at ease I feel in a city on the edge of the sea instead of one plonked willy nilly inland. It is kind of cool to go and see the buildings that Jules Verne mentions in Journey to the Centre of the Earth which I started reading on the train here, even if the buildings themselves are not that great.

I don't know if it's my strapping viking looks or what, but I was stopped by tourists three times yesterday for directions. I had another pair ask me today, and when I was walking past parliament house I got harangued by a hippie in Danish asking me to vote for someone about some issue. Considering how many times in France and Germany I got approached by people who clearly knew I was a tourist this is something of a sharp contrast. To be fair, I have also done quite a few double takes over the course of the last two days when I thought I saw one or another of my siblings. Clearly Dibleys have got some sort of Danish thing going on, which would be the lamest secret ability ever, but there you have it.

Finally, I have been seeing these signs on shops all over the city, primarily women's clothing stores. I'm not entirely sure what it means, something to do with sales, but it makes me smirk every time.
Up to 70%? Is that a good amount of slutspurt? Maybe it's too much, I just don't know.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Don't Munchen The War

Bavaria is pretty. It's not a word I use often, but there's only so many rolling green hills dotted with immaculately kept white houses and absurdly picturesque cows (that's right, a picturesque cow) you can see before you have to admit prettiness. It's also not the green that ends at the edge of the heavily watered crops, turning instantly into a resigned brown, but rather a green that traipses merrily through the crops and grass, spreads up into the leaves of the trees, gets intersected by a railway and then continues on it's way as far a the eye can see. I found it very difficult to explain to my Austrian and Dutch hostel room mates why green vegetation was strange to me, let alone at the end of summer.

As if these hyper-bucolic surrounds weren't enough, Bavaria has places like the Nymphenburg Gardens and Neuschwanstein. Neuwschwanstein is the medieval inspired castle crazy King Ludwig II had built up in the mountains outside of Munich more or less as a tribute to Wagner. It's the inspiration for the Disney castle and was designed, not by an architect, but rather by Ludwig and a theatrical set designer. Unfortunately for me, the best view of the castle was more or less ruined by the fact they're renovating it and it was covered in scaffolding. I'm sure an images search for Neuschwanstein will show up some good pictures though.

Final note on Neuschwanstein: the view of the castle used by Disney in from Mary's bridge, which the guide warned us not to go on if we were afraid of heights. I'm not, so on I went. I would like to change my official answer to whether or not I'm afraid of heights. I'm a little nervous of 100m high 150 year old unmodified wooden bridges where the planks on the bridge have a good couple of inches vertical travel in them.
From Munich
See that shadow with the lack of any appreciable supports under it? That's the bridge.

The Nymphenburg Gardens, of which I've posted quite a few photos, is probably the best set of gardens I've been to. It's basically a set of walking gardens and wooded areas set around this enormous formal garden which runs straight through the middle.
From Munich

The gardens are out the back of the Nympenburg Palace, and although you have to pay to get into the palace museum, which is kind of dull , the gardens themselves are free and dotted with Muncheners reading, jogging, and generally relaxing. As per some requests to prove that I am genuinely overseas and not "holed up in Burnie masquerading as a foreign traveller," here's a shot of the palace obscured by my ugly mug, squinting delightfully into the sun. You'll just have to trust me that it's not photoshopped, I suppose.
From Munich

Munich itself can be summarised thus: there is a traditional Munchner meal called weisswurst, which consists of two white sausages, a pretzel and a half litre or litre of weissbeir (wheat beer). Not so unusual, shows the German love of sausage, baked goods and beer, right? Well, true, except that no place in the city will serve it after 12 noon. That's right, if you want weisswurst, you're committing to a pint for breakfast.

I'm really glad I went via Munich, it was a lot of fun. Now I'm in Copenhagen, which reminds me so far of Hobart. Tomorrow I'm going to go find out if Copenhagen has more things named after Hans Christian Andersen than Paris does named after Charles De Gaulle.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guard L'Est

I left Paris last night by train, leaving from Paris Gare De L'Est (see, the title's a pun. Mull it over, it doesn't get funnier, but it does get less heinous with time). I would strongly recommend thinking four distinct times before starting any trouble at Gare De L'Est.

First, there are the platform wardens. These old men and women can ask to see your ticket. They probably will not stop you starting trouble, except maybe fare evasion. Second are the station guards. These guys are hired by SNCF, the rail provider, and wander around in pairs carrying batons and tasers. I imagine most people would reconsider causing trouble upon seeing these guys.

Apparently not. Also on patrol are small groups of gendarmes, a helmet and shield short of full riot gear. These guys carry batons and holstered pistols and look fairly intimidating. If nothing else, they do have firearms available. Surely, by now, you'd think there was enough security to keep a train station under control? The French would disagree, so they have a couple of dozen Légion étrangère on patrol. Who are the Légion étrangère? Good question. You might know them better as the French Foreign Legion, aka a bunch of total badasses. A regiment made up of guys like this:

So they just wander around with their assault rifles drawn, I'm going to assume with the safeties on, but who knows, it's the French Foreign Legion. Suffice to say, I made damn sure I put my litter in the provided receptacles, separating recyclables where possible.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's Pronounced Gor-Mett

The last three nights in Paris I am/will be staying in a different part of the city, the 10 district near La Place De La Republique. Jono has headed back to work, so it's just me, so don't be surprised by a switch from 'we' to 'I'. The 10th district is less a residential zone than the previous place and seems to be more "Le Paris", by which I mean they ham up the Frenchness of everything for tourists. The upshot of this seems to be everything costs a couple of euros more. 6 euros for an orange juice? Pass.

In a bizarre protest move, I have countered by eating not French food. Partially because the prices around here are just ridiculous and partially because there is actually a limit to the number of consecutive French cafe meals one can eat.

Experiment 1 - French Fast Food Chain (QuickBurger): Next to the first McDonald's I saw in Paris was a place called QuickBurger. I got one of the Grand Cheese meals. I don't think I could have handled the Super Trois Grand Cheese.
Result: Substantively worse than Australian McDonald's, the chips were basically uncooked and the burger was both greasy and dry.

Experiment 2 - Salad Roll in Plastic: Bought it from a boulangerie/patisserie that had "bakery" written on it as well, presumably for anglophiles so strangled by their ignorance that they were unable to deduce its nature from the piles of breads and pastries in the window.
Result: The filling was not bad, the tomato and mozzarella combination you apparently cannot escape in Paris, the bread was passable. On par with any other pre-wrapped salad roll you might eat anywhere in the world.

Experiment 3 - Dodgy Asian Take Away: Went walking until I found a place with the right combination of lurid neon signage, badly faded photos of the food in the window, and cuisine called 'Asian' rather than risking the wrath of naming a specific country. The guy behind the counter didn't speak English, and spoke what even I recognised as heavily-accented French. After a few false starts, it became clear that rice does not come standard with a meal from a dodgy Asian take away in France. I got the chicken with black mushrooms in red wine sauce and fried rice with peas and ham, which I'm pretty sure is not served anywhere east of the Mediterranean.
Result: Tasted bloody awful, and was bizarrely half stone cold half piping hot. Can of Fanta was the highlight of the meal. So far I haven't died of food poisoning so I'm going to claim a moral victory.

All in all, I would say that the French love of food results in a situation where they can't understand the concept of aiming for an alright outcome, and subsequently have a poor grip on the world of take away food where good enough is the watchword.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

La Jaconde

Probably the biggest draw card of the Louvre is the Mona Lisa, and it is one of only two exhibits with specials signs pointing to it from across the rest of the museum (the other being the Venus de Milo). Now, a lot of people won't be able to get to the Louvre in the immediate future or maybe ever, so I thought I would perform a public service and provide readers with a method for accurately recreating the moment of seeing the most famous painting in the world.
  1. Print out a picture approximately 2 feet by 3. Make it the Mona Lisa if you like, but it's not really necessary
  2. Put it in a frame fronted with highly reflective glass
  3. Put the painting in the frame behind a protective cabinet of highly reflective glass
  4. Shine several bright lights directly on the glass
  5. Put a barrier up three metres from the picture. If the image is still visible, push the barrier back a little further.
  6. Hire at least two hundred people to come and crowd around the barrier holding cameras above their heads and make either pretentious or stupid comments (Hint: you cannot appreciate the brushwork when all you can see is some dude's sweaty armpit so don't say you can)
  7. For added authenticity don't bother too much with air conditioning, it's overrated anyway.
I would have taken a photo of the debacle, but I didn't want to be mistaken for one of the people taking pictures of pictures.

La Grippe

It would be nice to think I haven't written anything in the last few days because I've been living the high life, but the more prosaic reason is because I have been laid low with what the French would call la grippe, even as the country is sweltering in a heat wave. I had been planning on heading south next, to Toulouse then Barcelona and across to Venice, but looking at weather reports and familial connections, north to Scandinavia looks more promising if more expensive.

Anyway, enough of the future, let us speak instead of the past. Last week we spent a few days in Berlin which was a strange place. People walk around with their dogs off leashes, drinking beer in public places while at the same time always obeying traffic signals. Jonno put forward the hypothesis that Germany treats its citizens like responsible adults and I think I have to agree. In Australia one can't help but think lifting the ban on drinking in public would be seen as encouraging public drunkenness and in fact public drunkenness would follow, whereas in Germany everyone simply acknowledges that a responsible adult doesn't get fall down drunk in public, so the government doesn't need to make any rules about it.

As I alluded to in my previous post, there are a lot of bikes in Berlin. As near as I can tell it doesn't seem to limited to a particular age or social group, everyone rides bikes to get to their destinations. As a result the sound of bicycle klingers (I'll leave the definition of klinger as an exercise for the reader) is far more common than car horns or even cars, really. When combined with the fact that Berlin's population is substantially smaller than its capacity (3.4 million vs about 5 million I think), the city seemed to have a permanent Sunday afternoon sleepiness which was incredibly relaxing.

We made our way out of Berlin to Paris on an EasyJet flight, and although we made it on time I can't help but think that a budget airline being staffed by Germans might provide the people least receptive to poor punctuality that the planet has ever bred.

Theoretically I have the advantage in Paris that I speak a little French, but speaking French badly in France is something of an extreme sport. Some people find it amusing or are happy that you're having a go, while others seem to be weighing up whether or not a jury would convict should you show up without a tongue on a slow boat to China. This has probably not been helped by my illness, which has made me somewhat less able to process what people are saying to me.

On Monday, we went to the Louvre which was more or less astounding, even if you ignored the exhibits completely. Prague has a kind of cosy organic feel to its streets, while Berlin has a grandeur and audacity of scale on its public buildings which is impressive. The Louvre, and the Tuileries Gardens through which one walks into the Louvre itself are of a scale designed to impress but also with an imposing and unarguably splendid majesty that gives you a very good insight into what exactly the French peasants were so angry about.

The museum part itself was very good, but also ridiculously large, so here's a breakdown: Romans like to carve their emperors in marble, Sumerians preferred basalt, there is no known way to stop a middle ages or renaissance painter from painting Jesus, Napoleon III was a man who understood opulence, refusing to even countenance anything that was not made of gold or burgundy velvet, and the Venus De Milo is smaller than you might think.

After the Louvre, this is what I've seen of Paris
Which makes the hotel room look a fair bit nicer than it is.

For those wondering about French food, the random cafes we have visited for dinner have provided meals which would compare easily in quality, if not presentation, with the good restaurants in Hobart. Of course, at 60 euros for a cafe dinner for two people, it'd want to be good.

Well, that was long and rambling. Lucky you.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Been to Prague? Czech

Due to the time constraints of writing a post within the constraints of sitting in a Berlin cafe at 10pm eating dessert this will cover less territory that it otherwise would. Suffice to say, jet lag sucks, drunk Irishmen interrupting your attempts at sleep on a plane suck more and Americans who can't spell rabbi suck even more than that.

Prague was great, if hotter than Singapore (yes, really, Singapore has air conditioning). The hostel we stayed at was really nice, central, and about a vest and an espresso too trendy for me. Still, I'd stay there again. I didn't take a lot of photos of old buildings for much the same reason one wouldn't feel the need to hoard grapes at a vineyard, but rest assured they were there. I did feel a bit sorry for the native Pragueites (Praguians, Praguettes?) because at least one in every four or five people there was a tourist. Cars containing clearly harried businessmen were forced to stop time and again in the middle of the road while gaggles of tourists trailed after their guides treating the city like a theme park.

I have to give a special mention to Isaac, the guide on the free New Europe tour Jonno and I went on. He was a backpacking American Jew who lived in Prague (the Jew bit mattered for the jokes made in the Jewish Quarter), and gave an informative and genuinely funny tour. It was not at all what I expected but quite welcome. I feel that his Kafka jokes may have gone over the head of more than one tour member, but then again it is Kafka. At one point he stole a broom from a passing streetsweeping vehicle. No, it didn't make more sense in context. I don't know what else to add except that if you're in Prague, go on the tour, it's free and totally worth it. The time, I mean. It's clearly worth the money.

I will not recommend, however, either slivovice or the seedy, seedy bar in which we tried it. Imagine you created a plum liquor and then, when nobody was looking, replaced it with nail polish remover. This is slivovice, except without the utility of being able to dissolve nail polish. To be fair, we probably should have been warned by the look on the face of the lady behind the bar and the fact she had to dig all the way to the back of the fridge to find a bottle. If people aren't drinking it in a place like that then rest assured they aren't drinking it anywhere.

The following day we took the train from Prague to Berlin, which for 50 euros was both cheap and quite relaxing. We got to go past some fairly idyllic Czech, and later German countryside, most notable for being genuinely green and containing random monastaries on rocky promintories. Going through towns and cities, on the other hand, gives you an unfair view of a place I think. After all, you only see the houses and industry that people are willing to put next to the railway lines which is obviosuly going to make a place look fairly poor and run down.

Berlin so far has been good, with a lot more bicycles than I would have expected if you'd asked. I will defer further information and comment until I'm finished in Berlin, which will be Sunday.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Airport Seats Are Uncomfortable

Sitting in the airport killing time until my flight, seemed like a good time to write something. Before I continue, might I draw your attention to the photos being displayed on the right hand side. Rather than fill my posts with every happy snap I take, I'm going to put them into albums that people can look at or not. Things that made me laugh or are interesting will still get put into posts, though, so I can provide incisive observations.

National Day was a bit of fun, especially watching the "our heritage" parts, which takes quite a long time when they had to cover Malay, English, Chinese and Indian cultures, each of which has a bit to say. Suffice to say there were all the traditional dances, dragons and fireworks one might reasonably expect. On National Day I also went to an aquarium, wherein I checked out some fish and a lots of rays and then went to the "Images of Singapore" museum, which is a timeline of the development of Singapore. From the exhibit I had the impression reinforced that Singapore is rather unusually multicultural. Unlike somewhere like Australia which is merely multiethnic, Singapore seems to be able to have three or four main languages and cultures coexisting side by side without any trouble.

Today I went around and had a look at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which was as advertised. I've noticed, perhaps due to the number of local languages, names aren't given a lot of spice. Got two roads with bridges? North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. Done. Museum full of exhibits about Asian civilisations? Asian Civilisation Museum. Bam! On the upside it does make it fairly easy to be a tourist. If you're looking for the mosque in Chinatown, try Mosque Street. I spent quite a while in there, partially because it was really interesting, partially because it was blissfully cool, and partially because of helpful signage like this:

I then wandered around looking for the Red Line station, during which time I saw most of the old colonial buildings including St Andrew's Cathedral which is a truly blinding white, the Fullerton building, the Old Supreme Court and City Hall. All of these buildings are on the esplanade and around Raffles' Place where there are also bronze statues showing typical life from Singapore's past (coolies pulling rickshaws, Englishmen looking phlegmatic and so forth).

I don't know what this statue is supposed to represent, unless Singapore was at some stage ruled by a race of giant mutant chickens. Now that would have been something to see.

Anyway, that's pretty much Singapore done and dusted, overall quite good. Interestingly it only took me a couple of days to mentally get over the heat, but I reckon I'd need another few months of exposure before my body could put up with being one of the crazy locals who walks around in long sleeved shirts and jeans, with a jacket around the waist. What is that jacket for? Unexpected snow fall? I think not.

Next stop Prague. Well, London for two hours, then Prague. The place I'm staying has friendly warning not to use the local taxis, because they will rip you off, and money changers for the same reason. Sounds lovely, guess I'll go spend the last of my SGD now then.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Apropos Nothing

The view from my room. Click for embiggening.

State Sanctioned Ghettos. Superb.

Didn't make it into the city on yesterday as I got on the wrong bus and ended up somewhere random on Sentosa where a parrot bit my ear, and then my finger. It's alright though, because I got to pay for the experience. Got on the right bus today, and got to the delightfully named Harbourfront. It's on the harbour. Sort of near the front. It also is the home of a couple of malls which made my aim of buying a camera somewhat easier. Because I'm so cultured the very first photo I took was of a local fashion outlet which caught my eye on the way in:

Top hole.

Next stop was Chinatown. Not much to say about Singapore's train system: it works, is straightforward and only has the slight quirk that you get a portion of your fare back if you return your ticket to a ticketing machine. Chinatown, as near as I can tell is half trinket shops half food shops both of which spill out onto the street, which the following picture utterly fails to capture.

It does however show the sheltered footpaths that the whole area has, although whether this is a faithful recreation of the motherland or simply a nod to the daily rain I don't know. I would have asked somebody but the wizened old women selling dried best-not-ask and pickled god-only-knows didn't look like they were up for a discussion on colonial architecture. Fear not, those columns are perfectly straight, I just can't take a properly aligned photo. To keep with the architectural theme, I also checked out the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which was full of monks and incense and Buddha statues and looked suitably like a Buddhist temple.
Just to clarify the size of the thing:
I was going to take some photos of the inside, but there were people inside performing actual rituals with chants and everything, and I try not to desecrate holy sites while the worshipers are still there.

Lunch. I don't know what the alcohol tax is like in Singapore, but when they'll give you a barbecue pork rice the size of your head for five bucks, eight bucks for the local beer seems disproportionately expensive. Subsequently, I had a $1.50 sugar cane juice which was awesome, if unsurprisingly very sweet. I may have bought a jade elephant.

At this point I was thinking of heading back to the hotel, but managed to get turned around pretty badly (no mean feat considering Chinatown is about five streets) and ended up passing through a bizarrely Australian strip of restaurants. At the end of the strip was

The Toucan. Irish Pub. Singapore. Fantastic. I really should have gone in, in hindsight. Anyway, in a fairly weak end to my tale I found my way back to the train station by the old trick of following the signs and got back to the hotel about the same time the blisters caused by wearing thongs for the first time in living memory became unbearable.

Also, just saw the cricket scores. Oi! Oi! Oi!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

For One Only, Sir?

Sitting on the balcony listening to After the Goldrush. I'd have a beer but they're twelve bucks. I wish the people in the next room weren't smokers but there you have it. I've spent the first two days in Singapore pretty much relaxing in and around the pool; it's really easy to do and doesn't require figuring out the train system.

Dragon fruit is unbelievable. Not because it tastes great (it tastes pretty good) but more because it looks like a confectioner's fanciful approximation of a fruit. The outer skin is lurid magenta and the pulp is bright white shot through with black seeds. Kind of like so:

It's featured in every meal to date. No doubt I shall tire of it in time, but until then go go dragon fruit.

Next up, monkeys. There's a little sticker on my balcony door here which says something to the effect of "don't feed the wildlife, or they'll come at you like a spider monkey." I assumed it was a generic thing on all the doors, I'm on the fourth floor, after all. Just to prove me wrong I was chilling on the bed reading when I look over and a god damned monkey walks through the door. There was a brief standoff as it realised there was no food to be had and I entertained visions of having my eyes gouged out by tiny, vicious hands. Then another monkey showed up on the balcony and the first hared off after it. Suffice to say I subsequently closed the door. I have also spent an entertaining minute or so watching what I am going to call a squirrel (it sure as hell looked like one but it could have been some other arboreal rodent) running along the rail outside the restaurant. It's kind of weird that watching a squirrel fret it's way along is enjoyable whereas if I saw it's genetic second cousin, the common rat, I would have felt vaguely ill.

I wish I'd gone to the effort of convincing someone else to come on holiday with me, it's only been three days and I'm already sick of hearing "For one only, sir?" accompanied by either a sympathetic smile or an appraising "I'm not surprised" look. Also, being confused in a group is a whole lot more fun than being confused on your own. Looking forward to meeting up with Jonathan in Prague next week.

Anyway, tomorrow it's off to the city proper for some shopping (a camera at the very least, hence the lack of photos) then off to Chinatown and maybe check out some of the cultural building things. Hopefully it doesn't rain too much, almost lost my iPod to the rain earlier today. Also, turns out I'm here for the national day parade which I'm going to assume is like any other national holiday anywhere around the world but with extra humidity. I guess Sunday will reveal all.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Singapore Scattershot

  • It's hot, and it's the night time. I don't mean pleasantly warm, I mean hot.
  • The book I forgot was The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton. Somebody should go to Britain and explain that pleasure is not a synonym of sorrow.
  • On the flight they served dinner at 4:30. That is not dinner time, now I'm hungry again.
  • I don't know anything about the ships that dock in Singapore but I think from the size of the dockyard one can assume they are legion.
  • In the tropics, foliage does not mess about even a little bit.
  • Why are icy pole sticks still made of wood, surely there is a cheaper plastic alternative by now?
  • Some little bug just bit me. Bastard.
  • It's still hot.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Electron deficient entertainment - Futons are uncomfortable edition

Last list of reading before heading off overseas. I am missing at least one book from this list but I can't figure out what it is and I'm about 3000km from my bookshelf, so I guess it will remain unknown.

The Carpet Makers - Andreas Eschbach. As good an opening 100 pages as any book I've read. The rest of it's okay, and given it's only about 250 pages, definitely worth a read.

The Sundering and Conventions of War - Walter Jon Williams. Books two and three in the series of which The Praxis is book one. While it openly admits to being space opera, I found it a bit too... operatic for my taste. Also, The Sundering contains a 200 page murder mystery story midway through it which seems completely unnecessary.

The Darkness That Comes Before and The Warrior-Prophet - R Scott Bakker. Books one and two of The Prince of Nothing trilogy. Dark fantasy that achieves it's darkness by making all the male characters sexually repressed or perverted or, more commonly, both and all the women whores. The story that goes on between gratuitous uses of the word "cock" is a fairly interesting crusades rehash.

I have some slightly more varied reading lined up for flights and airport waits, we'll see how they compete with Advance Wars for the DS.

Day -2

I figured I might as well get an inaugural travel post written to let people know I really did get on a plane. For those at work running the book on whether or not I was really going to go, I officially flew out of Hobart at 6:05 on July 30. I am now in Perth and will be until August 3, when I head off to Singapore on the official Day 1 of my international jaunt.

On Thursday I killed some time waiting to check into the hotel by visiting the museum. They have a stuffed bison there that was purchased in 1890. There was other stuff that was cultural and/or educational, but I just couldn't get past the 120 year old stuffed bison. Then I bought a charger for my DS in an EB store staffed entirely by women, which was weird.

Today I pretty much just meandered down to the Swan River, had a mediocre Caesar salad and spent a while trying to figure out what was weird about the view over the river.

I finally realised it was the fact that there's nothing behind the buildings. I'm used to seeing everything set against mountains, or at least a few cloud banks, but I guess in Perth they let the sky perform solo, and it seems up to the task.

The only other real thing of note is that the hotel bar in the hotel where we're staying. It's Friday night and genuine local West Australians under the age of 30 are drinking there voluntarily. I was sure that the role of a hotel bar was to divert haggard guests and flamenco covers of Eye of the Tiger from ruining the fun in real bars.

Hopefully I will have more interesting things to report once I am jet lagged and trying to get information out of people speaking foreign.