Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Missed Opportunity

Sitting in Copley Square, taking advantage of the Boston Public Library's complimentary wireless. I seem to have essentially recovered and am enjoying some light convalescence in the sun (and unfortunately, the wind). I am currently eyeing off a nearby hot dog vendor's wares. I think he and I could reach some sort of mutually beneficial arrangement.

America has a couple of issues that are causing me ongoing frustration, and nothing fixes problems like complaining about it on the internet.

I experienced the first problem in Canada, and thought it was some quaint local custom, but alas, no. Nobody will tell you how much things cost. Doesn't matter is it's a meal, a game, a t-shirt, there's the price displayed prominently on the menu/sticker/whatever, and then they just whack some arbitrary amount of tax on top of it once you decide to buy it. So suddenly $29.99 becomes $31.87. It's not a big difference, but it's something easily remedied: include the applicable taxes in the advertised price. Magic.

I speak English. I speak quite good English, almost like I was born to it. So why is it when I order some food and say "no pickle, thanks" I have to repeat myself three times? Side note: it doesn't matter what food you're ordering, it comes with at least some pickle. Is it my indecipherable Australian accent, or staggered disbelief that I might not want a half kilo pickle sitting on my plate while I try to eat?

Damn, it seems it was a lunchtime hot dog stall. Now I must look elsewhere. One of the lesser known perils of blogging, I guess.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sell Me Pseduoephedrine, Dammit

Sick again, must be something about the French language. All the silent letters, maybe. Anyway, I mostly enjoyed Montreal. Those flying into the USA, who warned me with horror stories, may I suggest flying in via Canada? That way you clear US customs in Canada, which was a pretty straightforward affair.

Boston is good so far. I was previously of the opinion that American television and movies provided a distillation of America, a cultural liquor, if you will. My opinion is beginning to be swayed to the viewpoint that it is in fact a diluted, shandy-like representation of the real thing.

I will put something more exhaustive up when I am feeling alive.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Au Revoir Europe, and Auf Wiedersehen

I shall miss your pay-as-you-go toilets and your McDonald's in three hundred year old buildings, your aggressive lack of air conditioning and your metric beer glasses, your foreign languages and your bicycles, your gypsy beggars and your stolen artifacts, your fairytale forests and your train stations, your horrendous local music and your Peter Paul Rubens. But most of all I will miss your Fanta. For a man accustomed to a colour so lurid it could serve as a safety warning to wayward travellers and a flavour that is to orange what the humble dormouse is to astrophysics, your Fanta came as a revelation, a window to something truly transcendent.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Quick Dip

Bath is a cool day trip, but in a way that exactly matches what you'd expect, especially if any female member of your family has overexposed you to Jane Austen adaptations. So in lieu of a post about Bath, here's a High Fidelity style list to mark the end of my last train journey of note for the trip. Top 5 songs to stare out a train window to:
  1. The Dandy Warhols - Sleep
  2. Alexi Murdoch - All My Days
  3. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (live on Delicate Sound of Thunder)
  4. Machine Gun Fellatio - Unsent Letter
  5. Willy Mason - The Way I Am

The Very British Museum

I ended up spending four or five days longer in London than I had originally intended. This is not because I was having so much fun in London that I didn't want to leave, but rather because I could not stomach trying to sort out more travel and accommodation earlier this week. I went shopping, saw fireworks and parades at the Thames Festival, stared out the window at rain, and spent two days at the British Museum. The British Museum is free, technically making it infinitely better value than the Louvre or the Deutsches Museum, or what have you.

As near as I can tell, it serves two main purposes. Firstly, it is to display the history of civilisation and culture and seen through the eyes of British people who like to steal things off foreigners. One of the best examples of this is the Elgin Marbles which are carvings and statuary taken from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. Technically it wasn't stolen because he did get written permission from the Turks to take the stuff away from the Greeks, which makes it alright. Look at the examples below, and see if you can spot what makes these particular pieces so unique and valuable among all of the remnants of ancient Greece.


That's right, almost every figure in the set is almost fully clothed, which is completely unprecedented for the period (I am heartily sick of seeing ancient Greek wangs).

The second purpose of the museum is to ensure that no matter how impressive the exhibit, be it colossal pharaoh sculptures or seven metre tall bronze clad gates, that they look small and a bit less impressive than the British Museum building itself. This has historically allowed the British to appreciate the history of the world without forgetting that in the end it's a bit foreign and a bit rubbish compared to Mother England. In fairness, the British Museum is an intimidatingly grand building.
From London
Next stop, Montreal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Brazil 2 def Spain 1

You may be familiar with churros, a sausage shaped doughnut of Spanish extraction, normally rolled in cinnamon and sugar. I have also had it served with a bowl of melted chocolate for dipping purposes. This is a Good Thing.

While at the Thames Festival on Sunday I came across a stall selling Brazilian churros. "Hello," I thought "hijacking somebody else's great food, Brazil? We'll see about that." I lined up and eventually reached the front of the line.
"Hello, sir."
"One thanks."
"Sure, sugar or cinnamon and sugar?" Looks pretty Spanish to me.
"Cinnamon and sugar, thanks."
"Chocolate?"
"Yes, please." Again, nothing new. Still looks to be a Spanish dish to me.
"Caramel?" What's this?
"Sure." The man then proceeded to inject the churros with caramel sauce until it overflowed, much like an eclair. When he handed it to me, I just wanted to fist bump someone about how awesome a caramel injected churros was, but sadly there were only two American ladies who decided it was too unhealthy and left the line.

Your move, Spain.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Walk the Line

This is the Singapore MRT North-South Line. It is a line, it has two ends, simple.

This is the Berlin U-Bahn U1 Line. Again, two ends, from one point to another.

Paris Metro this time. Number 2 Line (don't snigger). As I'm sure you've noticed, it is called a Line and is, more or less, a line.

Now we have the London Tube District Line.

This is not a line. This is a god damned mess. Get your act together London.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday Night Lite

Friday in London, where there are enough pubs and clubs to house the population of Canberra (this is not actually true but it sounds plausible, doesn't it?), so what did I do? The obvious. I went to Hamley's, where my brain fused.

Hamley's is a six (or seven, depending on how you count) floor toy store that's been around for a little over two hundred years. As I walked in I thought I might keep an eye out for present buying opportunities, but then an employee wandered by and handed me a remote control for a helicopter with flashing lights on both controller and helicopter. Two hours later I left the building with a large bag full of stuff and memories which are hazy at best. There was definitely a promotional four foot tall Lego Indiana Jones made out of Lego. Maybe there was a magician, maybe it was just a guy who had lost his wallet.

To feel a little less immature I went to the (arguably) oldest bookshop in London, Hatchard's, then the (arguably) most famous bookshop in London, Foyle's, for a total of about thirteen storeys of bookshop. Hatchard's was much more booky, with thick carpets, spiral staircases, and staff in each section who could well have been hired specifically because they look like old book store owners. Foyle's was a bit more modern, with a cafe on one floor, and a jazz club on another, and they gain extra points for having a genuine computer science section, rather than the traditional lone copy of Windows 95 for Dummies. In a remarkable display of self control I only bought three books.

Come the night time I did go out. Somewhat. A bunch of random people from the hostel went to the pub for drinks and pool. I drank Fosters because it was the cheapest beer available, and felt like a traitor. The night was cut reasonably short when one of the guys (an Australian, naturally) passed out, having started drinking at lunchtime, and his mates took him back to the hostel. This left me hanging out with a Polish squatter who DJ's underground, read illegal, techno parties, which sounds extra cool when said in a Polish accent. He left because he was being evicted, or whatever it is one does to squatters, the next morning and had to move his gear. A slightly abortive evening, all told.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Oslo at a Glance

Two days in Oslo, sort of. Horribly tired on the first day, slept a long way into the second one. There is a lot of bronze statuary in Oslo. I think they hope that if they put up enough statues there won't be enough room for the beggars any more. So far they are wrong. Saw a museum full of Munch, he was a man with some serious issues, saw an old fortress and some viking ships.

I think Oslo is better than what I saw of it, but maybe not. I did see a statue of Abraham Lincoln.

From Oslo
You can't really see the inscription, but it reads "Presented to Norway by the people of North Dakota, USA. July 4th 1914." On the other side is "Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fjell and Almost Fjord

It's currently 7am after an all night train ride to Oslo on which I got very little sleep. Expect little in the way of sense and you will be well served.

I have spent the last few days in Bergen, Norway. The train ride there from Oslo I recommend doing with as much daylight as possible as you will get to see all the scenery of Norway without the inconvenience of having to walk up and down on it. There's gorges, mountain lakes, rocky highlands, alpine forests, waterfalls, all your key mountainous terrain, plus a few tiny little Norwegian towns.

Bergen itself is no slouch on the picturesque front, being situated in and around what they call the seven mountains, or fjells (more on these later). It's also, being Norway, egregiously expensive. As such it's rather handy that I got to stay with my cousin Julia and her partner Ben who both play for the Bergen Philharmonic. Their apartment is centre left, just off to the side of that bridge, in case that becomes critical information at some point.
From Bergen

It was good to meet up with family, and also really nice to stay in a home for a few days. I realised about halfway to the train station on my way out of Bergen that I didn't take any photos of my gracious hosts, a fact my parents will likely berate me roundly for. As a consolation, here's an artist's rendition:
From left: me, Julia and Ben standing outside historic Bryggen. Bryggen is a bunch of old wooden houses that is heritage listed. Turns out this is about a hundred times more interesting than it sounds, and the buildings have the air of a group of old drunks leaning against each other for support as you can tell from my picture. It doesn't take long to see most of it, but I wandered around a couple of times because it stays interesting.

I booked a Norway in a Nutshell tour for Sunday which is trains and buses and boats around a couple of fjords. Very scenic, majestic, even. So where are the pictures? The evidence, as it were? Well, for various reasons I got to the first train as it was pulling out of the station, whereupon the conductor gave me one of those shrugs. You know, the sorry-I-could-resolve-this-in-your-favour-but-choose-not-to-because-I-just-don't-care-enough-to-stop-the-train kind of shrug. You see it on public transport officials the world over. So, soaking wet, I went back, dried off and instead went and looked at some Edvard Munch paintings while listening to Radiohead's The Bends. You can relive the experience by looking here, with this playing in the background. Not the best way to lift the spirits.

You may have noticed the soaking wet bit. That's because in Bergen it rains 275 days a year, and that is according to their tourism office. Guess who didn't pack a rain coat?

Back to the seven mountains. I went up two of them (two of seven is a pretty bad hit rate, I know, but they're tall, and I'm lazy): Floyen which I walked up, and Ulriken, the highest, which I took a cable car up. Technically Floyen has a / through the o, but I can't be bothered figuring out how to do that. In both cases I saw an inordinate number of crazy Norwegians running up them. Apparently 7pm on a Monday is the ideal time to run up a 650m mountain in Norway. In this weather, too.
From Bergen

The only bad thing about the trip, apart from the missed train and subsequent wasted 950NOK (about $200) was that a good deal of the attractions in Bergen are only open, or regularly open, during summer, which ends at the beginning of September. As a result I missed a few things, including the Leprosy Museum, which might have been fun to see.

All in all, Bergen gets two rained upon thumbs up, with thanks again to Julia and Ben for putting me up, and putting up with me.

Electron Deficient Entertainment - On the Road Edition

The Thousandfold Thought - R Scott Bakker. Book three of The Prince of Nothing series. Not worth the effort of lugging it around for several weeks, not by a long shot.
The Portable Machiavelli - Has The Prince, an abridged Discourses and some letters and plays by Machiavelli. Very dense reading for train and plane travel, still good though. Has given the impression to several people that I am far better read than I in fact am.
Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby. Not sure how this made me feel about being a sports nut.
High Fidelity - Nick Hornby. Enjoyable, although to be fair I think I am the exact demographic for the book.
Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne. Fun, short.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Jules Verne. Fun, short, cool to read just before going to Copenhagen, seeing the same buildings he wrote about in the 1800s.
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card. No, I hadn't read it before, please don't judge me. I rather enjoyed it, but I wouldn't really put it up there with Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

Have just started The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which will be my first LeCarre book. More news on travel later.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Joining the Dots

I have been surprised as I have travelled around Europe just how true so many stereotypes have turned out to be. Guess which country everyone relies on to get the train timetables right? The Germans. In Paris you can be sure someone will be at least a bit rude to you, American tourists will be rude to everyone, and the Danes, well, the Danes make Danishes.

That said, let me start by saying it simply isn't true that the entire female population of Sweden consists of tanned, blond, statuesque beauties. A few of them are brunettes. You might think then, if you were a superficial type, that Sweden is the place to go to hook up, but be aware you will be competing with a veritable cavalcade of Dolph Lundgren's younger brothers and cousins. Seriously, the streets of Gothenburg are like an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue that some middle eastern immigrants stumbled across and stayed to set up kebab shops.

The first thing I noticed about Gothenburg when I felt like dinner at 8:30pm (thanks for that habit by the way, Jono) was that everything was closed, even McDonalds. Quick side note: McDonalds in Sweden is full of Ikea, so it looks all trendy.
It took me twenty minutes to find a place that sold food, and my hotel is right in the middle of town. Gothenburg has a population of about half a million, and it felt very strange walking around basically a ghost town when It's barely sunset.

The second thing I noticed while flicking through television channels: music videos, Nickelodeon, hardcore pornography, BBC World Service, Swedish talk show. Spot the odd one out. Needless to say, I found the porn somewhat incongruous, so being the investigator I am I checked the channel's online programme guide to find out what was going on. No, it wasn't an adult channel, just a regular movie channel, but nestled between Iron Man starring Robert Downey Jr and Stephen King's The Mist was Tropical Asses on Fire, director unknown (Canal+ Hits is the channel if you're interested). Fairly liberal approach to adult content, then.

The third thing I noticed was the previously mentioned ridiculous good looking-ness of the general population. This was third because I didn't actually see anybody until the morning after I arrived.

The fourth and final observation of note was the remarkable number of women (and men, calm down) wheeling around prams or with babies in possum pouches. I can't recall seeing more than one or two prams in the last month, but I would have seen easily a hundred over the last couple of days.

Of course, when you have a good-looking population, close all the shops at sunset and put porn on TV, I suppose high birth rates aren't that surprising.