Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Gaze

On the exterior, Zurich is odd. If you came here for a day, walked around and took your photos in front of the pretty things, you probably leave with a weird impression of the place. It's clean; it's expensive; it has a high percentage of ex-pats; there's more Audi S series cars than anywhere else I've seen; and people like to stare at you without the politeness of sunglasses.

Unless you knew someone in Zurich, it would take a long time to warm to the place. On the street, people like to check you out and assess whether you're worth their time. Maybe this was due to my dishevelled backpacker get up, but on the night I arrived, I couldn't help feeling like there was a "fuck off outsider" vibe floating in my direction. I chatted to one guy who regularly visits Japan and he says that the people here in Zurich can be as difficult as the Japanese when it comes to getting past the courtesy and protocol and actually getting to know the person. His experience was that he has rarely felt as if the people he interacts with on a daily basis could be called his friends. Thankfully he was Swiss and understood where I was coming from. An American woman who married a Swiss chap and is now lives here, put it a little differently. She told me the Swiss people and the culture they live in is like a coconut. Hard on the outside, and fairly difficult to crack open. But once you're in, it's all soft, sweet and lovely. The funny thing about this is the last time I enjoyed coconut was in Cuba with a Swiss person.

I met a disproportionate amount of Swiss and Austrian people in Cuba. More than German, French and Spanish put together. Nothing can beat the Canadians contingency (well I may have a skewed view thanks to amount of time I spent at the Canadian embassy), but for a country the size of Switzerland, I sure met a lot of Swiss. Oh.. I just got a flash of this one Finnish guy who would pop up in the most random of places on a scooter. Hmm.. Not relevant to this story, but funny. Ok.. Swiss people. I met Sylvia in Viñales, after she had ridden 15km from the village to the cave (our group took a dodgy taxi). Even though she was buggered by the ride, she pushed on and joined Collin, Jack, Annick and me on our exploration of the caves once used by Che to hide guns in. Then a week later in Trinidad, I bumped into her, Irish Jack and Canadian Collin again. Austrian Mary and Australian Josh soon joined us, and then it all goes a bit crazy after that. On the second last day in Havana, after I said goodbye with Collin, I met Nerina and Deborah (more Swiss), on the steps of the Capitolio. These girls were fun to hang out with and until the last hour I was in Havana, they had made my final day in Cuba a delightful one.

Once Switzerland came around, I emailed the Swiss peeps to let them know I was coming to Zurich. I got in contact with an Aussie friend of a friend living there and asked if she wanted to catch up and rather than settle for just a drink, Sarah offered up her spare room for my time there. Cool. I said goodbye to the Bulgarians, and headed for the Alps.

To bookend this post, as I was leaving Zurich, there was this guy on the tram who was wearing a very special outfit. At first, I thought he had committed a simple double denim fashion faux pas. But when I looked again, I realised his denim pants and denim jacket weren't alone. Who looks at themselves in the mirror and says: "You know what this outfit needs? A denim button up shirt." Triple denim. So wrong yet so right.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Milano/Milan was a fun place. I stayed with a couple of Bulgarian exchange students (Nadia and Desi), in their apartment. They also had another Australian (Kurt) couchsurfer who had come to Europe to do some bike training with his ultra fancy carbon fibre $8000 bike. I got the impression that Desi and Nadia's flat mate (who was in Austria for the entire I was there), was blisfully unaware that two Australian boys were occupying her room.

What I saw of Milan was minimal, but Nadia toured me around some of her favourite spots. She showed me around her adopted city and told me about Bulgaria and what it's like to be living in Italy. I met a few of her design friends, visited a design museum and discovered that Milano's version of buffet did not come anywhere near the culinary delights of Torino. There was probably better places to go for Buffet, but I'm going to get all generalist and review the entire city of Milan based on one bad experience. It's a much dirtier city than Torino/Turin, but there's more going on here. Kurt stuck mostly to himself during the days, and for some unknown reason took a side journey to Como, not to check out the gorgeous scenery (where they filmed some of the new Star Wars movies), but to buy a bag for his bike. On the last day, the girls took me to an exhibition a little way out of town that featured work from some of their design buddies. Some interesting stuff with some rather unpleasant surprise sprinklers in the old gardens outside.

I think Kurt's plans got messed up and he overstayed his welcome a little with the girls. There were some tense moments when rather than asking "hey, I'm stuck. Can I stay another night?" he said "I'm leaving tomorrow now". Having been in a similar situation in San Francisco (sorry Roxanna), Kurt's faux par was something I could relate to. When I left, I mad sure Kurt came with me and caught the same train to Zurich. On the fantastically beautiful scenery train ride up we swapped Australian slang.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

bring your brollies

All I knew of Torino before I came here was the Olympics and the original Italian Job movie. Other than that, the city was a blank canvas. No expectation – no disappointment. I arrived at the central train station a little later than expected and met up with Catia, my first host for the city. On the walk back to her place, I find out she is from another part of Italy and is living in Torino, studying translation at the local university. After dumping my bags at her apartment, Catia took me for a walk around the local area, showing me the river and a castle some crazy rich guy built at a time when turrets and dungeons weren’t usually included in architecture drawings. Just outside the grounds of the castle, I was convinced that I saw the little dog with the manky paw Martine and I encountered in Prague and chased the owners across the park to ask them. No. There was something very unnerving about that Chihuahua whose paw looked like a windsock on a calm day and like to bite and bark everything around it. Within the castle walls it was if I had gone back in time to a primary school excursion to Sovereign Hill, a trip many Australian kids will tell you that's not even worth the permission slip. It was a faithful recreation, but being in Europe where plenty of this stuff exists for reals, I couldn’t help thinking what the point of it was. Soon after we left the castle, it began to rain, with giant raindrops soaking us to the bone. It was awesome. Thankfully Catia didn’t mind getting wet and we both walked through it, enjoying the fresh smell of rain on parched earth. The rain reminded me of something more suited to the tropics and the smell reminded me of when it rains in summer back at home. We get back to her flat and while dripping wet, I met her flatmates and the fat house cat. We changed and then went to a cool bar around the corner and met some more locals. There’s a bunch of food laid out on tables, but I assume it’s for a private function and don’t take any. We discuss the not so mundane topic of the weather with some of the others at bar amd all concur that humans have broken the earth.

The next day I spend exploring the city by myself, dropping into random clothing stores, record shops and art galleries and chatting to people. I climbed hills, checked out a bunch of churches and lapped up the warm weather in the many public spaces on offer (Which the locals use for alfresco dining, illegal parking and ice cream). There are archways all through the city (12kms of them), which are beautiful to walk through when the novelty of getting rained on wears off. Near to the University, I walk into a little clothing store called Psiche. I chat with Simona, the girl who runs the place for about 20 minutes about what I should do and see while here in Torino. She makes a little list for me and circles points of interest on the map. I make friends with Bruno, the store dog. The guy who supplies the T-shirts comes in and tells us that he spent a couple of years living in Australia. Soon after, the other guy, Maurizio, who runs the store turns up and we chat about t-shirts and travel. We had a pretty cool conversation, I take their photo and as I’m about to leave, they give me a free t-shirt. Torino is off to a good start.

Later, I meet up with Catia and she takes me to a buffet bar. Like the bar on the previous night, this one has food laid out on tables, but when I buy the drinks, the woman behind the bar instructs me in the ways of the locals: “grab a plate and enjoy as much as you like”. Torino buffet is the best deal in Europe I've found. Depending on how close you are to the touristy bits, you pay around 4 to 7 Euro for a drink (any drink), which gains you access to a huge variety of food that looks like it has just come out of your adopted Italian nanna’s kitchen. The variety and shear volume of food found in a buffet puts any of the Tapas found in the south of Spain to shame and easily makes for a complete meal. Allegedly Torino is the best place for buffet, with only a handful of other Italian cities recognising the practice with equal gusto. If I lived here, I would need to buy a bike.

Over the next couple of days, I take it easy. Still recovering from the intensity of touring with mum, I enjoyed the much needed chill time. I spend parts of my day writing, editing and photoshopping, walking around between cafes and using the flat's kitchen as my office. The stove at Catia’s place has three little Italian coffee makers loitering near by and I try coffee made in each one. My dormant addiction to strong coffee awakens. Here’s to headaches and lack of concentration without the black doctor. After wandering around, meeting people and exploring the city, I come to the conclusion that Torino is a thoroughly enjoyable place. It has a really colourful past, a great small town/big city feeling with an energetic yet humble vibe, is close to the snow during winter and has that beautiful European city thing I’ve grown to love over the last year. It would be a great place to live for a little while and the thought of stopping and teaching English makes another appearance. Hmmm.. Good food, cheap booze, a strong connection to the national affinity with motor sport, close proximity to the rest of Europe and girls who touch your arm when they talk to you - Doesn't make for the clearest of minds for making such decisions.

On Thursday, Catia had a mate from her home town coming to stay with her and helps me get to my next couch. We meet up with Guiliana and straight away I’m reminded of my good mate Jules back at home and the 80s music and pop culture references fly thick and fast. Guiliana has something to do with media sales to broadcasters and occasionally does work for the city helping to set up art exhibitions. After dumping my stuff, we go back to the centre, say goodbye to Catia and join a Couchsurfing meet up. I’ve gone to a couple of these while travelling, but as a traveller rather than a host (which usually makes up the majority of people at these events), I felt a bit out of place. A few other travellers and out of towners join the meeting and we exchange tips on the nearby towns of interest. I chat to a couple of people that seem to have joined CS to travel vicariously through the travellers they have come stay, and convince them that second hand travel (lounge chair couchsurfing if you will), never compares to the real deal. As I’ve said before, I like to inspire people to see the world, not make them jealous.

The next few days, Guiliana shows me around the city. On Friday we go to the National Film Museum, which is hosted inside the Mole (pronounced moul-ee). The building was supposed to be a synagogue, but half way through construction, the Jewish community ran out of money to keep going, and sold the uncompleted building to the city. At the time it was completed, it was the tallest building in the world, and still towers above most of Torino. The film museum is great, with the first floor dealing with the technical history of cinema. As Guiliana proudly pointed out the stuff she worked on, the museum begins with shadow puppets, moving in loose chronological order through POV animation, early photographic techniques, stereophotography and the introduction of film. It’s amazing what a bet between rich men about whether or not a horse has all four feet off the ground at one moment can achieve. There some funky old projectors, a tonne of stereophotography equipment, peep shows (of the PG & non-PG variety), samples of early films and enough English for the Anglophonic tourists to interact with and understand the exhibits. Once the first floor is done with, we went up to the next section, which is the gigantic space within the dome of the Mole. An exhibition of Ferrari in Films is currently showing and two big screens showing clips of Ferraris doing burnouts, wheelies and making people look cool hang from the walls. With some cheeky editing, Elvis looks like he's in The Fast and the Furious, Nicolas Cage is being chased by Will Smith and Fangio is racing against Magnum PI. The rest of the Ferrari exhibit lacked somewhat, with only pictures of famous rich people and their Ferraris lining the giant spiral walkway lining the walls of the dome. Instead of the posters showing each model of Ferrari, I would have like to have seen the model of Ferrari and a list of the movies it appeared in. Oh well. I was still happy with the petrol guzzling. The rest of the museum is made up of permanent exhibits paying tribute to different genres of films, with separate sections focusing on directors, filming technics and actors. Great interactive exhibits for the kids with plenty of memorabilia for the oldies. But the big highlight with visiting the Mole is the elevator to the top. Made of glass and suspended between a shaft made of cables rather than concrete, it seemed that the elevator’s occupants were being taken up by an alien ship for a bit of friendly probing. The ride up is great, with the detail swap between the floor and the ceiling a bit of a mind flip. Looking directly up the hole in the roof where the elevator is about to slip through, I think, “even though I know this fits through, I think we’re going to get stuck, the cable will snap, the elevator will fall and smash into a million pieces of glass, blood and metal”. It doesn’t and the view of the town is amazing. To think, this has been here for over 100 years.

On Saturday, Guiliana and I took the trolley up to the Basilica of Superga, where in 1949 a plane carrying the Torino soccer team, while flying back from Portugal crashed in heavy fog, killing everyone on board. Since 9 of the players from Torino were also a part of the national team, the whole country went into mourning. The museum system here is a little weird, with the only way to see the exhibits is by joining a guided tour in Italian. As Guilanna quietly translates important details to me, a couple of the oldies on the tour give us nasty glares. We break away from the main group (a hard thing to do when there are only 3 rooms), and take stuff in at our own pace. It’s clear that Guilianna knows her Italian history and I suggest that she should offer up her services and become a freelance tour guide for English speaking tourists. Alledgedly this is next to impossible in Italy as the requirements for setting up such a business make it difficult for smaller companies and individuals to do so. I say sod it and just accept cash.

Did you know the last Italian Pope (John Paul I), was only in office for 33 days, before being found by a nun, dead in his chambers of an unknown cause. He was in the midst of separating the Vatican banking system from the Italian system, which was going to financially fuck a bunch of influential catholic big wigs and a few mafia types. John Paul II (Pope - The sequel), got the position next and the whole banking kafuffle evaporated overnight, swept under the carpet in true Catholic style.
On my last day in Torino, I went out in the morning to check the Olympic area out and cross the big suspension pedestrian bridge near to Guilianna’s flat. But as soon as I reached the park it began pissing down with rain, and I spent the next 20 minutes taking cover in the hut at the top of kiddie slippery dip. After waiting a bit, I braved the run to a nearby café and enjoyed some tasty Fonzies. I got back to Guilianna’s place and then we drove into the centre and checked out the Egyptian museum. This place is fully stocked with mummies, treasure and is one of the few museums in the world to hold the entire contents of one complete tomb. Due to the sloppy work of other thieves; sorry archaeologists; the majority of tombs were only staked out for their valuable things like gold and treasure, and were usually robbed by those in the know a few months after the important person was buried. There were mummified cats, monkeys, crocodiles and 3,000 year old bread. Impressive collection, with the museum boasting that it is second only to the one in Cairo. I make a beef jerky joke, and we leave. Next on the list was the castle, full of artwork and old things collected by the city over time. Then the last thing we went to was the World War II museum, which houses many interactive exhibits, featuring people of Torino telling their story from the war. This by far was the best thing I saw the whole day, with the presentation and layout of the museum really impressing me.

Later Guilianna and I meet up again with Catia and we take Buffet at the cool bar that Catia took me to on my first night in town. I ask for a surprise from the bar tender (who is half French, super friendly and absolutely gorgeous), and I get this amazingly tasty and dangerously strong mixed berry daiquiri. We eat our fill of salads and lamb cutlets (another fantastic 6 Euro Torino feast), and then say goodbye to Catia. Guilianna and I grab Thank you for Smoking from the DVD store and laugh ourselves silly. Katie Holmes does surprisingly well in it. Perhaps that’s because she isn’t on screen for that long.

The next day I’m on a local train to Milano.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The F Word

Before I leave France behind, I need to share one of the highlights. I had just floated out in an inspired cloud from another small gallery featuring an amazing exhibition by a South Korean artist who, in the style of The Planet of the Apes, had replaced the faces in famous paintings and photos with those of gorillas. After the apes, I walked into a small gallery with some amazing photos hanging on the walls. A shallow focus shot of a man paddling a boat over rolling waves absolutely blew my mind. In a haze of aperture and iso inspiration, I offered to donate one of my photos from my trip to the gallery. I didn’t ask for any money. I didn’t give away my copyright. All I asked was that when the gallery put my name on it and when they eventually had it printed and hung, that they would send me a photo of it there on the wall. They then told me they had another gallery in Monaco and that it might pop up there as well.

Time to leave Nice
I had looked at a map of places within 200km of Nice to see where I should head next. Nice itself has fallen into the same trap as Lorne and Byron Bay - only 50 years earlier. Cute little town by the sea that has grown too fast for the infrastructure to keep up. That and the massive three year long road works installing a new tram line through the heart of the city has made for a chaotic, seething with tourist mess. After Alex took me to a pool bar on Sunday where we were charged 16 Euro for two steins of beer (a price enforced by the two heavy dudes who controlled the automatic doors), I knew that this was my final night on the coast.

There were a few places within 200km that seemed cool, but mostly I wanted to get away from the coast and check out either the rural or mountainous areas. I fully intended to stay in France, but included a couple of places over the border in Italy for a bit of variety. I sent some couchsurfing requests out to some interesting looking people. One that I was really excited about was an old French bloke of 76 years who had worked as a translator during times when England and France’s hostilities extended a little further than just frustration at not being able to communicate properly and the perceived inadequacies of one another’s cooking. When I got to the train station the next morning, there was a strike and all French trains were either cancelled or hideously delayed. Nice had passed its used by date and I had tired of the occasional snooty remark from tourism workers about my lack of French*. Rather than work my way up to Paris, I grabbed a train to Torino, Italy. Because of the strike, I had to take a not-so-cancelled local train to the Italian/French border and wait for a train that according to the French rail worker, may or may not come. I work out the automated ticket machine (the English button helped), and skip the massive line of piss off and confused tourists. The board tells me platform 6 and I head there. On my way I double check with a guard if 6 is the right platform. He looks at my ticket and tells me to go to platform 4 instead. Ok. The platform’s board says a destination that’s not on my ticket, so I check with two more guard and they all agree that platform 4 is where the train will leave from. Train arrives, I get on and as we are pulling out (in the same direction I had just come from), I look out the window and notice the train at platform 6 is clearly marked with Torino Porta Nueva, where I want to go. My stinky mood and silent swearing was soon doused by beautiful mountainous views, little villages hanging from the sides of cliffs and impossible looking castles perched on the top of rocky outcrops. I no longer cared if I was going the wrong way. I was just going. It would sort itself out eventually. After some inoffensive sign language with the conductor, it was made clear that I was on the right train and that all I needed to do was change at certain station to get the correct train to Torino. So I sat back and enjoyed the train ride as it stitched its way through the mountains along the French/Italian border.

*Really. I make an effort when I go to a country. I learn the basics (greetings, pleasantries, numbers, etc), and feel that if I’m dealing with someone who speaks English and who’s job it is to help tourists, I shouldn’t have to cop an ear full about my inability to conjugate verbs or conduct an in-depth political discussion. On the night I went to stay at a hostel in Nice, my question of if the bloke behind the counter spoke English was met with a “no”. I struggled through my bad French and I sorted out my bed for the night. A little later, I heard him lucidly chatting in English with a group of Japanese tourists. A French girl I spoke to said that she went to the airport with an Irish friend of hers to sort out some tickets, they started out with the “Palais vous Engla siv ou play?”, to which the attendant said no. This was fine and good as the French girl could translate between them. But about two minutes into the conversation it became clear that the attendant could understand everything that the Irish guy was saying (a small feet in itself if the word isn’t ‘Pint’), and the French girl got quite irritated with the airline guy and cracked the shits at him for giving France a bad name.

After his own adventures through Euroland, a tip for handling just such a situation was offered to me by Mikey B. His advice was to approach the situation slightly differently. Rather than walking up and immediately asking in English (or badly pronounced French), if the French person behind the counter speaks English, try asking in you best-worst French if they speak Russian, Spanish, Hungarian or any other language your complexion can get away with. When they say no, offer up English as the second option and watch how polite they are with helping you out, minus the attitude. The best part is, half way through the conversation they realise they’ve been conned but have to suck up the snoot and continue being courteous. That said, not everyone in France is like this, but when you get a dose of it, you get the full offering. Can someone who is French offer an insiders perspective on this?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Italy vs Germany

I was planning on going to Berlin for the summer, but Italy's kinda cool. As I have no real plans between the end of next week and the first week of August, I'm open to suggestions about where to go for the next month.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Travelling without moving

Ok.. this is getting silly. Mum has taken off on her own adventure, there’s been another three countries, two weeks and 1,800kms between where I last wrote about, so I’m going to make this quick.

On the train from Granada to Cordoba, we met an American who had read my blog and we all agreed that thanks to the internet, the world is a much smaller place. The Kevin Bacon Experiment in full swing here ladies and germs. We got to Cordoba at around 7pm, and by that time the tourist office had shut and there was no little Spanish nonna corralling us on to a public bus to take us to a place to stay. I asked a girl waiting to point us in the direction of the centre and after walking to the part of town where there seemed to more hotels and cafes, I spotted some young backpackers and said to mum and Peck: “these guys look cheap and leaving somewhere. Let’s asked them where they stayed.” We did and they pointed us a little pension in a side street just off one of the main strips. Nice place. Mum still sounded like a broken Husqvarna chainsaw in need of repair, but I was too tired to care. In the morning we visited the Mezquita, which allowed visitors free entry at the ungodly hour of 8:30 to 9:30. This was a great time to visit the place, as there were hardly anyone in there and the photos from inside turned out great. At some point we lost Peck, and mum and I just wandered about the place marvelling at the architecture. Mum’s brain snapped a few times with the complexities and intricate nature of the Islamic designs and she became angry at the Christians for desecrating such a place. Mum and I pondered what the reaction of a Muslim visiting this place would be and how they would feel that their religions beautiful poetry and aesthetics have been polluted by plastering, idol nailed to trees and coke machines. I have a moment where I realise that after all the shit mum has been through, that she deserves this (and more), and I walk off to have a little tear to myself. Damn her dud boyfriend. He should have been here to enjoy this with her. Instead he’s totally content with his big screen TV, wanky wines, stinky cheeses, expecting mum to make him dinner when she gets home tired from work and footy on Friday nights. You might have guessed that I don’t approve of him. Dud. I plot to drag mum to the Greek Islands some day so she can have her Shirley Valentine moment.

After we finish walking around inside the Mezquita, we exit the building and find a group of Imams hanging out in the gardens, waiting to go in. Curiously I walk up to them and ask if anyone of them speak English. Initially I am greeted quite coldly, with some rather rude and suspicious looks. Eventually I find a guy who speaks English and I ask him what it is like to visit such a place as a Muslim. Having just walked out of the place in complete awe of the beauty myself, his “I find this place disgusting. They came in and took what was ours.” Not wanting to stir shit too much, I skipped my “but you guys stole it from the Romans” remark, opting for the more diplomatic “they left everything that was beautiful and took what was important”. This was the first time I got a smile from him, and his expression changed from “you’re just another white guy that thinks we are all terrorists” to “you understand”.

The rest of the day, mum and I wandered about the backstreets. I discover the best flavour of icecream I’ve ever had (Spanish Nata with roasted pine nuts), find a café that sells Tab (it still tastes like shit), and basically wander around soaking in the oldness. We found a few small alleyways that had banners hanging over the road, which mum could translate for me. One of them had a quote from a Pablo Neruda poem: Podrán cortar todas las flores, pero no podrán detener la primavera- which roughly translates to: You can cut all the flowers but you can never capture the Spring. This marks another special moment for the me and mum journey, as I would have walked past this and totally missed one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve ever heard. I decide to acquire this as the perfect allegory for my photos from the past year. Later, we sit down at a café near to our pension and Peck wanders past and she joins us for coffee and we compares notes on our day. In the evening, mum takes the night off and us youngins go out for beer and tapas at a local bar. The guy behind the counter explains to me his love for AFL and presents us with an extra helping of fried anchovies as a reward for me being Australian. We then go hunting for more people and beer, and eventually find a stall in a park selling cooked snails with tasty spices. One cup of steamed snails and a beer – 3 Euro. The next morning, Peck heads for Sevilla early, while mum and I are stick around to explore a bit more of the city.

We get off the train from Cordoba and I go to the tourist info spot and sort out a Pension just near the Giralda Tower. We bus it in to the centre and walk to our new digs. Once we get sorted with our room, explosions sounding like cannon fire can be heard firing off in the distance. With my dog like predisposition of getting restless when bright lights and loud noises are about the place, I go for a quick scout around where we are staying while mum has a shower and gets ready. We hit the streets around 7pm and I show mum about the places I had just looked around. The loud bangs go off every couple of minutes, with mum and I instinctively ducking as if we had just come straight outta Compton. I convince mum to follow me towards the loud bangs, and we eventually find our way to the Guadalquivir river and a procession of beautifully dressed Spanish May festival revellers. We followed the procession through the street and there is a wonderful energy just being amongst it. From what I could tell, the tourist to local ratio was at a good level, which meant the pick pocket to mum ratio was at a level of which we could wander about separately. The parade lead us all around the old part of Sevilla and it reminded me a little bit of Friday night skating in Vienna, where you see the city under the guise of a magical experience, rather than on the top of one of those horrible red buses. We stopped at a nice little pub for wine and tapas, and ended up chatting with a small group of English speakers (UK, Sweden and I forget), who have been living in Spain for around seven years. I use this as another point to try and convince mum to live here in Spain for six months and work as a teacher. There is a brief moment where I catch a spark of interest in mum’s eye, but this fades quickly. If she wanted to, she could do it.

The next day, mum and I tour the huge gothic cathedral which was built next to the already standing Islamic Giralda Tower. This place is massive and mum’s head breaks again. The pillars remind me of the Sequoia trees I saw in California. We climb the tower to see Sevilla from where the call to prayer was made over 700 years ago. Inside the tower, there are ramps rather than stairs, as the caller would ride their horse to the top like and old school elevator. The view is amazing. We spend the afternoon and the next morning exploring the city and in the evening, we board the overnight train back to Barcelona so we can take the bus to Andorra.

We arrive in Barcelona, and head to the bus station to take the bus up into the Pyrenees and to Andorra, the lovely little tax haven Europe has fostered over the years. The ride up was spectacular, with so many gorgeous little villages and monasteries hanging from the side of cliffs, with violent rock faces and snow capped mountains lining our view. The environment changes as we enter the valley where Andorra is hidden. It felt a bit like discovering the Eagle’s Nest. We arrive in Andorra la Vella in the afternoon and go to the tourism office to find a place to stay. They arm us with a map and a book, and we decide on a cheap place just off the main strip. When we get there, the stair well had the appearance of a crack house (sorry Luke, a crack home), and from behind a large pile of Styrofoam, a sketchy looking guy (who may or may not have been about to rob us), informs me that the place had been closed for some time. Mum and I go to a café, and use their phone to book into another place just up the road. We dump our bags and go grab some food. After food, we find that the town shuts down at around 9pm, and the excessive amounts of personal security devices for sale in the windows tells us that perhaps the street of Andorra la Vella after dark are possibly not the best place to be (really, it’s quite a safe place, but my Sketch-o-metre has been a little out of whack since Cuba). In the morning we discover the place is all about shopping and I convince mum to trade in her Qing Dynasty shoes for some practical walking shoes. We spend 40 minutes walking around the Andorran equivalent to Big W before I drag mum to an actual shoe store to buy something that may actually b good for her feet. Mum finds a pair of Timberlands that she likes and is surprised that the moment she puts them on, her feet can almost be heard singing thanks for her gift to them. Mum suggests we stick around Andorra for another day, but I say that it would be a crime against France to spend another day in such a vacuous hole. That said, I did find some funky kids spray painting cars for an exhibition at a car show, but when I asked what it was like to grow up in a place that is one big duty free store, they said it was shit. We jump a bus out of there and head for France.

We arrive in L'Hospitalet, and at the train station I persuade mum to take the overnight train to Nice, and use that as a base to see the surrounding sites, rather than trying to travel between all the small places each day. The train to Toulouse was ok, but the midnight train from Toulouse to Nice was thoroughly unpleasant. The train station was crawling with sketch (my Sketch-o-metre may be out of whack, but this was sketch), and I hide mum in the café – which we get kicked out of when they close at 11:30pm. We then get onto the train, but board the wrong carriage thanks to some badly marked signs. The carriage is full of drunk, shirtless French yobbos, and we need to pass by them to get to our carriage. Just as we get to the door to leave the carriage, a guy hooks up a pipe to the side and begins to pump out the piss and shit from the previous journeys ablutions. This being a sketchy train station, there is a rip in the hose and a fine spray of poo wee cocktail sprays across the our exit, preventing us from leaving. As if unaware of what was spraying against his legs and soaking into his socks, a conductor stood at the door and instructs us to get off. Mum rightly refuses and I kick up a fuss. Eventually they turn the pump off and we change carriages. I spend the next few hours laying semi awake, watching the sketchys float through the carriage, picking out people to rob while they sleep. Thankfully a guy playing a PSP in the next carriage attracted enough attention away from me and mum and I relax. We arrive in Nice, walk into the central part and find a place to stay. After the south of Spain, Nice has a really dirty, sour and plastic vibe. Street works all along the main road spoil any view of classic French architecture and the whole place fails to resolve as the classic south of France fairy tail ideal which I had built in my head.

That said, there are nice parts of Nice. The old town is gorgeous, the beach (while covered in rocks), was still pretty and the surrounding ports and 600 year old infrastructure. On the second day, mum stops her grumbling about rushing from Andorra to Nice, realising that if we had tried to travel between all the little places she had planned out that we would have spent more time travelling and less time seeing the place. Mum takes a day off and relaxes, doing some ironing and just pottering about the place. I go do some much needed laundry (the dreaded second day socks had turned into the unholy third day socks), and internet is lapped up on both sides. On day three we hire a little green Renault and drive around the surrounding hills. We check out the spectacular Tourettes-sur-loup, drive about the hills near to where Ronin was filmed and spend the afternoon at a perfumery in Grasse.

In the morning, I drive mum to the airport (after a couple of stressful ‘mum can’t read maps’ moments), and I get her to her plane to Ireland. Mum has since toured around the south of Ireland, and met up with my mate Clair who took her out for lunch and entertained mum while she was in Dublin. After the airport, I dropped the car back at the rental shop, and did some solo touring around Nice. As my Couchsurfing didn’t kick in until the next day, I found a hostel for the night and hung out with an American couple who were really lovely. The next day I toured around Eze, where I met a French-Canadian girl and on the bus I spotted a Finnish couple (Marimekko skirts are a dead giveaway), and we ended up hanging out all day and checking out another hanging off a cliff French village. Later, I met up with my French couchsurfing host, Alex, who I planned to stay with over the weekend. On Saturday we took the train to Monaco and hung out at the track, checking out the palace, castle and big church on the hill. This is the best setting for an F1 race, as it is the perfect allegory for the stupid excess that the pinnacle of motorsport represents. That said, there was some moments where I understood what it meant for a Muslim to take the pilgrimage to Mecca. Hmmm… Sacrilicious. To explain my reaction: I was brought up on a diet of Grand Prix (pronounced Grand Pricks), Bathurst, WRC, car chase movies, Gran Turismo and Evel Knievel retrospectives. Coming to Monaco made something in my blood tingle. Seeing that hairpin & walking through that tunnel and imagining the deafening scream of F1 cars fanging it towards the double 90 degree turns and the port side final sector clicked the faith switch in me. I know somewhere in the fuel starved future ahead of us, I will work with cars in some capacity.

The next day was Sunday – a day of rest.

On Monday, I said goodbye to Alex and headed for the train station, with the plan to head to Gap. When I got to the station, something about the words “Strike”, “Train” and “Today” casually hanging out together on a generic Times New Roman sheet of paper told me that I wasn't going anywhere in France. I had had a gutful of Nice, so I flipped a coin and after one of the prettiest train trips I've ever taken, I'm now in Torino, Italy.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The science of siesta

I can remember as a kid, laying awake in my bunk bed thinking “wow, even through these double brick walls, I can still hear dad snoring”.

It wasn’t dad.

This is the first time since I was a baby that I’ve shared a room with my mum, and to use the words of my sister: she snores like a warthog. We’re talking surgery required at the nearest hospital degree of snoring. I’m quite a light sleeper, so if someone (anyone), has woken me up with their “rub it in your face, I’m getting better night’s sleep than you” snoring, I crack the shits and wake them up. I remember on a bus trip to Melbourne (I think it was for the Radiohead concert that never materialised), Jules was asleep next to me and across the isle an older guy would sporadically burst into ear-splitting fits of snoring. Despite the super comfortable bus seating and my rolled up jacket pillow, I was having a hard time sleeping. Around the Nhill point of the journey, just as the rumble of the road was lulling me off to a world where road lines are the staple diet of buses, another eruption of snoring fires off over the demilitarized zone of the isle. As this had been a running theme all night, Jules starts to giggle at both the guy and my pissed reaction. That was it. My sleepless fury had peaked and something violent snapped inside of me. In an action I’ve never been able to repeat since, I gripped the sleeve of my jacket, whipped it out from under my head, snapped it directly on the offending nose and returned it to it's previous pillow state under my head in one frog tongue like action. The snoring guy woke up startled as Jules and I tried to keep our laughing to ourselves.

Sleep in the same room as me and snoring wont be tolerated. I've been told that I snore softly, and that it is a gentle sound that inspires sleep in those around me rather than urgent midnight calls to an ENT doctor. I have, however, dismissed this as lies. I’ve never heard myself snore.

After a sleepless night and a day of walking and planning, we head for the train station to sort out the tickets for the next day train journey to Granada. This turned into a marathon effort thanks to the 3 people serving and the 200 people waiting. We grabbed our ticket (464), look up at the big red numbers (227), and find a corner to dig into. Queues are a war of attrition. Patience is tested. Fortitude is rewarded. It felt a bit like the scene in Beetlejuice, where he’s in a waiting room and is given a ridiculously high number compared to the “Now Serving” display. In the time we sat there, we watched several backpackers fade from the wait time and waddle off (possibly to become street performers), a couple having a bit of a tiff in the next row of seats (amazing what you can pick up from body language alone), and flirted with the idea of getting a Eurail pass but could only find details about it in Spanish. European train stations are fun place to just sit and watch. The silent games you can play as people pass are always amusing. Guess the Nationality is fun. Canadians are always piss easy to pick, thanks to their mandatory “I am not a fucking American” Canadian flag sewn to their packs. Germanic types north of Bavaria do that sandal sock thing, which only occurs elsewhere in bearded, outdoor loving year 9 English teachers from Australia. Aussies have this swagger that comes from either thinking they own the place or walking all day in shorts and thongs. Americans talk loudly. Eastern Europeans, thanks to James Bond movies and a rough night on a train, always have that look that they will stab you in your sleep. Japanese backpackers rarely travel with company, are very quite and either carry the contents of their shoebox apartment back at home, or just a magical Mary Poppins bag that is light as feather but has everything they need for 3 years of travel.

If your thinking of trying this experiment in Adelaide. Forget it. Our national train station, for some ungodly reason, is not part of the central station, was designed with Neo-Brutal Soviet apartment blocks in mind and is no where near anything interesting (unless you find surprise sex in the parklands and Bunnings interesting). I hear the new bus station is taking shape, but all you’re going to see is backpackers getting off, dropping their bags at some hostel on Flinders street or jumping the tram to a Glenelg backpackers. If you’re lucky enough to catch them the next day as they cram onto the Firefly to Uluru, you see them ticking off Adelaide in their little travel book as done and dusted. Go on, walk up and ask someone who looks like a traveller and ask what they are looking for and what they’ve seen. If you got the time, show them your favourite part of the Botanic Gardens, take them to Vegos and loving it, educate them on the joy that is Coopers, show them the basement at Bigstar, sit on the upstairs seats at Cibo that overlook the Frome Road - Rundle Street intersection. Do your home town proud kids, sign up for couchsurfing and show some random foreigners around. Just before I left, I had a couple of German girls stay with me. Rather than doing the cookie cutter Rick Steve’s adventure they had planed, Pip and I took them out to see a band play at the Grace Emily, entertained them with tales of Adelaide's dark past and fed their hangovers with a tasty Store breakfast and a pie and ice coffee at the St Peters 7th Avenue bakery. Is that a hint of home sickness peaking through? Eee gads.

Ok.. Where was I.. Ah. Barcelona Train Station.

After a day of walking about Barcelona checking off the odd thing here and there that we had missed in the first two days, we return to the Australian themed pension (home to revelations in the field of snoring and a family who immigrated to Australia back in the 50s and then immigrated back to Spain in the 80s), collect our bags and head for the train station. The cabins are separated by gender, and mum gets to inflict her nose on a group of strange women, one of which has a body odour akin to Austrian chess – it smells like a Brunswick taxi driver’s beaded seat massager, but there’s something about that makes you think it would go great with wine and crackers. I get to share it with a guy who has one of those fold up bikes stuffed in his bag; another guy who when he talks, little beads of blood-laced spit form at the corners of his mouth; and a guy who enjoyed testing out all his ringtones on his phone at 3am in the morning.

I must say at this point, mum is doing surprisingly well with keeping up the pace. Sure, there are some moments where the realisation that perhaps bringing a better pair of shoes or that maybe white pants aren’t the best for travel or hanging your wet washing in the train cabin for overnight drying is possibly a bad idea. But all in all, she’s managed to keep up with the early mornings and frantic see everything we can in the short time we have schedule.

I get my best night’s sleep overnight train trips, with the gentle tick tick noises and slight movement provided my favourite variety of nocturnal rest. I get a similar night’s sleep when there’s a fan switched on in my bedroom, which I think has to do with white noise and rhythmic movement. I wake up to find mum excitedly snapping photos out the window of the Southern Spanish country side, which looks a bit more like home than I expected. Cheese lady has since developed a more pungent smell (suited to being served with morphine and a straight jacket), my blood-spit guy has left his complementary toothbrush on my cabin’s sink (imagine a shoe polisher releasing years of built up tension with the only weapon he has at hand), and for some reason I’ve woken up with a look that would make your nanna clutch a little more tightly to her bag if we passed each other on the street.

At the station, we meet two individual travellers (Peck and Yuri), who, because they are both Asian, us whiteys think they are travelling together. Singaporean Peck is on her in between jobs three week European adventure and Japanese Yuri is on a quiet and humble year long world odyssey (Mary Poppins if you're wondering). An old Spanish woman spots us and through our broken Spanish and her non-existent English we broker a deal to stay at her pension, with an alleged bus ride to her place. This bus turns out to be a public bus, but her pension is right near everything pretty and was super chilled. From the window, snow capped mountains backdrop a 17th century church and surrounding Moorish influenced town buildings. The alley below is quiet and lead onto a small square of cafes, restaurants and tourist info boxes. We dumped our stuff, showered and headed out for the day. The nearby tourist box provided us with maps and an idea of what to see, and we wandered about the back street bazaars, marvelling at the colourful silks, dangly pokey-outy eye thingos and trinkets ready made for breakage in your bag on transit home. Mum was having issues with her knees and we called past a chemist to grab some braces. We decided to head north along the river and up the hill to check out the Alhambra from a different vantage point. Along the way, we stopped to watch a painter do his thing in a public square. In his sights was a girl quietly sitting and writing in her journal. Something about her said English speaking and we start chatting to her. Jordan, an American girl over here studying Spanish, was so happy to meet up with some fellow English speakers, spent the rest of the day with us, guiding us through the back streets and showing us some of her favourite little hidden spots on the hill. I think she wants to adopt my mum. Jordan invites us to a flamenco dance performance later that night and after dinner, we meet up with her again. Set in the bunker like cellar of a building built in 1600 and something, the flamenco was cool to watch, with an old guy in his 70s belting out some of the most passionate and powerful singing I’ve heard out of anyone. After it finishes, a reggae and funk dj starts spinning tunes and we have some drinks and dance. Mum looked like she was having fun all night.

The next day we tour the Alhambra. Yuri is headed to Morocco, her time is limited in Granada and she doesn’t join us. We get up early to catch the lighter crowds and find that every other tourist in town have also taken this option. After queuing for about 40 minutes, we are let into this amazing place, which had a similar feel to it as some of the Turkish influenced places I visited in Hungary. Wonderfully ornate wall carvings, elaborate ceilings and infinitely complex mathematical patterns overloaded my eyes. The drabness of the Charles the V Christian architecture when contrasted against the ornate visual orgy of the Islamic architecture emphasises the sacrilege that occurred here. Mum gets emotional a few times and this warms my heart.

Afterwards, Peck, mum and I go have lunch, rest a bit and then jump a three hour train to Cordoba.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Gold, Frankincense and Pigeon

I arrived in Barcelona a day earlier than mum so I could get my bearings, suss out if our welcoming host was a psycho and make mum's arrival as easy as possible. The plan was to stay with a couchsurfer for the first couple of days and then switch to a hotel or pension (the mezzanine of accommodation between hostel and hotel - sort of like the casa particulars in Cuba, but with less I may get stabbed in my sleep feeling). When I arrived in Barcelona, I didn’t get the same buzz I normally got when I touched down in a new country. Sure the place has karaoke singing, abuse yelling taxi drivers, but it felt more like I was going somewhere for a conference or a business meeting than an extension of my travels. The next couple of weeks with mum were an unknown to me and I was a little nervous about how things between us were going to pan out. I hopped on th airport bus, made my way into town, met up with Pauletta, worked out what to see while in town and made sure the airport bus was a simple connecting journey rather than a Broadway stage production. Over a beer and paella, Pauletta prepared me for the journey ahead. I put myself into super tourer mode, pulled all the experiences from transit from the past year and focused them on making mum’s trip an easy one. I worked out an easy walking tour around the nearby area so that when mum arrived after her 30+ hour flight, we could tackle her jetlag without really challenging her physically. All that was left in the equation was mum.

The day arrives and I head out to the airport to greet mum. I’ve got times and plane numbers written down and discover her plane is delayed by 40 minutes. This gives me time to grab some bus tickets back into town, have a little food and make a sign saying “Mum” to hold up at the arrival gates. The time comes and I squeeze into a choice position right in front of the gates so the first thing mum would see is me and the sign. There’s the usual delay of baggage collection and eventually cases start coming out of the gates with her flight number written on them. Ten minutes passes. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Hmmm.. where the hell is mum? Maybe she missed her connecting flight. I go over to an internet kiosk and quickly check my email to see if she’s sent me a mail. No mail. I send her an email asking where she is. I then hang out in front of the gate again. No mum. An hour after the plane touched down I still can’t see her anywhere. I venture over to the front desk for the airline she flew with and ask them if they can tell me if she was on the flight. They tell me due to privacy laws they can’t. I tell them that it’s my mum who is in Europe for the first time, show them the sign I made and give them my best desperate face. The woman behind the glass exchanges a look with her colleague, asks me to write my mum’s last name on a piece of paper, takes the paper and presses a finger to her lips. After a few seconds on her computer, she points to her name badge. THERESA and nods. Mum was on the flight. So where the fuck did she get to. I walk back to the gates and mingle a bit more, fidgeting with my camera I had planned to use to capture the moment she walked through the gates. Then a horrid thought crosses my mind. Maybe she doesn’t know to come out the gates and is standing by the luggage carousel waiting for me to pick her up. This is only 30 metres from where I was standing, but there's big red lines painted on the ground between me and the gates, with DO NOT ENTER clearly marked in several languages on the automatic doors leading to the baggage collection area. I try and steal a glimpse here and there. No good. Unless I go through the gates, I can’t test my theory. I pick my moment and just as a group of Japanese tourists come through the gates and a guy is being taken off in handcuffs in the other direction I slip through the gates and into the restricted zone. Within five seconds I find mum wandering around in a confused daze, looking stressed and worried. I suppress my frustration and wrap my arms around her, saying she's a silly sausage for not going through the doors. We go through the white, speak English express line in customs and jump on the bus headed for downtown Barcelona.

We’re off to a good start.

On the way back into town, I point out a few things I spotted on my first day and tell her about the next couple of days. Mum is tired from the 32 hour commute and a little dazzled at the busyness of Barcelona. We get to our stop and take a metro back to the flat, meet up with Pauletta and sit. It’s been a long way for mum and we take things slowly. My pace of travel needs to be hedged back so that she can keep up. Mum has a shower and understands why she must stay up until her normal bed time, but the lack of decent sleep on the plane means she’s been mostly awake for the last 45 hours and it shows. We wander around the back street markets, take coffee at a café, stumble on a couple of street performers and mum passively soaks in her new surrounds within the confines of her jetlag induced concussion. Churches, buildings and houses older than the European history of our home country floor mum and I stand back, watching her rural Victorian perception of the world be blown apart by the history surrounding her on all flanks. Sure mum knows her European history, but books, TV shows and university lectures can’t compare to the experience of actually being there. Our wandering through the back streets of the old part of Barcelona suits mum's current mental state. She loves taking photos of graffiti. Not sure why, but every piece we come across she stops and snaps a few shots. Check out her flickr site and you’ll see plenty of graffiti she sees during her day. I guess when you live out in Salisbury, the shelter at the local bus stop is as close as you’ll get to a gallery. Some of the Spanish work is really ornate, with that look that you only get with the European brand of artistic vandalism. We stumble onto some markets I had found the day before, and with their likeness to the Central Markets, mum feels a bit more at ease. We check out the main tourist strip, but to my relief this doesn't appeal to mum. Later, we grab a beer and mum hits the wall at around 9pm. Rest at last.

Over the next couple of days, we toured around more of the old city, checked out some Gaudi buildings and did some much needed planning for our onward journey. The Gaudi Cathedral didn't do it for me. Sure it's different, but to me it just looks like a gigantic pile of gothic-styled bat guano. Give me Hundertwasser anytime. There were some tense moments where the gap between my pace and mum's had to shift on both sides. But eventually after telling each other to pull our heads in, the painful gap between reality and expectation is crossed and there is a truce. Our visit to the Catalaunian Art Museum was a fab experience. The buliding and view is worth the walk up the stairs, as long as you can prevent your mum getting abducted by the gypsies on the way. We grab our tickets and just as we go to look at the art, a small orchestra of wind instruments is preparing itself to start in a nearby hall. We follow them in and take our seats in a room fit for a 16th century king's dance party and the show begins. Still tired and overwhelmed by the experience that is Barcelona, the music touches mum and she begins to weep at the majesty of it all. I lean over and whisper "Just think. Every moment of every day of your life, something this beautiful is happening in the world. I wish I could give you what I've seen over the past year and a half." The rest of the day was full of these little moments as this was mum's first European art gallery. And even though a handful of the works inside carried big names, it was the shear size of the collection that blew mum's mind. After the gallery, we wandered around the surrounding gardens and also checked out the 1992 Olympics site, which is a quick walk from the Museum. Impressive looking monument thingo with the stadium's cafe showing the Monaco Grand Prix on the telly. I bought a hotdog, mum bought a beer and we chatted about the day's arty adventures to the backdrop of screaming F1 cars.

I've always wanted to see another person's Shibuya moment. You know those times when you wish you had a photo of yourself gaping stupidly at the miscellaneous grandeur before you? In 2005, I walked out of the Shibuya metro station in Tokyo, soaked in the view before me and my head promptly melted away. A true Kodak moment. But watching mum bounce between paintings and sculptures (many with dates proceeding white settlement in Australia), and seeing her sweet sentimental soul soak up a thousand years of history had a more sustained quality to it than a Japanese 23rd century culture shock.

This trip is going to be fun.