Monday, July 30, 2007

where has the writing gone?

Honestly.. It's not all Facebook.

I realised in the mountains, that while I had access to the internet on someone else's computer, whenever I sat down with my own computer, writing wasn't the first thing that I wanted to do. A few weeks back, I fixed a problem with my laptop that has prevented me from doing any complicated video editing for the last 6 months. Now after busting out a few videos recently, I've picked up a nasty habit of editing whenever I get a spare moment between the doing the travel thing. So to sum up.. Currently, I'm more compelled to play with videos than to write. I feel kinda weird about neglecting the writing side of things, but seeing as there is no rule book to being creative (what an incredibly wanky thing to say), I'm going to strike while the iron's hot. Once the writing thing comes back to me, I will fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Martina (and friends), for a wonderfully colourful and entertaining 10 days in Graz and the Tyrolean Alps. It was also fun to randomly catch up with Rodney and go hiking through the mountains with a fellow gentleman. I am now in Vienna awaiting the arrival of the next chapter of the journey. Time to practice the In Time/Through Time dance moves.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

the writing is on the wall

Since I left Switzerland three weeks ago, I've been in Ravensburg for five days, staying with Ina, the super hospitable couchsurfer. Then crossed the border into Austria to Feldkirch to hang out with Maria, who I travelled with in Cuba. Then to Salzburg where I stayed with couchsurfer Daniela who lived in Australia for a few months. Now I’m in Graz, staying with another group of couchsurfing people, where it has been sizzling hot for the five days straight.

During the last month, I’ve had plenty of fun and random adventures, but have lacked the motivation to write about it. I've sat down about 20 times, begun to write something about my days and then lost my train of thought. I put this down to my travel energy being low, with a need to find the right time and head space to regroup before the next chapter of this journey rolls around in a couple of weeks. That and Facebook has become the second thing I check after my email. Dangerous little time wasting, homesickness generating gremlin of a website.

To find some inspiration and the lack of a temptingly, mindless wandering internet connection, I’m heading into the Tyrolean Alps for a week to sit by some water, retreat into a disconnected Nell-like state, and read, write, film, edit and photograph my way out of this mental block I’ve been experiencing for the last couple of weeks. I expect to have a full report of the places listed above and have made half a dozen virtual friends with people I already know and have the email address of when I get back.

ohh.. someone's just written on my wall..

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

99 Luftballons

Hanging out with Simon and Pasqual was a lot of fun. Not only had my back started to clear up (which allowed me to stop being a cranky tit), but I had touched on the Switzerland I thought I had missed. On the night I got in, we went out for beers over the border in Konstanz*. We met up with a few of their friends at a bar where a hens night and a stag party of no relation to one another had collided on the next table. At one point, the bride came over to us selling the bric-a-brac contents of a wheel barrow, supposedly to raise money for the wedding. She pulled out a small bowler hat shaped Easter egg and asked me what the English was for it. Jokingly I said that it was known as a “butt plug” in English, and thinking I was being truthful, she started explaining to her friends what the English term for what this foiled covered chocolate thing was. The other, more fluent English speakers and I giggled like schoolgirls for the next half an hour at the misunderstanding and eventual setting straight I caused the bride to be.

*Crossing borders to get cheaper booze is nothing new to me on the trip. I acquired four stamps for every time Mizik and I ventured from Hungary into Slovakia to drink their cheaper booze. Here on the Swiss/German border that splits Konstanz and Kreuzlingen into two separate towns, the border security varies depending on where you cross. On the banks of Lake Konstanz, the world’s only “Art Border” exists, where there are no guards (plenty of cameras though), and the border is marked by a series of avant-garde statues that reminded me a bit of the water Toriis in Japan. Another border crossing involved a small blocked to traffic road, right next to the train line. There was a disused office and a places where guards would have stood. Again, no police but a few cameras. I was to later discover that on the other side of the train tracks, the border between Germany and Switzerland is marked by a wooden fence, which has a hole in it big enough to step through, guarded loosely by a bramble of blackberry bushes. I will have to live many lives and eat many berries to find one that tastes better than one I found there. When I told the guys about it, they said I was lucky that the inconspicuous bright green border patrol van hadn’t been there, or I would have probably spent the night in jail. The other crossing, the one near to the kebab shop, was the only one you could drive your car through. This one is patrolled by guards, but at 8pm they barricade the road and knock off for the day. This allows anyone on foot or bike to pass through freely, with a voluntary tax declaration form to fill in. Not sure which way it works, but at some point you either get money given back or taken away from you depending on which country you are leaving / entering.

I caught the ferry from Romanshorn (S) to Friedrichshafen (G), where the Zeppelin museum is. Nice little town with the museum and associated airport being a pretty cool place to spend an afternoon. They had a scale recreation of part of the Hindenburg, with a fairly extensive history of the Zepplein and the people and techniques involved with constructing them. Did you know that Zeppelin himself wasn't responsible for designing the airship, and was actually a rich count who lived in the nearby hills, occasionally pumping money into ideas that caught his interest? As for a place to visit as a tourist, I would say it was something you would go out of your way to visit, but if you were in the Bodensee area, it should be added to the list. Try to avoid spending the first 20 minutes swearing loudly at the audio guide, only to realise it is working and that you not reading the signs properly.

Walking around any history museum in Germany, I've noticed that they have an interesting approach to some of their darker past, leaving me with a weird, unable to be described feeling. This weird feeling is exaggerated by the English/American audio guide voice (with the English bloke sounding rather like Peter Jones from another guide), who comments on everything around you. I find the way history is represented differently depending on the outcomes of political decisions and social guidance, and most importantly who is defeated or victorious in times of war. Like that random friend you bring to a wake who gets drunk and knocks over the coffin, Germany has always felt bad about the whole Hitler thing. Did you know it is compulsory for all high school students to watch Schindler's List?

Anyhoo.. I caught a bus to Meersburg and then caught another ferry (apparently a woman has moved closer to the port because she has fallen in love with the boat – don’t ask), back to Konstanz. What I didn’t realise was that the ferry docks on the other side of a peninsular, which I walked around thinking that the city centre would appear “any minute now” for about 2 hours. But the walk itself was a pleasant one that I would recommend any visitor to this part of the world to do voluntarily. I did spy an elderly couple sunbathing nude on a chained off part of the beach. I took this as being odd, but German until two blokes walked out from behind a hedge fence completely starkers. “Hullo”… “Errr.. Hi”. I blush and walk around the corner, finding a FKK sign hanging proudly among the bushes.

This brings me to a point about taking photos of scantly clad people. In Monaco, I felt weird about photographing the beach area, as there were a number of girls there sunbathing topless. Yes I like boobs, but I'm not there taking pervy shots (that's what 'arty' photography is for), and just want to capture what I see. So when I walked past the opening in the hedge wall and saw about 40 nudies doing their thing, I really wanted to take a picture. But for the spectacle rather than the t&a. I didn't take the shot, but want to know from other photographers how I would take a candid shot of such a scene without appearing to be some kind of degenerate.

I got back and Simon took me to a kebab stand situated about 10 meters in Germany from the Swiss border. Apparently this place is cheaper and better tasting that the Swiss equivalent just metres up the road. Next day, I caught the ferry from Romashorn to Friedrichshafen again, then took the train from Friedrichshafen to Ravensburg. I got into town and killed time by chatting with an Irish guy who had moved to Germany for a girlfriend, broke up and now lives here as a relationship refugee. Nice bloke, who, whether by design or accident, works in the local Irish pub. Then I walked over to a nearby pub where I met up with Inga, my new host for the next few days. She sat me down, plonked a beer in front of me and asked me if I was hungry.

Sometimes I feel like Herbert Morrison and want to start shouting “Oh the Hospitality”.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

socks & sandals

I left Zurich and headed for Lake Konstanz. Whenever I mentioned to a local I was headed to the lake, I was always met with “ohhhs”, “ahhhs” and “you’ll really like that place”. And I did. I had searched for a place to stay near to the town of Konstanz, and found a Portuguese guy who was here to study German, living with a German host family in the little village of Wahlwies. Nice little place with apple storage sheds, a creek and the odd whiff of cow shit. On my second day I headed to Ɯberlingen, a little village on the other side of the lake to Konstanz. I walked around the botanic gardens, checking out the nearby caves that seem have served an official civic service at some point. A few of them had little ankle deep pools in them, which according to one person, had to do with local monks cleaning people’s feet. Must have been some sort of Medieval mad cow dieses thing. At one point, I spent about 30 minutes getting ripped to shreds in an empty house block, foraging for raspberries and blackberries and screwed with the macro capabilities of my lens. The berries were worth the thorns and I got some nice bug photos. Compared to the previous week, it was a pretty nice day weather wise.

Once I had finished my two day stay in Wahlwies, I caught a very early train into Konstanz, where I wandered around for a little too long with my main pack looking for a place to stow it. When the lockers were back at the train station, hidden in plain view between the side entrance and the tourist office. I had a wander around the town, met a few people and had an interesting chat with a German Jehovah’s Witness who had been a missionary in the Philippines for 15 years. At 5pm I met with my new host and wandered over the border by foot. While only 800 metres from the border, with no visible break between towns, I was not in Konstanz anymore, and stayed with Simon and Pasqual in the Swiss town of Kreuzlingen. They are two Swiss mates who both hold Couchsurfing accounts and share a place together. Just when I thought I had missed out on getting the low down on Swiss culture, these guys came to the rescue. These guys gave me the inside goss on what the compulsory military service is like – Get this: Pasqual’s role for when the Germans finally invade Swiss territory involves riding around on a motorcycle, taking down the road signs to confuse the enemy. Not sure what good that does when almost every Volkswagen comes with a GPS these days. Another weird thing about the Swiss military is that once you have finished serving your compulsory time, you are asked to take your gun home with you, just in case the French want to have a fresh crack at breaking away from tradition.

A rather weird statistic is that Switzerland has a higher per capita percentage of gun ownership than the US. On weekends, the men who have finished their service travel out to firing ranges, get drunk and squeeze off a few rounds. This is to not only meant to keep them in practice at the drunken operation of a weapon (imagine you’re at the pub and English paratroopers start dropping from the sky), it also reinforces the idea that the enemy (when and if they appear), will closely resemble cardboard cut outs of SS soldiers, terrorists and Nazis of Middle Eastern descent. One sight that might take you by surprise is the one that is found on public trains heading out of town on Friday nights. Men dressed in the business like suit – shirt – tie, with a briefcase in one hand and a mobile in the other will sometimes have their assault rifles slung over their shoulder, resting against their back. How very Nakatomi. Apparently during WW2, the Swiss government had such a high opinion of its armed forces, that they claimed their fierce army was the reason why Hitler didn’t invade Switzerland. Hmm, me thinks it had something to do with the banks being there, rather than the Swiss’s ability to remove road signs. Perhaps this vested interest tactical may have been why the oil ministry building in Bagdad was one of the few government buildings to be spared during the bombings in 2003.

Yippe-ki-yea, mother fucker

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Live Earth

It would have been interesting to see how much of a fuss Al Gore made about the environment if he got his place in the White House.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ill Communications

You know that moment of realisation between letting go of a closing door and when it locks your keys in the car? Or when you get home after shopping only to remember that you forgot to buy that one thing you specifically went into the shop to buy in the first place? I felt that way about Switzerland. While in Zurich, I stayed with an Australian mate and even though I was able to say grouse and eat Vegemite in a sympathetic and understanding environment, I didn’t feel I had gotten close to Switzerland. My assumption was that through the Swiss people I knew, I would have interacted with the locals more. But apart from a BBQ at Sylvia’s, the couple of days hanging out with Deborah and a few conversations with randoms, I felt fairly detached from Swiss culture. On this trip, when I’ve stayed with a friend or at a hostel, I’m surprised at how much I miss the simple interaction and intimacy with a society that Couchsurfing affords. Sure, with fellow Anglophones you can drift into fast paced English, reliving familiar cultural references and playing with triple-entendre word play. This Anglophonic place requires no carefully selected words or dramatic hand gestures to get your point across. But for me, I'm left craving more interaction with the locals than just ordering a beer at the pub. This comfort sacrifices knowledge and fresh experience. You miss out on the next village’s annual potato day, you don’t see the birds swap position as they drift under the shadow of the bridge, there’s no tea with the Palestinian neighbour and you’re totally unaware of that time when that particular corner of a certain park was host to an impromptu 23rd birthday party. The country you’re in looses its identity, and a trip to a dozen countries blend into one generic “trip to Europe”, with the only things you take back being a credit card debt, some fuck ugly souvenirs and an ability to order sandwiches in seven different languages.

This intimacy and interaction requires energy. But so does getting sick. Enter the recent addition to my luggage – a wonky back.

I’ve always felt that I know my body. Similar to how one can plan Christmas day in August with Keith Martin’s Almanac, I could read it and anticipate my physical and mental well being for the next . My paternal grandfather died quite young of a heart attack, and my dad and his brothers have all had heart issues, so knowing how exercise and what I ate affected me was important. But while travelling, health issues become magnified and being able to work with your body similar to driving a car. Sometimes you can just coast. Other times you need to give all the engine can take. Some days, I’ve felt like I forgotten to change gears and am just revving it in neutral at green traffic lights. This perfectly describes Zurich. No energy. No zest. If you’re sick, you don’t have the energy to put yourself out there and interact. And if you don’t put yourself out there and interact, you may as well just strap on a heavy bag and walk around an unfamiliar suburb in your own town for a week.

My back issue started while I was with mum. Rather than wait for mum to put her bag on the trolley she had brought along, a bazaar combination of wanting to be a good son and my ‘eliminate all things that don’t fit in my schedule’ policy motivated me to carry mum’s bag for her. This did speed up metro connections and got us to trains on time, but combined with switching beds every night and the weight of my own pack; this mentality did wonders for my back. By France, I had learnt to wait for mum, but I had already sown the seeds of trouble. Once mum left for Ireland, I was practically begging people to crack my back for me. A big American guy half throttled me in Nice trying to get my spine back in shape, and by the time I got to Zurich, I had turned into a low energy, irritable shit. I would think: “Why isn’t Switzerland working for me?”. I hadn’t heard back from the Swiss people I met at Sylvia’s BBQ for beers, the couch I had sorted out appeared to evaporate a day before leaving, a good friend in Australia had given me some bad news and another friend had asked for a break in communications to get me out of their head. Fuck them all, I thought.

Yeah.. And here’s me thinking Switzerland was to blame.

On my last day in Zurich, I went to a chiropractor. Judging by the medieval drawings of people strapped to racks, being stretched and disembodied hands applying pressure to their back, I thought I was in for some pain. The doctor was an American woman who had married a Swiss and was now living in Zurich. Two apples in a sock huh? Not only did she fix my back, but she gave a much needed outsider on the inside perspective. She compared the Swiss mindset to a coconut. Hard on the outside. Soft on the inside. The procedure was expensive, but totally necessary. After my back was cracked, I walked around to stretch things out. Later, I went and had dinner with Deborah and Nerina, the Swiss girls I met in Cuba. Between Sushi rolling and Cuba reminiscing, I got Deborah to walk over my back, and each time it snapped, crackled and popped like a bowl of Rice Bubbles. My back was felling better and so was Switzerland.

Winge over.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

fitting in

Travelling alone is like being drunk. Emotions are experienced in extremes, no one around you understands what you’re saying, luck navigates you around a city and the ideas you come up with tend to be fairly silly. This is one such idea.

Something I was looking forward to when I got to Zurich was visiting the Freitag store. After 3 years, 2 laptops and being dragged around the world, my old neoprene slip had seen better days. Holes, rips, wear marks and recently a busted zip. Before coming to Switzerland, I emailed the Zurich based recycled material bag manufacturer to see if I could get a peak at their factory. They said no (which fuelled a Swiss guys theory that the bags are now made in China), but welcomed me to their flagship store to take as many photos as I like and pick up a discounted laptop slip while I was at it. When I arrived in Zurich, one thing I noticed straight away about the city was that 80% of the people (be that in business attire, riding a bike, vandalising a train station or simply loitering outside a McDonald's), have a Freitag bag. Like Birkenstocks in Germany, Uni Qlo in Japan or Farmers Union in Adelaide – local brand loyalty is strong. Every shape, colour and design is found hanging by recycled seatbelts from people's shoulders, and with the already used nature of the bag's material, it is impossible to pick the setters from the followers. When Peter Adams introduced me to Freitag about 5 years ago, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. No one else had one, let alone heard of them, and the one off, individual feeling that his bag had really appealed to me. Now that I was in Freitag’s natural habitat, I found the bags made up an army of individuals. Same same, but different. Then I got philosophical.

With the individual nature yet broad appeal of the product, Freitag is an excellent allegory for one of the paradoxes of the Western human condition: We all what to be different, but at the same time we want to fit in. Like the gentrification of a crack-den neighbourhood, these bags are no longer the keystone of cool, and the hip wave for Freitag broke about 4 or 5 years ago. In Zurich, this is no longer cutting edge fashion accessory. It has become part of Zurich’s social lexicon. It is considered the norm and other companies have begun to copy to cool. While these bags aren’t exactly something your nanna has, saturation point has been reached and the kids have moved on. Another parallel was the appeal of the exotic. While in in Australia, I'm just another Australian, but in the middle of Hungary, I'm a crazy alien from another planet. These bags anywhere other than Zurich are still considered pretty freaking cool.

My thoughts on how Freitag parallels with the meta and micro workings of human society and the psychology that drives it went on all sorts of tangents. In the end, I did buy a Freitag laptop slip and thanks to its bulkiness compared to my old slip, I've had to modify my backpack to get it to fit in. Funny how we modify our lives to be part of the team. When we next next up, we’ll have beers and I'll dribble on about the connections between man bags and the self for hours.