Sunday, May 17, 2009

THE snail

For everyone who asked for a picture of the nightmare-inducing raw snail I ate in Japan, all I can say is, you asked for it (please note, when I say that I 'ate it' I had a nibble of the rubbery bit at the top, where the toothpick is, then drank half a litre of sake):
When I showed this to my Dad, after he finished gagging, he said "I can't believe you would put that near your face, you disgusting person."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Vienna, Berlin

I'm writing now from Williamsburg, New York, in my friend Jamie's apartment, on a frosty January morning with three alarmingly enormous cats lolling about next to me. It's been a month since my last update. This post will take me through to Berlin, after which I headed to London for a predictably wine-drenched couple of weeks with my brother and mate Liam, and a whole crew of friends living there. Now, with two days left before the horror of a 23 hour flight home, I'll write what I can.

From Budapest, a scenic train journey transported us to Vienna in the late afternoon (although in separate compartments – the distracted ticket woman booked us in adjacent seats, a carriage apart). While waiting for Basti (my old school mate and generous host) to finish work, we found a dinky little pub near his apartment. The owner was overwhelmingly friendly, presenting us with 'welcome to Austria' shots of rocket fuel, and kindly directing Basti to the exact location of the pub in a series of increasingly confusing phone calls (when I tried to give him the name, I was actually reading a sign that said "hot food served", and I suspect the owner had a few 'welcome to work' shots before we arrived, as she appeared far drunker than we did). Last time I stayed with Basti in 2001, he shared student digs with a collection of friends from art school – his current apartment is an impressive step up for him, and us. We spent a couple of days visiting art galleries and Christmas markets, one of which had 8 varieties of mulled wine, but none quiet as good (or potent) as the original Krakow mix. The main market featured artwork displayed in the windows of the Town Hall, with one artwork revealed every day in December, turning the building into a huge advent calendar. Every Xmas market has its specialty food, and Vienna provided us with a wild-boar meatloaf served in a doughy white roll, which was only slightly less terrifying than Basti's favourite "kase kreiner". Kase Kreiner: a hotdog magically injected with liquid cheese. Firstly, why, and secondly, how? We ate it on three separate occasions.; the things are sold on almost every street corner, and in bulk at the supermarket. After a very late night of pub and club crawling, we checked our bags into the bus station and slothed around until a night bus (never, ever again) delivered us, grumpy and unkempt, to Berlin at 5am and minus hell degrees.

BERLIN (mark one)
After a couple of days R&R in a hostel in Mitte, another great school friend Nadine generously put us up in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Sacha, directly across the road from the hilarious Americana-kitsch White Trash Fast Food bar. The first night we met them there, the 'hillbilly' band on stage was lead by a scrawny 30-something dude from Missouri with a pair of pistols tattooed across his chest, and the place was crawling with seriously dedicated rock-a-billy kids. They have their own tattoo parlor downstairs, and if you have "White Trash Fast Food" somewhere within the tat, they will do it for free. No, Mum, I didn't. Sacha and Nadine's huge apartment and two painfully cute kittens made me instantly want to stay in Berlin forever. We spent a great couple of days eating and drinking well, and even managed to get in some spa time – though if I thought the Hungarians were confident people, the Germans take the cake. The Badeschiff is an outdoor pool on the edge of the river (one of the many that cut up Berlin), used for parties in summer, and covered over with a gigantic plastic membrane in winter to encapsulate the two saunas and cover the icy pool. It looks a little like an oversized version of the plastic tunnel they used to quarantine E.T. at the end of the film. Inside, it was a cross between a sci-fi and a porn film – co-ed naked sauna, not for the self-conscious, but when in Rome...
Nadine was heading back to Indonesia for Christmas, and conveniently leaving the day my parents arrived in town for Christmas, so we moved straight from one apartment to the next.

BERLIN (mark two)
Mum and Dad had just finished a 6 week river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, with a visit to the UK thrown in for good measure. Stefan flew in from London after a seriously stressful stint at work, so we had a full house of exhausted people. Twelve days in an apartment over the Christmas period could have ended poorly, but we managed to make it through with little physical or emotional scarring. We'd somehow ended up smack bang in the middle of the gay district, so the only local pub that allowed entry to punters without leather chaps was a Scottish bar down the street. The 'kids' spent a few fairly raucous nights putting The Eagles and Dolly Parton on the dukebox (it was slim pickings, and incidentally, Roxette appears as popular in Germany as they were in Eastern Europe, despite the fact their last album was released on cassette tape). It was a little like Cheers Bar, but nobody knew our name and the fat guy was wearing a red tracksuit which may have actually been pyjamas, in what I can only hope was festive spirit. I'd saved most of the gallery hopping for 'family time', and we saw some great exhibitions. On Christmas day, the Bauhaus archive, a short walk from the apartment, was open and we took a festive outing between the series of huge meals we consumed (starting with champagne and croissants, as all Christmases should). It was supposed to be a no-present Christmas, due to the fact we'd all shelled out some serious cash to be in Berlin, but after a whiskey or two (and some red wine and beer) Stefan and I thought it would be better if there were some gifts under the tree. We gift wrapped the (raw) turkey for Kat, Dad's satchel for him, and the incredibly expensive but inefficient potato-peeler for Mum. The turkey smelled a bit funky when Kat unsuspectingly had it on her lap in the morning, and for a second I had the fear that our hilarious late night caper might actually ruin Christmas, but Mum insisted raw turkey just smells funky, and it all turned out ok.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


By luck, my folks were on their last day in Budapest when I arrived on the overnight train from Krakow, which provided a convenient place to stash bags and a free breakfast (and dinner, for that matter). We managed to fit in some culture at the gallery, where a pianist was banging out emotional Hungarian music while we perused the art. Dad was typically charismatic at dinner, so much so that the over-zealous waiter gave us a bottle of red to take home, which was later put to good use.
For the most part, Budapest was spa-central: 3 of the 8 days there were spent at thermal baths. Why has it taken me 30 years to discover this hedonistic paradise? With a combination of indoor and outdoor pools, saunas and healing mineral waters at varying temperatures and steaminess, it's relaxation heaven. Szechenyi, in the city park, was the favoured location and was rewarded with two visits. My momentary concern that a bikini might not be acceptable attire was immediately dismissed when I was faced with walls of ancient flesh lolling about in small strips of spandex. Confident people, the Hungarians. The first day we went it was cold and drizzling, so the steam rising from the pool made it impossible to see more than about a meter in front of you, which was occasionally a good thing; a bizarre circus of characters frequent the spas - a film populated by these people would seem wildly fictitious. Old local guys set up their chess boards on the steps of the outdoor baths for a day of heckling in healing waters, ignoring the signs suggesting 20 minutes is enough in the steamy 38 degree pool. What a way to retire. Above, the exterior of the House of Terror, a fantastic museum dedicated to the atrocities committed by the fascists and communists up until the 1990s both in Hungary and specifically in this building. At the right time of day, the sun casts the shadow of 'terror' across the building. Typographic metaphor ... clever Hungarians. The exhibition design was equally powerful inside, with an actual tank in the foyer, dwarfed by a wall of photos (some sort of metal relief casting) of victims of the 'terror'.:
The contrast between the lists of victim's names running around the walls in solemn metal type, the seemingly endless number giving a sense of the magnitude of the genocide here, and the photographs of individual faces, bringing you back to the fact that these victims were all individuals, was an emotionally powerful technique. Verbally, our guide did this in Auschwitz, constantly quoting unimaginable numbers of victims, then reminding us that they were all, like us, unique personalities. The room of shoes at the first Auschwitz camp hammering this home.
More to come ...

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Following the joy of apartment living in St Petersburg, we organised a 2 bedroom apartment in Krakow just five minutes walk north of the Old Town area. We had news in English for the first time in weeks, and were able to watch the painfully uninformative coverage of the Mumbai siege as it unfolded. And an indescribably awful Learn English channel with Todd from Neighbours: "Is there floppy disc with the computer? Yes, there is a floppy disc with the computer." 'Floppy disc' ... an essential word for aspiring English speakers in 2008.
The Christmas markets opened in the main square (Rynek Glowny) while we were there, and the cheap but very drinkable mulled wine -- served by people sitting inside over-sized barrels -- was an instant hit. That stuff really sneaks up on you, but it's the quickest way to get your toes warm from the inside I've found. I ate pierogi six nights running. Too many dumplings are never enough. I loved Krakow. Having 7 nights in one place was bliss and what a beautiful place to spend them. The castle and old town square are overwhelmingly charming, but the 'dragon' of Wawel was more hilarious than intimidating, intermittently burping blasts of flame into the sky.
Aside from drinking mulled wine, feasting on dumplings and chuckling at the dragon, Krakow was the base for a few day trips.
My Grandma, who passed away about this time last year, came from a town called Kielce, 3 hours north of Krakow, before she was taken to Germany to work for a family during the war (she was 16). A few years ago, I lived in the Sydney suburb of Erskineville. G-ma worked in a factory in Erskinville when she was not much older than me at the time. While I lived there, I briefly worked at the local pub and the old punters propping up the bar remembered the immigrant women from the factory well. It amused me, in an uncomfortable way, that these same men who leered at me after a few too many schooners of Toohey's had possibly cast their eyes over my Grandma, two generations ago. We walked the same streets in Sydney without ever having lived there at the same time, and now also Kielce. There was a museum and cathedral to explore, and not a great deal else, but in the main park there was a 'mini zoo' with a dozen bizarre types of peafowl, unlike any I'd ever seen (except the peacock, of which I've been a fan for some time).

It was a harrowing day trudging through icy mud puddles and a constant, cold drizzle at Auschwitz and Birkenau (below). In one hall way, rows and rows of photographs with arrival and death dates under them were, en mass, a sickening thing to behold. Two months was average. And all those shoes. Piles and piles of shoes. As we left, a devastating sunset finished the day.
Salt Mines
Down as far as 134 meters below ground level, the salt mines are amazing. Our guide was a quirky old bird with a string of pre-rehearsed gags ... one of the (salt) sculptures shows the Seven Dwarfs working away, but Snow White was absent because women didn't work in the mines. The cathedral was the most spectacular part, with everything, we were told, made entirely of salt. Even the chandeliers! (Well, if you don't count the light bulbs, wooden frame, string and presumably electrical wiring). The wall relief carvings were incredible. There was, of course, a large statue of John Paul II (who appears where ever possible in Poland), which I tried to get Kat to lick for a photo, but she wouldn't play.

I spent a long afternoon drawing teapots and lovely objects in the Decorative Arts rooms at the fantastic art gallery.

Flea markets, Krakow
See the angry man staring at me, in the middle? Zoom in, look at the hate in his eyes. A nano-second after this shot, he stared screaming at me, and I mean really raging, in Polish. I don't know what he said but the woman in front of me actually clutched her hands to her heart and gasped, and everyone backed away around me. A curse, perhaps? No more photographs from the flea markets.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Warsaw: 23-24 November

We flew in at midday and by the time we got to Old Town at about 4pm (via a pierogi house for a dumpling fix that made me the happiest woman in Poland, they were topped with bacon bits fried in lard) it was already dark and very cold. The main square is stunning, especially in the snow. Polish hospitality is as hit and miss as the Russians, though smiling doesn't seem to be as much of a social faux pas here.
After a quick trip up to the top of the Palace of Science and Culture (Stalin's gift to Poland, which towers ominously over the city at 231 meters -- how Soviet) for the customary panoramic view:
I headed out to Wilanow to see the poster museum and palace (yes, Kat and I actually had our first day apart in six weeks). Unfortunately, the poster museum was only showing the annual student competition (I've seen many, many student posters) and although there were a couple of good ones I was really looking forward to seeing some famous Polish posters (the theme of 'tolerance' produced some predictable Bennetton-style responses, but the weirdest was a silhouette of a donkey doing something nasty to a man with the slogan 'tolerate this'. The palace, on the otherhand, was terrific -- opulant and grossly baroque, the King and Queen's antichambers were particularly awe inspiring. I could have happily lived as Polish royalty.
The grumpy Grandma's patrolling every room and creeping along half a step behind you can be trying, but they're clearly very proud of the contents of their museum, and protective over the rooms they shadow about in. In most of the larger museums, you have to cover your shoes with blue plastic bags, which is practical considering the slushy mud outside, but it makes you feel even more of a peasant wandering through these spectacular golden ballrooms.
Continuing the meat fest, we dug into some great wild boar and pork knuckle, and also found a jazz and blues club near the hostel where I was served a well made White Russian by a chubby version of Colin Farrell. We perched at the bar and listened to jazz for an hour or two, and Kat got chatted up by a guy who looked like my Uncle Henry and aparently wasn't a big fan of jazz music. He kept asking why people were clapping when it was so bad.
I found a strange little "peep show" place (just keep reading) where you sat on a stool and peered through a "peep hole" to see historical photos of Warsaw, mostly being bombed, burned and ravaged during the war.
General consensus seems to be that Warsaw isn't worth hanging out in for more than a day or two, but I think I could easily have spent a few more there and still not seen as much as I would have liked.

Helsinki and Rovaniemi (where Santa lives)

The bus from St Petersburg to Finland was 9 and a half hours of fantastic scenery, with a firey sunset on one side and snow covered fir trees on the other, it definitely felt like I was heading towards Christmas. With only one day in Helsinki, it made sense to just wander around and get a feel for the place. The short stay was actually a blessing in disguise -- Finland isn't a cheap place to be traveling on the Australian dollar, and there was a lot in the design district that I would have very happily dropped some cash on. A bar on the 14th floor of a hotel provided mulled wine and panoramic views of the city at sunset, viewing the Gulf of Finland from the opposite angle from a few days before in St Petersburg. One more sleep in the world's loudest hostel before our exciting trip north to visit Santa, which was no easy task with the drunken yobs crashing about and a blood curdling wind howling around and banging metal things against the wall. Hostels have an age limit, and I think I've just past it. I did manage to squeeze in a pre-breakfast sauna though, which is always a bonus. What a way to start the day.
Flights were out-of-the-question expensive to Rovaniemi, so a day after our bus Odyssey, we sat for 8 hours on a train. I'm still loving train travel, to my suprise, and am actually looking forward to the future trains in Eastern Europe. It makes me very calm.
The dream for Lapland was to go husky sledding under the northern lights, so it was crushing to discover that the season doesn't start til December this year. You could go to the husky park and pat a dog, but for 160 bucks that sounded lame, as did paying $250 for an hour reindeer sled ride. Instead, we decided to make our own fun and took a bus out to the Ranua Wildlife Park. By the time we got there it was basically sunset (2.30pm) so some of the animals were snoozing, but the polar bears played up to us and all the animals looked like they had enough space and activities to be relatively happy in captivity. I liked the snow owls. Hoo hoo.
It was weirdly deserted, and after being shadowed everywhere through Asia and Russia, it was great to be able to roam about a huge open space without seeing anyone else. Because I'm an adult, I found it infinitely amusing that the only sign of inhabitants we could see in some of the snow-covered enclosures were patches of yellow snow. It was a good two hour walk the whole way around -- by the end I couldn't feel some of my toes and it felt like permafrost had set into my thighs.
As we were leaving the park, we caught a glimpse of the northern lights -- more a coloured stain than a celestial blaze, but we were excited and amazed nonetheless.
The park closed at 4pm and the bus was scheduled to leave at 5.25pm, so we lingered in the chocolate supermarket, which was oddly the only thing open at the park til 5pm, then waited in -12 degrees at the bus stop for 45 minutes (the bus was very late), in a scene that was disturbingly like something David Lynch would stage. We were discussing the likelihood of anyone finding our remains if we were killed hitchhiking back to Rovaniemi when the bus finally arrived.
Our final day was reserved for Santa's Village, at -16C. I never suspected Santa lived in a thinly veiled commercial theme park, but you learn something new every day. Tourist consumerism at its most ferocious, Santa's Village was a collection of gift stores with a small area dedicated to an official post office (if you haven't received your post card, it must have just got lost in transit) and Santa's "office" where you can pay 20 euros to have your photo taken on the big man's knee. The line was long, so we saved some excited kids another five minutes wait and skipped that opportunity. I don't need a fat man in a suit telling me I've been naughty, anyway.
We met a Scottish guy in the hostel in Helsinki who was on his way up for a second season as an elf at the village. He was microwaving a mixture of baked beans and frozen meatballs for dinner and his complexion suggested this might be his regular diet, supplimented with a lot of booze. I guess the elf outfit makes them cute. Despite my cynicism, it was an admittedly magical place, even moreso with fresh snow falling on the already icy trees and huts.
The previous night, I cooked a reindeer stew (which was amazing, if can rate my own cooking) and we had some sliced reindeer meat left over from the bruchetta entree, but decided it might be inappropriate to take reindeer sandwiches to Santa's Village. In the cafe, aside from the regulation burgers and pizza, for a mere $35 you could have a cafeteria tray with reindeer stew. Sorry, Rudolph.
There is a great museum in Rovaniemi called Arktikum with lots of stuffed animals - you can press a button and hear the noises they make. Hours of fun...

Monday, November 24, 2008

St. Petersburg

The first phase of St Petersburg marked the end of the Vodkatrain trip, with Maria, who was the best local guide of the trip. Our two-day whirlwind tour took in the Hermitage, a panoramic city view from St Issac's Cathedral, the Political History Museum (which was fascinating but cut a bit short because Someone was grumpy), the Peter and Paul Fortress and many canals, statues and scenic streetscapes.
Kat brushing up on highschool history in the Hermitage. Below, where the dead Tsars live, followed by windows in the impressive Political History museum.

Our last meal as a group was a bit of a sorry state, with general exhaustion and irritability high. Maria took us afterwards to a bar area, and we had a couple of beers in a smoky little pub called Fidel (the Russian's love a Cuban theme) with supped-up Russian versions of everything from The Eagles to Michael Jackson. The last standing - so to speak - were Kat, R and I and we stopped by one more bar where R choked on the ice in the glass of Glenfiddich Kat bought us all (he thought we were doing shots). Waking with violent hangovers (it sounds bad, but it was only our third hangover in a month, which I think is commendable considering we were on the "Vodkatrain") we heaved backpacks on and trudged for an hour to get to the apartment we'd rented for six days with Pam. A good looking man carried our bags, one over each arm, up the stairs into the ENORMOUS apartment and we realised our time in St. Petersburg was about to get much, much better.
Although not the apartment we'd booked and been dreaming about for months (Prince Michael's former pad on Millionaya St near the Hermitage), we all had our own bedroom (bliss) and there was a separate eat-in kitchen, living room with a big TV to watch hilariously raunchy Russian music television (and exercise on the walking machine if any of us felt so inclined, which we obviously didn't) and a bath. Pam's arrival marked a distinct and much appreciated change in pace for the holiday. When we didn't leave the apartment til 1pm the first day, I'll admit to being a bit antsy, but I eased into the slower pace remarkably quickly (for me). Seeing Pam again after so long was a present, and being able to sit around the big kitchen table and talk and feast and laugh was the best thing I could have wished for after four weeks of busy traveling. We did nothing but eat and drink (and damn we did it well) for five days, the only tourist sights we saw were from the street or though windows of cafes and restaurants. One morning, I had caviar and pickles for breakfast, because I felt like it.
Other culinary highlights include the most expensive steak I've ever eaten (but every mouthful was a world of joy and it was as big as my head), bliny (pancake) heaven at a place just around the corner, a drink in 'The Idiot' called Crime and Punishment (accurately described on the menu as "our crime, your punishment"), random dumplings selected from the supermarket freezer section and made into soup (I guessed well on all of them except one which tasted like a sweet cheese, and didn't really go with the pork broth) and our last night, when we ventured to a French bistro for some salmon and wine:
The only blight on the whole fabulous time was en route to dinner on our last night, when we witnessed a Romper Stomper style attack on two guys outside the train station, when five men ran across the road as the lights changed and started swinging steel-capped boots into their heads and ribs with sickening force. Unbelievably, they both got up and made it across the street before the lights changed back. Aside from the ridiculously marked "Mafia Taxis" and occasional homeless person, this was the first real dark side to St Petersburg we'd been exposed to and it was shocking.

Eugene, our Moscow local guide, informed us that one of the statues of a horse on Nevsky Prospect had Napoleon carved onto its doodle. We never found it.

On our last morning, we headed out for breakfast and then Pam accompanied me snow boot shopping, as I anticipated Finland was about to get much frostier. I somehow managed to pick a pair up for about $25. It was a little glum saying bye to Pam, but we cross over in Sydney (for 36 hours) in January. Apartment living is the only way to travel. More please.