@germanforayear: Travel and social media won’t change you

Transitory, on ice and breath, a sweeping movement of a coffee-stained Frankfurter Allgemeine. The check-in announcement screams at me as I exit arrivals, stone faces, no signs. Where is my welcoming party?

Thirty hours of cracking your bones in seat 32F and this is what you get, though it might be what you deserve. Nobody’s going to come to get you in GMT+1 except the stipple dreams that you coloured for yourself when you thought it was OK to exchange everything that defined you for a one-way ticket.

@germanforayeaTaxi smells like pretzels. How do u say ‘I need a f**king smoke’ auf Deutsch? #jetlagged

Continue reading @germanforayear: Travel and social media won’t change you

A Breath of Fresh Tokyo

As Karen pushes through the revolving door the air begins to thicken with the tang of incense and soy sauce.

Sparkling neon lights flash blue and green and yellow messages against her white-shorts and t-shirt; in bold, red characters, a sign forbids a certain action, of which she is unsure—not to park, or spit, or linger too long in one place perhaps. She thrusts her ticket into her pocket and edges into the current of bodies. Continue reading A Breath of Fresh Tokyo

Reflections on Berlin

It’s 8:30 in the morning — a summer morning if you want to be all chipper about it.  I’m strolling up the main street in my neighbourhood, sunlight filters through the elms onto the newly laid cobblestones.

I notice a man in paint-splattered boots enjoying a breakfast beer on the park bench. His arms are covered with faded dragon tattoos — the kind that indicate age and lack of foresight. Around him, a flock of sparrows bounce to and fro like popcorn on a grill, suggesting that he or someone else occupying that bench before him had started the day with a flaky mound of dough from the bakery across the street.

Whether he has just finished work or is on his way isn’t clear, but when he rises to leave, he places his bottle neatly underneath the rubbish bin at the end of a row of empties. Someone will be along shortly to collect them for recycling money. Continue reading Reflections on Berlin

Memories of a large city

I’m in the vein of the city: the Tube. I’ve grown used to the faces. They stare and bore into your soul. The never-ending eyes that surround you, and judge you in the millisecond it takes for them to disappear.

Men with strange cranial growths and eastern European girls in fashionable sneakers line the tops of double-decker buses, fast-food wrappers and softdrink cans blend into the ghostly walls of a twilight city theatre like stubble on the giant face of old man London. Continue reading Memories of a large city

Down and up in Brighton

Sounds
of Brighton
lure me with romances
sand down my apprehensions where it counts
inhales me into its belly like a whale does a plankton.
Air rots my throat, I wait for open sun
with open umbrella,
why am I
here?
A
man finds me
listless, down at a pub
along the Ship Street. Shakes my hand and smiles
his eyes and I smuggle hushed stories, of truth in beer and tea
he leans across the bar and points a while, nods as he orders my favourite whisky.

On arriving in Amsterdam

So I moved to Amsterdam a week ago, I’m already mobile and there’s a chill in the air. Aside from the peculiar Dutch language, Amsterdam beguiles with its horseshoe streets and baffling harmony between people, trams, cars and bikes. Even close to the centre where I live there’s a weird silence,  like when a cat gives birth; something is happening in this city right under my nose, and it’s up to me to find it.

In the streets,  flocks of confident, well-dressed Dutch people flow past on bicycles as graceful as gazelles, as I struggle with a chain that is heavier and more expensive than the bike I’m attempting to secure. They look upon me with those judging, fair eyes – eyes that quash the impulse to spit in their perfectly groomed hair. I wonder where they are going. Clearly to a modern, city apartment, filled with other handsome, smiling people eating fresh bread, smoking and drinking delicious wine. How gezellig. I make myself a reminder to penetrate their secret society and dismantle it from within.

Meanwhile, grim clouds chase the sun beyond the horizon. The world looks as if it has been bit on the arse by a black hole. I wake in the mornings questioning if my watch had stopped at eight the previous evening or if there has been a total eclipse of all light in the universe. People use the word midday but I’m sure they’d have no idea of what or when it is if no one had invented clocks.

The lowlands deserve a chance however and I’m looking forward to unearthing every morsel of it. Preferably with tablespoons of mayonnaise.

On being in Paris

The smell of roasting rubber from the metro is a mere tickle compared to the hammering aromas of fresh bread, seafood and cheese. Looking up to the grey sky, you don’t feel so bad as you would on a similar day across the Channel.

You’re in Paris.

What can be whittled from this majestic stick of French that hasn’t been said before? The streets are wide, the food is delicious and the people are French. Walking the streets, you feel as if you were in one colossal museum – there are monuments, ancient buildings, lively artist corners and sophisticated types strolling in all directions. Like in England, the hangover of lost colonial power is apparent in France, but it’s done with so much style; you can forgive them their pride and lose yourself in a imperial reverie of wine and fragrant butter sauces.

Far from being snobbish, the people are warm and only too happy to help you with barking corrections if you give their language a go. Every day I witnessed tourists slobbering orders in English to stunned service workers. In a bakery  I saw a man demand a baguette in Englis,h and attempted to indicate the width of the loaf he desired by flapping his arms like an irate seagull. The teenager behind the counter was either too offended or too amused to react. Just before things hit melting point, a woman standing in line translated, the zombie got his bread and retreated.  If a French person did something similar in Australia they would be immediately sent to a detention facility and deported the following decade.

So determined to play by the rules, I stammered out what remained of my French language skills and surprisingly, I got by relatively well. Some were flattered that I’d taken the time as an Anglophone to even open a French grammar book (which is a bit of a polite exaggeration, but  a nice compliment nonetheless). The folk selling trinkets beneath the Eiffel Tower and those trying to scam money weren’t so appreciative when I told them to ‘fuck off’.

In the areas where tourists tend to congregate, you can guarantee that someone will approach you to ask you for money at least once every fifteen minutes. I learned to ignore pleas of ‘Do you speak English?’, but there was one trick I’d never seen: someone pretends to pick up something from the ground in front of you, a ring or a coin, and then presents it to you as if you had dropped it. Insisting that you take the trinket, they congratulate you, then proceed to ask you for money to compensate them for having brought such good fortune upon your package holiday.

“Va te faire!”

On being in Amsterdam as a tourist

Ahh, Amsterdam – the watery princess of the North! Exuding chaos and beauty through your sinewy canals, home to a thousand bicycles and iron hooks from which you can dangle furniture, and magnet for people of all persuasions – particularly young continentals looking to get stoned.

The novelty of Amsterdam takes a few visits to wear down because you’re hardly on the plane on the way back from wherever you came from and you’re planning your next weekend to the city. This of course is due to your still altered state of consciousness whereby you hold the unwavering belief that you could subsist on joints, hot chips and cake for the rest of your terrestrial existence. Reality often kicks in when you are asked to communicate with someone born of the prevailing system and all you can manage is a string of warbling nonsense surrounded by pauses long enough in which to pour a pint of Guinness.

However Amsterdam is more than this: you will notice, if you are a male, or care to frequent the male toilets, that they paint tiny flies on the urinals. The idea is that you will instinctively aim at the fly when you piss and not on the floor, nor presumably on the person standing next to you. This can only mean that people in the Netherlands either take great delight in urinating on insects or on the floor, but not both at the same time.

You can also see the world’s largest collection of working bikes near the Central Station, crammed into a split-level parking lot on the canal. It is a marvel to witness how this modern city functions without reliance on the car, unlike so many other western metropolises. The prevalence of the bike has led to some astonishingly innovative two-wheeled contraptions such as the bike/trailer combination; the “bike for the whole family” bike, with a seat for mum and dad and two kids; and the reclining bike, which is the only personal displacement vehicle in which you can rest, smoke a doobie and exercise at the same time. The unicycle is notably absent.

Impressions of Romania

What types of agricultural goods does your country export?” is not a typical ice breaker you’d use in conversation. But in rural Romania, where every square metre of land has been tilled for some purpose, it’s a serious question.

And they expect an answer.

The relationship between people and land is more evident in Romania than any European country I’ve visited. Transylvanian roads are dotted with locals selling essentials such as eggs, turnips, faggots (bundles of sticks), homemade wines and cheeses, baskets and a products from every exploitable environmental resource. The land is their livelihood, their playground and (sadly) their rubbish tip. While conservative with their consumption, Romanians seemed liberal with their wastage and indeed, the entire countryside has a neglected air about it: along the roadside, fields are littered with enough plastic bags and bottles to choke an industrial waste incinerator; rusted pipes snake through forests towards giant cooling towers and even the buildings appear exhausted as they queue beside abandoned factories, apparently waiting to collapse in order to make way for the next generation. Spurts of EU funding are already visible:  the centre of Bucharest, the capital, has a certain nouveau sheen about it, with clean and useful signage and roads; dual carriageways even connect major centres, although, it is still common to share them with donkey-drawn carts carrying manure.

By European standards, Romania is insanely cheap. You can feast on a local dish of grilled chicken with ham and garlic potatoes, polenta and mountains of fresh bread, a few litres of Ursu (the local beer, whose name means ‘bear’) for around 9€ or 30 RON (Lei). Yet for the locals, it’s a different matter —the average Romanian wage for a worker in a city company we were told is somewhere in the vicinity of 500 Euros. The rest of the country receives a lot less. They can survive because of low inflation and the affordable housing. Just how long this will last as the country modernises, nobody knows. People are already nervous about the shift to the Euro which they say will drive up prices “like it did everywhere else”.

The meagre wages explain why Romania is so jammed with domestic tourists:  it’s just too expensive to travel elsewhere. The castle of Bran where the Royal family once lived and, allegedly, the blood-sucking Vlad Dracul, teems with Romanian travellers and their families, with the odd Spanish or French and even Australian (!) making up the minority of gawking, photo-carrying pilgrims. Yet, locals or foreigners, it doesn’t seem to bother the rows of market owners, who push their tacky t-shirts and vampire teeth onto everyone that passes by.

Doing business in Romania is an informal affair—something which may come as a surprise to unsuspecting westerners, who expect contracts, offices or even business names. In Romania, such commercial excesses are optional. The rental car dealer from which we hired our 4WDs (one of which wasn’t a 4WD) consisted of two gentlemen clad in full denim, sporting the classic Joe Dirt mullet. They were loitering in the car park as we exited the airport terminal and, if they hadn’t been holding cardboard signs with our names scribbled on them, we would have avoided them altogether. The hostel in Bucharest, which we found by luck since there were no street signs, numbers or driveways, was a converted nunnery with three rooms. Space was so scant that even the girl working at reception was forced to sleep behind the desk. I wished her a good night before heading to my mixed dormitory.

“Hopefully tonight I’ll be able to get some sleep”, she replied, before proceeding to lay bed sheets on a banana chair.

Our attempts at speaking the local language were met with good humour. In Brasov, our linguistic repertoire was tested on numerous occasions—our local corner store consisted of a half-metre square hole in the wall, run by a friendly lady in a grey apron. The fact that we couldn’t see what we wanted to buy thwarted our usual method of pointing and thrusting money, however our pronunciation of lapte (milk) and pâinea (bread) must have been half close as both products were handed to us with remarkable efficiency.At a remote petrol station, a taxi driver (who thought it would be a riot to hear four foreigners stammering instructions in Romanian for quarter of an hour before revealing he understood English), assured us that half the country spoke English to some degree. He’d learned by watching McLeod’s Daughters—an Australian drama set on a cattle station. His lack of ‘Aussie twang’ made me suspicious at first, but to his credit, his command of English was excellent. I tried watching Romanian television but failed to experience this osmotic effect myself; with the exception of learning that the word ‘crap’ means ‘carp’, and that fried crap is an infinitely entertaining item to read on a menu.

Speaking of local fauna, Romania is also known to have the largest population of wild bears in Europe. While we did our best to track one down, none crossed our path. Only after did we realise that they were, like us, probably too busy avoiding the hoards of stray dogs that roam the towns and cities. Our guidebook reported that there are 200,000 stray dogs in the country—a figure which seemed, by our estimates, a little conservative. There are dogs rummaging through bins for food, sleeping dogs, dogs just sitting in a field, and dogs in marauding packs. There are dogs of all breeds and sizes (although mostly of the mongrel variety) and most of them looked well fed and content with their existence; some even seemed to be doing better than many of the humans we encountered.

I’d go back to Romania in a second. The people were pleasant and fun and constantly went out of their way to show us a good time; even the policemen, who pulled us over for going 70 mph in a 30 zone (though we were driving at the same speed as the lorry filled with turnips in front of us) and gave us a only warning, despite our licences not being valid. And the countryside, when one ventures beyond the rubbish, is in some areas untouched and pure. What really impressed me though is the air of optimism:  it’s a country that has shrugged off its ‘impoverished Eastern block country’ label and is growing fast. The recent entry into the EU has sparked something… what it is, no one yet knows. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Romanians have realised they’ve become part of something bigger: something that, for so long, was passing them by.