Wharariki Beach, 18 November 2007

Thursday 14 February 2008

I’ve been packing all week, and because I screwed up my order matching reference code (not heard of it? neither has Google) the next post won’t come until some time later next week, I expect. Have fun without me.


Thursday 8 November 2007

The place doesn’t look that different after nearly three years away, partly because I’ve continued the lifestyle I left off at the end of my stay in town – namely, sitting in the shade on a back patio drinking stubbies of beer while the sun sets over a Hills Hoist in the back yard.

I’m supposed to be rehearsing for the gig next Tuesday, but I’ve been too busy (a) sitting and drinking, and (b) taking photographs up and down Sydney Road. So far I’ve spotted the local trugo club and one of those Jennifer Connelly Moreland Whore graffitos.
I have ingratiated myself with my hosts by getting myself trapped in the bathroom, and one of my housemates having to break down the door to get me out, thus injuring his shoulder as well as breaking the door jamb.
I don’t even have time for a proper thinkpiece about what Melbourne means to me today because the battery on my laptop is dying. There was a bit of a nasty surprise when I saw how much prices have gone up since I left, but then I realised this was a symptom of a larger phenomenon. All this time I’ve been carrying in my head an image of Melbourne that was formed when I first moved here in 1994, and everything that has happened since has been compared to this original image.
At least when I’m back in London I can console myself by saying I’m paying pretty much the Melbourne price for everything these days.

RANDOM RERUN: Hope I die before I look old

Tuesday 18 September 2007

To die of the cigarettes, that is a misfortune, no? But to have one’s skin look not so young before one’s time, that is the real tragedy.
The French have their priorities straight. The real mystery here is that this photo was taken in Estavar, where a 5-minute drive into the next village will see you over the border into Spain, where a packet of Camels will set you back only €2.50.

(First posted 26 October 2005.)

RANDOM RERUN: Meanwhile, Back in the Ukraine

Monday 27 August 2007

Some associates of mine recently returned from a business trip to Moscow and brought back a box of what were allegedly, and thankfully turned out to be, chocolates. OK, so it’s not actually from the Ukraine; but it’s Russian, so it’s close – unless it was made in Vladivostok or one of the other ten time zones not next door to the Ukraine.
On the other hand, the writing on the wrapper may in fact say “Made in the Ukraine”. Attempting foods with labels and ingredients written in a foreign language is bad enough, but when you can’t even recognise the alphabet it gets particularly dodgy: there are no potential warning signs to deduce (TESTICALES CON LARDO!) and you start to worry that it comes from a culture sufficiently different from your own to consider tamarind pits coated in Vegemite a delicious treat.
Nor did the picture on the wrappers inspire confidence. Here is a typical picture of a child on a sweet wrapper from the rest of the world:

Note the smiles and general impression that the contents are good to eat. Now here is the picture of the child on the Russian Mystery Chocolate wrapper:

Three thoughts spring to mind:
  1. The poor kid just ate one of the chocolates.
  2. This is as happy as a Russian child can get.
  3. ALLERGY ALERT: This product contains Slavic orphan parts.
In fact, the chocolates were rather nice, so if you can read Cyrillic, please don’t tell me what was in them.

(First posted 13 July 2005.)

Only French airport security officers are so precise.

Thursday 2 August 2007

In most ordinary airports, train or bus stations, if you leave your luggage unattended it will be removed and maybe destroyed; but at Paris Orly airport, it will be removed and systematically destroyed. None of that feckless, willy-nilly destruction for the French – they can leave that to the British luggage handlers.
Speaking of British randomness: security at London City airport consists of passengers and staff wandering back and forth through a metal detector, sometimes with two people going through in both directions at once, and someone from the cabin crew flipping through your passport just as you board the plane.

Doing it for Gerald Ford! Three and a half more observations from Budapest

Thursday 11 January 2007

  • The in-flight magazine on Malev Airlines contained a full-page ad from the Budapest Olympic Committee with the headline, “It is time to bring the OLYMPIC GAMES to BUDAPEST! So we can be proud ourselves again.” [sic]
  • Lots of stuff named after Liszt, Bartók, and Kodály. Nothing named after Ligeti or Kurtág. That last link is as good a sketch of Budapest as it is of Kurtág.
  • While only half a block is fenced off around the British Embassy, the American Embassy gets its entire block fenced off.
  • – Look, they’ve lowered the flag to half-mast for James Brown!
    – Actually, they probably did it for Gerald Ford.
    – Oh yeah. Probably.

In which we repent a season of overindulgence

Tuesday 9 January 2007

I saw in the new year in Budapest, running around in the Vörösmarty tér setting off bottle rockets, drinking plastic cups of glühwein and shouting in Italian. The city is full of Italians: it seems the locals were more likely to understand Italian than German, and were probably better at both than English. I counted down into the new year in Italian, after a cod-English community singalong amongst the entire crowd of “Twist and Shout”, which I don’t think is the national anthem of either Hungary or Italy.
The Hungarians had a democratic, do-it-yourself approach to fireworks. As far as I could see there was no organised display anywhere in the city, but the council had cleared a space at either end of the square for anyone who wanted to bring their own fireworks and toss them about. Which they did, insistently, all night. I almost spilled my glühwein when a stray rocket spiralled under my bench: about half a second later I saw a youth briskly swept away into the night by a pair of large men in day-glo coveralls.
Budapest is not an entirely cruisy city to hang out in. I almost got myself arrested the night before, during a little misunderstanding with some ticket inspectors on the Metro (my fault for not buying a ticket, but not entirely my fault for displaying a healthy skepticism that they were real inspectors). Then, earlier on New Year’s Eve my friends and I got into an argument on the street with the proprietor of a restaurant who had kept us waiting the better part of an hour before repeatedly attempting to serve us the wrong food.
We stormed off feeling all empowered and assertive, not realising that on this day all the cafes, bistros and restuarants in town close at 6pm. Ha! Who wants to enjoy a meal out on New Year’s Eve? Certainly not tourists! We spotted a few clumps of forlorn revellers wandering the streets from one darkened door to another, before we finally got lucky at a bar that was booked out (funny that) but who scrounged up a little table for us, bless ’em.
A lot of bars did open up later on, including the wonderfully-named Beckett’s Irish Pub. Yes, the walls were decorated with a few drawings of the titular Nobel laureate. Doesn’t that sound like a fun place for a cheery drink and friendly conversation? I was going to stop in, but the dustbins were all occupied.

I had planned to spend New Year’s Day at the Statue Park, which is somewhere on the outskirts of town, inspecting the detritus from the years of Soviet rule. After 1989 it was decided that all the less-securely attached monuments shouldn’t be destroyed, but all corralled together in some out-of-the-way place – sort of like a communist version of Monster Island. Unfortunately, you have to change buses at least once from the centre of town to get out there, and a lot of buses in Budapest use the same route numbers, but the numbers can mean very different things depending on what colour they are. So I spent most of the day ruminating upon another legacy of the communist era: riding around block after block of drab apartment towers until it got dark.
Even without the communist trappings, Budapest is still crammed with monuments and statues from different regimes. I was very reluctant to photograph them because most of the time I had no idea what they were, and the ones I did know about all seemed to have been used at one time or another as a rallying point for some nationalist, fascist, or Stalinist group or other. What with all the rioting lately, I became paranoid about being seen as some sort of sympathiser and getting into yet another street altercation. At least at Statue Park I would have been safely classified as a tourist.
As well as the Mystery Bar that fed us on New Year’s Eve, I have to thank Café Eklektika for giving me shelter on the first, after I’d finally found my way back into the city. Apart from being the only bar in Hungary to have sufficiently gotten over the heady days of liberation to move their record collection on beyond 1990, they let me loll for as long as I wanted in a comfy couch drinking Mitteleuropan pilsner before stuffing myself with a New Year Stew of smoked pork and lentils. It made me realise how much I miss the cafés of Melbourne.

A substantial part of any European vacation is properly spent watching TV. The whole time I was there, the Italian channel (of course) on the little telly in my communist-era hostel-turned-hotel obsessed over Saddam Hussein’s execution. They really miss Mussolini, don’t they? Meanwhile, the German telly was showing the 2006 German Comedy Award [sic]. They didn’t even spell “Comedypreis” with a K – pathetic! I switched on for a bit and saw a bloke in a rubber nose. The Hungarian stations all seemed to be showing karaoke at a local bar.

Index update? What index update? (Equine Remix)

Sunday 17 December 2006

Hello to TimT, who guessed that the mystery location was the White Horse of Uffington, seen here again from a more comprehensible angle. If you plan to visit between September and May, bring wellingtons! Chalk mud is a bastard.
The Scalagna debacle, as promised, keeps rolling along. In the latest news, Roberto Alagna has been staging a one-tenor picket outside La Scala, singing (badly) and reminding everyone that his last wife died, and appearing on TV playing up his Sicilian roots by singing a traditional song about a dead donkey, complete with hee-haw noises. No, it’s not about the donkey’s head ending up in a theatre manager’s bed.
Also, an expanded version of Contextualising the Contemporary Artist Yadda Yadda Tracey Emin is now posted at Sarsaparilla.

A bitterly cold morning at a famous landmark somewhere in England.

Friday 8 December 2006

No time to write anything substantial, so in the meantime please enjoy the above photo. Feel free to speculate on where it was taken.

What do people do all day?

Wednesday 22 November 2006

In Köln, every office worker sits impassively regarding a slimline computer monitor at an otherwise empty desk.

A quarter of a million people sitting at home watching TV

Wednesday 22 November 2006

I’ve added a few more photos to the Looking at People Looking at Art group on Flickr. These are from the launch of Raum 2810, a new art space in Bonn, which opened with an exhibition and collaborative performance by Michael Graeve and Christoph Dahlhausen.
I was over there for a weekend, to catch up with an old friend. The girlfriend is still thanking me for making her spend the weekend at an abandoned factory in a dormitory suburb on the outskirts of a dull, provincial town in one of the drabber corners of Germany.
Actually, the exhibition and opening were very pleasant; the people were friendly and invited us to stay on afterward for an enormous buffet and copious amounts of Australian shiraz cabernet. All very good, even though one of the dishes was a salad of onion rings and pineapple chunks in mustard sauce.
The old city centre of Bonn was bustling with crowds on Saturday, particularly with crowds of drunk people in silly costumes: it was the first day of Karneval. Yes, this part of the Rhineland starts its pre-lenten festivities in November. But then at night, and on Sunday, the city is deserted: it’s quite a job just finding somewhere to grab a coffee. After 10pm it’s possible to walk through the central streets utterly alone. It was uncannily like being back in Adelaide on a Saturday afternoon.
The girlfriend tried to amuse herself by photographing everything in town with the name “Beethoven” arbitrarily plastered over it, but her camera only had a 512 MB memory card. Nothing was named Schumann, despite both Robert and Clara being buried there, having lived at Endenich, which is now a suburb.
Even the toilets in the bars were hung with posters advertising the next piano recital at the Beethoven Konzerthaus, along with ads for Vicky Leandros’ christmas concert. Sadly, I think I’ll have to miss that.

Italy Welcomes American Tourists!

Monday 23 October 2006

On the tariff at the Tre Scalini café in the Piazza Navonna, Rome:
Coffee: €0.80 at the bar, €3.00 on the piazza.
Decaff: €0.90 at the bar, €4.50 on the piazza.

He died at WHAT!?

Sunday 10 September 2006

Kilmartin in Argyll is famous for its bronze age cairns, stone circles and 10th century crosses in Kilmartin churchyard. But this gravestone is what really got me wondering. Is “experiment” used here as a synonym for misadventure? Is it an obsolete piece of medical terminology? Was Jimmy Stewart an infant scientific prodigy with a fatal reckless streak? I can’t help thinking the real explanation is that Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is based even more closely on real life than I thought.

What I really did on my summer holiday

Wednesday 30 August 2006

All through July, London had been persistently hot and sunny, which becomes dispiriting after a few days, and was not the England I had come looking for. Bright sunlight and brown grass are not a flattering look for this city. Besides, hot weather makes day to day life here very unpleasant.
So I escaped to Islay, a two hour ferry ride west of Kintyre (no, I didn’t make a detour to see the statue of Linda McCartney cuddling a baa-lamb), and spent a week gladdening my heart with an old-fashioned Scottish summer filled with clouds, rain, mist and fog. Islay is one of those rustic backwaters of the type you see eulogised in feel-good movies, where cows and sheep placidly wander over the highway; a place where my mobile phone couldn’t get a signal, saving me the trouble of turning it off. Despite my aversion to fresh air, it was an ideal location for indulging in my favourite pastime of doing absolutely nothing.
To encourage my indolence, I stayed at a bed and breakfast overlooking the sound and the neighbouring island of Jura. I could easily have sat there all day, drinking tea and watching the fog roll in and out over the valley and around the Paps, or the Jura ferry crossing over every hour or two. In fact, I almost had to sit there all day, the wife of the house having stuffed me to the point of immobility with a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, haggis, mushrooms, pikelets, toast and fruit pudding. Presumably she liked cooking for someone who appreciated her food; the other people staying there were a quintissentially English couple, who whinged and muttered an ineffably English complaint about having to eat a cooked breakfast every morning.

I didn’t get around to taking a ride on the ferry to Jura. I considered going there to visit George Orwell’s house, but it turns out it’s up the other end of the island, a 25-mile drive up a one lane road, followed by a three mile hike to a house which is closed to the public. He wasn’t kidding about wanting isolation to finish writing 1984. I’m not crazy enough about Orwell to put myself to that sort of trouble; not while there are people willingly plying me with tea and toast.

Besides, I’d be kidding noone but myself if I didn’t say that the real reason I went to Islay was because it has eight distilleries on it. Under the surface, the island is one huge peat bog, and it produces the heaviest, smokiest, richest malt whiskies: the likes of Laphroiag, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin. Anyone visiting the island will probably end up visiting at least one distillery, especially if the weather is “changeable”, and it’s worth taking the guided tours of at least two places, if you have time. I went to Ardbeg, whose café is one of the best places to eat on the island, and Bruichladdich, one of the smaller, lesser-known distilleries in the north of Islay.
There are several benefits to doing the tour of more than one place. Firstly, you get to meet different cross-sections of the groups of Germans, Japanese, and Swedes making their pilgrimage to the venerated malt of their choice. Secondly, the two tours I went on emphasised different aspects of the process. At Ardbeg our guide gave us more details about fermenting and distilling, while at Bruichladdich we got into a long discussion about the part that different casks can play in affecting the type of whisky produced.

Thirdly, they will get you drunk. There is of course the complimentary dram at the end of the tour but at Bruichladdich, where there’s only a few people around, if you show genuine enthusiasm for their product they will start showing off the different whiskies they make. I wondered why I felt a bit woozy after leaving the distillery, until counting back on my fingers I realised I’d had at least a taste of seven different whiskies, from a shot from their Cotes du Rhône cask containing a whisky turned red and sweet as liqueur, to a sample of an almost drinkable three-year old spirit, which you can buy futures in and then wait for another seven years until it’s ready.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” whispered the Dutch guy, on a working holiday at the distillery, who had been showing us around. “I don’t much like the stuff they make here.” It’s one of the lighter, less peated malts on the island, and he preferred the smokier stuff. When I concurred he led me over to an old bourbon cask with one of their heavier malts maturing inside, where I helped myself to a half-litre Valinch – after another taste, of course – as a souvenir of my visit.
That last sentence or two made me sound like a wanky whisky writer, but after a few glasses of brown spirit I end up pontificating as though I were wearing a cravat, so it’s an accurate reflection of my state of mind.
The whisky is a pretty big deal all over the island. It’s a pretty special feeling to walk into a small, country pub and find the rack of bottle dispensers behind the bar habitually filled with top shelf malts. It’s also a pretty special feeling to hang around the Port Askaig Hotel on Friday nights and get matey with yacht owners sailing over from County Antrim until they start shouting you drinks. Of the few pubs on the island, most of them are geared toward the ageing, middle-class posh types, but Port Askaig welcomes in the less fashion conscious to play folk music at night, and aren’t afraid to follow it up with The Modern Lovers on the stereo.
Don’t get the wrong idea: I didn’t go to Islay just to get drunk. Remember, there was also the long breakfasts and the sitting around in majectic scenery, doing nothing.

Au Tombeau de William McGonagall

Sunday 20 August 2006

Beautiful city of Edinburgh!
Where the tourist can drown his sorrow
By viewing your monuments and statues fine
During the lovely summer-time.
I’m sure it will his spirits cheer
As Sir Walter Scott’s monument he draws near,
That stands in East Princes Street
Amongst flowery gardens, fine and neat.
And Edinburgh castle is magnificent to be seen
With its beautiful walks and trees so green,
Which seems like a fairy dell;
And near by its rocky basement is St. Margaret’s well,
Where the tourist can drink at when he feels dry,
And view the castle from beneath so very high,
Which seems almost towering to the sky.
* * *
Beautiful city of Edinburgh! the truth to express,
Your beauties are matchless I must confess,
And which no one dare gainsay,
But that you are the grandest city in Scotland at the present day!

– Wm. McGonagall, “Edinburgh”, Poetic Gems (London: Duckworth, 1970), p.84.