Saturday, 28 February 2009

Somewhere between Buda and Pest with a fistful of Florints

Left things a bit late chatting on facebook and had to run to the train station in Vienna. Caught my train to Budapest with seconds to spare. Rode along with Radiohead in my ears, trying to catch my breath and sucking down apples like some people do cigarettes.

Got into Budapest and felt that electric buzz in my heart that I haven't felt about a city since Munich. Went and changed my 200 Euros for something like 60,000 Florints, feeling like a high roller. Caught the metro to the hostel and even the subway winds smelled good to me.

Got to the Goat Hostel and was greeted most warmly by Steve. Gave me the low-down, hooked me with maps and suggestions and I took off for the markets with a grin on my face and a scarf on my neck. Everything is good, everything is cheap. Eastern European songs playing in the background, groceries plentiful and the people friendlier than I'm used to. Makes me want to go all the way to Russia just to see if it gets any better. Between France and here, it just gets friendlier the further East I go.

Decided to climb the highest point in the city, the hill with the citadel at the top so off I went, racing against the sun. I won. Photos, photos, more photos. Couldn't get the grin off my face, crossing the bridge, thinking about New York and so grateful for everything on this trip. Budapest is on the list of favourite cities.

It's like someone up there is looking out for me. Yesterday I was real low. Made an idiot of myself in front of new friends because of it. I always say to myself that tomorrow will be better, but who could predict I'd feel this good?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Premature Thoughts About 'Home'

The other day I was thinking a lot about the forecast depression that supposedly awaits me on my return to Perth. Being the emotional, susceptible person that I am, it wouldn't surprise me if said depression does eventuate. For a time I was sure that it would. Then I went through a phase of being so excited about the future, so ripped and ready and roaring to go, so full of plans, full of beans, footloose and fancy-free, that I was sure that I wouldn't.

There are about a million things I want to do when I get back. And all these plans and schemes and hopes and dreams are THE thing that is pulling me back to Australia. It occurred to me then, that this might be the way that the post-travel depression was sneakily preparing an attack on my flank. Perhaps all this exuberance is what's going to ultimately destroy me? Maybe the confidence that I can make things happen the way I want is going to turn out to be my Achilles heel.

This is probably truer than I'd care to think about. There's been plenty of times in my Perth life that I've had great ideas and felt highly motivated and have ended up doing nothing with them. Often it seems that my ideas require the input of others that are equally motivated, and when I can't find that support, I crumble. Maybe the person I am now can make things happen, can keep the momentum rolling through whatever obstacles. Or maybe not.

Long story short, when I get back, if things aren't going the way I want them to, I think I'm going to move away. If I can't start the new life I want in Perth than that's too bad. I can't wait any more.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

City Expectation Reversal # 1

So Rome is everything I thought New York would be and vice versa. Rome is the dirty, intimidating, frightening city, with filth and graffiti in the streets, dodgy looking characters, and mysterious dead bodies outside the Termini. Frightening, but broken up with extremely beautiful architecture. Meanwhile New York was the safe, fun, beautiful place, that seemed like some kind of magic.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Travel dreams

These days it seems there's just two types of dreams that come to me late in the night. The first is I'm walking endlessly through the streets of the city I'm in, just walking and walking. Searching maybe. Tired. It goes on and on. Sometimes I get lost and panic, though that never happens to me in the waking realm. It's all so vivid and real, like my mind photographed the streets and played them back to me. Often this dream happens on the first night at a new place, when I literally have only seen streets once. Sometimes when I wake up the next day I go to somewhere I've already navigated in my head that night.

It's weird.

The other dream is that I've gone home. Not to stay. I just dream that I go home for a little while because I'm so tired. I dream that I've just stopped over in Perth on my way to the next location. Sometimes this stresses me out in the dream, like I'm calculating how much money and time I've lost flying all that way out just to return to Europe in a few days. Other times I don't mind so much.

It's really weird.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Venice Part 3 – Matt's life becomes a bizarre, surrealist drama

So having seen pretty much all there is to see in Venice in about 2 hours, I had to figure out things to do that weren’t going to kill the budget. This can be challenging in a city like this, totally geared towards the tourist industry. It’s crazy the variation in prices you see. I’ve been going pretty well so far though.

So a couple of American girls showed up and I took them around, being the tour guide. I got a real kick out of it, because it was only a day ago that I was hopeless, lost, depressed and wet-socked. Now I was the master, weaving through the streets, teaching them what to look out for, and how to navigate. Taught them a few Italian words. Took them to the Piazza and took more photos there, because the weather was a million times more beautiful. We walked for hours, just hanging out.

During the walk I thought a lot about Australian-American relations. I just don’t feel like I can fit in with Americans. I don't really know why, but I really struggle. It's not like it's hard to find things in common, but I just feel like somehow I don't belong. I don't know, maybe I'm nuts.
I thought that one of the girls, Kimberly was particularly good-looking, so I was thinking a lot about her but I soon stopped that. I think I've finally given resigned myself to solidarity. Even if it wasn't for my impossible situation as a tourist, I don't think I fit in anywhere anyway.

We returned to the hostel and the girls went somewhere on their own for awhile. I drank a 2 euro bottle of wine and made a sandwich from the groceries I had to re-buy thanks to mystery food-stealing jerk. The Canadian girls from the night before showed up. Their food had been stolen too so we related. We hung out for a bit and made plans for a piss-up that night. They left to get wine. I was drunk already (it was maybe 5 o’clock) so I figured I’d better make the trek to the supermarket to resupply the wine cabinet.

On the way I decided to get my first gelato. Now I’ve heard so many people sing the praises of gelato that I assumed it would be overrated. After all, I’m the kind of guy who finds that mostly, things taste the same wherever you are. Oh boy was I wrong. I don’t use the words ‘food orgasm’ often, but wow. Wow. I don’t even know what else to tell you. I’m going back for more tonight. I need to experience it sober so I can describe it better.

Anyway I got stocked up, came back, fucked around for a while waiting for everyone to show up. Soon the party was going. The French Canadians, the Norwegians, me, the Turk, the Americans. All was going well. Drinks all round. We decided to go to a “bar” around the corner so the Norwegians could watch the soccer. There really are no bars in Venice. Don’t expect a nightlife if you ever come here.

Anyway we made all kinds of new friends. Some French, some English, some Spanish. Facebook exchanges all round. I can’ speak for everyone, but I’d say we pretty drunk. At some point things got weird, but I didn’t realize this, or fully comprehend it until the next day. You see, at some point, a masked and costumed Venetian was incorporated into the group. He had a bottle of Champagne that he wanted to share with everyone. It was his 50th birthday and he needed friends. Join the party!

So I’m talking to this guy, not at all finding it weird to have a mysterious masked man with us. He wouldn’t take it off. Looking at him, I got the impression he might have been horribly scarred beneath it all. It never occurred to me that he could be trying to rob us or anthing. Anyway, I spoke to him at length. He told me he was from Geneva and he had just decided to do something different for his birthday, so he came to Venice, got a costume and a mask and played a Venetian for tips in the street. We laughed uproariously at the idea of the tourists paying an authentic non-Italian. We drank some more.

So all sorts of things were going on. More drinks, more friends, more fun. At some point, the masked man says to me, whispers in my ear: “she is very beautiful”, nodding in the direction of Kim, the American. I wholeheartedly agree with him, and then he starts telling me that I have ‘the power’ and that I should ‘take her’. I laughed and asked him why he thought that. He said, “Look at you! You are the Casanova, I can see.” I was in hysterics.

I said, what about that guy? (She was talking to Espen, one of the Norwegians). The masked man laughed. “No, look at him. He has no chance. You. You are the beautiful one. Just take her.” I was losing it. I can’t remember if I started telling anyone else about the conversation. I do recall somebody saying that Kim had a boyfriend. The masked man said, “It doesn’t matter. You have the power. Just make her laugh and you will have her. That’s all you have to do. Just make them laugh. Always works."
"That easy, eh?" I laughed. "Why don’t you do it?"
"No," he said. "I am 50 today. My time is passed. Now it’s your time."

Absolutely nuts. And I didn’t even think it was weird until the next day. I ended up going back to the room and having a good laugh about the conversation with Kim, who it turns out doesn’t really have a boyfriend.

I had some strange dreams that night.

Venice Part 2 - Matt gains confidence from language

But once again, everything can change in an instant. At the hostel my keen ears picked up Australian accents in a nearby room, so I marched in and introduced myself. Four young Melbournians, exactly what I needed at the time. They really helped me out. They showed me the ropes of Venice, taught me how to get to the supermarket, the train station and told me what they knew of the places to avoid, flood wise. Most importantly they were company that I could relate to. They were good fun, and best of all I should be seeing them again in Rome. They’re at the same hostel as me for the same amount of time. Awesome.

They were uni students and were on a budget that might even be tighter than mine, so it was hilarious and cool to hang out with them. We went to Billa, the supermarket, for cheap wine. It’s a funny thing to be in a place like Venice. The most basic meal you can find is going to cost you between 15 and 20 Aus dollars, but you can get a bottle of wine for as cheap as two Australian dollars. Madness. We polished off god knows how much wine from the region, reds and whites. We made friends with a whole bunch of people from the hostel, French Canadians, Norwegians, a Turk and a Japanese guy. Hostel parties are the greatest, especially when you’re united by the fact that you’re staying in a dive.

Now let’s talk about language for a little while. You see I have a problem. Whenever I first arrive in a country I’m typically starving, exhausted and hung-over, and my brain isn’t at it’s sharpest. I usually try to practice basic language stuff on the trains and prepare myself as best I can but I almost always get a bad case of the blanks, and I often feel so overwhelmed that I might not even try (see Amsterdam and even Germany to an extent.)

Coming into Italy though, I thought: “Surely this time I’m gonna get it.” But for whatever reason, I just couldn’t bring myself to try. I know all the basics like the back of my hand, but each time I would go to buy some food I would chicken out. “What the fuck is wrong with me?” I thought. I tried harder to get my nerve up but I just couldn’t.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Now some of you might know that I’ve been thinking a lot about getting into performance of some sort when I get home. Maybe acting, maybe stand-up comedy, I don’t know yet. Now, I had been feeling like crap being too nervous to attempt to speak Italian, and then me and the Melbournians went to a restaurant. I was the last person to order, and of the four, 3 just flat out went English, and one made a slight attempt in Italian. When it came to me, I seemingly effortlessly ordered in Italian, impressing every one else, and possibly shaming them as well. I also went to the supermarket for more wine with the two guys, and got through that fine as well. I find it really interesting that if you put me in front of some random people I suddenly have more confidence.

Anyway, from that point on I’ve been flying. I’m ordering all my food in Italian. I reserved my place on the train to Rome largely in Italian (only switching to English to double check that I hadn’t booked the wrong time or day) I’m teaching people in the hostel some basic words and expressions. I even have a little bit of nerve. Today I had lunch in Padova, and after a brief moment of confusion when I came in, the waiter brought me the English menu, so I turned the tables on him and ordered it in Italian. I guess it isn’t really all that impressive to be able to figure out that sandwich = panini, that mushrooms = funghi, and stuff like that, but at the time I felt like a pretty cool cat.

All that being said, I wouldn’t at all say I know what I’m doing. I still have all kinds of embarrassing moments. And, you guessed it, people keep approaching me thinking I’m Italian. I must have the ultimate chameleon appearance. Every country I go people think I look like I’m from there. Here’s an interesting fact though. Most English speakers that I’ve met tell me that when they try to speak another language to somebody, that every time they just get spoken back to in English. This has NEVER happened to me. Not once. Not even in Paris. The only time it turns to English is when I have to ask them because I don’t understand what they’ve said to me. I think that’s pretty weird. I can’t imagine that I’m even half decent at speaking other languages. Maybe they just appreciate the effort.

So after the shaky start, now I’m loving Italy. The weather’s been beautiful, and since that first day I haven’t seen any flooding. I finally feel okay about speaking to people, and it makes everything a million times easier. I’m loving just strolling through fruit markets and bakeries. I’m really looking forward to Rome tomorrow. Padova today was really awesome. It must be such a great place to live. Friendly people, lots of young students. Good vibes. Hilarious graffiti on the streets. Beautiful. It really gave me an idea of just how much of a rip-off Venice is, and it should all be becoming cheaper from here on. Excitement building… Nothing is going to bring me down now. Even the fact that somebody stole my 6 Euros worth of bread, cheese and salami that was going to be my breakfast wasn’t going to bring me down.

Venice Part 1 - Matt gets wet feet

After the best time of the trip so far in Munich, I hit the rails and prepared for the 6ish hour journey to Venice totally physically destroyed, more alcohol in my blood than platelets. I didn’t expect to be able to sleep on the train, so I wasn’t disappointed. Truth is I didn’t want to sleep. I just couldn’t get enough of the view, crossing through the mountains. It was incredible, the kind of beauty that makes you just ache. It’s too perfect. Makes you think you might have died.

I did nothing but stare out the windows the whole way through Germany, Austria and into Italy. At one point a little cynicism crept in and I thought to myself, gee I really thought the Alps would be a lot bigger than this. About a minute later the train rounded a bend and then I was looking at a mountain that had a layer of clouds less than halfway up the thing. I was blown away. Then I saw a mountain that was higher than two layers of cloud. Unbelievable.

So I was in fairly good spirits as I left Germany. Along the way though, I started to get into my usual nervous / intimidated mood. It seems each new country brings me down a peg because I’ve just gotten used to one language and culture, and suddenly the music starts playing and I have to get off the chair again. And who knows if I’ll get a chair the next time the music stops?

Things weren’t helped by the speed with which the staff on the train spoke at me. Italian or English, they were spitting out words as fast as . So I got to Venice in darkness, a hung-over, hungry mess, and it’s always when I’m in this state that I feel really intimidated by the world around me. Following my directions to the hostel, I took the water bus to San Polo, costing me some 6.5 Euro (if you have bags they massively charge you) and was so pissed off when I discovered days later how easy it would have been to walk. I also got screwed another 2 Euro buying a map, which in Venice is about as useful as car.

So I got to the hostel and discovered it was the biggest dive imaginable. Despite being a Bed and Breakfast I was told I couldn’t have breakfast because I’m in a dorm room. Right. The shower alternates between trying to shrink my testes to the size of peas and trying to scald my skin off, and boy is it filthy. The shower curtain is less a fabric and more of a fish-print mould tapestry. I took some photos of this so that I can show them to Grazia later and teach her a thing or two about travelling.

So I hit the hay for an early start. I woke up to fairly miserable weather and no breakfast. I wandered around looking for somewhere cheap to eat and was bemused at how many of the Italian restaurants are run by Asians. The food is pretty amazing though. No more bullshit fast food for me. Though still not as good as Nonna’s, (Jimmy if you’re reading this, that’s Nonna, not Nando’s.)

So I went off to check out the Piazza St Marco and take in the tourist sights. As I walked I noticed the water was lapping over into the streets in some places and thought that was pretty cool. I got to the square to find it totally submerged. Huh. That’s awkward. Now all the wooden boardwalks that had got in my way on the way to the hostel on the first night made sense. So I took some snaps and was getting too hungry to think so I left to finally get a breakfast. I turned back the way I had come to find the streets flooded. This wasn’t good.

The Venetians in their gumboots were out in force. Some of those gumboots are total thigh-highs that go right up to your arse. Nuts, but essential it would seem. I was starting to panic. Trying to find an alternate route was useless. So many dead-ends, so many flooded streets. A mad, senseless, labyrinthine city. It shouldn’t be habitable. What will they do in a few years when it all crumbles? Already there’s leaning, crooked towers and buildings. Maybe they could put the whole place on giant stilts. That’d be cool. Or maybe do an under-the-sea type of thing.

So I was trapped, hungry and frustrated. All the places around the Piazza are way more expensive and anyway I just wanted to go home, so I had to do it, I had to wade through the water. I managed it on tippy toes. Thank God I didn’t throw out my boots yet, or I’d have been a goner. As I’m crossing a particularly deep part, the liquid finally penetrating my socks, a gum-booted, crotchety old Italian man walks past, splashing me, and mocking me in Italian. Great. I already had a nemesis.

And I do mean this. I have encountered this guy again. I was taking a photo of a statue, a typical thing that everybody does, and he starts walking past. I was waiting for him to walk out of my shot and as he passed me he muttered something quite loudly in Italian. What an arsehole.
Anyway, I made it back to the hostel, got some pizza and then returned to the hostel to mope around. I was starting to hate Italy already. Great.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Thoughts on Dachau

As I get on the bus to leave Dachau, I reach into my pockets for my mp3 player. The journey back to the hostel will take about half an hour, on both the bus and the U-banh (and a short walk). The bus chuffs, jolts once and starts moving through the suburbs. I still haven't pressed play on anything. After a while I hit the random button. I guess a few songs must have played but I couldn't tell you what they were. I couldn't stand them. After a few minutes I turn the thing off.

I gaze out the window for a lifetime. Outside are people walking dogs, elderly people going for a stroll, and children playing basketball in what was once an SS training camp.

When I get to the train station, I stand on the windy platform, waiting. I think I need happy music to distract me, so I flip on some Beatles. I can't even listen to the whole length of Love Me Do before I turn it off again. The train wooshes up and the people get on.

I ride home in silence.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

One sausage goes a long way.

Sometimes I have no idea how I do it.

Last night I stressed myself out majorly trying to plan parts of my trip, booking things on and trying to figure out awkward train routes. I ended up being so mind-fucked by this that I went to the hostel bar to get my free beer and just chill the fuck out. Having spent a quiet few days in Cologne I was feeling the need to socialise but I didn't like my chances. It was still early, about 6ish and even though happy hour is from 6 to 8 there weren't many people around and everyone was speaking German and I just couldn't bring myself to approach anyone. After a few minutes a couple that spoke English came in, so I went up them and it turns out they were Irish, and the bloke was born in Letterkenny. We had a time talking about Ireland and trying to figure out if we knew any of the same people. I've never felt so Irish in my life. Ha.

Anyway we got to drinking and we each got a pitcher (for 5 euro) and drank and drank. At some point things must have got livelier because I ended up talking to all sorts. People are so fascinating. So at some point the cute German girl who checked me in that day comes in, so I start hanging out with her, doing more drinking, etc.

I ended up out with her til 4am drinking in various hostels along Senefelderstrasse.

Let me pause here to reflect on something. I am really tired of my inability to get girls. I don't know if I'm doing something wrong, or if it's just the temporary nature of the traveler that puts people off, but I am so over it. Seems I spend so much time and effort talking and hanging out all night and buying drinks and being the nice guy and walking her home or to a bus or train or whatever and not getting anything for my troubles. Not that I expect something. I guess it's just been so long that I really miss physical contact.

Putting on the positivity glasses for a second; maybe it's a good thing that I'm not getting anywhere. Shows I'm going for the right sort of girls. By that I just mean that if you do find somebody who's fairly forward it's pretty obvious that it's a once off thing. And I really don't do one night stands. Maybe when I get back home, or settle somewhere and make a new home then I'll know if my approach is any good.

Anyway, back to the story. So I was out til 4am, drunk as anything. Got up just in time for the free walking tour at 11am. So I'm dehydrated but I don't have any water, and I don't have time for breakfast. Just a quick coffee and a red bull and away I go.

Somehow I managed the 3 and half hour tour in the almost freezing temperatures on no sleep and no food. At about the mid point of the tour we stopped to get some bratwurst and a so-called 'breakfast beer' in the markets. This is a wheat beer which is less gassy and hence more suitable for the stomach in the mornings. Madness. A single sausage in a tiny bun and half a litre of beer to kick off the day. Anyway, the tour was awesome and Munich is gorgeous. Afterwards I gunned it down to the BMW complex, the Olympiastadium, and back again to buy a train ticket and run some other errands.

All this and I wasn't even hungry, wasn't even tired. I went and got a Whopper for the sake of common sense, but I really didn't feel like I needed it. I don't know how I do it sometimes...

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

On Deutschland and moustaches.

Germany is the best. I'm buzzing. Everything is great. I'm walking the street and I see old people actually sporting Kaiser moustaches from another era! This is the greatest of joys I can imagine. At the crosswalks the people stop and stand there until the man goes green, irrespective of whether there are cars coming or not. I'm not used to that level of obediance, so I must stand out. I just cross the street when it's safe like in most countries. When I do that though nobody follows me. They wait. It's not like anywhere else.

Everything here is cheap and beautiful and wonderful. I went to the city's most famous landmark: the giant Dom cathedral. Climbed right to the top of that thing, huffin', puffin' and hobbling up the 500ish stairs in the narrow, winding case. Wow, what a view. It's gorgeous. The afternoon sun blazing a path over the Rhine and into the city streets.

In the space outside the Dom, a street performer was wandering around dressed as Charlie Chaplin, doing the schtick to try for tourist tips. It looked like the guy had gone to great lengths to get his moustache just that little bit longer than would be historically accurate. I guess that look isn't as popular in Germany as it once was.

I walked back home to clear my camera. Ah, the joys of walking distance. Got back in no time and headed out again, checking out the Roman ruins that can be found throughout Köln. Found a space invader along the way. Then I went to EL-DE building: the former Gestapo prison. Wow. Real cells, real incriptions in the walls, the last pained thoughts of innocent inmates scratched in with anything from lipstick to fingernails.

This is what it's all about.

Battle Scars 2

For some reason I forgot to mention in my list of ailments that I'm pretty sure there's a hole in one of my teeth, or there will be soon. The whole set are looking pretty bad right now, which I'm attributing to poor bristle strength. I need it hard, baby. I could use a good floss as well. Also, my upper lip is massively swollen with some sort of pimple, which I am attributing to clogged lip pores after gunning the lip balm for 3 days.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Battle Scars

I'm deep in Euro territory now and the injuries are starting to stack up. My right foot is totally fucked right now. Struggling to walk on it the last few hours. Not sure what I did to it. It's funny the whole injuries thing. Seems almost every fellow traveller I meet is carrying some niggle or another. There's always someone who's got a chronic cold, somebody with a limp, somebody coughing out a lung. It's the way of things.

Me, I'm doing okay about it all. Rode the train into Köln from Amsterdam. My streak of strange encounters with mildly famous Australians on trains has continued: first the Howling Bells on the train from London to Paris, and today I was in the same car as The Umbilical Brothers. They were mildly amusing to observe.

Train had tech problems so we had to switch, end up stuck on a cold platform, eating the skin off my dry lips for a good half hour, and late getting in but what does that matter. Köln is a lot warmer than Amsterdam. Amsterdam was like ice in my underpants. Couldn't walk the streets it was so bad. Plus there's that foot thing.

Goes nicely with my other injuries: mystery burn scar on my hand which looks increasingly worse, my usual skin irritation thing on my hands which is in full swing now, stiff neck and my cracked up lips.

Köln is pretty cool. I'm glad that I got clean linen this time. I was on a bad streak til Amsterdam. Seemed every hostel I went to I had to sleep in somebody's shadow. What can you do? Maybe my luck is changing.

I'm glad to be out of Amsterdam. I loved it there but I need to keep moving and it's nice here too. And it's quiet. I need to chill out for a while, get my mind back. Start concentrating now that I've got some space. Need to get writing again and leave behind all the mixed up thoughts I had in Amsterdam.