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97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 12 – travelling crazy; banks)

Aside from the most obvious perils of traveling overseas such as lost passports, lost cameras, lost phones and lost minds, travel offers one of the great pleasures of life – some of the best Catch 22s that you can possibly experience. These include things such as the phone that doesn’t work, where your phone company tells you that the only way in which you can solve this problem is to call the phone company – on the phone that doesn’t work.

So they tell you that you need to pay a surcharge to allow you to speak to them at extra expense but in order to change that, a change to set up is required which itself requires the account holder to speak to them – an account holder who happens to be in another country because the rules won’t allow you to purchase a sim card without a residential address in Europe and so you needed to purchase the sim card via them – and they are not with you. You could, of course pay for the account holder to fly from Russia to Istanbul. Or pretend to impersonate the Russian account holder and speak to the operator in heavily accented English explaining you have forgotten all your Russian because you’ve been living in Turkey for too long.

There’s the TV with the remote in Turkish and the manual in Turkish that explains clearly, in Turkish, how to change the language or sub-titles to English. And you can’t even shout at the TV because clearly the TV in its current mode only speaks Turkish so shouting at it in English won’t make any difference. Perhaps if you kick it with Turkish shoes on that might work.

The car hire firm where only one of you has a licence but the money to pay is on the other person’s credit card but you can only pay on the card of the person hiring the car. Or the WhatsApp calls you can’t receive because you registered your European number so that you can speak to people with that number but no one with your Australian number can now call you because like a dickhead you forgot to alert them, beforehand, to the fact that you were changing your number.

And then there is dealing with the BANK……

There was a time long long ago….when you just took travellers cheques, went into the nearest bank and got your money out….and when your bills arrived at home you got someone to drop in, open the letter and pay the bill for you. Now……

You open your email. There it is lurking obscenely and darkly. The third item email on the list. “The Unforeseen Invoice”. Ok no problem, you open your internet banking…payee, amount, press pay. The pop up appears. A code is required. Please request a code.

Damn….you remember you changed your sim card from your Australian one to your Europe-wide one and forgot to change your phone number. Your Australian sim card is back in the UK where you left it when you got the new one.

No problem, let’s change the number. Open your banking admin interface, click on code authorisation, click on enter new phone number. No problem. Press save. The pop up appears. A code is required, please request a code to authorise a change of authorised phone number. Damn. Fuck. Catch 22. Swear at bank. Walk around room. Swear at computer. Swear at stupid people from IT who don’t seem to understand that people do leave the country and use other phone numbers.

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids such a Catch 22. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately we cannot change your phone number for you without authorisation. However you may download our secure authorisation app from the internet. Once you have installed this app, it will supply you with a code which you an use to authorise transactions without the need to receive an SMS to your authorised phone number.

Great, no problem.

Go to your mobile.

Search on PlayStore. Find relevant app. Download app. Install App. Open App.

Message: Please enter your code. To receive a code please request a code from your bank which will be sent to your authorised phone number. Fuck. Damn. Fuck. Catch 22/2. Swear at bank. Walk around room. Swear at computer. Swear at stupid people from IT who don’t seem to understand that people do leave the country and use other phone numbers. Catch 22/2.

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids Catch 22 and Catch 22/2. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately we cannot authorise the App for you. Please call us on phone number xxxxxxxxxx and we will arrange to confirm your identity and then authorise the App over the phone.”

Calculate; 15 minute phone call. Excess roaming charges. Potential cost more than I’m prepared to pay. Cannot call Australia. Catch 22/3

Open secure email interface. Write email explaining situation and suggesting that they need to do something which avoids Catch 22 and Catch 22/2 and Catch 22/3. Wait 24 hours.

24 hours passes. Open your computer. Open internet banking. Open secure email interface.

“Thank you for your email. Please supply us with a phone number on which one of our customer service officers can reach you during working hours. They will then step you through the process to authorise the App.

Respond on secure email interface. Write email giving phone number. Wait 24 hours.

Sometime in another time and place (actually while driving along the freeway). Phone rings. Check wing mirrors, check main mirror, scrutinise road ahead, check cars around for sign of unmarked police car. Ok, no worries. Answer phone. “Chris here”. “Mr Harris, this is xxxxx from Bank xxxx. I hope I’m not disturbing you at an inconvenient moment.”

Client (me) breaks into spasm of silent mirthless laughter and just avoids colliding with large petrol tanker, before swerving off road, pulling up and saying…

“No not all, I was just driving but I’ve pulled off the road…”

“Brilliant. I understand you want me to authorise you to install our online authorisation App”

Client (me)…sotto voce “No I want you to fucking authorise me to shoot Donald Trump….”. In louder voice “Yes, thanks”

“Ok, thank you Sir. I’ll just ask you a few questions to identify you.”

Five minutes later, and some 80 plus hours after first trying to perform a simple internet banking operation, I am able to pay my bill.

This is Part 12 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

97 Days adrift in Europe (Part 11 – Prague)

I leave Berlin for Prague and Budapest, appropriately, from Ostbahn Hof, which used to be the main terminal in East Berlin, before the Wall fell. Like many things in Berlin it’s been modernised and scrubbed up, but it seems like an appropriate place from which to head to eastern Europe.

For whatever reason these two cities are inextricably linked in my mind. I’m not sure if it’s because travellers often compare them, because of their Eastern European history linked by the uprisings of 1956 and 1968, in respectively, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia.

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Along the Elbe River

It’s about three hours from Berlin to Prague following the line of the Elbe river. I retreat into my train cocoon and absorb the passing scenery – sufficiently beautiful, in parts, to make certain that one has a seat on the left hand side when travelling to Prague.

Prague’s station, Praha hlavní nádraží has been converted into a huge soul-less barn of a station; upstairs a small piece of the original old station that has not been gutted remains, in the shape of a large ornate dome.

Arriving at a new station, I follow a standard routine. First money. Then I find the address to which I want to go on my phone or failing having a phone available, I write the address, phone number and any instructions I have in my notebook. Finally, find the information centre and get a public transport map, a general map, the relevant ticket and, showing them the smartphone map, I get specific instructions about how to get from the station to the destination.

Finally, find a cafe and sit for 15 minutes to study the maps and directions so that I feel completely orientated in the city. This is the other side of the idiot traveller. I may have none of my possessions due to my propensity to lose my possessions all over the world but I know where I am going even without them. I’m not sure if I am a future archeologists gift or nightmare. There are literally hundreds of my toothbrushes, combs, reading glasses, power adaptors, bottles of sunscreen, soap and miscellaneous other items scattered from Macchu Pichu to Broken Hill.

My first day in Prague is largely lost to the French lurgi, as are half of each of the succeeding two days. But this is not problematic as my AirBnb is a fine place to hang out. Spacious, cool and with good Wifi allowing me to pass the time writing and streaming videos.

The flat is run by two sisters, Kristýna and Anna. The official host, Kristýna is away so I am met by Anna, whom her sister has described as “My very nice sister, Anna”. I tell Anna this but she denies she is very nice and says it is her sister who is nice. So my expectations are high since both sisters think the other one is nice – at least one might be.

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Part of the Kampa Museum exhibition

As it turns out those expectations are not misplaced, especially after Kristýna Kůstková returns. It turns out she is an

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Street art in Prague

opera singer who has been away at a music festival . Likewise Anna’s boyfriend, who also materialises, is an opera singer. So in my lurgi-ridden state I am serenaded by arias in the afternoon (to listen go here).

Prague is an excellent city. The combination of its setting on the Vltava River, its music, both formal and street, its squares, buildings, museums, street art, public transport and general accessibility make it a pleasure to visit. Moreover, it has variety from the broad avenues of the new town, the narrow laneways of the old town and everything in between.

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Sculpture in the gardens of the Museum Kampa
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Interior of St Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle

On Friday I head over to do a random foot tour of the city. This is always an excellent way to get a feel for the city because you largely avoid the tourist hot spots. Essentially you just plot a rough route and head off without any planned destinations – the end result being that you bump into many things you would not have normally seen, from sculptures, to museums.

By midday I have circled around to the centre of Prague’s tourism, the Charles Street Bridge and the old town square. As often the highlights of that part of town are not the things one expects but other things, such as buskers, street performers and choirs; the latter practicing their routine in one of the churches off the main town square. In the main square an NGO from South Korea is giving a dance performance highlighting the unresolved issue of the so-called “Comfort Women”, who were abducted and kept as sexual slaves by Japanese soldiers.

Like many other European cities, Prague, suffers from the ‘Plague’ in the form of hundreds of thousands of tourists but, in common with everywhere around the world, the saving grace is that humans are, largely, bone idle. Go early, go late or go off the beaten track and you can have the place, largely, to yourself.

Sunday is my last day in Prague. Fortunately the lurgi appears to have decamped back to France, and I’m finally able to have a full day. So, following the 7/15 rule of travel I leave the flat at 5.30 am. For those unaware the 7/15 rule goes like this. For every hour after 7 am the number of people at key tourist spots increases by 15%. Conversely after 6pm the reverse occurs.

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Charles St Bridge, taken from Prague Castle at Peak Tourist. Like lemmings
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Peak Tourist at Prague Castle

Prior to 6 am you are at less than 5% of peak tourist. By 7 am you will find around 15% of the peak number of tourists. At 8 am, 30%, at 9 am, 45%. Peak tourist by this definition is reached around 12-12.45 pm. This is a time of day to be avoided at all cost. Peak tourist continues until around 6pm with little apparent diminution. But by 7 pm numbers are down by 15% and this continues until, by midnight, you are at 10% of peak tourist. There are exceptions, of course, some very popular sites (Colosseum, Rome), reach peak tourist earlier. Others such as party destinations remain at peak later.

There are also other variations on this rule. These are places which, although they follow the numbers formula, have an exception called the Vomit Variation. It’s a bit akin to a cordon bleu restaurant except in reverse. The quantity may be small at a good restaurant but the quality is good and tasteful. By contrast the tourist Vomit Variation rules that the number of tourists may be small but the quality is invariably low.

In Prague you must apply the Vomit Variation because it is a party destination. Although there are few people about at 5.30 am, those that remain are best avoided. They are the latter day equivalent of the Huns, Goths or Mongol hordes. Found in large groups, loud, wild, frequently savage, lacking in any semblance of culture, frequently semi-naked, boorish, usually smelly. Invariably male, invariably British. They can be found staggering the streets, vomiting in corners or gathered outside MacShit or Kentucky Fried Cat. A hazard to any normal human being, they should be confined to soccer stadiums or Guantanamo Bay.

Like cockroaches and other lower life forms, they are best avoided. When seen, cross to the other side of the road and fondle your can of Mace. In the absence of Mace you may brandish a book, preferably non-fiction, since this is reputed to act in the same way that a cross effects vampires. If you are certain they are English wave a copy of the EU’s Schengen treaty at them. With any luck this will instantaneously transport them back to Xenophobia Island.

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Prague at dawn
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Charles St Bridge at dawn

I arrive at the Charles St Bridge, probably Prague’s most famous landmark at 6 am. It’s dawn and, in contrast to peak tourist when the bridge is awash with many hundreds of tourists, there are no more than 20-30 people on the bridge. Of these about half are photographing themselves rather than the bridge or the sunrise.

Studiously ignoring 2000 years of history and a Gaia’s worth of natural beauty they are taking their 200th photo of themselves this week, assuming you judge Sunday to be the first day of the week. I am always tempted to carry a pair of bolt-cutters and like some latter day Luddite, I will tear around the hordes of tourists disembowelling their selfie sticks and saving them from a future irredeemably damaged by narcissism. Failing that I will recommend they go into politics where their narcissism may serve a useful purpose – at least for them.

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Go the Swans

From the bridge, I am wander the empty back streets of Prague’s Mala Strana district, heading upriver from where the Charles Street bridge and it’s small army of sculpted figures is best appreciated.

Down by the river there is a flotilla of swans. Go the Swans (for non-Australians see here and here). Looking back the bridge is reflected in the river’s dawn light. I make my way up the hill towards Prague Castle and the Cathedral. As I go I pass the Pissing Fountain where two male figures rotate, urinating in the small pond beneath them and spelling out famous lines from local writers. Someone was taking the piss.

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The Royal Palace. Vladivas Hall – still one of the largest ceilings of its type in the world

By the time I arrive at the top of the hill, it is already 9 am. I detour via the Castle grounds so by the time I arrive in the castle proper it is 9.45 am. Prague Castle also does not quite follow the 7/15 rule and is already inundated with a torrent of tourists.

The line to get into the famous St Vitus Cathedral, which opens at 10 am is around 100 metres long. My queue phobia kicks in and I wander off to look at other parts of the castle. This includes the old 10th century royal palace of which a A highlight of the palace is Vladislav Hall. It is from here that one of the famous defenestrations took place (see below).

Prague Castle is more like a small city than a castle. Sitting above the city and the river it is reputed to be the world’s largest castle. For more than two centuries when Prague was, arguably, the most important city in Europe, it was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV and his successors.

Charles made Prague his capital, and he rebuilt the city on the model of Paris, establishing the New Town (Nové Město). In 1348, he founded the Charles University in Prague, which was named after him and was the first university in Central Europe.

This served as a training ground for bureaucrats and lawyers. Soon Prague emerged as the intellectual and cultural center of Central Europe. Prague remained one one of the most important cities in Europe until around 1620 and was the capital of the empire under the Hapsburgs between 1583 and 1611.

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St Vitus Cathedral – some of the finest stained glass windows you will ever see.
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St Vitus – stained glass windows

Prague Castle was the site of two of the famous defenestrations (from the French fenetre meaning window, so literally de-windowed) starting with the first when the nobles threw the empire’s bureaucrats from the windows. There were two subsequent defenestrations.

You can read about these here. I favour this technique for future Australian elections since this seems infinitely more interesting than voting. All MPs who have lied, cheated on expenses or committed violations of human or civil rights are simply defenestrated.

The most famous of these was the second defenestration when two vice-regents of the Bohemian throne (ruled by the Austrian Hapsburg emperor in remote Vienna) and some governors of Czech lands (also German Catholics) were tossed into the moat after they delivered a letter that sought to remove the religious freedoms of Protestant Czech nobles

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St Vitus Cathedral

Within the castle walls is one of Europe’s finest cathedrals and it is this that dominates the entire castle and the city skyline. By the time I return to the cathedral the line for entry has reduced to about 20 metres. This is within my queue tolerance. There is no doubt that the building is quite magnificent although in common with many of these famous, large, churches the tranquility which is, perhaps, the most important part of the aura of religious buildings is ruined by the numbers. Of all the aspects of the cathedral the most impressive are the enormous and intricately detailed stained glass windows which are the equal of any I have seen.

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Golden Lane, house of Joseph Kazda

Leaving Prague Castle one passes by Golden Lane, a row of 16th century dwellings. They were originally built as homes for castle servants, marksmen and possibly goldsmiths – hence the name.

The homes were occupied until World War II and Franz Kafka lived at No. 22 for a brief time. Other famous occupants include, writer and nobel prize winner, Jaroslav Seifert, and one of the Czech Republic’s historians and film collectors, Joseph Kazda, who saved thousands of Czech films from the Nazis.

Now it’s on to Budapest

Links to all Prague images: Prague Castle; Prague Cathedral; Prague Detail; Prague Music and Events

This is Part 11 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 10 – Berlin)

Ah, Berlin the beautiful, the bold, the brutal, the bizarre….

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The Oberbaumbrucke, the famous bridge on the Spree.

Everyone told me that Berlin was a great city to visit and they weren’t wrong. If only Australian cities were more like Berlin (or indeed other cities in Europe). Bike paths everywhere, masses of green open space, street art, rivers and canals, great museums, car drivers that are courteous and watchful, great public transport.

Of course, not everything is great and Australian cities have some parts of all of these things, quite apart from infinitely better weather. The Germans are maddeningly, annoyingly law abiding and conformist (though not so much in Berlin). Even the countryside is neat and well ordered, such that even the cows have specially assigned spaces in which they may sit down, neatly numbered and with clear instructions (in several languages) forbidding them to sit in any other space.

Germans don’t have as many ridiculous laws as Australians but the ones they do have they obey as if they are tablets from heaven. In my humble opinion there is few things (Peter Dutton, Joe Hockey etc aside) so ridiculous as two large groups of automatons poised expectantly at either side of an entirely empty road waiting for a little green electronic man to tell them they may cross the road. It gave me great delight to blithely cross against every possible red light, knowing that this would annoy the assembled automatons no end.

I arrive in Berlin late on a Friday afternoon, from Amsterdam. The train ride takes 6 hours and arrives neither a minute early, nor late. I am yet again travelling first class, courtesy of Eurail which, apparently, believes that anyone either rich or old, or both, is unable to endure the discomfort of second class or, alternatively, needs to return some of the ill-gotten gains of the baby boomers to the poor of Europe via first class rail fares. I shall raid my Panama account again. I am staying with Bill Hare, partner Ursula Fuentes and family having decided to grace them with my presence some 15 years after I last saw Bill, in Amsterdam.

I have picked up some annoying French lurgi which I am, no doubt, giving to everyone with whom I come in contact. It works a bit like the French bureaucracy; it’s incredibly annoying, makes the host body very inefficient but is not deadly enough to actually stop it functioning. Hence I continue to drag myself around, occasionally feeling better and then doing just sufficiently too much to feel completely crap the next day. This means I am unable to do anything but either sleep or sit in cafés drinking coffee and reading a book. I think I shall call it the enforced relaxation lurgi, the one drawback being that it creates a host of little spiders in my scalp who alternately pull it tight and/or hit it with miniature hammers and when they get bored with that they squeeze my left eyeball.

Berlin, is in some senses, the personification (if a city can be a person) of the history of the last 150 years. It is here that many of the great events of Europe, at least, are written in the flesh of the city. Intuitively, if you have studied history, you know that, but visiting Berlin makes it much clearer.

That history is encapsulated in the short walk from the Brandenburg gate, celebrating Prussia’s victory over France in 1870 – and itself a symbol of the dominance of the military in that part of German history – which led to both WW1 and WW2, to the the Reichstag building where the German Bundestag (Parliament) sits.

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The TV tower in East Berlin – built as a symbol of East Germany’s technology. West Berliners argued the cross visible on the side was the West’s revenge

The latter you can view as a symbol of the reunification of Berlin and Germany, and the creation of a relatively unified Europe, symbolised, more than anything by the giant EU flag flying over the now reconstructed Reichstag. The reconstructed Reichstag building, itself a symbol of German power , lay abandoned and empty from 1945 until 1990 when reconstruction started after reunification. It’s somewhat ironic that the giant glass dome was a designed by British architect, Lord Norman Foster, and sits just a few hundred metres from the embassy of the Brexits.

I have decided my entire trip around Europe shall be by train, in between cities, and largely on foot within cities. This poses somewhat of a challenge, since apart from the French Lurgi (which in my mind has now become a proper noun), my body has adopted a policy of rotational notification of early degeneration and approaching death. When my ski damaged right knee is working properly, my right ankle is not. Or my left. And when all three of those problematic joints decide to have a day off from giving me the complete shits, some other random part of the body decides that it will annoy the crap out of me.

Nevertheless being descended from good Welsh mining stock (or at least those bits of Welsh mining stock that worked in offices) I ignore these travails in order to make certain that I die fully informed on European history.

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Street art and semi derelict buildings; everywhere in Berlin

I’ve arrived on a weekend so there is time to socialise with my hosts. As befits all well balanced individuals this includes a mixture of cultural activities from the low brow – jazz in a small well-hidden enclave off the backstreets, where our fellow audience members are a cross between residual unreconstructed hippies, bikies, hipsters and a minority of baby boomers who appear to have accidentally stumbled on somewhere they don’t really belong. Following this we go upmarket for the quarter-final of the Euros (soccer) between Germany and Italy. This takes place in one of the unreconstructed remnants of East Germany, where you can sit on a deck chair and peer around the pole blocking ones view of anything other than the outside quarter of the screen.

On Sunday Bill and Ursula take me on a guided tour around Berlin following the route of the Berlin Wall. It’s four of us, including son, Max (actually probably not Max but I can’t remember), since Elsa is otherwise engaged. The Hare/Fuentes clan live close to the centre of Berlin and it’s just a short ride to the East Side Gallery the longest preserved part of the wall. Beyond this the wall is marked randomly and irregularly by twin lines of cobblestones in the road.

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The route of the Berlin Wall; in Berlin style it often disappears

The wall is hard to follow in places disappearing, as it does, under footpaths and buildings and only sporadically signposted. “That’s Berlin for you” my cycling companions comment. That attitude is fairly widespread in Germany, even in Berlin, and reflects a view that Berlin is poor (well everything is relative), somewhat inefficient and haphazard. It’s a bit the same attitude that many Romans and other Italians have about Rome. This apparently explains the fact that the Spree which flows through Berlin, is more like a a sewer line with a bit of added water than the other way around. Ursula explains that there have been plans to clean the Spree for years but Berlin has never had the money.

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Berlin Wall; the kiss (Brezhnev and Honecker)

The enormous exertions of the weekend, 45 kilometres around Berlin lead to the “Return of the Lurgi, Part 3” and I spend Monday morning lying in bed squeezing that part of my head that feels like an over-tensioned steel drum. By lunchtime aided by Mother’s little Helper I creep out of my bed and head for the Berlin Wall. My visit was intended to let me look at the art work on Eastside Gallery which is a 1.3 kilometre long gallery of art panels relating to the wall and contemporary German and world history (see images here). But while the artwork on the wall is sometimes startling and always interesting, the back of the wall was the bit that absorbed my attention.

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Victims of the Syrian War

Here photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, assembled an exhibition called “WARonWALL“. The exhibition focuses on the legacy of the war for the individuals maimed by it. As Wiedenhöfer says “It is a paradox of war that the injury of a single person makes the biggest impression on us; the one whose face we can see, the one whose name and fate we can actually recall. The bigger the number of the victims the less we are touched emotionally. Instead of increasing our consternation, large numbers somehow numb the reality of it. Numbers are abstract – people are not.”

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The destruction of Kobane

The exhibition documents the story of families and individuals whose lives have been uprooted by the war and the complete and utter destruction of towns such as Kobane that are now little more than rubble. You can see some of Wiedenhöfer’s images here including the accompanying stories and here you can see some images of Kobane before, during and after the siege.

The reality in Berlin, is that everywhere you look the city is touched by the history of conflict, the Wall, the still deserted empty spaces either wide of the wall known as “No Man’s Land”, which escapees had to cross to get into West Berlin, the still abandoned buildings and factories, the Jewish Museum, the recreated Checkpoint Charlie, the memorials to those who died trying to escape, the Russian War Memorial, the museum of the former home of the SS, documented in the Museum, The Topography of Terror.

The following morning I take another run past the East Side Gallery into downtown Berlin. I pass the Springer Building where Die Bild is published, Germany’s somewhat feeble attempt to imitate “The Australian”. It is right wing, broadsheet in size but tabloid in size and content. Just like the Australian, in fact.  Bild has been described as “notorious for its mix of gossip, inflammatory language, and sensationalism” and as having a huge influence on German politicians.

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Jewish War Memorial
The scream
Munch’s The Scream

From here I pass onto the Jewish museum. I find the Museum somewhat disappointing except for a startling installation which features thousands of faces cut out from steel plate and lying on the floor. Walking on these thousands of faces the sightless eyes stare up like something out of Munch’s “The Scream“. Eerie and evocative.

On my way back my unplanned cycle trip takes me back along one of Berlin’s surprise canals which pop up where you least expect them and onto Museum Island where there are five of Berlin’s major museums. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Berlin is the 190 kilometres of canals which one can stumble across in the most unexpected places and by following them get yourself completely bushwacked. Still no problem; as you push your bike through someone’s backyard and they give you a strange look, you just make certain that it appears that you always intended to go that way, smile nicely and move on.

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SpreePark, the extinction of the dinosaurs

One of Berlin’s abandoned places is SpreePark the former East German amusement park which lies just across the river from Bill and Ursula’s place. Today it stands shuttered, fenced and theoretically protected by guards and dogs. Every two metres a sign warns of the risks of entering, “Danger of Death”. It’s one of those must-see destinations, screened and warned off, it is like a beacon. So armed with camera, backpack and water I make my way there. Aside from a fascinating history of fraud, escape, opening, closure, fire and fun it, like most deserted places it has a magnetism emanating from the way nature reclaims the derelict spaces of humans, the ability to have such places entirely to oneself, the risk and the fact that entry is illegal. I crawl under the fence around 11 am having parked my bike by the river.

Entry involves sticking ones head under the fence and then levering ones body underneath by pulling on the fence above. Usually at this point I would manage to injure something, tear my clothes or have my wallet slip, un-noticed into the dirt. But for once I escape my own incompetence. Once in your pull your pack behind you. To all intents and purposes the park is completely deserted. There is no sound except the wind and the odd door moving in the wind. And the quietly revolving Ferris Wheel which spins on and on, with a grinding, whimpering sound, empty and forlorn, awaiting its next passenger. Today little remains of the park which has been progressively emptied of its sights, damaged by fire, and vandalised.

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Abandoned water ride, SpreePark
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SpreePark, ferris wheel

The Government has increased security to ensure no repeats of the scandalous incident from summer 2013, when a 90-year-old woman broke into SpreePark and had to be rescued from the Ferris wheel after the wind carried her up but not back down again. “It used to be so nice here,” she said. “I simply wanted another go.”

If you stayed off the main tracks and kept your eyes open you could stay for hours in the haven of the park, poking around. For me, my tenure ended after an hour when, expecting security to be on foot, I was taken by surprise by fast arriving men on mountain bikes. A quick-fire interrogation took place. Where was I from? Hadn’t I seen the signs? Every two metres? How could I miss them? Signs in English too!!

Now comes the point of double bluff. “Have you taken any photos? You must cut them”.  He knows he has no authority to demand I do this. But I don’t want to antagonise him. This demand is repeated three times. I go the double-feint. “Why don’t you just let people in and give tours. The Government could make money.”  Sure enough that             distraction is enough and he launches into a dissertation of dangers; drowning in the water train, falling off the ferris wheel etc  I.D is demanded. I produce my Australian passport. “Australian? We capture many Australians here but you are the first that carries a passport. My passport is taken away to have its details transcribed. Then: “How did you get in?”.  I indicate the direction. “The big hole?”. Yes that one. “You come under the fence? Are you a dog?” I’m not quite sure of the corollary between the two statements but figure that non-smartassery is the order of the day.

“What happens now?” I ask “We send your details to the Police”. Hmm. “And then?” I ask. “They do nothing because they are too busy…now we go”. I’m escorted to the main gate. The two of them shake my hand; “Have a nice holiday in Berlin.”

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The weeping woman at the Russian War Memorial

On my way back I visit the Russian War Memorial. Before the Soviet Union built the Stalingrad memorial this was the world’s

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Russian War Memorial, Berlin

largest Russian memorial. It’s massive and very Russian and masculine in its glorification of heroic figures and with the single weeping woman. But impressive also. 80,000 Russians died during the Battle for Berlin and 2000 are buried there. My day is run. My French lurgi has returned to cast me back to bed.

The Russian memorial turns out to be my last bit of Berlin other than dinner with the Hare/Fuentes. My final day is also laid waste by French lurgi and I abandon ideas of extensive tours of unseen bits of the city. Dinner is however worth waiting for and disproves a theory that anyone who once drank cask wine cannot appreciate good wine. Visiting Jonathan West, once, in Canberra, he refused to serve me anything better than a mediocre wine on the basis that if I was prepared to drink cask wine then offering anything more than a mediocre wine was like casting pearls before swine.

Berlin passes…at 9 am, next morning, I am on my way to Prague

This is Part 10 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

Images from this post can be found on the Flickr archive as follows:

  1. Berlin Spreepark
  2. Berlin Wall – art
  3. Russian War Memorial
  4. Berlin Wall – Syrian War exhibition
  5. Berlin Jewish Museum
  6. Berlin General

 

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 9 – France, Annecy)

I decide to go to Annecy after Aix and Nimes; it’s a suitably random decision a bit like the answer to the question about why you climbed Everest….”Because it was there”.

The best form of travel follows no logical pattern, is ideally not pre-planned; it follows no timetable. This mode of travel is increasingly hard to do since following this system inevitably involves significantly higher costs, the likelihood that you will end up sleeping on the streets, at worst, and that you will spend in excess of half of your holiday standing in lines to see things for which, had you pre-booked or pre-planned, you could have bought tickets for in advance.

Gallic shrug, hands upturned, pursed lips
I know nothing; purse the lips, Gallic shrug, upturned hands

There is a solution, however, to the nightmare of tourist queues and that is to either (a) ignore all the famous places and just look at them from the outside or (b) climb under, through or over any relevant fence or wall; something which has the added benefit that, if you do it early in the morning or evening, you get to spend the best time of day in places completely free of the teeming hordes.

The downside of the illegal entry is getting caught by security. But, if you do get caught the solution is easy.  You adopt the French technique: shrug, put out your hands, palm upwards, purse your lips and declare yourself unable to speak anything other than simply English. Above all, plead ignorance. If the security guard points to the large sign in English saying “Forbidden to xxxx”, you shrug again, shake your cane with its white tip, put back on your dark glasses and shuffle off tapping the ground.

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Preparing the drone

But first I must actually get to Annecy…the trains and buses are expensive and long-winded. So I decide on Bla Bla car. This is not some form of talking, self-driving car but the French car sharing system in which, for about a quarter what you might otherwise pay, you go from A to B. The downside to cheap car-sharing is the risk of sharing a car with a suicidal maniac, a person who has bad body odour or breath, believes that the best way to fill in every spare second is to talk non-stop.

You can, of course, ignore the avid talker with a stony silence but usually when he/she gets no reply the tend to nod or prod you thus disturbing your imminent decline into sleep. Failing all of the above you run the risk of spending the entire trip listening to the virtues of Marie Le Pen and how all blacks should go back to Algeria, Senegal or wherever else they came from. That is the price of car-sharing socialism.

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Flying the drone

But my trip turns out to be the archetype of almost all my French experiences. The driver is friendly and drives normally and my fellow passenger is a very tall Frenchman who, despite being more than 10-15 centimetres taller than me, insists on sitting in the back so that I can get the view better of the passing countryside.

He is a photographer and, leaving aside the pleasures of the passing scenery, one of the highlights of the trip is flying his drone during our lunch break. This is where all the latent boy genes come to the fore….high tech toys which are super noisy and allow one to behave something like a formula one driver. Perfect and with the added benefit of annoying the shit out of everyone passing or just relaxing nearby. The aerial equivalent of jet skis.

We arrive in Annecy in the late afternoon. It’s hot, we are late, the traffic is like Victoria Road, Sydney on a bad day and I have pissed off my host by not letting him know soon enough that we would be late. Hence he came home from work especially to let me in only to find out it was a wasted trip. The end result, when I do get there, is that I am super-heated by the 35° day, super-stressed by my lateness and with a brain made mushy by the long day and combination of heat and stress.

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The chateau

So Cedric’s attempts to explain the door intercom turn into a form of comic opera, where he explains, I don’t really listen and just keep on doing what is clearly not working. His response to my lack of comprehension is to speak louder (standard formula – if the person you are speaking too in a foreign language does not understand make sure to shout the same words – this will make all the difference). Meanwhile I continue adhering to the Idiots Formula: that being that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Finally at just the moment I am at risk of drowning in the sweat pouring off me, I decide to let my female chromosomes have a look in and I actually listen to what Cedric is saying. Five seconds later I am in through the door.

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The colours of Annecy

Annecy is one of those perfect destinations and places to live. An old city mellowing in its perfect colours, sitting on a perfect blue lake which is the cleanest large lake in France, surrounded by a vista of stunning mountains, encapsulated by picture perfect sunrises and sunsets. All this just an hour from the ski resorts and with great cycling, para gliding and a host of water sports all thrown in.

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The chateau dominates the lake and town

The old city sits on a mini labyrinth of canals leading off from the lake and is dominated by the bulk of the old chateau. Wandering the narrow laneways one feels as if some artist, for a tad of recreation, decided to try and create a perfect tableau of water, natural colours and painted buildings. Then they sprinkled the town with a plethora of markets, traditional shops, cafés and a smidgeon of antiquity. With all that you have the essence of France encapsulated in an area about three quarters of a kilometre square.

Sylvie at work
Sylvie Rossignol at work

As is common when travelling alone, I have fallen into the metaphorical embrace of the citizens of Annecy, mainly Sylvie Rossignol, a local artist whom I met in Sablet during the gathering for the opening of Anne Froger’s workshop. I am given a guided tour of Annecy, loaned a bike, introduced to family and friends, taken to the mountains and pushed off a cliff to go paragliding. In between I am offered picnics and group swims in the lake and generally made to feel welcome.

The fortuitous nature of these events is entirely to do with my having little guilt or shame – thus allowing me to ask for help and assistance where others might hesitate to be so forward, and, generally, an undeservedly large helping of good fortune.

This lack of shame and good fortune allows me to (a) assume that death will not come as a result of following strangers down back streets in bad parts of remote cities in the third world and as a result enjoying the experiences that come with such risks and (b) always assume that people will simply say “no” if they don’t want to help; if you assume this then you never feel guilty asking. As for the good luck I remember my good friend Bob Burton saying after some stroke of outrageous fortune that if the end of the world happened only the cockroaches and I would survive. I felt this was somewhat a backhanded compliment and that being stranded alone with several billion cockroaches was not something to be entirely desired.

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On yer (Dutch) bike

I mount my loaned Dutch style bike and take myself off to explore Annecy. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the people who say “Oh but I love my Dutch bike” are much like people who say “Oh give me a good whipping, nothing better”. They may claim to enjoy old Dutch bikes but to most everyone the bikes are a form of purgatory.

Generally they are old, have brakes and gears (if they have any) that don’t work properly. They are heavy, everything squeaks, the basket falls off at the critical moment tipping your camera, phone, passports and everything else of value in front of an oncoming 30 tonne truck and they steer like the proverbial drunken Irishman – noting that this is not a racist comment but simply a statement of fact. If you are Irish, and offended, you may substitute, Pole, Australian, Briton, Russian etc. for Irishman.

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Enjoying French police humour

Despite the obstacles posed by my bike, I nevertheless succeed in circumnavigating half the lake even when restricted by top speed of 15 kms an hour. Most of the lake is surrounded by bike path. In Australia, to find an entire lake surrounded by bike path would be the equivalent of returning from Europe after 3 months and finding that someone had finished the high speed rail from Melbourne to Sydney. A pure miracle. The exception, in Australia, is Canberra, of course, since it consumes half of Australia’s entire road funding simply to ensure that the denizens of parliament house enjoy a smooth trip wherever they go in the city.

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One kilometre from Annecy, a million miles from the crowds

There is one way in which Annecy does not differ from anywhere else in the world. I call this phenomenon the “traveller’s blessing”. The “travellers blessing” is the reality that 99% of the world’s population are too lazy to walk or cycle more than about 500 metres. Hence, apparently, all 100,000 visitors to Annecy are crowded on a single beach just outside the town.

Here, at the main beach, you can share the beauty of Lake Annecy with a veritable plague of sweating, farting, noisy, and indubitably annoying people. Or you can go expend a small modicum of the excess calories you consumed with your extra-large holiday breakfast and no more than 500 metres down the road share a beautiful spot with two ducks, a swan and about four other people in perfect peace and quiet.

The biggest drawback of Lake Annecy is, allegedly, the Lake Annecy flea which, if one has sensitive skin gives one an annoying and itchy allergy.

The following day, Sylvie, takes me up to the mountains. This is one of the world’s top paragliding spots. Kaylee Mackenzie has persuaded me that I should take a tandem flight, in Annecy, and eventually at Sylvie’s urging I overcome the inertia which is caused by the overcast weather and the fact I didn’t bring any money with me.

I launch into the stratosphere over Lake Annecy. My pilot is Vincent Genest from Airmax Parapente who, apart from being a tad crazy, appears to be a really good pilot and gives me an exhilarating and enjoyable 45 minute flight over the lake. This is true despite the appearance given by almost all the pictures he takes, in which I appear to be in fear of my life. A highly recommended experience.

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Views over Lake Annecy from the paraglider

On my final two nights I have to move accommodation having been unable to find someone for the entire period of my stay. In my new abode I am entertained by Dominique, who in common with many of my AirBnB hosts is great company. Apart from being on crutches, the result of some bizarre accident, she is also a prime mover behind La Ripaille à Sons, a great local group of performers based around brass instruments. So once again, as I have been many times, I am entertained by guitar, brass and song while relaxing in my abode.

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The lunchtime view

My final day before I head back to Paris and on to Amsterdam, is spent exploring the byways of Annecy town before Sylvie takes me to lunch with friends up in the hills behind Annecy. From here one can enjoy million dollar views while firmly embracing the good wine, cheese and company. A perfect ending to four days in the mountains.

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Lunch with friends in the hills behind Annecy

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 9 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images from this post can be found on Flickr here:

Annecy General; Annecy Paragliding

 

97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 8 – France, Provence)

Aix and Nimes, like Orange, Sablet and Avignon are all in Provence. I love this part of France. It feels very French, steeped in history, bathed in the soft hazy sun of the south, spotted with with hilltop villages as if some crazy God just dropped them randomly around the countryside.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire

It’s the France of Cezanne, of the Dutch-Frenchman, Van Gogh, it’s the France of Spain, with bullfighting rings and bullfighting still scattered around, with Paella served in the markets, and of the Rhône lazily, slowly and corpulently winding its way to Mediterranean, fattened with the rains of recent floods. Arles, the home of Van Gogh for the last years of his life, is just 30 minutes away perched lazily on the Rhône banks.

Aix, colours – one of many galleries

Most times I come to France, I come to Aix-en-Provence. For all that it is over-run with tourists it still has a certain southern slowness about it. It never makes me feel like hurrying. The roads are lined with honeycomb coloured buildings, matching the colour of Mont Sainte-Victoire. At every turn there are pastry and ice-cream shops and two great bookshops with cafes.

Aix is home to Bernard and Nadine, my two oldest friends in France. I met them in 1998 on Gili Air, Lombok. I had been at a yoga retreat in Ubud and the yoga crew inundated the Safari Cottages where the two of them were staying. In those days Gili Air was a rustic, under-visited getaway for hippies and those escaping the night life and cultural destruction of Bali.

Bernard, Dave, Self Safari cottages

We spent a week there doing the hour circuit of the island, eating pineapples on the beach, sampling every cafe on the island and spending our evenings doing never ending renditions of Beatles, Cohen and other popular songs which were within even my highly restricted repertoire – my singing is sounds much like that of an overenthusiastic hyena; occasionally you get a note that sounds musical but mostly it is the singing equivalent of giving an untrained five year old a violin and saying “make noise.

But my friends are tolerant and at a dollar for each off-key note I only have to buy all them dinner about 1000 times.

In Arles, with Bernard
In Arles, with Bernard

Today Gili is an overdeveloped, overwhelmed, over-loved tourist destination full of a five thousand 20-somethings all eagerly getting drunk, stoned and infected with STIs. When you are not tripping over the drunks, you are stepping on the discarded condoms from the party-goers that actually remained sober. The Bali armageddon has long overwhelmed the Gilis.

I’ve spent the subsequent 30 years bumping into Bernard and Nadine in various parts of the world, most notably Paris and Bangkok. Bernard is what is know as a Pied Noir, having been a child of parents who lived and worked in Algeria. Being a Pied Noir is both a good and bad thing. Good in that any bad behaviour can be explained away by a poor (as in lack of style and class) upbringing, and bad because anything that goes wrong for the partner of a Pied Noir is, inevitably, a result of living or knowing a Pied Noir.

Lunch in Aix en Provence
Lunch in Aix en Provence

Generally the Pied Noirs were conservative. The left disliked them for their support of French colonialism, their exploitation of Algerians and the role of the Algerian wars in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Bernard suffers the double burden of being a Pied Noir and thus generally viewed as suspect by the left but actually being on the left and this also despised by the right. He is a prophet without honour in his own land.

On the Rhône with Bernard
On the Rhône with Bernard

This, the recent history of the Pieds-Noirs, has been imprinted with a theme of double alienation from both their native homeland and their adopted land.

The relationship of Nadine and Bernard was what might be termed argumentative; no hint of reason shall ever come between the two of them and a good rambunctious argument, as described in my original description of visiting them in Aix “Lunch in Aix-en-Provence

Bernard and Nadine have long separated. With true panache and timing their separation came just months after they had jointly adopted a young Haitian boy, Nel. Bernard now lives with new partner, Celine and their son,  a couple of hundred metres from Nadine where I am ensconced in my normal abode in the downstairs apartment. My time in Aix is apportioned between Nadine and Bernard; I feel a bit like they have been awarded shared custody of me and it is important to ensure each get equal time.

Dinner at Jean Jaques
Dinner with Jean Jaques, in 2011

My first night in Aix takes me to the home of Jean-Jaques who I last saw about ten years ago. He is a cross between an archetypal rural Frenchman, who one might expect to arrive at any moment with baguettes and onions, a traditional French agrarian socialist and a West Virginian hillbilly.

He wants me to on his local radio program and talk about Australian politics, ideally anything that is likely to get me arrested on re-entry to Australia. Like how the immigration concentration camps are a genocidal horror sufficient to  justify the assassination of any politicians advocating or supporting them. Fortunately I am leaving the evening before.

Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples
Nimes: One of the most perfectly preserved Roman Temples

He has a new wife, an English woman, Louise Vines. Last time I visited he had a New Zealand wife who left shortly after I visited. I’m assured there is no connection between the two happenings, even though half the women with whom I have had relationships have decided immediately thereafter to become lesbians.

Jean Jaques lives just out of Aix on what might loosely be termed a small holding, populated by a menagerie of cats, ducks, geese, hens and various breeds of cars. The cars have bred faster than anything else. Last time I was invited for dinner there were three rusty French cars now there are about eight. He has another “new” car, which is actually a rather nice Alfa but managed to rip a scar down one side only about a week after getting it.

Nadine is off to Marseilles for just over two days to one of the never ending round of summer festivals that exist in the region. but I want to go and visit my ex-colleague, Gregoire, who lives in Nîmes, about an hour away.

I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new car for the purpose and I drive off with her admonishments not to damage her new Fiat ringing in my ears. This is like calling down fate on my head, or putting pins in one of the voodoo dolls which she brought back from Haiti. I have already bulk ordered 40 odd voodoo dolls when she next goes to Haiti, one for each member of the Coalition cabinet and 15 for the England rugby union team.

Inside the Nîmes arena
Inside the Nîmes arena
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes
Jardins de les Fontaines, Nîmes

I arrive in Nîmes just before I am due to meet Gregoire and miraculously find a vacant parking spot right near the station.

I think that I have struck lucky but realise that I am simply the beneficiary of southern mediterranean culture. There is no one parked there because it is lunch-two-hour and everyone has gone off home for the lunch and siesta. Hence not only are the spaces empty but between 12 and 2 pm there are no parking charges; it is the only city I have visited where not only does everyone stop work for two hours but this also applies to the parking charges and the parking attendants.

Nîmes is a city of about 150,000 which, in common with a significant number of European cities, has done what Australian cities should be doing, and has pedestrianised large swathes of the city centre without any apparent impact on retail trade. It is an ancient Roman city and, among other things, contains one of the most perfectly preserved Roman Arenas. Gregoire shouts me

Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r)
Gregoire (l), Antoine and Michelle (r) in former times

lunch, which, apart from dead duck, mainly consists of the usual uplifting discussions about French and Australian politics, Brexit, the current lives of all the ex-Greenpeace staff with whom we worked and a long dissertation from Gregoire about how I could make my fortune, with my background, working for the UN or other international agencies.

The Arena, Nîmes
The Arena, Nîmes

Nîmes also possesses one of the finest Roman temples and the Garden of Fountains, an area of canals and fountains originally designed to support local industry. The highlight of the visit to Nîmes, however, is my attempt to destroy my friendship with Nadine, bankrupt myself and thus end my European holiday due to lack of funds.

This involves, doing $2000 worth of damage to Nadine’s car, even though short of standing on ones head and using binoculars the amount of damage was almost invisible. In reality, as in all situations of this type, it wasn’t my fault.

Or more probably, as a French friend explained to me once “in France it might be your fault but you are never to blame.” Thus I blame Nadine for lending me the car, Fiat for forcing me to refuel, and the petrol station for having an invisible underground bollard that leapt out and scratched the car deliberately.

These events and a range of other brilliantly conceived strategies designed to ensure that no conceivable travel crisis shall go undiscovered are described here in Part 3: “Travelling Idiot Style

This accident also contributes to further my reputation as a feckless traveller and borrower of cars – an observation which refers back to the two other friends’ cars that I have managed to destroy or damage over the years.

Once in New Zealand, 40 years ago, when, looking through a hedge green hedge, I failed to spot a hedge green car proceeding at high speed with the deliberate intention of destroying my friends Wolseley. Again not my fault. Had the hedge been blue, or the other car red nothing would have happened.

Arles, Arena, bullfight
Arles, Arena, bullfight

The second belong to Judy Mahon, in the aftermath of the Franklin campaign when, en route to Tullamarine Airport, another driver decided that turning right across oncoming traffic without looking was a good way to enliven the day.

Having borrowed Judy’s car I then showed the high level of personal responsibility for which I am renowned and abandoned the car into the care of Peter Collins (who was accompanying me so that he could drive the car back to Judy) because, had I not done so, I would have missed my flight thus costing me the massive amount of about $200.

Nîmes, main pedestrian street
Nîmes, main pedestrian street

 

Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard
Nadine despairs of reforming Bernard

On my final night, I head up the road for dinner with Bernard, Celine and their son, Eugene.

Bernard and Celine are teachers but both play in their band, Jim Younger’s Spirit; Jim Younger being a sort of American version of Ned Kelly and a member of the James-Younger Gang.  Bernard tells me he bumped into Peter Garrett in the post office in Aix, who he described as “lurching towards me with his huge height and blue eyes”

With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles
With Bernard, Nadine & Friends in Arles

I ask him if he introduced himself as another rock and roll star, and tell him he could have gone up and said “Hey Peter Garrett, I’m a mate of Chris Harris….”.

I have no idea what Garrett might have replied but I seem to have convinced Bernard. I’m not convinced that I can believe Bernard about much, however, since he also tells me that I have a little malicious smile….which is clearly not true, since I have an open friendly smile with any hint of malicious thoughts or intent.

Casting aside Bernard’s backhanded compliment the evening proceeds as most of our evenings proceed. Large quantities of second rate French wine, endless amounts of food, an examination of the entrails of French, British and Australian cultures, lots of music, many very bad jokes, in an unintelligible mixture of French and English, a ragout of reminiscences largely populated by a surfeit of very large lies.

I have a new victim for some Australian mythologies, Eugene, who is now four. I tell him about Drop Bears, Hoop Snakes, Bunyips and the recently discovered Sand Sharks, that emerge soundlessly from under Australia’s deserts to devour passing tourists. But he is most excited at the discovery that if you eat Kangaroo it will make you hop endlessly for at least six hours after consumption. For the next two hours Bernard and Celine are pestered to buy Kangaroo, so that Eugene can experience this amazing phenomenon.

Dinner in Arles
Dinner in Arles

With Dave and Bernard on Gili AirToo many lies are barely enough….

 

 

 

 

 

This is Part 8 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

  1. Part 6 – Travelling South

The full archive of images of Nîmes used in this post can be found on Flickr here

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 5, Paris)

Passing by Paris; Brexit, soccer and other lies

I’m on my way to Sablet for a mixture of a wake and a celebration; a wake, of sorts, for the death of Lincoln Siliakus who died almost a year ago this month – and a celebration of a life well lived. And also a celebration of the opening of a new studio by his lifetime partner, Anne Froger – one in which she will develop dyeing with natural plant dyes.

Regrettably, for those of us in our late 50s and early 60s we have reached the time of life when people we have known most of our lives have started dying or getting ill. I shared many good times with Lincoln, the Franklin campaign, a shared house in Hobart for a year or so (along with Jill Hickie), times lobbying together in Paris, dealing with Gough Whitlam, as ambassador to UNESCO, walking the back lanes of the Cote du Rhone vineries, all washed down with copious quantities of good wine and bread.

Lunch with Lincoln at Gigondas

Sometimes, too late, we realise that we have missed the opportunity to see those friends again, to reminisce – telling increasingly untrue stories as the night lengthens, and to spend time sharing the things we like to share.

But first I must overnight in Paris. That means passing through the Gare du Nord, which is where the Eurostar arrives from the UK. Passing through Gare du Nord after travelling on the Eurostar is a bit like stepping out of a Rolls Royce into a mess of dog shit.

You are borne along in air-conditioned comfort on an almost silent train at 300 plus kilometres an hour and arrive in a railway station where there is nowhere to sit, nowhere decent to eat, no decent signage, a help desk that is closed, and a ticket office where you need to take lunch and dinner with you into the queue in order not to starve before arriving at the ticket counter.

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Gare du Nord, at its best

Usually there there is a crowd larger than that found in the average football stadium milling around in the middle of the station obstructing any possibility of moving around the station. Everyone is forced to stand poised like a vulture over there luggage to prevent theft.  This is, primarily, because there is nowhere to sit and even if you can find somewhere to sit it’s almost impossible to know what is going on with train departures without going back to the centre of the station. To get anywhere in the station you need to have a better sidestep than the world’s best rugby winger and more go forward than Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Currently the situation is exacerbated by the decision to renovate the station at the height of the tourist season thus reducing the available space by about 40 per cent.

It’s almost of as if the French spent years building a railway and forgot that it needed to arrive somewhere. At which point they shrugged and said “..Well it is mainly ‘Les Rosbifs’ (Britons) so who cares. At the other end of the tunnel is Britain’s newly renovated Pancras Station which has seats, shops, cafes, a modicum of space and light. Give credit where due, it may be the only useful thing that the British have done in a 100 years.

I’m staying with an old friend from Greenpeace days, Stephanie Lacomblez who worked for Enercoop in the adjacent office; finding places to stay in Paris is problematic because most people either live by themselves in places no bigger than the average dog box or they share and have no spare rooms. Stephanie’s flatmate is away so I hit the jackpot, this time.

It’s just a couple of stops from Gare du Nord, where the Eurostar arrives, to Stalingrad (no not that one), where I shall pick up the key to Stephanie’s flat from Jon Sofier, who works for Enercoop. Jon is an UK expat who has lived in France for more than 15 years, speaks fluent French but somehow remains convincingly British in style, demeanour, if not attitudes. Somehow he is the exemplar of those you might say “you can take him out of Britain but you can’t take….”

I am abandoned in the Enercoop office while Jon goes to pick up his new girlfriend. Enercoop is the new face of France – a company selling 100% renewable energy to French businesses and households. The Paris office has around 60 staff, up from only 7 years ago. That according to my somewhat useless maths is a 1200% growth in that time.

Flammanville
Flammanville – years late, billions over budget

Seven years ago nuclear was still an article of faith in France, now increasingly it is seen as yesterday’s energy. Too expensive (the new plants are years late and billions over budget and, if they were to sell their energy unsubsidised it’s doubtful they would sell any), too unreliable (the majority of plants are 30 years old or more) and reliant for cooling on water than is frequently not available. At one stage in 2008 around fifty per cent of the entire nuclear fleet was offline for this reason.

La Belle Equipe

It’s my first night in Paris in several years and we head off for drinks and dinner. It is only a matter of weeks since the bombing of the Bataclan, Le Petit Cambodge, Le Carillon and the Belle Equipe, among other places. Despite this, at least superficially, the city appears little changed with crowds of people sitting outside every tiny bar, little sign of security except near police stations and railway stations and, even then, it’s spasmodic. Stephanie patronises La Belle Equipe and it is sobering to think that that it is only luck that prevents people you know being caught up in these events.

Beyond that Paris seems a little poorer, more frayed around the edges, dirtier with more homeless people and bigger groups of apparently indigent people standing around on street corners, even in the areas I know well.

The tiny bar we go into, just 200 metres from La Belle Equipe, another of the bars bombed on the night of November 13, is full of Parisians having a Friday night out and a group of English soccer supporters politely and pleasantly enjoying an evening in the ambiance of a typical French wine bar. The night descends into a mixture of repartee, insults and the sort of amicable European fraternity that the average Brexiter seems not to understand.

On my way back from dinner, I pass a local bar and, glancing at the TV, note that England are losing 2-1 to Iceland. The bar being far from the throngs of football tourists is only half full but, nevertheless, I discover that there are people from Ireland, France, Australia and Spain in the bar. All are busily barracking for the Icelanders. I feel this is too good an opportunity to be missed particularly in the light of Australia having just lost two rugby tests to the perfidious English (or Perfide Albion, as an ex-colleague insisted on calling them – Albion being an ancient name for the UK).

One of the immutable iron-laws of sport and almost anything else is that if England are playing any nation at any sport, you may have 160 nationalities in the bar including some English people and 159 of those nationalities will be supporting England’s opponents. I recounted, for the English soccer fans, earlier in the evening, the tale of being in a Paris bar where we counted around 20 nationalities and only one was supporting England. He was English – and even he wasn’t certain he wasn’t making a mistake.

Golden temple massacre – British troops opened fire of a peaceful crowd

This rule is written in stone because of 200 years of British imperialism and the irredeemable English arrogance that went with it, as reinforced, recently, by a correspondent of mine on Facebook. This correspondent noted that with Brexit, Britain would get the chance to be “great again” as they were during 1000 years of empire. He was unpleased when I noted that (a) the British Empire endured for around 100 years not 1000 (b) It did not make Britain great but, rather, a scandalous example of exploitation, racism and genocide, (c) So far as I was aware the year was 2016 not 1816; and (d) the Great in Great Britain did not refer to any sense of virtue but merely to a Great Britain which included Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland rather than a diminished Britain without those parts.

On this particular occasion, leaving aside, the natural support for Iceland as underdog and the fact that the entire Icelandic footballing budget including travel and wages was approximately equal to the cost of one of Wayne Rooney’s boots, this was a matter of a few days after the disastrous and, to most Europeans, entirely bemusing Brexit decision. As several of the people in the bar noted, if nothing else, it was an appropriate revenge for Brexit.

This is Part 5 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

97 Days Adrift in Europe (Part 3, Travelling Crazy; Lost & Found)

Back to France…

Back to France. This involves traveling and, despite having spent my entire life seeking to ensure the planet runs out of jet fuel, petrol/diesel and whatever they power trains with – thus giving me unrivalled travel experience ….my traveling system guarantees that no peaceful day shall pass untroubled.

I have a travel system designed to ensure that no day shall be free of stress for either myself or others.

The process is, first, to ensure that you have as many places as possible in which you can put any item of value. This includes of course, your main bag with 4 pockets, your day pack with 7 pockets, trousers, shirt, jacket with, together a minimum of 8 pockets. Essentially, however, this total, with only 19 places in which to put any one item is a poor effort. For maximum effect you should have a minimum of 30 possible places in which to place any item of value.

Too many pockets are barely enough

Next, ensure that, at all times, no item of value, such as passport, tickets, wallet, credit cards, train passes, is ever placed in the same place more than once. In this way it’s possible to guarantee not only the maximum possible delay in finding anything but, with good planning, sufficient stress to ensure that any beneficial effects of a holiday are nullified.

How not to catch your train
How not to catch your train
How to look for your ticket
How to look for your ticket in busy railway stations

Effective pre-planning, such as sitting around in cafes posting nonsense to Facebook, means that starting to locate ones ticket and/or passport only takes places seconds before the train/plane/bus departs. This should occur, preferably, in the middle of a public thoroughfare through which hundreds of people are passing each minute. The ensuing frantic search requires one to empty out onto the ground every item of clothing, clean or dirty, books, electrical cables, cameras, computers, phones, half eaten bananas and anything else inhabiting the nether regions of ones luggage.

Ideally the most important and valuable items should be strewn the furthest away from ones gaze and within easy reach of the passing pickpockets and other unsavoury denizens of the Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon or wherever else one happens to be. This further increases the stress level as you seek to rummage with one hand and eye while guarding your laptop and phone with the other eye and hand. As the proximity of departure increases, the intensity of search exponentially increases. By now one has ones head in the bag, convinced that somewhere in that empty bag is a black hole that has eaten the required ticket.

By this time you have broken into a lather of sweat such that every passing person is also stressed. They assume that you are (a) either the male equivalent of the proverbial bag-lady who, for some unknown reason has decided to camp in the middle of the the busiest part of one of Paris’s busiest stations or (b) you are searching for the detonator on your suicide vest which you have misplaced. This latter thought, fortunately, has the effect of finally scaring off the lurking thieves who are eagerly waiting for you to remove your good eye from your laptop.

….But I found my headphones…

If favoured by fortune, one usually finds the missing ticket/passport on the third search of the first pocket, in which you boy-looked, giving you just sufficient time to jam everything randomly back into your bags and board the train. A victory of sorts since you have neither lost any item of value, nor have you forfeited your ticket. You are now, however, confined to standing in the corridor, since the lather of sweat into which you have worked yourself makes you smell as if you have run a couple of marathons over two days without taking a shower – giving you the choice of either isolating yourself in the corridor or enduring 3 hours of people trying to edge away from you as they whisper to their companions about the unfortunate situation in which they find themselves.

With good judgement, and some luck, one can repeat this scenario on an almost daily basis with some important item of luggage or other item; for example, standing outside your AirBnB at 1 am, in the rain, wondering in which of several shops, bars, museums, cafes etc you left your keys.

No they’re in perfect condition

You, realise, just momentarily before you get hypothermia, that the unpleasant itching in your groin is not some STI (which you can’t workout how you got, since the only intimate relationship you have had in weeks is with your mobile phone), but your keys. These have managed to drop through the shirt pocket, in which you never put anything because you know that pocket has a hole, and have worked their way down inside your shirt and into your elastic-less 12 year old jocks which your partner has been trying to persuade you to throw out for the last ten years.

There are several versions of the “where did I put it” panic, all equally effective for creating stress and annoyance for others.

This scenario: You drive, with the instant Gallic fervour which only comes with being in France, down the auto-route and approach the toll payment point. Pulling up you instantly realise that none of the wallet, credit card, or the ticket you got when you entered to toll road, are in the place in which you resolved to place them. You search every possible location in the car as the line of vehicles behind you lengthens and the friendly drivers commence to assist your calm search with prolonged activity on their “klaxons”. Finally as your stress level rises to ‘take another blood pressure tablet soon’ level, you feel a lump beneath your arse and realise that your wallet, toll route ticket and can of orange juice are all beneath you – which largely explains the pain you have been experiencing for some time.

2016-07-08_2129
When all else fails break window to pay

You now go to open the window to pay but realise that, not having had to open the windows of your borrowed car due to it being air conditioned, you have no idea how to do this. The knob for the electronic windows is in precisely none of the places in which you’d expect it to be. Finally then, as you descend into a state of near hysteria, you attempt open the car door so that you can climb out and pay.

Due, however to your skilful judgement in manoeuvring the car within inches of the pay point it’s actually impossible to get out so, summoning up your yoga skills, you twist yourself around the car door and pay, while at the same time realising that the vasectomy you had some years earlier would have been unnecessary had you only performed this payment manoeuvre at that time.

It’s ok I’ll find my credit card soon

In the event that none of these events are sufficient to ruin your holiday or increase your stress levels enough to require a repatriation under your over-priced insurance policy, you can always try the classic “Let’s borrow my friends brand new car and crash it”. This is a rolled gold guarantee for stress for most – a 9 on most scales (regrettably only a 2, for me, since my holidays are such a long sequence of inconceivable disasters that I have got to the “Ah, well, what the fuck stage” when almost anything happens).

In this particular case I have borrowed Nadine’s brand new Fiat. As I leave, the last words I hear are “But don’t damage my new car”. No stress then. All is well until I decide to re-fuel. Should I do what most normal people do and leave the petrol station, proceed to the roundabout, and do a 360 at the roundabout in order to return in the direction I should be going?

No, I shall be a smart arse and prove that my driving judgement is second to none. Sure, of course I can get a Fiat through a gap only just large enough for a motorbike. No problem. A grinding sound alerts me to the fact that not all is well. Never mind, no doubt just a flesh wound. I reverse. More grinding.

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Not the new Fiat

At this point I notice that a second bollard, that was secretly concealed underground when I last looked, has emerged to deliberately damage Nadine’s car, unseen by me. Some sort of revenge for Australia’s role in helping stop French nuclear testing, no doubt. I drive on convinced that this will just be a minor scratch

Revelations 2.4 states “And it was revealed that the minor scratch was in fact a giant dent all along the underside of the car….and, lo, it cost EU1000 to fix”. Lucky Nadine had insurance then. Final cost EU80, profuse apologies, damaged pride and a reminder that hubris is always a bad thing.

This is Part 3 of the blog series “97 Days Adrift in Europe”. Links to other episodes and related content can be found below:

Istanbul: across the European and Asian divide…riots, Ramadan and revolution

I normally sleep well on planes; but then often I have two or three seats. There is a technique. First, check in online and book the very rear of the plane, selecting a row that is completely empty at the time and near other empty rows. Not the back row because the seats rarely recline due to the bulkhead wall behind it, but the second or third row from the back.

If the plane is not fully booked the back will always be emptier because people find it noisier and bumpier so, even though the difference is marginal, if there are going to be empty seats they will be there. The back of the plane is also safer. Invariably, if anyone lives, they are most likely near the back. This is God’s punishment for the rich and selfish and, even if you die, you can take consolation that the rich bastards died first. Even better if the rich bastards are Liberal Ministers.

In 747s and some other planes the narrowing of the planes means the seats are only two wide on the sides so you get a mass of space next to the window for books, shoes etc making this the ideal space for a long flight.

Then you must always make sure you are the very last passenger on board. Wait until the third or fourth final call…or when they actually call you name. Then board  – this gives everyone else the shits, of course since half the plane has been boarded, waiting, for at least 30 minutes. Never mind – everyone else will already be seated so you can see if there are any empty or part empty rows. Don’t worry about your allocated seat just head straight for the vacant spaces. If there aren’t empty seats naturally you take your pre-allocated seat.

On this occasion, I don’t sleep so well. Kaylee, with whom I am traveling, has discovered the joys of traveling next to someone you know, which is that you can raise the armrest and take up half of your traveling companion’s seat as well as your own. Having claimed she never sleeps on planes, she now sleeps like the proverbial log for at least half the entire journey.

I, on the other hand, do not sleep as well as normal. But there is consolation in that there are fewer complaints from the traveller in the next seat about having nearly drowned en route. This occurs, normally, as a result my standard travel sleeping technique, which involves looking like the local village idiot with my mouth wide open and drooling in a stream over the adjacent passenger

The drool as you travel technique is less problematic when traveling with Kaylee, as I can drool on her rather than a complete stranger. This leads to less embarrassment all around.

We fly Turkish Airlines that, contrary to the stereotype of Turkey as still chaotic and relatively poor is excellent. New planes, efficient and friendly service and, miraculously, a video system where the sound you “enjoy” while listening to films doesn’t sound like someone first smashed the system and then submerged it. I enjoy three films en route. One of my choices is the Book Thief. It’s a classic tear-jerker which means that, aside from being great and informative, is a bad choice because I spend half the film weeping and surreptitiously wiping my eyes since I have never managed to get over my childhood indoctrination that boys don’t cry.

The plane sweeps over the Bosphorus with a view south over the Sea of Marmara and north to the Black Sea. If one can ever say that a view from a plane is a taste of history, this is it. Constantinople is truly a cross roads which has led us to the current morass in Syria, Iraq, Iran and throughout Europe. In one glance you can see, metaphorically, where two great empires, two continents and two religions collided.

Around the Bosphorus: apparently every fish MUST be caught. And a few of the old extent Ottoman houses

Below the waters lie the wrecks of British and French warships, the  Bouvet, Ocean and Irresistible, were sunk by mines and the battlecruiser Inflexible were damaged by the same minefield.  The loss of Bouvet and two other British battleships during the 18 March attack was a major factor in the decision to abandon a naval strategy to take Constantinople, and instead opt for the Gallipoli land campaign.[10]

The subsequent defeat and break of of the Ottoman Empire then led (in its most simplistic form) onto the creation/independence of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and the establishment of the borders of Turkey and Greece and from there to the present morass in the middle east.

We land at Ataturk Airport, in European Turkey, in the very early hours of the morning and we take a taxi to our AirBnb accommodation just a couple of minutes from Taksim Square. Our host, Dev, meets us at 6am and, as we invariably found with AirBnB, gave us a great welcome including a wealth of information including a recommendation to go to the Gay and Lesbian Pride March, that evening.

After a short sleep we take to the streets walking up the Bosphorus for about six kilometres towards the Black Sea, under the bridge which joins Europe and Asia, and onto the Bosphorus-side suburb of Bebek.

The walk provides a form of Turkish smorgasbord incorporating as it does, European coffee stops, traditional Turkish tea houses, advertising for Galatasaray Soccer Club (named for the area around the Galata Tower), markets, the Bosphorus, museums, ancient palaces and a myriad other miniature experiences of the richness of Turkey, with the biggest downside being that much of Bosphorus side walk is blocked by private or Government property and buildings.

A taxi back to the Hotel gets us back in time for the Pride March and we walk the 10 minutes up the hill to Taksim Square, just adjacent to Gezi Park where massive protests against a proposed shopping centre flared into riots in 2013 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezi_Park_protests).

As we arrive at the top of the hill the march is leaving the square and heading down the road. It gets about 50 metres past us and then, just as quickly hundreds of people start sprinting the other way as a phalanx of riot police come up the road, batons drawn. The brutality and deaths of 2013 are apparently very fresh (http://tinyurl.com/ow5n4zn).

We move with the protesters back to the square that is blocked on every side by riot police. Just a month after the election in which the authoritarian Government of Erdogan lost its majority (but the Justice and Development Party remained the largest party), it is trying to assert itself by banning the rally and march and preventing it leaving the square. As an Islamic Government, it is also affronted by the fact that the rally is occurring during Ramadam – but as with most things in Turkey it’s not as simple as an Islamists vs. Secularists issue, with many of the protesters wearing headscarfs and other Islamic dress (later we were bemused at the beach to see women in bikinis and headscarfs).

Refusing to be moved on, we are all soon confronted by water cannon. Kaylee, in her wisdom, deciding the water pressure in the flat is insufficient for a good shower, goes to investigate the efficacy of water cannon, before a friendly nearby Turkish woman advises us the perhaps it would be wiser to move in the opposite direction.

At this point the tear gas starts and people start scattering and then re-grouping nearby. The rally is, apparently, also a spectator sport and thousands have gathered higher up the hill to view the action and the crowd surges back and forth, eventually breaking through the police lines on the far side of the square, a victory of sorts and it issues down the streets by Gezi Park. Now the rally begins to disperse and move into the nearby bars as dinner approaches. We take ourselves off for a couple of gin and tonics and then on to dinner. An eclectic first day in Turkey moves to a close.

 

 

 

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