Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Travel

I feel this blog is rather bland. I'm amazed by how quickly the incredible experience of travel has become mundane. Please don't confuse mundane with boring - every day is fascinating and fun. I mean mundane in that it's all become quite commonplace and everyday. For example, the night before I went to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau - which I mentioned has been a near-lifelong goal of mine - I just had dinner and went to bed. No butterflies in the stomach. No lying awake thinkg "OH MY GOD I'M GOING TO AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU TOMORROW". Just some practical preparation - checking train times and fares, seeing what times tours left - and that's it. That's very unusual for me. Normally, I get excited for days before seeing a favourite band, so the fact that I'm taking all of these very new and unusual situations in my stride is odd.

I guess when everything is so different - timetable, diet, weather and so on - your body just has to cope or die. Thanks, body, for coping and living!

I'm loving travel, but I'm so looking forward to settling down for a bit in London and getting some semblance of a life in order again. Apart from having my own bedroom, what I miss most is having a store of groceries on hand: now, I can't just think "Hmm, I'll make a cup of tea". I have to check if the hostel has tea-making facilities, then check if said facilities are up scratch (i.e. have they ever cleaned out the inside of their kettle?) and, if they don't, I have to head out and buy some tea bags and boil a pot of water, or go and pay an outrageous price for it in a cafe. (Although I will say this for Europe: they charge less for tea than they do for coffee. I can't belive Australian cafes charge the same for putting a bag in boiling water as they do for grinding beans, extracting espresso, foaming milk and combining the two. Coffee is clearly more complicated. But I digress.) 

So the point of the post is that I can't wait to have a cup of tea whenever I like.

Czech Republic

So, Prague is beautiful. I wasn't even going to come here on my trip. I knew very little about it, but someone mentioned it in passing, and I happened to find a cheap flight from Prague to Stockholm, and so here I am. It reminds me of Krakow, which is not surprising - they're both cities that have been dominated by various empires over the centuries, and both were left surprisingly intact during the second world war. I'm staying in a lovely, big, old apartment that's been converted into a hostel, overlooking the Vltava. I can see the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle from my little balcony.I've mainly wandered around the city and seen all the touristy things. Lots of Gothic architecture, which I love. Actually, this city is amazing for me, on account of the fact that I love things indiscriminately just because they're old. Just ask Koen - his attitude to showing me the sights of Holland was "if it's old and shitty, Liam will like it". I saw the Tyn Cathedral, where Tycho Brahe is buried. He was a revolutionary astronomer who didn't get the credit he deserved. A friend is very fond of him, so much so that he named his cat Tycho. I also enjoyed the Jewish cemetery in the old Jewish quarter. (Man, the Jews really have had a hard time of it. Every city I've visited has had a Jewish ghetto. The jewish quarter of Krakow was originally outside the town walls. Poor Jews. But I suppose that's what you get for murdering Jesus.*) The Jewisj quarter was so small that, when they ran out of room in the cemetery, they just added another level of soil. As such, there are no discernible graves as several headstones clutter each burial spot, and the cemetery rises a good ten feet above street level.

I was chatting with a nice Australian couple on the tour. (I discerned they were Australian because they asked if they could get chocolate powder in their cappucinos. The Europeans just don't do it, which makes me sad. Actually, while we're on the topic of coffee, coffee in Europe has been really bad. I've tried everything: fancy restaurants, international chains, local diners. I've had just one coffee I would call "good". The rest, not so much. I find it really bizarre. They all use UHT milk - gross - and there's no discernible difference between their lattes and cappucinos. I've discovered that most countries I've visited have a drink called a latte macchiatto, which is similar to a latte and completely unlike a macchiatto, but it is similar to a flat white, so I've been drinking those. But moving on.) We were discussing possibly going on a pub crawl tonight organised by the tour company. I showed, they didn't, and I'd been thinking of going on the crawl anyway, but man...these were not my people, I could tell. I love a drink as much as the next twenty-something, but I'm quickly realising how important my friends are to me. Going out is no fun on your own. I enjoy going out because I can dance and laugh and spend time with my friends. So I really don't understand this section of my generation who think that drinking automatically constitutes a good time.

But this is a travel blog, not a generational analysis.

It's getting lonely travelling by myself (as evidenced by my almost going on a pub crawl with strangers, a move that those close to me will realise is totally out of character). So I'm very much looking forward to my time in Scandinavia. I arrive in Stockholm in a couple of days, and my friend Anna and I have booked a studio apartment for the weekend. She's working there as a nanny, and is kind of going crazy from the lack of interaction with English-speaking adults too. It will be great to talk shit and swear (I've been on my best behaviour - I accidentally said "bitches" in front of the aforementioned Australian couple today and they looked a little shocked) and go out with a friend again. Then in Copenhagen, I'm lined up to stay with and meet some friends of a friend, so that will be hopefully awesome. And then, London, where I have many friends, followed by a quick trip to Ireland and Scotland, where I have some friends, before returning to London to find work and bunker down for the winter.

*JOKE. It's called a JOKE, my friends.**

** Speaking of jokes, it has been so hard to not tell all the completely inappropriate Jewish jokes in my reportoire while travelling around this part of Europe, a region that is still too scarred by anti-Semitism to laugh about it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More Poland

Today I went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex outside Krakow, which was one of my goals for this trip. I've wanted to go since I was in primary school (yeah, I was a weird kid - a trip to Wonderland just didn't cut it for me) and it didn't disappoint. Well, it did, in that I felt very disappointed with humanity at the end of it (and not just because of the Nazis - tourists on buses are jerks, but that's quite trivial when discussing attempted genocide), but it was fascinating. The Birkenau complex was especially disturbing, all the more so because it was in an incredibly beautiful setting. The Polish countryside is by turns harsh and lush, but Birkenau is one of the loveliest places I've encountered so far in Europe. I guess it manages to be both harsh and lush at the same time.

We all know stories about the concentration camps now, but it is just incredible and heart-breaking to be there, to see the tiny cells and the torture chambers, to see the trenches they dug and the fences they electrocuted themselves on. Speaking of the fences, the place is enormous! It took me an hour to walk around half of the permieter. The back of the camp contained, aside from the crematoria, some sewerage treatment plants they were constructing for the planned expansion of the camp.

The mind boggles at what the world would be like if the Nazis remained in power long enough to implement all those plans.

I'm enjoying Krakow very much. It's a beautiful town - the market square is enormous and, despite the touristy nature of it all, very lovely. But speaking of being touristy, I was looking for a meal the other day, and considered a restaurant on the market square. The dish I wanted - pierogi ruskie, dumplings filled with potato and cottage cheese - was 27 zlotych, or about AUD11. Not too expensive, but I went around the corner, and found an adorable underground restaurant where I got a bowl of borsch (delicious beetroot soup), pierogi ruskie and half a litre of beer for PZL22, or AUD9. It was so good that I went back that night and treated myself to a PZL53 (AUD22). I'm not saying I'm an incredibly adventurous tourist, but I'm amazed by how many people - even those on the backpacker trail - are happy to go wherever the brochures point them. I was a bit braver with dinner tonight - I went to a milk bar, a cheap cafeteria-style restaurant that is a hangover from the communist days. Nobody spoke English, but I gather that I got zurek, a traditional Polish soup with eggs and sausages, and mince and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves with a tomatoey sauce. And it only cost me PZL15 (AUD6), so I picked up a PZL4 (AUD1.6) half a litre can of beer on the way home. Amazing.

Poland is so cheap. I wouldn't consider cooking here, especially because a) everything is delicious and b) I went to the supermarket for some snacky things, and a more depressing selection of produce I have not seen.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to go to an underground salt mine a few kilometres out of Krakow and then explore the old Jewish quarter in town. I've already seen the famous Wawel Hill castle complex. It's my favourite kind of castle - sprawling and eclectic, added to in different styles over the centuries - but inside it was kind of disappointing. The rooms were impressive, but they just kind of shoved a whole lot of random old furniture in there and gave no information about the rooms' historical uses. Ah well, I love a good castle, so it was nice to wander around anyway.


I feel I didn't do much justice to my visit to Auschwirz-Birkenau, but what can I say that hasn't been said already?

Well, here's a fun fact for you: the Polish name for the town is Oświęcim, which is pronounced (roughly) osh-fee-en-chee-oom. Polish is a crazy language.

Anyway, I'm really enjoying Krakow. I wish I had a bit more time here. My last day in Warszawa was a little disappointing - I went to a supposedly trendy area called Praga, but it was just like a scarier Redfern. Then I went to go to the National Museum, but it was closed for renovations. Stupid Poland. But - because I know you were all worrying - I've sorted out my transport to Prague. The train trip is only seven hours, so I can manage that. All the hostels in Stockholm seem to be full, however, so that's a little worrying.

Also, I think I'm going to end my trip in about two weeks. I found a flight from Aarhus in the north of Denmark to London for 110 Danish kroner, or AUD25. Can I get a "Hell yeah!"?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Travel makes me feel so very, very small.

Flying over and driving through countries and villages, it becomes so obvious that there are so many little lives like mine going on. Of course, I always knew that, but flying halfway across the globe and seeing the comings and goings of people in Asia and Europe, I finally realise how enormous, how unfathomable the number of people living on this planet really is.

Something else I find unfathomable is the suffering this part of Europe has endured, the delusion and destruction people have forced upon each other and themselves. I picked up a copy of Berlin: The Downfall 1945 the other day. Predictably, it covers the downfall of the Third Reich in Berlin in 1945. It was interesting to read about history in the places it happened - reading about the enormous and inadequate bomb shelters beneath Friedrichstrasse station as I waited at Friedrichstrasse station for my connection, for example - but within three pages, I couldn't conceive the suffering of Berliners in the second World War. And then, they lived through Soviet rule and yet, twenty years after the Wall fell, Berlin has somehow transformed itself into a beautiful, vibrant city.

Warszawa is similar, in that it's bounced back from near total annihilation. Its coping mechanism is a little different, and it seems more aggressive in its modernisation: there are skyscrapers and large hotels here, the kind of which I haven't yet encountered in Europe. I'm not quite sure what I think about it yet. I feel a little uneasy here, but at the same time, it reminds me a lot of Sydney. (In fact, the room I'm staying in is called Sydney - others are Barcelona, Rome et cetera - and the bunk bed opposite mine actually has a photo of my street above it, with a tiny corner of my apartment building visible.) There's great wealth and culture here, but also great poverty. I arrived at Warszawa Centralna station and immediately wanted to turn around and go back to Berlin: it's an ugly, concrete, cavernous place. The angry shopkeepers and the pitiful Gypsies, it was all rather unpleasant. But I'm staying on a beautiful street, and I enjoyed walking around tonight. The Warszawa Uprising Museum was fascinating (it also features in the book I'm reading), so I look forward to exploring the Old Town (rebuilt in the last few decades - ha ha) and Praga tomorrow.

I'm in Hell trying to figure out transport the next few places I go to. Because Poland has crept out from behind the Iron Curtain so recently, it isn't a very Westernised nation - not many people (well, middle-aged people, the kind who work in shops and train stations) speak English and a lot of websites don't have English options. Plus, I don't want to catch a seven hour train after my last ordeal. Waaah. I wanna fly to Prague.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Still Germany

Today was a little disheartening. I decided to visit Kreuzberg and Prenzlauerberg, two regions of Berlin I was excited to check out. They'd been described to me as having a Newtown/Glebe sort of vibe. Instead, they had a Redfern sort of vibe. Gross. I actually felt a little unsafe in Prenzlauerberg. Admittedly, it's Monday, and things shut down in Europe on Sundays and Mondays. I'll be going back to one or both of them tomorrow, as the two best English bookshops in town are located there. So let's hope it's a little better. On the other hand, it was kind of like seeing a friend or lover pick their nose and not being too grossed out: I still love this city, no matter its faults.

I went on a day trip to Potsdam (did I mention this?) where the Prussian kings had their summer retreat. I never knew what was meant by the term "Prussia", but now I do. Learning on holidays rules! I also went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, which was a template for the later concentration camps. They carried out earlier gas chamber experiments there. The Nazis sure loved their grim irony: the first group of women to be gassed (with mustard gas, instead of the later Zyklon B) had previously been on a work detail making gas masks for the war effort. While on the subjects of horrible irony and Zyklon B, a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is coated with some kind of anti-graffitti substance. Turns out that the company that provided the substance supplied the Nazis with Zyklon B way back when. Interesting and depressing.

I went out for a night to Magnet Club, which was weird and fun. I got there at nearly midnight, and the place was dead. It didn't pick up until about two o'clock. I guess that's what happens when you have daylight until ten o'clock. The club night was called Pop Pourri, and the music was uhmayzing. Nearly every song, I knew or loved. So I danced by myself (seriously, no one else on the dance floor) and chatted with a Swiss couple and a Japanese guy. Typical: I spend a week in Germany and don't meet a single German. Actually, that's a lie, there was a German girl in my first Berlin hostel room, who was lovely.

I'm in a new hostel now, which rules. I'm about a twenty minute walk from the Reichstag (which was awe-inspiring, and totally worth the one hour wait) and it's a four-bed room in a well-maintained art nouveau apartment. The bathroom is enormous (a welcome change from the shower cubicles at the last hostel, which weren't big enough to stretch my arms out in) and really quiet. My first night there, I had the room to myself, as my roommates were out for the whole night. Shit yeah!

I wandered around to a few museums, and treated myself to lunch at a tacky Australian restaurant. I went to German restaurants in Australia so often that I thought I should see what the inverse is like. It was funny reading the menu - it was all "chook" instead of "chicken" - and it was good to have some kangaroo. Although I got a Foster's, and remembered why I don't drink it back home. It's like making love in a canoe. (You know the rest.)

Tomorrow, I will try to give my poor feet a break (seriously, five of my toes have blisters - I have never walked so much in my life) and chill out in the Tiergarten. Then I'm catching an early morning train to Warsaw, where I will stay for three days before heading to Krakow for three days. After that, Prague, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Aarhus. After that, I might go to Hanover, Munich and Paris, or save them for another time and head to London to prepare myself for the winter - don't want to get caught out like the metaphorical grasshopper.

Friday, August 14, 2009


I'm in Berlin! Getting here was a bit hellish - I caught an overnight bus and was next to a guy who thought his ticket entitled him to my seat as well as his, and behind a girl who kept testing if her seat went back any further. Seriously, I don't care how expensive the alternative is, never, ever catch a night bus in Europe. It's just not worth it. (Speaking of comfort and expense, the overnight bus from Utrecht to Berlin cost me $100. I booked a flight from Prague to Stockholm for $35. Win!)

But I'm here now, and it's amaying. I stumbled into my hostel just after 7am, had a quick shower and started venturing out on my own. I got as far as the Ostbanhof, my local train station (and, oh my god, public transport in Berlin is amaying, but that can wait for another post), where I realised I had no idea where to go or what to do. So I went back and went on a free walking tour of Berlin offered by my hostel. Turns out it was done by a separate company who offer a free walking tour to promote their other tours, and hell yeah, it works! The tour was fascinating and fun, and so today I went on a tour of Potsdamer, the nearby town that was the summer playground of Prussian royalty, and tomorrow I'm going on a tour of Sachsenhausen, the nearby concentration camp. And then there are so many museums to see! I also need to dig into record stores and stuff while I'm here.

I'll write more later - my clothes are nearly dry, and when the cycle is finished, I'm going to have a nap before going out to the Magnet Club. I've never been clubbing a) in Europe or b) on my own, so I don't know what to expect, but I've met (and dated) tourists who were in pubs or clubs on their own, so hopefully some Berliner will be nice and chat to the lonely kid in the corner. But yeah, clubs here don't open until midnight, and anyone who knows me and my going out habits will know that this will test me. I want to be in bed! But I went to bed at 9pm yesterday, so it's time to sample some of this famous Berlin nightlife.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Even More Holland

So, I'm still in Holland, and getting more confident. Koen is working again today, so I went into town. This time I managed to buy groceries and a cup of coffee. I was feeling so confident I thought I'd walk home a different way and, of course, got lost. Never mind. I love wandering around this city - it's beautiful. I have now seen several Dutch cities (and a German one) to compare it to. On Thursday, I braved the Dutch train system to meet Koen in Nijmegen, the city where he works. Well, I managed to cock that up. The wording on the ticket machine was slightly different to the wording Koen had written down for me, and a few key words were missing from my phrasebook. I faked my way through it, claiming a bogus student discount when I didn't have enough Euro coins to afford full fare. Nijmegen is a lovely medieval town, with a spacious shopping district and beautiful old castles and garden along the riverside. 

We spent Friday in Amsterdam and, in hindsight, we didn't do much, mainly wandered around and looked at the sights. The architecture in Amsterdam is particularly striking - very old, but well-maintained. I wasn't so taken with the city but, admittedly, I didn't explore far from the centre. The centre, of course, had a very touristy feel, and all the marijuana and sex paraphernalia was a bit tacky. The red light district was an eye-opening (and eye-popping) experience, with prostitutes hanging out in windows, trying to beckon us in. Gross. We were in town for a Cocorosie concert, and that did not disappoint. It was in a venue called Paradiso, a converted church where David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and all other kinds of rock and roll royalty have played. The venue was beautiful, and the concert was amazing. Koen is a big fan and I'm just a casual listener, but I was converted: they use their unusual voices (think Bjork and Kate Miller-Heidke) with creative arrangements of piano, percussion and beatboxing, with the occasional harp or horn thrown in. Getting home was a bit of a bitch: we had to wait a while for the train to take us back to the transferium, an enormous and affordable parking station for commuters, and then faced the ninety minute drive back to Oss. We finally made it into bed around two o'clock.

The weekend was much more relaxing. We ventured into a few nearby towns on Saturday, and on Sunday, drove to 's Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch, the capital of Noord Brabant, the province I'm staying in. It's a beautiful old town whose signature dish is an enormous profiterole. I was most pleased. We then slipped across the border into the German town of Kleve. I don't know if it's representative of Germany, but I liked it much less than Dutch towns. It was just a bit dirtier, a bit more run-down, a bit more higgeldy-piggeldy. Oh, and there were really ugly seats shaped like swans all over the place. We headed back into Holland and had an amazing dinner at the Turkish restaurant where Koen worked during his high school years.

And now, I'm planning my next move. There were a few very hots days last week, but a cool change came through over the weekend. It reminded me that I have a lot to see and not much of winter left to see it in. I'm loving Holland, but I know I'll be spending a lot more time here over the next year or two. I think I'll jump on a bus to Berlin in the next few days, although most of the hostels seem to be pretty full. Yikes. I'll probably have to get one for Thursday and Friday night and then spend a bit of time looking for somewhere that can take me for the weekend. I think I'll spend some time in Berlin before heading up towards Stockholm. After that, I'll jet up to Aarhus and Skagen in Denmark before arriving in Copenhagen by the first of September. From there, I'll probably head to Warsaw and Krakow in Poland before stopping off at Prague on my way to Paris, after which I'll finally arrive in London.

Finance allowing, of course.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

More Holland

Adventure status: failed! I had a very nice walk into Oss' city centre, although I pretty soon found my way on a route I hadn't taken before. But it's okay, I got there and back with no problems, I just didn't wander too aimlessly in town as I knew that would hamper my ability to find my way back. I'd added exchanging my Australian dollars for euros to my list of things to do, and figured that was the most important, and set about doing it first. I failed dismally, and that kind of put a dampener on the other activities. I only found one bank - and, thankfully, it was ING, a brand I know from Australia - and, after being greeted by disorienting Dutch, it turned out that the woman did speak English, but they wouldn't change my money unless I had an account with them. Damn.

So I wandered around, and couldn't find a bookshop. There were several cafes and bars, but no one was drinking coffee. I'm sure I could have walked in and tried my best - the word for "coffee" is "koffie", after all - but what do they call cappucinos and lattes? I know that my normal choice, flat white, is rather unique to the Australian market. So, unusually shy and disheartened, I walked home in the Dutch heat listening to German rock. Maybe I'll have more luck tomorrow in Amsterdam when we go there to see CocoRosie.

Now, I'm off on an adventure that will be much easier: I'm catching a train to another city to meet Koen after work. But he's written everything down for me - including how to get to the station and how to select a return ticket and such in Dutch - so there's no chance of me screwing this up.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


If I were put in charge of an advertising campaign for the Netherlands (which, let's face it, is a terrible idea that would probably end in a war with the neighbouring countries), the tag line would be "Holland: Better than wherever you're from". It is so beautiful, and I am so happy to be here.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I spent nearly forty hours in transit - Sydney to Taipei Taipei to Bangkok, Bangkok to Amsterdam - which is the longest I've ever been travelling for. I never want to go home, simply because I can't face that thought of that trip again. It was so painful, made more uncomfortable by the fact that I was flying China Airlines, whose aircraft are abviously designed for much more compact people of Asian descent. But I chatted with a lovely young Chinese couple beside me, and the food was okay, and my books were good, so eventually I arrived at Schiphol. (It turns out this is the name of Amsterdam's airport. My friend Glen asked me when I arrived in Shiphol, to which I said, "No, I'm going to Amsterdam".)

My friend Koen picked me up at the airport. It was so good to see him. Not just because I was so tired that I would have wrapped my arms around George W Bush with the joy of seeing a face I recognised (ooh, incisive political insight, that's what keeps you reading this blog, am I right?), but because it's been a year since he left Australia and I've missed him terribly.

Koen drove me to his home city, Oss, via a few other nearby cities. In Australia, people tend to congregate together in huge clumps, like the Central Coast or the Blue Mountains, which are never-ending trails of suburbs. In Holland, there are lots of small, self-contained cities near each other. Holland is a stunning country, and everything looks like a postcard. I'm trying to refrain from exclaiming "Cute!" every two minutes, because that's rather patronising, but the country has such a quaint, wholesome vibe. Everybody's very house-proud, there are recreational cyclists everywhere, many houses have heavily-thatched roofs, apple trees grow in public parks, and it's just lovely. I love the summertime Dutch lifestyle: it's daylight here until ten at night (a fact I am stil getting used to), so the streets are full of people walking and dining outside until late. I'm told yesterday was one of the hottest days of summer so far, but I found i very pleasant. It wasn't as humid as it apparently gets sometimes, but it still missed that malevolent heat that typifies the Australian summer for me.

I spent said sunny day a Efteling, a beautiful, creative and quirky theme park. We had a very lucky day: we didn't queue up long for the rides. Even queuing was often pleasant: the designers have paid great attention to details. For example, waiting to go on a ride called The Flying Dutchman, which is tied in with the ghost ship of the same name, we slowly walked through several rooms and a waterfront in the style of a seventeenth century Dutch town. The rides were fun, too, and Koen even managed to talk me into getting on the Python, a high-speed rollercoast in the vein of the Demon at Wonderland and, OH MY GOD, it was so much fun.

We then came home and made mussels with garlic sauce with a salad of strawberries, brie, lettuce and almonds on the side, which was an interesting and delicious combination. The Dutch seem to like combining sweet, savoury and salty flavours: the night before I had bacon and ginger pancakes, which were rich and delicious. And, OH MY GOD, you should see the booze selection in their supermarkets: cheap, varied and more extensive than the average Australia bottle shop. I could get used to that. Although at the check-out, I went to pay for the groceries with my credit card, which is apparently not done here. I feel this will be the most interesting and frustrating part of my trip: coming up against the unspoken rules of different societies. I barely have a handle on Australia's inherent rules and regulations: trying to master those of a foreign culture within a week or two, I fear, will be nearly impossible.

Today, Koen has to work. I'm just catching up on emails, and will hopefully have time for a nap. I haven't felt jet-lagged at all, but am feeling the effects of rushing straight out of two days of insomnia into a day of walking in the sun. Then, I plan to wander into Oss' city centre, which will be interesting: I haven't had any one-on-one interactions with Dutch people yet, as Koen has always been there to translate and order for me. The few people I have met - mainly Koen's neighbours and relatives - have been very friendly, even if we can't do much but communicate our names and smile at each other. I'm told most of the younger generations speak English, so wish me luck!