“We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is” – Kurt Vonnegut
DUBAI - By the time you read this indulgence, Ingrid and I are on our way to Europe for a few weeks. Here, in August 2018, I suspect my travelling days are numbered as age is not so much creeping up on me as shoving its unwelcome presence in my face. Or, more accurately, into my spine.
For 10 years my love of travel has struggled against my ailing frame. Movement is now a daily challenge. After six bouts of surgery to keep me mobile, I have been told by the neurosurgeon, ‘no more, it’ll just make things worse’. I can walk perhaps 200 metres at a time, sometimes three times a day. So I'm not expecting too much excitement on this journey.
But let me go back a few years. For today’s PNG Attitude, I take advantage of the enforced captivity of air travel to let you peek into a private travel log from seven years ago which recorded another trip where my back, for a while anyway, made a bastard of itself. The log should really be called a long, it is voluminous, so I don’t expect you to read it all. Or at all. But, if you enjoy travel, or even the human condition, you may find it diverting. I hope you do.
Sunday 12 June. It’s just after 5 in the morning in Cologne. I have awoken refreshed and free of the back pain that’s been bedevilling me, damn it, and full of a fierce determination to begin writing these notes, catch them up with the first 10 days of our journey and keep them going - all in the cause of communicating something of personal worth to my ever-suffering family and friends.
The sky has already been lightening for an hour and it’s apparent that this day will be fine and warm. Through the wide window in front of my desk, the twin spires of Cologne cathedral – perhaps 300 metres away – dominate the city and me. Immediately to my right are the three drab-green spans of Hohenzollern brűcke, which seem to depart almost from the revolving door of our Hyatt hotel, stretching towards the city proper. The rail bridge has five tracks that carry 1,300 trains a day - all of which makes NSW RailCorp’s workload and equipment look museum-ready.
Between the city and my window is the Rhine, with its incessant traffic of low, long, wide riverboats – each much lengthier than a football field and carrying the load of 30 semi-trailers (as well as the skipper’s city car) as they make the long journey from Holland’s inland sea to the many German cities and towns along this great artery.
As for me, after yesterday’s blissfulness, which I will come too, I have spent my first night since leaving home without drugs to ease the pain in my back. O happy day.
IN TRANSIT (GLORIA MUNDI), SYDNEY-LONDON
Thursday 2 June. The statistics have it that Qantas flight QF1 to London usually departs on time and ours is no exception. Ingrid and I travel business class – partly because it better suits the convenience of a man using a CPAP device to keep him breathing while he sleeps, partly because we can afford it. My seat on a 747 is always 13A – the sleep apnoeac’s berth – and there have been times when I have had to fight to get it, and even to retain it having got it. It’s a battle with authority I’m always up for but it lends something of an anticipatory stress to every overnight flight.
The first leg to Bangkok is uneventful (all four Rolls Royce engines go the distance) except that my back, so benign and collaborative for nearly a month now, spasms and stalls. My fault entirely. Backs of fragility are meant to stand, sit or lie, not be poised somewhere between one and the other. Anti-inflammatories are immediately invoked. Too late.
Friday 3 June. Was there anyone who ever touched down on English soil having ventured forth from our great south land who did not exclaim, “That’s a bloody long way!”
A day in an aeroplane is always the longest day. And its numbness is rarely leavened by the solidly stoical surliness of Qantas’s female cabin staff. (Do they do special training in frosty, you think? Why are the males so much more engaging?) After we spiral down to land at Heathrow, we disembark for the usual 5 km marathon from air bridge to immigration.
By now my back monkey has descended through both buttocks and conspired to converge in my left leg. I know from experience that this is a nerve in my back twanging off some outcrop of bone and screaming for mercy. Merely the smallest weight of a wheeled suitcase causes a nauseating pain. This case would, wheeled by a normal-backed man, be tugged around blithely as a beaker of piss on skids.
We are allowed into Britain and decide to take the non-stop, non-bump Heathrow Express to Paddington and then cab it to the Rembrandt on the border of South Kensington and Knightsbridge, across the road from the V&A and a stone’s throw from Harrods. This is a precinct we are familiar with and feel an immense comfort with. The rest of the day is spent trying to stay awake for the rest of the day, so tricking the brain into believing there is no such phenomenon as jet lag.
Saturday 4 June. Well this is good. Back responding to medication, London beckoning and time for a good walk. Down Knightbridge Road towards the city, hugging the sunny side of the street (I don’t believe in long pants and long sleeves when on holiday, or at any other time for that matter) veering off towards Buckingham Palace when we hit Pall Mall.
There are police everywhere. Like the current model of NSW copper, these bobbies are no advertisement for Fitness Plus. Nor am I, but I’m not a rozzer.
Something’s on and that something is a rehearsal for next week’s Trooping of the Colour. We wander towards the sound of heavy boots on hard surfaces and find ourselves at the barracks of the Grenadier Guards. And there, in their bright red tunics and black busbies, are five guards’ companies preparing to march.
As we watch, there is the soaring sound of a brass band and then another and another, until there are five in all. A sizeable crowd has gathered by now. And the rehearsal begins. Five companies, five bands, a thousand men (some of whom know how to march) and five bandmasters in their cream jockeys’ caps and white aprons and either twirling their long batons or beating them on the ground as might be their wont, stylists all.
I always find it remarkable that it happens so often when we travel and are out and about just idling along that we happen upon scenes and events that stir the blood and raise the spirits and make us feel good just being a traveller.
In the evening, Ingrid’s cousins John Epstein and Gitty Kennedy – Czech émigrés like all of Ingrid’s folk - collect us from the Rembrandt in their Jag and we make our way through Saturday’s slow and crowded London streets to Wodka for eastern European tucker and family reminiscing.
Sunday 5 June. Bugger. Yesterday’s walk has strung me right out and the pain in my legs seems to be dragging my whole body towards the floor. It’s time for my “fuck travel, I might as well stay at home” routine which I duly perform before a reluctant audience of Ingrid. But then the medication kicks in and the pain eases and the walking frees up and I’m ambling confidently once more. And so we take the tube to Southwark station, proximate to the Tate Modern and the Miró exhibition for which we are headed.
There are 150 of Joan Miró's paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints – many suffused with an overpowering bleakness. They cover six decades of his often anxious, politically-aware but politically-disengaged career that spanned the Spanish Civil War and WWII and then the lingering extinction of Franco's Spain.
Miró was there, he was unimpressed and his works retain a “dark intensity” (critic’s words endorsed by me). I find some of this very moving and most interesting (that most killing of words, I know) without being scintillating. But Miró did not set out to scintillate; his métier being the mutely loud resistance of his art.
My journalist mate Ilya Gridneff (fresh from a couple of years in Papua New Guinea for AAP) is visiting London to see his TV producer girlfriend and we meet up at the French House pub in Soho before heading to a little Japanese number favoured by said girlfriend, Ms Storm. And we talk about ourselves as good friends do when they meet in far off places.
Monday 6 June. It’s amazing how the world shrinks when your back’s fucked. I nurse the damn thing along Knightbridge’s flat landscape to Harrods, a five minute walk taking 15, where – waiting for the drugs to kick in - I ensconce myself in Waterstone’s bookshop. I’m in a spending mood and lash out on a Guardian as I do each day in London and elsewhere if it’s available (which in Europe it mostly is) and then stagger back towards the Rembrandt.
I seek refuge halfway at Costas, the coffee people, another of my London habitats even though the product is only half-decent. By this time, I’m beginning to feel more chirpy, so Ingrid and I walk the half-mile to the South Kensington shops and murder a Thai. Then back to the hotel to rest the jill and jack.
It might seem to you already that I have a lot of downtime while travelling and, in one sense, that is true: the sense that I’m not up and at it constantly. But, even when the back is performing the normal function of a back, those left and right toe joints that require surgery sometime soon are only good for three hours light walking a day. Which leaves a lot of day. To read, indulge my favourite vice of cryptic crosswords and ensure the PNG Attitude blog is well maintained.
Tuesday 7 June. I’d hoped the Eurostar service from St Pancras to Brussels might reward me with a long sequence of splendid vistas of English, French and Belgian countryside. But much of this journey is spent in tunnels and cuttings – although the scenery I do observe pleases me greatly.
The journey gives me time to think about my feet, which is not a part of my body I have ever devoted much thought to. A couple of months before leaving Sydney my left toe joint packed it in. Osteoarthritis. I believe you keep moving a bit even after stopping a bullet; the collapse of a toe joint stops you stone motherless cold.
Hey, the Metropole in Brussels puts two free bottle of Stella in your bar fridge – and reloads same the next day if the product has been duly consumed. Life’s not all bad.
Wednesday 8 June. What can I say about Brussels without being unkind? It’s a city of something over a million people the casualness of which, like an unpretentious and somewhat dishevelled mate, makes you relax. If all of Sydney was that strip between Town Hall and Central, it would be Brussels.
Belgium has just entered – after Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – that select group of European countries at sovereign risk. To see Brussels is to understand this. We say Australia has a two-speed economy, well this is a two-speed city.
It is on the one hand the home of the European Parliament, NATO, the European Commission and other global sinecure-providers, crawling with bureaucrats who have handsome disposable incomes. On the other hand, it has a disproportionate number of beggars, pickpockets and suffering poor. Its public places and public spaces are unkempt and, even by Surry Hills standards, disgraceful. But our own hotel is grand … working class may kiss my arse etc.
This morning we take in the city’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the adjacent Magritte Museum. Rene Magritte (who flourished in the first half of the 20th C) was an interesting cove. Far and away Belgium’s finest and best known (I know now) artist.
But the London papers reveal – clearly to coincide with our visit – that he was also a bit of an old fraudster. Skint during and immediately after WWII, he began to copy paintings by some of the greats – and even plagiarised his own work to sell multiple copies as «originals» (don’t ask me how that Euro punctuation got there but I can’t rid it). So Magritte gets away with this forgery in his lifetime. But not under the searching glare of Wapping (nee Fleet Street).
Thursday 9 June. It’s Ingrid’s birthday in a few days and I’ve been looking out for an appropriate gift. Yesterday in her reconnoitre of Brussels’ retail attractions, my darling wife came upon an establishment called Frey Wille (apparently there’s also a franchise in Sydney) which contains splendid renditions of the artwork of Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), a Viennese jew who put one over the Nazis by purporting to be Christian and joining the Hitler Youth.
Late in life he fell in love with New Zealand and, in fact, died on board the QEII while en route to these very shaky isles for another visit. Amongst other things, Hundertwasser designed a new national flag for the Kiwis based on Maori symbolism. It’s yet to be adopted as I’m sure you’re aware. Anyway, to cut to the credit card, the man was a superb designer and the bracelet that Ingrid and I agreed would be perfect was duly purchased as a birthday present in advance. Ingrid will show it off if you ask…
Friday 10 June. In the morning a longish walk around bits of the Brussels centre we hadn’t seen, before taxiing to the station to catch the train to Cologne. “The first class toilets in the Thalys are always filthy,” the woman in the seat behind said. “I always use the second class ones.” She was damn right too. In fact the whole train was grubby. Bloody French. Then we arrive in Cologne and check into the most magnificent hotel – a Hyatt - just across the Rhine and about 5 mts walk from the city and its soaring cathedral.
Saturday 11 June. The five tracks of the Hohenzollern rail bridge – mostly fully occupied in a demonstration of the might of German rail – are flanked by pedestrian and bicycle ways. Densely packed along the wire fence that separates the main pedestrian path from the tracks are locks. Tens of thousands of generally small locks each clasped to a small square section of the metre-high mesh; each with a message of love; each with a date.
There are huge locks and tiny ones. Bright brass locks and rusted hulks of locks. Wooden locks and bicycle locks. Locks that are flimsy cheap and locks that are custom-made. There’s even a set of handcuffs. The oldest lock I see dates to the late eighties. There are no keys. I assume these lie on the muddy floor of the Rhine, cast over the low fence between the walkway and the water (no suicide prevention here because the authorities here seem to understand that pathological risk aversion is a limitation on personal responsibility – my political comment).
On this day, around the top of the perimeter fence and for the full stretch of the bridge someone has coiled a 300 metre long skein of wool adorned each half metre with small crocheted flowers. Plumb in the bridge centre is a card which reads: “Bomb Cologne with flowers”. It is a message that nearly brings me to tears.
To say that Cologne was bombed in WWII is as fatuous as saying that politicians are mildly addicted to spin. Cologne – “remodelled by the RAF” as one wag put it - was ninety percent flattened. But somehow, like St Paul’s in London, Cologne Cathedral survived. It was severely damaged but the twin spires still soared.
The city began rebuilding in 1946 under its pre-war mayor Konrad Adenauer (Hitler admired his administrative skills but not his politics - he narrowly survived after being gaoled a number of times). In the 1930s Adenauer had transformed Cologne into a fine city but in 1945 the British military governor, whose name we have forgotten, found him “inefficient and incompetent” and sacked him.
More likely, though, he found Adenauer a towering presence (“uppity bloody Kraut”) with a detailed understanding of his own city (“arrogant bastard”) and a deep sensitivity to the needs of people psychologically scarred from those thousand bomber raids (“damn political upstart”).
Out of a job, Adenauer went on to found the Christian Democratic Party and, in 1949, in his early seventies, he was elected as the first post-war chancellor of West Germany and proceeded to democratise and stabilise and rebuild a shattered nation, so demonstrating the oxymoronic nature of the term “military intelligence”.
This being our first full day in Cologne and, after a wonderful breakfast (simplicity can be wonderful: muesli and fresh fruit befits a man whose constant and futile goal is to lose weight), Ingrid and I set out for a detailed examination of the city. The old town and its wall to wall brauhäuser; the new town with its packed streets and block after block of retail therapy including the best bookshop in the world, replete with every tome and pamphlet on art (and that includes philosophy and politics) you could lust after.
In the street a four-wheeled cart passes. In the centre is a large cask. On two sides is a plain bench. On each bench sit five young men. In their hands are steins of beer. At their feet are pedals. They are pedalling the beer cart on a city tour. For the first few minutes of this excursion they were possibly delighted but now, pedalling furiously as they drink, they appear sour and despondent. Such can be the outcome of a momentary enthusiasm.
After more than three hours on the saunter, all bodily parts holding together, we lunch at Peter’s Brauhaus in the old town, where the beer is sweet and cheap in the glass and the food plentiful on the plate. The local drop is known as Kölsch and may only be so-called if it meets the criteria of being brewed in Cologne, pale in colour, top-fermented, hop-accented and filtered. You’ve come to an expert.
Thus fed and watered, we stroll back across the bridge of lovelocks – now festooned with lovers and brides and a few new locks – to a relaxed evening overlooking the cathedral, the rail bridge, the trains and the river boats and a light meal of beef carpaccio washed down with a bottle of Macon Villages and a sleep without back pain or medication. O fabrous day.
Sunday 12 June. The day of the sobering reminder. The former headquarters of the Gestapo in Cologne is called El-De Haus and it stands at 23-25 Appellhofplatz. It’s a stern stone four storey building on the corner of an undistinguished street. The Nazis rented it in 1934 for their headquarters. Downstairs, in the basements, they built small cells (which would somehow hold up to 30 people at a time) and torture rooms for forced labourers (French, Russians and Ukrainians being particular favourites) and disparate political enemies, gays, euthanasists, gypsies and the like.
The inscriptions inmates scratched into the cell walls, each carefully translated, are poignant. “By tonight I will be hanged – I love you sweetheart”. The building courtyard was the site of 400 executions, pistol and noose, mostly in 1944-45 as the war started to turn bad for the Nazis. The building is officially known as the National Socialist Documentation Centre and won the international Best in Heritage award in 2006. A must-see if you’re in Cologne. But no one visiting that place wants to look you in the eye.
The Museum Ludwig on the Rheine river bank cheered me up. We missed the Australischen Aborigines exhibition but made up for it with the huge collections of Picassos and Warhols.
Monday 13 June. Cologne’s a great city. The local Germans are reputed to be the friendliest in the republic, much to the frustration of many other Germans (especially those on the check-outs in Berlin) who have developed super-surly as an art form. And now we must depart this sweet place and ride a train.
The German ICE does the Cologne-Berlin transit in about five hours and is clean, spacious, offers table service and a neat dining carriage in first class - and has hygienic toilets. I find train travel of this quality blissful. I am rarely as relaxed. The countryside races by at 250 kph.
We slow only for the great industrial cities with names remembered from WWII war stories – Dusseldorf, Duesburg, Essen, Dortmund. “The ack ack was fierce over Essen and the tracers lit the sky.” Plenty of trackside activity too. You like trains? I do. High on the hog in the dining car with a Spectator and a half decent chardonnay. Now that’s the life.
Tuesday 14 June. Fuck, back! Mid afternoon yesterday we arrived in Berlin and checked into our room at the Melia on Friedrichstrasse (Check Point Charlie a couple of clicks up the road) right alongside the Spree (they style it as a river).
Then we set out on a walk of indefinite length but which manages to incorporate the Brandenburg Gate (slightly more diminutive than in the war footage and with bicycles rather than battalions rolling through it) and the awesome Jewish memorial (a city block of sculptured faux graves to mark a resting place that the 6 million – including 1½ million kids - never had). Here and there we encounter bricked lines across our path to show us where the Berlin Wall had bullied its way across the city. Is everywhere we are to go in Berlin to sober us like this and remind us of that terrible history?
But today … there’s a pattern developing here. Long walk one day – free as a bird – fucked back next morning - then the wait (aided by Prof Voltarin’s best anti-inflammatories) to get mobile again. Still, I am able to bring this notebook up to the present.
Wednesday 15 June. Back to the Brandenburg and through the Tiergarten which is to Berlin as Central Park is to New York. Originally a domain for Prussian hunters who couldn’t be bothered travelling to the country, it was stripped of all its trees by cold and starving East Berliners in the early days of the Russian occupation post WWII. It is slowly still being rehabilitated into a fine stretch of inner city parkland.
We are on our way to the German Resistance Memorial Centre. As you might expect, most of those Germans who stood up openly against Nazism, or who resisted covertly and were caught, were executed. The lucky ones suicided. This institution – the former Naval HQ where the generals who tried to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 were done away with – is now a national memorial to those who did not just stand and gawk.
This visit to Germany is of particular import to Ingrid who has long held a sense of some enmity to Germans stemming from a family history strewn with tragedy triggered by Germans. Ingrid's father Henry survived WWII only because his mother was Catholic. His Jewish father, died in Theresienstadt concentration camp north of Prague. The rest of that side of the family suffered similar fates. Henry himself spent time in the dreadful uncertainty of forced labour camps. Although he had been born in the Sudetenland, he was a native German speaker (he learned Czech in the pre-war Czech Army).
So now Ingrid is coming to grips with this no-go area called ‘German’ (interestingly she learned German at university, coning in handy here I can tell you). After Henry had escaped the clutches of the Nazis because the war ended just in time – his fellow Czechs then denied him work because of his German heritage. Sometimes a man finds it very hard to win.
Although they had been (and in Libby’s case still is) great travelers, Henry and Libby Lowig never returned to the Czech Republic. And never had any desire to do so. Some things can happen in people’s lives that make their personal history just too odious to contemplate in depth let alone revisit in person.
I think it proves helpful to Ingrid to be confronted both with the enormity of Nazi bastardry and the selfless courage of the many Germans who, despite everything being against them, did what they could do cast off Nazism or, failing to do that, at least subvert it.
Let us beware of politicians who stereotype. They are positioning themselves at the top of a dangerous and slippery slope. For the Jews, gypsies, gays and others, it all began with labels, moved through scapegoating and ended with annihilation.
It all makes my dilapidated back, now much better thanks, seem like the minor inconvenience it really is. And when I put this into the perspective of my brother Peter and his wife Adrienne battling against the continuing quakes that rock their hillside home in Clifton, Christchurch, at such personal pain; the raw bravery of my great mate 'Dubbo' Dave Kesby, who with the lovely Elissa has taken a break from chemo to also traverse Berlin; the transcending courage and dignity of Nigel and Judi who have recently lost their greatest mate, their son Blair…. And I also think of Phil and Murray and their current battles… When I contemplate all my friends and the pure truth that is good friendship, I am mightily content with my lot.
Thursday 16 June. The coincidences and happenstances of travel: running into an old mate at Heathrow (not such a coincidence I suppose); dodging an old girlfriend at Changi; dining at the table next to an Australian enfant terrible in Berlin…. Let me explain. At a little restaurant on Unter den Linden, Barrie Kosky, expatriate director of Berlin’s Komische Oper and vituperative critic of the Australian arts establishment (and Australia in general) is holding forth over the last mortal remains of a wiener schnitzel about his next production. Two acolytes nod in unison at the stream of received wisdom.
As this was a technical discussion about set design, much to my regret Barrie failed to mention that Opera Australia productions are “shit”, Melbourne is “a bad attempt to be Manhattan” (the proposition that it is a world city “laughable”), Adelaide is worse, opera “does not resonate with Australian audiences”, and Wagner is an “arsehole” [blunt program note]. This latter remark had Barrie complaining later that “the Viennese audience for Lohengrin turned on me like a lynch mob”. But he looked an all right sort of guy to me with his fashionable 12-day stubble and pudgy 44-year old face appearing in serious need of some good old Melbourne sunshine.
By my estimation the only downside to Berlin are the sewer vents at footpath-level which release their odious gases on hapless passers by. The Berliners seem well used to this but I prefer Sydney’s sinuous pipes – rusting though they all are - that cast the sulphurous smells to the winds on high.
Impressionism is my preference but there is no such art within easy walking distance, so I decide on the unchallenging option of wandering the half-kilometre from our hotel to catch the antiquities (Middle Age sculpture; Byzantine art) at the Bode (formerly the Kaiser Friedrich) Museum. Thence to Pergamonmuseum, another of five adjacent galleries situated on Museum Island in the River Spree. The Pergamon was built from 1910-30 and houses – in original size – the reconstructed 2,000 year old monumental buildings of the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus all excavated in Turkey (south of Ephesus) in the mid 19th century. Ingrid and I will be travelling near there soon.
The Russkies looted (er, took into safe custody) much of these collections after WWII. Comrade Putin has since seen his way clear to return a representative sample. The Germans are moderately grateful. I do not know what the Turks think of this.
As you may have gathered from these and previous notes on Berlin and Cologne, it is not possible to walk far in these cities without encountering reminders of the excesses of WWII. Unlike the Japanese, the Germans have refused to expunge this national brutality from their history. They are daily surrounded by reminders of savagery perpetrated on innocent people by themselves, and these constant reminders, to my mind, constitute perpetual and admirable expressions of regret.
This night we attend the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie. Good front row seats. Turns out that, until the conductor blows half-time, we are in the wrong front row seats and assorted Germans are too polite to tell us (but they sneak into them during the interval as we stroll the concert hall grounds sipping a red and watching a hare scamper in and out of a hedgerow).
Conductor Peter Eotvos leads his own cello concerto with septuagenarian Hungarian Miklos Perenyi playing a lead cello part of such intricacy I sweat into my shirtsleeves watching him. I think he may have fluffed a pizzicato near the beginning but I know stuff all about cello playing, as I think you’d appreciate.
There was also a wonderful Mussorgsky piece (worth the ticket price alone) as an opener and, after the interval, four folk songs interpreted by Stravinsky followed by extracts from Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunow (in Russian) with Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto making the seat dwellers immediately in front regret they hadn’t worn their raincoats.
Friday 17 June. Five days in Berlin is inadequate – even if I could double my pace. The city is constructed on such a monumental scale and the compelling places are too many to accommodate. I start today by walking two kilometres along Friedrichstrasse into the former US zone to check Check Point Charlie, which consists of a simple box sitting behind sandbags flanked by two guards bearing Old Glories and in front of a sign saying ‘You are Leaving the American Sector’. I find it very moving. The Berlin Wall was such a dominant part of the lives of those of us who remember the sixties. A place of heroism and sacrifice as East Germans took the most horrendous risks to be free – many dying in the process. It was such an overwhelming symbol of the failure of communism to provide fundamental freedoms. Governments fail abjectly when they must keep their people locked in. I won’t elaborate to reiterate my well-known views on governments that keep people locked out (and I’m talking refugees, not Kevin Rudd).
Tonight Ingrid and I have arranged to be at the Friedrichstadtpalast, just 200 metres from our hotel, to see CSD meets Yma, billed as “a huge spectacle”. We expect to see spectacular dancing, spectacular acrobatics, spectacular light shows, spectacular juggling… There is all that, and tonight there is more. For starters there is a red carpet (paparazzi descend on the couple of celebs immediately in front of us who also happen to sit alongside us in the theatre). We are ignored as befits our station. But free drinks tickets are handed over as we enter the palast (now I’m getting engaged). Lots of gay couples. And the worst-presented transvestites - clothes and make-up perfectly pitched but undone by six-day stubble, clogs and beards.
This is clearly an ‘event’. Beyond just another day at the office for the good people at Friedrichstadtpalast. We do not know it, but we have unwittingly signed up for CSD Berlin – Fairplay for Diversity. And we are happy about the non-choice we have made.
Berlin sees itself as, if I may quote, “the poster child of free-thinking, free spirits, and tolerance” and on CSD [Christopher Street Day], Berlin’s gay community takes to the streets to rally in favour of tolerance and acceptance. While the day has lost much of its political significance over the years, the publicity says “the celebration still does provide an occasion for many people to shed their masks and feel free for a day”. And we have entered the arena, in the second row, for the amazing Berlin CSD Gala. The first “gay version” of the locally renowned Yma Show. And there’s an after party in the lobby thrown in as part of the deal.
To describe what we see truly lies beyond my powers of prose. In addition to the spectacular dancing, acrobatics and trapeze there is an eloquent ‘we are foes/we are lovers’ ballet featuring a lithe black guy and a muscular white guy ending in a lingering kiss which brings the crowd to a peak of ejaculatory applause, whoops, cheers and whistles. There’s stand-up which I do not understand literally but which I appreciate anyway through the sheer delight of the audience. There is a too-long panel discussion between some top German gay sports identities about gays in elite sport. I comprehend little but I do get the ‘FIFA - Blatter – Qatar – discrimination’ bit and applaud mightily. To my shame, we decide against the after party.
Saturday 18 June. Ingrid and I wake early to catch the 0830 Lufthansa to Munich (raining) connecting to Dubrovnik (sunning). The distance between Berlin and Munich is 500 km with the airline allowing an indulgent hour and a quarter for the distance. Halfway we have a medical emergency – my first in 50 years flying. CPR is conducted on a middle-aged man in a pink shirt who slumps pale-faced in the aisle just two rows back. Like in the movies an announcement is made asking if there is a doctor on board. Oxygen equipment is ferried forth, handfuls of dubious cloth are ferried back. The Airbus 320 kicks up a few gears and begins to smoke through the turbulence like a hellcat out of Hades.
The cabin crew handle the crisis with Teutonic efficiency (always wanted to write that) and calm. When we touch down, a platoon of paramedics pours on board, hindered only by Japanese travellers who misunderstand the message to remain seated. The young man in jeopardy (40 being the new young for we who inhabit 60) is by now seated, oxygen-masked, still wan but managing a grin to his mate. The captain, standing near the exit door, wishes me a “look after yourself” and I wish him the same, in these circumstances the cliché the more meaningful. After landing at Munich 20 mts ahead of schedule, the onward trip to Dubrovnik, on board an Embraer 90/95 (yes, such numeric details are important to me) is uneventful
Why Dubrovnik? For some years now, it has been recommended by friends, most enthusiastically by Julie and Kerry and Dave and Elissa. For us, it is an exotic midpoint between Berlin and Athens, where we are to join Nautica to sail us anti-clockwise around the Black Sea. Out hotel in Athens, where we have stayed previously, is to be the King George Palace on Syntagma Square. Students of the current Greece unpleasantness know this is a hot location at present and we have begun to keep an eye on whether our Athens plans are likely to be viable five days from now.
Loquacious but informative cab driver Ivan Čokljat (“Your remember - it same as chocklat!”) ferries us to the Libertas Hotel. We settle in then walk the 20 mts from the Libertas downhill traversing the old town’s castles, walls, narrow alleys and cobbled streets as far as the boat harbour, joining masses of tourists from four cruise ships and numerous coaches carrying day trippers from Split to the north.
I halve my anti-inflammatory medication. St Voltarin is a dear friend but can be a wicked enemy. The goal is always to divorce as soon as practicable, not always easy to achieve as my body loves the ministrations of the good saint.
Sunday 19 June. Ingrid’s 59th birthday. I find the writing of this perfunctory and perfectly accurate statement to be incongruous. My dear wife is as a 39-year old and I appear as a cradle-snatcher. There are cards and books and emails to begin the day and then we walk around the old city’s precipitous walls and the hundreds, could it be thousands, of steps. Many years ago in New Guinea I knew a bloke who would run up the side of a near-vertical ridge at full pace and slide down the other side on his arse. I feel a bit the same about steep steps these days.
I decide to write a due diligence email to our hotel in Athens:
My wife Ingrid and I are booked into the King George Palace from 23-27 June and we have a few questions about the current situation in Athens and Syntagma Square in particular.
1 – Could you provide information on the current situation relating to the occupation of Syntagma Square?
2 – Could you inform us on how this has affected the hotel and its guests?
3 - Are there any special precautions we should take when arriving at the hotel to check in?
4 - Are the streets of Athens secure enough to walk around?
We look forward to once again staying at your hotel, which we regard with a great deal of affection.
Monday 20 June. Not having received a response from Athens after 24 hours, I cancel and book into the Theoxenia at Piraeus, about 20 km from the city and our departure point for the Black Sea. And lo, an email arrives from the King George Palace:
I would like to reassure you that all is back to normal after Wednesday’s strike. Every night people gather in the square to protest the recent economic situation but these people are family people and cause no problems, they just make noise and that is why I would give you an inside room where it’s more quiet. If there is another strike while you are here, we will know it way in advance and all it means is that you avoid the square as it gets crazy busy with people. You can use the day to go on a one day Greek island cruise, or a day in Delphi or Mycene.
There were a few things missing from this offer. A relocation to the eighth floor to escape hurled projectiles. Gratis gas masks at reception. Body armour. A personal guard dog. Not wanting to secrete ourselves on the inside of the hotel, nor vamoose out of town for 24 hours at the first whiff of grapeshot, Ingrid and I feel vindicated in deciding on a shift to Piraeus. The days when I relished opportunities to be on the frontline of a story passed a good 30 years ago.
But let me return to Dubrovnik, once a real frontline, where bullets can still be found dotted in walls and the pits made by larger calibre ordnance pockmark buildings around town. It’s now 20 years since the siege of Dubrovnik led to 114 civilian deaths and 15,000 refugees. The attacks damaged over half the buildings in the old town, the walled city sustaining 650 hits by artillery shells lobbed from Serbian positions in the surrounding hills. In May 1992 the Croatian Army managed to lift the siege but random attacks continued for another three years.
Dubrovnik bounced back with alacrity. They are tough people here who occupy a place of great natural beauty, of many islands and rocky outcrops in an azure Adriatic, wooded headlands and coastal hills, soaring mountains devoid of trees, pebbly beaches, a benign climate and good beer. No surprise it is growing exponentially as a tourist destination - and now beginning to suffer from that popularity. As visitor numbers have soared so have prices. And, despite the town being newish – having been substantially rebuilt since the siege and the bombardments - upkeep is proving to be a problem.
In our five-star hotel, for example, the engineers decided the better part of having to fix plugs of arcane design in bathroom sinks was to do away with them altogether. “Keep water filling,” the engineer advised under questioning, “this not problem.” Not until you have to wash your smalls, I thought, but the Croatian translation momentarily escaped me.
I might add here, in mentioning language, that this provides yet another reason why I delight in travelling with Ingrid. In London her English is impeccable. In Brussels, her French parfait. In Cologne and Berlin, German learned at school (and, I think, first year university) comes drifting back to good effect. And in Dubrovnik – much to Ingrid’s surprise and my amazement – many Croatian words turn out to be pretty closely related to Czech – both tongues being of the Slavic persuasion. Now that’s a really cool note on which to reach the end of the second instalment
Tuesday 21 June. Not a great night in Dubrovnik. For reasons best known to itself, my back needs 100 mg of Prof Voltarin’s elixir a day, refusing to cooperate with 50. I have a railway union of a body: just when you need it most, it lets you down and demands more. Enough said. (In the Nowra High School debating team - me as whip - our opening speaker Volkar de Chelard, too frequently unable to sustain the logic of an argument, would exclaim with Germanic certitude, ‘Nuff said!’ It is a useful phrase. Use it.)
Through the window of Libertas Hotel room 1301 - across the capacious balcony fronting a perfectly framed view - to the left, of sheer rock cliffs and hills bearing rusty green trees (not quite Australian khaki green but getting there) and, to the front and right, an ocean stretching to a barely discernible horizon - at this early hour of 6 the Adriatic is already ultramarine, its surface delicately marbled by a soft wind. It is inconceivable that one could be unmoved by this start of a new day and unimpressed by its promise. Is this what happens on holidays or has Dubrovnik tricked things up?
The coffee at the hotel is pretty shit and does not live up to the day so I stroll 20 mts to the old town and find the place on the Stradun where I had a nice Croatian beer the other forenoon. My faith is duly rewarded by a great coffee – a strong espresso to get the adrenalin running followed by a cappuccino to accompany the reading of the Financial Times (no Guardians so far evident in Dubrovnic), which at the local equivalent of $5 manifests as even less commendable than the FT's usual dubious worth.
Newspapers like the FT will soon be executed by the internet. Forget about paywalls, Google’s getting more sophisticated and there are too many expert options for free (have you seen that great Australian blog Macrobusiness?) . Murdoch has fucked his internet business model; the wizened former Sinophile and continuing media bully (still fraudulently holding ‘AGMs’ in Australia and the UK to ‘prove’ his ‘local’ ‘credentials’) just doesn’t understand the 21st century. (I have never before put so many inverted commas in one sentence.)
In Dubrovnik you sometimes wonder where you are. It’s a place that seems to be between everything. East and west. Then and now. Provincialism and sophistication. Arrogance and embrace. Struggle and succeed. Suspect and love. Death and beauty. In October 2008 local police confirmed that a body found floating in the sea off Dubrovnik was missing Melbourne girl Britt Lapthorne. The Oz media analysis, just a little confused: “Like the water lapping against Dubrovnik's stone walls, it's crystal clear what the locals think happened. Most of the men think she got drunk, went for a swim and drowned, or fell down the cliff. Most of the women think it was far more sinister than that.” Crystal clear.
Wednesday 22 June. This Libertas hotel where we stay, let me tell you, it’s something else. Dubbo Dave tells me Elissa would have insisted they stay here had it been built at the time. It’s so snazzy the Italian consulate has made it home – and parks its three over-sized SUVs prominently on the concourse to implement its bragging rights.
In Dubrovnik, and perhaps throughout Croatia, 22 June is Anti-Fascism Day. Some shops are shut, but not many, and after coffee in the old town Ingrid and I visit the Heroes Memorial. I’ll correct an earlier figure I told you and say that the death toll here during the Serbian siege was close to 500 – and the images of scores of mostly young men line the walls of this place, with fresh floral tributes scattered on the floor beneath. It is hard to view the image of even one young man without feeling remorse, guilt and profound sadness – but 200? Why do old men send them to war? In these days of techno-warfare, those old warriors of the desk should be able to do just as well.
The city map on the walls at both entrances to the old town has multicoloured symbols marking the carnage of the Serbian bombardment. One symbol indicating buildings destroyed; another showing buildings hit; many others pointing to the footpaths and public spaces indiscriminately scoured by hostile shelling… There’s barely a precinct untouched. It was systematic and carefully gridded terror, which means, of course, planned terror.
I am a believer in planning. I regard thorough planning as a prime means by which rational people can avoid egregious error. But I also know that we can live only in the present, so planning must remain at best merely a theoretical view of the future. It is no certainty. As I contemplate the horror of what, 20 years ago, was Dubrovnik’s present, and the psychopathic intelligence that went into planning its immediate future through bombardment, I reach an intellectual impasse. How abhorrent is it to plan to kill indiscriminately ... or discriminately for that matter ... I think I would rather live in the moment.
Up more steps. Sometimes my back deteriorates with walking but now I am in one of those zones where it improves with each step I take. It enjoys the hit out and the pain eases as the stride lengthens and quickens. How good is this. I begin to whistle. I never whistle. So it’s up more steps and up some decibels and up in the cable car to the eagle’s nest overlooking the entirety of Dubrovnik and its bevy of surrounding islands. I observe what a narrow strip of coast the town clings to, Bosnia-Herzegovina being at the next bare hill. And Dubrovnik’s coast disconnected from the rest of the Croatian landmass. It’s as if from Sydney to Canberra you had to pass through New Zealand.
In the Heroes Memorial, to come back to where I was, Ingrid and I happen upon a small dark room where a flickering screen shows a silent movie shot in Dubrovnik around 1930. It seems Dubrovnians were wont to celebrate important national days with much flag waving, flag dipping, flag gesticulating, flag pointing and flag thrusting not to mention the flinging of gunpowder onto cobblestones whereupon a rifle is fired into said powder causing it to explode in a massive cloud of smoke with one-third of the assembled folk revelling, one-third fleeing and one-third wiping the grit out of their eyes. This was repeated numerous times until all the revellers had the shit shot, smoked and shmacked out of them.
Yes, another glorious day in a very compelling place. Dubrovnik beguiles. Whether it be the clifftop walk from hotel to the old town with the sea below melding into the pensions and cafes along the narrow entrance to the old town. Whether it be the best bar in the world (Keith’s decree) overlooking the sere hills and the red-roofed houses and the tranquil blue-green Adriatic. Whether it be the local wine served in said best bar; a wine they call riesling and I call chardy, whatever, it is the eminently downloadable (please note the following) Malvayiga terra bianche. Whether…sorry time for a snifter…
Thursday 23 June. Ingrid writes to some friends: “I keep saying Dubrovnik is Croatia’s Noosa: full of resorts, restaurants and sunseekers and indeed, like Noosa, it is “beautiful one day, perfect the next”. We’ve had nothing but perfect weather, our brand new Hotel Libertas is spectacular and has views to die for, the Croatian cuisine an intriguing blend of Slav and Mediterranean flavours, and the old town perfectly rebuilt after the devastation of the 1990s artillery attacks by Serbs and Montenegro. In fact it is so peaceful, it’s hard to believe that the war was so recent; but it’s true alright – you can still see bullets in building walls, unreconstructed ruins, and we visited a memorial showing photos of hundreds of young men who were killed.” Yes, it is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Same, unfortunately, for most of those who remember it.
Today we must leave those grey slate-tinted hills and mountains, bare except for the thin olive grass and outcrops of low scrub. Such a landscape also surrounds the airport, the airstrip being a long wide swathe cut through hills 20 kms south of Dubrovnik. Your average Dubrovnian taxi driver makes the journey to said strip a suicidal race along a serpentine road and, just when you think you are about to catastrophically miss the next corner, your driver’s mate overtakes him, tooting horn with one hand, waving with the other.
This morning I take a final walk down the long hill to the old town, delight in finding a Guardian (just three days old) at a street vendor and then absorb two sweet cappucinos at the Café Splendid, which I’ve discovered, unlike our hotel which is so excellent in every other respect, knows how to express an espresso.
So we leave this sweet and pleasant place. Let me confide, in my fifties I thought I’d always go back to the best places I found; in my sixties that certainty has deserted me. So I lug my PC, CPAP, books and other hand luggage up four flights of steps to the business lounge at DBV airport before discovering there is an elevator. “Oh, that’s all right,” the lady sympathises, “it’s only for staff anyway”.
Friday 24 June. Last night’s flight down to Athens, just a little over an hour, European cities are so close, was as smooth as the pope's penis and noteworthy only because we overflew at 10 km Tirana in Albania, which is the closest I ever expect to get to that place.
We check into the Theoxenia Hotel in the ancient port of Piraeus, near where we’ll be checking out on Nautica for the Black Sea in four days time, having chickened out of staying at the far better hotel we’d booked on Syntagma Square because of “t’troubles”.
As for the current Greek tragedy. Is there any amongst you who ever knew a Greek and didn’t like them; or who ever visited Greece and thought it was anything less than terrific. I don’t want to offend Americans, but those of that persuasion need not answer. Right now the Greek people are being sold down the Aegean by (a) their own politicians who can’t seem to get the rich to pay tax or get a handle on corruption, presumably because they are (i) rich and (ii) corrupt; and (b) the European Community that wants the Greek politicians to cut the bejesus out of public spending thereby throwing many more people out of work and denying those out of work the small benefit they may acquire from welfare payments.
The sooner the Greeks leave the Euro and go back to the drachma and devalue the drachma … well, that’ll be a start but they really have to bring corruption under control and get their tax regime working otherwise they will remain as poor as they are right now. We were last here five years ago. People are more impoverished. The shops are poorer. The buildings more run down. The streets worse maintained. Out hotel is being run on a shoestring. When I ask the sweating, running waiter if he really is the only man standing (maitre d’, table cleaner, barman, waiter, general factotum…), he turns both pockets inside out, revealing not so much as a dirty handkerchief, shrugs shoulders and rolls eyes.
But there’s still that Athenian buzz on the streets. Forget the tear gas, we’re alive! The coffee shops are still packed at 11 (but lunch patronage seems to have thinned a bit) and there is the same ebullient Greek approach to life we experienced on our first visit here in 2007 (though when a waiter at our favourite restaurant decked and smashed the expensive bottle of red due for delivery to the table next to us, the owner looked especially aggrieved and didn’t cheer up even when the rate of client ingress picked up).
I find a shop that sells both the Guardian a passable bottle of 2009 Santorini chardonnay (they call its tabaaa, I hope it’s chardonnay) and catch the crowded train back to Piraeus a happy man, leaving Ingrid to haunt Athens’ boutiques and interior décor concessions in the time-honoured way.
Meanwhile, the tent city lingers in Syntagma Square and the assembled Athenians demonstrate each evening – against government, against corruption, against cuts, against the Community, and against the imposition of fake foreign solutions that they know, as any sensible person knows, will not help them one iota, which I understand is a Greek word.
And on that rather grim note, I end this third chronicle.
Saturday 25 June. In antiquity (and probably still) the Greeks were great sailors (and conquerors under Alexander the Great the Macedonian (more of his tribe later) but they hung on to oared technology a bit long and allowed vessels with sails to seize the upper hand. The great triremes (with three decks bearing, what, 80 rowers each) were a naval marvel in the 5th century, but somewhat outpaced 1,000 years later. Anyway, to cut to the galleon, the Navy Museum at Piraeus (organised chronologically as such museums ought to be), while outwardly looking like a series of grey bunkers surrounded by a thicket of rusting anchors, is a paragon of its kind. Even if you’re but marginally interested in nautical matters (like, say, Ingrid), the pieces gathered here, the wonderful models, weapons, uniforms, paintings and schemas of glorious battles past, possess the power to awe.
Ingrid and I walk out of the museum a short distance to the main boat harbour, pausing briefly so I can drink a beer, where visiting pleasure craft loll at their berths. The paid crews of these enormous gin palaces sit around smoking and chatting, presumably awaiting the arrival by private jet of an owner, still clammy from closing another derivatives deal in Zurich.
As we keep walking, the vessels steadily shrink in size and deteriorate in condition until finally we reach a Y-junction and have to decide between a tarmac road and a narrow wooden catwalk and continue along the latter to discover boats so overgrown with marine life they are attached to the harbour floor. Finally we come to one which has succumbed to said biomass and rests derelict and sunk. Our quest is over. We have found a pleasure craft we can afford…
Electric Train Line 1 to Athens is, along with the many island ferries which depart each hour, the main transport link out of Piraeus. The line runs by the impressive Peace and Friendship (football) stadium and basketball stadium built for the 2004 Olympics and through the crowd of off-white buildings that line the line and, from a distance, make Athens look like a rough hewn stone quarry. Line 1 terminates in the centre of the city.
A woman with a head scarf and her small daughter, perhaps three years old, board our already crowded carriage at an intermediate station. The young girl immediately cups her right hand and approaches each of the passengers, begging. I look at her mother, who has turned away in excruciated embarrassment The two leave at the next stop, the bold child empty handed and complaining, the mother dragging her up the platform.
Athens is replete with beggars. The mutilated. The deformed. The old and senile. The young mothers with babies. The fraudsters. At the only ticket machine that works at Monastiraki station, the terminus of Line 1, a child of about eight reaches at the small coins that rattle into the change tray. But only with your permission does she secure them for herself. It does seem to be a pretty lucrative enterprise. Her mother stands five metres away, looking on approvingly.
Sunday 26 June. How can the Greek people suffer the further doses of austerity the European Community wants to lay on them? A large proportion (perhaps 30%) is already beyond austerity and into poverty. These are people who joke and laugh easily – but when they are not laughing you can see the misery in their faces and, when they are, you can see the hardship in the clothes they wear.
A local analyst says that the Greeks will renege on or be unable to deliver the spending cuts they have promised. They’ve always reneged, ever since they joined the EC 30 years ago. Of course, the last thing Europe wants is for Greece to drop its bundle and fail to pay its debts (especially to banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions) triggering an avalanche of illiquidity of GFC proportions. So Greece will be propped up, whatever it does. Unsustainable beyond the short term? Yes. Economically going nowhere? Of course. Politically postponing the catastrophe for another day. Postponing the complex is what politicians do well. Or think they do well.
Since Greece joined the EU it’s been on a drip of borrowed money. Now, with half its workforce on the government payroll, and nearly half of them having their jobs protected by the Constitution, its got precious little ability to repay any debt, and this debt amounts to well over 150% of GDP.
With the start of summer, reports the English-language Athens News, 23,000 teachers retired and 3,500 trainees were recruited. Not only does this not add up, you can’t do it too many times and get away with it. A nation not investing in its kids' education is in real trouble.
So, pressured from without by neo-liberal stupidos and from within by continuing civil strife, it’s no wonder the Greek politicians are crumbling. And, of some concern, this in a country with a history of military rule.
Now some good news. There exists in Athens a wonderful restaurant you must visit when next here: the Hermion at Pandrosou 15, 100 metres from Monastiraki metro station. Try the perfect souvlaki. And the jug of house wine is well priced and very drinkable. We've had two visits to Athens and eaten at the Hermion four times.
Monday 27 June. It’s only in the last five years that, along with a fair proportion of the Australian population, Ingrid and I turned to cruising as a desirable mode of travel. In 1969, as a 24-year old, my wife of the time, Sue, and two-year old Simon, left Sydney bound for Rabaul as one of 60 passengers on the vintage passenger-cargo vessel, Francis Drake (Dominion Far East Line).
It took eight weeks to get to Rabaul via Manila, Hong Kong (where the ship dry docked for eight days and we were accommodated gratis in the Supreme Hotel), Taipei (where I was propositioned by a woman and, when I knocked her back, by her brother), various Japanese ports (we overlanded from Tokyo via Nikko and Kyoto to Nagoya through a wondrous Japanese winter) and Guam before finally reaching my New Guinea destination at Radio Rabaul. I loved every day of this experience, despite the ship’s marked tendency to roll alarmingly and the entrenched smell of oil fuel in every corridor and cabin.
Then a few years later, returning home from a UN assignment in Java, I decided to cruise back on the Oronsay, which Sue and I found as stimulating as spending a week at an RSL club in a blackout. That was 1973 and it took me just 33 years to take another cruise. Which turned out to be a ripper. Around Papua New Guinea on the 100-passenger (although we're called guests these days) Orion. I fell in love with cruising again.
But this kind of cruising is different. There are no endless days at sea playing deck cricket, quoits and draughts. We favour voyages where there are few full days at sea, tending to travel overnight, berthing or anchoring soon after dawn, and departing into a gathering dusk.
The ocean liners (the ones we choose, at about 600 passengers, of medium size) we regard as a platform for brief experiences in wonderful places that would otherwise not be encountered because we'd never think of going there. Places like Helsinki, Valletta, Delos, Tallin, Lisbon, Gibraltar, Sevastopol, Odessa. We’re deposited for a day, maybe two, in each port in a smorgasbord of travel. Deep it may be not; affecting it always is. We love the cultural immersion by day and the cruise experience by night. While this is not the only way we travel (it occupies 12 of the 53 days we’re away this time) it has become a highlight and even a centrepiece.
This year, because of the soaring Australian dollar – a wonderful global tribute to the collective intellect, energy and astuteness of our nation – we’ve been able to book a suite on Nautica – which gives us plenty of space, a bath, as much free mineral water as we can drink, a shared butler and maid, and The Guardian every day printed hot off the satellite. Even the internet works well. Past cruises it’s been unusable. Now I’ve discovered a wonderful internet work around –it's called money.
Which brings me to ‘my man’, our butler Iljco (pronounced Ill-joe), a FYROM by nationality now living in the Ukraine when he is not buttling on Nautica (does this sound frightfully pretentious, I hope so).
FYROM is the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, whose people want to be know, simply, as Macedonians but have been stopped by the world from doing so. When Tito’s great Yugoslav experiment finally blew apart 20 years ago, the Greeks, petrified their own Macedonian population would become disruptive (they’d always been disloyal), insisted that the new state of Macedonia drop its name – and won. Hence FYROM.
“They give me a hard time travelling through Greece,” Iljco says. “The Greeks will not give Macedonians visas, they give us passes and make us wait hours for clearance. I nearly missed the ship this time.” Of such pettiness is international diplomacy too often constructed. And the Greeks invented democracy.
Final thought on Athens – we got into town at the right time (just after riots) and out of town at the right time (just before two days of strikes shut down the place and the tear gas drove people into the underground metro stations). Truth is, we visited at a brief moment of harmony which seems now to have been the eye of the cyclone.
Final thought on boarding sea-going vessels – lifeboat drill is only made tolerable because Ingrid looks really cute in a life jacket…
Tuesday 28 June. The first sight of Mykonos as you approach from the Greek mainland is of a little white church on a small rocky island. There are over 400 whitewashed churches on Mykonos and thousands of whitewashed buildings but in some ways this one is the best because it’s small, perfectly formed and a tangible sign of the glories of whitewash to come.
Mykonos presents as a stunning array of these white buildings set densely amongst low, dry, rocky hills where the shrunken trees – never quite used to the absence of water – instead of augmenting the landscape seem to interrupt it. If you’ve never been there and want to know more, I’ll show you my new mouse mat.
On Mykonos there’s nothing much to do except to do very little. And it seems there are lots of people who want to do just that. On our last visit some years ago, I incorrectly thought it was only possible to get here by sea – now I observe jet aircraft arriving every 20 minutes. Full of people wanting to go nowhere to do nothing.
Ingrid and I embark on a long walk, first through the jewelry and souvenir shops in narrow streets crowded with tourists and vehicles too big to be there. As we leave this behind, we weave our way through labyrinthine lanes until we emerge at a steep cobbled road with pensions and small hotels on either side. We stoically maintain our ascent of what we term ‘Mount Mykonos’ reaching the icy summit (28⁰, 300 ft) with a fine view of the town and three cruise ships including Nautica on a deep blue harbour set against the barren surrounding islands. Photo time.
Back in town, a jeweller looks at Ingrid and exclaims “You’re a Jew!” “Well half Jewish,” says Ingrid, “how can you tell?” “Your nose,” he replies, to Ingrid’s irritation, “it’s just like mine.” “Shalom,” he says to me as we move off at a rapid saunter.
“I got more out of this dump from a postcard,” says an American as I pass by. Why do they so often let their country down? Mykonos is exquisite, and they can’t recognise it.
Have you ever seen a large (say 3,000 passenger) ship weigh anchor? The Genoa-registered Costa Romantica leaves Mykonos at the same time as Nautica, giving off three mournful blasts on its siren while an excited Italian intercom voice and the distorted sound of bouzoukis badly playing the dance from Zorba floats across the 200 metres of water between us.
A mill pond wake trails Costa Romantica as, for 20 minutes, it slowly moves forward on its anchor chain. Then the anchor itself inches from the water as a large white inverted T. Perforce, it returns to the water and ascends once more. This formula is repeated a number of times. Nautica begins to move as the Italian anchor continues to ascend and descend with increasingly frantic jerks, the crew unable to align it to its true position. We sail off with the struggle continuing. Look out for it when you’re next in Mykonos.
I was once on a ship that literally dropped its anchor - the Oronsay on its way out of Denpasar in 1973. As a few of us passengers (we weren’t guests in those days) leaned over the rail watching the exercise, there was a deafening rattle of chain and a mighty splash as a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of anchor disappeared into what was locally styled as the ‘Indonesian Ocean’ (the Indons never really getting used to the notion of it being named after India). As the last of the chain, unconnected to as much as the bosun’s leg, gurgeld beneath the bay, we Aussies looked on in great amusement; the moreso because of the black, bleak faces of the British officers.
So Nautica glides out of Mykonos to sail beyond the sunset and into the Aegean Sea. Late at night, as I stand in the dark of our balcony and watch the stars, the Greek air force performs flyovers and stalks the ship for 40 minutes. By now we’re nearing the Turkish border and this kind of stuff beats real fighting I suppose.
KUSADASI & EPHESUS, TURKEY
Wednesday 28 June. I am uniquely qualified to write about aging ruins. But the aging (2,000 year old) former Silk Road centre of Ephesus, just 20 mts drive north of the resort port of Kusadasi (Kusha-darsi) on Turkey’s Aegean coast, is in fact a ruin in exceedingly fine shape. And it is being reclaimed on a grand scale by a large Austrian-led archaeological team working across this vast site. There are in fact four Ephesuses – each successively demolished by a combination of earthquakes and estuarine silting, which destroyed the built environment and pushed the sea well out to sea, effectively strangling a previously buoyant trade.
The Ephesus where we are, and where excavation is occurring, is Ephesus 3. It was a town on a grand scale and what’s been retrieved from the earth so far – a kilometre long and 300 metres wide – is less than 10 percent of what is there to be found. Everything’s here – communal toilets, governor’s mansion, reticulated water and sophisticated sewerage, a grand library, the terrace houses of the rich, university, great monumental tributes to the gods, fountains and market places interconnected by marble roads (the chariot tracks still evident in some), laneways and colonnades. There are bars and brothels and hot water bath houses; everything a young Roman could wish for and more than an aging ruin could hope for.
Ephesus is in such a remarkable state of restoration that it is a ruin your mind can easily bring to life. It also brings modernity into sharp relief. If humanity had somehow been able to rid itself of history’s vandals, psychopaths and neurotic weaklings and had progressed along something approaching a gentle upward curve we’d now be ten times better off than we are and hugely satisfied with the course of our species’ progress.
Our guide, a companionable 50-something university lecturer in linguistics and archaeology Halil (call me Sem) Semih, who’s been here since he was a student and seems to know everyone in town, especially carpet sellers, is especially proud that Ephesus is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the Temple of Artemis, of which only a single, solitary, reconstructed, patchworked column remains.
Kusadasi is a busy town. Not much more than 20 years ago it began to transform itself from a fishing village and is now a popular Turkish resort of 60,000 people (300,000 in the season), increasingly favoured by British, Irish and German retirees because of Turkey’s generous tax system and a cost of living just 40% of the European average.
THE DARDANELLES, TURKEY
Thursday 30 June. We arise before dawn to see the Aegean funnel into the Dardanelles, the narrow strait whose name triggers an immediate emotional response in most Australians. Through the half light are silhouetted the four massive columns of the massive Turkish monument and a huge flag on a rocky cliff top at the strait’s entrance. At about this same time on 25 April 1915 some 60,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders traversed these same waters to be landed on Gallipoli’s precipitous and lethal shore.
Over the next eight months until the Allies retreated, 33,000 Diggers, Kiwis, Tommies and Frenchmen were killed – as were 86,000 Turks. In the result it was a failure of literally Churchillean proportions for the Allies. But, despite the defeat and the midnight withdrawal, the way the young men fought in this inhospitable place forged their reputation, galvanised the peoples of Australia and New Zealand and gave birth to the legend of Anzac. And, from my conversations, Turks knows this story every bit as well as we know it.
From the sea, the battlefield presents as a long series of undulating hills and ridges fringed by the steep cliffs I recall from the graphic and heroic paintings hanging from the cold brick corridors of my primary school. The vegetation is khaki-olive, not so unfamiliar to us Australians.
As Nautica comes abeam of the great monument, the sun rises, bursting through the sea mist. With 200 passengers gathered on deck, a bugler (“just call me Piotr, I’m from Poland”) plays the Last Post and Reveille, and the ship’s PA system (courtesy of cruise director Willie Aames) offers the words inscribed on the monument – “…mothers wipe your tears … your sons lie at peace … they now lie in the soil of a friendly country … they become our sons as well…”. A moment charged with high emotion for the assembled Aussies and Kiwis. I shed a tear or two.
A fine gesture from the Oceania Line: Nautica had been scheduled to transit the Dardanelles at 2 am but the skipper held back for four hours to enable this rare opportunity for the Australians and New Zealanders on board to pay their respects to a considerable national tradition.
As Taps is played, along with a five-minutes silence (no messing around on Nautica), the giant red Turkish flag alongside the monument is borne like a spinnaker on the brisk, cool southerly wind. And we motor on through the Dardanelles.
Some 30 minutes into the strait, at its narrowest point, a large swathe of hillside has been cleared. In white stones is the figure of a gun-bearing soldier and, in white and red stones, the eternal flame flares from a crucible. Etched in Turkish, again in white stones, are these words:
“Traveller, halt. The soil you tread once witnessed the end of an era. Listen. In this quiet mound there beats the heart of a nation”
The Dardanelles were certainly a defeat for the Allies, but a great and triumphant victory for the Turks. The Dardanelles helped build their nation just as surely as it helped build ours.
The transit of the Dardanelles takes about two hours, and we are in the Sea of Marmara, at the eastern end of which we enter the Bosphorus (a narrow strait no wider than an average river, where currents flow in each direction from the Black Sea, one atop the other). On both sides of this entrance lies Istanbul, a misty, mystical. Mosquical, minarettal city where, in ten days, we return. But, for now, Nautica moves on.
Friday 1 July. This morning I perceive the Black Sea to be aqua. Let me expatiate on the question of perception. I perceive many American citizens as loud, rude and assertive to the point of offence. But, as we should ask of all perception, is this the reality?
Case study. The administration of Nautica finds it necessary to circulate an “important notice” prior to our impending landfalls in the Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Romania pointing out that “most of these ports … were once under a very restrictive regime” and to “make sure we set your expectations correctly”. Among the expectation lowering statements [including my explanatory comments] are:
“Accents can be strong … a polite mention to speak slower works wonders” [perhaps, with respect to our US cousins, this should read “slower and louder”]
“The guides’ attitude may appear offhand due to inexperience in dealing with guests from the west” [or prior experience in dealing with Americans, perhaps?]
“Venues will not be grand (but) the local people are sharing the best they have to offer” [poor sad bastards]
“Buses will not always be the most comfortable or have the strongest air conditioning but we guarantee they will be best available” [ma’am, those oxen are not delaying us, they’re hauling us]
“Facilities may not be up to western standards … please carry with you hygiene items such as tissue paper” [or learn the Mohammedan method of toilet before disembarking]
“We all travel to see the world and experience the culture and marvels of foreign lands, sometimes this requires patience and understanding” [no sir, overseas is not the US in fancy dress]
Can you imagine the calibre of complaint that made Nautica management believe such explanations were required?
Sinop (founded as recently as the 7th century BC) is a pleasant little town on the Black Sea’s southern shore. It has no beggars and carpet sellers (how much longer can it hold modern Turkey at bay?). Historically, it’s gone through a typical Asia Minor succession plan of Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans to finally become a quiet, placid part of modern Turkey, “a place of little consequence” as the tour guide gently phrases it.
I find it cute – an old crumbling fortress town with old crumbling walls, old crumbling people and a quirky Museum of Ethnography, a former mansion now old and only slightly crumbling, in which each room models how the good folks of Sinop lived back then (for some reason the old and crumbling grandparents were confined to the basement). I devour some baked local nuts and pumpkin seeds along with a thick Turkish coffee at a seaside café. Yum!
Saturday 2 July. Cruisn', Schmoozn', Boozn' & Bruisn' is a tabloid sort of headline I abhor and which bears no relationship to the content to follow but explains why I prefer the Guardian (of London), buttled to me each morning by my man, who dutifully chases it up if it’s downloaded late from the satellite. They’re going to have to drag me kicking and screaming with bleeding fingernails off this ship….
To my untrained eye, Turkish Naval Vessel 1600 - looking like a small liner but with ramps at strategic locations around the hull - is a transport for heavy armour. But what would I know: I would have been in the first call-up but missed Vietnam because I was in New Guinea. But that’s another story. As we finish breakfast just before eight in our preferred location on the aft deck, a colour party of ratings on TNV 1600’s foredeck, who have until now been lolling about gossiping and smoking, suddenly grab their weapons and form a single row facing us. The officer arrives, replete with dangling sword, and a large Turkish flag arrives borne on a cushion. It is tied, unleashed and hoisted, puffing out nicely in a steady breeze. A naval moment.
Strolling along Trabzon’s colourful and crowded central pedestrian mall mid-afternoon, I am surprised to find myself in a state of what I will term existential confusion, which is not entirely due to the heat or absorption of beverages. Who am I? Where am I? What am I here for? And why are these people milling around me? Do they want something? They might, but they seem to want for little. In this fragrant place on this perfect afternoon, the entire world has coalesced into a cheerful pluralism of sect, ethnicity, place and time, and it is shopping like crazy.
This morning, however, on a long walk beyond the boundaries of the business district, passing over two high bridges with dry reclaimed riverbeds beneath them, we reach as far as the perfect green turf of the Trabzon football stadium, which Benny knows about, and the hospital with an attached medical school where students on break exchange cigarettes. At this moment I feel I’m inhabiting a genuine Turkey of men with toothbrush moustaches who sit around smoking and gossiping and drinking coffee; of women who, when they’re seen, are either working in the shops or buying cheap goods there; where the aroma of exotic spices blends with fumes from vehicles and thick coffee; every taxi paying tribute to Allah through a stark sign in its rear window.
But now, here, in the afternoon heat, I have been whisked to another place some centuries hence. You will be pleased to know that our descendants are, by and large, happy. From central casting there is one beggar. And there is a cacophony of sound to match the conglomerate of colour and creed and appearance. Women in heavy veils and heavier burqas have daughters who look like they’re from Mosman. Pleasant-faced women with light and colourful head-scarfs look like they’re from Vogue. Men shining shoes look like their last job was running BHP Billiton. There is every imaginable shop and a few you never thought of – the hookah vendor; the nothing but halva provider; the any-olive-you-desire-in-any-quantity-you-want supplier – “would you like a barrel, sir?”
The Turkish language shares roots with Finnish and Hungarian and while, like us, they write in a Roman script, it is a test (unlike when you are in, say, France and Germany) to discern words. Street signs are few because, presumably, everyone is supposed to know where they are. The people are kind and helpful: pull out a map and someone will – without commercial agenda - defy the language barrier to point out where you are and to guess where you wish to go. A most likeable place, Trabzon. If this is our polyglot, polymorphous, polyeverything future, I find it irresistible.
Sunday 3 July. Today I pee in Stalin’s dacha. The murderous Uncle Joe had five identical dachas throughout the USSR, so my micturition could, more precisely, be said to be delivered courtesy of his Black Sea dacha up in the hills behind Sochi. While you may have a perception of a dacha as being like a New Zealand batch or an Australian weekender, this one – known as Green Grove (such an old sentimentalist, Stalin) is a compound - green roofs, green walls, green plumbing, green all – comprising four two-storey buildings on each side of a modestly-sized and appointed courtyard.
Let me expatiate on Sochi. Before Stalin it was just a village on the Black Sea. But in the 1930s Uncle Joe decided that, because of its summer sub-tropicality, sulphurous springs and his own severe arthritis, it would make the perfect place for a workers’ holiday paradise. Build a few sanatoria (owned by Department of Railways, Office of Greater Productivity, Section for Literary Correctness etc) where the proletariat can bathe in spas, secure inner body cleansing and otherwise dry out from a Vodka diet, have the propaganda film crew shoot them on sandy beaches (shoot them on film, I hasten to add), and show the resultant celluloid to the world as another example of the glory of workers under Stalinism. (Reality check: our 60-something guide Olga said the only place she danced as a young woman was in the youth camps when westerners were visiting.)
Soon the petty bourgeoisie of doctors, lawyers and university professors discovered the lifestyle benefits of Sochi. Whereupon, Stalin became deeply concerned. So he purged all of them, built Green Grove in 1937 and, after World War II erupted (the devil’s pact with the Nazis having broken down), he turned the whole town (his dacha exempted) into one giant military hospital.
There was, however, a slight problem - malaria. And here is the Aussie connection. To rid the swamps and ponds of the dreaded plasmodium, the Russians imported 12,000 eucalyptus trees from Godzone and these successfully sucked the water from the earth and removed the breeding grounds in true blue Aussie fashion. Once again, the world has many reasons to be grateful to our fine country and its great initiatives such as the invention of the gum tree.
Thereafter, especially following Stalin’s last visit in 1950 (he died in 1953), Sochi fell back into a long torpor from which it has only just awoken, for reasons I will come to.
In the early morning the Sochi pilot boat makes three unsuccessful attempts to get alongside Nautica with sufficient poise to enable the pilot to leap aboard. There’s a bit of a swell running but, objectively, the early morning sea is calm. (After a week at sea, I know the difference between calm and incensed when it comes to oceans.) Aboard the pilot boat, the main man, by definition a seaman of skill, clings to the bow rail and reacts with exasperation to these ungainly efforts at coming alongside, waving an arm at the skipper (sagely his other grips the handrail).
The pilot boat skipper tries again. On his fourth attempt the vessel heads for Nautica not at a neat glide but at a 45⁰ angle, hitting the ship with a resounding thud which resonates the length of the hull. The pilot clambers aboard our ship and, back in the harbour master’s cottage in Sochi, the post mortem is probably still going on.
Why is Stalin’s dacha green? Why does Stalin hate deep water? Why is Stalin’s couch bullet proof? Why does Stalin sleep in a different room every night? Why does Stalin have Boris try his food first? Why is Stalin surrounded by three concentric rings of NKVD? The short answer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is fear of assassination. Not paranoia, as is often surmised, because Stalin really has people who want to kill him. And the green? Camouflage. You cannot see this compound 50 metres away so embedded is it in its surroundings.
Today’s Sochi, host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, is going through a transformation from slum to citadel. In the days when I consulted to BHP’s steelworks in Port Kembla, whenever a senior exec from Melbourne head office was due to visit, the warehouses, workshops, lines and blast furnaces would be spruced up, carpet laid along the VIP trail and, where there was an unsightly mess that for very good reasons had to remain an unsightly mess, screens of three-ply would be erected around it. Sochi reminds me of these fraudulent antics. Behind the recent and developing veneer (which tomorrow, Monday, Obama and Putin and others will experience, because they are about to visit) lies a dilapidation and a poverty that represents the truth of 80% of Russia; where today, it is true, you are free. You are free to be poor.
The bureaucracy (same in most respects to the bad old days except they’ve dropped the word Communist) still has a heavy, clammy, sour-faced hand on too many aspects of life (although, to give him his due, prime minister Medvedev is trying to change that). The most apparent impact of this on the visitor is the sheer bloody difficulty of getting into the country – it is the most frustrating and cumbersome to access of any European nation.
But, as we found on an earlier visit to St Petersburg a couple of years back, the Russian people, while free to be poor, are also free to express their views. When our bus runs into a police checkpoint and an burly officer waves us to stop, our guide Olga observes loudly: “They have to demonstrate they’re the most important people in the world; he’s just showing off his new uniform.”
At lunch later, in our favourite eyrie on the aft deck of Nautica, Ingrid and I compare notes with a German couple whose table we’ve joined. The man asks, somewhat sneakily, “How are you coping with the Americans?” We look at each other around the table for a moment, and laugh.
Get me some day to compare current Russian and American culture and governance. Be not surprised when I say that, despite the old Bolsheviks, the one is moving forward as fast as the other is regressing.
Monday 4 July. The mountains soar 1,500 metres and are so sheer, dark and close they’re difficult to get clear in the head. Yalta is a spectacularly pretty place and a centre for vacationers. The petite harbour behind the breakwater is just big enough to accommodate Nautica.
Our guide Maria Telnova, who I arranged from Australia, insists softly she is Crimean not Ukrainean. The Crimea, given to Ukraine by Stalin as a gift, has now asserted its autonomy, has its own president and parliament - and insists on speaking Russian not Ukrainean.
Maria is 30 - recently married, dark eyed and intense, she’ll have a child next year she says – and has a husband who earns good money working for a global IT company, the equivalent of $50K pa. Maria will soon buy a car to avoid having to pay a driver when she conducts tours, and she conveys every indication that, in a place where life is tough and you must be tough to succeed, she has the toughness required
A 20 minute drive from the dock along a narrow winding coast road brings us to Livadia Palace, the location of the Yalta Conference in March 1945 and that famous photo of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, who has a blanket covering his legs. Now I can say I have been in the room and seen the famous round table where the fate of post World War II Europe was determined. On the ground floor are the areas prominent in that conference – the grand reception room where the Big 3 and the leaders of “free Europe” met, the waiting room used as Roosevelt’s bedroom (he being so frail; he was dead two months later) and scores of contemporaneous photos of what was one of the defining meetings of the last century.
A little over 30 years previously the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family made their final visit to the palace before their arrest during the Russian revolution and their ultimate sticky end. As Ingrid says, we know Nicholas was a leader who should have done better by his people but there is still a vast sadness about this story – accentuated by being in the place where they holidayed - especially the shooting of the teenage princesses and the struggling, haemophiliac prince and their disposal in a mass grave.
For some strange reason connected with organisational inertia, all eight Nautica tour buses have been deployed to visit another palace at around the same time, so Livadia was virtually ours. Is their a smugness so profound as that which follows gaining an advantage over the mob? Smug we feel in the Livadia. The other palace 10 km away, whatever its name is, Churchill stayed there, crowded to the point of punishment, belonged to our eight buses and at least as many again from the rest of the Ukraine, so – with our private guide and driver- we went, we saw and decided not to conquer. Trying to surf a dense crowd of sightseers too overwhelming a prospect. So instead we have a good walk in the grounds, our guide constantly and unsuccessfully trying to sneak us into the palace. Me wishing her ill, as I am palaced out.
Tuesday 5 July. This large naval city of about 350,000 people is a marinophile’s wet dream. Pretty well razed during World War II, Sevastopol is now home to both the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainean Navy and, from where we are berthed amongst grey hulled frigates and other gunboats, we are able to watch the relentless traffic of all manner of vessels up and down harbour.
Our first sight is of a pinnace; ramrod straight sailors forward and aft, boathooks planted on the deck in front of them, ferrying a commodore to work; the forward sailor using his boathook as a long baton to direct the helmsman. Russian frigate 156 alongside Nautica is preparing for sea while the destroyer to its starboard pipes a distorted Reveille on the PA system before repeating the first few bars of what I know as Midnight in Moscow to muster the crew for their orders of the day. Ahead of us a small gunboat moves seaward out of the breakwater followed, bizarrely, by a canary yellow gondola. This cavalcade of craft, with often 20 in view at the same time, is to continue for the ten hours we are in port.
There can be no distracting from what is happening on the water – where this constant flow of ferries, floating docks, frigates, destroyers, floating cranes, salvage tugs, patrol boats, petrol boats, coracles, rafts, life vests (and, of course, the gondola) is a source of continuing curiosity. We have a front row view of this frenetic activity from the balcony of our suite. I have to be dragged off on our morning walk.
And so we saunter through a town of wide avenues and grandly austere naval buildings, past scores of military monuments (there are no less than 1,800 in the city precinct). As Yalta was unmistakably a resort, so this is unambiguously a naval hub. Groups of sailors move rapidly along the streets, the ribbons flopping from the back of their caps, and jump in and out of small buses, busy officers carrying petite black attaché cases scurry back and forth, their serious looks attesting to important business. This place conveys a sense of purpose. The military are very good at that.
Wednesday 6 July. With one and a half million people, Odessa is easily the largest city on the Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. It escaped severe bombing in World War II as the fine stock of elegant early 20th century buildings in the city’s commercial centre attests. Those nearest the port, and our berth at the passenger ship terminal adjacent to the steep ‘heart attack hill’ Potemkin Steps, have been restored but walk three blocks and the dilapidation sets in – testimony to communism’s carelessness (or should that be ugliness) about material things, especially object of beauty.
Ingrid’s brother, Evan, who collects languages with the same facility I collect wine labels, would have been a decided asset during our three days in the Ukraine with his repertoire of Ukrainean, Russian and Old Russian. The Ukrainean language, as I alluded to earlier, is a subject of great controversy here. Linguistically, most of the country has been Russianised, even native Ukraineans, for the most part, are shaky in their own language. But after the meltdown of the USSR, the new Ukrainian government determined that Ukraine would be the national language. But language cannot be legislated for.
In New Guinea in the late 1960s, the Australian Administration decided that the use of the Pidgin word meri, meaning ‘woman’, was offensive. So they decided to replace it with a new Pidgin word – woman. Didn’t really take on despite all the expense and propaganda and 40 years on a woman is still a meri. Language can be subversive and governments meddle with it at their own risk.
Thursday 7 July. Constanța (pron Con-starn-tza) – the destination that merits no farewell - despite being the biggest port in the Black Sea and one of the largest in Europe, is dirt poor. Romania has been a republic since 1991 (the late unlamented venal Ceaucescus were overthrown and duly shot in December 1989) and in the EU since 2007. As one of the EU’s unpicky-phase countries – corruption and government fitness-for-purpose hasn’t seemed to worry the union in recent years as it seeks to gain prestige through growth – it’s a poor advertisement for anything very much. For some reason not in the Euro zone, the Romanian New Lei at four to the dollar being the local moolah.
Randomly located around this massive port, in which there are dozens of ships and scores of huge cranes and little movement, are ugly hills of scrap metal awaiting export. The Romanian Navy is in port – perhaps permanently – about 20 warships of various breeds up to frigate size, doing nothing and going nowhere. On one a radar revolves slowly picking up no blips, no threats, nothing of meaning except hills of scrap metal.
We take a shuttle bus the short distance into town having been warned of the thieves, pickpockets, ne’er do wells, blaggards, beggars, muggers and general scoundrels we will meet along the way. (In our walk around the old town we meet none of these and make our own way back to Nautica.) What we do meet are an unsmiling people of transcending glumness. I eventually give up offering my own cheesy grin as it is an investment that yields no return except a scowl. These people are shabbily dressed, middle aged and over, and thoroughly demoralised.
There are some elegant buildings and public monuments and big parks – but all now in advanced decay and overgrown - evidence of better times past. There is the fading ghost of a grand and monumental art deco casino on the shore, its large windows shattered and sporting an embarrassed sign in Romanian: “No Photographs”. We also perform our supermarket test (I view supermarkets as the museums of a society as it is and make sure I wander through one everywhere we visit), to find this one replete with beer, soft drink and sweets and not much else.
These people do not even have the spirit to deal with an opportunity when it arrives in the form of a ship full of tourists. None of us had leis, there was no means of exchange and no other currency was acceptable. So there was no spending. And, when Nautica departed this sad city, there was also no customary three rousing blasts of its siren. Constanța just didn’t seem to have earned it.
Friday 8 July. On this the penultimate day of the bliss that is Nautica (you don’t spend a penny on board, the evil bill arrives on departure eve), we anchor off the world heritage site (ruins dating back to the 6th century BC) of Nessebur – a small island now joined to the Bulgarian mainland by the slenderest of isthmuses. With an abundance of very old stone churches, restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels, Nessebur is as colourful and vivacious as poor old Constanța was drab and listless and clearly a favourite seaside spot for Bulgars.
‘No fee, no lie, no cheat’, says the sign over the currency exchange. But it won’t exchange five Euro – and the 50 Euro minimum would keep me in style here for a week. So that’s why I owe a toilet keeper in Nessebur five things. He is most upset, as were his four buddies, when I emerge with a money pocket as empty as my bladder. We quickly withdraw before they shout at us some more.
I decide to head back to the ship on one of the lifeboats deployed to ferry passengers from the anchorage and, finding I have 20 mts to kill before it departs, and having had my passport exit stamped, look around for somewhere I might walk. The end of the breakwater seems a likely proposition. At first I don’t notice the siren’s wail but eventually I look across the water to find that its source is a fat policeman – one arm in the window of his police car engaging said siren, the other waving vigorously at me. Seeing no point in getting shot doing nothing in particular, I withdraw for the second time this morning.
Tomorrow we will be turfed off Nautica to brave the wilds of Istanbul.
Saturday 9 July. Back when we were warring against his nation we called him ‘Johnny Turk’, which despite the fraught times had a touch of endearment about it. And to plunge into the heart of Turkey – despite the obvious irritation of shove-in-your-face commerce – is to dive headlong into the midst of a people who – sitting at the convergence of east and west (and that is a reality not just a literary allusion) enjoy their position and excel at building relationships. Perhaps because relationships are good for business but perhaps also because, being where they are in the world and considering what they have been, the practice comes so easily to them.
Relationship formation, however, is not the technical term that immediately springs to mind as we leave Nautica dragging suitcases, to be immediately infested by cab drivers on the make who affect ruses like not knowing where our hotel is, all the better to rip a higher fare. Or, slightly less deviously, to simply posit 20 or even 50 Euros as the going rate and a quite reasonable stipend for driving a stranger off a ship from A to B. In the end, by making the main road our immediate goal, we find a taxi with a meter and an amenable driver and we made the journey to our hotel for 14 Turkish lira (the equivalent of seven Euros) including a tip. And my tip is – you’ve got to be prepared to bargain and to walk away in countries where driving a hard deal is an essential part of making a deal. Either that or just pay up and shut up.
So our cab wends its way up and between narrow streets, the driver losing the plot a few times and seeking directions from men who prove variously knowledgeable or ignorant and helpful or unhelpful according to their state of mind. Eventually we make landfall at the Seven Hills Hotel, where our room is not available for three hours and we are offered breakfast on the roof. Up there we feast on a great sight. Before and below, cerulean, are the Sea of Marmara, the Istanbul Strait and the Bosphorus; with freighters of all sizes at this time making their way north to the Black Sea. Ploughing across this flow and across the Bosphorus, which is perhaps a kilometre wide here, and interlacing the freighters, are the white two tier ferries that carry Turks between their Asian and European shores. And in the middle of all this are fishing boats taking their chances at catching mackerel and sardines and anchovies in what is a marine and maritime turmoil.
From this breakfast roof, very close, we see the 17th century Blue Mosque and its six minarets; and, closer still, almost at arm’s length, the 4th century Hagia Sophia with four minarets; and right alongside it the Topkapi Palace. We realise our Seven Hills is at the epicentre of Byzantine and Ottoman culture. Drinking hot, thick coffee, I also soak all this in. Through judicious accommodation selection, Ingrid has scored once again.
And so we move into Istanbul with gusto, visiting the Blue Mosque (its interior walls a tiled tableau of pale blue and pale pink) and its humbling dome, downhill the contradiction of the Grand Bazaar and its teeming hucksters and crowded alleys, and further downhill still the aromatic Spice Bazaar, where I purchase some nuts which are not all that nice to eat. We traipse slowly back to the top of the hill and the roof of the Seven Hills Hotel for drinks and dinner, the freighters moving south now emerging from the Bosphorus, discarding their pilots and entering the Sea of Marmara.
Sunday 10 July. The Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian place of worship in the Byzantium, appropriated as a mosque by the Moslems and is now a museum beyond any reasonable understanding of the word. It is breathtaking in its scale and architectural brilliance. No cranes back then. No welding. No rivet guns. Just rocks and slaves. And of course engineers, who knew how to assemble huge slabs of stone - not only so they didn’t fall down, so that they soared.
We see Mausoleums and embedded sarcophagi of sultans, sultanas and sultans’ families - enough to keep me going for a lifetime. I don’t want to seem disrespectful but too much taking off and putting on of shoes is murder for a bloke with a duff back. Which reminds me that one of these sultans had 102 children. Note to self: check whether this fecundity coincided with expansion or contraction of Ottoman Empire.
The Cistern is a massive underground reservoir, more like a small lake, hollowed into the rock with over 100 Byzantine columns supporting a natural rock ceiling. This engineering masterpiece took water from a now defunct aqueduct connecting to hills 20 km away. Built on the orders of Emperor Justinian, the Cistern ‘went missing’ after the Byzantium to be rediscovered only in more recent times. Near its furthest point it features two carved images of the head of Medusa – one upside down, the other on its side and no one can figure out why.
Leaving this marvel, we walk downhill following the tram tracks to the cacophony and confusion of the ferry terminal and keep walking along the seafront until we reach a bridge across the waterway known as Golden Horn. Slung beneath the bridge are many restaurants so we choose the most pleasant and eat seafood and ponder an overawing morning. Then we take a crowded tram back uphill to near where we stay.
Monday 11 July. It seems appropriate that this, our first visit to Istanbul, is steeped in antiquity. There’s a lot of it about and we are determined, in our few days, to inhale the best of it. So this morning – once again taking off early to beat the crowds, especially the scores upon scores of tour groups – we head for the traditional seat of the Ottoman emperors, the Topkapi Palace. It is very close to our hotel (almost accompanying us at our roof breakfast) and, immediately upon breaching its gates, at Ingrid’s insistence, we head for the Harem – which, disappointingly, is fresh out of concubines. Seems I have missed them by about 150 years.
While we miss the girls, we do get there before the tourist mobs and the result is unharried stroll. In its day, the Harem was a vibrant administrative and political community in its own right. Devoting something the size of a small palace to one’s stable of 100+ of the most beautiful and intelligent concubines (plus one’s mother) may seem excessive and iniquitous but I guess a bloke would get used to it pretty quickly. And, if there was any reluctance, those Nubian eunuchs would give you a bit of a touch up to get you on your way.
It is impossible for me to describe with any confidence the complexity of the Topkapi. The knowledge that it served as the kingly, strategic, bureaucratic and family centre of the mighty Ottoman Empire for six centuries until 1922 may have to suffice as a comment. It combined the functions of Buckingham Palace, Westminster and Whitehall into a seamless mandate. To understand the power and complexity and durability of this is also to understand something of the substantial background of modern Turkey – in all respects a very impressive project.
At first I thought the waiter was offering us cake: “Have you seen the cake?” But he was asking had we seen the cave, which was a largish hole in a wall towards the rear of the restaurant. The first small chamber was unimpressive but we then bent through another hole punched through a wall, we crept into an underground splendour of columns and arches and Byzantium plumbing and piping – all meticulously retrieved over the last 10 years by the restaurant owner moving tonnes of earth and rubble. “No government money,” said our waiter guide, rubbing his thumb against his finger to indicate corruption.
This is part of the original much larger Topkapi Palace – five-metre high spaces cut into solid rock, supported by columns, adorned by arches, while a few feet above us the clunk of vehicles moving along the street can be clearly heard. In this old and venerable section of Istanbul, the full scale of what lies beneath has still not been properly identified let alone unearthed.
On Turkish food and drink. Turks seem to prefer sour and, as Ingrid and I have observed in Turks elsewhere on this European gadabout, they really like cherries. So the sour cherry elixir that prevails as something of a special beverage combines the best of much for your average Turkoman. The beer (Eles, a pilsner) is passable on a hot day and the white wine and rose (all I’ve tried) is, irrespective of what grape or region is claimed as its provenance, light and fruity and, I must argue, perfect for the conditions. The meat is lamb and there are many ways of presenting this; all, to my palate, ending up tasting similar. There is also chicken, which is preferred dryish. But, in Istanbul, the main tucker is seafood, delivered in forms ranging from whole fish to fishburgers to fingerlings and presented with tantalizingly spicy flavours accompanied by mushrooms and aubergine (they really do a good line in the old eggplant) with tomatoes, cucumbers and chipped potatoes on the side and in abundance.
On the Muezzin’s call to prayer. Your average mosque – and it seems there are four to every block in Istanbul – has a minaret (although the Hagia Sophia has four and the Blue Mosque six) and every minaret has three ascending verandahs from where the muezzin may make his call and every verandah has at least four loudspeakers. The call to prayer occurs four times each day and is deafening. The times vary slightly each day depending upon the position of the moon. Calculating these times is a task not left to the mugs and certainly not to the innumerate. Here at Seven Hills we are surrounded by big calibre mosques and there are not enough sticks to poke at the minarets. So as the call goes out – and it is an experience that I find affecting – it is impossible not to pay attention.
I have notice that the muezzins of the microphone at Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and another large mosque nearby have grown to orchestrate their middle of the day call. Hagia Sophia begins, Blue Mosque responds and Mosque X interpolates with a sub-theme. This is all done, for you who have never heard the muezzin’s call, in a psalm-like chant taken directly from the Koran (Quran) that, on a hot day, can induce that trance-like condition so necessary for prayer (!). I particularly enjoy this midday Three Mosque Chorale (comp: Mohammed), although the lyrics can get pretty repetitive.
On Turkish men. Let me talk about the likes of Setat, Kenan and (“call me Boris”) Bekir. Setat is the night receptionist at Seven Hills and so it was he who greeted us like long lost friends when we arrived early Saturday. In English not so much broken as greenstick fractured, he conveyed a combination of personal warmth, eccentricity, delight and necessary information.
Kenan is a waiter in the Seven Hills rooftop restaurant (with its commanding views over the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus and all the major mosques, a very popular eatery with the locals). If he wasn’t Kurdish and working in Istanbul he looks like he might be playing five-eighth for the Sea Eagles – that fit, flexible muscularity and upper body strength (yeah, have him grip your neck as, perceiving a certain stiffness, he did mine, not realising it had been there 40 years). You know how you meet people you instantly like? That’s Kenan and me hitting it off. Now he rips away the reserved sign and gives us the best table. True friendship!
And let Bekir stand for every Turk who ever tried to net a customer, entice them to walk two blocks in the direction of his choice and deliver them for a 5% commission to a certain spot where carpets are sold. There are many Bekirs in Turkey and, like “call me Boris”, they hang out near landmarks to entice people they perceive to be wealthy westerners along the path of salesmanship. It does get tiresome. After Bekir gets over the temporary embarrassment of mistaking us for Americans, by his own admission he is honest, has cousins in Melbourne (or Perth), is not in it for the money, can speak a little Australian slang (“g’die mite”), and knows enough about history to understand his grandfather kicked our arse at Gallipoli. Recommended technique for dealing with the super-friendly Bekir? Ignore him. No acknowledgement of greeting. Certainly no verbal reciprocation. No eye contact. Not even the merest incline of the head. And certainly no following down the rocky road to a salesman’s paradise. Then Bekir will turn away scowling, knowing he’s been bested. Allow yourself a cruel smirk.
Wednesday 12 July. We take the tram across the Golden Horn and then the funicular (second oldest subway after London’s) through the tunnel up the hill to a wide pedestrian concourse that runs perhaps two kilometres and is lined with the best retail the world as we know it has to offer. They’re all there. We stroll into the local equivalent of a mall which is five floors high and a vertiginous five floors deep and with two armed guards and four store security (two at each door) to stop you pilfering the precious products.
On bargaining. I learned to bargain (I mean hard nose bargain) in Indonesia nearly 40 years ago. It’s an art that does not come easy to us fixed-price foreigners, who think getting 10 or even 5 percent discount from Harvey Norman is a huge financial coup. The culture gap is always the hardest to cross. Let me give you a tip to make it easier. If you agree to the first price, the vendor thinks you are a right royal mug; a first order simpleton; a down looking for a shake; a ling looking for a weak. None of us want to be so perceived.
So back to the deal. When the first price is offered; halve it. If acquiescence arrives too fast; halve the price again. Ignore all subsequent Oscar nominating performances including disgust, disbelief, shock and cold fury. Your role now is to walk away determinedly. The heavy clunk of desperate feet will soon be heard. They will be moving significantly faster than yours. You have now established a sound platform for negotiation. And, should your conscience still pang, no trader will sell to a transient customer at a price less than he believes is in his interest. So you’re OK.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Wednesday 13 July. Up early to catch Turkish Airlines’ service to Prague, which we first visited in 1996. Istanbul’s Ataturk International is barely coping these days. When we’re tugged from the air bridge half an hour late, we join a 15-strong queue of aircraft taxiing for take-off. Fortunately flight schedules today are as generous as modern jet planes are quick, so we catch up the delay en route. Then we join the queue circling above the lush green Czech countryside before landing at Prague’s Ruzyne airport.
Ingrid and I were not intending to visit Prague this trip, although it’s a city I especially enjoy partly because it’s a great place, but mainly because its Ingrid’s cultural home. This is our fourth visit here and it’s special. We’re here mainly to meet the biographer of Ingrid’s father, Henry, an eminent Czech (Australian/Canadian) mathematician whose amazing life and remarkable contribution to mathematics is being recorded in The Forgotten Mathematician, which will be published later this year.
For a few months now, Ingrid has been collaborating with the author, mathematician Assoc Prof Martina Becvarova, to elucidate aspects of Henry’s life as it existed beyond the simultaneous equation. For her part, through exhaustive research, Martina has unearthed information about Henry’s early personal and academic life (pre World War II) which is new to the family, as well as material about his battles with the bureaucrats which constantly left his career (which was essentially his research) on the brink of extinction. Henry was unfortunate enough to be half-Jewish at a time when Jews were being exterminated and half-German at a time when Germans were being purged by those they had conquered.
So the first half of Henry’s life ended atrociously. His father and that Jewish side of the family were murdered by the Nazis. Henry survived because he was half-Catholic but was despatched to the uncertainties of labour camps and, post-war, shunned by most of his colleagues because he’d been born in German Sudetenland. But the second half of his life – lived in Hobart (where Ingrid was born) but largely in Edmonton – was sublime. Freedom and Libby made sure of that.
So we’re in Prague to pay tribute to Henry – and his biographer. We will visit the places where he lived, studied, taught, researched and frequented. Some 70 years on, we are about to absorb a slice of Henry’s life. He never did return to Prague after he made that critical decision to depart in the late 1940s. But Ingrid and I have returned and, on this fourth occasion, it’s clearly on Henry’s behalf. And, for Ingrid it is a pilgrimage.
Thursday 14 July. Dr Martina Becvarova and her husband Prof Jindrich Becvar, head of the department of mathematics at Prague’s prestigious Charles University, separately and jointly have written more than 20 books on various aspects of the history of mathematics and prominent Czech mathematicians. Jindrich is also an expert in maths education.
Through him, we discover the answer to a question that has long dogged us. We knew Henry had been a world class mathematician, but didn’t know what exactly gave him this status – maths being such an arcane subject. So what was his claim to fame? It turns out that, after receiving his doctorate at the precocious age of 24, Henry’s subsequent work on set and dimensional theory proved groundbreaking. Then, for reasons that remain unclear (could it have been in some way connected with the seismic events in Europe in the 1930s as the Nazis began to exert muscle?), he shifted his interest to abstract algebra – a field in which he was internationally prominent but where he never achieved the same eminence.
We take a 20 mt tram ride on Line 22 out of the main city to an adjacent leafy but not very opulent suburb and walk up the street where Henry lived during his wilderness years from 1938-47 when he could not find employment (his career stifled by his half-Jewishness) but continued his research in the university library. The name of the street used to be ‘The Street With No Name’. It’s now got a name but Henry’s former home (where the family lived having been thrown out of Liberce where Henry’s father had retired) is gone. The family – like other Jewish families – were compelled to come to Prague all the more easy to keep an eye on them before the time came to load them on to trains. And we all know where that ended…. The Lowig family had led a sublime upper middle class life before then.
Then we walk to the monastery where Henry’s mother, Anna, was imprisoned after the war because she was a German; until Henry, just released from labour camp, turned up and convinced the authorities she was indeed Czech. Anna learned that Henry’s father had died in Teresienstadt concentration camp (he had moved house in Prague many times to escape the Gestapo, but they got him in the end) only when she received in the mail a bag of clothes accompanied by a death certificate.
This shocking family history, of course, was shared by so many other families of the time, but it is no less affecting because of that. Visiting these places, even this many years later, is an emotionally charged experience for me – much moreso for Ingrid.
While Henry’s family was being put through Hitler’s grinder, Libby’s family – which owned restaurants in Prague – was faring (if you’ll excuse the pun) pretty well. But after the war, as communism took hold, the restaurants were seized and Libby, seeing the writing on the wall, fled just before the borders were closed in order to marry Henry (who she had only ever known as a teenager, he being 20 years her senior) in Hobart.
Jindrich, who’s 64, experienced problems in his academic career because he refused to join the communist party. This has left him cynical, but not bitter. The smart, pragmatic, fleet footed commos are doing quite well thank you in the post-communist, sadly corrupt Czech Republic. Like Henry Lowig, Jindrich’s achieved considerable status in his own field. Amongst his articles on the internet I happened upon these comments on the media (in Czech; this is a Google translation):
It’s an unfortunate role played by the media: its superficiality, its sensationalism; its focus on controversial opinions. It gives much space to charlatans and dubious reformers and also contributes to a comprehensive undermining of morality.
He could have been writing about Rupert Murdoch.
Friday 15 July. Libby’s grandmother, who ran a guest house in the Czech countryside, would apparently say of her snooty city visitors, “I’d rather a German rat stay here than those people from Prague”. And another taste of Czech humour. How can you tell if a dog is clever? It manages to walk across Romania without being eaten.
We visit the grand tri-spired Catholic church, in most places it would be a cathedral, where both Henry and his father were baptised and his father married. Henry’s father – a senior telecoms executive - was Jewish and the family rejected him when he took Catholicism to marry his sweetheart. The Nazis didn’t take the conversion as seriously, though – to them he remained Jewish and they murdered him accordingly.
We then take Prague’s relatively recently built underground metro to near the city centre to visit the faculty of Charles University – indeed the very hall – in which Henry graduated. As fortune would have it, there’s a ceremony in progress. It’s for graduating master’s students in mathematics – and therefore takes on a special poignancy. In this ancient hall the rector and dons are clothed in ancient garb and the proceedings are conducted in that most ancient of languages, Latin. Only the smart suits of the graduating class give away that this is a modern moment.
There is something very joyful, and even inspirational, about a graduation ceremony. Young people, having achieved something of real merit, about to embark on the upward curve of a career. Being honoured by their teachers and their university; and paying them honour in turn. Ingrid and I are moved to tears. This is what Henry experienced no less than four times during those early achievement years, when the Nazis had not yet come. His family - like the families nervously sitting there today, their eyes glistening with pride as their children are duly honoured – would have sat there, perhaps four times, as Henry rushed up the academic ladder to gain that doctorate at such a young age.
Later in the afternoon, Ingrid finds the horse stables where Henry was impounded for three days before boarding the train for the uncertainty of labour camp. Henry had written that passers-by on trams would throw food to the prisoners.
A footnote on Ingrid’s Czech language skills. I am bold enough to ask Martina and Jindrich what they think. Does Ingrid sound Czech when she speaks Czech? Is the language she uses the kind of language spoken in today’s Czech Republic or is it old fashioned? I am assured that, other than for what I understand to be two tough contrastive alveolar trills, Ingrid’s rendition is perfection itself.
Saturday 16 July. My plan to visit the town of Liberec, about 100 km away – where Henry spent much of his early life - with Ingrid and the two professors is thwarted by the devious conspiracy that is my body. So I spend a sedentary day pandering to various manifestations of osteoarthritis. All things considered, though, I’ve managed this trip pretty well.
Late breaking news: Czech Republic owes Libby Lowig $130,000. On 20 September 1950, the Second Section of the District National Security Headquarters in Prague filed a criminal complaint against Henry Lowig for living illegally outside Czechoslovakia; the charge a model of Communist fiction and trumped up accusation:
On 19 June 1950 the Investigations Section OV-NB 5 in Prague-Břevnov was informed, in an official letter from the Ministry of National Security in Prague that Dr Jindřich Löwig, born 29.10.1904 in Prague, last domiciled at No 1479 Pod Marjánkou, Břevnov, Prague, fled our state borders illegally.
On the basis of this complaint, investigations have been undertaken with the following substantive findings:
Dr Jindřich Löwig, who is a professor of science, left for Australia legally with a proper passport, to teach at a university there. The passport of the herein named was valid until 31.12.1949; however after this time Löwig did not return back to his homeland. It is most probable that the herein named went abroad with the intent of never returning to the Czechoslovak Republic. In files about the herein named there is no record of Löwig being issued with an emigration passport. There is only a copy of his application for a passport to go to Australia.
The investigation found that the herein named applied to be allowed to lecture at the German Faculty of Science during the occupation, so it is more than likely that the herein named did not have a positive relationship with our country’s People’s Democratic Government.
Description of the missing: The herein named has a longish face, light brown eyes, dark brown hair, about 175 cm tall, with a noticeably protruding nose.
Reputation of the missing: In his last place of residence Löwig does not have a positive reputation politically.
District Commander NB 5: Second Lieutenant Linda Josef
This criminal complaint was escalated to the Prague District Prosecutor. Court proceedings were begun in absentia. Henry was accused of living illegally overseas and having a hostile position towards the Communist government. On 25 March 1952, it was documented that Henry had liquid assets in Czechoslovakia valued at 129,970 crowns. Henry was never able to recover this money, equivalent to about $130,000 today. I am reminded that Kafka was Czech.
Sunday 17 July. Our last day in Prague this trip, but surely not our last day in Prague forever. What a regretful thought that would be. “It’s a place where it’s impossible to take a bad photo,” says Ingrid and, as my wife so often is, she’s right. This is a city as photogenic as Ingrid. Where Romanesque, Renaissance and Rococo can stand side by side and not seem out of place (er, that’s Prague I’m alluding to). Plus the world’s first (only?) Cubist building. The city is a living, swarming encyclopaedia of architecture. And soon to head for home. My bloody back could have been a damn sight worse.
A final note on tour groups. The guide wields an umbrella, or sometime a folio of papers, and the ragged line straggles behind; two or three people in front listening to the guide’s chatter, the rest looking somewhat bemused as if not comprehending quite what they are supposed to be observing. At the rear of the file, detached from it by a couple of metres, is a man trying to look as if he doesn’t belong to the group. Sometimes that man is me.
While you can learn much from a good guide - and the only group tour we signed for this trip, in Russia, had an excellent one in Olga – you must experience this wisdom as it filters through the banalities of your companions: “that looks just like the one in Boise”; “is that a river?”; “is that a rock?”; “I don’t like the smell”; “has anyone seen Sam?”; and so forth. I prefer the relative solitude of a two-person group – Ingrid and me - where, even if we lose a bit on the translation roundabout, we make up heaps on the merry-go-round of immersion, emotion and introspection.
And there, my friends, if you have made it this far, my log ends and I thank you for sharing it with me.