Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Oh, What a Lovely War!

6.43 am is not a good time for keeping your head together. After helping a Canadian threesome with their three day travel pass, I left the station only to walk 15 minutes in the wrong direction. The German woman I stopped to confirm my suspicions didn't seem to know that trams existed (I needed a tram), but assured me I was going wrong. Thank you.

I am in Munich to stay with Phil and his family for a few days before more reprobates arrive from Ireland to indulge in the Oktoberfest, schoolfriends and co-workers. I am godfather to Mia, Phil's eldest daughter, and I try to get to Munich every year to see her. She is a beautiful, intelligent and charming four year old, and her young sister, Lulu, is practically her twin in all these characteristics. Needless to say then sleep was not possible on my arrival; play comparable to commando training was. Two or three hours later, when Mia was at kindergarten, and Lulu was napping, I did get to doze.

Later I offered Felicity, Phil's wife, to help with collecting Mia from kindergarten and bringing her to ballet class. When we arrived, kids were rampant in the sandpit awaiting parents. Mia wanted to introduce me to her friend, a young boy with a toy pliers. He proceeded to apply the pliers to my thumb. I think I just have the kind of face that invites children to use DIY tools on me. Before I knew it another child was drilling my stomach with a child's mock power screwdriver, while yet another approached with a wrench. I survived by fleeing for cover in the main building for a guided tour by Mia.

Getting to ballet class, what is with kids a 20 minute 2 minute walk, was similarly stressful for all concerned. The heartbreaking crime of twig stealing led to much squealing on the part of one little cherub, while other more sensible kids threatened to stop traffic. Even at ballet class that huge stilleto shoe with the "Art Object - please don't sit" sign was bound to become a popular slide, and the stairs beside it a fearful no go place. Nevertheless we made it, we lived, the apartment was reached once more. Judging by its success in this running battle (for which our earlier commando training just hadn't prepared us), ice cream should be introduced as a diplomatic tool in all international disputes. It's something to bear in mind, Israel. And may I humbly suggest chocolate flavour.

Games and play and attempts to introduce young kids to "Peter and the Wolf" took up the three hours to dinner. Phil cooked an exquisite Thai dish (and some pea falafel for starters) and now everyone is too pooped to do anything but sleep. Round the clock drinking will be a doddle on Thursday. I've had my commando training.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Berlin Confidential

I have just seen Phil off to the airport and am now at home in the Hauptbahnhof. I am still not quite recovered and another night train ride (seated, foolish me) will probably destroy my fragile system. It'll be fun finding out.

Getting to my hotel was a little worrying particularly as for the first time I hadn't got an U-bahn station on my doorstep. Instead there was a 15 minute tram ride from Alexanderplatz and a doubly worrying ten minute walk to the hotel. Each step I took with mini-monster on my back (the main bag was at the station) was an anticipated step of pain later when I retrieved the haversack. The heat was intense, the pavement hard and already my back creaked. When I arrived I was scruffy, sweaty and in need of a hug. Unfortunately what I got was a "what shoe were you scraped off" look and the news that my room wasn't ready. When I asked about the nearest U-bahn station it felt like pulling teeth from a rabid biter. In the end though the receptionist allowed me to leave my small bag while I went to collect the other one.

The distance out threw my calculations out, so by the time I did get back to the hotel it was close to 4; I had arranged to meet Phil between 3.30 and 4. As it happened his flight had been delayed and his luggage hadn't arrived, so all was well. Also now that the hassle of getting my luggage to my new abode was over, I could look around and marvel at the four star splendour; it really was a lovely hotel.

Phil has a huge interest in Germany's recent past. Given that a growing family can limit the investigations one might make of Germany's capital, he had left them behind to adopt the more docile child that is me. First item on the itinerary was an inspection of a Soviet war memorial near the Brandenburg Gate. What we failed to take into account, however, was the Berlin Marathon. The starting line of the race happened to be beside the memorial and barricades, tape and security barred our way. Well, they would have barred an ordinary couple of tourists; not so Phil. In we went in one of the many criminal acts he encouraged or enacted over the weekend. It's certainly a big monument, with a huge, stodgy soldier on a plinth flanked by artillery and tanks. From here it was a short walk to the Victory monument (the huge pillar surmounted by a golden angel that appears in "Wings of Desire"). Sadly they had closed for the night, so we couldn't climb the tower to get a view of the city.

Maintaining the theme of all things Russian, Phil had reserved a table at a Russian restaurant called Pasternak's. Funnily enough it was a stone's throw from my hostel of the previous night, though discovering that took us enough time to warrant Phil ringing ahead to warn them we'd be late. In the end some good solid lamb casserole and Moscow beer filled the gap that had been growing. As we ate he described the Russian disco he had in mind for the following night. Soviet kitch was the order of the day, though I hadn't seen it on the menu.

Next stop was a pub near Alexanderplatz, any pub really, the general area had been recommended. It was as we drank that Phil learnt the docile kid was not quite so docile. I suppose I have been out of human company for too long, but a smashed bottle was hint of things to come.

Home. In the middle of the night I awoke from a dream, the air conditioning rumbling, the room pitch black and the unshakeable conviction that I was locked in the bowels of a ship burning in my brain. Only when I opened my door to the corridor did I suddenly slap my mental wrist and go back to bed.

As it happened transport was not going to be the problem I had thought. Just like the trains, the trams run like clockwork, and the walk to them was nicely decorated with exquisite graffiti. Today our first target was "The Story of Berlin", a museum charting the birth and rise of Germany's favourite city from the Thirteenth Century to the present day. Incorporated into this was a trip to a bunker. Foolishly I had presumed this was a World War Two bunker. Inasmuch as it had used a World War Two bunker as the basis it was, but this was a fully functioning nuclear bunker, that doubles as a carpark in peacetime. Unfortunately we hadn't counted on some U-bahn, so we were just in time to see the English language guided tour enter the bunker as we tried to find the ticket booth. In the end we had to join a German speaking group, but I got the general gist of it all.

Phil had booked us into a trip to the main Stasi prison, but again public transport just wouldn't get us there in time. The clock was ticking. Phil had been warned to be punctual. Our only solution was a taxi, something that goes against the grain of public tranport fanatic me. I was worried when I saw the driver consult his map and as we got closer to 3 o'clock, I thought we be repeating our bunker experience. Thankfully we made it, joining a group of Norwegian school kids, who seemed more than comfortable with the English language guide. I am sure we all have an idea of the horrors of the Stasi, but it's probably not something we dwell on. The prison puts it into perspective. Everything was done to isolate the prisoner, tying them to their interogator and breaking down all resistance. Prisoners would never see each other, even to the extent that the corridors had traffic lights to warn guards transporting prisoners if someone else was around the corner. If so they immediately put their prisoner into an emergency cell until the other prisoner was moved on. Attempts to communicate were punished, so whistling or singing while in the exercise 'yard' or 'Tiger cage' (unlikely given that a heavily armed guard looked down on you from above and sometimes fired a round accidentally), was forbidden. Water torture was common as were many other insidiously simple forms. And the reasons for imprisonment were often trivial in the extreme (complaining about a shop suddenly not accepting money) or sinister (a man was imprisoned because the Stasi wanted his furniture collection). There was a lot in this tour that was sobering in the extreme and painted a picture of a truly insane Orwellian state.

We went back for an hour's rest. Malte, a German I had met in Australia on a Contiki tour, was on for meeting us. Phil had come across a Thai restaurant he wanted to try and as it happened Malte knew it. I was a little worried that the two of them might not have much to talk about, or that I might monopolise things. As it happened, in a quasi-Masonic act, Malte immediately recognised Phil as a fellow marathon runner from his watch! I hadn't even known Malte was into running, but not only does he run, he was a German champion in his youth and currently sells running footwear. They had more than enough to discuss, what with running plans, pb's (personal bests) and the differing merits of Nike, Asics, Adidas etc.. Malte had to leave us after the meal, but he left us with a recommendation for a nearby pub, White Trash.

White Trash was a kind of punk rock type place and we both took to it immediately. The Thai restaurant had been more of a snack place, so we took the opportunity now to get some more food, accompanied by pitchers of beer. The pitchers were my idea, but we varied between the pub's own Pils, Weis and Lager (which was more like an ale). The staff were mainly English speakers, and the American who served us ended up drinking a vodka shot with us on the house.

If I was a little rowdy the night before, I was positively obnoxious tonight. Pitchers tend to do that, I suppose. Poor Phil was subjected to my alter ego, the mad drinking machine that is Dennis. Finally by 4 in the morning he was spared any more of my ramblings as we headed for home.

No shipside panic tonight! Instead I decorated the sink a little, slapped my mental wrist once more and went back to bed.

Neither of us got out of our beds for breakfast. However, I did manage to post a few pictures to this blog. Words simply weren't possible.

Checking out I introduced Phil to the glories of LEFT LUGGAGE. Unfortunately today was the day of the Berlin Marathon and there was a frighteningly long queue. Not knowing what else to do we stayed. The place was full of luggage so they could only take new bags as people collected what had already been left. We were lucky and got out in 15 minutes.

I have to go soon, so I'll sum up the rest of the day. We took a look at the marathon, then got trapped by the marathon, not being able to cross the road. Phil tried to persuade me to run in front of the runners, but I resisted adamantly. Phil then showed me the car park that lies above what was once Hitler's bunker. We went for food, had a coffee, enjoyed the sunshine and then came back to Hupbahnhoff where we made our farewells. I'll be seeing him in the morning.

Because I have a hangover... get some pictures.



Friday, September 22, 2006

How Seafood Pizza caused my Accidental Death

An unpleasant thing happened on the U-bahn yesterday. A mature, but leggy blonde got on at Potsdamer Platz and sat down. There was a wolfwhistle behind me and this very dodgy looking character, in a hooded army jacket and tied up hair got on, staring after the woman. He didn't sit. Standing at the set of doors at my end of the carriage, he slowly moved up to the middle doors and then again on to the doors just beside the woman, occasionally glancing around, though not seeing anyone else in particular. He stood with his back to the carriage, facing the doors looking on to the subway wall, glancing over at her repeatedly. I won't go out and say it , but it was pretty apparent what he was doing. Whenever the train stopped he'd glance around, but there were very few people on board. Eventually the woman got up, glanced at him and hurriedly left the train. As he didn't leave right away I thought that was the end of that, but after a pause he did get off. I watched him on the platform staring after her and rambling in circles. I thought again, that's it, she's gone. Suddenly he stormed right out of the station in the direction she went. I hope she was too far ahead at that point.

Should I have pursued, stalked the stalker? Or should I have alerted someone? It was early in the day, but that guy looked very, very shady, and determined. I hope nothing unpleasant happened.

The hostel, though not the spotlessly clean establishment I was led to believe, was very welcoming. They did not have my bed ready immediately, but I hung around for an hour, drank coffee, chatted briefly to an Aussie eating Vegamite (I kid you not) and checked mail. Eventually the bed was ready, which means empty. Clean linen was placed on the bare bed for me to make up. Fine. I did this, had a shower and went out on the town.

First though I stopped in a small Italian restaurant for some lunch. It wasn't too impressive to look at, but there were a lot of people there, a table outside and the sun was shining, so I thought I'd give it a go. I even bravely went for a seafood pizza. Oh, it looked lovely, with shrimp, mussels, octopus, etc. and I tucked in enthusiastically. Just over halfway through I pulled out a piece of plastic, a bite later (I kept going!) I noticed an octopus tentacle was a little cold. Did I stop? Not right away, one or two more octopus legs to consume, then I did. I began to feel the first twinges of nausea. I paid the bill. Sweating began. I could still taste that last cold octopus leg. My stomach churned and I began salivating, you know that gross watering preparatory to puking. At this point I was in the subway. Sweating, nauseous, I began to retch. Not wanting to decorate the platform, I knelt by the track and began puking on to the gravel. At that point, the U2 train arrived and whisked my head of, painting a nice red streak across the platform I had wanted to keep clean.

That's what could have happened. Only as far as going into the subway station actually did. Thankfully the beer I had had with the wonderful pizza, sterilised my stomach and left me feeling queasy for the next four hours. Sweating and mild delirium accompanied this queasiness, but that's what I get for eating bad seafood!

What didn't help was the long subway ride I took to get to the Olympic Stadium. You know, maybe it was the stadium that caused the queasiness. It's the only Nazi-built building still standing and very overpowering. The walk from the station is quite beautiful, with the sun shining and the tree lined path, and then the complex rears up.

It has to be said this is where the World Cup final was held and the pitch stretching out before you when you enter. Even compared to the arena in Verona, this is nosebleed architecture. I went to the top tier to terrify myself and caught frostbite. Having said that though, it could almost be any football stadium, except for the marathon gate at one end. It's the rest of the complex that raises the eyebrows. The horse jumping arena, for instance, with its two huge very Nordic equestrian statues. Then there's the six towers dotted around, one for each of the German 'tribes'. A seventh tower, the bell tower, rises up from the Langemarck (or something), that is a war memorial to the dead of World War 1 (and specifically the battle of Langemarck). The comments on the information signs are very strange too, almost like the writer of them was at variance with the Government. For instance after discussing the Nazi ideology behind the memorial building, it says that though it was destroyed the Federal Government paid to restore it almost exactly as it was, even employing the original architect. It was rededicated to the "victims of war and violence", which meant (according to the notes) that the Nazi intention was maintained. Even stranger is the account of the bell that had been in the bell tower. Made by the Nazis, it was nearly destroyed when the bell tower was demolished, but ten years later it appeared on display in the south forecourt with the Nazi symbols "only barely concealed".

Most of what I presume to be statues around the grounds seem to be in containers, at least one statue (of discus throwers) hidden under canvas and plastic. There's something very schizophrenic about the whole place; on one hand they want to celebrate the stadium and on the other they want to hide it.

On the way back I saved a beetle. It was struggling on its back on the pavement and no amount of flicking over would right it. I proffered a small twig and it grabbed on with its feet and I managed to right it. It seemed just like a drowning man grabbing at a hand. The person behind me stood on it. Only kidding. Later I continued my good deeds breaking a padlock for some Aussie girls.

Down to Postdamer Platz to go to the Film Museum. The temporary exhibition on Psychoanalysis and the Cinema was okay, but the permanent collection, with nicely done displays on the history of German Cinema, was really entertaining. There was the stadium again in a piece on Leni Reifenstahl's "Olympia" films. Her achievements, however, are dwarfed by rooms devoted to Marlene Dietrich. She was a strange one with male and female lovers, from Ernest Hemingway to Delores Del Rio. I have to say I never found her attractive (though an early picture of her before she remade herself Madonna-style shows a pretty young girl), but they're pretty proud of her all the same. Personally I wanted to learn more about Fritz Lang's Dr Mabuse pictures which I still haven't seen, but which a few clips they played over and over made me salivate again. Big kid that I am, I got a kick out of the tribute to Ray Harryhausen, close to the end of the tour.

I felt a good deal better at this point, so I had a nice big ribeye steak with tonnes of salad and a good beer (sterilise my stomach). This presented me with no ill side effects.

When I got back to the hostel, I broke the padlock (they'd lost their key) and prepared for bed. Unfortunately my bed, made and all, had been taken by a Chicagoan. To be fair, there had been a mixup and though he had been there the night before they had cleared away his things. One way or the other I had another bed to make. Two Aussie girls also in the room had just been to Munich and were heading on to Prague, so we chatted a little. With the windows open and traffic fairly loud, I didn't expect to get any sleep, but I did. I was up at 7.30, showered and ready to go, but thought I'd write a little first.

Phil, from Munich arrives today, and he seems to have a fairly intensively planned trip arranged. Should be fun.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What's wrong with this picture?

I got to the Reichstag and its dome, folks! Being in Berlin at 6 in the morning gives you a head start on the queue. Still those 70 year old Americans give you a run for your money. I got there though not before wasting 15 minutes determined to get a photograph of a bridge.

I had just come out of the Hauptbahnhof and saw this rather nice bridge with that golden monument you see from the Brandenburg Gate in the background. The video camera was packed up in the monster, but I had the smaller camera with me. I took a shot, but an old guy ruined it. Delete. Another shot. Damn, an American! You could tell he was an American because he was tall, wore a baseball cap and had a better camera than me (Japanese are shorter, wear straw hats and have a better camera than me; the rest of the world just has a better camera than me). I waited until he had his 10001 shots taken, checked and developed on the pavement while I watched, then he moved. Unfortunately another tourist decided to rest on the bridge. Wait again. Then the jogger; Berlin was waking up. Then finally...the battery died. I used what I always use, my mobile phone, but it was a crap shot anyway.

And I think at this point I should explain the story with my photographs. Being the wise and foreseeing man that I am, I left my camera cable at home. All photos that you son this site, with the exception of the Swedish Chef (who is known as the Norwegian Chef in Sweden) were taken with my phone. I use Bluetooth to transfer them to my laptop and then wireless to upload them. And that is why there have been no photos of late; I have had no wireless access and have depended on Internet cafes.

7.45 and all's well

Back in Berlin. It was a long journey getting here, but I'm right back in the good old Hauptbahnhof!

As I sat at the T-bahn station in Oslo, staring at the Transylvannian sign, it suddenly struck me why there was a sign to the TV Tower. You could climb to the top and view Oslo! I should have guessed earlier, it faced me every time I walked from the hotel, and the views from on top could only be amazing. It tantalised me and I let one train go with the intention of taking a quick stroll up to see the sight, but another sign said 15 minutes walk and I didn't want to risk missing any train; it was all very tight, these next three trains (to Gothenburg, Malmo, then Berlin). I let it pass, but I gave too little time to Oslo and I should come back. There were other beautiful walks to be made in the vicinity of my hotel (besides the beautiful one from the hotel to the station, oh and the one back). Oslo was never to blame; I came with preconceptions and prejudices, and the fact is it is a stunning city with some hidden treasures well worth seeking out.

Getting to Central Station in plenty of time, I easily caught my train. Making some sandwiches from some kind of processed meat and rolls, I had a makedo lunch and settled down to listen to the entire Beethoven Symphony cycle. It's not quite right to make a small project out of such masterworks, but I thought it would be interesting to play them back to back, and I did have the time. Dozing here and there I made it with a half hour to spare.

The train to Gothenburg had been delayed though, and I have had some trouble with my phone I had to sort out, so by the time the girl at the sandwich counter said it would take four minutes, I didn't have four minutes to spare. I raced on to the train without food or drink. In Malmo I managed to grab a burger (hate fastfood chains), but I was running on empty.

The couchette thing nearly worked again! Dozed off and had crazy dreams of drinking water, mostly because I went to sleep dreaming of drinking water in the first place. It was sweltering and I had no drink with me. Because the train stopped as it floated across on the ferry, the air conditioning was off too. It was a mild form of Heaven when the wheels turned once more and some air (however cool) began to circulate again. Strangely there was no passport or even ticket check! Must have been brushing my teeth when that happened.

And so here I am! The monster has been left in LEFT LUGGAGE (what a divine concept!), I have had a doughnut, coffee and large smoothie (quench the thirst and get the vitamin C), and all I have to do is waste an hour or two before I check into the hostel. Where better to do that than Berlin.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Apologies to the Norwegian Tourist Board

I leave for Berlin again today. The train schedule is such that I cannot get out of Norway before Friday unless I leave today. Anyhow the majority of what follows was written yesterday but I could not get to post it until now.

My first morning in Oslo and there were no stunning sights after all. The whole area was muffled in fog. As I set out once more for the city, dirtyy laundry on my back, I could barely see twenty feet ahead of me. All around me was the sound of rain, though there was no rain, just moisture dripping from the leaves. It was quiet. Very quiet. The from the heart of the forest came a screaming and a maniacal laughter. Only kids out on a ramble, but to me it sounded like Lord of the Flies meets the Blair Witch. I walked on until a flash of red through the trees caught my attention. Down below the road, among the trees, was parked a red car. It stood beneath a lamppost straight out of Narnai. As it happened it was on the land of a nearby house; why shouldn't they have a lamppost on their property? On I walked. The figure of a woman, a very tall woman, appeared before me. Suddenly she began to run, turning off the road unexpectedly. It was the station and as I arrived the train pulled out. They run like clockwork here and she had checked her timetable. I hadn't.

After all my comments about the ticket machines, there was a guy fixing it when I walked up. I sat down. Suddenly loud music sounded! Well, why shouldn't he put on a cd? A robin landed on a fence and unsurprisingly began moving his head to the beat. There I was on a foggy mountainside with a Techno technician and a robin on E. The day was already a lot better. It's all about your frame of mind, you see....

What's that written on the signpost? It can't be! "Transylvannia"? Well, no actually, "Tyrvannstarnet", or "The TV Tower". Given the right (or wrong) frame of mind anything can appear sinister.

The train needless to say was deserted, but then my stop is just after the terminus so few would be on at that point. The driver, a woman, was definitely more upbeat and even intelligible. Rolling down to Oslo town, I saw a group of film students shooting on a station platform. A woman even got on with a baby (they make them here too). A tall old man in a baseball cap and trenchcoat got on next and started talking to said baby, while another old man with his minder moaned by the window. I take back all I said; this is all far healthier than in Sweden. In Sweden one old man on the T-bahn was a novelty; where were the others in a country with a high life expectancy? Now as I looked around the train, it was fuller and the mix appropriately varied. Indeed with the leaves falling outside and the low clouds, it could almost be Dublin, if we had a proper public transport system.

I got my laundry done. Two Japanese women with four washloads made sure I didn't get it completely dry, but I won't go into that. I wandered around a little then, saw the Changing of the Guard at the Palace. I still fail to see how in this day and age and country can maintain a monarchy. I had a long spiel prepared on this topic, but I have no wish to offend my British readers, so I will keep that gem to myself. Suffice to say they should be put in a council home on a state pension.

The Changing of thew Guard was absurdly enjoyable. They were dressed in the usual ridiculous uniforms with green ribbons etc., going through the motions with choreographed stupidity, all the while carrying bayonet tipped kalashnikovs! I nearly got speared at one point.

On to the Munch Museum, he of "The Scream" fame. Small, but impressive. The same (excellent) paintings were replicated again and again until it almost seemed like a Warhol exhibition. I did notice a lot of similarities with the Willumsen I had seen in Paris. Both put a lot of effort into paintings on bathers, for instance, and in one huge canvas, Munch uses the same shaped sunburst Willumsen had used repeatedly. Which came first? I don't know.

The museum closed early (4.00), so I went to get my tickets. Unfortunately the train service out of Norway is very haphazard which meant in order to get to Berlin for Friday (to meet my friend Phil), I would have to leave on Wednesday on a 17 hour trek to arrive in Berlin on Thursday morning. Nasty, but sorted. Or so I thought.

Then there was the daily food hunt. I nearly walked into a flaming brazier outside one restaurant, and as I patted out my singed eyebrows I noticed "The Rubber Chicken" on the other side of the road. Well, with a place called that the hunt was over. The food was okay (I prefer baps to Italian squares on my burger), but when a group of twenty girls came in, I stayed for another beer, and another. Good beer too this time, Frydenlund. Nothing wrong with the Norwegian women either.

When I got back to the hotel I thought I'd go for a swim and a sauna, I'd just check my Berlin accommodation first. Tripadvisor nothing. nothing. Hostelworld, nothing! No hotels! Apparently there are around three different events coinciding and everywhere is fully booked. I didn't get to have my swim. This morning I got a bed in a hostel. Believe it or not, this will be my first hostel yet, and I feel I should have tried them a lot sooner. We shall see.

By the way, I was looking in an estate agency window and saw a cool house, huge, going for 1,500,000 kroner, which is by my reckoning just under 180,000 euro. I might move here yet. It's on Grev Dracula Allee. Frame of mind, folks, frame of mind.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Oslo, a.k.a. Arkham Asylum

I hate to malign a city after just a couple of hours, but things don't seem entirely right here in Oslo.

My hotel is thirty minutes by T-bahn out of the city and another 15 minutes walk through desolate countryside. I was sceptical about it from the first, but all the reviews were raves and it has to be said it is in a stunning location. Indeed as the train began to mount the hill, my jaw in sympathy began to drop. The view of the fjords, lakes or whatever and the city was amazing. Everyone else in the train wore a glazed expression, immune at this stage to the effect.

I made it to my stop. The train station itself looked like a deserted outpost in the Appalachians; beautiful, but isolated. Then there was the walk to the hotel along a country road fringed with firs, with just an occasional signpost. I was grateful when I arrived, and would have been if it was a shed, but regarless of my relief, I was impressed. Apparently it is built on the site of the sanatorium Edvard Grieg used to frequent (this I discovered just after putting on some Grieg piano music). I am sure it will be stunning tomorrow morning (what I saw as the sun went down was stunning enough).

But I am still in the middle of Nordic woods with a walk to and from the station along a road with no pavement and few lights.

Anyhow I arrived after eight hours travelling etc. around 7 o'clock. I had laundry and asking about a suitable laundromat I was helpfully given directions to a place in town.

As I journeyed into the city, I noticed that all the monitors on the ticket machines, not one or two, but pratically all monitors, had been smashed. Why in the midst of so much beauty were they smashing their infrastructure. Something was rotten in the state of Norway.

A (rare) young man got on leaving his girlfriend on the platform. He drew a heart on the window. Sweet though this act seemed, it seemed to take on overtones of overstretched romantic passion in my jaundiced mind.

50 minutes after leaving the hotel, I arrived at the laundromat to be told the place was closing at 9. This was at 8.55. I tried to ask was there another place nearby, but the woman just pointed at the hours of opening on the door. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on for something to eat.

Firstly what struck me about Oslo was the darkness. There were lights everywhere, but the blackness seemed to suck all the illumination out of them. Actually what I think it was was the fact that not all of the lights were working. You felt there were lights everywhere, but there was less light than there appeared to be.

Next thing to strike was the cost. This place is ludicrous. Seven euro forty for a pint of the local brew (Ringners, and I can see why the world got Carlsberg instead of this; I like my beer with a flavour). All the restaurants were through the roof, though I settled on a Chinese for a reasonable noodle dish. Unfortunately I had a table in front of one with a Norwegian and a Chineseman being told by an Englishman why they were being screwed by their suppliers. I felt like slitting my wrists there and then. Once finished I went on to the Scotsman Bar to be ripped off on the pint. As I sat there I thought how impossible it would be for me to be standing at that deserted crossroads in the mountains, signposts in an alien language, the time close to midnight and a mile yet through darkness to trudge. Trudge because my haversack of uncleaned laundry would weigh on my back. Could this really happen? And yet if I was to live, to go on, that's exactly what would need to happen. The guitar act was only getting ready to play as I left.

There are a lot of people around, but somehow it seems very quiet. As I walked down Karl Johan Gate to the station all the prostitutes were coming out (Norse-African for the most part, one called to another as Sonya). I stormed down as fast as I could, but, as earlier, outside the station is crawling with junkies. I kept my head down and got to the platform.

The platform was full of young men in beige uniforms with caps and tassels. I felt this was the aftermath of a Hitler Youth rally. So this was where all the young kids go. None of them got on my train.

In Sweden the trains were super clean and super efficient with shiny, happy kids everywhere. Oslo trains are clean too, but rundown, empty and silent; what clientele there is is older and weirder. The few people I have seen so far are not all young and not all healthy and rarely seem to speak. Earlier a young guy got on with either some palsy or on drugs, he was frightening to behold. He nearly fell forward, and beacuse he couldn't coordinate his hands it thought he'd drop. He didn't. Instead he gave out to people as he got off. Now a middleaged guy got piously on with a carton of juice or yoghurt. When he finished it, he ripped it open and began licking the insides. Meanwhile the driver is mumbling something in a monotone everytime we stop at a station, something that bears absolutely NO relation to the station name. It seems to be his own private language and he is talking to himself, debating whether to slit his wrists now or at the end of the line. Outside the darkness gets deeper. Inside carton man is poking at the end of the container. A drunk man gets off (how he can afford to get drunk bewilders me) and I am alone in the car with carton man. I try not to catch his eye. Eventually through luck rather than any signposting (the signs can only be seen after you pass them), I identify my stop and get off.

As if it wasn't dark enough, there's fog everywhere. For good measure, a guy in a hoody gets off the train too and starts walking behind me. I am walking through Nordic forest miles from anywhere (including my hotel) in fog with Michael Myers behind me. I can't get back quick enough.

But I do.

If ever I was to write horror, Oslo would be the place I'd come to to do it. I know it's unfair. I haven't seen it properly in the day yet, but tonight was eerie. It's like the beauty of the place has an edge underneath and I feel a little sympathy for the inhabitants. They face a place of extremes; what is beautiful in the day is dark at night and frozen in winter. H.P. Lovecraft set his fictional city of horror in New England, but Oslo is the real Arkham. Somewhere out there lies the Miskatonic and in one of those beautiful wooden houses Herbert West is working on reanimation. And I came here to rest.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

I went on a boat trip around the city yesterday. Remember Stockholm is comprised of several islands connected by bridges and an internal freshwater lake is separated from the Baltic sea via locks. Out of Sweden's 9 million, 2 million live in the city or around it (comparable to Dublin really), though the country in terms of land mass is the fifth largest in Europe. It's all very interesting.

Afterwards a visit to the relatively small, but very high quality modern art museum. As usual renovations (or more accurately rehangings) were going on, so the contemporary stuff was out of commission. Very well put together though. They even had "Le Chien Andalou", "L'Age D'Or" and "Modern Times" all playing, though I wasn't going to stand around for hours watching any of those.

Big Chinese/Japanese buffet then. There was even a selection of 8 ice creams for dessert, one of which was black, or rather dark grey. Had to try it. Licorice, I think.

Today then I got to see the Vasa, a 17th Century warship that sank in the harbour on its maiden voyage. Lucky for us the brackish water of the baltic preserved it and in the sixties they raised it, practically intact. It's 70 metres long and nearly 50 high; it's big! And like I said practically intact.

One thing I've noticed a lot of on the Continent are bicycles, but today was the first time I noticed an air pump especially set up for them in the park. That's the way it should be. No traffic jams here by the looks of things.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Stockholm Story

From Malmo, I had a nice train trip to Stockholm where I got a T-bahn to my hotel. As they promised it took 15 minutes exactly to get to the right station, though another 10 minutes walk to the hotel. However, I stopped off at a little sushi bar to avail of a lunchtime special (9 pieces, miso and a coffee for around seven euro, or 6.5 kroner). Very nice it was too.

This business of kroner though is painful; why couldn't they have voted in the euro like sensible Europeans. I won't go into my feelings on the matter too much - I am aware I'll come across as naive - but I don't really think countries should have had a choice in the matter. The EEC is the European Economic Community. You can't get more economic than currency. By all means leave the laws, traditions and languages alone, but we should be acting like a United States of Europe if we are going to compete properly with the other United States (and everywhere else for that matter), and that means a common currency. Anyway I hate this business of currency conversion.

The hotel is situated in a very suburban district. Very nice area though all the houses are similarly coloured and shops are indiscriminately mixed among them in the same type of buildings.

Tonight I went into the city to investigate a little. It looks good. First thing I saw (after I got my ticket for Oslo on Monday) was the O'Leary Sports Bar. I kid you not. Going on I found a shopping/restaurant area with first Sheehan's Pub and then right next door, The Foggy Dew. Well, The Foggy Dew, I couldn't resist. I went in and ordered the lamb shank, mash and Carlsberg meal. I suppose I was due my comeuppance for the monstrous meal of last night, but I certainly got it tonight. The Carlsberg was tangy, something that would not happen in Germany (though all too often in Ireland). Then they brought out the lamb shank. I nearly laughed out loud. It must have come from a sheep foetus it was so small. Truly I have never in my entire life seen a piece of meat intended for a meal, so small. I tried to make do with the mash all the while thinking of the hot dog stand I had passed down the road (sure enough I got one later). The pub itself was lively enough, however, I had noticed that Altman's new movie, "A Prairie Home Companion", was playing nearby, so I went on to that.

It's the first time I have seen chocolate sold cheaper in the cinema than the local shops. It was a very impressive cinema too. (My time is running out on this, so I'd better go). Suffice to say the movie was Altman's best for a long time though I have mixed feelings about him in general.

One dubious thing in Vienna was a teenager talking in reverential tones about Chuck Norris. I had just seen packed bars and a lot evidence of a good social scene, when I overheard that and it made me wonder. Nothing like that here. A guy with a lisp on the train (the quintessential movie nerd, kind of like me) talked about Adam Sandler not so reverentially, even breaking into an English trailer spiel ("An Adam Sandler was a top executive..."). Of course, the Swedes all speak English, but what is strange is that even some of their ads (particularly ones to do with English speaking countries) use English when appropriate. It's taken for granted that it'll be understood.

I am continuing this on Saturday morning and I just thought I'd mention that a deer ran past my window as I ate breakfast. Yes, it's that kind of place, very sunny (though the temperature has definitely dipped), peaceful, green and pretty. The hotel is by and large pleasant too, though with a touch of Fawlty Towers. The lift stops either a step too high or too low so you have to watch getting in and leaving. The bathroom is a slight step up, so you have to watch that too. The bed has been modified to mimic Donald Duck whenever you turn over. And last night the smell of ammonia (or that morning's breakfast eggs) wafted up from the sink. The staff are functional bordering on the gruff, but honestly it somehow all transcends this to be pleasant.

I walked into the nearby town of Aspudden this morning. Really, really nice, although would I be saying that in winter. House prices are reasonable, although everyone lives in an apartment. All one bed appartments are at most 100,000 euro and some a deal cheaper. Large three beds can be as low as 180,00, but it does go up to the mid to late 200000's.

There is an election going on here now and some political speechifying was going on in the main square when I came out of the station. There is a ghost abroad in Europe. By and large, I believe Sweden to be fairly moderate.

Couchettes...they work!

Just arrived in Malmo, Sweden, en route to Stockholm (in another forty minutes). Although I can hardly say the whole couchette thing has improved much (either onmy last experience or seats), I did get to sleep. When I got to my car for some reason they had put the bed numbers in the twenties in the compartment for the eighties and vice versa. What do I know? Two Canadians doing one hell of a European trip were already there (they'll be going to Dublin in a while though they'll spend more time, and have already spent time in Lisburn, of all places). Then a cute Swedish girl joined the party, but a dodgy guy in a white tracksuit turned up and tried to take her bed. Eventually it was sorted and he got the remaining bed after a big Chinese guy arrived. I, naturally, was on the top bunk. It was oppressively hot and I laughed to myself when I saw them rolling out the blankets etc.. However, the last laugh was on me, I guess, for as the train floated to Sweden (via ferry) it got a little cold. Nice enough here now.

We were interrupted by the Bundes Police checking our passports. I would have thought this was normal, but I wasn't too sure. They were radioing in details from some of the others for checking and it seemed like they were looking for someone. Probably my imagination. Anyway I'm going to get some breakfast. That Schweineshaxen almost kept me awake with some indigestion. My last Rennie has been used.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


The amount of meat (and for that matter beer in a short sitting) I have just had is obscene. Remember I told you about the hocks? Well, hock is salted meat and boiled; Schweineshaxen (yes, Phil, I know the speling is incorrect) is unsalted pork roasted. It's my last night in Berlin for a week, so I was tempted by a place near the Zoological Gardens. Firstly looking around I thought everyone was drinking litre glasses of beer. When I ordered one I discovered that they were in fact on the half litres, and that while I was sober. Then clever man that I am I said yes, let's have the schweineshaxen. A joint of meat. A Sunday roast. When I can upload the pictures I will. The fact is I got looks when I ordered the drink. I got very strange looks when that arrived. I am proud to say I did it justice once again, though the litre in 45 minutes is doing its work, sad wimp that I am.

Anyhow I was hoping to write this in a more meditative mood, but I have an hour or so before my train so here you go.

Firstly I took a look at the Berlin Philharmonic website the night I arrived just in case there was anything going. There is a festival on with various orchestras from around the world performing and the next night not the Berlin (sadly, with Simon Rattle), but the Bamberger Symphony Orchestra were on, playing Birtwistle, Brittan and Strauss. Not just any Britten and Strauss either; Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto and Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration. They might have set the programme just for me. They certainly didn't make their website for me. The booking process doesn't work. I felt like offering my services (could have fixed it in half an hour). Anyhow rather than online, I thought I'd buy a ticket the next day.
Of course I forgot about that. Luckily the next morning I decided to go see a museum around Potsdamer Platz, which of course is right beside the Concert Hall. Potsdamer is impressive though. Much as I hate to condone any multinational, the Sony Centre there is a nice piece of work. The Film Museum is there too and they had some exhibition comparing Star Trek to a German show of the time called "Raumspatrouille Orion" (again Phil, I'm sorry). I didn't go in, though the next exhibition, starting the next day, on Freud and the Cinema looked promising (what do you think, Peter, if you're out there?). One way or the other I went down to the arcade beneath the Sony Centre and gorged myself on sushi. Ah, lunch.

The Concert Hall was closed until 3, so I had a bad feeling about getting tickets. Waiting around I went to the Rembrandt Exhibtion in the Kulturforum. The Germans do not do things by half. When they say a complete retrospective of Rembrandt's work they really mean it. A very good selection of his paintings (far more than just the usual portraits), a huge sample of his drawings and a humungous showing of his prints; it was impressive, yes, I will give them that. The difference between Rembrandt and his workshop's work is very noticeable. He is not called a master for nothing.

Finished with the paintings and drawings, I went out to get my concert ticket. No problems. Right beside the orchestra on a balcony; not ideal, but top dollar would have been 45 euro. I was content.

Back to the gallery. I wanted to take a brief look at the permanent collection. No one was making any kind of a deal about that, so how big could it be? Why don't I take note of my own observations. I've been rhapsodising about the size of Berlin and the scale of its buildings. Shouldn't I have realised that the gallery was HUGE! And there were the Rembrandt prints to see, huge numbers tucked away in a corner of the overall building. I won't go into it all; it has its Botticellis, Vermeers, Tintorettos, Valasquezs, and a hell of a lot of others. You need a lot of time and patience with all that ecclesiastical work. In my heart of hearts, I think its quantity over quality, but there is plenty of which to take note. I am even starting to see copies or versions of paintings I have seen elsewhere, such as Vienna.

After all that I had a lovely steak across the road in a mock American diner. I was in a dinosaur t-shirt and felt that would be inappropriate for the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall, so I set off back to the hotel to change. That could have been a big, big mistake. I just about made it to the concert hall with 5 minutes to spare. And it really didn't matter.

In contrast to Verona, the Germans are not keen on nose bleeds. I was high up, but not that bad. I could have switched seat, but didn't; I was happy enough as I was. The hall though was far from full.

They started with the toughest music and got easier as the night went on. The Birtwistle - The Shadow of Night, I think - sounded as good as it could, but I couldn't warm to it. Noise, professionally played. I need a lot of time and experience before I get into that, though once upon a time I might have said the same about "The Rite of Spring". Britten's Violin Concerto, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine. Intially I lamented my side seat as the violin seemed to be projecting to the front, but I think that was psychological more than anything. Not magical, but a sturdy performance, and I was fairly pleased (though the orchestra could have been sharper occasionally).

Richard Strauss's "Death and Transfiguration" is one of the first pieces by him that I ever heard. I had a tape (yes, way back then) with "Don Juan", "Till Eulenspiegel" and "Death and Transfiguration", and it was easily my favourite (though the other two pieces are really strong). It was when I thought tone poems were the bee's knees. I haven't heard it in a long time.

Oh, it was magical to hear it again. Hair standing stiff (and my hair did stand, and not just on the neck). It's Late Romantic programmatic music, meaning that it tells a story. In this case an old man is on his deathbed remembering past loves and past life. However, disturbing this reverie, his battle with fever and death interrupts, until, as he must, he dies and his soul ascends gloriously to another place. Aw, shucks. It sounds maudlin, but it really works musically. And that ending is close on Close Encounters/E.T. in the old soaring, tear-jerking stakes. It's only short of a twinkling star and the Disney Castle. But there's a reason for that. Straus was Late Romantic and a German and had a big influence on all the German emigre composers (such as Korngold and Steiner) who went on to Hollywood and defined film music as we know it. What's more, Close Encounters etc. are the work of John Williams. Now John Williams is, I will admit, a great film composer and the reason is because he knows what to steal when. "Jaws" is straight out of Stravinky's "Petrushka" (and to be honest I think I heard it in the Sibelius of the other night too), "Superman" is from Walton (and as we all know, "Star Wars" comes from that, or vice versa). Williams must have had a field day with Strauss. Anyhow just listen to those final 5 minutes and you'll get the idea. There's no one film you can put your finger on, but one should probably be made. Ah, it brings me back to the days when I thought Rachmaninov's "Isle of the Dead" was a class act (it is really, I've just gone all cynical).

I made my way home and tried to organise my next few days. Stockholm first for three days or so, then Oslo for two, although I should probably have done the reverse (the Norwegians always seem more interesting, except for the Swedish blondes, of course). I have a night train (with a couchette, this time) tonight (very soon), so that meant I had an extra day in this glorious city.

First to Hauptbahnhof to put away my luggage (LEFT LUGGAGE!!!!!!) and get my tickets. Then some food (cheap and cheerful Asian food), then a stroll down to the Pergamon Museum. Can you believe they have the Gate of Ishtar (yes, Alan, I said Ishtar) from Babylon reconstructed there? And then there are Hittite engravings from the 3rd Millenium B.C.. On then to the Dome in the Schloss and suddenly the whole geography of Berlin made sense; I'd passed it the first night when wandering down Unter Den Linden. On to the Gate again for pictures, then up to see the remains of the Wall.

There have been many terrible things in the world, particularly in recent times, but it's strange how poignant the Wall actually is. I came upon it without warning; suddenly there was a graffittied wall beside me. That can't be it, I thought, but it was. There is a small museum nearby and they kind of sum up the whole 28 year wound in the phrase "the German-German divide". Countries can be split, ideologies can differ, but how can you divide a city? Actually it's more than just German-German divide; it's Berliner-Berliner divide and it was crazy and tragic.

I took the T-bahn to the Zoological Gardens, had food and now here I am. Better go now.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Smell of Burnt Rubber

It is noticeable how the underground train systems in various cities all have their own unique smells. Even within the same cities, different lines carry different aromas. In Vienna, for instance, walking down the stairs into the U1 line, I always got the whiff of puke despite the fact the place was spotlessly clean. Other Vienna lines had an almost perfumed odour. Berlin has a slight, not unpleasant, burnt rubber smell.

Rested a little, I went out for dinner and a stroll around the city. As the only location I really knew at this point I stopped at Alexanderplatz. The air was warm, the area summery and without much searching I found a restaurant just at the foot of the television tower (or whatever that thing is). It didn't seem in any way special, but my first glance at the menu showed me written in English the words, "Big Ham Hock". Now ever since I was a kid I have promised myself a hock, kind of like you promise yourself a full chicken or a jar of pickled onions (well, I did). For those of you unacquainted with this delicacy, it's a pig's trotter. There is plenty of meat wrapped in plenty of fat, so it is always very juicy, and cooked right the flesh just falls off the bone. It's kind of like boiled ribs. My mother occasionally cooked my dad one as a treat and I might get a slab of the juicy pig. I think it was more a case of their parents had savoured them too; I think it was a old Dublin dish. Well, it's an old German one too, with mushy peas, boiled potatoes and saurkraut. I had to order it and simple though it was it was exactly what I expected. Even the saurkraut, which in Vienna proved a little too sour, worked well this time. Together with a pint of pils, I did it justice.

It was only 8.30, but very dark. Seeing the signs and consulting my map I got on to Unter den Linden and headed for the Brandenberg Gate. Now I have seen some mighty fine cities, but on the basis of this walk alone, Berlin has them licked. It is overwhelming in scale, beauty and grandeur. Simply amazing. Of course, I haven't seen it yet in daylight, and this wasn't the living Berlin, the nightlife, the people etc., this was more the tourist side of things. It was still awesome. I felt like taking over Poland. I jest, I jest. Actually I think I understand what drove Hitler after all. He wanted to get good seats in the Opera. I figure only someone with power can get those because no one else is getting into that edifice.

Actually while writing my last entry I looked up an artist represented in the Images of Women exhibtion ("Face, Body, Soul") by the name of Franz Von Stuck. His "Derieux as Circe" is captivating (the web scan doesn't do it justice). It turns out he was one of Hitler's favourite artists, though he was dead and buried before Hitler ever came to power. What is hilarious though is that it has been suggested that Hitler modelled his appearance on Odin in one of Von Stuck's paintings, "The Wild Chase". Even better, Hitler said that another of Von Stuck's pictures, "The Medusa", reminded him of his mother!

I kept walking becoming more and more enamoured of this city as I went. Yes, here I would live and work and, when I was ready to rest, I would retire to some place small like Paris or Rome. I hadn't seen anything of the famed nightlife, but just from the hustle and bustle of the huge streets, I knew there was that community I'd seen a glimpse of in Vienna. I had to laugh at the pretensions of Dublin. Someone once said that O'Connell street was the widest in Europe; well, that was rot. The only bridge as wide as it was long was O'Connell Bridge; so what? That's because it's small. Don't get me wrong, size does not a city make. It is not the scale of Berlin that just astounds; it's the conception of it. This is a city built as much from aesthetic as pragmatic principles, and though those aesthetic ideas may now seem jaded, one gets the feeling (as indeed has been shown by the artistic history of Germany) that it has acted as a spur to its people. Dublin may have a cultural renaissance coming yet, but its current city must be reborn too.

When I arrived at the Brandenberg Gate, after all the vast build up, and given that it appears smaller than everthing else, I should have been disappointed. However, it impresses with its serenity. It is in no way disappointing. As I stood there staring, I suddenly felt that something was wrong. I was hearing something unnatural, something vile. Country music! I turned around to see two four-wheeled Harleys(!) turning round the road's end, music blaring.

One other thing that seems wrong is the huge hotel or conference centre or whatever the hell it is at the end of Unter den Linden, just before the Gate. With walls of glass and warm interiors, it's all very eye-catching, but should it be there at all. What is it?

I continued on by the river, around Government buildings. Everywhere photographers were shuffling about with their tripods. There was a large queue even at 9.30 to get into what I presumed was the Reichstag and then to the glass dome on its roof. I'm sure the view was very impressive, but I didn't fancy the suggested 30 minute wait. Besides there was so much on the ground.

I wandered some more, then caught the reliable, clean, safe, burnt rubber odoured U-bahn back to my hotel.

The Lion, the Itch and the Volkswagen - Part Two

Well as I was saying I bumped into three girls from Cork, though only briefly as there was Venice to be seen and I only had seven or eight hours. What was a great and honoured help was the miracle of the Left Luggage Office. For a tenner I was free of the Monster and Mini-monster. Free, free, free to wander and do my back in properly.

Now the last time I was here I missed the Guggenheim. This time I would get to it, but first I wanted to get my bearings and the best way to do that was to get to San Marco. Rather than get a water taxi or bus or whatever they are, I decided to walk it, take in the sights.

It was a sweltering day and the streets were indeed crowded with tourists. Everyone complains about the tourists, but generally seem to forget that (unless they themselves are Venetian residents) that's exactly what they are themselves. I didn't and don't mind. By steering a course along the canal I hoped to make it into the Square. A sound plan that worked. Eventually I saw a glimmer of bright light at the end of the walkway. Just coming through the cramped alleyway with the space of the Square ahead of me was exhilarating. And then there it was, the Square threaded with queues and dotted with groups, and above all the Lion of the City on it's tall pillar. And of course as many as the tourists were those rats with wings, the pigeons. I was not tempted for one moment to stand foolishly with corn in my hand and on my forehead. God help this city if bird flu strikes.

Now assured of where I was I got a little lost on my way to the Guggenheim, but finding the Academia Galleria, I soon made it. It was not quite the revelation I was expecting. The Max Ernst stuff was marvellous ("Attirement of the Bride", for instance) and there was a nice Magritte, but I was a little underwhelmed. Fortunately there was any exhibition of pieces collected by the Italian, Mattioli, featuring many of the leading lights of the Italian Futurists. That really appealed, particularly Ballo's "Mercury passing before the Sun" and especially Boccioni's "Materia". Now there was a masterpiece.

While there I took a visit to the bathroom to check the time of departure on my ticket. It was ain a money belt I was wearing around my belly. Shocked me a little to find it wringing wet, the pages nearly stuck together, sweaty pig that I am. It looked a bit peculiar, but I spent the next five minutes drying it under the hand dryer. Anyhow time to go.

Next stop and Internet cafe to get my accommodation in Vienna sorted. Strangely I had to turn over my passport before they let me use a machine. Internet cafes were thin on the ground so I had to put up with that. Anyhow after a few hits and misses [I'm writing this on the train and I think I heard some Irish accents next door; why do I always get the non-English speakers! Germans to the left of me, Polish to the right, Chinese in front], I found what turned out to be the best hotel yet.

Now the problem with wasting hours in cafes is that you have to keep buying coffee or something, otherwise you're out. That's why churches are so cool. You can sit and sit, nursing your bad back, until you feel like leaving. My back, of course, was in bits. Too much walking as usual. I'd blame my shoes, but I fear it's actually my walk which is that of something between a duck and a very short stiltwalker. Eventually having gazed sufficiently at whatever was in my immediate vicinity, I decided to wander around San Stephano, I think. There was a little chapel off to one side with some very interesting paintings on the wall. Unfortunately it was a little too dark to see what I knew were some Tintorettos (well, the labels said so). Luckily at the drop of a 50 cent piece in a slot, God let there be light and a wonderful "Last Supper" by Tintoretto (and others it has to be said) was revealed. Really fine piece. There was a time when I disliked Tintoretto feeling his style was too crude. My last visit to Venice, his home city, changed that, especially after I visited the Gran Scuola di San Rocco. The place was plastered (sometimes literally) with Tintorettos. His style sunk in. It's as valid as Bronzino's, or indeed Picasso, or any major artist. I think he's building a little on Titian to an expect, but what do I know. One way or the other I like his work.

Plenty of time still, but I thought I'd head back to the Brek near the station where I had had lunch, have some dinner and reclaim my baggage. Although getting to San Marco had been easy, relatively speaking, getting back was a nightmare. There were no signs, as there had been for San Marco, to reaffirm you on your way to the station and aain and again I felt like I was going backwards. This is truly the city of alleyways, dead ends and false promised pathways; tip your hats Nice and Genoa. Anyhow to cut this long story short I made it.

Once upon a time I did the couchette thing when travelling to Budapest from Munich. I didn't get much sleep then (too many ticket collectors and passport checkers) and didn't expect to get much now, so I settled for a seat rather than a bed. There were a young Chinese couple and an Italian brother and sister (I guess, they looked like twins to me) in the compartment, while the sixth seat was alternately taken by two African men (the second one was up and down like a cat on a hot tin roof). There was not much room and the heat was almost unbearable. We had to keep the door open or we would have passed out, but this meant we got noise from the Aussies on one side of us and the really obnoxiously loud Germans on the other. I stuck on my headphones and ept them on. The others practically went to sleep from the beginning, but at 10.00 we finally turned the lights out. I stayed awake though. A star shone, the first I have noticed in weeks, and it seemed really comforting somehow, homely and familiar. Then the moon, which was full, shone doubly reflected in the double glazed glass of the window. The effect was of a triple moon, each nearer iteration a smaller, ghostlier version of the last.

It struck me that travelling by night I was going to miss the Alps. Just as this thought crossed my mind, huge shapes began to loom up outside the window. As I said, the moon was full and so the sky was a glowing blue, so the mountains were very apparent and at times glowed themselves in the moonlight. I felt a little privileged. The African beside me may have been awake, but I felt I was the only one to get this vision, and although the true glory of this mountain range can probably only be appreciated by day, I still felt grateful for sight. Tacky as always, I put on Brian Eno ("Apollo") and stared and stared. At one point we stopped at a station called Carnia and visions of a Volkswagen Aslan fluttered across my mind.

As we passed through the Alps (it seemed to last an hour or so), I noticed a slight drop in temperature. It was still uncomfortably hot, but there was a little edge of steel. Eventually I did doze off, waking briefly to heavy rain as we stopped in Salzburg. I knew then that the weather of Italy was now gone. Any tan I had accumulated would now as usual fade to albino white once more.

It was during the journey that I had my initial introduction to the Austrians and it was not auspicious. As expected around 1.00 or 1.30, with the compartment asleep or getting there, the lights suddenly go up as the ticket inspector arrives. And he wanted us to be sure he had arrived; a hearthy greeting had he! We had already had our tickets checked coming out of Verona, but I suppose Italy is suspected of too much inefficiency for that to suffice. One way or the other he wouldhave his tickets. In fact he insisted on waking up the brother for his ticket, despite the fact his sister had just given up. Sadistic so-and-so.

Arriving at 8.40, I had a while to wait before check-in, so again availing of the miracle of LEFT LUGGAGE, I decided to walk the city, unwashed, smelly and knackered. Getting the underground to Stephensplatz, I walked up the steps from the station prepared to be amazed. Vienna's Stephensplatz! The central square! I was a mite disappointed. Granted this was early morning on a week day, but it was small and empty, no buskers, no space, just one very big, slightly ugly cathedral. Remember I had just been to San Marco, and before that Piazza Bra, and before that the square beside the Theatro Felice in Genoa. As to cathedrals, I have had those coming out of my ears. As it happened this wasn't even one to while a while sitting down. With nothing better yet to do, I went in.

It is impressive and very much of the North rather than the Italian churches I had seen. However there really was nothing to see as it was all fenced in. Unless you went on a guided tour you couldn't get through the fence, and I really wasn't that bothered. I noticed on my way out that the devotional candles were 58 cents. 58 cents? Not 50, not 60, why 58? No doubt they didn't want to extort a single cent more than they needed to. Didn't Christ do something to the merchants in the temple?

I found the Film Museum (a classic Westerns retrospective was on), had a hotdog, then a coffee. Of course this is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart and Vienna is awash with stumbley gougers in period dress trying to flog tickets. Down Kartnerstrasse there was an office devoted to Mozart tickets, while just outside a stage had been erected for some sort of display of dance; salsa, Irish, waltz (I was tempted to show some of the turns I attempt at my 'school'). The gougers were everywhere, but I went into the official office to escape. Opera was out, all tickets sold. However, there was a special musical event the next night, where numerous venues around the city were hosting concerts, be they classical, jazz or pop in celebration. A ticket was just ten quid, which got you in to any event, so I got one.

By the way, hotdogs here are not like our sorry excuses for warm mutts. No slicing a roll and stuffing things in higgledy piggledy. Instead they take a fresh roll, cut the top off and spear it on a metal spike. They put the ketchup and mustard in the hole before stuffing the sausage in. Then like a lemon wedge on your drink, they nick the top of the sausage and wedge in the top of the roll. No onions, I'm afraid. Anyhow after spending hours learning these mysterious arts, I reclaimed my luggage and made it to my hotel.

The room was huge, clean and comfortable, with a big bathroom and bath. Internet access was free (though I rarely had time to use it) and all in all I was impressed. It had everything! I suppose the staff could have been happier, but then that's their business.

After all my travelling I took a rest that first day, going out for something to eat and then on for a pint in one of the local Irish bars, Flanagan's. Of all the Irish bars I have been in, this probably best looks the part and it seems authentically busy, not just a tourist pub. It has its regulars too. However, a very obviously non-Irish girl tried to pour a Guinness in one go. I hate to be nosey, but this offended me and I mentioned it to another bar girl who seemed genuinely shocked. Nasty me.

On my way back I saw that across the street from the hotel, an innocuous looking cafe by day had suddenly tranformed into something slightly more tacky. A red light had gone on inside, neon lips blared on the sign and a black woman at the door kept whistling over to me to come in. I am sorry to say I declined the invitation. As I said my hotel had everything!

On Saturday I took a trip to the KunstHaus Wein (that's a gallery), but before I did that there was one very important thing I had to do. In the Prater (a park) is a huge and very old ferris wheel. In "The Third Man", it is on this ferris wheel that orson Welles discusses art and the cuckoo clock. I had to go on it and I did. Outside of a great view there's not much to be said for it, but it was one of those things to tick off before I die. Anyway, back to the KunstHaus Wien. There was an exhibition of the work of H.R. Giger, the designer of "Alien", etc.. Also in the gallery was a permanent exhibition of the work of the Viennese artist, Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser's work occupies the first two floors and it should be said he also designed the building (and others for that matter, including Vienna's main incineration facility). Architecturally he is a cross between Piet Mondrian and Gaudi. He was greatly involved in Green issues and this inspires his "Tree Tenants", trees growing within the building and occupying the windows. His paintings are immediately endearing, full of colour and humanity, but after a while the repetition of motifs etc. starts to get a little wearing. There are always beautiful, but artistic? The hoary old question of "What is art?" crossed my mind again and again. I think ultimately he was a great designer, but not a great artist, but then how can I say this when I can look at a Renaissance artist like Tintoretto and hail him as an artist, when it is predominantly the beauty that appeals in his case. Art means more than just beauty (and often is not even characterised by beauty). What an artist should convey beyond mere mastery of his/her craft (which is a huge matter in itself) is something more challenging, an intellectual or emotional wisdom that fires from their humanity to ours. To be fair, Hundertwasser does this occasionally, and so does Tintoretto, but it is again something beyond mere mastery and indeed can sometimes not even require mastery. I am writing glibly. Now and here is not when and where to be discussing this properly.

Coming from the bright hope of Hundertwasser to Giger, should, and to an extent is, a tremendous shock. The perversity evident in almost all Giger's work, coupled with the darkness of the vision is arresting. However, there is very little development in his work. As early as 1964, elements of the Alien (1979) are apparent. It's very obvious stuff too. "Hell's Angels" features a host of bikers being menaced by winged demons. Grotesque babies are common whether as bullets in a biomechanical gun, or as bloated monsters (liked the masked creatures in Gilliam's "Brazil"), while tortured female bodies (even down to his illustrations of De Sade) are everywhere. It is not for nothing, as one of the exhibits shows us, that he had a show hosted by Penthouse. Having said all that though, it is all startling stuff. Walking by the (larger than) life size alien statue on display is especially unnerving (you still expect it to bite). Were it not for the incorporation of technology in his work ('Biomechanics'), I would say he was made to illustrate Lovecraft, and indeed one painting called, "Lovecraft and his Pets", indicates the commonality of the two minds. I would love to see him do this. Lovecraft too was obsessed with the alien aspects of sex, but he sublimated it to an unrecognisable degree. With Giger it's all on the surface. There are a number of pieces, "Passages", that break this preoccupation to an extent. Apparently inspired by garbage trucks, Giger made a series of paintings nearly twenty years ago, but more recently has made sculpted metal versions. Even here he links them to birth, but his reference to them as gates of Hell are more accurate. They shouldn't intimidate, but they do.

I don't think Giger is in any way a great artist, but I am grateful for his vision. Outside of Bacon, I cannot think of anyone who comes close to the individuality of his work. It is calculated to shock (Giger is an avowed showman), but I'm glad it's around.

Hours later I made my way back towards Stephensplatz via some apartments designed by Hundertwasser. Apparently tourists called upon the tenants so much asking to see inside that Hundertwasser had to design a shopping centre opposite the apartments for the public to view. It also features the World's First Modern Art Toilet, though I did not feel the need to pee. Travelling on I happened to pass MAK. This is mainly a museum of decorative arts, not something I usually rush to see, but the interesting thing here is that a number of artists were invited to design the actually display of the artifacts, ordering the rooms and the means by which items were shown (Collins Barracks take note!). This creates a context that makes things that little bit more interesting for me. I had intended to go the next day, but noticed that today it had free admittance, so swallowing my back pain (there again), I braved it out.

Some rooms work, some don't, but it was a pleasant hour or two. In the basement there was a piece on the immaterial architecture proposed by Yves Klein. He wanted to use air, water and fire to construct our living environments. For instance instead of roofs, jets of air should be used to protect against the weather. It was interesting for all that it was ludicrous. There might be something in it somewhere. Actually it got my mind thinking on energy generation.... Anyhow I wanted to eat in a Jewish sandwich restaurant called Trzesniewski's. Of course, I'd forgotten about Sabbath and it was closed by the time I got there. Instead I crossed the alley from its door to a small Viennese establishment. Very nice. Minced liver dumpling in a beef broth to start and then boiled rump steak Viennese style with rosti. The potato came on a plate with two dishes of sauce, while the beef was in a broth in its own bowl. I ignorantly began eating as the beef from the bowl until the waitress pointed out I should put the sauce dishes on the table and take the beef from the bowl to the plate. Once my blush abated I enjoyed the meal. The beer was great too.

I went back for a rest before my concert. Given my liking for classical and the night that was in it, you would expect me to attend a Mozart recital. But no! Far from it. The Irish pop performer, David Kitt, was playing in the Ost Bar. I do not know much of his stuff, but he was promoting a new album, so I didn't think it would matter. One way or the other, I wanted to party a little.

The Viennese opening act, Vivian Mumblemumblemumble, looked a little like Val Kilmer in drag. Unfortunately she also performed a little like him, even down to a diva like bow after each song. Strangely enough although she introduced each song in German, she sang in English. The next act was Jape (Richard Egan, I think), a member of David Kitt's band and a performer in his own right. He really enjoyed himself on stage, taking technical hiccups in his stride, and put in a great show. However, his lyrics are a little weak ("One apple, one plum, one pair...of lady's legs") and his music is a little sub-Moby-ish. Still as I say he put on a decent show and I chatted briefly with him after the show. Nice chap. Then David Kitt and band were on. The iPod with all the backing tracks had been robbed at the airport (I learnt this from the drummer later), so they had to play the set traditionally! As a five piece (sometimes six piece) band! I can honestly say, outside of one or two of the slow songs ("Saturdays" springs to mind), none of it really sank in. However, I can also honestly say they put on a great show and I did enjoy it. The place was packed and I was by the wall with a good view of the stage; when two girls on a seat beside me left I stood up on the seat and got an even better view. The downside was that I was unable to leave my place for a second drink the whole show; I thirstily got one afterwards. After that, as I left I met the drummer and congratulated him on their performance. As it happens he studied in the Ballyfermot Rock School studying under Dave Murphy of The International fame. Sorry to say I just made my way home then.

The next day I took a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The first thing to say is that it is an incredible building, impressive on the outside, breathtaking on the inside. The painting collection, on one side Italian/Spanish, on the other German/Dutch is very rich too. Something for everybody from Rubens (of whom I am not a fan) to Pieter Brueghel (of whom I am; his paintings are wonderful). There really is a lot there, though the tourist groups with the loud-mouth guides were a little distracting. I could barely walk by the time I got to the Roman and Greek antiquities, with which I spent only a little time. I had half a chicken somewhere, stumbled up to the Rathaus to take a look (yeah big building, very baroque; isn't that a carnival set up outside) and then crawled home. I emerged after frantic Internet searching for my next destination to eat again, searched some more and went to bed. I had considered Switzerland, Innsbruck in Austria, but in the end wanting to get to Scandanavia, I decided to get the night train to Berlin, stay a day or two (I'll be coming back here next week) and then head on.

Through the miracle of LEFT LUGGAGE, this meant I had an extra day in Vienna. More museums!

There is a very enjoyable exhibition on the life of Mozart in the Albertina, though the audio guide is essential. The differences between his life and the life depicted in the film, "Amadeus" (he never called himself Amadeus, instead he used Amadei; and his first name wasn't Wolfgang, it was Johannes, though he did use Wolfgang), are striking. What was left out even more so. For instance, at one point he went with his mother to Paris. She basically lived alone barely leaving her room and barely seeing her son, until, after a sudden illness, she died. Mozart couldn't tell his father and in a letter written the day she died, pretended she had just fallen ill. At least in part he was preparing his father for the shock, and he told him about his deceit a week or so later. That's strong stuff for a young man (remember he died when he was 35 or so; this was in his very early twenties, I think). He gambled, lived beyond his means and had a big grudge against the abuses of the aristocracy.

I am no fan of Gainsborough, but there was a striking portrait of one Thomas Linley and his sister that surprised me. Linley was a child prodigy like Mozart, but a violinist. They became friends, but Linley died at 22 in a boating accident. Right in the middle of all the exhibits there was some pornography based on the works of De Sade, though it never made it clear just what this had to do with anything. Hell, do they need a reason?

Because it was Monday, I could try Trzesniewski's after all. Basically it's a buffet where you choose from a range of small egg and something (pepperoni, herring, liver) sandwiches. It is an awful lot more delectable than it sounds and very famous. Naturally it was packed, but I got a pepperoni, herring, prawn, chicken liver, herring and onion and something else, all in egg, sandwiches with a small (very small) beer for around 6 euro. They were very, very good. If you're in Vienna, try it; just off the Graben.

Easier in my soul, well, stomach, I set off for the Museum Quarter wanting to see the Modern Art gallery (MOMUK). The day was beautiful and the Museum square was crowded. Again Dublin should take note. Scattered around were huge red, padded 'C's (well, far more angular than that) on which people were lounging. There was a 'summer's day at the university' atmosphere to it all (before the university shuts, of course). Unfortunately MOMUK was shut, but the Leopold Museum was open, a gallery with the largest collection of Schiele in the world. In many ways the place is depressing. There is a wealth of beautiful works inside, including pieces by Klimt, but learning about some of these Viennese artists and their works is sad.

Despite some incredible work, Schiele was at one point arrested, accused of corrupting minors (it didn't go into this too much). Klimt was commissioned to paint paintings for the new university. One of them, "Medicine", was decried by the teaching staff and in the end he had to resign his commission. Then the painting (they have a black and white reproduction on the wall, and a small colour test piece) was destroyed in a fire in 1945 (what they didn't say was that it was in a castle burnt by retreating SS). If ever there was a masterpiece it would have been that painting. It was stupendous; huge, stunning, very much of its time, but mystical. And there were two others, "Philosophy" and "Jurisprudence", also destroyed. Schiele, Klimt and Kolomon Moser all died in 1918. Schiele at 28 died of Spanish Flu having survived the First World War. Klimt (in his 50's, I think) had a stroke (Wikipedi says it was Spanish Flu in its article on "Medicine"). I don't know what happened to Moser (though Wikipedia again claims Spanish Flu). Another artist, Richard Gerstl, killed himself aged 25 after an affair with the composer Schoenberg's wife.

After the Schiele and Klimt, there was a fantastic exhibition on images of women from 1600 to the present. Very varied.

By the way, have I at any time said that Vienna is a beautiful city? Well, it is. Not only that it is a living city, full of living, working, recognisable people. There is a culture specific to Vienna, not culture with a capital 'C', but the culture of an active community. In some ways it is like Dublin, though far superior, of course (except with regard to food, where Dublin's variety is always appealing). Anyhow I liked it.

I had some paella, beer and a herring sandwich and went off to the station. I started on my blog too late to really write anything, hence the first part of this piece, but on the train I had until my battery died to make up for lost time. The trip as before was a hot and crowded one. No Alps to keep me awake this time, just seats specially engineered to leave you in excruciating, though drowsy, agony. Going to the bathroom I noticed one compartment had only a Japanese couple, another two lads drinking, so why was my compartment uncomfortably full. Then a possible answer hit me; when asked 'Smoking or non-smoking', I would have automatically said 'Non-smoking'; all the other compartments were for smokers. All us non-smokers were stuffed together. Painful.

Without much sleep I arrived in Berlin at 8.00. LEFT LUGGAGE saved me once more, though this time I had laundry to do. I asked in the Tourist Office for the whereabouts of one, but all the guy behind the desk knew was of one in his local area. It was only when I got there that I discovered it was just over a stone's throw from my hotel.

Just to make a note of how to treat a new city; firstly I got rid of the luggage, then I ate breakfast, bought the map, got the travel pass and then as quickly as possible started using it. First impressions of this huge city are very favourable.

I am now showered, settled and laundry done; the smell has gone. I am a clean, refreshed man!

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Monday, September 11, 2006

The Lion, the Itch and the Volkswagen

I got bitten on the arm the night of that last entry resulting in a nipple on my arm, complete with auriole and very itchy teat. Even now the teat is pretty excited.

Anyhow a comment on Italian women; the sun is too cruel to them. Sure as twentysomethings they radiant a sunshine all of their own, Mamma Mia, so they do, but it is at a price. As they pass thirty the skin begins to dry and though the bodies may still amaze, those faces start to get a little scary sometimes. I think that's why you get the 'Fat Mammas'; the fat pads out those wrinkles, keeping youth going that much longer. Do I seem a little misogynistic? I've been misanthropic so many years it is only a mild specialisation. But still I do not mean to be cruel, just a little observational.

(This German keyboard is driving me mad).

Anyhow I decided to spend a day in Venice followed by a night train to Vienna (Verona, Venice, Vienna; Victory!). I will not have a bad word said against Venice. Despite all the tourists it is an amazing city. I felt it right and proper given that the Film Festival was on that I be there, though I had no clue where in Venice it was and never saw any indication of it.

The train was packed naturally enough and when I got off I went for some food (a trend developing hey?). I met three Cork girls just there from Slovenia.

Gotta go train due.