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Australia Day

Every January a holiday comes around that unites a nation under a banner of drinking, partying, firework–watching fun. It’s Australia Day, celebrated on January 26, and while it doesn’t have the overt historical significance of some other nations’ patriotism–inducing holidays (it commemorates Captain Phillip’s arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788, but nobody actually knows that) it’s every Aussie’s favorite excuse to plaster themselves in temporary tattoos and wear a skirt made from the Australian flag. From the government’s website on the matter:

On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation.

It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.

As you can see, we don’t give a damn about Captain Phillip and his boatload of convicts; beer is the significant part of our culture we’re interested in reflecting on. Hey, it’s Summer and it’s a public holiday, what else are you going to do?

We may have been on the wrong side of the international date line, making our January 26 more in sync with Australia’s January 27; we may have been on the wrong side of the equator, making our shorts, wifebeater, and flip–flop–clad holiday unseasonably cold; we may have been holed up in the cozy little hamlet of Hagerstown in the snow, making us the only Australians for fifty miles in any direction; and we may have had limited access to what passes for Australian beer (don’t believe what they tell you, nobody actually drinks Fosters down under); but we intended to make it a memorable Australia Day nonetheless. After stocking up on snaggers (sausages), bread, the requisite ingredients for lamingtons and pavlova, and a few cases of Fosters, we thought we might be able to give it a decent shot. Our new Hagerstonian friends were invited, culturally significant desserts were prepared, and Triple J’s sixteen–hours–too–early webcast of the Hottest 100 (live from the Big Day Out) was audio–hijacked to my laptop for later playback… ensuring a genuine experience.

I’d say it was a success. The photos tells the rest.


New York City

OK Manhattan, even though you probably didn’t need it, you have another fan. I really dig you, and even though I’ve described other cities like Santa Monica as “the kind of place I could live” and Vancouver as “the kind of place I’d like to live”, I’m ready to describe you as “the kind of place I want to live”. See the difference? Want. From the Lincoln Tunnel to the Brooklyn Bridge, from the Upper West Side to Staten Island, you have impressed me.

Of course, you have your flaws. For one, your weather is atrocious; hot and muggy in summer and bitter cold in winter? That’s not the kind of thing that floats my boat, but I’ll overlook it because you’re just so beautiful. Your other problem, aside from the panhandlers which I would never see at home but have come to expect from almost every city in America, is the subway. Sure, it’s great; you can go anywhere at practically any time quickly and easily, but what’s with the fee system? If I travel three blocks by rail for all of ninety seconds, it’s $2. Then if (after running a 5 minute errand) I want to get home again on the subway it’s another $2. On the flipside I can die aboard a subway car and ride the rails for five days without incurring a cost any greater than two bucks.

For two dollars you can ride anywhere you like —anywhere— as long as you stay below ground, which might be great for the commuters and the mole people, but is in no way convenient to the common surface dweller. I’d like to see you tweak your system, adopting characteristics of the Paris model (where your flat–rate metro card buys you a certain amount of timespace to travel within… so you only need one ticket to run that errand across town) or the Washington DC model (where the cost of your ride is dependent on the distance you’ve traveled… calculated by the exit turnstiles and debited from your metro card on your way out). Your citizens aren’t morons, you don’t need a system so simplistic that it costs a guy like me $10 per day in subway fares just to see the city. You can do better.

Aside from that, though, you’re a gem. Some great bars, great sights, great people, landmarks, libraries, museums, and musicals. Times Square, Broadway, Central Park, and the Met — wow. Most of all I was surprised by how friendly and helpful the locals were — everyone in the world still sees New York as the place it was ten years ago, a place crawling with vermin and thugs, a place you don’t look other people in the eye — but it’s just not like that. The old stories may hang around to haunt you for a long time, but you’ll outlive them. You’re a beautiful town with a lot to see. Good luck with that 2012 Olympics bid.


Paris

This city’s motto, as far as I can tell, is “drive where you can, park where you want”. I’m not kidding. If you want to see the craziest shit on the road, just head to the Arc de Triomphe and watch two hundred people navigate a gigantic, unmarked, and completely uncontrolled roundabout with their bare wits. No lights, no signs, no turn signals, no etiquette. In the words of one Frenchman, “you just drive… and you watch the other people’s eyes to see where they’re going next”. If the city’s cobbled streets weren’t lined with steel fenceposts, drivers would just mount the sidewalk to get around traffic. Enough motorcyclists do it… if cars could fit through I bet they’d try.

Parking… now there’s something even crazier. From what I’ve seen, I’m just going to assume that European cars’ wheels can rotate a full 90º to get in and out of parking spots. Cars are loaded less than an inch apart, bumper to bumper, filling both sides of the street. Over crosswalks, around corners, wherever they can fit; but if you can’t parallel park, don’t even think about it. The great thing about it is that there are SMART cars everywhere; tiny, quiet, and fuel efficient. If everyone in Paris drove one there might even be enough space for people to park normally. Instead, we see these tiny cars taking advantage of situations no mortal man should ever face: parked perpendicular to the sidewalk pushing out no further than those other parallel–park schmucks, fitting into a space you’d expect was once occupied by a motorcycle.

It’s a grand old town though, and it makes you understand why so many people see it as the center of the universe. Wandering around the inner city, through identical streets lined with identical apartments footed by boutique after boutique after boutique, it looks like the French only bother doing commerce with themselves. I know I’ve said the same thing about Koh Samui, but to run through Paris is like running through the streets of Bedrock: the backdrop is on a constant loop… Boulangerie, Pharmacie, Boucherie, Supermarché, Patisserie, and back to the beginning. Meanwhile the CBD, where most cities are at their busiest and most crowded, is way out of the way and probably deserted; walking up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe is about as close as you’re ever likely to come if you have no business there.

The Eiffel Tower — now there’s something surprising. You’ve seen its silhouette a thousand times over, and if your TV tells any truth at all it’s visible from every window in Paris (hint: your TV is a jerk), but until you’ve seen it in person and climbed its massive frame with your sore and aching legs you just haven’t experienced it. Here’s a quick game for those of you playing along at home: first, build a mental picture of how large you imagine the tower to be… now triple that. You’re done. Measures of the height and weight of steel and paint used in its construction offer literally nothing for your mind to work with; it’s fucking huge, and it deserves its status amongst the world’s most recognizable landmarks.


Likewise (though not nearly as recognizable from the outside), the Louvre is a monstrous warehouse of sculpture and painting and artifact. We did the Louvre in a day and left a great deal unseen, but I’m willing to accept that defeat with the knowledge that I’ll be back in Paris one day to give the Louvre the attention it deserves. Like every group of tourists, we hit the Mona Lisa as quickly as possible. Sure, we detoured a little to see the Venus de Milo along the way, taking ample time to ogle other da Vincis and Santis and whatnot through the Denon wing (John the Baptist… what a guy), but I’m glad to say I took my sweet–ass time with the Lisa. Having the height advantage over the crowd I could afford to stop and stare while the throng ahead of me took their snapshots and moved on, and it really is an impressive work of art despite everyone’s complaints that it’s “too small”. Well done, Leonardo, way to not be confined by the “recommended” size of the average masterpiece. The pervert in me, like most other people’s pervert, adores Cupid and Psyché. It’s a sexy, sexy sculpture and more than one person I’ve chatted to has labeled it their out–and–out favorite; so I’m willing to do the same. The volume of art this place houses is quite simply ridiculous, and while I saw a hell of a lot of awesome sculpture in its halls I’ll just give Cupid and Psyché the blue ribbon and be done with it… for brevity’s sake.

Notre Dame, the Seine, the Trocadero, it’s all great stuff. We missed a great deal, too —mostly due to time constraints and a desire not to be bankrupted by this city— but as I said: I’ll be back some day. I regret nothing of my time here and have left with a taste for more; even if it’s the last place on Earth I’d ever choose to live. Paris out.


Amsterdam

I wish I could dedicate more space to Amsterdam —more words in the weblog, more photographs in the photolog— but alas; it’s difficult to talk about a place like this without messing with everybody’s already–soiled reputations and without damaging your delicate sensibilities. See, I’m doing this for your own good.

In a city where hash and magic mushrooms are sold over the counter in broad daylight, where cocaine and ecstasy are dealt in darkened alleyways by shady fucks in deep hoods, and where all the sickest erotica in the world (read: scat, animals, rape) is on display in broad shop windows for your perusal, anything goes. Hookers dance in the windows of their rented ‘fuck vestibules’ in what must be the most demeaning selection process of all time as doormen yell from the steps of sex theaters to uncomfortable–looking tourists, calling “come on boys, get it over with, live sex show! Next one starts in five minutes, see a girl smoking a cigar with her pussy!”.

What a fucking place.

We stayed in the red light district, which is either a great idea or a terrible idea depending on your taste, and trudged our way through its dodgy streets every night coming home (and coming down) from our daily exploits. There’s nothing so disconcerting as having a tiny Dutch man shuffle up and whisper “cocaine?” into your ear, especially when you’ve been told to fear for your wallet, but you slowly get used to it. The cocks and tits and cum and cunts in the windows start becoming peripheral, and you become desensitized. In short: if you aren’t stoned all the time this place will take your soul. That’s why we’re here, after all… it’s the infamous Amsterdam red light district.

Basically, everything you’ve ever been told about the place is true.

Of course, we did some things that might be considered “normal” for tourists —things like the Heineken Experience and the Van Gogh Museum— but I’ll bring this entry to a close with a few simple words of advice: go and see a sex show, if only because you’ve been told to by more influential people than me to do so, but go with the knowledge that you’ll be watching what is essentially somebody’s mother being fucked by a big fat man. And laugh.


Munich

Germany, Germany, Germany… we got off to such a great start. My compatriots and I arrived quite by accident on the last day of Carnivale, surprised to see crowds of drunken Germans frolicking in the confetti–littered streets and pleased to see things had come down in price since the wallet–raping Paris and Amsterdam experience, but it wasn’t to last.

The apparently–spontaneous brass band singalong in the bierhaus was awesome, and the beer that I had once sampled in Australia and found disgustingly salmony was positively delicious poured from the keg instead of a can; its foamy head piled high like too much detergent in the dishwater. The €1 bockwurst–in–a–bun (I believe the rest of the world calls it a hot dog) was a great way to start the next day, and the cityscape stretched out ahead of us as we stood atop the tower of Peter’s Altar and waited for The Glockenspiel’s midday performance.

Then things turned bad.

OK, so The Glockenspiel wasn’t that great. Big deal. It was five minutes late for its own performance and sounded a little out of tune, but hey — really really really old glockenspiel. I’m a forgiving man. But coming back to my room at Jaeger’s Hotel to find my locker open and my iPod, video camera, and cell phone missing… now that’s worth a fuck.

Fuck.

Robbed. Stolen. Pilfered. Gone is my beloved Bailey, the long–serving iPod once signed by Sarah McLachlan; gone is my trusty digital camcorder with its seven fucking hours of holiday footage stored on seven mini–DV cassettes; gone is the Me First and the Gimme Gimmes live CD I bought after we missed their show in DC; and gone is Wiggles, my handy first mate, my Bluetooth–enabled T68i bought solely for the purpose of exploiting iSync back when iSync was something new and cool. The hardware can be replaced, the insurance company will see to that, and the data on Bailey and Wiggles can be restored from my computer (which was, thankfully, in my backpack and on my back at the time), but those seven hours of footage spanning two months of American holiday adventure? That’s gone. Gone gone.

Thanks a bunch, Munich. I’m going to Switzerland.


Dear easyInternetCafé

OK baby, I know you’re easy; you’re open 24 hours a day for god’s sake, and in all my life I’ve never even met a woman so easy (if I had I’d be married by now), so as far as internet convenience stores go you’re as easy as they come. Easy is your first name (even though it isn’t capitalized… which makes me suspect you’re a Java function), and until 7–Eleven hops the pond and offers 24–hour internet access right next to the Slurpee machine you’re pretty much the queen of European internet cafés, so love it while it lasts. All I have to do is pop a couple of euro into your slot and you print me a note with a passcode on it; then I sit at one of your nicely–specced XP PCs with a 15" LCD and enter that passcode to be given timed access to the internet. I like how you operate.

But you know who I like to see operate even more? My laptop. She’s been sitting in my backpack crying her eyes out since I arrived in Europe because you and your buddies just don’t believe in Wi–Fi. I had my way with you in Amsterdam and Munich, but I ached for something more; knowing that if I wanted to write a really long email from one of your terminals I could just buy more time, but why the fuck would I? Webmail sucks! I have a laptop, and because of that simple fact I’m prone to drafting my longwinded emails as I sit on boring and webless train rides between coutries… whiling away the time with words. But you don’t have Wi–Fi (even though it’d be trivial to add a wireless router to your setup with the same login/logout web interface that services the rest of your network) and you probably never will. Heck, that gigantic room of yours in Munich with its 200+ PCs had access to a wireless network… it just wasn’t yours!

But hey, I can understand why you might resent my little PowerBook. You hate her because I write my emails and blog posts with her before I even walk through your door… and in the end I only spend five minutes transmitting with you until our next meeting. You’re the mistress and she’s the wife, I get my love from her and my satisfaction from you, she’s the eggs and you’re the bacon, she rocks the cradle while you rock the party… OK, that’s enough.

So what’s with the USB?

My first instinct was to write up my emails and posts on the lappy and then transfer them via thumbdrive —much as I did in Thailand— to use and abuse the USB port you offered by cutting and pasting into various web interfaces, minimizing my time online. But no, that big ol’ USB port doesn’t help me one bit; it was a trick. I can’t get to it because you’ve locked down access to all the mounted volumes. With brains like that, I’m guessing your next upgrade will offer customers optical drives… just without the means to read or write anything to CD. You tease me with your universal serial bus and then you just shut it off? What kind of person does that? That’s like going out of your way to avoid offering wireless because you’re trying to get back at me for… oh. You’re pissed about the laptop, aren’t you? OK then. Well I guess this is it then. Goodbye, have a nice life, thanks for ensuring my readers and email correspondents receive all their shit with a nice three–week delay, guaranteeing the blog posts from New York, Paris, Amsterdam, and Munich all get posted on the same day, basically voiding the whole experience of travel–blogging. Bitch. It’s over.


Lucerne

Ah, Switzerland; home of banks, cheese, clocks, chocolate, armies, and their feature–creep knives. Famously neutral, it’s the only country on this leg of our trip not yet part of the European Union (meaning we have to convert our physical and mental currencies again) and (for reasons beyond my understanding or desire to research) doesn’t even have its own language, instead opting for an anarchic mish–mash of the French, Italian, and German tongues. Plus, if you overlay the Swiss and Red Cross flags you get a pink flag… and pink flags are hard to come by.

Our train from Munich took us through some of the most incredible countryside I’ve ever seen, wending its way through mountains and picturesque snow–covered villages along the trail to Lucerne. I won’t say “prepare to be amazed” when you check out the photolog (not that I’ve updated it) because I’ve learned that photographs do absolutely no justice to things of such magnitude. Mountains, no matter how well you shoot them (and we didn’t shoot them that well… we were behind glass in a moving train), just don’t look very big. And they are big. They’re huge. Mountains are all about the huge.

Lucerne is a lungful of fresh air: a mountain town with no skyscrapers or big tourist attractions to speak of, but breathtakingly beautiful in its own right. Lake Lucerne is a crystal clear mirror set below the mount Pilatus, brimming with aquatic life. As the lake draws into the river Reuss the water’s clarity —surprising enough after seeing the rest of the world’s waterways— lets you spy fish loitering below, and above the surface the ducks and swans (white swans, an amusing novelty to we Western Australians accustomed to our own special black variety) glide around the place looking charming. The air is brisk, though certainly not cold, and the buildings and cobbled streets of the 15th–Century ‘Old Town’ give it a fairytale feel in a way that the sprawling metropolis of Paris could never match despite their many similarities.

Much of the town center is clearly geared towards tourists —despite what I said about a lack of tourist attractions— where the streets are dotted with more jewelers, knife shops, and chocolatiers than the locals could ever make use of. If I regret anything of my reluctance to shop too heavily for souvenirs in a place like this, it’s passing over multiple opportunities to buy a glass music box. Through the glass the miniature clockwork machinery is visible in all its intricacy, the engineering and the workmanship just gorgeous, though reminding me a little too sternly of Paley’s analogy of the watch. But hey, this isn’t a holiday for religious philosophy or regrets; as I said in Paris, I’ll be back.

Lucerne does have one tourist attraction though (and I mean besides the cleanliness, location, architecture, and scenery): the Lion Monument. Dubbed “the saddest chunk of rock in the world”, it’s a gargantuan sculpture of a slain and tearful lion built in memory of the Swiss mercenaries perished during the French Revolution. Set high into a sheer sandstone cliff face, the scale (as usual) is difficult to capture on film. It’s just huge… and lions, like mountains, are all about the huge; it adds to their majesty. The story goes (or so I’m told) that the artist commissioned to sculpt the piece was not paid the agreed sum at the work’s end, so he vandalized the inset to resemble a pig’s silhouette. Giant lion, spears, shields, death, pig frame. With respect to the spear tearing through his rib cage, methinks the real reason the lion is so sad is that he’s deep in the belly of a huge freaking swine; I can think of much better places to die.

In short, Lucerne was a great place to get some fresh air and is certainly the kind of place you’d want a summer house when you need to unwind. Kind of like Perth… except it’s landlocked and one twentieth the size. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, the people speak three to five languages, they have great chocolate, and you’re never short of places to buy clocks and knives. What more could you want?


Life without iPod

I’m not sure exactly how I managed to get through life pre–iPod, but I assume the void I’m feeling now is the kind of feeling smokers get when they kick the habit… just without any physical withdrawal. It’s a social withdrawal, kind of like breaking up with a girlfriend; you wonder how you’re supposed to fill up your day without her and stumble about aimlessly as you see all your friends enjoying themselves with their little white girlfriends playing music into their ears.

Most often, I’ll be walking along the street and a song will pop into my head for no reason —let’s say O Sole Mio, since it’s been in and out of my head since we arrived in Italy— and I’ll feel like listening to it… but the option is gone. Or Dave will ask how part of an old song we used to play would go, and I have no way of finding out. Or I’ll be on a train writing a style sheet and I’ll have forgotten the syntax for some obscure and poorly–supported selector before reaching into my pocket for WestCIV’s CSS podguide only to find… nothing. It blows, it really blows.


Venice

Our first of three major (and two one minor) stops in Italy is the city best known for its ridiculous network of canals and its unique blinds. Venice, a city that, despite a lack of roads, has cars on display in several of the larger piazzas. Brilliant marketing strategy Subaru: drive the message home in a place where there’s absolutely no competition. It’s like advertising a texas steakhouse on a fishing boat; when you’re out to sea you’re in no position to be eating t–bones in a saloon, but once you’re sick of the fish you’ll know exactly where to go.

Venice is… kind of what you figured it would be. There are canals, obviously, and the opportunity for gondola riding is always present, and there are Italians everywhere; what more did you expect? The boutiques are amazing, the markets even more so, the couples making out on every damned bridge over every damned canal a tad enviable, and the architecture… oh, the architecture. The buildings are simply superb, and the Basilica di San Marco (Saint Mark… as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is a jaw–dropper. Any institution, particularly a church, that wasted this kind of money on a building today would be lambasted, and twelve hundred years ago I’m surprised the poor didn’t rise up to behead the cardinals behind this kind of misallocation of funds. Something about the opiate of the masses, I’m guessing, but this building remains impressive nonetheless. It’s a gigantic church essentially built to house a saint’s remains (brought to Italy in a barrel of pork, dontchaknow) decorated with the most elaborate mosaics ever contrived by man. A few billion tiles arranged to decorate, well, the entire building, whilst doubling as a place of worship and an art museum.

Before this trip I was never sure I’d want to see too many of the world’s churches. Come to think of it, I doubt I would ever have been too big on the world’s museums either, but churches and museums have been my bread and butter for the last two months. Since Washington DC I have seen some of the most amazing shit in the world in some of the best–known museums in the world, with more to come, and have loved every minute of it. The church experience began in Paris with Notre Dame, whose magnificence lies mostly in its stained glasswork, but Italy takes worship to whole new places. And this is just Venice; I wasn’t expecting this kind of thing until, well, Rome. Vatican City seems an eternity from now.