Sunday, August 30, 2009

I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille

Arriving in London, I had several goals; some more geeky than others:

  1. To find and explore the Borough Market
  2. To attend the filming of an episode of Market Kitchen
  3. To meet the Queen
  4. To see a musical or two (Avenue Q being my main goal in London
  5. To eat at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant ‘15’

Many of you know of my love of cooking, as well as my near obsession with the Food Network back in New Zealand. So on my very first day in London I decided that I would try and find the Borough Market. I’m about achievable goals, as all I had to do was ask somebody at the assistance desk in the Underground. So I took the underground to London Bridge where it was only a short walk to the most magical place I had ever seen.

Okay sure, that’s possibly an exaggeration (I have been to Disneyland after all), but it was exactly as I had hoped it would be – fishmongers chopping the he heads off fish as I walked past, advertising the catch of the day at the top of their lungs, butchers with signs advertising cold wild game pies and the recommended cut of the day, stalls of wonderfully fresh fruit and vegetables that looked as though they belonged in a food magazine. This was a huge step up from the farmers’ market in Wellington on Sundays; there wasn’t a crappy yellow crate or dodgy basket of rotten food to be seen. They took care of their produce here, and it showed.

I spent some time wandering the market planning what I would buy if I had somewhere to cook it, when I stumbled upon a cooking demonstration for Market Kitchen. I suddenly lost my composure. “I love this show!” I stupidly exclaimed far louder than was necessary. Of course the chef heard me, and without looking suggested that I didn’t actually love the show and that I was, for some reason, lying.

“No really, I love this show – I watch it all the time back home!”.


“Yes – it’s the main reason I came to the Borough Market”

“Where are you from?”

“New Zealand”

“I use to live in New Zealand!”

And that’s how I got to be on tv.

The chef (Arthur Pottsdawson – I found out later that he was the Exec Chef and good friends with Jamie Oliver) and I talked for about 20 minutes or so on life in Wellington, the weather, the Borough market, and the best way to cook Watercress (the last being almost completely one-sided), and then he asked if I would like to be filmed tasting the soup afterwards and maybe go along to the filming of an episode of Market Kitchen. I said yes.

I spent the best part of an hour watching them film the five minute segment for the show while I mentally prepared myself for the world’s introduction to me. I totally nailed my segment (first time), and managed to eat a fair bit of soup in the process (watercress and cheese toastie – surprisingly delicious).

After my brush with fame, I went and explored Sillfield Farm Butchers at the market, where everything they sell is farmed and processed organically on their own farm. This place had some of the most delicious looking meats that I had ever seen – pheasant and venison sausages, two year old prosciutto, cold meat pies and all kinds of game birds that would never be seen at a butchers in Wellington. There I met and discussed farming methods and the benefits of slow food with the owner of the butchery, Peter. What this guy doesn’t know about meat probably isn’t worth knowing.

It was here that I tasted my first pork pie. Delicious.

I also spent some time at the cider stall where the owner looked and sounded like he’d just gotten off a cart from Cornwall.

I must have spent four hours at that market. But they were four wonderful hours. I’ll never look at the market at Te Papa the same again.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Eurostar: You're a Star

The Chunnel is a tunnel under the English Channel.  You can get between Paris and London in 2.5 hours.  Unless you’re me.

The day started out normally enough – we boarded the coach in Amsterdam and were away by 8, with the promise of being in Paris by 4pm and London by 8pm.  Paris was pretty cool.  Even though I was only there for an hour I managed to take a stroll down a couple of streets and have a coffee.  Ordering a coffee in Paris is simple enough, and I managed to exhaust nearly all of my high school French in ordering it (if the waiter had asked me about any cats that may or may not be on my table, then I would have exhausted my High School French).

Sitting in Paris sipping on a coffee convinced me that I needed to come back and see more of the city.  I was not content with thinking I might have seen the top of the Eiffel Tower on the coach on the way in, and so started making plans to return soon, perhaps with a friend.  Sure it would be expensive, but I’d find a way to make it work.

I checked in at the station and went through customs okay.  The UK boarder agent started grilling me on my intentions with the Queen: “What are you doing here, where are you staying, what do you do back at home” etc.  It was then that I remembered my less-than-legal ‘passport stamp’ from Checkpoint Charlie that I got in Berlin.  Luckily the agent did not notice the fine beads of sweat dripping down my forehead nor the subtle change in my heartbeat and he let me through onto the train, where I sat in my allocated seat without drama or hassle.  Until we started.

We left the station bang on time at 6.43pm, and reached a top speed of around 140 km/hr before slowing down, much to everyone’s confusion.  We then slowed to a snail’s pace for the next forty minutes as the Train Manager announced a technical fault with the trains, but that we’d be moving again soon.  We didn’t.

Three hours (and many apologetic yet vague announcements) later we arrived at the Chunnel entrance, where we parked up for four hours. 

Four hours.

In the first hour people sat sullenly in their seats.  In the second hour my tour group had drank the bar dry.  In the third hour passengers were making friends and plans to repopulate the human race.  In the fourth hour alliances were being made and broken as anger and frustration started to kick in.  My favourite part was when one of the Aussies on my tour group came back from the bar completely hammered and started getting noisy and screamy.  Screamy drunk is not a good thing at the best of times.  Screamy drunk on a train full of angry and frustrated passengers is even less so.  One lady actually came up to us and said that if we didn’t shut her up she would go over and smother her.  From the look in her eyes I believed it (and I’m not going to lie – part of me wanted to see it).  

We arrived at King’s Cross at 2am, six hours after the scheduled arrival time, and six hours more with my tour group than I had anticipated.  By then it was too late to get to where I was staying, so I had to book into a hotel for the night.  Eurostar paid.  I was actually thankful for it – having my own room and a double bed is a welcome change from sharing a room with a snoring beast (albeit with a heart of gold) who sleep-kickboxes.  There were many angry and frustrated passengers, but I was too tired to be frustrated, and to be honest it wasn’t the worst experience.  I got to stay the night in a decent hotel (slept like a champ, by the way), and to top it all off Eurostar offered everybody a free return trip to Paris to help make up for it.

So now I get to go back.  For free.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sex, Drugs, and Dykes... or "Yay Amsterdam"

Not everything in Amsterdam is about sex or drugs. Unless you're a tourist.

The last official stop with my tour group was Amsterdam. This is the stop that most people on the tour were looking forward to the most, given the city's tolerance for liberal culture (read: the red light district and the ability to buy and smoke marijuana within city limits, as well as prostitution).

Throughout this trip I've adopted the philosophy that I should try and get the most out of every city, which has usually meant joining in all the recommended 'extra' activities that the tour group offered - in Vienna I went to a chamber music recital; in Amsterdam we were offered two group activities: a live sex show and a visit to a cheese and clog factory. This is my story.

The cheese and clog factory was a little outside of Amsterdam. We watched them make cheese, and then we watched them make clogs. The clog making was the most interesting part, as it started out as a piece of wood, and ended up as a piece of wood shaped as a shoe. I tried on a pair of clogs, but couldn't walk in them as they were tied together. So I stood upright in them for a while, and examined my reflection. I didn't buy any.

Everyone that goes to Amsterdam should see a live sex show. At least, that is what I've heard from everyone that's been to Amsterdam. It might also be the official slogan of the city or at least the live sex show syndicate. So with that in mind I took up the offer of paying 30 euros to watch 'an erotic review'. There was nothing erotic about this review. The curtains opened on a couple already engaged in 'erotic reviewing', though it didn't look like either of them were really interested in being there. I have some stage experience, and I'm a firm believer that if you look bored on stage, then your audience is going to be bored. I'm also a firm believer that if you're bored having sex, then you shouldn't be doing it (and that you're probably doing it wrong).

There were a couple of strip shows - one of the more interesting shows involved a giant dutch woman pulling a poor Contiki boy on stage who (despite having more muscles than Belgium) looked supremely uncomfortable at having an overweight woman thrusting her bits at his face, and making him remove objects with his teeth. The majority of the show however involved couples on a rotating bed in the middle of a stage just well... just having sex. It wasn't playful, it wasn't fun, it was barely even interesting. It was just a live sex show, where they focus on the live sex more than the show. Sitting in the front row probably didn't help either.

I'm glad I went, if only to say that I'd been to Amsterdam and seen a live sex show. It's the kind of show you see so you can tick a box; it's not the kind of show you see to have a fun night.

The rest of the red light district is a bizarre mix of beautiful buildings and seedy living. All along the main streets are 'coffee shops' which sell marijuana which you can smoke on the premises (though it's illegal to smoke tobacco inside for health reasons), and there are windows where ladies of the evening sit and advertise themselves to passers by. When I was there during the day many of the windows were occupied by older/less attractive women - presumably because they hire the windows for set periods of time and I guess the day slot may be cheaper. When I was there at night though the girls were all slender and beautiful - presumably attracting a higher number of clients. My favourite thing to do in the red light district was following the Contiki group to see who hung back or snuck into a window. Three did.

The red light district is for tourists. It's full of people attracted to the idea that they can do and get away with pretty much anything they like in Amsterdam. Hardly any of the locals ever go to the district, unless they work there.

The next day I decided to avoid the city centre and red light district altogether and walk along the city canals. This gave me a whole new appreciation for the city and the way it's built. It's basically a city built on reclaimed land surrounded by a series of canals. Beautiful buildings lean into each other across the city, most of which date back to the 17th century (don't quote me on that) as Amsterdam was never bombed in the war. This has meant that the city has retained much of the charm and glory that resulted from many years as a dominant and wealthy world power.

The Dutch have really made a beautiful city with Amsterdam - you just have to make it past the red light.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Berlin: the Time of My Life

After Checkpoint Charlie, I decided to visit the Sony Centre – it's a complex highlighted by our tour guide as a wonderful shopping centre filled with stores and restaurants etc. It had many restaurants, but only two or three shops that I could see, and a multiplex cinema. After a quick lunch (a kangaroo wrap from the local Aussie bar), I lazily strolled into the cinema to see what was showing, and when I saw that Inglourious Basterds was on (Tarantino's latest flick – Brad Pitt becomes a Nazi hunter), I couldn't stop myself – so I bought a ticket and sat down to watch what was an excellent film about World War II. In Berlin.

I took comfort in the fact that there were other Germans in the audience, and they must have liked it because we all clapped at the end of the film. Unless that's just a German tradition. I don't really know – German traditions are still strange to me. Like standing on a platform while a train is boarding, only to panic and run onto a train just before the doors shut. Or their bizarre ability to know that I'm a tourist and greet me with "Hello, can I help you?" instead of "Guten Tag" – though when the latter has happened my confusion puts them straight back into the former. There are also a lot of gypsies here too – they approach you and say "Do you speak English?" and if you say yes then they pass you a card which begs you for money. If you make eye contact it's almost as though you've made them a promise that you'll help fund their kids' violin lessons. I'd almost be inclined to give them some money if there weren't so many of them all with the same cards – it's possible to be approached by 10 different people in one day. Weird.

After the movie, I was walking down Marlene Dietrich Platz and saw a giant billboard.

How could I not go to this? Sure, it was in German, but I'm in Germany, and though it had been many years since I had seen the show I was certain that I'd be able to pick up the story easily enough. So I went to the theatre and sweet-talked my way into a super cheap (well, 'Euro Cheap' at least) ticket right in the middle of the theater – possibly the best seats in the house. The show itself was exactly how it was billed – das original live on stage. In other words, it was the movie acted out a little more believably. Here's the plot as I picked it up:

Baby couldn't dance. Baby wanted to learn to dance for the talent show at a health farm (scientology retreat?) that her parents went to, and got Jonny Carson to help her learn. Then Penny (a friend of Jonny's) got pregnant and had an abortion to some guy named Robbie; a prime douche-bag in a tux. Penny's abortion went wrong and it affected her acting. Baby got her dad, who's a doctor, to look at her, and he gave her an injection which didn't really improve her acting but at least shut her up a little. This made Jonny take his shirt off. Baby's dad got mad and stormed out, and so Jonny and Baby have sex a lot. The sex isn't good so Jonny leaves town only to return in time for the talent quest, taking Baby out of the corner, and they dance a lot and have many encores. It's basically like Shakespeare, but with better dancing.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, and as you can see from my summary above, not speaking the language wasn't much of an impediment to seeing good theatre.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Everyone else on my tour has said that Berlin is their favourite city so far. But then, everyone else on my tour is Australian.

We arrived in Berlin around 1pm after a 5 hour drive from Prague, and had a two hour break for lunch, on possibly the hottest day I've experienced in the last four years. This combined with a hangover which I had earned in Prague. It was stinking hot, and so we all ran for shelter in the remains of a ruined church (bombed during WWII) and ate dunkin' donuts. It was a race to get back to the air-conditioned bus once we were finally allowed back on.

After lunch we were treated to a guided tour of the city, which lasted 3 hours. The tour itself was really interesting; we went to drove past Checkpoint Charlie, hung out at the Berlin Wall, and even saw the balcony where Michael Jackson hung his baby from all those years ago.

My problem was that I kept drifting off during the tour, and felt really bad for it as the tour guide was really lovely and not at all boring, but also because I was sitting right in front of her and trying desperately not to fall asleep where she could see me. I must have looked a sight. What frustrated me more is that I wasn't able to sleep on the bus on the way down, despite my best efforts. I hit the sack around 9pm, and got up 12 hours later feeling much better.

The next day I decided to head into town and spend some time at Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie is the iconic (and for many years the only) border crossing between East and West Germany in the years after the wall went up. It was the scene of many protests and even a Mexican standoff, only involving tanks instead of Mexicans. Checkpoint Charlie was really interesting, and there was a lot of information available in an open-air walkway around the Checkpoint, which meant I didn't have to go to the museum. With the money I saved from the museum visit, I paid a guy to stamp my passport with an East Berlin stamp (I don't know – is that illegal?) and bought a piece of the wall to take home. It's likely only a piece of rock with a little paint on it, but for 1 euro it's realistic enough.

I think Berlin seems fun enough, and I'm glad I have a couple of days to explore it. I'll see if it's my favourite city so far or not.

Meanwhile here's a picture of a really cool church, which is ugly on the outside, but inside is stunning for its blue stained glass.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Checking out the Czechs

I had been looking forward to Prague, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Once we arrived at the hotel, we took a couple of hours to relax and orient ourselves around the hotel a bit before taking the metro into the city for dinner. The area around the hotel is all built in the rather unsightly square block style of which I’m so fond.

The city however, is something completely different. Buildings here have character, charm and class. It really is a very beautiful city.

We had a bit of an orientation tour around the city centre, which featured the town hall, the statue of Good King Wenceslas, and the art installation imaginatively entitled “upside down horse”:

After a pleasant but unremarkable dinner, we then hobbled over the cobblestones into the old town, and marveled at the buildings and astronomical clock. This was created several hundred years ago, and shows not only the time and a clever (and anti-Semitic) mechanical display, but the signs of the zodiac as well. Apparently the town was so impressed with the beauty of this clock that they put out the eyes of the clockmaker so that he could never create one for anybody else. Upset at the bizarre display of gratitude, he climbed to the top of the tower and broke the clock so that it could never be repaired.

I guess they repaired it.

After that the tour went to Charles Bridge. Wow. This is a really cool bridge that’s impossible to describe or capture with a photo. Well it’s probably possible to capture with a photo if you know what you’re doing. But I’ve given it a go. I think if you want to see what it’s really like you should maybe Google it. It’s the most beautiful stone bridge I have ever seen, actually the most beautiful bridge I’ve ever seen. Amazing views over the city and river.

I think I like Prague too.

Art for art's sake

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I’m supposed to like.

Wednesday started out just like any other day: up early, shower, straight to breakfast, and then off to the lobby to meet up for the trip to Terazin Concentration Camp, which was a pretty sobering experience. But then something strange happened. I saw a painting (well technically a print) in the hotel lobby under a giant ‘for sale’ sign which really took me. I stood staring at the painting and then noticed the price tag. After doing the maths and realizing that I couldn’t really justify it, I started to walk away.

But then I looked at the painting again, and suddenly the painting didn’t seem so expensive. I decided it could wait, and that perhaps I’d be able to make a better decision after visiting a concentration camp. Don’t ask me why I thought this, I don’t know either.


Tens of thousands of prisoners were processed through Terazin on their way to other camps, usually for extermination. While Terazin was only a labour camp, it was still pretty brutal. The sign in this photo reads: “work makes you free”.

I’m not going to go into any more detail here, as it is difficult to portray exactly what it’s like without actually being there.

After Terazin I went back to the hotel lobby, and decided that I didn’t want to buy the painting after all (though it was pretty cool), as I couldn’t really justify spending any money on something when I don’t even know if I’ll have a place to live when I get home, and so I took the metro into town. In town I went to the markets and promptly examined all of the art stalls to see if they had anything I liked, for a more reasonable price. They didn’t, and so I re-decided that perhaps I should buy the painting. I never buy myself anything nice, and so maybe I should treat myself. I suddenly found myself excited to get back to the hotel and buy it, but in the meantime I did a little more sightseeing.

I checked out the Jewish Cemetery by peeking at it through a hole in the fence:

– hundreds of graves piled on top of each other as a remnant of the holocaust. Hitler had planned a museum to “the extinct race of the Jewish people”, and had set it up to be in this area of Prague.

After a little more shopping (I bought a new pair of shoes – sand coloured walking shoes, if you’re wondering), I took the metro back to the hotel and asked the concierge to take the print out so I could look at it. I decided that I still wasn’t ready to buy it yet, and so I went back upstairs to prepare for dinner at the caveman restaurant.

The caveman dinner was fun – we entered the restaurant through a cave door, and all the staff were dressed as cavemen (cavepeople?) and only spoke in a series of grunts.

You also had to eat everything with your hands. The food was delicious and the night was a lot of fun. They even ‘sacrificed’ one of the girls in our group as a virgin as part of the entertainment. Even more entertaining was that they mistakenly brought five shots of whiskey to our table, which I happily drank.

After dinner a few of us went to “Central Europe’s biggest nightclub”. That was okay, but given that it was eleven o’clock on a Wednesday night, the place was rather empty. That didn’t stop us from getting our groove on though, and we danced the night away until midnight, when we realized we had 25 minutes to catch the last train back to the hotel.

We made it to the train station just in time to see the last train pull away, and to hear the announcement that the station was now closed, and that armed guards would now be patrolling the station and would shoot on sight. At least that’s what I think it said. It was in Czech.

So we had to take a taxi home, and resigned ourselves to paying the 40 euro fare (each taxi) to make it back to the hotel. Somehow we managed to find a sympathetic taxi driver who agreed to take us back for only 12 euro though (as long as we didn’t mind driving at 140kph – we didn’t), and so we arrived back at the hotel where I sank into a deep sleep. Thoughts of art far from my mind.

I woke up at 3am with a start. Well, not so much a start as much as a sudden feeling of nausea. It was one of those moments that you knew you were going to be sick, but you wanted to do everything you could to avoid it because it’s so unpleasant. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so ill, and so I did a rethink of all the alcohol I had had that night, which when added to the surprise whiskey delivered to our table was, while not enough to make me drunk at all, was apparently enough to make me feel ill. Suddenly my body reminded me what I was doing awake at 3am in the first place, and so I threw up for the first time since university.

During this I decided to buy the painting. So I did.

The building blocks of Communism

They say that Communism was a failed social experiment, but it was also very clearly a failed architectural experiment.

Driving into the Czech Republic was one of the most bizarre and depressing periods of my trip. To get to Prague we had to first transit through Slovakia, of former Czechoslovakia fame. This was a country still trying to shake the hangover of communism and pull itself out from behind the stigma of the former iron curtain. Square lifeless buildings, designed purely for function and in no way containing any artistic or visual merit, more than dotted the landscape throughout Slovakia (at least the parts that I could see).

I had thoughts that once we entered the Czech Republic that things would be different, and we would see some of the architecture that the jewel of Eastern Europe is known for. Crossing the border only led to further disappointment though, and I saw more of the same rigid and imposing buildings wherever I looked. Arriving at the hotel, I was pleased to see a little colour on this building, though it followed the motif of depressing and square faithfully.

I think the best way to describe buildings built in the communist era is as though a lazy teenager with a short attention span has designed it as part of a school assignment.

In fact, it reminded me very much of my high school graphic design projects with Mr Holden. I hated that subject, and I would put only the minimum effort required which would allow me to pass and not fail the year. One particular project we had to design a building, and Mr Holden had just given me detention for sitting next to someone who used to light matches, and so I was less than inspired to put any effort into it. My building was nothing more than a four-storied rectangle. When I showed him my draft I was advised that it was boring, and didn’t even have any colour. So I coloured each story a different colour.

This is my hotel in Prague. It is almost as though a communist spy had travelled into the future, stolen my blueprint for a successful building, and adapted it for their needs by adding another 10 stories. It was all very garish, especially as this hotel was used to demonstrate to the West the power and might of the Communist way of thinking.

Luckily these buildings are usually only limited to the outer areas of the city – the actual city centre of Prague turns out to be every bit the jewel of the Eastern European crown.

Monday, August 17, 2009

They call me Dances with Gypsies

Day one in Budapest: still have my wallet.

So far so good. We arrived in Budapest aroud noon yesterday and explored the town a little, seeing everything from Parliament to Heroes Square to the infamous House of Terror (home of the Nazi Arrow Cross Secret Police and then the Soviet Secret Police after that).

First off I went for a stroll along one of the market streets, with my dear old mum's warning about pickpockets making me paranoid enough to keep one hand on my wallet at all times. I needn't have bothered though, as the streets weren't so crowded and a little common sense will go a long way to avoiding being pickpocketed. My main advice is to not accept hugs from gypsies, lest they exploit my obvious desire for human contact and remove my wallet.

Last night we went out for dinner to a traditional Hungarian restaurant, complete with dancing gypsy boys and girls, and a singer that sounded as though Edith Piaf had swallwed a cat. The meal consisted of a good goulash, something with chicken, and a dessert pastry thing that I'm sure had a name.

Just after the main course (and half a jug of sweet white wine), one of the rather attractive Romani girls pulled me up onto the dancefloor, made me skull a half jug of wine, blindfolded me, and made me dance a hungarian dance around a couple of wine bottles on the floor.

For those who have seen me dance, you probably know how this went. I was awesome.

Today my plan is to wander the streets in search of a fortune teller and an ice cream.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

How do you solve a problem like Vienna?

I think I like Vienna.

Aside from the fact that I'm writing this with an old man sitting next to me puffing cigarette smoke in my face as he plays backgammon and looks at pictures of women, Vienna appears to be a very lovely city, and nowhere near as expensive as Sweden, Denmark, or Latvia.

Today I checked out Shonbrunn Palace, which was the number one recommended thing to do in Austria. This was the home of the mighty Hapsburg family, which at one stage ruled the world through the clever use of political marriage and inbreeding. This palace was huge, and very impressive with it's demonstration of the Imperial Family's wealth and influence.

We arrived early so as to avoid the rush, and managed to narrowly avoid getting stuck between a tour group of Americans and another bigger tour group of Americans, with their trademark sandal/sock combo. After the tour of the palace we (myself and an Aussie tour buddy) took a stroll around the massive gardens and labyrinth (photos to come), sans David Bowie. Though I did hide in the labyrinth singing 'Magic Dance' from the movie at one point, much my own amusement.

After that we went back into town and toured around the inner-city ring, with buildings that are as beautiful as they are difficult to tell apart, and ended up at the Imperial Treasury, with the crown jewels and a whole heap of Christian relics, including a piece of the Cross that Jesus was nailed to, and the spear that pierced him in the side. At least, that's what I think they were. We didn't get an audio guide and all the labels were in German. They could just have easily been ancient cooking utensils. Nonetheless very cool.

I also made sure I had Schnitzel, Crisp Apple Strudel, and coffee with an average piece of Sacher Torte.

Tonight me and my Australian tour group are off to see the orchestra. That should be fun. Hopefully nobody smokes next me there.

Sleeping with a Giant

I did it - three countries in a day.

I arrived here around 2pm yesterday afternoon after a transit flight through Riga, Latvia. Latvia is a lovely country, with many great stores and a love of duty free shops. After spending two hours there (I think that is all the time anyone can spend in Latvia), I boarded a plane to Vienna.

The tour company that I was with recommended taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel, at an approximate cost of 40 euros. I took the train for 3. On the train, I sat next to another backpacker (an Australian) who turned out to be on the same tour as me so we buddied up and found the hotel together. We arrived at the Hotel Artis and were thrilled to see that it had a four star rating. We checked in and went into our rooms.

On this tour we have to share a room with another tour mate, but he hadn't arrived and the receptionist reassured me that we had separate beds. Entering the room I noticed that this was correct in only the most broadest of definitions. There were two single beds in the hotel room, but they were pushed together as though some elderly couple were trying to revive a lost romance. I dumped my bags and prayed for a little guy to avoid any roll-together.

My room-mate is 6'6'', and is a kick-boxer. There was roll-together.


My tour group is made up entirely of Australians.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ice Bar Baby (or One is the Loneliest Number)

Drinking alone is a sad enough thing to do.

Having an entire bar to yourself is even sadder.

Paying a $50 covercharge to get in to an empty bar...

Well, you know the rest.

Okay so it wasn't all bad. It was Copenhagen's Ice Bar - a bar made completely out of ice. Even the glasses. The covercharge did also include a drink, which turned out to be rather drinkable. But since not even the bartender hung around after making it, I decided to cut my losses and return to a world not made out of frozen water.

Low speed drama at the Royal Palace

Act 1 Scene 2, Rosenborg - The Royal Palace

The palace itself was pretty cool. Turns out that this was the summer house for the Royal Family back in the day. Now it’s a museum/display house for all the fineries of the king et al. I saw the crown jewels, ‘the ivory collection’ (including a stunning ivory ship carved in intricate detail fit for a well, king), and the throne room (both of them). It was a stark contrast to the Forbidden City which housed China’s emperors. Where the Forbidden City was stark and cold, Rosenborg was rich and colourful. It had everything you’d expect from a BBC film about Danish kings – a castle, a drawbridge (which the king could operate from his bedroom), trees, and a souvenir gift shop selling magnets.

I was walking around the gardens, thinking how great it would have been to be the King of Denmark, or anywhere really (and how much better the world would be as a result), when there came an almighty crash from outside the gates. I assumed it for a fender bender for the lack of screaming, and carried on around the park. After spending some time hanging out with what turned out to be a gathering of drunken school kids (the legal age for buying booze in Denmark is 16), I gathered my bag and went to wait for my tour bus to see the mermaid.

There I saw the accident.

It wasn’t too bad, really. A taxi had tried to change lanes and crashed into another car, which was now on the side of the road. A few people stood outside the car, smoking, and one guy was laying back in the passenger seat holding his forehead (but also smoking). Soon enough an ambulance arrived on the scene. Well I say soon enough, but it was probably 20 minutes after the accident happened. Two paramedics got out and assessed the situation when another ambulance arrived. Those two paramedics got out and started pulling bags of things from the back of their van.

One of the paramedics from before got into the car and held the passenger’s head straight – presumably to prevent spinal damage. Then another ambulance arrived followed by a police car. A small crowd had gathered by now to watch (while I still waited for my bus), and people in their cars and bikes kept slowing down to look at what was happening. The policemen soon started directing traffic and inspecting the scene. Then a fire truck arrived, sirens blaring. They parked in the middle of the road (making traffic worse), and set up an accident zone barrier, so that people could interpret the flashing lights and collection of emergency vehicles appropriately. Then two more firetrucks arrived, and a gaggle of emergency servicemen proceeded to cut the accident victim out of his car and place him into the ambulance. This whole process took 45 minutes, during which time no tour bus arrived.

Looking at my brochure I saw that I had just missed the last tour bus, and thus my chance to see the Little Mermaid again. So I found a tower in the sky, and walked towards it.

Much ado about nothing

Act 1, Scene 1 Copenhagen.

The day started relatively benign. I had made it into town before realising that I had left my camera at home and so I turned back (I had stopped to take a photo of the back of a bus which has something hilarious like "John's Turistfartbus" or something). By the time I eventually made it into town I had missed the first bus of the day to take me to Christiania, and so I hung out with 180 Chileans who were in Copenhagen to watch Chile take on Denmark in football. It was a 1-all draw, I believe.

On the bus to Christiania, we past by a lot of old buildings, including the police building - possibly the most boring building in all of Copenhagen. This is a city which prides itself on its history and architecture, but the police building is dull and boring in its solid plaster finish (sorry dad). We also saw the 'Black Diamond' Copenhagen historical library which has something like 480 rooms in it, each one lockable. Here's a picture just for you, Chelsea:

I think I make a very poor tourist - I do my best to pay attention to the facts and interesting info but really once I've heard it I'm sure I forget most of it. It's all very interesting at the time though.

I got off the bus at Our Saviour's Cathedral, as I had taken enough photos of churches and not yet been inside any in Europe yet. Also this cathedral is the tallest point in Copenhagen (that is, if my memory serves me correctly), so I saw to climb its tower - fear of heights be damned!

True enough, it was high. Even more interesting was that the staircase narrowed the higher up you got, which (along with the very poorly placed handrail) made moving upwards even trickier. Fortunately I didn't freak out with the height to any amount that crippled me, so I took my photographic proof that I did it and proceeded back down again.

I then hiked a little further up the road to Christiania, a hippy commune that exists separately to Copenhagen designed to 'be truly free'. Basically a bunch of hippies broke into some abandoned army barracks and started squatting. The Danish tacitly allowed it to happen, and now there's a whole community in there, selling marijuana and related products/paraphernalia.

You're not allowed to take photos in there, as marijuana is illegal in Denmark and the natives don't take kindly to any kind of evidence leaving the commune. After missing my tour bus again, and the next one not arriving for another hour, I decided to walk back into the centre of town. It's lucky for me that Copenhagen has two or three tall towers which act as landmarks for the city, so that anytime I'm turned around I can just find one of the towers and head to it.

During my wanderings I found parliament and a really old theatre - unfortunately I wasn't able to take a tour of parliament today, but I did sneak into the old theatre which has been around for a couple of centuries. They even had an old Hans Christian Anderson manuscript on display. Seeing this manuscript reminded me that I had intended to spend some more time with the little mermaid, and so I quickened back to town and onto the mermaid tour.

As we approached Rosenborg's Castle, the tour guide (it's a tape recorded tour, so I've heard the same snippets several times now), said that this was a 'must see' while in Copenhagen. So I jumped off the bus here, knowing that I could just get on another one and still have time for the mermaid, and entered the summer castle of King Fredrich.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Churches and fountains and beer (oh my!)

Get lost once, shame on me. Get lost twice…

I left the hotel at 5.45am this morning to make the early train here, only to have to wait at the station for half an hour as they seem to be rather fond of last minute boarding here!

Anywho, I arrived just after 10am and headed to my couch surfing place – only to (wait for it) get incredibly lost. I was told it was 25 minutes walk, and yet after 90 minutes I was no closer. AND I HAD A MAP!

But I got confused by the address – it’s both a suburb and a street name, and there’s a metro station also with the same name… so I spent ages finding what I thought was an apartment complex but turned out to be a metro station. When I finally found it I saw that I had turned a giant circle. Oh well.

So anyway I’m here in Copenhagen now, settled in and everything.

I bought a two day pass to a sightseeing bus tour of the city – three different routes take you past most of the main attractions, which actually turns out to be really handy as I can get on and off as they drive by at half hourly intervals. I totally checked out the little mermaid today as well as a couple of other denmarky things! I’ve attached a photo of the mermaid to prove I was there, but I think I’ll go back tomorrow and spend some proper time there as it seems wrong to just sit there for three minutes while your tour bus sits and waits. It’s kind of like driving past the Eiffel tower I guess.

After all my walking today I decided that I would treat myself to a beer – a Carlsberg, Denmark’s pride and joy. So I ordered at a nice local Irish bar (of which there are about a dozen in the city centre) and paid 49kr ($18NZD) for a rather nice beer. I’m not sure it was $18 nice, but it was probably 49kr nice. So I have to learn to deal with the fact that the NZ dollar, despite its strength against the greenback at the moment, will never be enough to compare dollar for kroner, so I might as well accept it. The waitress, sensing my distress, distracted me with small talk, pleasantries, and prettiness, which helped make the beer last almost an hour, while still remaining cold. Thankfully that’s one area where the Swedes and the Danes differ – where the Swedes like their beer warm (and not in a fun ‘bring out the flavour way either’), the Danes like theirs to be frosty cool which, on a hot summer day, is all you really want.

I took photos of lots of fountains and churches – of which I suspect there will be many during my trip.

Tomorrow my plan is to spend some time at some of the main points of the tour – back to the mermaid, check out some of the palaces and maybe even a shopping centre or two.

My couch surfer guy is very cool indeed – he has a couch surfer plan on his fridge which shows just how many people he actually hosts! He’s always got people coming and going, and is ridiculously generous with his letting me stay and such. His last guests were here for three months! Australians, of course. Bloody bludgers.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Taken to the cleaners

The hotel I'm staying at doesn't actually have a laundry, which I thought was on their website when I booked (though I did look at a lot of websites, I may just be mistaken). So I enquired at the desk as to where the nearest laundromat was, and she directed us as to a place around the corner.

So I gathered everything that needed washing. I hadn't had done any washing in over a week (and was nearing the end of my second rotation of underwear and socks), so I decided that I would do the people of Sweden a favour and clean the bulk of my clothes. I took them to the laundromat, which turned out to be a drycleaner with laundry services - apparently Sweden doesn't do laundromats. So I made the decision to go ahead and get my washing done, at the princely sum of 65kr a kilo (presumably dry); this price because I was in a rush for same day service.

See if you can guess if I bothered weighing my clothes.

Four hours later I returned expecting to pay around 100-120kr for my clothes. What I did pay was closer to 200kr ($40NZD), close to a third of the value of all of my clothing.

It's not exhorbitant, well not for Sweden. But when I returned to the hotel I realised that had I been more creative, I could have washed my clothes in the bathroom, and hung them up on my handy Kathmandu laundry line.

I'm not mad, just disappointed. But now I know for next time.

Here's a picture of a snake:

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Time for another country, already!

Once you've decided you've had enough of a country, it's hard to stick around another day.

At least that's how I'm feeling about Sweden right now.

Oh sure, it's lovely and old and hip and all that stuff, but I'm about ready to take on a new country and struggle with their currency for a little bit. It's only fair.

I'm spending today in Göteborg, which is my final destination in Sweden. I'll be hanging out around the town and exploring as much as I can with a full backpack and a strong need to do a load of washing. Tonight I will be staying in a hotel before leaving on the 6.27(am!) train to Copenhagen. There I will spend three days looking at little mermaids and searching for the Grimm, and then I will fly to Vienna to start my tour.

Göteborg is an odd place. Not odd as in they wear pants on their heads, but odd in that it's what I suspect all European cities will look like, and so I'm not sure yet of any unique 'Göteborginess'. There are cobblestones and bridges and cathedrals, sure. But there are also McDonalds' around every corner (sometimes two), and there are a lot of tourists walking around with 'Guide to Göteborg' maps etc.

I'm one of them.

So I guess then that I'm not so special after all. Once I'm in Copenhagen I'll just be another Kiwi taking a forced-perspective photo of the Little Mermaid and being a douche bag for my country. That's the plan, at least.

I had a dream last night that my tour group was filled with elderly jewish pensioners, and that it was a tour of the kosher delis of Europe. I really hope that it was only a dream.

Still a little bit homesick. I think it's mainly to do with the lack of access to a washing machine however, and so I trundle on, knowing that soon I will be enjoying the recession-laced UK and US, spending up large with the all powerful NZ Dollar.

Knöwing me, knöwing ju...

The wedding was lovely.

The reception was also lovely. The highlight for me was that the band at the reception scored many brownie points for playing no fewer than three Abba songs.

Nice one.

Now I'm in Göteborg. It's not as pretty as I have been lead to believe. I seem to have arrived during the Madonna concert as well (only the biggest concert in Scandinavia ever), which means that town is full of Madonna fans - pink cowboy hats everywhere! Yech.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I will never complain again.

Thank you, that is all.

Just another day in paradise

So this is what it it’s like to live in a postcard.

It’s Thursday evening here in (name that I haven’t been able to pronounce, let alone spell), which is about an hour out of Goteborg. I’m sitting on the bench seat waiting to go out for dinner with the Swedes and co, and I’m in possibly the most picturesque setting I’ve ever seen. It’s kind of how I always imagined the old people in Cocoon were to go when they died; a cross between Mediterranean paradise and Wellington (on a good day).

Tonight we’re going out for dinner to a fancy restaurant (where I am told I am required to wear pants), and tomorrow we are arranging a barbecue for all the guests here at the beach house.

It’s all just rather lovely.

It's the differences that make us different

I’m starting to pick up the language.

Okay, that’s a lie.

There are a couple of kiwis here which will help to break up the Swedish a little - and give me a chance to practice my Swedish. So far I can count to three, and thank someone for lobster (not yet useful). I have yet to master the art of finer conversation – which way to the train station, how do I change the channel on your tv, your liquor laws are silly, and so on.

Seriously, the Swedes do everything they can to discourage you from drinking, short of actually banning the stuff. You can buy low-alcohol beer and wine from standard supermarkets easily enough, but anything over 3.5% and you have to buy it from a store called System Blogget (Sys-tiem Bah-logg-it) – a government owned store that is only open for a few hours a day (not at all on Sundays), and that sells warm beer and wine (i.e. no fridge) presumably to minimize the number of beers you drink as soon as you get home. This doesn’t include the fact that they tax the heck out of it as well. You should have seen their faces when I asked them where the beer fridge was; it was almost like I’d broken some horrid taboo and that swat police would swarm in through the windows any second.

No swat team. Shame.

You’ll be pleased to know that I have arranged travel and accommodation to Copenhagen. I registered with the couchsurfing website and after a couple of rejections (possibly to do with my profile picture of me posing like a lion) I found someone willing to let me stay with them. That’s all rather good, as I wasn’t particularly keen on paying 80 euro a night to sleep with 15 other dudes at a backpackers. So my plans over the next week or two are thus:

From now until Tuesday 11 – hang out in Sweden, mainly Goteborg and wedding-venue,

11 Aug - Train to Copenhagen, hang out with a little mermaid or do something else Grimm,

14 Aug – fly to Vienna from Copenhagen (via Estonia – it’s on the way, check your atlas) where I begin my tour of Europe proper.

My goal for Austria is to escape alive – my ability to refrain from too many “we won the war” comments should help.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mamma Mia!

Well I did it, I finally met Abba.


Okay, I admit that it’s not quite what I had expected.  I thought that when I arrived it would only be a matter of time before seeing at least one of them in an ice cream shop or trying on fancy shoes.  Perhaps I had even hoped to witness a rooftop reunion gig.  Too much to ask?  Maybe.

I had just about started returning Roxette’s phone calls, when I saw this photo at a local supermarket.  Turns out Abba is a local caviar brand, which the Swedes love almost as much as their pop icon namesake.  I must have looked a sight posing in the supermarket with four tins of fish roe, but I don’t care – I promised a photo of Abba, and so a photo of Abba I will deliver.